'Niceness' partly genetic, say scientists

Feb 09, 2011 by Marlowe Hood
Selflessness and civic-mindedness can be inherited, especially if you are a woman, according to a new study. The study, published in Biology Letters, adds to a growing body of research suggesting that the drivers of human behaviour are found, more than previously suspected, in "nature" rather than "nurture".

Selflessness and civic-mindedness can be inherited, especially if you are a woman, according to a new study.

Niceness, in other words, may be in your genes.

The study, published Wednesday in Biology Letters, adds to a growing body of research suggesting that the drivers of are found, more than previously suspected, in "nature" rather than "nurture."

Environmental influences such as parenting and schooling remain strong, the scientists agree.

But our genetic endowment -- along with the way genes are activated or expressed -- is increasingly seen as shaping who we are and what we do.

Seeking to tease apart these factors, University of Edinburgh scientists Gary Lewis and Timothy Bates looked at self-assessments of nearly 1,000 pairs of twins in the United States to see how "pro-social" they were.

Some of the twins were identical and the others were fraternal.

"Having identical and non-identical twins allows you to understand whether there is a at play," Lewis explained by phone.

", which share 100 percent of their genes, are more similar than non-identical twins, who share only 50 percent. You can infer because of that biological fact."

Afghan children smile and points to the camera. Selflessness and civic-mindedness can be inherited, especially if you are a woman, according to a new study.

Previous research, notably with infants too young to have been fully socialised, already suggested humans have an inbuilt capacity for empathy.

In their twins study, Lewis and Bates broke down that impulse in adults into three "pro-social" areas: a sense of civic duty, job commitment and concern for the welfare for others.

On the last of these, for example, the twins were asked, on a scale of one to 10, how much compulsion they felt to pay more so that everyone, including the poor, could have access to medical care.

Those who felt the greatest impulse for generosity were identical female twins.

"This suggests that genetic effects are influential with regards to pro-social behaviour," Lewis said.

If the results had been the same for both identical and non-identical groups, it would have indicated that environmental factors were dominant.

The difference was much less pronounced among men, the study found.

Lewis said that it was too early to speculate as to which genes might be involved in boosting "niceness," and other scientists urged caution on how to interpret the findings.

"Heritability pertains to the entirety of the genome, not to a single gene," said Steven Pinker, a well-known evolutionary psychologist at Harvard University.

Height, he pointed out in an email exchange, is highly heritable.

But at last count there were dozens of genes -- and there may be hundreds or even thousands -- each affecting height by a small amount.

"For all we know the same may be true for niceness, even if it does turn out to be heritable," he said.

Attitudes and abilities -- a good memory, religious fervour, ethnocentrism, to name a few -- once attributed exclusively to the shaping influence of society are now thought by many geneticists to harbour origins deep inside our DNA.

At least two burgeoning fields of research have emerged to study the power of genes to sculpt behaviour, said Lewis.

Evolutionary psychologists tend to focus on traits presumed to be shared by all human beings, such as maternal instincts or sexual jealousy. Behavioural geneticists look more at traits that vary widely, such as personality, intelligence, or mental illness.

Explore further: How learning to talk is in the genes

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User comments : 13

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Mikeal
not rated yet Feb 09, 2011
What is niceness? A human baby does not understand what that means until it is taught to them. Who teaches the child that definition and do we all share the same definitions? That is more pertinent, not the genetics.
pauljpease
5 / 5 (3) Feb 09, 2011
What is niceness? A human baby does not understand what that means until it is taught to them. Who teaches the child that definition and do we all share the same definitions? That is more pertinent, not the genetics.


What? I'm not sure at all what you're saying. Because the research appears to contradict your baseless statement. The researchers found that in fact genetics are important. Do you deny that genes, which build proteins, which alter the behavior of cells, such as neurons in a brain, has an effect on a person's personality or behavior?
Mikeal
1 / 5 (2) Feb 09, 2011
Genes is not my field. I can not speak about how they influence behaviors. I just want to know what the author means by niceness?
PinkElephant
5 / 5 (2) Feb 09, 2011
Genes is not my field. I can not speak about how they influence behaviors. I just want to know what the author means by niceness?
RTFA (read the !@#!@#$ article):
In their twins study, Lewis and Bates broke down that impulse in adults into three "pro-social" areas: a sense of civic duty, job commitment and concern for the welfare for others.

SkiSci
not rated yet Feb 09, 2011
I'm nice when I'm fed, rested, and non-stressed. Under other conditions, I can be an a**hole. How do you quantify this? Height is static, attitudes are not. Attitudes are emergent properties of neuronal connections which themselves emerge from genes. They are all laced with synergy and randomness. I believe we have a lot to learn
Skeptic_Heretic
not rated yet Feb 09, 2011
Also emergent from your environment as well. Your genes give you an initial pattern, but your environment shapes the final result both perceptually and physically.
soulman
5 / 5 (1) Feb 09, 2011
I'm nice when I'm fed, rested, and non-stressed. Under other conditions, I can be an a**hole. How do you quantify this?

Assign a scale based on difficulty of being nice. In your first example, I'd give that a low score for being nice. If you can be nice even when you feel like you want to be an asshole, then that deserves a high score on the niceness scale.
Attitudes are emergent properties of neuronal connections which themselves emerge from genes.

That certainly is a predisposing factor but environment and early development within that environment can act in opposition (or in reinforcement). Largely the neuronal connections (and their pattern of pruning) are a byproduct of environmental programming. The underlying genetics acts as a predisposition, not sole determinant.
They are all laced with synergy and randomness.

Synergy, yes. Randomness, not so much.
I believe we have a lot to learn

Always a true statement.
ODesign
not rated yet Feb 10, 2011
it would be interesting to find out what else is co-related with niceness on the same or related genes. It doesn't make much sense for a niceness gene or even pleiotropy of genes to directly affect niceness as an independent variable.

It would be a convenient result if niceness turned out to be strongly related to the genes that regulates self identification by the brain. A large fuzzy sense of self that includes others around nearby is maybe more nice than a small sharply defined sense of self? It would make sense, but I'd like to see research to know if the idea goes beyond reasonable.
Hesca419
not rated yet Feb 10, 2011
Have we seen any major behavioral shifts in individuals who have gone through gene therapy? Somehow, I'm inclined to think this is a bit bupkis.
SkiSci
not rated yet Feb 10, 2011

They are all laced with synergy and randomness.

Synergy, yes. Randomness, not so much.



How about gene jumping and random SNP's.
soulman
not rated yet Feb 11, 2011
They are all laced with synergy and randomness.

Synergy, yes. Randomness, not so much.

How about gene jumping and random SNP's.

What about them?
SkiSci
not rated yet Feb 11, 2011
They are all laced with synergy and randomness.

Synergy, yes. Randomness, not so much.

How about gene jumping and random SNP's.

What about them?


Wouldn't that be considered a "randomness" that would effect both genotype and phenotype?...and ultimately emotions
soulman
not rated yet Feb 12, 2011
Wouldn't that be considered a "randomness" that would effect both genotype and phenotype?...and ultimately emotions

I spoke before of genetic influences and environmental factors, so I don't think it matters much how the genes came into existence, whether through inheritance or random mutations - it all adds to predispositional factors which may or may not manifest in certain behaviors due to equally important environmental factors.