April 06, 2007
Genetic Influence For Religiosity And Altruism

A twins study provides evidence for genetic causes of both altruism and religiousness.

Minneapolis – April 05, 2007 - A new study in Journal of Personality shows that selfless and social behavior is not purely a product of environment, specifically religious environment. After studying the behavior of adult twins, researchers found that, while altruistic behavior and religiousness tended to appear together, the correlation was due to both environmental and genetic factors.

According to study author Laura Koenig, the popular idea that religious individuals are more social and giving because of the behavioral mandates set for them is incorrect. “This study shows that religiousness occurs with these behaviors also because there are genes that predispose them to it.”

“There is, of course, no specific gene for religiousness, but individuals do have biological predispositions to behave in certain ways,” says Koenig. “The use of twins in the current study allowed for an investigation of the genetic and environmental influences on this type of behavior.”

This research is another example of the way that genes have an impact on behavior. “Society as a whole assumes that home environments have large impacts on behavior, but studies in behavior genetics are repeatedly showing that our behavior is also influenced by our genes,” says Koenig.

Famed University of Minnesota twins researcher Thomas Bouchard is one of the names on the research paper. Koenig is working with experienced twins researchers. Here's an excerpt from the paper's abstract:

In order to investigate this question, religiousness, antisocial behavior, and altruistic behavior were assessed by self-report in a sample of adult male twins (165 MZ and 100 DZ full pairs, mean age of 33 years). Religiousness, both retrospective and current, was shown to be modestly negatively correlated with antisocial behavior and modestly positively correlated with altruistic behavior.

So religious people are both more altruistic and less anti-social on average. This part is interesting. Sounds like the same genetic factors that increase religiousness also increase altruism. What does that tell us about religiousness?

Altruistic behavior also shared most all of its genetic influence, but only half of its shared environmental influence, with religiousness.

My question: Is altruism getting selected for in industrialized societies? I suspect so because religiousness is getting selected for. Also, selfish people are probably less willing to have kids due to all the work entailed.

Also see my post about previous research by Koenig: Twins Study Finds Adult Religiosity Heritable

Share |      Randall Parker, 2007 April 06 10:24 PM  Brain Genetics

Cedric Morrison said at April 7, 2007 11:37 AM:

>What does that tell us about religiousness?

On fist glance it looks like religiousness is correlated with genes that promote group living, call it gregariousness.

Speculating freely, I think that sheds some light on lifestyle fantasists such as Wiccans and other neo-pagans. They appear to be both imaginative and above average in intelligence. Surely, on some level, they must know that their chosen religion is a load of hooey, and for the most part, they have already thrown off their childhood indoctrination.

So one assumes that they must have voluntarily adopted a religion for the emotional rewards it brings. Perhaps the rituals and social interactions of the new do-it-yourself religions draw in the people with high altruism and low anti-sociability who nevertheless reject traditional religion.

cogsys said at April 8, 2007 5:17 PM:

The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science (you tube vid) funds research on the psychology of belief and religion as a means of promoting increased rationality. This kind of research into the genetic basis of religiosity seems important for that cause.

Brock said at April 10, 2007 6:11 PM:

So religious people are both more altruistic and less anti-social on average. This part is interesting. Sounds like the same genetic factors that increase religiousness also increase altruism. What does that tell us about religiousness?

I'm guessing not very much. Religions which promote anti-social or selfish beliefs will not prosper or spread very well; while religions with altruistic and pro-social tenets will do better (it's the positive network effects). Hence, all of the world's popular religions have pro-social/altruistic streaks in their beliefs merely as a matter of social Darwinism. Hence, further, that people with a pre-disposition to pro-social and altruistic behaviors will be attracted to the world's popular religious philosophies.

Even the selfish and anti-social can succumb to "magical thinking", there just aren't any major religions for them to join.

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