Robin Allott


Love has always been a central preoccupation in individual human lives, but there has been little consideration of it by psychologists or other scientists and little attempt to explain it as an evolutionary phenomenon. There are various possible behavioral precursors of love: animal "love", empathy, group feeling, sexuality, the mother/infant bond. The principal candidates are sexuality and the mother/infant bond. Sexuality has been favored as an origin by those few writers who have discussed the issue but has characteristics which distinguish it sharply from love and make it an unlikely precursor. However, the mother/infant bond alone does not fully account for the characteristics of human love. Love evolved as the outcome of interaction between the genetic basis for mother/infant attachment and other capabilities of the evolving human manifested in and made possible by the increase in human brain- size: enlarged cognitive capacity, improved communication abilities and the evolution of language. The capacity for language led to the emergence of the conscious self, and with this the capability to recognise and empathise the selfhood of others. The deepening of the mother/infant attachment into love played, and still plays, an essential role in the transmission of culture from one generation to the next and in making possible the cohesion of the human group. This account fits well with recent research into the process and significance of the mother/infant relation.


Empathy and love develop and are expressed above all in the family, in love between parents, in love of parents for children, in the solidarity of the family, which can be seen as the nucleus round which wider group feeling develops. Empathy and love extend from the family group to wider social organizations and ultimately to the community as a whole, the people, the nation.

Empathy is evolutionarily prior to love. Animals display empathy and manifest it in social groupings and behavior. Human empathy is continuous in its development with animal empathy. The first task is to explain empathy as an evolutionary development in terms of its role in increasing fitness. The second task is to explain empathy more fundamentally in physiological or neurological terms as a bodily process operating between individuals. This involves consideration of the relation of empathy and gesture, empathy and facial expression, empathy and body language, empathy and posture. There has been little consideration of empathy from this more basic point of view. It clearly has a close relation to unsolved issues in the theoretical account of perception, imitation, the role of the body-image. A way forward in explaining the many aspects of empathy may lie in an integrated account of the relation of perception, postural set and motor patterning.

Beyond empathy, one looks for a parallel account of the evolutionary history of love. Love is not simply an aspect or an intensification of empathy nor is it to be identified with sexuality, which results in patterns of behavior nearly universal amongst all living creatures other than the most primitive. Though empathy and sexuality are apparent in the behavior of animals, by contrast there is little evidence of love in anything resembling the human sense in patterns of animal behavior.

Love appears to be an eminently human phenomenon. We need to consider the evolutionary role of love; the evolutionary potential of love; the significance of love for survival of the individual and of the group, including the prolongation of this evolution into historical development, for example, of the Christian conception of love. Love in its most developed form is to be seen not as a lucky accident, an undeserved blessing for humanity, but as an explanation of and a necessity for the course which human development has taken. There remains the need for a more rigorous "scientific" treatment of love in a much more basic sense which would explain love as a physiological/neurological pattern of interpersonal behavior or of individual experience.


This essay originated partly from my essay last year on "Objective Morality" (1991) which emphasized the importance of empathy but also from the perception that love is a most important feature of human experience which requires examination and explanation. The two issues, evolution of empathy and evolution of love, are separate but also related or relatable. Empathy is a total form of perception which is not something developed only in humans but also in animals. I doubt whether there has been much separate development in the human species of an empathetic capability which originated very far back, probably from the time of the existence of groups of perceptive animals. They needed to be able to interpret the appearance of other animals in order to predict their behavior and take appropriate action, running away, attacking, hiding, playing dead and so on. Empathy was a neutral mode of perception, in the sense that it could be used in relation to enemies or potential enemies, family or friends, or simply as a mode of obtaining information. Empathy is both in some sense a precursor of love and at the same time a major component of love, or essential precondition for love. The dividing line between empathy and love has to be examined. As a preliminary to considering in more depth the evolution of love, it may be useful to recall some of the points I made last year about empathy.

Empathy is a term with a broad meaning. There are a number of forms of behavior or experience which can be treated as aspects of empathy or as involving empathy: sympathy, liking, imitation, reflection, assimilation, identification, love. In particular, there is no very sharp distinction between empathy and sympathy, though writers have attempted to separate the two by arbitrary definition. Much of earlier discussion of sympathy related in fact to what we now would treat as empathy. The convenient practice is to use the term empathy to cover the whole range of similar capabilities by which one individual is able to appreciate the feelings and point of view of another, or of a group to which he or she belongs.

One of the earliest writers to discuss empathy was Edith Stein(1917/1970). She proposed that empathy is a kind of act of perceiving sui generis; the experience of foreign consciousness in general; the way in which "man grasps the psychic life of his fellow man". Others have described empathy as the act of "feeling into" another's affective experience; empathy is triggered by expressive signals and relies on processes such as motor mimicry. On this view empathy is a sensory-perceptual response. In the broad sense given to it, empathy is not separately acquired or the product of a particular evolutionary process. It appears to be a fundamental, primordial aspect of perception, part of the process by which one relates one's current perception to the already formed structure of one's experience.

The scientific exploration of the process of empathy has not got very far; some think it cannot be explained. Others think that motor mimicry is primitive empathy and if we could explain imitation we would be on the way to explaining empathy. There seems to be a close relation between bodily posture and action and the perception of the feelings of others. Apparently there is something more surprising and subtle about perception than has yet been realized -- something still to be discovered. We seem able to structure ourselves to reproduce the emotional and mental patterning of another, a transfer or transduction of the other.

