(Image: Da Capo Press)Made for Each Other: The biology of the human-animal bond by Meg Daley Olmert
WHY and how do we bond with other beings? The rapidly growing field of anthrozoology, the study of human-animal relationships, is attracting scholars from a wide range of disciplines who want to answer this question.
To this end, Meg Daley Olmert has written a fascinating, wide-ranging and easy read about the biology of the human-animal bond. It comes with a strong endorsement from renowned scientist E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biophilia" to highlight our innate attraction to the natural world. Olmert's goal is to show that "our curiosity about other living things... is biological, is genetic, and can stand up to scientific scrutiny".
In Made for Each Other, Olmert weaves together the latest science - from archaeology and psychology to evolutionary biology and neuroscience - with engaging stories to make a strong case that we need animals in our lives and that there are deep-rooted reasons for why this is so. And it all comes down to one important chemical: oxytocin.
Oxytocin rules, both in Olmert's book and in our brains. The ubiquitous hormone, which "flows through and between all mammals", has amazing affiliative powers and inspires an urge to connect with others. It is well known that oxytocin is the chemical responsible for social bonding in humans; it is the same chemical that mediates the relationship between mothers and infants. Oxytocin helps us to read others' minds, and it inspires trust - people who inhale oxytocin are more trusting in games involving the exchange of money.
Now scientists are learning that it has powerful effects in human-animal relationships as well. For example, research shows that oxytocin levels almost double in people and in dogs when humans talk to and stroke their canine friends (beta endorphin and dopamine levels also increase). This surely has its roots in the domestication process.
I would have liked to see more discussion in the book of the treatment of animals. Olmert briefly notes: "Ethical and practical concerns prevent the kinds of brain-invasive research that has told us so much about the biology of bonding in other mammalian species." If, as Olmert shows, animals are so important to our physical and emotional health, if we share hardware with them and need them in our lives, why are we comfortable using them in ways that compromise their well-being? What allows us to override the oxytocin momentum for primarily human ends?
Without animals in our lives, says Olmert, we don't feel as good about ourselves. Her argument is convincing, but I'm wary of using a single factor explanation for the wide range of phenomena she covers - including bonding, mind-reading and trust. Nonetheless, if she is correct, perhaps we will soon see "Big O" pills or sprays on the market. There are practical difficulties in getting oxytocin into the brain, but if it's profitable, the drug companies will find a way.
But perhaps we should make changes in our lifestyles rather than depend on yet another drug that moves us further away from who we are wired to be. Henry Miller wrote, "If we don't always start from Nature we certainly come to her in our hour of need."
Olmert offers important suggestions for how we can get back in touch with ourselves to keep the oxytocin flowing. I suggest reading this intriguing book - it could be a huge oxytocin booster and a lesson for those who want to know why, as Olmert writes: "The satisfaction that washes over us as we watch our pets sleep is the ancient reminder that when all is well in their world, all is well in ours."
Marc Bekoff is professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder. His book Wild Justice: The moral lives of animals is co-written with Jessica Pierce and published by the University of Chicago Press in May