2012 August 12 Sunday
Brain Anatomy Predicts Altruistic Behavior

Altruistic? You probably have more grey matter at the junction between the parietal and temporal lobe.

The volume of a small brain region influences one's predisposition for altruistic behavior. Researchers from the University of Zurich show that people who behave more altruistically than others have more gray matter at the junction between the parietal and temporal lobe, thus showing for the first time that there is a connection between brain anatomy, brain activity and altruistic behavior.

Why are some people very selfish and others very altruistic? Previous studies indicated that social categories like gender, income or education can hardly explain differences in altruistic behavior. Recent neuroscience studies have demonstrated that differences in brain structure might be linked to differences in personality traits and abilities. Now, for the first time, a team of researchers from the University of Zurich headed by Ernst Fehr, Director of the Department of Economics, show that there is a connection between brain anatomy and altruistic behavior.

Every time I read a report about connections between neuroanatomy and human behavior I see it in terms of my great puzzles about the future: what choices will humans make when they gain the ability to choose the genes of their offspring? Unless robots take over those choices will determine the future of the human species (or the multiple species our descendants will become).

Think of every cognitive attribute a human can have. Patience, short term memory, excitability, neuroticism, calmness, focused, easily bored, fast at math, able to picture and rotate complex 3-D models, altruism, easily angered. To the extent that each of these can be altered by genetic variants (and I'm quite sure they all can) once it becomes possible to choose genetic variants for offspring will humans in the future make their kids more or less altruistic? More or less calm? More introverted or more extroverted? Dopamine genetic variants for harder working or slacking? How will post-humans differ from humans? Will they still like humans? Be bored by humans? Will they have enough empathy to even get along with each other? Will they diverge into mutually hostile species?

By Randall Parker    2012 August 12 08:59 AM   Entry Permalink | Comments (11)
2012 July 16 Monday
Brain Region Predicts Degree Of Altruism

A big temporoparietal junction (TPJ) in the brain enables greater understanding of the perspective of others. That enhanced ability to see from another perspective makes people more altruistic.

"This is the first study to link both brain anatomy and brain activation to human altruism," says senior study author Ernst Fehr of the University of Zurich. "The findings suggest that the development of altruism through appropriate training or social practices might occur through changes in the brain structure and the neural activations that we identified in our study."

Individuals who excel at understanding others' intents and beliefs are more altruistic than those who struggle at this task. The ability to understand others' perspectives has previously been associated with activity in a brain region known as the temporoparietal junction (TPJ). Based on these past findings, Fehr and his team reasoned that the size and activation of the TPJ would relate to individual differences in altruism.

In the new study, subjects underwent a brain imaging scan and played a game in which they had to decide how to split money between themselves and anonymous partners. Subjects who made more generous decisions had a larger TPJ in the right hemisphere of the brain compared with subjects who made stingy decisions.

Moreover, activity in the TPJ reflected each subject's specific cutoff value for the maximal cost the subject was willing to endure to increase the partner's payoff. Activity in the TPJ was higher during hard decisions—when the personal cost of an altruistic act was just below the cutoff value—than during easy decisions associated with a very low or very high cost.

Once it becomes possible to select genes for offspring will future parents choose genes that make for bigger or smaller TPJ? In other words, will future humans be more or less altrustic?

By Randall Parker    2012 July 16 07:52 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (7)
2011 October 10 Monday
Brain Stimulation Will Reduce Anti-Social Behavior?

Another chapter in the research on altruistic punishment.

In collaboration with Professor Ernst Fehr, Dr. Thomas Baumgartner and Professor Daria Knoch reveal the neuronal networks behind self-control in an article recently published in Nature Neuroscience. For the purposes of their study, they combined the transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) method with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

Fehr has done a lot of work on the brain mechanisms that cause humans to engage in altruistic punishment. That is where most of the benefit from the punishment flows to other people. This latest report is a continuation of that vein of research.

Interaction between two frontal brain regions

The results of the study show that people only punish norm violations at their own expense if the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex – an important area for control located at the front of the brain – is activated. This control entity must also interact with another frontal region, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, for punishment to occur.

