An Infant’s Love Lessons

Developmental Cognitive Psychologist
Developmental Psychologist Alison Gopnik makes the case that babies are at the core of what human love is all about, and explains how the lives of animals prove it.
  • Transcript


Question: How can babies teach us about love? 

Alison Gopnik: Well I think it's arguable that babies are literally at the core of what human love is all about, in two respects. We have some good evidence that the very fact that human being parabond [is] actually very unusual. So if you look at a primates, for example, even our closest relatives like chimpanzees—chimpanzees don't have the kind of male/female parabonds that we do. They have a lot of social allegiances and alliances and they have sex but they don't have what's ethologists call social monogamy. Social monogamy—here's the bad news. The bad news is social monogamy is never sexual monogamy, even swans when you do DNA analysis it turns out that all animals have sex outside of their parabonds. So for you young people out there, that's the bad news.

But the good news is that in spite of that we have parabonds. We have close relationships between the people who are having sex and having children. That's actually sort of unusual among primates, although it's quite common among birds and it's common among other animals. That seems to be associated with the fact that we have this extended period of immaturity. So their story seems to be the more invest there is in babies, the more work it takes to raise the babies, the more likely you are to have parabonding, which kind of makes sense. So parabonding is really a technique for getting lots of people involved in caregiving.

Our babies are like penguins; penguin babies can't exist unless more than one person is taking care of them. They just can't keep going. So it's kind of interesting, I think, in our case, we evolved to one of the most important evolutionary changes that led to our advanced intelligence and our creativity and tool use and all the rest of it is having this extended period of immaturity. But the extended period of immaturity depends on techniques that will let [parents] have a lot of investment in babies. So the very fact that we have a love between partners, romantic love, I think is kind of an epiphenomenon of this more basic thing, which is the love we have as caregivers—the investment that we place in our babies. And if you think about that, that kind of love, the love between caregivers and babies [is] much less written about than romantic love. It's a really extraordinary thing.

I say imagine that you had a novel where a woman found someone on the street who couldn't stand and couldn't wash and couldn't take care of himself and the second that she saw him she felt totally and completely utterly in love with him and then she dedicated her life to him for the next 15 years and did everything. I mean, literally. Fed him and raised him and woke up in the middle of the night and tended to him when he was ill and then 15 years later she said, "Go and find yourself a nice young to go and marry." You'd say, "Boy, that's creepy." That's love that's kind of so out there it's really weird, right? But of course that's every single mother. That's exactly what we all do. That's our lives as mothers and fathers and great-uncles and anybody who cares for a baby; that's what it's like.

And in fact, I think if you look at some of the examples of in the spiritual traditions about the kind of love that bodhisattvas are supposed to feel, or saints are supposed to feel, or others are supposed to feel. An idea that you see a lot in religion traditions about the highest [love] God is supposed to feel. The highest form of spiritual love is this love that has this combination of utter particularity.

So it's not just kind of abstractly I love mankind; it's I love this person with that kind of intensity and utterly selfless that I love this person so much that they're more important than I am. And bodhisattvas go around allegedly, in the Buddhist tradition, loving every single sentient creature on earth that way. And I think the model for that is the way all us fallible, every day boring human beings feel about the babies we take care of. And if we don't, there is something really terribly wrong. It's funny -- I was thinking I have my dearly beloved partner and I think that I take pretty good care of him but that means, you know, I cook him dinner and we spend an hour or two talking in the evening and then I let him alone all during the day. Well that counts as being pretty good loving care for a partner. If I did that with a baby, I would be a hideously abusive mother. So even a bad caregiver is already devoting care to this person that would be literally saintly if you were devoting it to anybody else. And you do it not knowing what this baby is going to be like. It doesn't depend on their particular features; you have no idea what the baby is going to be like. And we do it every day, routinely, without even thinking about it or paying much attention to it. So one of the things I say is there are lots of ways to have -- be saintly and love outside of having babies but boy having a baby is a good way to very quickly and officially experience a little bit of saintliness.


Question: Is there a gradation in the ability of animals to feel love based on development speed?


Alison Gopnik: Well there is actually quite a lot of interesting data about this. So if you look across animals, there is this distinction between our species and K species. K species, the ones who have relatively few offspring, invest a lot in those offspring and long period of immaturity for those offspring. Those are typically the most intelligent, flexible learning-oriented animals. So if you compare the great class comparison is between crows and chickens. So no morals, things about primates and chimps and humans enter into this. Crows are amazingly smart birds. They have abilities that challenge the cognitive abilities of primates and they have a very long period of immaturity. Chickens are basically dumb as stumps; I mean, they are really, really good at doing things like pecking for grain and doing the things they have to but they're not smart and they are mature very quickly. That seems to be a correlation that you see across many, many, many different animals. So but I think part of what happens is that if you look at other animals, like wolfs or hyenas—we are actually doing some work with wolfs now—not that you don't see love, you see lots of social allegiances and social complexities and in chimps you see lots of social allegiances and complexities but they have a kind of different characters. So they are more like what happens in a bunch of friends; so they're about how do you interact with a lot of other members of your species to get something done. That is something that primates do a lot and primates are, I think that living as a chimp is a lot like kind of being in a trollop or a Jane Austin novel where everybody's always saying, "Now where am I on the pecking order in comparison to everybody else who is on the pecking order? What's the relationship between the Baronets and the gentry?" That's kind of like what I think life as a chimp is. So it's clear that chimps love and they have these -- and chimp mothers clearly have very, very deep particular love for their babies. But I think it's very different from the way that creatures like us are oriented to love.

Recorded on: October 8, 2009