Can A Gene Make You A Better Person?
Survival of the fittest is thrown around to explain antisocial behavior. Smart guys finish last. People who are unafraid to be selfish and abrasive get ahead in the workplace. It’s even been postulated that people with sociopathic tendencies end up being the most successful among us in their respective fields. But what if reptilian behavior isn’t what makes humans successful as a species? What if it’s the good within us that has given man a place on top of the food chain?
To explain why nice guys don’t necessarily finish last, you’ll have to understand W. D. Hamilton’s theory of evolutionary psychology. He coined the term Inclusive fitness in 1964. His theory broadens the term “survival of the fittest” to include a more meaningful definition of the definition of “fitness.” Here, fitness isn’t just those willing to do whatever it takes to succeed on a personal level, even if that comes at the cost of others. Fitness here is more than just a single organism clawing its way towards survival. It is organisms or people working together to survive and thrive as a community, as a whole.
Can Inclusive Fitness Be Observed?
- Inclusive fitness can be observed in organisms that live and interact together in groups. In any kind of animal group, those that protect their young are practicing inclusive fitness. It’s not necessary for survival to do so. Snakes, crocodiles and other reptiles simply hatch their young and leave them to fend for themselves. Darwin’s theory of evolution supports that organisms function in ways that allow their own DNA to replicate and carry on within the next generation. His theory doesn’t go further than that.
In W. D. Hamilton’s theory, organisms not only protect their young and next of kin, they may do so at a cost. For example, prairie dogs keep watch for predators. After spotting danger, one may alert the others within his community by making a sound or series of sounds. By speaking up, it draws attention to itself. By putting itself in danger, it attempts to save the lives of others. This can’t be explained by Darwin’s theory, which merely supports survival of the fittest.
This kind of altruistic action can be explained by inclusive fitness. If a gene or a certain set of genes exist within an organism, it may be drawn to act altruistically. Genes are shared within related individuals so when it acts to protect its relatives or community, these genes are protected as well. When related individuals help each other survive, the genes survive too. They are then passed on to the next generation. In this system, organisms are naturally inclined not only to propagate their own DNA but that of their kin.
This explains why a mother would risk her life to save that of her child’s by refusing chemotherapy. It explains why someone might take a bullet for a sibling, or why a someone would simply go out of his way to help a relative.
Not only does the science of this theory explain altruistic behavior, it suggests that altruism makes a community successful. While survival of the fittest may help one individual survive, nature may have caused organisms to evolved genes that allow them to survive as groups, giving new meaning to the saying “No man is an island.”
If altruism is encoded within our genetics, it may explain why some individuals act selfishly. It is then also possible that acting without concern for others is due to genetically programmed behavior. If a defective version of the gene is passed on or if the gene is not passed on at all, a person may not be programmed to act the way other members of the community do. Genetics may explain why some individuals act as though “better you than I.” This could lead to further questions that if our psychology and personality are pre-programmed, to what extent can humans be held responsible for their good and bad deeds?