Oxytocin scientist studies what makes humans good and evil |.
(morality may be a female hormone….)
Paul Zak has become one of the world’s most prominent experts on oxytocin . Long known as a female reproductive hormone – it plays a central role in childbirth and breastfeeding – oxytocin emerges from Zak’s research as something much more all-embracing: the “moral molecule” behind all human virtue, trust, affection and love, “a social glue”, as he puts it, “that keeps society together”.
The subtitle of his book, The Moral Molecule, “ the new science of what makes us good or evil”, gives a sense of the scale of his ambition, which involves nothing less than explaining whole swaths of philosophical and religious questions by reference to a single chemical in the bloodstream. Being treated decently, it turns out, causes people’s oxytocin levels to go up, which in turn prompts them to behave more decently, while experimental subjects given an artificial oxytocin boost – by means of an inhaler – behave more generously and trustingly..
“Human beings are almost the only animals who regularly want to be around strange members of our species,” Zak says. “We kind of dig it! It’s fun! But to be able to do that, we have to have something in our heads that says: ‘Oliver is safe, Bob is not safe.’ And that’s oxytocin – this very old, evolutionarily ancient molecule” that helps us respond to being trusted with just the right degree of reciprocal trust in response. Zak’s earlier work had established that trust is a crucial precondition for economic prosperity (to conduct transactions, you have to be able to trust others) but also a result of it (once you’re no longer fighting for basic subsistence, you can afford to trust more). Now, he had located the biological mechanism through which this all worked. The Golden Rule – treat others as you’d like to be treated – is, Zak writes, “a lesson that the body already knows”.
This talk of mixing science and morality prompts suspicion in some quarters: just because something is “natural” doesn’t mean it is “right”, in an ethical sense, and efforts to derive codes of moral conduct from science rarely end well. (Sam Harris’s recent book, The Moral Landscape: how science can determine human values, is one such car crash: all it really shows is how science could be used to help construct Harris’s version of a perfect society, which isn’t the same point at all.)
Moreover, it is unclear what Zak means when he says oxytocin, or the lack of it, “makes” us good or evil. This is the same problem as with news reports about scientists discovering the part of the brain “responsible for” risk-taking, or greed, or a belief in God: just because you have found the biological underpinnings of some phenomenon, it does not necessarily follow that you have found “the real cause” of it. Still, none of that undermines the most potent aspect of Zak’s work, which is the pragmatic one. If oxytocin is the mechanism through which moral action takes place, that holds out the possibility – a cause of either optimism or alarm, depending on how you look at it – that by manipulating oxytocin, we might boost the levels of trust, generosity, and ultimately happiness in ourselves and the world at large.
…Ultimately, one imagines, the oxytocin-savvy citizens of Zak’s version of utopia would live on a local scale, supported by a social
safety net, but with a focus on charity work and community groups. They would play with their pets, and watch romantic comedies. Perhaps above all, they would be very touchy-feely, and hug each other all the time – which makes you wonder whether, in Britain, the prescriptions of Dr (Zak) Love might not be a bit of a lost cause.