The Kiss

I went out with a friend. We were both between relationships, and we both knew somehow that this was a date though it was never called a date. And we had a perfectly good time: Good food, good conversation, good drinks. She drove.

When it came time to go home, she drove me to my house in my urban neighborhood and parked on the street near my house. As we were saying our good-byes, she enigmatically unhooked her seat belt. I wondered why. Then, I discovered that she wanted the freedom of movement to lean across the console and give me a kiss. It was a good kiss. It was actually a series of good kisses, and it went on for a while.

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And suddenly, there was a loud rapping on the window of the car. We stopped kissing and that’s when we noticed that we had steamed up the windows a bit. So I cracked the window on which the rapping had occurred and there was a police man staring in with his flashlight.

Now, you have to understand, this is two adults in a car in the city, not teenagers at some remote lover’s lookout in the country side on prom night; This was in a neighborhood where the police never wander around on foot, and certainly never bother the local residents in this manner. Yet, there was the steamy window, the uniformed police officer, and the bright flashlight.

“What can I do for you, officer” I said, thinking, “what is this Joker doing?”

“Ah, sorry to bother you,” realizing he was shining the flashlight in my eyes, diverting it, “I was wondering if you saw anyone coming by here. We’re in pursuit of a burglar.”

I listened for a moment.

“I don’t hear the dog,” I said. “No one has been by here, but if I see someone, I’ll call.”

It is said that you never forget your first kiss. I think I might have. But THAT kiss, I will never forget not only because it was a very warm expression of closeness with someone I love and all that stuff, but because of the over the top comic relief associated with it. I mean really: A cop, a flashlight, a rap on the window???? GMAB!

Anyway, that is one of my favorite personal kiss stories. The Science of Kissing: What Our Lips Are Telling Us, a new book by Sheril Kirshenbaum has a bunch more about kissing, and is a must read for anyone who wants to try out kissing (you may like it) and keep it scientific.

You would think that kissing is pretty basic. A few different animals seem to do it, and we’ve all seen the pictures of chimps kissing. So, humans have always kissed, and it’s a basic feature of our species and we all do it and it’s kind of wet and messy and what else can you really say about it? But if that is what you are thinking, then you need to do two things: a) get more curious and b) remove your Occidento-normative Western Unthinking Cap and learn yourself some perspective.

Kissing is not a human universal. Not all cultures do this. The history of kissing is complex and interesting, to the extent that we know about it. Kissing may or may not be a signal for quality or ability in relation to other activities such as sex. Science has something to say about the efficacy of lip-enhancing behaviors such as gloss and colorizing. And did you know that men and women do not necessarily like the same kind of kissing, at least in some contexts?

Sheril’s book is a fun read and there is no way you will not find it informative. Gender issues and sexuality is an interest of mine (as an evolutionary biologist) so I know a lot of this stuff, but I learned a great deal reading The Science of Kissing. And, it made me think.

To me, the most interesting take-home message from Sheril’s book is that kissing is both a fundamental, primordial form of communication involving the deepest limbic and visceral functions and the most basic social negotiations foundational to human existence, and something that any one group of human can simply do entirely without. The Science of Kissing documents the heterogeneous nature of kissing historically (and by inference prehistorically) and ethnographically, while at the same time demonstrating the nature and mechanics of kissing as an ethological player in the kind of social space where one might also find cringing or punching or swearing or yelling or fearing or other visceral activities.

At first, this seems highly enigmatic, but need not be so. What is needed is to draw kissing down to some of it’s more basic components. What is kissing made up of that could be done some other way that does not add up to actual kissing?

Bodily closeness, face-to-face closeness, exchange of scent and sebaceous substances and possibly more bodily fluids, and so on … some subset of what any Middle Schooler would call “Totally eeww factor” … is probably found in every human culture, much like fried bread is found in every culture.1 There is this list of things humans may do to/with each other in the process of negotiating (or at least playing around with) sex, marriage, or some other reproductive contract, and one way to piece this all together is with the Inuit muzzle rub, or some other activity, or a kiss.

It is also interesting that the kiss has spread over recent time. I wonder if it was very common at times in the past, fell out of favor, and returned, over and over. I am not necessarily being ridiculous when I imagine that the various behavioral accouterments of closeness would be combined, recombined, spread, forgotten, preferred, prohibited, in a kind of Dawkinsonian “River Out Of Eden” of memes, kind of like baby names, with the kiss being at times the species-dominant behavior except here and there, but at other times, rare and exotic found only on some island or in some isolated mountainous region in Portugal. A Ripley’s Believe It or Not entry from 7,600 BC: “Married residents of a remote valley on the Iberian Peninsula greet by clasping each ether’s lips with their own lips! Believe It Or Not!!!

