2005-01-12

Stats: Kindness Gene A Possibility

Do humans have a 'goodness gene?' Is there something inside us that genetically pushes us to reach out to the people who were devastated by the recent 'tsunami' that struck Southern Asia? or do we do it because we have seen others suffer, and our culture has taught us the meaning of social responsibility?
The old 'nature versus nurture' debate just won't go away, as revealed by a number of studies in recent scientific journals and the (sometimes nasty) debates that follow.
Over the years the 'pendulum has swung back and forth' between two extreme positions: either we are what our 'genes' tell us to be, or we are what our culture has taught us to be. The truth certainly lies somewhere in between, with opinions ranging all the way from 'genetic determinism', in which 'genes' are 'everything', to 'free will', in which we have the freedom to shape our own sense of social responsibility -- regardless of our 'genetic' composition. It's a 'tough nut to crack', because it wouldn't be socially responsible to manipulate some human lives from the moment of birth, controlling everything in their environment, so that we can separate 'cultural factors' from 'genetics'. Some scientists believe an alternative is right in front of us, and it doesn't require any manipulation of human lives to shed some light on this difficult subject: identical twins, they say, provide that window.
Pinpointing the 'Goodness Gene' If 'genetics' plays a significant role in determining whether we are socially responsible, for example, then identical twins should agree with each other more often than the rest of us, even fraternal twins, because the 'genes' they share would be encoded with the difference between right and wrong. Following that line of thought, researchers have found evidence of 'genetic determinism', ranging widely from 'violence' to 'forgiveness'. Interestingly, nearly all of those studies have focused on 'negatives', such as a propensity to commit acts of violence. Psychologist Mr.Philippe Ruston of 'The University of Western Ontario' in London, Ontario, author of a recent study on the 'genetic basis' for 'altruism' said:
'We take "good" behaviour for granted. 'We almost think of it as "The Norm", so we're looking at "deviations" from our socially responsible "norms"'.
In his most recent research, Mr.Ruston wanted to know if there is a 'genetic' component to 'good' behaviour. In other words, do we have a 'goodness gene' that encourages us to do 'The Right Thing'? Mr.Ruston thinks the answer is 'yes', although such a 'gene' is obviously expressed differently in some persons than it is in others. He bases that opinion on decades of analysing data he collected through 'The University of London's' 'Institute of Psychiatry' at Kings College 'Adult Twin Register', the source for many studies about twins and 'genetics'.
Mr.Ruston submitted a series of 22 questions to 174 pairs of identical twins, who share all their 'genes' because they came from a single egg, and 148 pairs of fraternal twins, who share only half their 'genes' because they came equally from the mother and the father. He wasn't particularly interested in the 'genes' that determine our species (because we all share nearly all those 'genes') rather in the 'segregating genes' (those that differ from one person to the next because of inheritable traits). We all have genes that cause us to have two eyes, for example, but 'segregating genes', which differ even among fraternal twins, determine the colour. However, even the 'segregating genes' are the same in identical twins, Mr.Ruston says.
So identical twins should agree on moral issues twice as often as fraternal twins -- at least that is if 'genetics' has any influence on human compassion, and, he says, that's precisely what he found.
The participants used a scale of 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree) to evaluate a number of statements, including 'Cheating on income tax is as bad as stealing' and 'I am a person people can count on'.
The answers among identical twins were almost twice as alike as among the fraternal twins, leading Mr.Ruston to conclude that' genes' account for 42 per cent of the individual differences in attitudes. Not everybody will believe that, of course... Mr.Paul R Ehrlich of 'The University of Stanford', in North America -- a leading proponent of the 'Environment-is-Everything' school of thought, maintains that identical twins have very different life experiences than the rest of us. Even parents sometimes have trouble telling them apart, so their environmental experiences may be more similar than different. Mr.Ehrlich told a meeting of 'The American Institute of Biological Sciences' (of the USA):
'"Genetic Evolution" did not determine most of how we act or provide us all with a pre-programmed "human nature"',
'There is no reason to believe that human beings are either innately violent or innately peaceful, instinctively disposed to wreck their environments or to be conservationists, or born "genetically" "GAY" or "genetically" "straight"'.
However, 'That's silly', says Mr.Ruston. The vast majority of scientists in the field do believe that 'genes' play a r´┐Żle, he adds:
'It's both; the 'genes' tell us that some of us are a "tad more" socially responsive than are others'.
That's likely true -- and even on a gender level, he adds; one of the questions he asked the participants of his survey was whether they liked seeing others open gifts. A hardy 'yes' indicating that the person is 'empathetic'.
'Females are much higher on that', Mr.Ruston says. 'In fact, I didn't find a single female in my sample who didn't endorse that item. But 20 per cent of males will say "nope, they're not interested in watching people open presents"'.
'Are We Programmed For Kindness?: Study Finds Genetic Basis For Human Kindness', Lee Dye, ABC News, 2005-01-12 Previously on this Blog... Science & Stats: The 'God Gene' 2004-12 Science: Women have Evolved Infidelity Gene 2004-11 Science: Nicotine Gene Identified 2004-11 Science: The Real Reasons We Fancy Someone 2004-11 Science & Stats: We Are All Potential Torturers 2004-11 Science: The Origins of Successful Human Beings 2003-02

2 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

LOL! I see where you are up to, davedevine! All these silly genes stories. Yeah, nothing is our fault because it's all genetically preprogrammed. *Right* LOL!

1/13/2005 01:45:00 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Nature-Nurture debate has been dead for years; everyone knows the answer is always going to be 'a bit of both'!

What a waste of time and money if that is all Rushton could come up with.

1/13/2005 12:59:00 pm  

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