The communication between these two frontal regions of the brain is also interesting in light of earlier fMRI studies, which showed that the ventromedial prefrontal cortex encodes the subjective value of consumer goods and normative behavior. As neuroscientist Thomas Baumgartner explains, it seems plausible that this brain region might also encode the subjective value of a sanction. This value increases through the communication with the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.

Sounds like they use TMS to suppress the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. As a result they suppressed the motivation to dole out punishment.

"Using brain stimulation, we were able to demonstrate that the communication between the two brain regions becomes more difficult if the activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is reduced. This in turn makes punishing norm violations at your own expense significantly more difficult."

In the movie Brazil the lead character was able to get away from the highly controlling state by escaping into fantasy. But in real life the technologies will likely some day exist to modify the brains of those deemed anti-social. Mind you, some people really are dangerous and a threat to the rest of us. Is it better to lock them up or turn them into fluffy puppies?

The results could be important in the therapeutic use of the non-invasive brain-stimulation method in psychiatric and forensic patients. Patients who exhibit strong anti-social behavior also frequently display reduced activity in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. This region of the brain, however, is not directly accessible for non-invasive brain stimulation, as its location is too deep inside the brain. The results of the current study suggest that the activity in this region of the brain could be increased if the activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex were increased with the aid of brain stimulation. «This indirectly induced increase in the activity of the frontal brain regions could help improve prosocial and fair behavior in these patients,» concludes Daria Knoch.

Also see some of my previous related posts including ones by some of the same University of Zurich researchers: Emotions Overrule Logic To Cause Us To Punish, Brain Rewards For Carrying Out Altruistic Punishment, Men Feel More Pleasure Than Women Watching Punishment, and Altruistic Punishment Seen As Explanation For Mass Political Behaviors.

By Randall Parker    2011 October 10 06:22 AM   Entry Permalink | Comments (7)
2011 May 08 Sunday
Common Drugs Reduce Feelings Of Unfairness?

An anti-anxiety drug reduces the odds people will respond to unfair treatment by trying to punish the perpetrator.

[PRESS RELEASE, 4 May 2011] A new study from Karolinska Institutet in Sweden shows that the brain has built-in mechanisms that trigger an automatic reaction to someone who refuses to share. The reaction derives from the amygdala, an older part of the brain. The subjects' sense of justice was challenged in a two-player money-based fairness game, while their brain activity was registered by an MR scanner. When bidders made unfair suggestions as to how to share the money, they were often punished by their partners even if it cost them.

The drug in question probably does this by inhibiting the amygdala part of the brain.

A drug that inhibits amygdala activity subdued this reaction to unfairness.

An anti-anxiety drug increases the willingness to accept perceived unfairness.

In the present study, the subjects were either given the anti-anxiety tranquilliser Oxazepam or a sugar pill (placebo) while playing the Ultimate Game. The researchers found that those who had received the drug showed lower amygdala activity and a stronger tendency to accept an unfair distribution of the money - this despite the fact that when asked, they still considered the suggestion unfair.

Has the use of anti-anxiety drugs increased the level of unfairness in developed countries? Benzodiazepine anti-anxiety drugs include such familiar names as Librium, Valium, Xanax, Atvan, Klonopin. They all might increase your willingness to accept unfair treatment in relationships, business dealings, jobs, and courts. Anti-anxiety drugs are used extensively.

In 2008, 85 million prescriptions were filled for the top 20 benzodiazepines, an increase of 10 million over 2004, according to IMS Health, a health-care information company based in Norwalk, Conn.

Even the SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) such as Zoloft and Paxil are used in treatment of anxiety disorders.

Men especially are made less aggressive and more willing to go along with unfair distributions of money when on Oxazepam.

In the control group, the tendency to react aggressively and punish the player who had suggested the unfair distribution of money was directly linked to an increase in activity in the amygdala. A gender difference was also observed, with men responding more aggressively to unfair suggestions than women and showing a correspondingly higher rate of amygdalic activity. This gender difference was not found in the group that received Oxazepam.

