cover image The Moral Molecule: 
The Source of Love and Prosperity

The Moral Molecule: The Source of Love and Prosperity

Paul J. Zak. Dutton, $26.95 (256p) ISBN 978-0-525-95281-7

Is it possible to locate a single biological element that might explain why some people are good and others are evil? Economic psychologist and neuroscientist Zak (Claremont Graduate University) says “yes” in a book that is by turns stimulating and reductionist. Starting in 2001, he and his colleagues conducted experiments on men and women in various countries and economic circumstances, isolating a single chemical—oxytocin—as the key to moral behavior. Oxytocin is known primarily as a female hormone responsible for the peaceful attention that mothers give to newborns during breastfeeding. Testosterone blocks oxytocin, which Zak presents as explaining gender differences in cooperative behavior; he also explains why trauma victims have trouble connecting emotionally: oxytocin production is shut down, as it is from early childhood abuse or neglect. Through his experiments, Zak discovers that a simple sign of trust from one person can trigger a surge of oxytocin in someone else, eliciting trusting behavior in return. Zak admits that other factors play a role in fashioning morality. Even so, he demonstrates the intriguing possibility that oxytocin orchestrates the generous and caring behavior we all endorse as moral. Agent: Linda Loewenthal, David Black Literary Agency. (May)