Empathy clearly increases fitness, has a value for survival, insofar as it serves as a mode of communication between members of a family, between members of a group or even between hostile individuals or groups. If group behavior is to function in an organized way, there must be communication between members of the group. In particular there must be empathic signalling of emotional states so that survival-related actions can be taken in concert. Empathy is accepted as a widespread phenomenon in the animal world, manifested in such behaviors as flocking, schooling, and mobbing.


As a preliminary to examining possible evolutionary scenarios for love, it seems right to consider what has been said about love by other writers. Though systematic or scientific treatment of love as such by philosophers, psychologists, evolutionists, neurologists and even anthropologists has been sparse - it has been described as a taboo subject, not serious, not appropriate for scientific study, this does not mean that there is any lack of literature about love; there is in fact a bewildering variety. Quite recently, there has been, particularly in America, a growth of interest in recording love behavior and experience, as demonstrated, for example, in Sternberg and Barnes Psychology of Love(1988), from which the following remarks are drawn:

Without question the major preoccupation of Americans is love... Don't leave home without it... [rather than the American Express card].(Mursten, pp. 13, 37)... Love had always been the one thing - perhaps the only thing - beyond the research scientist's ever-extending grasp.... Dozens of love studies appear annually in the journals; dozens more are presented at regional and national conventions. There is even a Journal of Social and Personal Relationships that fills a large proportion of its pages with studies of love.... "How do I love thee?" - Elizabeth Barrett Browning might have written in the 1980's - "Let me count the articles". [Nevertheless]... the science of love is still in its infancy" (Rubin, pp. vii-viii).

Love has attracted the rather spasmodic attention of major philosophers, starting of course with Plato, who in the Symposium treats of a fundamental issue, the relation between love and desire. Pascal before his renunciation of the world produced a Discours sur les passions de l'amour (pp. 251 ff.): Les passions qui sont les plus convenables à l'homme... sont l'amour et l'ambition... Qu'une vie est heureuse quand elle commence par l'amour et qu'elle finit par l'ambition! Qui doute... si nous sommes au monde pour autre chose que pour aimer? "les yeux sont les interprétes du coeur; Quand nous aimons, nous paraissons à nous- mêmes tout autres que nous n'étions auparavant.... l'on a de la vénération pour ce que l'on aime. il semble que l'on ait toute une autre âme quand on aime... Quand on aime fortement, c'est toujours une nouveauté de voir la personne aimée. Après un moment d'absence, on trouve de manque dans son coeur. Quelle joie de la retrouver! l'on sent aussitôt une céssation d'inquiétudes.

Schopenhauer, a philosopher not noted for his tender attitude to individual human beings, said that the subject had forced itself on him objectively and had become inseparable from his consideration of the world (pp. 169-170):

Instead of wondering why a philosopher for once in a way writes on this subject which has been constantly the theme of poets, should we be surprised that love which plays such an important role in a man's life, has scarcely ever been considered at all by philosophers... I have decided to spend my life in thinking about it.

Amongst psychologists, Stanley Hall (see Ross, 1972) in the United States attracted a good deal of opprobrium by making love a central topic. One of the few other psychologists to discuss love in depth, Erich Fromm, argues that any theory of love must begin with a theory of man, of human existence and the full answer to the problems of human existence, according to him, lies in the achievement of fusion with another person, in love; this desire for interpersonal fusion, he says, is the most powerful striving in man: "love is the active concern for the life and the growth of that which we love. I want the loved person to grow and unfold for his own sake"(Fromm, p. 28). Freud, with his jaundiced eye, could see nothing good, or indeed see nothing significant in love, an irrational part of human behavior; he long promised a book on the love life of humankind but never produced it, though he was assiduous in amending his published essays on sexuality; towards the end of his life he said that we know very little about love (Santas 1988). Some eminent authors have recognized the significance of love but not been able to contribute to its study. So J.Z. Young commented in Programs of the Brain(1978 p. 143)that "Attempting to define love is indeed a hazardous enterprise, more suitable for a poet than for a scientist.... [but he added] What would be the use of a neuroscience that cannot tell us anything about love?"

One of the most sustained accounts of love, surprisingly, was by a Jesuit, Martin D'Arcy(1952). He suggested that to produce a unified, and so to speak, scientific account of love would be of service, as it would enable one to pass from the poetry to the psychology of the matter. Love, he said, is as old as human nature, but long stretches of time have been needed for its significance to be taken as seriously as it deserves. And the difficulties are great: just finding something common in the variety of descriptions which have been given of love is hard enough. Love appears in all literature, not as a passing episode, but as the marrow. Love is such a vast subject that a writer would never reach an end if he did not make up his mind to concentrate on one aspect of it. Referring to Scheler's (1913/1954) discussion of love and sympathy, D'Arcy (p. 233) observes that while Scheler analyses what happens when we truly love, he does not explain why we should love in this manner; he gives us the fact but not the reason, and it is this final explanation which is so elusive and yet craved for by all.

If scientific treatment of love has been scarce, discussion of love as an evolutionary fact has been even less favored. One of the few exceptions was Mellen's The Evolution of Love (1981). Glynn Isaac pointed out in the preface that few have grappled with love as something central to human evolution but scientifically elusive; "a topic which in spite of its interest has no experts except in so far as we are all experts"(p. vii). Mellen says (p. 288) that apart from Darwin and a few other exceptions, self-respecting evolutionists have tended to shy away from love as a subject for study.