This also has implications for the future evolution of the human species. When prospective parents gain the ability to choose between potential offspring genetic sequence variants will they choose variants that make for more or less amygdala activity? The willingness to dole out altruistic punishment could become more or less prevalent in genetically engineered humans. I see the instinctive desire to carry out altruistic punishment as a necessary trait to maintain a safe and healthy society.

By Randall Parker    2011 May 08 11:37 AM   Entry Permalink | Comments (9)
2010 August 11 Wednesday
Brain Scans Detect Autism

If you think you are on the autistic spectrum a brain scan might be able to confirm it.

Scientists from the Institute of Psychiatry (IoP) at King's College London have developed a pioneering new method of diagnosing autism in adults. For the first time, a quick brain scan that takes just 15 minutes can identify adults with autism with over 90 per cent accuracy. The method could lead to the screening for autism spectrum disorders in children in the future.

The team used an MRI scanner to take pictures of the brain's grey matter. A separate imaging technique was then used to reconstruct these scans into 3D images that could be assessed for structure, shape and thickness – all intricate measurements that reveal Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) at its root. By studying the complex and subtle make-up of grey matter in the brain, the scientists can use biological markers, rather than personality traits, to assess whether or not a person has ASD.

One wonders just how much will become detectable about mental processes by using scanning and other brain monitoring technology. How much of our mental life will remain just our private thoughts inaccessible to others?

By Randall Parker    2010 August 11 11:15 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (3)
2010 February 17 Wednesday
Oxytocin Improves Social Skills Of Autistics

Social skills come in a nasal spray.

Autism is a disease characterized by difficulties in communicating effectively with other people and developing social relationships. The team led by Angela Sirigu at the Centre de Neuroscience Cognitive (CNRS) has shown that the inhalation of oxytocin, a hormone known to promote mother-infant bonds and social relationships, significantly improved the abilities of autistic patients to interact with other individuals. To achieve this, the researchers administered oxytocin to 13 autistic patients and then observed their social behavior during ball games and during visual tests designed to identify ability to recognize faces expressing different feelings. Their findings, published in PNAS on 15 February 2010, thus reveal the therapeutic potential of oxytocin to treat the social disorders from which autistic patients suffer.

Blood tests for oxytocin levels might indicate who could benefit from extra oxytocin.

Because previous research has indicated that some people with autism might have abnormally low levels of oxytocin, conducting tests to identify those people and administering them the hormone might help as well, said Karen Parker, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Stanford University School of Medicine.

By Randall Parker    2010 February 17 10:48 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (21)
2008 June 05 Thursday
Low Serotonin Increases Desire To Punish Unfairness

University of Cambridge researchers have found that reducing brain serotonin increased the willingness of people to engage in altruistic punishment behaviors.

The researchers were able reduce brain serotonin levels in healthy volunteers for a short time by manipulating their diet. They used a situation known as the 'Ultimatum Game' to investigate how individuals with low serotonin react to what they perceive as unfair behaviour. In this game one player proposes a way to split a sum of money with a partner. If the partner accepts, both players are paid accordingly. But if he rejects the offer, neither player is paid.

Normally, people tend to reject about half of all offers less than 20-30% of the total stake, despite the fact that this means they receive nothing - but rejection rates increased to more than 80% after serotonin reductions. Other measures showed that the volunteers with serotonin depletion were not simply depressed or hypersensitive to lost rewards.

PhD student Molly Crockett, a Gates Scholar at the University of Cambridge Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience Institute, said: "Our results suggest that serotonin plays a critical role in social decision-making by normally keeping aggressive social responses in check. Changes in diet and stress cause our serotonin levels to fluctuate naturally, so it's important to understand how this might affect our everyday decision-making."

The innate desire to punish those who are unfair is an essential instinct for maintaining a society. Rules for cooperation and fairness must be enforced or a society will decay. Our brains must feel internal rewarded for punishing others because the delivery of that punishment often delivers no external rewards.

See my previous posts Altruistic Punishment And Genetic Engineering Of The Mind and Brain Rewards For Carrying Out Altruistic Punishment.

