Well, I warned you all. A shower of oxytocin, to fill all you bickering hordes with trust and mutual love.
Except, wouldn’t you know it, it’s never quite that simple.
You may remember oxytocin by one of its cutesy pseudonyms (“the cuddle hormone”, “the morality molecule”) if not by its technical handle. It’s the hormone that subverts the usual mammalian propensity for fucking around and turns meadow voles into lifetime monogamous pair-bonders. It’s the neurotransmitter that increases feelings of trust between individuals. (Vassopressin, oxytocin’s kissing cousin, made a brief appearance in Blindsight, when Siri Keeton’s dad snorted a noseful of the stuff to help him remain faithful to a wife whose own charms were not quite up to the task.) According to an interview with one Carsten De Drew it’s even been put forth as a tactic for calming violent crowds: just spray everyone with a mist of the ol’ cuddle compound, and watch the mob dissolve into a puddle of Woodstockian bliss.
Context matters, of course. Oxytocin does make you feel more protective and altruistic towards kin and kind: friends, relatives, the so-called “in group” we all develop over time. But De Drew et al have now shown that it also increases your hostility towards to outgroups: the guys from the other tribe or the other school, at least when you’re worried about the security of your own group. The phrase they use to sum up oxytocin’s impact is “tend and defend”. It makes you love your neighbour all the more, sure — but if there’s the slightest chance some stranger might pose a threat, oxytocin urges you to bash his skull in before that threat materialises.
What’s especially interesting about all this, though, is the ease with which these responses are provoked. There were no Thunderdomes in this study. Nobody was threatened with physical harm, no competing groups of blood relatives were pitted against each other. Payoffs and conflicts were over trivial amounts of money. The participants in these interactions never even met face to face; everything was mediated via computer. People were arbitrarily assigned to groups without knowing anything about their fellows beyond the fact that they were in the same group. They were then run through a series of Prisoner’s Dilemma variants.
And even under these arbitrary, artificial conditions, oxytocin increased loyalty to the unseen members of the in-group — and increased defensive hatred towards out-groups. It didn’t take kinship, or bonding, or any real threat to one’s well-being. It didn’t even take the presence of “outsider” cues like skin color or eyelid shape.
All it took was the chemical.
And really, that’s kind of the point, isn’t it? It always comes down to the chemical. All those other cues — the jingoistic appeals to flapping bits of colored cloth, the fact that the other guy looks different from you, the big-eyed awww-boosters of cats and babies and seal pups — all of those things are just cues, triggers that release the neurochemical hounds. You don’t actually need any of that stuff when you’re snorting the Big O directly into your sinuses.
Cause and effect is what we are. One set of chemicals reacting to another.
The study has its limits, of course; we are strongly multivariate bags of chemicals, after all. The P-values of some of these results weighed in at <0.001 (i.e., the odds were less than one in a thousand that random chance would produce the same results), but others hovered between 0.01 and 0.05 — still statistically significant, although some folks aren’t happy with anything above 0.01. Also the study looked only at men, on the grounds that human males are more naturally aggressive and would therefore manifest the strongest results. I dunno about that. The paper has nine authors; surely at least one of them got out enough to encounter a few of the many gloriously-aggressive women in our midst? At the very least, if you put some guy who joined the service because he rocks at Castle Wolfenstein up against a woman of the same age defending her cubs, I know who my money’s gonna be on.
Which might actually be a next logical step in the program. Isolate the neurochemical factors that come into play when a mother sees her children being threatened; synthesise them; dose every female soldier with an aerosol of the stuff before you send her into the field. If any of the boys complain about women in the military after that, it’ll only be because they keep getting their asses kicked on performance reviews.
Either that, or because they’re scared shitless.