Evolution of Love

It is obviously important to start by defining or characterizing love. So what is love? Any women's magazine has descriptions of true love in terms of the relation of man and woman. There are other types of love, mother/infant, brother/brother, plus a scatter of other uses of the term: love of animals, love of the countryside, love of excitement, love of truth etc. The Oxford English Dictionary defines love as:

That state or feeling with regard to a person which arises from recognition of attractive qualities, from sympathy or from natural ties, and manifests itself in warm affection and attachment". This is not bad, though by using "affection" and "attachment" the definition in the end dodges the problem. For affection, the OED has, surprisingly, nothing very helpful referring to "affect': "affectionate" has "loving" as its most relevant meaning. For "attachment" the OED has "affection, devotion, fidelity" so as usual dictionary definitions go around in a circle. Perhaps the more useful ways of saying what love is are (1) to see how it has been described by a multitude of writers over the ages as a matter of personal experience, and (2) by examining one's own experience which will tell one when the state of "love" is experienced. In the end to say what "love" means is much the same as saying what "red" or "pleasant" means; we just know. Little progress has been made in the more fundamental approach of saying what the behavior and experience of love comprises and what the neurological/physiological substrates are.

So we may have some idea of what love is as an experienced state though not much idea of what it is as a neurological/physiological condition, and we are ready to begin consideration of the question: How did human love evolve? There are a number of candidates if one assumes that love evolved from a previous behavior, state or condition:

To suggest that animals "love" in much the same sense as humans is, of course, to say that there is no separate problem of the evolution of human love, though there would still be a transferred problem of the evolution of animal love. But we cannot know whether there is such a thing as "animal love'; there are behaviors which look similar, for example, to monogamy and fidelity in humans as Lorenz (1968, p. 187) points out, but since the essence of human love is not behavior but state or feeling, a cognitive as well as an emotional relation to another person, we would be mistaken to infer from animal behavior the existence of animal love. Such a thing seems unlikely.

Empathy is a more plausible candidate for the evolution of human love. It undoubtedly exists in animals. It is essentially a mode of perception which relies on the interpretation of bodily features of other animals, to guide response and behavior. Like other forms of perception, empathy, however, is neutral; it may establish a sympathetic i.e. favorable attitude towards the creature with which one empathizes, it may produce a hostile reaction, for we can empathise hatred as well as affection, danger as well as attraction, fear as much as aggression; or it may in emotional terms be neutral, simply a deeper way of gaining information about other animate creatures in the environment. Empathy then is not love -- but love can hardly start or continue without empathy, any more than it can start without visual perception. So empathy may be one of the precursors of love, one of the current components of love, but this by itself does not indicate how love evolved to make use of empathy. Group feeling is hardly an independent candidate as an evolutionary explanation of love; group feeling seems to depend heavily on empathy.

The most obvious candidate as the behavioral configuration from which love might have evolved is sexuality, sexual desire, sexual behavior. Because of the contemporary confusion of sexuality with love -- as in "making love" -- a number of authors have assumed that in some way love as a specifically human trait must constitute a continuum with sexual desire and sexual behavior. To see how plausible this is, one has to contrast the manifestations of sexuality with the state or experience of love. Amongst animals, there is certainly no necessary connection between sexuality and love; the praying mantis biting off the head of the male certainly does not display love as part of the sexual pattern, and for very many animals there can be no question of any feeling resembling love. Sexuality in most animals is more linked with aggression or hunger than with love; much of the behavior appears almost mechanical, a pre-set response to a complex of stimuli. Further, even in humans there is no necessary link between love and sexual desire or sexual behavior. Love where it exists modifies, even runs counter to the expression of sexual desire -- and sexuality can be seen often as destructive of love.

The remaining candidate as the evolutionary source of love is the mother/infant bond. This of course exists in higher animals -- see E.O. Wilson's(1975) discussion -- and many animals at every level show considerable degrees of parental care. But, if the mother/infant relation in animals is to be thought of as the source or at least one of the most important precursors and components in human love, is it enough by itself? This comes back to the question whether one should interpret parental care in animals as "love". The social insects display some of the most elaborate forms of care for the brood; this seems to be the result of complex instinctual patterning; there seem no grounds for assuming that ants are experiencing love for the brood as they look after it. The same goes for the activities of higher animals. Clearly in this mother/infant relation, parental care, there is interaction and coordination between mother and infant, carer and infant, and clearly amongst the higher animals, e.g. primates, this depends on perception by the parent of the behavior and state of the infant, making use of empathy as a specially searching form of perception. But we have already dismissed the idea of animal 'love" and so the question becomes: what additional elements went to form human love from the mother/infant relation? In terms of fitness, the mother/infant relation is central for many higher animals, the infants not surviving or not developing appropriately socially and emotionally without the mother/infant relation and interaction. The evolutionary justification for the mother/infant relation is obvious but why should there have been this further development in the human of "love" starting from or incorporating the mother/infant bond? Why was love for the human evolutionarily necessary? How was the capacity for love built into the human genome by the processes of selection? Or was love a side-effect of a number of other evolving processes and capacities in the evolving human?

What else was evolving in the human in parallel with the extended mother/infant relation? There was the enlarging brain, which indeed may have been a cause of the altricial nature of the human infant, of the extension of the period of infant dependence, of the extent to which brain development and maturation takes place after rather than before birth. Then there were the less easily measurable developments in cognitive capacity, in communication abilities, in foresight and planning, in analysis and control of the environment, in language, that also must have been associated with the enlarging human brain. There must as an accompaniment or consequence of these developments have been the growing ability to perceive one's own perceptions, to be aware of oneself as initiator of action, the development of thought processes, of consciousness, of modelling of the self and of the environment in the brain.