By Randall Parker    2008 June 05 10:51 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (6)
2007 November 23 Friday
Young Babies Prefer Altruists?

Babies reach for wooden dolls which they see help other dolls?

New Haven, Conn.—In the first evidence of its kind to date, Yale researchers find that infants prefer individuals who help others to those who either do nothing, or interfere with others’ goals, it is reported today in Nature.

“This supports the view that our ability to evaluate people is a biological adaptation—universal and unlearned,” said the authors of the study.

The study included six-and-10-month-old babies whose preferences were determined by recording which of two actors they reached towards.

In the first experiment, infants saw a wooden character with large glued-on eyes known as “The Climber.” At first, the climber rested at the bottom of a hill. The climber repeatedly tried without success to make it up the hill and was then either helped to the top by a triangular character that pushed the climber from behind, or hindered by a square character that pushed the climber down the hill.

During the test phase—after the infants had sufficiently processed the events—the researchers measured the infants’ attitudes towards the helper and hinderer by seeing which characters they reached for. Fourteen of the 16 10-month-olds, and all 12 six-month-olds, preferred the helper. A second experiment ruled out the possibility that the infants were merely responding to the direction in which the figures were moving. In a third experiment, infants of both ages preferred a helper to a neutral party, and then a neutral party over one who hindered.

What about the two infants that reached for the hinderer? Young Eric Cartmans? Bad to the bone? Or dumb clueless Forrest Gumps? Do the kids with autism or Asperger's Syndrome express a preference for the helpers?

By Randall Parker    2007 November 23 06:06 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (2)
2007 November 06 Tuesday
Oxytocin Infusion Makes People More Generous With Money

Paul Zak, a professor at Claremont, Angela Stanton at Chapman University, and Sheila Ahmadi at UCLA Geffen School of Medicine have found that injecting people with oxytocin makes them more generous.

Human beings routinely help strangers at costs to themselves. Sometimes the help offered is generous—offering more than the other expects. The proximate mechanisms supporting generosity are not well-understood, but several lines of research suggest a role for empathy. In this study, participants were infused with 40 IU oxytocin (OT) or placebo and engaged in a blinded, one-shot decision on how to split a sum of money with a stranger that could be rejected. Those on OT were 80% more generous than those given a placebo. OT had no effect on a unilateral monetary transfer task dissociating generosity from altruism. OT and altruism together predicted almost half the interpersonal variation in generosity. Notably, OT had twofold larger impact on generosity compared to altruism. This indicates that generosity is associated with both altruism as well as an emotional identification with another person.

The idea is that if you increase the extent to which you care about the feelings of others then you'll behave in ways that reduce the amount of negative response they'll have. Obviously, the extent to which humans feel empathy for others varies enormously. We feel different amounts of empathy depending on who the other person is and what the circumstances are. Also, people differ from each other in the amount of empathy they feel in similar circumstances. Some really lack in empathy.

They draw a distinction between altruism and generosity and find that oxytocin (OT) boosts generosity more than it boosts altruism.

In this paper we investigate a mechanism that may produce generosity while dissociating generosity from altruism. Altruism is defined as helping another at a cost to oneself [Sober, p 17, 15]. Generosity is defined as “liberality in giving” [16] or offering more to another than he or she expects or needs. Generosity is therefore a subset of altruism. For example, one may give a homeless person 25 cents (altruism) or ten dollars (altruism and generosity).

I think use of a homeless person is a poor example. I once read an article by a police officer arguing against donations to homeless people because the homeless in my town have plenty of food and places to sleep and use the money to buy alcohol and drugs. In other words, altruism doesn't always help recipients.

They were trying to figure out how much the feeling of empathy causes altruistic and generous behavior.

We investigated the role of empathy in producing generosity by manipulating a physiologic mechanism hypothesized to instantiate empathy, the neuromodulator oxytocin (OT). A substantial animal literature has established that OT facilitates attachment to offspring, and in monogamous mammals, cohabiting sexual partners and same-sex conspecifics [31][33]. Recent human studies have shown that OT facilitates a temporary attachment between strangers, increasing trust and reciprocity [34][38]. In the present paper, we test whether OT is a proximate mechanism prompting generosity between anonymous human strangers. Two tasks were used to dissociate the physiologic role of empathy in producing generosity and altruism using monetary transfers. Monetary transfers were used to obtain objective and active measures of generosity and altruism.

