Meg Daley Olmert

Meg Daley Olmert

Made For Each Other

On the Shoulders of Giants

The biology of cooperation rewrote human/horse history.

Posted Mar 20, 2009

As huge blocks of western culture calve away, The New York Times is waxing nostalgic for another time of great change in an editorial about horse domestication. At first it may seem downright odd, but their curiosity about the mysterious "something" that allowed humans and horses to merge zeroes in on the only way to survive a changing global climate-cooperation.

Fortunately, we are just realizing what that genetic and social "something" is that helped forge the most important human-animal partnership in the history of the world. There is actually an entire brain network that evolved to promote cooperation and deep social bonding and it flows through-and between-all mammals.

And it's powerful. Of course it had to be. This is the brain chemistry that bonds mothers to babies-a cooperative effort essential to the survival of all newborns. But it also instigates and rewards all the different kinds of social relationships that are equally critical to the wellbeing of all social creatures. And sometimes that chemistry spills across the species barrier and creates social bonds so powerful that an animal as skittish as a horse will follow a human's lead right into a volley of cannon fire.

What happened that allowed humans to see this animal as something that might be ridden and not just eaten? And why did horses ever allow their most deadly predator to sit on their backs-their only blind spot? It all comes down to a change in perception. Tens of thousands of years of staring at horses showed some sharp-eyed humans the way to approach a horse in friendship. And what was different about those first horse whisperers? Probably their oxytocin levels.

In the last fifteen years, we have learned that this brain hormone can manipulate every brain center that controls emotion and behavior. One of the things it does is foster something called "social recognition." This is the ability to notice social--welcoming, non-threatening--signals, to respond in kind to them, and remember who are friends are. It's a basic kind of associative learning on which all social relationships are built. When men sniffed oxytocin, they stared longer and deeper into the eyes of another and were better able to read the emotions expressed by those eyes than men who only inhaled a placebo. Sniffing oxytocin also made men more trusting and trustworthy.

Horses make oxytocin too and it seems to work the same way in them. So 5,500 years ago, some humans and some horses with the right oxytocin-stuff were able to glean something in each others' eyes that said let's try something new. It was a daring and imaginative insight and it saved the horse from extinction and enabled those who could ride them to conquer the world. An evolutionary win-win by any standard.

An increased capacity for social recognition among humans has also proven highly "adaptive." The ability of humans to look at strangers and see them as kin, gave rise to the concept of "neighbor" and made living in large communities possible. This oxytocin-inspired urge to get along is the bedrock of our civilized world. Fortunately, cooperative, friendly, civilized behavior boosts our brain's oxytocin system and helps keep the social engine running. And perhaps even more fortunately, when our fellow humans fail to see our friendly intentions, our animals still do. And their recognition keeps our oxytocin flowing and the promise alive that some day friends and enemies may once again come to see each other in a new and more cooperative light.