Human love as we experience it, as it is reported and manifested, is essentially a relation between one person and another -- not a bodily relation but a brain-relation, a neural relation. The existence and the structure of another person comes to be a prominent part of one's own structure, to alter the patterns of motivation, to alter the way the world and other people are perceived and of course to alter how the other person -- the object or subject of love -- is perceived. Without the development of the self, of self-consciousness, of conscious thought, human love would not exist, or would have a completely different character. But what contributed to or constituted the formation of the self, of consciousness, of thought? The most obvious candidate is the development of language, a new resource to enable the individuals to categorise their world, to manipulate their perceptions of the world, to put a distance between immediate experience and "themselves". Thus my contention is that the development of language played an essential role in allowing the development of human consciousness, of the self, of the person, and that this development of the self through language was an essential preliminary to, or concomitant with, interacting with, the development of human love as the experienced relation between one's self and the self of another human.

The conclusion then is that human love evolved on the basis of the mother/infant relation, dependent on empathy as a mode of perception of the infant's state and needs, with the primitive attachment manifested in many species of animals deepening into interpersonal love as, with the growth of self-awareness dependent in its turn on language, perception extended more and more profoundly into the self of the other. The survival value, the "fitness' function of the mother/infant relation for altricial creatures is already generally accepted - and the question then is what evolutionary mechanism made the deepening of this relation additionally valuable. Of course, if love consists in interaction between empathy, mother/infant attachment, language, self-awareness, consciousness, all advancing together under the impulse of the survival benefits each offers, then there would not be any need for a separate benefit flowing from love as such. The genetic complex leading to the advance of each of the separate components, which then interacted to constitute love, would not need a separate genetic basis for love. But there is no reason why the advantages flowing from this capacity for love manifested first in the mother/infant relation should not have generated additional survival benefits increasing even further the fitness of those in whom the complex operated most effectively.

In particular, as the social structure and interaction of human groups became more complex, the extended mother/infant relation would acquire a new importance as the stage at which the infant and then the child acquired the capabilities and the awareness necessary to be successful in the group. Most obviously the mother/infant relation would be the context in which the child acquired the communication abilities of the group, and the attitudes and patterns of behavior consistent with the needs of the group, if the group was to survive as such and be successful in competition with other groups or in dealing with the problems presented by the non-group environment more generally. Love then would become essential not only in increasing the fitness of the mother and of the child but also in increasing the fitness of the group as a whole, insofar as the success of the group, and thus of its individual members, depended on effective coherence of the group and on the pattern of its rituals, traditions, behaviors, skills, beliefs, and moralities. Contrast this with sexual behavior as a hypothetical basis for group activity: sexual behavior in humans and in many animals is self-regarding (for the individual), competitive, aggressive, possibly violent, random in the male, and divisive rather than co-operative. Though sexual selection in its crudest form may contribute in evolutionary terms to morphological change, bodily physical change, stronger, more powerful, more aggressive, more highly-charged individuals, it contributes nothing to the specifically human requirements in group cohesion, the acquisition and transmission of social and other skills. Rape, if that is the most effective way of promoting individual fitness for the male, does not require language, social graces, foresight, awareness of self, or cognitive capacities.


Is love a momentary or enduring state? Love is not passion -- it may even not even be correctly described as an emotion in the sense that an emotion is a response, most probably a motor and physiological response, to a particular situation, a particular set of events. Love on the view just presented is a capacity derived from neural interaction of a number of components, with the decisive event being a neural restructuring to accommodate the idea of another's self with and into the idea of one's own self. Love thus is something that can endure and unlike sexual desire cannot be satisfied or dissipated by any behavioral response. Sexual desire is certainly a powerful drive, but as indicate above, it is one which is more likely to conflict with love than strengthen it; indeed, sexual desire, when its object is achieved, may eliminate the particular love relation.

Is love unitary or multiple? The capacity for love comes into existence from the combination of the other capacities already described. The decisive event is the "falling in love" which happens almost automatically in the mother/infant relation but needs to be explained in other forms of love. Apart from the mother/infant relation, this capacity to love exists whether or not an object of the love currently has been found. It alters social relationships, deepens the awareness of the character, attitudes, tendencies of others, and so has a general effect within the community. When this capacity finds its object -- the other person -- then the neural structuring of the loving individual undergoes a massive change, with the self-centre, the centre of gravity, changing as a result of continuous awareness of the other, sensitivity to the other's needs, emotions, physical condition, happiness, and response etc. At this moment then love is unitary, and two objects of love are not likely to exist at the same time. This contrasts with the case for sexuality or sexual desire, where, certainly for the male, there can be many objects simultaneously.

Can there be degrees of love? For the individual, the force of love depends on his/her own neural structure. In the same way as self-awareness may vary between individuals, perceptiveness may vary, empathetic awareness may vary. So between individuals, the degree of love may vary. The question remains whether for the same individual there can be degrees of love. Can we love someone a little, rather more, very much? If love is a restructuring to incorporate a model of the other's self with one's own self, then love is all or nothing, and other relations, attachments, and the like call for another description -- such as affection, kindness etc.

Can love be mistaken in its object? There can clearly can be mistakes in the perception of the character, attitudes, etc. of another as there can be mistakes in all forms of perception. But if love establishes itself despite the mistaken perception, then the love is not mistaken, though expectations as to what may follow from the love may be mistaken. In particular, the belief that the other experiences love in the same way as one does oneself may be mistaken. But experiencing love does not require that love should be returned. We can love those who do not love us.

