BOOKS: Made for Each Other: The Biology of the Human-Animal Bond

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, May 2010:

Made for Each Other:
The Biology of the Human-Animal Bond
by Meg Daley Olmert
Da Capo Press (11 Cambridge Center, Cambridge, MA 02142),
2010. 291 pages, paperback. $26.00.

Made for Each Other is densely packed with scientific facts
and theories about the biology of the animal-human bond. Hundreds of
citations back up or question the evolution of the human relationship
with species including dogs, baboons, and horses.
So many intricate details are thrown at the reader, however,
that the pacing is sluggish and the material is hard to digest all at
once. Chapter one, for example, discusses the work of nine
researchers, including E.O. Wilson, Elizabeth Lawrence, and Stephen
Kellert. Ensuing chapters follow a similar pattern, as Olmert
condenses lifetimes of study to make her points, centering on her
idea that there is an inherent chemical attraction among living
beings.


Chapter two discusses the birth of the animal-human bond and
how oxytocin, not to be confused with the popular and often abused
painkiller oxycontin, plays a role in that relationship.
Discovered in 1902, oxytocin is a hormone found in the
pituitary gland that acts on the uterine muscles to produce labor
contractions. Both males and females produce oxytocin. Rats deprived
of oxytocin ignore their offspring. Some species, such as prairie
voles, produce greater densities of oxytocin. So does this make
them act more maternal? In the 1990s Thomas Insel, Lawrence Young
and other researchers at Emory University in Atlanta studied
genetically engineered animals to investigate the bonding effects of
oxytocin and vasopressin, a closely related brain hormone.
Knock-out mice, as they were called, without the gene for oxytocin,
would not make friends. They lost their ability for social
recognition.
A lengthy discussion of oxytocin follows in chapter four.
Oxytocin has a multitude of functions, such as regulating eating
habits. A powerful neurotransmitter, oxytocin has a “dynamic
chemistry” that produces satisfying social bonds, including with
animals.
Olmert nicely summarizes how and when our relationship with
dogs probably started. “Eating leftovers does not make a wolf into a
dog,” she writes, “but it’s a start.” Common ancestors of wolves
and dogs scavenging for food around human settlements may have begun
the domestication process as long as 400,000 years ago.
Made for Each Other is obviously the product of hard work and
painstaking review of scientific literature. But animal people don’t
need a long line of theories to help them appreciate their pets.
–Debra J. White

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