A Not So Moral Molecule

© kentoh | stockfresh.com

© kentoh | stockfresh.com

In 2005 Paul Zak was one of five authors listed for a study published in the journal Nature titled: “Oxytocin increases trust in humans.” They claimed that oxytocin influenced a person’s willingness to accept social risks that occur during interpersonal interactions. The results suggested “an essential role for oxytocin as a biological basis” of positive social behavior. But Zak was just getting started. By 2011 he had published a book about his further investigations of oxytocin and had acquired the nickname of Dr. Love because of his work on oxytocin and relationships. He claimed that oxytocin was the secret biochemical ingredient behind trustworthiness and human morality.

Be sure you get this. Zak is saying that trust, empathy and morality are causally influenced by oxytocin, a hormone secreted by the pituitary gland at the base of the brain.  In a 2011 TED talk entitled: Trust, morality—and oxytocin?, he said: “Within our own biology, we have the yin and yang of morality. . . . We don’t need God or government telling us what to do. It’s all inside of us.” There is a clear reductionistic assumption on what it means to be human behind his interpretation of the various studies of oxytocin done by him and others.  In The Moral Molecule, Zak said:

We are biological creatures, so everything we are emerges from a biological process. Biology, through natural selection, rewards and encourages behaviors that are adaptive, meaning that they contribute to health and survival in a way that produces the greatest number of descendents going forward. Oddly enough, by following that survival-of-the-fittest directive, nature arrives at many of the same moral conclusions offered by religion, namely, that it is often best to behave in a way that is cooperative and, for want of a better word, moral. Nature simply gets to the same place by following a different, and perhaps more universal path.

Science writer Ed Yong has been a particularly vocal critic of Zak’s claims about oxytocin. Here’s a sample of just three of his critical articles. Soon after The Moral Molecule was published, Yong noted in an article for Slate that the problem with the moral molecule idea is that it is a fable. “A more nuanced view of oxytocin is coming to light—one that’s inconsistent with the simplistic ‘moral molecule’ moniker.” He linked to one study that suggested oxytocin boots envy and gloating.

In 2014, for his blog, Yong wrote: “Oxytocin: Still not a Moral Molecule.” He said the  “rose-tinted view” of oxytocin as the “love hormone,” “cuddle chemical” or “moral molecule” was a sham. He said it was of a general social hormone that motivates us to seek out social situations or draws our attention to social cues. “The results can be positive if we find ourselves in the right situation. Change the context, and oxytocin can reveal a dark side to its influence.”

In November of 2015, now writing for The Atlantic, Yong reviewed the history since the fateful 2005 paper on oxytocin was published. While noting that several groups or individuals have shown that sniffing oxytocin can make people more generous, empathetic and constructive, Zak has “repeatedly and misleadingly promoted the substance as a ‘moral molecule.’” He then went on to show where several scientists have shown that the evidence for oxytocin’s positive influence was built on “weak foundations.” He quoted the lead author of the original Nature article on oxytocin as saying none of the other studies cleanly replicated their original one. “We have no robust replications of our original study, and until then, we have to be cautious about the claim that oxytocin causes trust.”

Yong raised the concern that some individuals are now using oxytocin as a therapeutic agent with humans. He ended his article commenting that after decades of work, the so-called “moral molecule” is still more of a mystery molecule. “And that mystery needs to be solved before it finds its way into the clinic.”

Helen Shen wrote a good review of the research into oxytocin for Nature in June of 2015, “Neuroscience: The Hard Science of Oxytocin.” She raised a concern that some doctors are using oxytocin off-label to treat a variety of problems. Shen quoted one of the researchers, Sue Carter, a neuroscientist at Indiana University in Bloomington, as saying that we don’t understand how this hormone work yet; or what happens to someone with repeated use. “This is not a molecule that people should be self-administering or playing with.”

Ed Yong’s concerns with Paul Zak and his simplistic promotion of oxytocin as the “moral molecule” does seem to be well founded. But I wondered how Zak could take such a strong position that morality has a biological foundation. Perhaps his own description of his early years in The Moral Molecule gives us a clue.

Paul Zak’s mother was a nun before she was his mother. She spent four years as a member of the Sisters of Loretto at the Foot of the Cross. He said she took him out of Catholic school because it wasn’t strict enough. He said his upbringing “left no doubt that we are all born in sin and driven by base passions that have to be tightly constrained and relentlessly monitored to keep us from behaving badly.” Zak called this the classic approach to governing human nature that has dominated Western history—a top-down approach full of “dos” and “don’ts.”  Supposedly his mother “based her child-rearing on the assumption that unselfish, moral behavior was impossible without the ever-present threat of punishment, and the more terrifying the better.”

Either Zak or his mother (perhaps both) had a very distorted sense of the theology of original sin. Following from this, was a rigidly legalistic understanding of how humans should morally govern themselves. It seems his portrayal of both his mother and the God he knew growing up was someone who was constantly watching in order to catch you in some misdeed. It would seem that “the ever-present threat of punishment” (physical abuse?) was used to instill an obedience based on fear. If Zak saw this approach as stemming from his mother’s belief in God, no wonder that as an adult, Zak turned to biology for the explanation of why humans are moral, empathetic and trustworthy.

In a powerful little book titled Escape From Reason, Francis Schaeffer described how science today is ruled by a belief in the uniformity of natural causes in a closed system. God, if He exists at all, is outside of the closed system of nature with no influence on—or explanatory power for—what occurs within the closed system of nature. Early scientists believed in the uniformity of natural causes—a philosophical presupposition necessary for anyone to do science. “But what they did not believe in was the uniformity of natural causes in a closed system.” This is what Schaeffer referred to as “modern, modern science.”

The realm of nature is closed to (autonomous from) any nonmaterial realm. God, freedom, love, morals are either irrelevant to what happens in nature and science, or must be explained by natural, scientific means. So Zak believes everything about humanity emerges from biology. There is an evolutionary explanation for why we are moral. “Nature arrives at many of the same moral conclusions offered by religion, namely, that it is often best to behave in a way that is cooperative and, for want of a better word, moral.” Schaeffer took this sense of biochemical determinism to its logical extreme and noted that if humans are determined, then what is, is right.

If all of life is only mechanism—if that is all there is—then morals really do not count. Morals become only a word for a sociological framework. Morals become a means of manipulation by society in the midst of the machine. The word morals by this time is only a semantic connotation word for nonmorals. What is, is right.

This happens, according to Francis Schaeffer, when a non-Christian view of nature excludes the possibility of an absolute or God from having any influence on the universe. “Without an absolute one cannot really have morals as morals.” Everything is then relative. “There is no circle inside which there is right, in contrast to that which is outside the circle and therefore wrong.” Without an absolute standard, there can be no such thing as “right” and “wrong.”

But for the Christian, this is not true. “God does exist, and He has a character; there are things which are outside the commandments He has given us as the expression of His character.”

So what about oxytocin? From a Christian perspective, it cannot be viewed as a moral molecule.  Morality cannot be fully understood or explained within a closed system of nature. However, there appears to be scientific evidence that oxytocin does play a role in social cognition. If the science behind this evidence is done presuming the uniformity of natural causes in an open system of nature—one that allows for the potential influence of something outside of nature upon things existing within nature—then there could be a Christian perspective of oxytocin as a biological correlate to positive social behavior or morality. In other words, moral behavior wouldn’t be caused by higher oxytocin levels, but could be associated with it.