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The Trust Molecule

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Researcher Paul Zak has this essay in the weekend WSJ:

Could a single molecule--one chemical substance--lie at the very center of our moral lives?

Research that I have done over the past decade suggests that a chemical messenger called oxytocin accounts for why some people give freely of themselves and others are coldhearted louts, why some people cheat and steal and others you can trust with your life, why some husbands are more faithful than others, and why women tend to be nicer and more generous than men. In our blood and in the brain, 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.

Fascinating stuff.  In criminal law terms, of course, the defense sees every advance in the knowledge of the biology of behavior as a chance to create a new defense.  We are all just driftwood on the ocean of chemistry rather than free agents with free will, and therefore it is wrong to punish.  I suppose a "lack of oxytocin made me do it" defense is around the corner.

That is not a reason to oppose research, of course.  That is a reason to be aware of both the research and its limitations so as to oppose the extrapolation of it to reach unwarranted conclusions.  When all is said and done, all of us except the truly insane still choose to do what we do.

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