Skip to main content

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.
Hardback:  
Also on Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Feed (SF) - Nick Clark Windo ****

Ever since The War of the Worlds, the post-apocalyptic disaster novel has been a firm fixture in the Science Fiction universe. What's more, such books are often among the few SF titles that are shown any interest by the literati, probably because many future disaster novels feature very little science. With a few exceptions, though (I'm thinking, for instance, The Chrysalids) they can make for pretty miserable reading unless you enjoy a diet of page after page of literary agonising.

The Feed is a real mixture. Large chunks of it are exactly that - page after page of self-examining misery with an occasional bit of action thrown in. But, there are parts where the writing really comes alive and shows its quality. This happens when we get the references back to pre-disaster, when we discover the Feed, which takes The Circle's premise to a whole new level with a mega-connected society where all human interaction is through directly-wired connections… until the whole thing fails …

The Bastard Legion (SF) - Gavin Smith *****

Science fiction has a long tradition of 'military in space' themes - and usually these books are uninspiring at best and verging on fascist at worst. From a serious SF viewpoint, it seemed that Joe Haldeman's magnificent The Forever War made the likes of Starship Troopers a mocked thing of the past, but sadly Hollywood seems to have rebooted the concept and we now see a lot of military SF on the shelves.

The bad news is that The Bastard Legion could not be classified as anything else - but the good news is that, just as Buffy the Vampire Slayer subverted the vampire genre, The Bastard Legion has so many twists on a straightforward 'marines in space' title that it does a brilliant job of subversion too.

The basic scenario is instantly different. Miska is heading up a mercenary legion, except they're all hardened criminals on a stolen prison ship, taking part because she has stolen the ship and fitted them all with explosive collars. Oh, and helping her train her &…

The Laser Inventor - Theodore Maiman ****

While the memoirs of many scientists are probably best kept for family consumption, there are some breakthroughs where the story is sufficiently engaging that it can be fascinating to get an inside view on what really happened. Although Theodore Maiman's autobiographical book is not a slick, journalist-polished account, it is very effective at highlighting two significant narratives - how Maiman was able to construct the first ever laser, despite having far fewer resources than many of his competitors, and how 'establishment' academic physicists, particularly in the US, tried to minimise his achievement.

On the straight autobiographical side, we get some early background and discover how Maiman combined degrees in electrical engineering and physics to have an unusually strong mix of the practical and the theoretical. Rather than go into academia after his doctorate, he went into industry - which seems to have been responsible for the backlash against his invention, which we…