Of Lust and Lions

Where is he going 2.jpg

This lion looks to me like he is going somewhere with quite a purposeful stride, like a parent moving to discipline a child, or a manager heading in to sort out trouble at the office. . . or (yes!) a male lion following a female who has flirtatiously summoned him for a bit of private dancing.

I was actually surprised when the ranger, seeing the female first, said, "Oh look. She's flirting! Look for the male." Sure enough, there he was, rising from his drowsy midday nap in the shade of a tree. . . unable to not obey her summons. He followed along behind her and she quickened her pace, occasionally glancing over her shoulder to encourage him along. She kept walking. He seemed to wish that she didn't require such a long walk in the heat ("it will be worth it," she seemed to be saying!). He looked as though he could drop his heavy hot mane down in the dust, but he kept walking ("she's right, it will be worth it").

She leads him on.jpg

Both lions were responding to the circuitry for lust buried deep in their mammalian brains, the urge to merge that all mammals share, an urge that is closely related to the seeking system in the brain and also to the care or social bonding system. But although lust shares some space with these other two systems, it has its own distinct niche in the brains, bodies, and behaviors of animals.

When neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp describes the seven affective systems in the brain, of which lust is one, he makes clear that what he means is a location in the brain that is associated with specific neurochemicals and behaviors. From this, we can strongly infer that all animals share very similar internal experiences of feeling (yes, feeling!). Like this: the way lust feels for me is the way lust feels for most animals. There is a great range of behavior that goes with this basic lust urge in humans, and in other animals as well. Some animals, such as dolphins and orangutans, appear to force themselves sometimes on unwilling partners. Others—like swans and prairie voles, and wolves and beavers—mate for life in an affectionate partnership that forms the shape of their entire adult lives. And many animals are somewhat opportunistic in their expression of sexual behavior: they take what they can get.

Whatever the shape of the sexual behavior and its social bonds and meanings, it's clear that lust is a powerful force in almost every animal's life. Yes, we're used to talking about animals in terms of their "mating behaviors." It may be a little harder to own up to the fact that we too are driven by this thing called lust. . . and it's not just about reproduction, for us or for them. It's too easy to project that kind of animal quality of sexuality on to the other animals and claim the turf of relationship for our kind.

But if you stop to think about how much of your own life energy, and that of people you know, has been spent either pursuing sexual experiences or relationships or attempting to control the urge to pursue them, you will likely agree that this single urge allows for a big window on understanding the other animals. For they too are compelled by it, in equally complex ways. For them and for us, lust is a primary motivator. For us and for them, it's about mating and relating. Listen to Panksepp for a moment: "In all mammals, sexuality is promoted by provocative skin contact prior to direct sexual stimulation. Often, the prelude to satisfying sexuality consists of abundant playful courting activities, along with somatosensory stimulation that typically culminates in genital stimulation" (The Archaeology of Mind, page 265). Recognize this? Yes, I thought so.

Let's come back full circle to the question behind this whole series of posts: can we really understand one another across species boundaries? Well, yeah. Think about this: it stands to reason that if you've been an animal engaged in courtship, you can genuinely understand something about another animal engaged in courtship. And you will also recognize—and feel in your own body—the utter tenderness and care demonstrated in my last image of that particular hot day's encounter, below.

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