Israeli researchers discover gene for altruism
January 24, 2005 10:40 AM   Subscribe

Israeli researchers discover gene for altruism Why are some people more prone to give charity or put themselves in danger in order to help others? A team of Israeli psychologists claim they have the answer - they've located the first gene linked to altruistic behavior.
posted by Postroad (26 comments total)

 
In related news, Iraqi researchers discover the backbone.
posted by j.p. Hung at 10:53 AM on January 24, 2005


The researchers are currently suing each other over who discovered it first.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 10:54 AM on January 24, 2005


It's hard to know what to make of the story, as the reporter did such a terrible job of evaluating the science involved. Going by the reporter's vague description, the study's use of a self-reported standardized questionnaire -- the one question mentioned being, " 'Are you willing to do a favor for somebody else'" -- to identify altruism was far too unscientific to be useful. The reporter also seemed to approach from a perspective where simply having a single gene or small group of genes could result in some complex behavior, which has never been the case. All of which is a shame, because the idea that altruism could have a partly biological basis raises so many interesting questions.

Many believe that using reproductive technologies to make children smarter or stronger is wrong; some feel that using reproductive technologies to prevent the conception of children with disease or disability is wrong. The reasons are varied -- some say it profoundly changes the parent-child relationship, that master-race eugenics will follow, that social inequality will be translated into biological inequality. But how would we respond to parents who wanted their children to be altruistic?
posted by Coherence Panda at 10:58 AM on January 24, 2005


Coherence--My thoughts exactly. Essentially they are trying to link an objective phenomena--the DNA code of a human being, to a subjective phenomena.

What is altruism? It isn't something like eye color, which can be quantified as a class of eyes which reflect light of a particular color (blue, in my case). But altruism is a concept upon which we all don't agree. Is it altruism if you gain pleasure for the act or do it so that you feel like an "altruistic person?" What if you you are a guy at the DMV who asks a pretty girl to sign the witness section of the organ donation line on your new drivers license? Is that altruism?

The fact is that it is quite difficult to like something which is not capable of objective definition with something that is and declare them linked.
posted by Ironmouth at 11:09 AM on January 24, 2005


But how would we respond to parents who wanted their children to be altruistic?

Tell the parents in question to teach their children that altruism is a virute.

I think depending on biological answers to psychological questions in a long and empty road. There may be some biological factors that drive some human psychology, but to simplify the human mind to this extent is wrong-headed and ultimately foolish. The research doesn't look particulary scientific and the result doesn't make much sense.

on preview: Newsflash! Scientists discover survey filling out gene!
posted by elwoodwiles at 11:14 AM on January 24, 2005


Interesting, although I guess I always attributed this sort of behavior more to society than to genes. For example, Thorstein Veblen argued that conspicuous leisure would be the reason that people give to charity. (Potlatches are the first example of this that come to mind.)

As always, correlation does not equal causation.
posted by theFlyingSquirrel at 11:16 AM on January 24, 2005


For a definition of altruism as it relates to genetics and evolution, see The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins. It's a great discussion of what altruism means, and how it has a scientific basis. (Unlike, it appears, this study.)
posted by medialyte at 11:18 AM on January 24, 2005


Interesting, although I guess I always attributed this sort of behavior more to society than to genes.

Except that naked mole rats, termites, and bacteria have been doing eusocial cooperation for millenia, and it isn't taught. Which is not to say that humans' eusocial-capable behavior is influenced by genetics, but that it wouldn't be a huge surprise.
posted by AlexReynolds at 11:22 AM on January 24, 2005


They answered a friggin' questionnaire? Sounds like the gene variant on chromosome No. 11 could also simply express lying or the propensity to appear altruistic?
posted by RockCorpse at 11:24 AM on January 24, 2005


Tell the parents in question to teach their children that altruism is a virute.

