Volume16, Number 38 -- October 8, 2007

As I See It: Great Looking Genes

Published: October 8, 2007

by Victor Rozek

Ever since we began to understand the pivotal role of biology in behavior, the nature-or-nurture debate has been raging between proponents of the "hard" and "soft" sciences. Why are some people pleasant and some not? Why are certain co-workers more helpful than others? Alternately, why do some people delight in punishing and behaving cruelly? Are such traits an outgrowth of character; or are they inherited? Is it chance, luck, parenting, the mysterious workings of a deity; or is it the output of the human operating system we call genetics. As science unravels the complexities of the genome, we're confirming what many already suspected--that the guy in the next cubicle just may be a hardwired jerk.

Less intuitive, however, is the possibility that a pleasant and cooperative co-worker is likewise hardwired. We prefer to give people credit for their virtues, but perhaps our higher angels are not so much developed as they are embedded in our genetic sequencing; or so argues Olivia Judson in the October issue of The Atlantic.

Socialization, complete with rules, niceties, and self-restraint can be explained as an adaptation born of specialization and the need for safety. Or, it can simply be a method of dealing with our great numbers. But that doesn't explain such behaviors as selfless heroism, or adopting a stranger's child, or even performing anonymous acts of kindness (such as washing other people's dirty coffee cups at work, or bringing in a box of donuts), none of which are biologically rewarding. Biology is all about survival and reproduction. Jumping off a jetty into a roiling ocean to save a stranger from drowning provides no biological advantage and may even result in the death of the benefactor. As Judson notes: "Extreme altruists, by definition, leave no descendants: They're too busy helping others. So at first blush, a gene that promotes extreme altruism should quickly vanish from a population."

And yet the world is full of heroic deeds and dedication to causes that offer no hope of reward and bestow no biological advantage. "Taking a huge risk for an idea is something that is very uniquely human." says Judson. While we may believe ourselves to be morally superior to the rest of the world's species (notwithstanding the demented slaughterhouse we've created), perhaps self-congratulation is premature. The notion of moral superiority stems from the belief that the behaviors we recognize as "moral" are the result of volitional choices. But what if they aren't? What if, as the title of Olivia Judson's article suggests, we are the beneficiaries of what she calls The Selfless Gene.

A radical notion, this selfless gene. If it were ever isolated and widely exploited through genetic engineering, it would stand capitalism on its head. Imagine a system based on cooperation rather than competition; sharing toys rather than acquiring them. Actually, it shouldn't be much of a stretch for the IT community which, to its credit, can point to two shining examples of collaborative selflessness: the Open Source community and the Internet. The sharing of source code and information, with equal access for all users, is certainly an egalitarian twist on the dominant business model that values cooperation as a prerequisite to conquest. As we know, the less evolved but better organized among us would like to dominate the Internet and restrict its access, which is precisely the kind of tribal behavior Darwin predicted.

"Darwin," Judson writes, "wondered whether lethal warring between neighboring groups might have caused humans to evolve to be more helpful and kind to each other . . . . [He] thought this could have happened if the more cohesive, unified, caring groups had been better able to triumph over their more disunited rivals. If so, the members of those cohesive, yet warlike, groups would have left more descendants." Substitute the word "profit" for "descendants" and you have an eerily accurate description of modern corporations--unified, cohesive, and warlike.

While human society has many cooperative elements, the workplace is somewhat unique because it requires a combination of cooperative and competitive behaviors. Programmers working on a development team want not only to contribute to the success of the project, but to do so in such a way that distinguishes them from fellow team members. Let's call it the Dig Me gene.

As in nature, balance is the key and both impulses must be managed. People who cooperate only to get ahead are typically resented and mistrusted and, if they attain positions of power, tend to become ruthless and dictatorial. People who cooperate at the exclusion of competing don't get ahead. Where balance is lacking, the swing to extremes may well be genetically prescribed. It is possible that unambitious people are not lazy but simply have a greater genetic tendency toward cooperation. Likewise, the driven executive's need to win at all cost and crush the competition may be a reflection of competitive genes gone wild. A peculiarity of genetics is that those on the extremes have a disproportionate impact on the majority. The overly cooperative find it difficult to function in a competitive world and often become a drain on the system. The overly competitive damage people in the wake of their ambition, and foul the environment in pursuit of their victories. They are the human hurricanes.

But if, as Judson suggests, we are genetically wired for kindness, why is its practice so unpredictable and irregular? Judson offers a fascinating insight. Studies have shown that when we are around people who are cooperative and behaving kindly, a pleasure center in the brain is activated. But the same reward center is also activated when we watch those who are not cooperative or kind being punished. Or, when we punish them ourselves. The studies are not extensive enough to provide certainty, but we appear to be hard-wired to enjoy punishment (taking pleasure when a co-worker is denied a promotion), and perhaps even cruelty (like those who infect the computers of thousands of strangers with destructive viruses).

The value of the balance of our genetic makeup is best illustrated by its absence. Judson uses a medical condition called Williams syndrome to make her point. People with Williams are missing a small chunk of chromosome 7 (on one of the two 23 chromosome strands we inherit from our parents). That fragment contains some 20 genes, the absence of which produces a number of abnormalities, among them a lack of social inhibitions. Williams people are exuberantly gregarious, "weirdly, incautiously friendly and nice--and unafraid of strangers." Not a quality well suited for survival.

Williams syndrome, says Judson, "shows that friendliness has a genetic underpinning--that it is indeed as primal as ferocity." If the biological imperative is sex and survival, ferocity can be a useful survival trait and one that can provide a reproductive advantage. Which explains why there is so much ferocity in the world. But what of selflessness?

The great biological irony is that those among us who best exemplify the ideals of kindness, cooperation, sacrifice, and compassion; and whose genetic code is urgently needed to counter-balance a gene pool replete with ferocity--the Mother Teresas, the Dalai Lamas--never pass on their genes because they choose to be celibate.

But nature is stubborn.

Consider the seagull in Aberdeen, Scotland. The bird stands outside a small convenience store and waits until the clerk is distracted. Then it waltzes right in through the open door, walks up to a floor-standing chip display, snags a bag of cheese Doritos (it always goes for the cheese, doesn't care for plain chips apparently), and walks right out. The locals are so amused they've become the bird's enablers by paying for its Doritos tab. But what happens next is perhaps even more surprising. The bird doesn't fly off to some isolated spot where it can gorge in private. It tears open the bag and shares the spoils with other gulls.

If beach rodents can practice altruism, there's hope for us all.

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Editor: Timothy Prickett Morgan
Contributing Editors: Dan Burger, Joe Hertvik, Brian Kelly, Shannon O'Donnell,
Mary Lou Roberts, Victor Rozek, Kevin Vandever, Hesh Wiener, Alex Woodie
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