Teach a child hate, and he will practise war To the Editor
Guyana Chronicle
November 1, 2001

MR. LUTCHMAN Gossai’s letter, apparently mis-captioned “Amerindians were the true discoverers [ please note: link provided by LOSP web site ] (GC 2001-10-03), gives only a partial picture of the development of human altruistic behaviour.

In the first place, human genes do not encode behaviour per se, they carry physical messages that determine the physical and biological characteristics of parents and offspring. The only inherited behaviours humans have are the suckling and grasping responses evident in new-borns.

The lack of genetically inherited behaviours is what endows us with our unique species characteristics of educability, adaptability, and capacity to learn, while our social environment interacts with our inherent capacities to produce behaviours and abilities. A capacity in an inborn potential, but an ability is a trained capacity and that training takes place only through interaction with matured and developed humans.

Secondly, Mr. Gossai’s belief that “humans evolved a genetic trait called reciprocal altruism” is a major tenet of sociobiology, a science that has come into much criticism for overestimating the role of genetic heredity in human social behaviour. Sociobiologists believe that human social behaviour has a genetic basis, but critics of this belief fear that acceptance of sociobiology would give support to racism, sexism and other discriminatory practices. We would thus be less inclined to change what has been ordained by nature (our genes) and be more inclined to maintain the status quo of so-called “races,” classes and castes of humans.

Thirdly, if reciprocal altruism is a genetic trait, why then are selfishness, aggression, and warfare so prevalent among the societies which have reached the pastoral and agricultural stage of civilisation? As Mr. Gossai himself noted, the hunter-gatherer tribes of Africa practise modern, western and eastern civilisations to shame. Man’s inhumanity to his fellow men has surely invalidated the hypothesis that reciprocal altruism is genetic in origin. If it were so, then reciprocal altruism would have been a universal trait and we would have been in Utopia, Paradise, Nirvana, Moksha, Heaven and Enlightenment without having to drink cyanide-laced Kool-Aid or fly planes into buildings or slaughter one another in communal violence.

Fourthly, the Human Genome Project has unearthed no gene or set of genes for reciprocal altruism. It has found many genes for human physiology and for certain diseases, but not for altruistic behaviour or any social and cultural behaviour for that matter, simply put, there are no social and cultural genes.

Fifthly, Mr. Gossai wrote that reciprocal altruism “after millions of years got wired into our gene code.” I’ve got hot news for him. Humans, that is, Homo sapiens, appeared in the fossil record some 50 thousand years ago. (S.J. Gould, the Mismeasure of Man, Revised and Expanded 1996 Edition, page 354). Fifty thousand years, according to the Darwinian theory of inadequate timespan for natural selection to hardwire reciprocal altruism into our genes. According to Professor Gould: “Biological (Darwinian) evolution continues in our species, but its rate, compared with cultural evolution, is so incomparably slow that its impact upon the history of Homo Sapiens has been small.”

So how then did we start to behave altruistically? Through a process of trial and error and making use of our unique educability we gradually learned that “if you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” we would be better off than “if you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.” This wonderful behavioural trait was then transmitted from generation to generation through learning and cultural evolution, but certainly not through genetic heredity and natural selection.

Gould also wrote: “Cultural evolution is not only rapid, it is also readily reversible because its products are not coded in our genes.” This is why in the wrong social environment we can so easily lose this most humanising of all traits and become inhuman beings, viz, our numerous wars, conflicts, genocides, and daily atrocities. This is why this trait has to be taught and learnt, and not wait for our genes to magically unfold it in a social vacuum. Its trait transmitted best by practice rather than precept.

In conclusion, we have seen that humans have developed reciprocal altruism to its highest form through the interaction of human genetic educability with the human social environment. As Gould wrote: “May I then emphasise again, as the text of the Mismeasure of Man does throughout, that all parties to the debate, indeed all people of good will and decent information, support the utterly uncontroversial statement that human form and behaviour arise from complex mixtures of genetic and environmental influences.”

Teach a child hate and he will practise war; teach him love and he will practise peace.
M. Hackett