They used two different games where one person was given cash and the games provided different incentives to the person who started out with the cash as to whether to give to the other person in the game. The differences between the games allowed them to separate out the influence which OT has on altruism versus generosity. Well, OT boosts generosity more than it boosts altruism. Read the full paper (it is open access on Plos One) for a longer description of their findings.

I suspect altruism and generosity will become less common in the future. Selective pressures and genetic engineering will reduce the incidence of these traits because the traits are less adaptive in really large scale societies. You don't have enough repeat dealings with a small group of people to make altruistic behavior a big benefit. I also suspect humans will become more clannish and there'll be less a sense of a common interest and the belonging to a commonwealth.

By Randall Parker    2007 November 06 09:24 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (12)
2007 June 19 Tuesday
Some Feel Pleasure Paying Taxes

Why can't libertarians persuade the majority to support libertarian economic and social policies? Most human brains are wired to give themselves pleasure when they commit altruistic acts including the paying of taxes.

Want to light up the pleasure center in your brain? Just pay your taxes, and then give a little extra voluntarily to your local food bank. University of Oregon scientists have found that doing those deeds can give you the same sort of satisfaction you derive from feeding your own hunger pangs.

A three-member team – a cognitive psychologist and two economists – published its results in the June 15 issue of the journal Science. The scientists gave 19 women participants $100 and then scanned their brains with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) as they watched their money go to the food bank through mandatory taxation, and as they made choices about whether to give more money voluntarily or keep it for themselves.

The participants lay on their backs in the fMRI scanner for an hour-long session and viewed the financial transfers on a computer screen. The scanner used a super-cooled magnet, carefully tuned radio waves and powerful computers to calculate what parts of the brain were active as subjects saw their money go to the food bank and made yes or no decisions on additional giving.

What I want to know: Who is having more kids? Those who enjoy taxpaying the most or those who get no pleasure from taxpaying? Is taxpaying getting selected for or against?

Libertarians can take small solace that voluntary altruism is more enjoyable than mandatory altruism.

“The surprising element for us was that in a situation in which your money is simply given to others – where you do not have a free choice – you still get reward-center activity,” said Ulrich Mayr, a professor of psychology. “I don’t think that most economists would have suspected that. It reinforces the idea that there is true altruism – where it’s all about how well the common good is doing. I’ve heard people claim that they don’t mind paying taxes, if it’s for a good cause – and here we showed that you can actually see this going on inside the brain, and even measure it.

I do not find this surprising. Economists need to adopt a much more realistic view of human nature so that this sort of result ceases to surprise.

When offspring genetic engineering becomes commonplace will parents choose to make their kids more or less altruistic? Will some genetic variations make people hate involuntary altruism while still enjoying voluntary altruism? If so, a libertarian society could be genetically engineered.

By Randall Parker    2007 June 19 10:26 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (8)
2007 January 22 Monday
Altruistic People Differ In Brain Scans

Researchers Scott A. Huettel and Dharol Tankersley at Duke University have found that people who are more altruistic have more activity in the posterior superior temporal sulcus region of the brain while watching a computer play a game.

In the study, researchers scanned the brains of 45 people while they either played a computer game or watched the computer play the game on its own. In both cases, successful playing of the game earned money for a charity of the study participant's choice.

The researchers scanned the participants' brains using a technique called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which uses harmless magnetic pulses to measure changes in oxygen levels that indicate nerve cell activity.

The scans revealed that a region of the brain called the posterior superior temporal sulcus was activated to a greater degree when people perceived an action -- that is, when they watched the computer play the game -- than when they acted themselves, Tankersley said. This region, which lies in the top and back portion of the brain, is generally activated when the mind is trying to figure out social relationships.

