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Oxytocin and Human Evolution

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Part of the Current Topics in Behavioral Neurosciences book series (CTBN,volume 35)

Abstract

A small, but powerful neuropeptide, oxytocin coordinates processes that are central to both human reproduction and human evolution. Also embedded in the evolution of the human nervous system are unique pathways necessary for modern human sociality and cognition. Oxytocin is necessary for facilitating the birth process, especially in light of anatomical restrictions imposed by upright human locomotion, which depends on a fixed pelvis. Oxytocin, by facilitating birth, allowed the development of a large cortex and a protective bony cranium. The complex human brain in turn permitted the continuing emergence of social sensitivity, complex thinking, and language. After birth is complete, oxytocin continues to support human development by providing direct nutrition, in the form of human milk, and emotional and intellectual support through high levels of maternal behavior and selective attachment. Oxytocin also encourages social sensitivity and reciprocal attunement, on the part of both the mother and child, which are necessary for human social behavior and for rearing an emotionally healthy human child. Oxytocin supports growth during development, resilience, and healing across the lifespan. Oxytocin dynamically moderates the autonomic nervous system, and effects of oxytocin on vagal pathways allowing high levels of oxygenation and digestion necessary to support adaptation in a complex environment. Finally, oxytocin has anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory effects, helping to explain the pervasive adaptive consequences of social behavior for emotional and physical health.

Keywords

  • Autonomic nervous system
  • Neocortex
  • Social behavior
  • Vasopressin

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Acknowledgments

This chapter is strongly influenced by the generous conceptual input and insights of Stephen Porges. I am also grateful for insights and encouragement from Sarah Hrdy. I am particularly grateful to John M. Davis whose support for my research has been essential at several critical moments in my career and who in 1973 assigned to me the task of exploring “the neurobiology of maternal behavior.” Meetings organized by the Fetzer Institute created a context from which this chapter emerged. Studies from the author’s laboratories were primarily sponsored by the National Institutes of Health, and especially the NICHD and NIMH. Support is gratefully acknowledged from many colleagues and students whose ideas and data inform the perspective offered here. For convenience, examples used here draw heavily from research that originated in my laboratory. However, many other excellent studies and reviews provided inspiration for the hypotheses generated here.

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Correspondence to C. Sue Carter .

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Sue Carter, C. (2017). Oxytocin and Human Evolution. In: Hurlemann, R., Grinevich, V. (eds) Behavioral Pharmacology of Neuropeptides: Oxytocin. Current Topics in Behavioral Neurosciences, vol 35. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/7854_2017_18

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