Nah, first you have to check for the "rebellion" gene. If that's present, you raise them on a steady diet of Ayn Rand and Alan Greenspan. When they turn 15 and start reading Schweitzer and even dabbling with the Bible, you hold long drawn out confrontations over this. Threaten to lock them in the house if you *ever* find they've been volunteering in a soup kitchen. Threaten to cut off their tuition in college for giving to Heifer International and doing Habitat for Humanity Homes -- why can't they just do their econ homework and investment banking internship like their brother Dan?

Only reveal you were just kidding when they've turned 27 or so and are set in their ways.
posted by namespan at 11:31 AM on January 24, 2005


To say the least, this 'study' doesn't improve my opinion of psychologists playing at science. Either the researchers, the author of that article, or both haven't got the memo that we really can't yet begin to understand how chemistry directly affects behavior. To say that a certain receptor, dopamine receptors of all receptors involved in signal transduction, gives rise to altruism as a trait when it's expression is increased is at best jumping to conclusions and unprovable, and at worst pseudo-science.
posted by StrangerInAStrainedLand at 11:35 AM on January 24, 2005


on preview: Newsflash! Scientists discover survey filling out gene!

So, so true.

I'm always surprised that scientists can be so credulous of their own science. The problems with studies like this are innumerable and obvious--why don't they see them?

I think depending on biological answers to psychological questions in a long and empty road.

I completely agree. To say something like 'ants and moles do it, and they aren't taught' is, IMO, to overlook some serious and real differences between human beings, ants, and moles.
posted by josh at 11:44 AM on January 24, 2005


Ayn Rand will not be pleased.
posted by drezdn at 11:45 AM on January 24, 2005


The problems with studies like this are innumerable and obvious--why don't they see them?

Funding.
posted by PurplePorpoise at 12:06 PM on January 24, 2005


Thanks for introducing a fascinating topic, and for all the posters' references.
Continuing with theFlyingSquirrel's thread of potlatch, check out Marcel Mauss and his research on The Gift. It blasts a "free market" model of social life.
posted by Julie at 12:13 PM on January 24, 2005


The paradox of altruism
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 12:40 PM on January 24, 2005


Ayn Rand must be rolling in her grave.
posted by reflection at 12:55 PM on January 24, 2005


Looking at this study, I think it shows that dopamine plays a role in believing you're a good person.

Also, drezdn, I think Ayn Rand would love this because it says people are altruistic because their bodies reward them for it, therefore they're really being selfish.
posted by dagnyscott at 12:57 PM on January 24, 2005


wow. /me notices that he wasn't the first person to immediately think of ayn rand =)
posted by reflection at 1:18 PM on January 24, 2005


For all the people making fun of scientists, keep in mind that these are psychologists, and therefore not scientists, but "scientists".

Ok, I'm sorry.
posted by Bugbread at 1:39 PM on January 24, 2005


no bugbear, don't be sorry, it's oh. so. true.

And don't look to Dawkins for a definition of altruism. That's a vile meme.
posted by gsb at 3:24 PM on January 24, 2005


Bugbread.
posted by Bugbread at 3:42 PM on January 24, 2005


why do they think a gene is only evolutionarily beneficial if it directly benefits individual reproduction? genes 'care' about species, not individual, reproduction and survival.

building a harmonious society, which altruism most likely promotes, definitely helps species who accomplish it reproduce and survive.

that said, the article and research leave a lot to be desired.
posted by ulami at 10:55 PM on January 24, 2005


From what I understand, genes 'care' about genes, not species or individuals.
posted by Bugbread at 2:29 AM on January 25, 2005


that's a great biochemical weapon!
'here, have our oil. please, take it, take it!'
posted by borq at 12:33 PM on January 25, 2005


I imagine centuries from now our crude ideas about exactly how genetics influence complex behaviors will be good for a laugh.
posted by nanojath at 8:21 PM on February 23, 2005


« Older Come out, experts from the woodworks!...  |  It's not the other white meat,... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments