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Love: The Unfathomed Phenomenon

Love: The Unfathomed Phenomenon

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Explore the intriguing journey of humankind’s survival over the last 300,000 years, from our primate ancestors to the development of love and various forms of affection that have played a pivotal role in our evolution and social structure. Discover how love, both romantic and familial, has been the driving force behind human bonds and the key to our continued existence.

I begin this conversation with a question. What is it exactly that has kept human beings going in the last 300,000 years? In a world where 55 billion species, constituting 99% of all the species that ever lived, have gone extinct, what is the secret behind humankind’s survival? You will no doubt, point to the cherry on the top (pun intended!), the human brain, its size, complexity so on and so forth. And you will not be wrong. But what does it all really boil down to? Let’s take a closer look, shall we, love?
Pretty much everyone and his aunt knows that human beings, as we know them now, evolved from our ancestors, the primates, in the cradle of humankind, Africa, approximately 300,000 years ago. This involved several evolutionary leaps – a progressive increase in the size of the brain along with an adjustment of the proportions of our limbs, straightening of our spine, losing our tails (yes!), and learning to walk upright on two limbs rather than four, amongst other things.
Early humans were hunters-gatherers to start with and inbreeding was rampant. It took them another 200,000 years and life-endangering climate change to migrate from the African continent and inhabit all the corners of the globe .  As they entered the continents of Europe and Asia, they encountered other hominins/archaic humans, viz, the Neanderthals and Denisovans. Thus began a saga of intermingling and interbreeding in earnest. Another development of note was man’s discovery of fire approximately 1.7-2 million years ago. However, overcoming many hurdles, we eventually learnt to control fire enough to put it to our use only about 7000 years back. Humans also began to cover their bodies with clothing approximately 1.7 to 2 million years back, after having roamed around naked for nearly 90,000 years on this planet! Language developed around 50,000 years ago and civilization is only about 6000 years old!
What am l driving at, you might wonder?! Patience, friends!
A look at all the species that have walked on this planet makes it increasingly clear that we, Homo sapiens, do not top the list in terms of physical strength or size and yet, here we are, more alive and kicking (size surely does not matter!) than all the mega-fauna species that ever lived on earth! Why? What is it we humans have that the mega-fauna like dinosaurs, woolly mammoths and giant rhinos did not? What gave us the edge to beat all odds and make us one of the oldest surviving species?
It is time l let you into a little apparently simple instinct but one that has been humankind’s most potent weapon in the fight for survival. The secret is ‘ caring for each other ‘. Yes, you read that right. The ability of human beings to bond amongst themselves, to form attachments and come together to create families and communities, is what has given us the survival advantage over other species! Loyalty and love are instinctive in humans, as much as self preservation and reproduction are. Science has found evidence of long term attachments even amongst the most archaic humans and between the archaic humans and Homo sapiens…they did not just mate, but bonded for life, for generations.
The primal instincts of fear, hunger and lust that had kept the super-archaic and archaic humans safe, well fed and sexually gratified over millions of years, were trumped by the evolution of higher emotional faculties. Of course there is no denying the contribution of other continually evolving intellectual capabilities like crafting of tools (stone and bone/bronze /iron), learning to control and use fire ( as a source of heat and light/to scare away wild animals/ for cooking), use of language to ease communication etc. But what really set us apart was the instinct to care for our fellow beings, to love each other and to form lasting ‘pair-bonds’ between the male and female of our species.
An interesting aspect was the ability to also form bonds without sexual desire, between unknown people regardless of gender, better known as ‘friendship’ in human-speak!This feeling of brotherhood between the different members of the species, based on shared interests and common experiences, enabled them to stand together in any crisis and proved to be the biggest advantage of humans in harsh environmental conditions.
