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Did a Hormone Create Human Civilization?

Researcher Paul Zak thinks so, and he's proving it by taking blood samples from all sorts of people, from a bride and groom on their wedding day to tribal warriors in Papua New Guinea as they prepare to perform traditional rituals. He's looking for levels of oxytocin, known as the "love chemical."

Oxytocin was long known as a female reproductive hormone that plays a central role in childbirth and breastfeeding, and it creates successful dads as well, since it wells up when new fathers touch or play with their babies. Taking care of babies used to be strictly women's work, but it isn't anymore, which may help explain why fatherhood has changed so much in the last 100 years, from the father being the strict, rule-giver to the father becoming "Daddy," a playmate and caregiver.  Oxytocin emerges from Zak's research as something much more all-embracing: the "moral molecule" behind all human virtue, trust, affection and love, "a social glue," as he puts it, "that keeps society together."

In the July 15th edition of the Guardian, Paul Burkeman quotes Zak as saying, "Human beings are almost the only animals who regularly want to be around strange members of our species. But to be able to do that, we have to have something in our heads that says: 'Oliver is safe, Bob is not safe.' And that's oxytocin--this very old, evolutionarily ancient molecule" that helps us respond to being trusted with just the right degree of reciprocal trust in response. Zak calls it "a social glue that keeps society together."

Burkeman quotes him as saying, "To me, this is the basis for civilization: a bunch of strangers living together. And once you have civilization, you can have specialization of labor, you can have surplus; you can have university professors, and priests, because now you can afford that, and then you get the advancement of knowledge."

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