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The Moral Molecule: the new science of what makes us good or evil Hardcover – 24 May 2012


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Product details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Bantam Press (24 May 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0593067495
  • ISBN-13: 978-0593067499
  • Product Dimensions: 16.1 x 2.4 x 24 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 307,574 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Review

"Paul Zak tells the remarkable story of how he discovered and explored the biochemistry of sympathy, love and trust with the narrative skill of a novelist. Philosophy, economics and biology have rarely been so entertaining" (Matt Ridley, author of "Genome")

"An ancient mammalian molecule prods us to bond with others. Paul Zak offers a most engaging account of this important discovery, bound to overthrow traditional thinking about human behavior, including economics and morality" (Frans de Waal, author of "The Age of Empathy")

"Paul Zak's investigations into the best things in life are inspired, rigorous, and tremendous fun. We need more daring economists like him" (Tyler Cowen, author of "The Great Stagnation" and "An Economist Gets Lunch")

"An engaging read" (BBC Focus)

Book Description

The Moral Molecule takes an entirely fresh scientific look at one of the biggest questions in life: are we born good or evil and exactly what drives the way we behave?

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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Hande Z on 29 May 2012
Format: Hardcover
This book is about the hormone oxytocin (which is principally a female hormone but also present in the male). This hormone is the molecule referred to in the title of the book. "Am I actually saying that a single molecule...accounts for why some people give freely of themselves and others are coldhearted bastards, why some people cheat and steal and others you can trust with your life, why some husbands are more faithful than others, and, by the way, why some women tend to be more generous - and nicer - than men?" asks the author Paul Zak. "In a word, yes" he answers.

This molecule as Zak calls it, is a "feel good" hormone that increases when we do simple, feel good things like giving or receiving a hug, or when we give generously. The act of giving stimulates this hormone resulting in the recipient desiring to trust the giver. Zak explains that there is also a counter hormone ("testosterone") which he calls the "bad boy" hormone that increases the impulse to take risk and behave badly. However, testosterone is necessary for physical courage and strength. Thus, the mammalian animal evolved with these two hormones balancing each other and so many of the unusual behavior Zak says, can be attributed to an imbalance of those hormones.

From the general effects and the origin of this hormone in the evolutionary process, Zak discusses specific topics such as the effect of oxytocin deprivation in orphans. He also discusses the influence of oxytocin inclining people to religion. Zak believes, however, that religion serves a useful purpose regardless of whether God exists or not.
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Format: Hardcover
You wait years for a book on empathy and two come out within days. But the contrast with Simon Baron-Cohen’s book Zero Degrees of Empathy could not be greater. The Moral Molecule is popular science as rumbustious personal story telling – it is a highly enjoyable exploration of Paul Zak’s journey from economist to neurobiologist and of his almost obsessive interest in the molecule oxytocin and its influence on trust and empathy – in effect on human goodness.

Although oxytocin is the star, this is a tale of two molecules, with testosterone in the black hat to oxytocin’s white. Testosterone it seems doesn’t just counter oxytocin’s beneficial effects, it encourages us towards behaviour that could be considered evil – though to be fair to Zak things are nowhere near so black and white in reality: we need both for different reasons. But Zak makes a wonderful fist of selling the benefits of the trust and empathy that arise from an oxytocin high (even though I’m not sure I’m sold on Zak’s enthusiasm for hugs).

The final part of the book is a bit of a let down. Up to then it has been a romp of a story with lots of experiments and their outcomes. For the final section it settles down to Zak’s analysis of the likes of religion and business with an ‘oxytocin rules’ hat on. Still interesting, but much less engaging.

I really thought for the first few pages this would be one of those wince-making books where a scientist features himself as star, but actually it’s one of the best popular science books I’ve read this year. Recommended.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By A Name on 5 Sep 2012
Format: Hardcover
Unsurprisingly, because this book is written by a researcher it focuses almost entirely on his own research into oxytocin. As a result there has been criticism that the book presents its conclusions in a very black and white sense, when the reality is that oxytocin's effects are just part of a far more complex puzzle of why humans do what they do.

However with that in mind the book is very compelling and because Zak did not originally train as a biological scientist gives a good insight into how you would go about designing social experiments, which few popular science books manage to do well. He tells good stories well and gets his points across with flair. Other writers about neurobiology could really learn a lot from how he's written this book.

With the caveat that the hype around "oxytocin" is set to become this decade's "pheremone" obsession, it's still very worth the read. But be sure to put it in the bigger picture of human behaviour. The results Zak gets are interesting and his style is fun but we are nowhere near unlocking the secrets of society and morality quite yet.
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