If you were a fan of this from us about oxytocin, this piece from science writer Ed Yong makes an excellent follow-up:
Imagine a molecule that underlies the virtues that glue societies together. Imagine that it brought out the better angels of our nature with just a sniff and could “rebond our troubled world.” Imagine that it was the “source of love and prosperity” and explained “what makes us good and evil.”
Well, carry on imagining. This is a story about oxytocin, and oxytocin is not that molecule.
You could be forgiven for thinking otherwise. For almost a decade, this simple hormone has been relentlessly hyped as a one-ingredient recipe for a utopian society. This molecular high-five, which is released when we hug, tweet, dance, and orgasm, has been linked to trust, cooperation, empathy and a laundry list of other virtues. Io9 anointed oxytocin “the most amazing molecule in the world.” Other writers have added alliteration to breathlessness and billed oxytocin as the “cuddle chemical,” “hug hormone,” and “moral molecule.”
That last one adorns the cover of a new book by Paul Zak, the self-described “Dr. Love” who hugs everyone he encounters. He was recently profiled by Oliver Burkeman in the Guardian, the latest episode in a long flirtation with the media in which he regularly expounds on oxytocin’s supposed wonders. You can see why journalists love him. He’s charming, handsome, and infused with that “big ideas” aesthetic that TED so adores. When he delivered his own TED talk in July 2011, he unabashedly claimed that he had found the molecule behind why we’re moral.
The problem with the moral molecule idea is that it turns science—messy, complex, frustrating as it is—into a tidy fable. It’s a bit too … well … TED-dy. It not only tells people what they want to hear but also makes them feel delightfully subversive for understanding the secret simplicity of the world. One molecule underlies morality? Seems far-fetched, but not impossible. Hugs can change the world? Everyone likes hugs! We can counter our imps of the perverse by breathing in the right molecule? Yahtzee!
But these bold words are not backed by equally bold evidence. Oxytocin hype might be storming the heavens, but oxytocin science is still finding its footing.
Read the rest at Slate here.