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Read from Thumbs:


Howls, Hoots, and Calls

The Creature That Weeps

The Language of Lips


Walker Books

About Thumbs, Toes & Tears

And other traits that make us the strange and remarkable creatures we are Why do you suppose we kiss? Why is that we, but no other animals, neck in the back seats of Chevys, or tenderly kiss our children or smooch a friend when we say good-bye? The origins are mysterious, but most of them can be traced to primal parts of us, including the ancient ability to sense pheromones that seem, mysteriously, to draw us together, like some invisible, chemical language. In a sense, kissing is a kind of language; a peculiarly human, powerful, wordless form of communication that can say more than than all of the books in all of the libraries in all of the world.

From Chapter 10 -"The Language of Lips"

Kisses are a better fate than wisdom
-e.e. cummings

If you are ever in doubt as to whether to kiss a pretty girl, always give her the benefit of the doubt.
-Thomas Carlyle

Kisses are like tears; the only real ones are the ones you can't hold back.
- Anonymous


...Kissing is not a universal human behavior. About 90 percent of us do it. But that means some 650 million of us don't, more than the populations of every country on the planet except for China and India.

Why this is the case is hard to fathom. It is such a sumptuous, luscious invention, you would think it is as deeply spun into our DNA as breathing and walking. But it is a cultural, not a genetic innovation, which is to say we are not born kissers. We have had to learn it.

Back at the turn of the 20 th century, for example, Danish philologist Kristoffer Nyrop found that members of certain Finnish tribes bathed together completely nude, but considered kissing indecent. In Mongolia, some fathers still do not kiss their sons. Instead they smell their heads. An "Eskimo kiss" involves rubbing noses, not touching lips. Neither Polynesians nor Maoris prefer to show affection by kissing. In 1897 the French anthropologist Paul d'Enjoy (an apt name for a budding philematologist - scientists who study kissing) reported that the Chinese found mouth-to-mouth kissing nearly as horrifying as we find cannibalism. When Charles Darwin first visited the inhabitants of Malaysia, he reported that there was absolutely no osculation going on, but plenty of nose rubbing. And the explorer Captain James Cook discovered similar behavior when he first visited Tahiti, Samoa and Hawaii. (1)

Kissing may not be for everybody, but apparently it never fails to become popular wherever it is introduced. By all accounts, once Cook's crews made landfall, everyone quickly became amateur philematologists (scientists who study kissing). And today kissing is common throughout China. It is strange to say in an age of cell phones, computers and satellites that we may actually be witnessing the last evolutionary stages of a cultural behavior that has been sweeping through the race for tens of thousands of years, but hasn't quite reached the finish line.

But even if all of us haven't yet quite learned to kiss, how did any of us get started in the first place? Pheromones may provide a clue. In 1995 an enterprising group of Swiss researchers headed up by zoologist Claus Wedekind decided to test the effects of scents on human behavior. The idea was that certain mysterious clusters of molecules called pheromones might shape some very important, even life-changing decisions that we all make, without us even consciously realizing it -- whom we choose to marry, for instance.

Wedekind and his team first gathered up forty-four men and forty-nine women. They next tested and profiled all of their immune systems to map out which diseases they would tend to resist well and which ones they wouldn't. Wedekind then instructed the men to wear the same t-shirt to bed for two consecutive nights. Each was given unscented soap and told in no uncertain terms not to tamper in any way with how he smelled. Off went the men.

At the end of the obligatory two days the same forty-four fellows took off their well-slept-in shirts and deposited them into several boxes that also contained other, completely new t-shirts. Now the forty-nine women were assembled, asked to sniff the shirts and questioned about which ones they found most "sexy." You would think the universal answer would be a resounding, "None of them!" But as it turned out the women did have a preference -- and strangely enough -- the shirts they preferred belonged to men whose immune systems were dramatically different from theirs. The women, in other words, tended to be attracted to the men who, if they were to have children with them, would father offspring capable of fighting off more diseases than either of their parents. That, of course, would make them more likely to survive (and pass along their genes). (2)   A very primal chemistry seemed to be at work.

The standard definition of pheromones is that they are naturally occurring compounds that instigate some remarkable behavior in members of the opposite sex. Scientists have known for sometime that they exist in the insect and animal worlds where their effect is indisputably powerful. The cecropia moth, for example, the largest in North America (and one of the most beautiful) has been known to catch a whiff of a female's pheromones and gamely push itself up wind a full seven miles to reach and mate with her. Social insects such as bees, wasps and ants, can't live without pheromones. They use them to maintain the complicated societies in which they live and work which explains why their antennae insistently search out and wave at their surroundings wherever they go, hunting invisible molecular messages that signal them what their next move should be.

Mammals also rely on these chemical communicators. Male pigs exude a pheromone that goes by the non-descript name 5-androst-16-en-3-one, and it makes sows as amorous as Mae West in Night After Night. It is so reliable, in fact, that it is sold as BOARMATE to pig farmers who need to keep their supply of new piglets uninterrupted.

Though the list of pheromone-driven behavior in nature is long and fascinating, scientists continue to wrangle over the precise role it plays when it comes to humans. For years they were thought to have no place in the human world. But the evidence is mounting, as Wedekind's experiment indicates, that pheromones have a good deal to say about how we behave, especially when we are in the presence of the opposite sex.

In the Swiss test, it was as though certain chemical messengers evolved to ensure that opposites attract, at least opposite immune systems, the better to maximize the continuation of the species. You can see how this might be useful out on the savannah where the survival of the group would take precedence over personal likes and dislikes. Without this kind of chemistry our ancestors may have gone extinct before they became our ancestors.

If pheromones do play a role in our personal lives, it might mean that today the reasons why we find some people appealing and others not has nothing to do with why we think we find them that way. Love, or at least attraction, might be blinder than we ever suspected. Whatever the case, our pheromonal predilections apparently go way back. We not only share the same trait with pigs, bees and moths, but with rats who "read" the pheromones in the urine of the opposite sex and choose their mates accordingly, a kind of chemical date-matching system.

The difference between us and other mammals, however, is that they search for pheromones actively, sniffing out the mates most likely to create strong offspring, and avoiding those who won't. We on the other hand are completely clueless that any of these chemical conversations are taking place. The communication is entirely unconscious which may help explain why some people fall in love "at first sight." Actually love at first smell may be more accurate.



1.The Kiss and Its History by Kristoffer Nyrop: Singing Tree Press (1968) and A Natural History of the Senses written by Diane Ackerman, Vintage Books. (Return)

2. Women, by the way, who were taking birth control pills and were, therefore, basically infertile, did not prefer shirts belonging to men with complementary immune systems. They preferred men whose systems were similar to theirs. By the way, the women in the test also said that the t-shirts they liked most often reminded them of former boy friends. Is there a pattern here?  (Return)


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