Tots as Young as 3 Can Be Generous While Others Are Inclined To Hog
BY KEVIN HELLIKER
A 3-year-old is handed six sets of colorful stickers.
"You can keep all of them," he is told. "Or you can give some to a child you don't know. He doesn't have any stickers. Do you want to keep all of your stickers? Or do you want to give some to a child you don't know?"
That was the basic script for a study that took place recently in an Israeli playroom which doubled as a social-science laboratory. A child-care-professional-turned-researcher asked 136 children, aged 3 and 4 years old, to step one at a time into the playroom to shed ...
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Are those inclined towards generosity genetically programmed to behave that way? A team of researchers, including Dr. Ariel Knafo of the Psychology Department at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, believes that this could very well be the case.
The scientists conducted the experiment with 203 online "players". Each player could choose to keep the equivalent of $12 he was allocated, or to give all or part of it to an anonymous other player.
Those involved also provided DNA samples which were analyzed and compared to their reactions. It was found that those who had certain variants of a gene called AVPR1a gave on average nearly 50 percent more money than those not displaying that variant.
"The experiment provided the first evidence, to my knowledge, for a relationship between DNA variability and real human altruism," said Knafo, who conducted the research along with other researchers, including Prof. R. P. Ebstein, Prof. Gary Bornstein, and Salomon Israel of the Psychology Department at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
The gene AVPR1a codes for the production of a receptor that enables a hormone, arginine vasopressin, to act on brain cells. Vasopressin, in turn, has been implicated in social bonding. The researchers found greater altruism in players in which a key section of the AVPR1a gene, called its promoter, was longer. The promoter is the region of a gene that allows cellular machinery to bind to it and determine how much gene product is made. In the case of this gene, a longer promoter can result in greater activity.
The findings could help biologists sort out altruism's evolutionary history, according to the scientists. They noted that a version of AVPR1a also exists in rodents called voles, where it also promotes social bonding. This suggests that altruism has a long rooted genetic history, which may have taken on a new role during human evolution.
The results of the study were published online recently in the research journal Genes, Brain and Behavior.
The Selfish Gene is a book on evolution by Richard Dawkins, published in 1976. It builds upon the principal theory of George C. Williams's first book Adaptation and Natural Selection. Dawkins coined the term "selfish gene" as a way of expressing the gene-centred view of evolution as opposed to the views focused on the organism and the group. From the gene-centred view follows that the more two individuals are genetically related, the more sense (at the level of the genes) it makes for them to behave selflessly with each other. Therefore the concept is especially good at explaining many forms of altruism, regardless of a common misuse of the term along the lines of a selfishness gene.
An organism is expected to evolve to maximize its inclusive fitness?the number of copies of its genes passed on globally (rather than by a particular individual). As a result, populations will tend towards an evolutionarily stable strategy. The book also coins the term meme for a unit of human cultural evolution analogous to the gene, suggesting that such "selfish" replication may also model human culture, in a different sense. Memetics has become the subject of many studies since the publication of the book.
Genes can reproduce at the expense of the organism
There are other times when the implicit interests of the vehicle and replicator are in conflict, such as the genes behind certain male spiders' instinctive mating behaviour, which increase the organism's inclusive fitness by allowing it to reproduce, but shorten its life by exposing it to the risk of being eaten by the cannibalistic female. Another good example is the existence of segregation distortion genes that are detrimental to their host but nonetheless propagate themselves at its expense. Likewise, the existence of junk DNA that provides no benefit to its host, once a puzzle, can be more easily explained. 
Power struggles are rare
These examples might suggest that there is a power-struggle between genes and their host. In fact, the claim is that there isn't much of a struggle because the genes usually win without a fight. Only if the organism becomes intelligent enough to understand its own interests, as distinct from those of its genes, can there be true conflict.
An example of this conflict might be a person using birth control to prevent fertilization and thereby inhibit the replication of his or her genes.
But that may not be a conflict of the 'self-interest' of the organism with his or her genes since a person using birth control may also be enhancing the survival chances of his or her genes by limiting his or her family size to conform with available resources thus avoiding extinction as Malthusian models predict can be the result of uncontrolled population growth.
I'll believe corporations are persons when Texas executes one.: LBJ's Ghost