This Valentine’s Day, the lovelorn would do well to consult psychology Prof. Barbara Smuts, who literally wrote the book on love – baboon love, that is. Surprisingly, however, the many field studies described in Smuts’s book, “Sex and Friendship in Baboons,” hold many lessons for lovers both simian and Homo sapiens.

Angela Cesere
Photo Illustration by Steven tai and David Tuman

For one thing, courting a girl takes more than just dinner and a movie. In fact, research suggests that one way to enhance your relationship is to be friendly – constantly friendly.

In her book, which first appeared in the mid-1980s, Smuts suggests that understanding the relationship between sex and friendship is the most important aspect of understanding reproductive and courtship strategies. For example, female baboons prefer to mate with males who have been friendly with them and their offspring in the past.

Smuts’s extensive fieldwork is crucial to making these conclusions. In an article she wrote for the New York Times, she describes an intimate encounter. “I once stumbled upon an infant baboon huddled in the corner of a cage at the local research station. A colleague had rescued him after his mother was strangled by a poacher’s snare.”

“Although he was kept in a warm, dry spot and fed milk from an eyedropper, within a few hours his eyes had glazed over; he was cold to the touch and seemed barely alive. We concluded he was beyond help,” Smuts added.

“Reluctant to let him die alone, I took his tiny body to bed with me. A few hours later I was awakened by a bright-eyed infant bouncing on my stomach. My colleague pronounced a miracle,” Smuts said of her experience.

Smuts found that this experience was an example of a theory formulated by the late, prominent, psychologist Harry Harlow of the University of Wisconsin. He suggested that all the baboon needed “was a little contact comfort.”

The story supports Harlow’s theory that “wounded (monkey) souls, if paired with a very young female monkey, could be slowly coaxed back into connection with others,” Smuts added.

Smuts also explored the relevance and significance of this finding about baboon interactions in similar male-female relationships among humans. It is not hard to extend the theory to humans who are deprived of adequate love after being inflicted with extreme trauma.

Fortunately, this is not how students are usually forced to deal with everyday relationships, but the finding suggests the importance of physical interaction to maintaining a personal relationship.

One classical theory of love predicts that humans choose their mates solely according to physical traits. Physical fitness would presumably be a product of good genes; by mating with a fit individual, we will be assured that our children have the best possible traits and thus the best possibility of passing on our own genes.

Additionally, several researchers have shown that when two animals engage in a mating ritual, two neurotransmitters, or signaling molecules – vasopressin and oxytocin – are released in the brain. They then bind preferentially in “reward centers” of the brain, making romantic interactions more pleasurable.

Some research has even suggested that monogamous mammals have higher levels of vasopressin signals in their reward centers. This indicates that their pleasure systems were more highly activated than non-monogamous species.

Through two years of field study on long-term friendships between males and females, Smuts showed that social interactions between friendly pairs of baboons were different from interactions of other members of the baboon society.

She concluded that it was the friendship between two animals that led to an increase in mating preference.

As Smuts develops more and more complex theories about social interactions among animals, she hopes to contribute greater understanding to human relationships and the role of communication.

And in an age of technologically-assisted love – from coy emails to coded text messages to constant streams of instant messages – Smuts wants to get to the heart of the question.

“How do other animals develop trusting relationships in the absence of spoken language?”

But that’s the subject of another study.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *