The Moral Molecule: The Biology And Science Of Kindness
It is the oldest and most universally recognized moral principle, codified more than 2,000 years ago by the Jewish sage Hillel the Elder: “Whatsoever thou wouldst that men should not do to thee, do not do that to them. This is the whole Law. The rest is only explanation.” The explanation of morality was the subject of intense theological and philosophical disputation well before Hillel, of course, and has been ever since. Lately scientists have begun weighing in with naturalistic views of the matter, and now their cause has been joined by Paul J. Zak with “The Moral Molecule” and Christopher Boehm with “Moral Origins.”
Mr. Zak, an economist and pioneer in the new science of neuroeconomics, has built his reputation on research that has identified the hormone oxytocin as a biological proxy for trust. As he documents, countries whose citizens trust one another gain economically, enjoying a higher gross domestic product, on average, than countries where lower levels of trust exist. Mr. Zak explains that trust is built through mutually beneficial exchanges that result in higher levels of oxytocin.
How does he know this? By studying blood samples taken from participants in economic-exchange games administered by researchers as well as from people in real-world encounters. “The Moral Molecule” is an engaging popular account of Mr. Zak’s decade of intense research into how oxytocin evolved for one purpose—pair bonding and attachment in social mammals—but had the bonus effect of cementing a sense of trust among strangers.