What does love actually do? There are the objective or external effects of love and the internal or subjective effects. As regards objective or external effects, in the mother/infant case love helps survival of the child and its emotional and social maturation. In an adult relation, the objective effect of love is to promote the interests, security and happiness of the loved person, creating a willingness to sacrifice everything, even life, for the loved person. As regards the subjective or internal effects, in the case of the mother/child relation love makes possible a heightened degree of perception, attention, concentration in the mother, organizes her responses for the benefit of the child, creates endurance of the stress of care for the infant. In the case of adult love, the internal subjective effect is the creation of a new directedness in the one who loves, an overflow of energy, a reduction in concentration on the self.

Is love genetic or cultural or a mixed product? Since the capacity for love is the resultant of a number of other evolving capacities -- language, empathy, self-awareness, consciousness, the question reduces itself to how far each of these capacities is genetic or cultural. Empathy is genetic not cultural; the capacity for language evolved genetically with the structure of language evolving culturally; self-awareness flows from language. The conclusion perhaps is that the distinction between what is genetic and what is cultural is one which it is not easy to make. Insofar as humans thrive, indeed can only exist, in groups, and "culture" is a group-related concept, and insofar as the fortunes of the group and the behavior of members of the group have directly genetic consequences, the tangle cannot be straightened out.

Are infant-love and adult-love related?The capacity for love evolved in the context of the mother/infant relation and love derived its first evolutionary importance from this. But the infant in the mother/infant relation was in due course the adult; the infant participated in the love-relationship as much as the mother; the infant in due course became the mother of the future; the child of a loving mother would be more likely to inherit the capacity to love of the mother and to have experienced development of that capacity as an infant. If love s an evolutionarily successful process, then it would increasingly be a constituent of adult behavior; adult love and mother/infant love on this view are expressions of one and the same capacity.

Are the phylogeny and ontogeny of love related? The previous paragraph suggests that they must be. For the individual, the first experience of love is as an infant. The genetic capacity for love depends on the parents of the infant and the complex of genes bearing on the congeries of abilities etc. which make possible the capacity for love. Assume that an infant inherits the complex of genes which will make love possible: if the infant experiences love in the mother/infant relation, then the capacity for love can mature and the existence of this capacity will be manifest in the adult. If, however, as a result of the illness or death of the mother, separation, institutional upbringing, the process of maturation of the capacity for love is interrupted or crippled, the child may grow up into an adult without the neural structuring, behavioral structuring, necessary for the expression of the capacity to love. In earlier times an infant experiencing these situations might not have survived at all.

What is the physiological or neurological basis of love? Love may have all sorts of physiological effects: sharpening of perception, increase of energy, increase of purposefulness, improvement of health, complexion, brightness etc. This represents as yet difficult to identify changes in neural structure, neural functioning. Perhaps the most important will be the greater neural integration, the reduction of energy-sapping conflicts, of self-centered worry etc.

What is the nature of the "resonance" of love? Since love depends on perception and particularly on empathy, then the "resonance" of love is an effect of the potential "resonance" of perception and of empathy. If I can empathise your emotional state, attitude, then this empathy alters me, alters my state. You can empathise the change in my state and this in turn alters your state and so on -- a kind of continuous reflection between mirrors back and forth, except in this case each mirror changes as it reflects back the other. Hence the liebesglanz, the eyelock.

Has love a future? The capacity to love already exists in the human genome, insofar as the genome encodes, epigenetically, the capacities for consciousness, self-awareness, empathy, and language. But we are now in a quite different evolutionary situation. Failures of love are not necessarily penalized by the death of unloved children. Failures of love at the adult level are not penalized by the exclusion of the unloved or the unloving from the ability to reproduce. The existence of adult love does not necessarily lead to the production of loved children (contraception, abortion etc.) The use of drugs may destroy the mother/infant relation without destroying the infant. The current problem is the relation of sexuality and love. Sexuality is not love but it is confused with love. The technology of sexuality has advanced, to stimulate, prevent, and distort the outcome of sexuality. One might say that, in the present evolutionary period, sexuality has no very important positive consequences whereas love has, and has had, many positive consequences for human individuals and human societies.

Without love, what happens? The use of drugs is an important case. Drugs constitute a going into oneself, away from others, a reduction in the capacity for relation to another person or other persons, including the infant as well as the adult. If in this way, the mother/infant relation fails or is distorted or inadequate, then the physical health of the child may be damaged -- the mother may even transmit disease and addiction to the child -- and even more importantly the child's maturation into a sociable, potentially loving adult is damaged. For adults, there is always a confrontation between the capacity for love and sexuality, the other-centred and the self-centred structure. The family, the group, the nation, ultimately depend for their strength on prevalence of an other-centred structure. If love is weakened or absent or replaced by drugs and sexuality, then the family, the group and ultimately the nation are weakened, on a path towards disintegration as the number of those who lack the capacity to love or replace it by drugs and sexuality increases. The mother/infant relation, mother/infant love, is an evolutionarily virtuous circle; and the ontogenetic mother/infant relation, mother/infant love is a socially virtuous circle. The more adequate the mother/infant relation in developing the capacity for love, in serving the transmission of social and cultural structures to help the child to fit into the community in which it finds itself, the better able the future adult is to transfer the acquisitions both to participation in the community and to the relation with his/her own children and so on. Without love, there is an evolutionary and ontogenetic vicious circle. The distortion or absence of mother/infant love damages the capacity not only for normal adult love but also for all good empathetic relationships within the group, and then reduces the chances of an adequate future mother/infant, parent/infant relationship; sexuality and drugs in the absence of love in this generation lead to more sexuality and drugs without love in the next generation, and to the progressive disintegration of family, society and nation.