Humans gradually moved on from food gathering and hunting to farming and food production and soon began to build simple shelters like huts to live in rather than inhabit caves in the wild. Moving away from a nomadic way of life, they began to settle down in one place leading to the formation of societies, villages and cities. With the basic needs of food, clothing and shelter taken care of, human history took yet another intriguing turn. When humans turned agrarian from their hunting-gathering days, the need for a more stable social fabric was felt. From the evolutionary point of view too, male-female bonding with greater male participation ( than just contributing genes, as is the case in most mammals!) in parental care made sense, as is evident from the dominance of creatures practicing parental care like humans, birds etc. on this planet to this day. Other primitive animal species were either eating up their own hatchlings or leaving them to fend for themselves! And today, most of such species are nowhere to be found!
Moving on, understanding a need for stability, alliances began to be formed between various human families, on the pretext of bringing a man and a woman together and it was called ‘marriage’. Now, we, the 21st century Homo sapiens will promptly and quite naturally conclude that love, of the romantic kind, would have been the foundation of these marriages, right? Wrong. Ancient humans married for reasons more practical than romantic love! If love happened to blossom between the partners after marriage, it was considered a happy coincidence, nothing more. The very first marriages between man and woman were performed with the purpose of binding the woman to her man in order to have legitimate, biological offspring. If the men wanted fulfillment of their carnal desires, they were expected to look outside of their marriages for the same. They could even desert their wives in the event that they couldn’t bear them offspring. There are records of such unions as early as 2350 BC. Soon hereafter, economic interests and political considerations formed the premise for marriage. Love, my friend, was nowhere in the picture.
For a very long time, even socially, reproduction and its necessary act of sex was looked upon as a means to an end…to further the human lineage. the urge to procreate was acknowledged as an evolutionary tactic.. an act of self-perpetuation. The ancients looked down on romantic love as an animal instinct, an inconvenience, an illness, a needless, troublesome, fraught-with-risks emotion….. all in all, a lower form of love. Romantic love was thought to destroy the control and reasoning power of a logical person and turn him or her into a bumbling fool, capable of utterly impulsive, irrational acts. Indulgence in the act of sex for any reason other than to produce heirs was considered blasphemous right until the middle ages! Hence, contrary to what we imagine, romantic love has not been around since time immemorial! It is a relatively new phenomenon! It is only about 900 years old!
But it isn’t as if our ancestors were unaware of love, per se. In fact the ancient Greek philosophers went so far as to describe love as being of 7 types, viz , eros (the fleeting, passionate love associated with sexual intimacy), philia(love between friends, irrespective of gender), storje (parental love/ unconditional sacrificing/ familial/ kinship), agape (pronounced a-ga-pay.. love for God/nature/mankind/beauty itself, which is selfless, empathetic , the ‘helpers- high’ kind of love), pragma (love based on common interests, endurance and commitment, seen in long term relationships), ludus (the playful, flirtatious, ‘fling’ kind of love) and last but not the least, philautia (love for the self, because what you do not have, you cannot give!). Even our very own Vedas described the various forms of love along similar lines, as Kama, Shringar, Maitri, Bhakti and Atma-prema, akin to their Greek counterparts. Name it and you have it!
What was the need to describe so many types of love, you may say….social scientists think the purpose of doing so was to reassure people that love needn’t necessarily be of the romantic kind only and that there is satisfaction and happiness to be drawn from other forms of love, thereby giving hope to despairing souls who were devastated by a lack of romantic love in their lives! The enlightened Greek trio of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle further went on to opine that the highest form of love was , in fact , not romantic love, but either philia (Aristotle) or agape (Socrates, Plato) because, they reasoned, both were selfless and hence virtuous. Both desired the good of others without vested interests, the quintessential ‘platonic’ love, where physical attraction and intimacy were absent and only unfailing goodwill was present. ‘Falling’ in romantic love certainly appealed to none of the intellectuals in those days!
