altruism gene

A noteworthy article sponsored by Dr. Gene-Pair:

SMF : I have been told that not all people are “meant” to get married. This has always rubbed me the wrong way yet, I have seen individuals totally refrain from entering intimate relationships or fall quick and hard in relationships they obviously jumped in to. They tend to carry similar characteristics; overweight, walk with a heavy gate, shlumpy dress, difficulty remembering recent events and in discussion, repeat themselves a lot.

Most are able to hold down respectable jobs, go shopping and be social. They appear to be living, yet are living lonely and isolated lives. One does not require all characteristics to be tagged as one of the “never meanters” for the name callers — divorce often tips them off.

Some of these individuals have shared with me stories of early childhood brain damage and bouts with mental illness but the fact is, they look so similar and it has made me think there might be some genetic correlation here. But as you have indicated, the compounding issue of nature versus nurture lends one to a serious clouding of proper data.

 

Dr. Gene-Pair: Your list of common characteristics in “never meanters” is interesting.

 
I have only provided you with a single study on a single gene that deals explicitly with the ability of men to maintain functional long-term relationships. However, complex traits such as these are probably better explained by what is called the “Multi-Factorial Model” in genetics. Multi-Factorial disorders are usually caused by a set of gene variants (5 to 10 or 15 genes) that combine to make trouble. As a result, it is VERY difficult to pin-point which genes or which gene combinations are implicated in such disorders. Nevertheless, one can always speculate…

Have a look at the following press release about a potential “altruism gene.” Some of your description of “never meanter” guys rang familiar to me in light of the power of the dopamine neurotransmitter and its receptors! If you want the original scientific article, I can send it to you as well…

Judy Siegel-Itzkovich, The Jerusalem Post, Jan. 20, 2005
The first gene linked to altruistic behavior has been identified by Israeli psychologists who believe it boosts receptors for the neurotransmitter dopamine, which gives the brain a good feeling.

The discovery of the gene variant on chromosome No. 11 is reported in the advance on-line edition of the journal Molecular Psychiatry (nature.com/mp) by Prof. Richard Ebstein, a psychologist, and colleagues at the Hebrew University and Herzog Memorial Hospital in Jerusalem. The “scientific correspondence” will appear in the printed journal in a month or so.

Ebstein, who headed a team that in the 1990s discovered a “risk-taking gene,” told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday that the source of altruism—in which someone sacrifices his own interests to benefit others—has been an important question in evolutionary theory for many years.

Even Charles Darwin dealt with it, he said. One would not expect altruism to have an evolutionary benefit because the altruistic person promotes other people’s survival by taking risks that could endanger his own. Ebstein discussed the matter with his students in an evolutionary psychology course and then launched the genetic study. Higher animals can show altruistic behavior, said Ebstein, but it is almost always for members of their family, whom they identify by odors and other signals. But altruistic behavior is very prominent in human behavior.

Ebstein and colleagues took blood samples from 354 families with multiple siblings and asked them questions to rate them on the Selflessness Scale, a measure of altruistic behavior. Their answers were completely anonymous, thus they did not benefit from describing themselves. “Depending on self-reporting could present some problems, but we are working to confirm our findings by conducting economic games with reward and punishment to see if people display altruistic behavior and then to test them for the gene variant.”

He is also considering the possibility of looking for the gene in groups of people who clearly exhibit altruistic behavior, such as Yad Sarah, Magen David Adom or Zaka (Disaster Victims Identification) volunteers.

Ebstein said about two-thirds of the random sample carry the altruism gene. Interestingly, the risk-taking gene, which is linked to a tendency for taking drugs, smoking and other dangerous behavior, is a different—or opposite—variant of the altruism gene. Instead of promoting dopamine expression, the risk-taking gene variant reduces it.

“This may mean that people who don’t get enough dopamine in their brains seek out drugs or other such means to get a ‘high,’” Ebstein suggested. “Dopamine probably plays a key role in pro-social behavior. People with the altruism gene may do good works because they get more of a thrill out of their good works.”

Ebstein is certain that this is only the first altruism gene, and that several others exist. “I think genes have only half of the influence on altruistic behavior, with the rest involving environmental factors, such as education.”

In this study, said Ebstein, “we did not fine this altruism gene more common in women than in men,” despite their roles as caregivers and their prominence in caregiving professions.

Anorexic women score high on the Selflessness Scale. “They may take altruism to an extreme, eating minimally to ‘sacrifice’ food for other people.”

Religiously observant people tend to score higher on the scale, he continued, apparently due to the value put on altruism and doing good deeds in religious education and religion itself.

About Dr. Gene-Pair

Dr. Gene-Pair (alias) was born and raised in New York City. He received his bachelor degrees from the University of Pennsylvania in Asian & Middle Eastern Studies and Biology. Shortly after, he married and emigrated to Israel where he pursued his graduate studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Dr. Gene-Pair recently completed his doctoral training in Human Genetics. Currently, he resides in Jerusalem, Israel, with his wife and four children.
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