*This was originally intended for last week’s Worldwide Wednesday post (7.18.12), but then I got sucked into the whole Aquaman debacle. You know, priorities and such. Better late than never.
The responsibility of a science writer, aside from, you know, communicating science, is to call out bullcrap when they see it, whether it be bad science or bad science journalism. Consider it self-policing. Or a very public form of peer review. This is what Ed Yong did last week in his takedown of the media’s continuing characterization of oxytocin as the “moral molecule.“
Oxytocin is a hormone that has been long been known to play a role in lactation, sexual arousal, and uterine contractions. However, in 2005, a report was published in Nature demonstrating oxytocin’s ability to increase trust between strangers. Since then, oxytocin has been hyped as the hormone underlying human morality and trust by both the media and Dr. Paul Zak, also affectionately known as Dr. Love given his penchant for giving hugs, who was third–as many have pointed out–author of the 2005 report. Some have even gone as far as branding oxytocin as a potential cure-all drug for many of the world’s ills. As Ed Yong writes in Slate:
“Oxytocin hype might be storming the heavens, but oxytocin science is still finding its footing. Early studies certainly bathed the hormone in a shiny glow, but later ones uncovered a darker side [link mine]. The “love hormone” fosters trust and generosity in some situations but envy and bias in others, and it can produce opposite effects in different people. A more nuanced view of oxytocin is coming to light—one that’s inconsistent with the simplistic “moral molecule” moniker…the hype around oxytocin hurts and exploits vulnerable people. The hormone’s reputed ability to fix social ills has drawn the attention of parents whose children have autism, depression, or other conditions characterised by social problems.”
It should be noted, however, that Dr. Zak was at one time a healthy skeptic of oxytocin. Pondering Dr. Zak’s change of heart, The Neurocritic asks, “What happened in the last few years? Was it the TEDification of academic media success and book deals? Repeated use of the first person singular when referring to work done by a multitude of people?” Is anyone else suffering from TED fatigue?
Who can blame Ed Yong for going after the media’s fixation with oxytocin so doggedly? Just read io9’s “10 Reasons Why Oxytocin Is The Most Amazing Molecule In The World,” which makes this eye-rolling proclamation, “It’s clear that we really wouldn’t be human without it — we would simply lack the ability to be the social, caring species that we are.” Now it’s the “human” molecule, too?
One doesn’t have to look too far beyond the io9 article to see that oxytocin as the seat of human morality might be too simplistic a notion. For example, the article touts many benefits of the hormone, one of which is it’s ability to create sexual arousal. Yet, the paper that is linked in the io9 article discusses not only oxytocin, but also the roles of the hormones testosterone, estrogen, endorphin and prolactin in sexual arousal. Pertaining to obesity, the article states that researchers “have observed that oxytocin and oxytocin receptor-deficient mice become obese later in life.” But obesity has been linked to lower levels of testosterone as well. Furthermore, it has been suggested that testosterone might work in opposition to oxytocin and increase feelings of distrust. All of which illustrates that hormones are complex molecules that have myriad effects on our bodies and behavior. And given that bodily functions and complex behaviors are often times governed by many molecular inputs it would be naive for us to think that oxytocin alone would explain our moral nature.