The Altruism Gene

In our hyper competitive 21st Century world of super cities and urban alienation, Ruth Drobnak asks if we still possess the instinct to help others.

In our hyper competitive 21st Century world of super cities and urban alienation, Ruth Drobnak asks if we still possess the instinct to help others.

Ask anyone what altruism means and they'd probably mention qualities such as "service to others ... acts of kindness and generosity ... philanthropic, ethical, and humane behaviour" - all attributes we associate with a highly evolved and intelligent human being. True, but only part of the answer, for new scientific evidence is suggesting that altruism is a more primitive behaviour than we ever imagined!

Since the sequencing of the genome began in 2000, geneticists have been isolating specific genes for specific functions and behaviours and tracking them back to the very earliest life forms on Earth. This revealed surprising evidence that there is a gene that controls altruism encoded in our DNA as part of our ancient biological inheritance and crucial to the survival of our species as a whole.

Life on Earth began about four billion years ago from a single microscopic cell that formed in the primordial chemical broth that cooked up the first living organism on this planet. Every cell, molecule, and gene of marine life, plants, trees, animals, and bacteria is derived from this common ancestor.

Life depends on the diversity of different organising systems endlessly adapting and evolving. Those that adapt to changes in their environment survive to evolve further - those stuck in the same evolutionary pattern eventually become extinct. The most successful organisms developed an organising system that involved co-operation and collaboration - a 'super-organism' that ensured more genes were passed on to the next generation than would be possible individually.

The altruism gene appears to have developed in the super-organism of the swarm - colonies of social insects such as termites, bees and ants where the individual insect's life is totally devoted to the Queen, whose exclusive role is to pass on the new life of the colony.

This altruistic behaviour without apparent reward puzzled scientists until zoologist Bill Hamilton came up with a possible explanation in 1964. Members of any colony are very closely related and, as such, share genes. In the "neo Darwinian synthesis" of Socio-biology (seems even evolutionary theory is evolving!) our behaviour is genetically programmed by Natural Selection, not survival of the fittest individual but survival of their genes, and genes exist for particular social behaviour. So, if an altruistic act ensures a close relative survives, your sacrifice means some of your family genes continue.

Since all life evolved from that same primordial cell source, humans also inherited this gene, as witnessed in the heroic actions of certain individuals where personal safety is ignored in an effort to save others. As humans outgrew the close-knit family groups of primitive tribal societies and developed a more 'urban' individual personality, it appears we may have abandoned the philosophy of actions for the greater good of humanity in favour of personal self interest, often regardless of the cost to others.

Altruism is still a motivating force, thank goodness, in those committed and dedicated individuals whose lives are spent in service to others, but most ordinary citizens are rarely in a situation where acts of bravery or self sacrifice are required. When confronted by a life threatening situation where others are concerned, however, it's amazing how often this altruistic gene kicks in - where ordinary individuals are somehow able to access incredible strength and daring to save others, often total strangers, without even considering their own safety. It seems to be a spontaneous reaction without prior thinking or conscious decision making. That's when we know the altruism gene is still active in the human DNA!

Most people will never know if they possess this gene - this automatic response to something that threatens 'the group'- until they are confronted by a situation where their immediate action is the only thing that can save others. It's conceivable that in any parent the response to save their family from danger would be automatic, but might lessen if involving total strangers except, for instance, in times of war.

I've often wondered how I'd react in times of great danger, if I'd ever be brave enough to risk my life to save others. And then I suddenly remembered an incident when, as a young mother, I had risked my life to save another woman's children, without even thinking twice!
When I was in my thirties with three children of my own we lived in a double storey townhouse facing an identical row of six. One afternoon, I heard the woman opposite screaming hysterically for help. I ran out to see her standing on her doorstep babbling incoherently and gesturing inside. Pushing past her I saw that a kerosene heater set almost under the wooden staircase had flared up in flames and was in danger of setting the staircase alight. Thinking it was a damn silly place to put a heater and looking around for something to smother the flames, I suddenly saw her two little girls - fresh from their bath and wrapped in towels - huddled in the furthest corner of the lounge.

I dashed over, grabbed the youngest up with one arm, and pulled the other by the hand screaming past the flames and out to their distraught mother. Then I yanked off one of the wet towels and threw it over the heater, and managed to haul it away from the already smouldering staircase. By now others had arrived to see what the commotion was, so I left them to take control of the situation and crossed over, rather shakily, back to my own place.

When my husband came home and heard the story, he asked if I realised that I could have been killed, that the whole house could have gone up in flames and I might have been trapped. But the thought had never occurred to me. All I saw was two frightened little girls huddled in a corner and I simply had to get them out to safety. That's how the altruism gene works, but apparently their mother didn't possess it!

But it's not only in life-and-death situations that the altruism gene is important, as it seems that our happiness or, more accurately, our overall life satisfaction, is connected to this gene. I found these snippets on altruism included in an article on 'Happiness' published in New Scientist magazine.

Altruism and family values influence long term happiness. People who place a higher priority on altruistic behaviours and family goals are rewarded with a long term increase in life satisfaction. Strong religious principles or spiritual beliefs help in the pursuit of happiness. Success and accolades by peers in an occupation you love brings more satisfaction than monetary reward (which seemed to be optimum at $75,000 in the study involved.) Conversely, those who prioritise career and material success experience a corresponding decline in satisfaction.

$75,000 seems a modest sum when compared to the obscene millions earned by today's top sports stars or corporate CEOs. Yet it appears no amount of money can make you happy if you work solely to amass a fortune rather than in an occupation which gives a sense of fulfilment, or have no close family relationship to bring you a feeling of wellbeing.

As the world population increases and cities expand into huge impersonal centres, we seem to have lost that feeling of kinship and the desire to care for the more vulnerable in our midst. When organisms, whether groups of cells, corporations, or communities, reach a critical mass, they become disorganised, unable to control their structure, and disintegrate into chaos. A graphic example in human terms was the collapse of the Soviet Union, which grew too big to sustain its growth and unable to cater for its immense population - a warning to bureaucrats that unlimited growth is unsustainable! Even in huge cities, people prefer to live in neighbourhoods with a village atmosphere where they can relate to one another. When their environment becomes overcrowded as more people push in, everyone becomes more concerned with personal survival and aggressively protects their own living space - just like experiments with lab rats!

Have we then become so urbanised that the altruism gene is dying out? Luckily not, for some recent experiments in the workplace are demonstrating that far from weakening, humans may be evolving a higher version of the swarm instinct, where there is a conscious desire to make a contribution to society. Like the study on happiness, this experiment revealed that offering higher salaries as motivation for better results only worked up to a certain point. Once an optimum 'reward' was reached, productivity actually declined in those where more money became the focus rather than the work. The most innovative and creative results were achieved by individuals who were given freedom to explore new avenues rather than extra monetary incentives. A sense of purpose and enjoyment of their work was more satisfying than money, and they were more likely to volunteer their services back into the community.

If there is a message here for the future of mankind, it is to live in smaller, self sustaining communities, strive to earn just enough for your needs working at what you love best, care for your loved ones and keep family bonds strong, and if you are fortunate enough to have some extra cash, extra time or experience, give some of it back to your local community. If each of us followed this philosophy, all the studies confirm that we would create a happier and fairer society - and a more harmonious world!