Offshoots of love? Insofar as love involves concern for the other rather than only for oneself, and softens and strengthens relations within the family, the group and the nation, then it tends to produce lasting beneficial changes, advances, which enrich the family, the group and the nation. Many of the cultural achievements of humanity derive from love or have been closely associated with love: poetry, song, music, painting, intellectual achievements of many kinds. There remains one special attribution of love, religious love. Can there be religious love? This is said in the Western Christian tradition to take two forms: love thy neighbor and love God. Other religions have developed intense practices of the "mystical" love of God, or of gods, though non-Christian religions place less or no emphasis on love of one's fellow-human as such. Love of one's neighbor, that is, love of those near to us, those who associate with us, can be seen as a plausible extension of love as a human capacity -- in other terms, it would be extension to the group of love for another individual person, an overspill or offshoot of that love, related to the role of love as a socializing force described above in the mother/infant relation, though one would not expect the same intensity as in interpersonal love. The love of God is a more difficult idea. If love is a transfer of the self-centre, the centre of gravity of oneself, with the incorporation of a model of the other along with or in the model of one's self, then how can a model of God be said to be incorporated in or introduced alongside the model of one's self? What can we know about God or how can we empathetically perceive God? This remains a puzzle despite the voluminous writings of the mystics, both Christian and non-Christian.

Other Views

There have of course been other views on the relation of love and sexuality and on the significance of the mother/infant relation in the evolution of love.

Love and sexuality

Love's inseparability from sexuality has been taken for granted by many writers. Voltaire with typical finesse suggested: "C'est l'étoffe de la nature que l'imagination a brodée"(p. 16). More brutally Schopenhauer declared that "love is based on an illusion and represents what is an advantage to the species as an advantage to the individual. If Petrarch's passion had been gratified his song would have become silent from that moment... Every kind of love, however ethereal it may seem to be, springs entirely from the instinct of sex."(Schopenhauer, pp. 171, 203) Whether Schopenhauer himself ever experienced love, as distinct from sexual desire, is not clear. The translator of the above remarks commented: "Plainly Schopenhauer was not the person to sacrifice the individual to the will of the species"(p. xxx). One of his longest enduring relations with the opposite sex was with the woman whom he had to compensate financially after he threw her downstairs when he was annoyed by the noise she was making, Years later she died and Schopenhauer made the celebrated comment: "Obit anus, abit onus".(Hollingdale, pp. 24-25)

One would have expected a considered view from Sigmund Freud on the relation of love and sexuality but he never directly tackled the issue. His theory of sexuality bizarrely assumed that abnormal sexuality was, in a sense, normal, and normal sexuality was almost an "aberration" which developed from the abnormal sexuality:

The innumerable peculiarities of the erotic life of human beings as well as the compulsive character of the process of falling in love itself are quite unintelligible except by reference back to childhood and as being residual effects of childhood.... [I am] driven to the conclusion that a disposition to perversions is an original and universal disposition of the human sexual instinct and that normal sexual behavior is developed out of it as a result of organic changes and psychical inhibitions occurring in the course of maturation.
This was qualified by
The unsatisfactory conclusion... that we know far too little of the biological processes constituting the essence of sexuality to be able to construct from our fragmentary information a theory adequate to the understanding alike of normal and of pathological conditions.
In the Preface, he emphasized that "the present work is characterized... by being deliberately independent of the findings of biology".(Freud, 1862 pp. xv, 95, 97, 168)

Symons' (1979) study of the evolution of human sexuality, although it has a good discussion of many wider issues, e.g. altruism and morality, has little to say about love and its relation to sexuality other than the curious observation that a Maori tribe found the European use of the term "love' puzzling, apparently because the concept did not exist in their culture(p. 112).Graham Bell's book (1982) on the evolution and genetics of sexuality also has little to say about love: "Sex is the queen of problems in biology... Sex... does not merely reduce fitness, but ... halves it... There can be only one answer... sex will be powerfully selected against and rapidly eliminated wherever it occurs. And yet this has not happened".(pp. 46, 71) He goes on to deal with this by the rather tangled "Tangled Bank" hypothesis (which suggests that sex might have evolved in an environment that consisted of many non-uniform niches, like a tangled bank on which many plants grow in competition -- in such an environment, Bell argued, a diverse sexually replicating population would do better than a non-sexual one, even if the non-sexual population was better adapted to any particular niche).

Roger Scruton(1985) in a remarkably sustained and wide-reaching study Sexual Desire: A Philosophical Investigation effectively denies the evolution of love from animal sexuality by the rather paradoxical claim that human sexuality is totally different from animal sexuality (pp. 15-16, 34-35) :

I shall consider the three basic phenomena of human sexual feeling: arousal, desire and love. I shall contend that all are purely human phenomena... sexual desire, like the human person, is a social artefact... the problem that worried Plato does not exist: there is no conflict or contradiction of the kind that he envisaged between sexual desire and erotic love... only a rational being can experience desire... sentiments that no mere animal ever felt.