In spite of such ‘demonization’, romantic love began to make its presence felt from around the 12th century, because we, humans, after all, are hard-wired to love! Henceforth began a different trajectory…..this proved even more interesting as social norms began to shift around romantic love . Suddenly parents were no longer calling the shots in the choice of partners, and finances and political strength lost their elevated status as reasons to marry! With men and women taking matters into their own hands, it was only natural that there be a period of courtship or ‘dating ‘ as we know it, to better know each other. Though it applied to both genders, the women of those times felt especially empowered. Having a say in the choice of partners was a completely new phenomenon to them! Elaborate courtship rituals like buying flowers, gifts, writing letters, evolved in order to win over a partner and the traditionally ‘superior’ gender, the men, often, actually came down on their knees for love! Quite a revelation, affairs of the heart are!
Thanks to romantic love, relationships between men and women began to be less skewed, more equal, more balanced. Even the Church declared marriage a sacrament. It heavily endorsed equality in marriages and laid particular emphasis on the fidelity of the men. Men were to remain faithful to their wives, including sexually, and divorce was forbidden. However wives were still considered the ‘property’ of their husbands and the norm of giving up her name and taking the husband’s as a surrender of the woman’s individual identity continued. With the Church’s nod to love between partners in a marriage, romance gained a respectable foothold in society.
A twist in this tale however, appeared in the 19th century. ‘Cult of domesticity’, a movement of sorts started in the West wherein women were projected as instruments of stability and domestic bliss in a marriage and were raised to aspire to be perfect ‘house’-wives, ensuring the comfort of their bread-winner husbands! No higher education or economic independence for them such ‘traits’ were considered dangerous and undesirable in any woman and would lower her market value!
In the 21st century again, romance and its many facets have undergone not-too-subtle changes. In present times, romantic love continues to be a way of choosing a compatible partner, but culmination in marriage or wanting to be ‘desirable’ for marriage is no longer a concern. Living-in is the ‘in’ thing and flings are not crime enough to be cast away to the depths of hell! Even for women, getting married and ‘settling down’ is no longer a priority…..there are bigger and often better goals to be achieved!
All this notwithstanding, romantic love in our times has been fanned, fuelled and encashed by various business houses for their fiscal benefit. Romantic gestures and overtures keep a whole industry running! Valentine’s day is a global phenomenon today, catering to millions of love-struck youngsters, providing flourishing trade to hundreds of companies, even contributing significantly to the economies of countries! Such is the business of love!
All this talk of love has whetted my appetite for my favourite subject! As is well known now, science has clarified that inspite of poetic claims to the heart being the centre of amour,it is the brain that has been the culprit all along! And underlying all forms of love are certain chemicals, more specifically, hormones in our body . You may wonder, what about it now? Well, the fascinating thing is that it has been seen that love of the romantic variety stimulates some parts of our brain while parental love stimulates others! Evidences of parental love have been noted as early as the latest Triassic and early Jurassic period and it has been declared as the oldest form of love known to man! Seeing how instinctive and effortless parental love is, it is no less than a wonder of this world!
Coming back, in the early stages of love, the reward centre of the brain has been seen to be triggered by the hormone dopamine, which gives a high like that experienced by drug addicts and alcoholics…a feeling of intense pleasure and excitement. Early love is associated with high levels of the stress hormone cortisol which often causes a dip in the lover’s immunity! Love-sick, anyone?!
The first days of love also see low levels of another hormone, serotonin, which causes loss of appetite, sleeplessness and the mildly obsessive behaviour of a new lover. As the relationship progresses, the hormone oxytocin (the love hormone!)takes over, along with vasopressin. Oxytocin is associated with mature and calmer love and promotes feelings of tenderness and closeness while vasopressin is associated with strong emotions of monogamy! When deconstructed in this manner, it does take away from the mystery that we all like to think love is, but then how do you turn away from all the evidence? You cannot, and you shouldn’t.
Whether it is our superior all-round intelligence, social and emotional, or the surge of hormones or evolution, it is indeed love, in each of its forms, that has led us through a journey spanning hundreds of thousands of years, and brought us here, where we are, today and made us who we are. It has made us, us. Isn’t that cause enough for celebration? I should think so.
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