The researchers then characterized the participants as more or less altruistic, based on their responses to questions about how often they engaged in different helping behaviors, and compared the participants' brain scans with their estimated level of altruistic behavior. The fMRI scans showed that increased activity in the posterior superior temporal sulcus strongly predicted a person's likelihood for altruistic behavior.

Do people do better in some occupations if they have more or less activity in the posterior superior temporal sulcus? Imagine a career counselor telling someone "You have so little activity in the posterior superior temporal sulcus there's no way a career in nursing makes any sense. How about sales?".

These scientists hypothesize that something about how people model the world makes them more likely to commit altruistic acts.

According to the researchers, the results suggest that altruistic behavior may originate from how people view the world rather than how they act in it.

"We believe that the ability to perceive other people's actions as meaningful is critical for altruism," Tankersley said.

Not sure what he means by "meaningful". Any speculations?

A twins study found that about half of the tendency toward altruism is genetic. The ability to identify those who are altruistic combined with cheap genetic testing will lead to the identification of the genetic variations that make people more or less altrustic. Psychopathy is also at least partially genetically determined. The same will also turn out to be the case for other ways in which people differ cognitively.

I've previously expressed my conviction that when people can choose genetic variations for their offspring they will choose to make their kids more genetically determined. In other words, people will leave less to chance. If they want their kids to be altruistic they'll choose those genetic variations that absolutely assure altruism. If they want their kids to be selfish they'll choose genes that leave no role for chance in the outcome.

I'm worried about that genetically more determined future for a few reasons. First off, people won't all choose the same sets of characteristics. Imagine one group decides to make their kinds more altruistic. Another group makes their kids more selfish. They'll disagree more deeply. The differences in outlooks will widen. Big divisions can lead to civil wars, wars between nations, and other problems. So one problem is that we'll get more people who are extremes as people give their kids stronger doses of whatever qualities they like in themselves or that they wished they possessed.

Another problem is that some people will choose qualities for their children that make those kids lousier citizens and lousier human beings. I happen to disagree with Objectivists who believe that only the ability to reason is enough to equip people with the potential to respect the rights of others. For example, the impulse to carry out altruistic punishment is probably essential in the vast majority of a populace in order for the criminal justice system to work and in order to get people to deal fairly with each in a large range of work and social settings.

I can imagine why some people (especially those who have a weak or non-existent impulse to carry out altruistic punishment) will choose to make offspring that lack that instinct. Will enough make that choice that some future generation will have less of that desire?

I think altruism serves a useful and even necessary function in some contexts. At the same time, it causes problems. We need to learn more about how altruism works and what causes it to get expressed in pathological ways (e.g. stifling high tax welfare states that reduce the costs of irresponsible behaviors and reduce the incentives and means to carry out more productive behaviors). Do some genetic variations for altruism deliver net benefits while others deliver net damage? We won't all agree on the answers to that question even when the data is in. Differences in values (at least some of which will be genetically caused) will cause differences in decisions about which effects are good or bad.

By Randall Parker    2007 January 22 10:19 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (9)
2005 May 13 Friday
Altruistic Punishment Seen As Explanation For Mass Political Behaviors

UC Davis political scientist James Fowler mathematically models altruistic punishment.

A new UC Davis study about the origin of cooperation may shed light on why nations punish other countries for human rights violations or why people sanction those who do not vote.

Political scientist James Fowler has created a mathematical model of human behavior that suggests that "moralists" who voluntarily pay a cost to punish "misbehavers" can come to dominate a population and ensure cooperation among its members.

"This may help explain mass political behaviors like voting," Fowler said. "When individuals say, 'It doesn't really matter if I vote,' others -- programmed genetically or by social norms -- may seek to punish them, even though it means a self-sacrifice."

He believes that humans may have physically or developmentally evolved to altruistic punishment. Previous studies found that "acting the moralist" stimulates the reward center in the brain.

Some researchers have suggested that cooperation may make sense in a society with altruistic punishers -- essentially, moralists who are willing to pay a personal cost to punish free-riders.

