To kiss or not to kiss?

Pucker up, Natalie Farmer tells us why humans kiss and tell

15th February 2016

Whether it’s on the doorstep after a first date, in bed after a long day of (not) studying, or even in the middle of the dancefloor of some club at 1am on a Tuesday night, there are times when the urge to kiss someone completely consumes us. It can mean everything or absolutely nothing. It’s totally normal. Everyone does it… Don’t they?

Research suggests that this may not be the case. In fact, a study published last summer found that, out of the 168 cultures selected (stretching as far as the Mehinaku tribe in Brazil), less than half kissed their significant other romantically. Many hunter-gatherer groups also expressed no desire to lock lips. So why does the western world view it so differently? Why is it such a normal expectation in our culture, to the point where it’s an insult (not to mention an embarrassment) when someone turns their face away when you finally muster up the courage to make a move?

As many things do, the answer comes down to evolution. We share much of our DNA with other mammals, so it makes sense to examine their kissing habits in order to figure out the reason behind our own. We can then also answer the all-too-important question: why do we kiss?

"that’s as far as the comparison goes, because other animals do not kiss"

The answer as to why chimpanzees kiss is simple; it’s to “kiss and make up”. Chimpanzees peck each other on the lips after a conflict is resolved; this is most common between males. Evidently, this is not the same as when a human kisses their loved one. Alternatively, bonobos kiss more frequently – similar to humans, right? Nope. As a form of greeting, bonobos have sex. As a form of bonding, bonobos (again) have sex. So comparing their kisses to human kisses probably isn’t too accurate, either.

And that’s as far as the comparison goes, because other animals do not kiss. Not in the saliva-swapping, lip-smacking way that we all know and love, at least. Scientists believe that our tongue-wrestling habits come down to our sense of smell (or lack thereof). It’s a well-known fact that, in comparison to other animals, humans have an appalling sense of smell.

Can you tell if another human being is fertile and ready to jump into bed from miles away? I didn’t think so. But other animals, such as bears and moths, can smell a potential mate from this far. This is done through the release of pheromones into the environment, which, in a general sense, animals smell to both assess compatibility and increase desire. Research has shown that human males can release a pheromone in their sweat, which, when picked up by females, increases her arousal. Furthermore, a 1995 study found that women preferred the scent of men who possessed genes that were different to her own, increasing the chances of creating healthy offspring.

"out of the 168 cultures selected (stretching as far as the Mehinaku tribe in Brazil), less than half kissed their significant other romantically"

So there’s your answer. Although the act itself doesn’t appear to be natural (both to all humans and other members of the animal kingdom), the reason behind it is arguably one of the most natural things in the world. After all, would you really want to have babies with a bad kisser? It’s all about getting close enough to sniff out a potential mate and assess your compatibility.

That, and it feels pretty good, too.

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