Yes, I’m the most reductionistic philosopher on campus, but even my eyebrows went up when I read this article about the moral significance of oxytocin:
“It all changed when I learned about the prairie voles,” [philosopher Patricia Churchland] says — surely not a phrase John Rawls ever uttered.
She told the story at the natural-history museum, in late March. Montane voles and prairie voles are so similar “that naifs like me can’t tell them apart,” she told a standing-room-only audience (younger and hipper than the museum’s usual patrons—the word “neuroscience” these days is like catnip). But prairie voles mate for life, and montane voles do not. Among prairie voles, the males not only share parenting duties, they will even lick and nurture pups that aren’t their own. By contrast, male montane voles do not actively parent even their own offspring. What accounts for the difference? Researchers have found that the prairie voles, the sociable ones, have greater numbers of oxytocin receptors in certain regions of the brain. (And prairie voles that have had their oxytocin receptors blocked will not pair-bond.)
“As a philosopher, I was stunned,” Churchland said, archly. “I thought that monogamous pair-bonding was something one determined for oneself, with a high level of consideration and maybe some Kantian reasoning thrown in. It turns out it is mediated by biology in a very real way.”
Well, at least in the case of voles, let us admit. Should we then infer that all that moral reasoning we go through is really just the sloshing of oxytocin? That’s quite a jump.