On the other side, he quotes(p. 83) Kant: "sexual love makes of the loved person an object of appetite... as soon as the appetite has been stilled, the person is cast aside... Sexual love can, of course, be combined with human love and so carry with it the characteristics of the latter, but taken by itself and for itself, it is nothing more than appetite" -- or essentially back to Plato's distinction between Aphrodite Uranios and Aphrodite Pandemos.

Scheler's work published in 1913 under the title The Phenomenology and Theory of Sympathy and of Love and Hate, rejected the idea that love might be derived from "fellow- feeling" and also the relation between love and sexuality as the origin of "every kind of social instinct" -- "a very questionable conclusion, for the very fact that bisexual animals possess the sexual instinct but do not all have the social instinct indicates their independence of one another"(Scheler 1913/1954, p. 175)

Mellen(1981) in his book on the evolution of love seems to support the evolution of love from sexuality though he linked it closely with the mother/infant relation (pp. 269, 278).

The sexual interaction of protohuman males and females had evolved towards durable attachments of an emotional character, the beginnings of love. This... was strongly favored by natural selection because it increased the chances that the exceptionally vulnerable and long- dependent young would survive until reproductive age.... The average human being of today inherits tendencies to love others... because in the evolutionary past such tendencies were as a general rule highly advantageous to individual protohumans possessing them and to their children and incidentally to their groups. And the general advantage to those individuals, in terms of reproductive success, was on average so great that it outweighed the costs to them, even though a few of them were lost through rare acts of self-sacrifice. Putting it very crudely, what I suggest is not a gene for altruism -- but a gene for love or, slightly less crudely, a complex of many genes for various kinds and degrees of human affection.

Mother/Infant Relation

Several authors touch on the idea that the mother/infant relation may be of special importance for the development of love. The psychologist Stanley Hall turned away from a first enthusiasm for Freud to concentrate on the development of love as an aspect of genetic psychology; "altruistic love", he suggested, developed in the course of evolution from the necessities of maternity(Ross, p. 281 ff.). Fisher(1990) has suggested that the different kinds of love might all be derived from one source: "the most plausible way this could happen would be if we all learned in infancy to love our parent and other kinds of love developed from that"(Fisher, p. 11). Konner(1984) discussing the biological aspects of the mother-infant relation has stressed its long evolutionary history, with the mother-infant bond as a universal characteristic of the higher primates of the Old World; the relation evolved under severe selection pressure which took the form at first of culling through predation and later of impairment of normal subsistence and reproductive behavior of those young that failed to experience the mother-infant bond.

More recently, attention has focused on what the infant comes equipped to contribute to the mother/infant relation and the significance of this in terms of early postnatal brain development. In the first year after birth, when the mother/infant relation is intense, there is rapid growth in the size and complexity of the brain. The rapid increase continues for one and a half years. Between birth and one year, the brain more than doubles, reaching 60% of the final adult size. At the same time there is rapid growth in neural complexity: proliferation of synapses, the branching of dendrites, changes in the density of dendritic spines, The main population of cortical synapses for life is formed about the middle of the first year (Trevarthen, 1984, 1990: Konner, 1982).

Trevarthen describes how the infant brings to the relation with the mother a number of preformed capabilities; when the environment starts to have a major effect on the selection of neural patterning, "its input infiltrates an already active and highly structured nervous system; shaping of the brain by the pattern of stimuli is conditioned by the prior genetic coding of acceptable circuits" (1990, p. 338). A different view of infant intelligence from the stages suggested by Piaget has come from study of early spontaneous reactions to persons rather than problem-solving. Before a baby gains postural stability, he or she has refined awareness of other persons and their emotions. Infants do learn by imitation but the structural foundations for the imitative movements cannot be learned; it is necessary to assume an innate structure that at least partly matches the structure of the adult models to explain both imitation and more complex reciprocal or complementary interactions characteristic of communication between child and adult from immediately after birth. The neural basis for empathic response underlies imitation in both directions. By the end of the first month, a full-term infant can join in a "protoconversation" looking at the mother intently.(Trevarthen, 1990, p. 343)

The intrinsic regulators of brain growth in the infant are specially adapted to be coupled, by emotional communication, to the regulators of adult brains of people who know more. This seems to be the key genetic brain strategy for cultural learning; it offers the possibility that transmission of concepts and skills from one generation to the next is facilitated by direct co-ordination between the motivations generated in a child and the feelings of adults; the theory would explain transmission of culture in terms of a specific and highly active epigenetic program for brain growth that needs brain-brain interaction in the context of an intimate affectionate relationship between infant and mother.

Trevarthen's(1984, 1990) approach summarized in the two preceding paragraphs can be set against the account given by Penelope Leach, a social psychologist who has researched for the Medical Research Council and is author of one of the most successful books(1979) advizing mothers on care of the new-born child(pp. 21, 34, 122):

Nobody else in the world including your partner, however devoted, is ever going to love you as much as he [the infant] will in these first years if you will let him... Loving a baby or child is a circular business, a kind of feedback loop. The more you give the more you get and the more you get the more you feel like giving.... However you define the word [love] it must have something to do with interaction between people who know each other, who like what they know and want to know more. If there is love, there must be a sharing, a giving and taking of affection and support. He has a built-in interest in you because your loving care is essential to his survival. He will see to it that love comes.... It is through this first love relationship that he will learn about people and about the world. It is through it that he will experience emotions and learn to cope with them. And it is through this baby-love that he will become capable of more grown-up kinds of love; capable, one far-distant day, of giving his own children the same kind of devotion he asks for himself now.... The more he is allowed to attach himself to you, the more he will be able to respond affectionately to others. Love creates love.