I recommend the book. I suggest you consider it as a gift for your mate on his or her birthday. Or, to your mate as a Valentine’s Day gift! Since Amanda was born on Valentine’s day, I get to do both at the same time!

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1Not really. Fried bread is not really found in every culture. See: Every Culture Has a …

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Comments

  1. #1 Miss Cellania
    January 4, 2011

    Man, for a science blogger, you write a good romance scene!

  2. #2 Greg Laden
    January 4, 2011

    Wait …. it was supposed to be slapstick!

  3. #3 Stephanie Z
    January 4, 2011

    Some of the best romance is the sort that doesn’t take itself too seriously.

  4. #4 KeithB
    January 4, 2011

    Some of the funniest scenes in the various “Thin Man” movies are the romantic ones.

  5. #5 Donna
    January 4, 2011

    Who was the lady?

  6. #6 Greg Laden
    January 4, 2011

    Donna, thanks for the opportunity for me to say that I’m not a kiss and tell kind of guy!

  7. #7 Kaylia
    January 4, 2011

    Sweet!
    I think you are right… I think this will be the perfect gift for my science nerd partner :)

    Great review Greg!

  8. #8 Paul
    January 4, 2011

    I call BS on this story–every man knows that there is no escaping from the “friend” zone.
    &lt/cynicism&gt

    Seriously, though, did you ever see her again?

  9. #9 Greg Laden
    January 4, 2011

    Kaylia: Go for it!

    Paul: Seriously, I don’t kiss and tell.

  10. #10 Warren
    January 4, 2011

    Given what I know of some neighborhoods in some cities in the US, I was expecting there to be another shoe dropping a la “The cop never mentioned it, but he might have been troubled by the fact that my partner was a black woman.” I’m glad that it wasn’t that kind of narrative. There’s too much ethnocentric bigotry afoot as it is.

  11. #11 Elizabeth
    January 4, 2011

    Lovely story, and a must-read.

  12. #12 WMDKitty
    January 5, 2011

    Definitely a must-get for my partner. Love him dearly, but the man could use a refresher course on kissing. -_-;

    (If I wanted to be slobbered on, I’d have gotten a dog.)

  13. #13 Ana
    January 5, 2011

    HAHA! Great story, Greg – what happened next???

    (Good sell, too.)

  14. #14 Greg Laden
    January 5, 2011

    What happened next? Everybody lived happily ever after except the police officer who is still seen wandering the streets looking for his burglar!

  15. #15 BlindWatcher
    January 5, 2011

    Thank you, very interesting.
    As an aside, I almost never kiss my daughter (who’s now 4yrs) but rather “nose-touch”..
    I was never trying to be new-age or anything, it just seemed natural to me, especially as I have a rather large nose.
    It still seems to me, on reflection, a more satisfying & appropriate way of connecting with a child, than kissing. Using the same activity (kissing) in a sexual context & to connect with children is rather weird when you think about it.

  16. #16 StewartP
    January 6, 2011

    When we moved to France from England 7 years ago it was a shock to find stange adults kissing our kids (on the cheek). But after paedophile paranoid Britain even that was shocking.
    Picking up he kids from school (aged between 4 & 10) their frinds would come up to us and stand, faces upturned… What did they want? They were waiting to be kissed.
    On the other hand, lip kissing in France is considered very intimate, reserved only between lovers.

  17. #17 Fred Tracy
    January 9, 2011

    Not only is this subject fascinating, but your writing is AWESOME. I’m glad I found this via the book review carnival. You can count me as a newly made fan.

    p.s., I’ve always found these things fascinating. I’ve read that the biological reason that men like when women wear red lipstick is because their lips are, in general, proportional to – and representative of – their genitalia.

    Thus they paint them red to accentuate certain features. As an evolutionary biologist, whadda ya think? :)

  18. #18 Greg Laden
    January 9, 2011

    OK, maybe, but then, what do men do to … advertise the … qualities … of THEIR genitalia!?!?

  19. #19 StewartP
    January 10, 2011

    Drive Porsches?

  20. #20 Amanda Gulledge
    January 16, 2011

    I enjoyed this – great writing style. Mwah!

  21. #21 Stephen Moore
    January 16, 2011

    Using the same activity (kissing) in a sexual context & to connect with children is rather weird when you think about it. -BlindWatcher

    Not really, when you think about it. Unless one considers is odd to use the same activity to calm a scared child and to express affection to one’s sexual partner, such activity being the caress.

  22. #22 Rob A.
    January 17, 2011

    Just ordered.

  23. #23 Greg Laden
    January 29, 2011

    Take note: http://tinyurl.com/4payl7c … regarding the subject of this post.

  24. #24 Patricia
    February 22, 2011

    I love this story, and the book was OK too.

  25. #25 Lynne Seipp Siegel
    May 19, 2011

    Yowza Greg!

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