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Made for Each Other

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Made for Each Other Meg Daley Olmert DaCapo, 291 pp., $26

Book Cover: Made for Each OtherIf you have a pet or enjoy visiting zoos or simply watching wildlife, or if you've experienced or witnessed childbirth-most of us could tick off at least one thing from that list-this book may change the way you see the world.

I read most of it in the company of my cat. She was in her favorite position, stretched out on my chest with her paws tucked in and her face six inches from mine, leaving barely enough room for the book. The long-domesticated lioness. I was absently stroking the back of her head. I was extraordinarily relaxed, and so, as far as I could tell, was she.

The reason for our pleasurable symbiosis was the simple act of stroking; it releases large amounts of oxytocin in both cat and human, explains Meg Olmert in Made for Each Other: The Biology of the Human-Animal Bond. There's even an ideal rate of stroking for stress reduction: 40 strokes a minute. I looked at my watch and timed myself. Forty, or close enough. Apparently this rhythm comes to us naturally.

Olmert's thesis is that the cat and I were sharing much more than a fleeting moment of pleasure. Through the release of this uniquely mammalian hormone, we were experiencing the chemical magic that explains what the famous Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson dubbed biophilia. Oxytocin, the author argues, is the reason we want to be close to cats, dogs, horses, cows, and scores of other mammals-why we love them, why we feel the urge to domesticate them, and how, in their way, they want to domesticate us. Perhaps, she says, oxytocin is what really drives our desire to conserve the natural world and the wildlife it sustains.

We're most familiar with oxytocin for its role in childbirth. Often administered in its synthetic form, pitocin, it induces labor contractions, stimulates lactation, and floods both mother and baby with a sense of calm and well-being as well as a powerful disposition to social bonding. But as Olmert sees it, the real beauty of oxytocin is revealed when a human and an animal approach each other with openness and curiosity, and the chemical is released simultaneously in each. Both parties benefit from the transaction, and the author draws on an impressive array of evidence-from the evolution of the role of animals in Neolithic cave art to the work of the famous Montana "horse whisperer," Ray Hunt, and the cattle-herding techniques of the Fulani tribe of Africa-to make her case that oxytocin is the tie that binds us to other living creatures.

Take the classic transformation of wild to domesticated in which wolf becomes dog. I'm necessarily simplifying here, but the process goes something like this: as the human brain grew larger, forcing the head through the birth canal became harder, thus the need for more oxytocin to produce stronger contractions. This hormonal flood made women kinder and gentler, more inclined to community. At the same time, the larger brain made the men smarter hunters; they began to work in teams, sharing tactics. They observed wolves, who were brilliant hunters. The wolves, in turn, watched the men, venturing closer once they saw them as something more than a hostile predator. Eventually the two packs began to hunt together.

Back in the cave, the early humans were developing a special fondness for nutritious bone marrow; they sucked it out and tossed the meaty bones aside. These were then picked up by curious wolves, which discovered how to share in the proceeds of the hunt. The community welcomed them into the cave and began to breed them; when the wolves gave birth to pups, their whimpering cries attracted the women's sympathy. The women stroked the wolf cubs; one animal behavior specialist goes so far as to speculate that they may even have suckled them. Oxytocin flowed freely, in the stroker and the stroked. And thus, over millennia, we got the dog.

So far so good, until Olmert tries to portray oxytocin as the core of a grand unified theory of human happiness. The problem with such theories is that they tend to overreach, and somewhere around chapter 14, "Oxytocin Deprivation," we're suddenly careening around every imaginable societal affliction from ADHD and autism to industrial agriculture and threats to national security. The remedy to all of these ills, apparently, is to stroke our pets and immerse ourselves in a "sea of oxytocin." Please.

Too bad, because the rest of Made for Each Other had me spellbound, and I'd happily read it again. In fact, I should try reading it out loud to my cat. I'm sure she'd understand every word.

 

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George Black has reported from five continents, chronicling civil war in Central America, the democracy movement in China, and climate change in countries from Bangladesh to Peru. His most recent book, Empire of Shadows, is about the 19th century exp... READ MORE >