Love has had a very good press for thousands of years (as the quotations in the Appendix show). A Martian might judge, and he would not be far wrong, that love is the principal concern of humans. Nowadays perhaps one may start to feel a growing disgust (or contempt) for this preoccupation of humanity with the unceasing flow of popular songs, magazine and tabloid newspaper articles on the theme of love (mostly what Fromm would call "pseudo-love'). Nevertheless we cannot ignore love as an experience, as a fact; we cannot treat it as trivial, familiar and so well understood. The power of love can tell us something about our natures. Love is treated as an exciting mystery; Herbert Spencer said that mind can be understood only by observing how mind evolved; one might say similarly that love can be understood only by finding out how love evolved. This paper is an essay towards this: it suggests that love resulted from a combination based on what the Greeks called STORGÊ - love between parents and children extended to apply to all forms of other-regarding love; it depended on the growth, through language, of the sense of one's own self and the self of others; empathy made possible the visible, or visual, conversation between two persons, mirroring each other, most obviously demonstrated in the smile reflected, back and forth, by which the essence of love, the change in the neural representation of oneself to incorporate a model of the other takes place.

One could of course compose a panegyric of love, and many have done so. For example, love is the dissolution of the obsession of one's self; love is the road to understanding and the grasp of reality, the sympathy for existence; by loving we sense and know the reality and independence and beauty of others; intellect needs love to avoid losing itself in the dry desert; love needs intellect to escape drowning. We float with intellect; we quench our thirst with love. Love is a total state of organization, Love is as specific for humanity as language. "Love", as a principle of human existence, was a great discovery, a great gift. Love allows us to go beyond ourselves, overleap body, brain, mind, reach a Here-Now which is not our private Here-Now, a new dimension in which we can travel. Bertrand Russell in Marriage and Morals(1929) said that love was something far more than desire for sexual intercourse: it was the principal means of escape from the loneliness which afflicts most men and women throughout the greater part of their lives. Love, the capacity to love and be loved, was an evolutionary step forward in man -- a civilizing, elevating experience.

Such is the kind of panegyric one could produce which could be criticized as ignoring the problems, the griefs, also associated with love. With it one might contrast the unsentimental possibility that if we come to understand better the process and state of love, through seeing how love may have developed phylogenetically and ontogenetically, then at some time in the future we may be able to produce a computer analog of love as the mutual interaction of two continually complexifying programs. A sad prospect!

Appendix: Quotations


Bell, G. (1982) The masterpiece of nature: The evolution and genetics of sexuality. London: Croom Helm.
D'Arcy, M.C. (1952) The Mind and Heart of Love. 2nd ed. London: Faber and Faber.
Emde, R.M. and Harmon, R.J., eds. (1982) The Development of Attachment and Affiliation Systems. New York: Plenum.
Fisher, M. (1990) Personal Love. London: Duckworth.
Freud, S. (1962) Three Essays in the Theory of Sexuality. Trans. and ed. by J. Strachey. London: Hogarth Press.
Fromm, E. (1957) The Art of Loving. London: Allen and Unwin.
Hollingdale, R.J. (1970) Introduction to Schopenhauer: Essays and Aphorisms. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Konner, M. (1982) Biological Aspects of the Mother-Infant Bond. In Emde, R.M. and Harmon, R.J., eds. The Development of Attachment and Affiliation Systems. New York: Plenum, pp. 137- 159.
Leach, P. (1979) Baby and Child. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Lorenz, Konrad. (1966) On Aggression. Translated by Marjorie Latzke. London: Methuen.
Mellen, S.L.W. (1981) The Evolution of Love. Oxford and San Francisco: W.H. Freeman.
Mursten, B.L. 1988. "A Taxonomy of Love," in Sternberg, R.J. and Barnes, M.L. eds. (1988) Psychology of Love. New Haven: Yale University Press, pp. 13-37.
Pascal (1652/1866) "Discours sur les passions de l'amour," in Pensées. ed. with Introduction and Notes by E.Havet. Paris: Ch. Delagrave, pp. 251-263.
Ross, D. (1972) R. Stanley Hall: The Psychologist as Prophet. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Russell, B. (1929) Marriage and Morals. London: Allen and Unwin.
Santas, G. (1988) Plato and Freud: Two theories of love. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
Scheler, M. (1913) [1954] The Nature of Sympathy. Heath, P. trans. with Introduction by W. Stark. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Schopenhauer, A. (1970) Essays and Aphorisms. Selected and translated by R.J. Hollingdale. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Scruton, R. (1986) Sexual desire A Philosophical Investigation. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
Stein, Edith. (1970) On the Problem of Empathy. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff. Trans. by Waltraut Stein of Zum Problem der Einfühlung [Originally published (1917)
Sternberg, R.J. and Barnes, M.L., eds. (1988) Psychology of Love. New Haven: Yale UP.
Symons, D. (1979) The Evolution of Human Sexuality. New York: OUP.
Trevarthen, C. (1984) How control of movement develops.In Human motor actions: Bernstein reassessed. ed. by H. Whiting, pp. 223-261. Amsterdam: North-Holland.
Trevarthen, C. (1990) Growth and education in the hemispheres. In Trevarthen, C., ed. Brain circuits and functions. CUP, pp. 334-363.
Voltaire 1764. [1967] Dictionnaire Philosophique: Amour. Paris: Editions Garnier.
Wilson, Edward O. (1975) Sociobiology The New Synthesis. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP.
Young, J.Z. (1978) Programs of the Brain. London: OUP.