This is something I've pondered today. Could the thing we call love, that all-pervasive love, the stuff that makes us "human" ... could it be just ... a meme?

AFAIK, romantic love is a relatively new notion in human society (relatively new being not more than too many centuries old).

I invite all the intellectuals and philosophers of Everything to comment on this. share your views on this. and maybe we'll all learn something from the process.


Let's think of other examples of memes: language (and possibly therefore thought?), compassion, hate, friendship, evil, good, passionate kisses, music, reality... The company of memes is not bad company to keep.

What is inherent in a human?

Ah good point, novalis. Romantic love is definitely a meme. I suppose that the question of 'real' love's memeness depends on your beliefs on the nature of thought, and perhaps also on spirituality. Supreme cynics will say that love is simply a promotion of a good thing happening to the organism, just like any other thing the organism experiences. Supremely gullible people will say that love is what makes the world go 'round. IMHO, it's somewhere in between.

Romantic love, and all of its trappings may be a meme. Love is not. Ever been in love? It's a feeling. Not a thought. Likewise, religions are memes. Some aspects of spirituallity/faith (see Eric Raymond's article on why he is a witch) are not memetic.

We need to clarify three things: what is love; what is romantic love; what is a meme. I don't intend to tackle any of these in detail here, this is just passing thoughts.

Love, (as opposed to the cultural trappings inherent in the presumption that romantic love is something different) is of course fundamentally biological, and we could go to chimpanzees and bonobos here, but I'd rather not. Nor do I know any ethnographic studies of how far-flung peoples experience love (we'll draw a veil over Margaret Mead). Obviously bonding going with sexual pleasure has had a powerful effect in our evolutionary history, and it manifests itself as the feeling of love.

Or rather, three feelings. You can (to some extent) separate out three biological components: of course, often they co-occur and are intermingled. Some hormones, like testosterone and IIRC oestrogen regulate the sex drive, or lust. Others, like serotonin, keep us in a happy mood when we're with the beloved and make us pine to be with them when we're not. Then vasopressin and oxytocin create a feeling of unity, bonding, bliss: they also occur in childbirth and in orgasm.

The original poster, alex.tan, repeated the idea that romantic love was a relatively new idea in human society, a few centuries old. (BTW, at the time I write, there is no node for romantic love as such, so it's up for grabs.) This is a common... yes, I'll say it, a common misperception. Or misunderstanding, perhaps better. The name of 'romantic' is mediaeval in origin. The troubadours and trouvères and Minnesinger from about 1100 sang tales of King Arthur and his court, of fair ladies and noble knights. This was a new genre of story, and its invention may be attributed to them, recent in human history.

(Digression. It was called Romantic because it was in the language of the Roman Empire: but not the learned version used by scholars and clerks, but the vernacular spoken across the Roman Empire: Italy, Gaul, Spain. By this date these vernacular dialects had diverged so much from the original Latin of a thousand years previously, and indeed from each other, that they were what we now recognize as separate languages: Old French, Old Provençal, Old Spanish, Old Italian. However, they didn't know that then, and they called the popular language Roman. A tale told in Roman was called a romance.)

If you expect your love life to contain knights in shining armour, see The myth of romantic love. But I don't think many of us do. Not on E2 anyway, us elite :-P

Love, passionate, consuming love that makes you ache and carve your beloved's name on trees and pine away and go into fits of anger and misery, that sort of love that we all do know, has an older pedigree.

In the Golden Age of Latin, the time of Caesar and Virgil, the love poem in the modern sense, with all that we recognize in ourselves, was being invented by Catullus. His mistress was Clodia Pulchra, whom he called Lesbia in his works, and she led him a merry dance, as no doubt he did her, but that was as romantic as you could wish. We haven't worked out much more about it than Catullus and Lesbia knew and felt.

(Tom Stoppard's recent play The Invention of Love is about A.E. Housman, the scholar who worked on Catullus's fellow love elegist Propertius. He has Housman say that Catullus actually invented them: the specific form of poetry, the elegy, though certainly not the feeling. The love poem had to be invented, like the magnetic compass and the fountain pen, before anyone could use it, and Catullus was the one who did that.)

Catullus's poetic inspiration was Sappho, greatest of all lyric poets, creator of the most beautiful and sensuous poetry of all time: read To a Young Girl and be ravished.

A meme is an idea whose manifestation helps cause it to be reproduced. If you see someone else in love, a young couple swinging each other around in a park, gazing enraptured into each other's eyes… all that guff… do you ever think it might be nice to have that? If so, to that extent love is memetic.

... all that guff... do you ever think it might be nice to have that? If so, to that extent love is memetic.

Sorry, but that's like saying that the fact that one can feel hunger while watching others enjoy food makes hunger memetic. One can only take Dawkins so far - hunger is still a biological function, in the same way that sex is (while watching others make love, e.g. in a movie, one might feel a sexual urge).

We mustn't forget that the study of memetics itself is a meme - a very successful one with people who pride themselves on their intellectual prowess and understanding, because it provides an extra layer of opportunity to view the world in a rationalist manner. It is not, however, a carved in stone fact of the universe, not even to the often debated extent which the theory of evolution is.

As such I would say that the question in the title of this node is not even a valid starting point for a discussion of love. First one must ask oneself, to which extent do memetics in general apply to non-rational, subjective feelings? How much is one prepared to accept that an external stimulus is able to provoke an emotion in one?

It's all very well to say that certain emotions are "caused" by certain hormones - but all we know for a fact is that those hormones are present in people who give the subjective evidence of experiencing an emotion. While I am not out to discredit the study of hormonal function, a question almost begs itself: what happens within the human mind to turn a chemical reaction into an all consuming passion? What is emotion, what is it made of, what distillable qualities does it have?

Love is older even than Roman lyricism - as Gritchka rightly points out, it was prevalent in Helenic myth and was worshipped as a god (see Plato's "The Feast"). There are still more mentions of it in the OT and in Egyptian and Mesopotamian literature.

Although it is my personal belief that love is a force of its own, akin to highly stilized ideas of a benevolent God, that is not the case I'm making here today. What I think important in these surroundings and in this company is to provide people with an alternative to the practice of analyzing human existence beyond the point of instinctive recognition - alienating what, whether real or perceived, is at the foundation of our very being.

In slightly less pretentious terms - who cares? Love is good.

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