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The Moral Molecule – Paul J. Zak *****

You wait years for a book on empathy and two come out within days. But the contrast with Simon Baron-Cohen’s book 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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Review by Brian Clegg

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