There is no gene for reciprocal altruism
Stabroek News
October 9, 2001

Dear Editor,

Mr. Lutchman Gossai's statement that "humans evolved a genetic trait called reciprocal altruism" (SN 2001-10-04) [ please note: link provided by LOSP web site ] 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 humans with their unique species characteristics of educability, adaptability and plasticity of behavioural traits.

Our genetic makeup therefore provides us with the capacity to learn, while our social environment interacts with our inherent capacities to produce behaviours and abilities. A capacity is 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 is a major tenet of sociobiology, a science which 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 groups and classes 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 reciprocal altruism to an amazing degree that would put our so-called modern western (and eastern) civilisation to shame. Man's inhumanity to his fellowmen 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, Heaven and Enlightenment.

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 none 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 news for him. Humans, that is, Homo sapiens, appeared in the fossil record some fifty thousand years ago. (S.J. Gould, The Mismeasure of Man, p. 354). Fifty thousand years, according to the Darwinian theory of evolution by natural selection which Mr. Gossai espouses, is a woefully inadequate timespan for natural selection to hardwire reciprocal altruism into our genes.

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

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. It's a 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 in The Mismeasure of Man: "May I then emphasise again 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." (p. 34). Teach a child hate and he will practise war; teach a child love and he will practise peace.

Yours faithfully,

M Hackett