Oxytocin is Not Enough

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Oxytocin is Not Enough

By Ken Shapiro, Ph.D. on Animals and Society Institute
November 2009

What is going on here: (1) there is nothing to explain - as the chicken crossed the road to get to the other side, Tosca jumped on the recliner to get her ears rubbed; (2) the interaction is only intelligible as a careful and loving mutual relationship; or, (3) Tosca and I are getting our daily oxytocin fix?

It is work break time and I take to my recliner for a mini and, ‘imagine my surprise,' before I can wink off, Tosca, bless her canine heart, comes for a rub, snuggle, and mutual snooze. What is going on here: (1) there is nothing to explain - as the chicken crossed the road to get to the other side, Tosca jumped on the recliner to get her ears rubbed; (2) the interaction is only intelligible as a careful and loving mutual relationship; or, (3) Tosca and I are getting our daily oxytocin fix?

Meg Daley Olmert's Made for each other: The biology of the human-animal bond (De Capo, 2009) is a must read. As the subtitle indicates, it is a popular account of recent research purporting to describe the neurobiological foundation of interpersonal relationships, both those within and across species.

Oxytoxin is a neurochemical found in all mammals and first identified in hormonally charged events related to birth - pregnancy, nursing, and child-rearing. More generally, research within and across various species shows that it is released, for example, by gentle touching. Olmert's well-written, journalistic-styled account applies these hard science findings (yes, some studies involved research on animals in the laboratory) to a broad sweep of the history and prehistory of human-animal relationships. She argues that they provide the physiological basis for the domestication of animals for food production and companionship, as well as our continuing romance with wildlife. Generally, the research accounts for our "intimate involvement with the natural world." Implicitly, Olmert's claim is that as the discovery of DNA fulfilled Darwin's theory of evolution, so research on oxytocin confirms E.O. Wilson's biophilia hypothesis.

Of course, getting back to Tosca, explaining events in terms of (1) immediate intentions and their consequences, (2) physiological foundations, and (3) psychological relationships involves no necessary contradiction. These very different explanatory discourses vary in usefulness and compellingness (at bottom, an aesthetic difference), depending on our purpose. If we are looking for a drug to induce an autistic child to seek and tolerate affection, (2) is more of a guide than (1) or (3). However, if we are seeking to fulfill the mission of reducing the suffering and exploitation of nonhuman animals at the hands of human animals, competing tensions arise among the three.

In a chapter fittingly entitled, "Oxytocin deprivation," Olmert describes our need for companion animal relationships in a modern world relatively bereft of human companionship - "...our pets can be fountains of oxytocin." But she goes on - "...someday we may have an oxytocin pill to make our lives more livable." She does not think such a technological fix will replace our need for companion animals and animals in the wild. But the research upon which she builds her case, regrettably, makes the case for that option for it reduces human-animal relationships to brain chemistry - "I don't love you, I need oxytocin and, ‘imagine my surprise,' it is now available over-the-counter." If they were to continue on their current trajectory, human population growth, destruction of the environment, and consequent economic destabilization, in a not too distant future may make oxytocin and its neurobiological brain-mates our only companions and our only natural encounters.