by Kenia Rodriguez
As a native New Yorker I am used to watching dozens of people walk right past donation tables or street beggars without even a second thought. I’m actually surprised when people do take the time to stop and give a quarter or a nickel. But what it is about these particular individuals that makes them more likely to give money to others?
Dr. Ariel Knafo of the Psychology Department at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and his team have been wondering just that. In a recent study, subjects were to play an online game and in which they would be awarded $12 for their win. The players could either choose to keep the money or give part or all of it to an anonymous other player. Samples of DNA from each subject were also taken prior to the experiment.
The results of the experiment were quite surprising. Those subjects who had variants of a gene called AVPR1a gave, on average, about 50 percent more money than those who did not display the gene variant. The gene AVPR1a codes for the activation of the hormone Vasopressin which is responsible for social bonding. This means that a relationship exists between genetics and human altruism.
But how quick are we to believe that human generosity is owed to genetics? The results of this experiment bring about an interesting clash between the social teachings on morality versus the biological attributes of behavior. If our generosity is genetically based and has therefore served some evolutionary purpose (possibly to encourage cooperation between social groups to improve changes of survival), then why does it appear that generosity is so hard to find?