Saturday, April 28, 2012

Can One Molecule Bring Virtuous Morality?

Paul J. Zak, author of "The Moral Molecule" would have us believe that just one little molecule: oxytocin, can bring humanity much greater morality (WSJ Review, today, 'The Trust Molecule' p. C1). In this short WSJ piece, basically a distillation of his book, he attempts to show the degree to which just a little bit more oxytocin in our lives could make some of us  (who'd otherwise remain churlish rogues and curmudgeons) more trusting, optimistic and generous.  As he puts it:

"In our blood and brains, oxytocin appears to be the chemical elixir that creates bonds of trust not just in our intimate relationships but also in our business dealings, in politics and in society at large."

Ahhh, just imagine then a congress in DC that actually works together harmoniously most of the time as opposed to incessantly jabbing for political one-upmanship. And a government that actually works for the people, as opposed to subjugating their interests too often to corporations.  Imagine also, Wall Street traders that worked for their clients' benefit for once, as opposed to exploiting them while calling them "dumb order flow" or "chickens to be plucked". Imagine - be still my heart- doctors who actually worked to first and foremost enhance their patients' best health outcomes as opposed to making extra bucks by finding problems that aren't there.

It's almost a dream come true! Hell, a Repub congress under the influence of an oxytocin nasal hit (for each one) might then yesterday have voted outright to approve letting the interest on the student Stafford loans remain at 3.8% with no strings, as opposed to gouging women's Wellness programs to get the $5.8 b to pay for the loans interest status quo for a year. Instead, the House bill demands all women's screening, including for mammograms and pap smears be cut!  Help the students, screw the women! (And if this doesn't reinforce the point that the GOP is waging a war on women, I don't know what will! I mean, the first thing they think of to defray the cost of keeping the interest the same on student loans is cutting women's health screenings? How 'bout closing corporate tax loopholes?)

Such a moral cure for Repuke hijinks would also be kind of ironic in this case given,  as Zak writes, that oxytocin is "known primarily as a female reproductive hormone".  For example, it's the hormone that secretes in lactation, which spurs on the continued inclination to lactation and also "is responsible for the calm, focused attention that mothers lavish on their babies while breat feeding". Those breast fed babies in turn, tend to grow up to be more likely to trust others, and access higher oxytocin levels. (Which leaves those of us who were bottle-fed for whatever reason, out in the cold! (:

In the article, Zak then goes on to briefly describe a set of experiments he and colleagues performed in 2001, wherein a synthetic oxytocin was "sprayed in subjects' nasal passages- a way to get it directly into their brains". The responses in terms of generosity (by money- giving) were then noted, measured and in every case in which there weren't unseen impediments (i.e. oxytocin receptors malfunctioning) the subjects responded in the positive.

Zak later elaborates by noting that increased oxytocin doesn't render one a continuous, total sheep (which would be very bad in a world replete with wolves) but rather "helps us to maintain our balance between behavior based on trust and behavior based on wariness and distrust."

Unfortunately, Zak doesn't go much into the latter behavior or why it emerges, especially in those suffering PTSD (post-traumatic stress syndrome) especially developed in childhood trauma or war. He doesn't explain that in such people, it is the brain's amygdala which is sensitized, leading one to be wary and hyper-alert almost 100% of the time. Nor does he relate whether (in such further tests-experiments) any synthetic oxytocin ever caused the amygdala's relentless warning radars to abate (say using PET, or SPECT-scans) in affected subjects.

The conclusion one must take away, in the absence of such further experiments, is that the addition of one chemical  - even an alleged "trust" chemical- is unlikely to make much of a difference.  The main reason? Human morality plausibly evolved over millions of years, and putatively commenced when there was little or no trust hormone in the primitive brain.

For example, in the era of 1.1 to 1.2 million years ago it was common practice for our primitive human ancestors to leave the weak, frail and elderly for the saber tooth tigers. They otherwise would have slowed up the nomadic hunting tribe(s) and made them more susceptible to extinction en masse. Thus it served group survival value. But by the time of widespread agriculture, perhaps 10,000 years ago, group survival value was enhanced by cooperation. In the agri-setting, then, there was much more in the way of contribution each member could make - not just the very strong. There was more reason to keep all alive. The earliest morality then was based on the preservation of the tribe or community, and it largely remains so. A single molecule isn't likely to overturn 1-plus million years of such evolution.

Add to this the other fact that in the course of brain evolution many atavistic structures remain from our primitive past and still militate against moral advancement.  Thus, the reticular formation retains its hold over much human behavior via territoriality, lust and outright aggression. In effect, it's unlikely that merely spraying humans with a synthetic oxytocin will make them less likely to wage war, invade other nations, or enslave the vulnerable.

What we really need then, is another quantum jump in brain evolution, but as Sagan has noted (see: 'The Dragons of Eden'), this will likely have to wait another million years- if we last that long!

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