Fowler said his theory can also be used to explain some behaviors in international politics. For instance, the U.S. advocacy for human rights in China has continued for years, despite financial incentives to ignore them. "Our security risks from China's human rights abuses are tenuous at best, but we seem to be engaging in altruistic punishment anyway," Fowler said.

The United States government is willing to have both political and economic losses from its stance because of the stable international system that has evolved so that it is dominated by the "moralists," Fowler says.

Fowler's mathematical model simulates interacting behaviors in a society over time. He found altruistic punishers can enter a population of cooperators and non-cooperators and change the dynamics of the group.

Under certain conditions, altruistic punishment is so beneficial to the population that it will come to dominate the behavior of the group and keep non-cooperators at bay.

Fowler's article, "Altruistic punishment and the origin of cooperation," was published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

You can read the full paper in PDF format.

The full paper brings up a number of interesting points. One idea is that selection for altruistic punishment could be enhanced if the punishers punish not just violators of rules for cooperation but also if the punishers punish anyone who does not participate in doling out punishment. Make the punishment severe enough (say death) one can envision how in a small isolated group a small number of altruistic punishers could purge many non-punishers and violators.

The urge to dole out altruistic punishment must have a genetic basis. When germ line genetic engineering (i.e. genetic engineering done on eggs, sperm, and embryos) becomes feasible one of my fears is that key genetically controlled qualities of human nature will be modified by parents and governments in ways that will threaten civilization. Genetic engineering to raise testosterone levels and dominance behavior would have obvious political consequences. But the urge to altruistically punish others is another crucial component of human nature which is going to become more or less strongly felt in future generations as a result of germ line genetic engineering. See my previous posts "Brain Rewards For Carrying Out Altruistic Punishment" and "Altruistic Punishment And Genetic Engineering Of The Mind".

By Randall Parker    2005 May 13 10:17 AM   Entry Permalink | Comments (12)
2005 January 07 Friday
Twins Study Shows About Half Of Altruism Is Genetic

Male altruism is more heavily genetically determined than female altruism.

A paper showing a strong genetic contribution to social responsibility was published in the December 22 issue of Proceedings of the Royal Society: Biological Sciences, 271, 2583-2585, entitled "Genetic and environmental contributions to pro-social attitudes: a twin study of social responsibility."

The study compared identical twins with non-identical twins to see how much they agreed on 22 questions, such as "I am a person people can count on," "It is important to finish anything you have started," and "Cheating on income tax is as bad as stealing," using a scale from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree). Answers are known to predict real-life behavior such as whether a person votes in elections or volunteers to help others.

The twins came from the University of London Twin Register. There were 174 pairs of monozygotic (identical twins, who share all their genes) and 148 pairs of dizygotic (non-identical twins, who share only half their genes). If monozygotic twins agree more than dizygotic twins it suggests that morality has a biological basis and is part of our evolved psychology.

The answers of the identical twins were almost twice as alike as those of the non-identical twins. The results showed that genes account for 42% of the individual differences in attitudes, growing up in the same home for 23%, and differences within the same home for the rest.

The study also found that genes had a stronger influence on males than females (50% vs. 40%) and that home upbringing had a stronger influence on females (40% vs. 0%). This suggests parents may watch over the behavior of daughters more carefully than they do for their sons.

In previous research Rushton has shown that genes influence people's levels of altruism and aggression--including feelings of empathy like enjoying watching people open presents and acts of violence such as fighting with a weapon. Rushton has also demonstrated that the male sex hormone testosterone sets the levels of aggression and altruism.

When asked about his findings Prof. Rushton noted, "They join a host of recent research in showing that both genes and upbringing influence almost every human behavior. It is especially interesting to see that this applies to moral attitudes." He said that he agreed with George Eliot's sentiment: "What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult for each other?"

If your reaction is that identical twins share more social environment keep in mind that a great many of twins studies have been done, including on twins reared apart. My impression from reading on twins studies and comparison across these studies is that the common experiences of identical twins as compared to non-identical twins and non-twin siblings do not end up counting for that much. So Rushton's use of this data to draw the conclusions he reaches about hereditability is sound in my opinion.

What is most important about this result? When something is genetic then it becomes manipulable using genetic technologies. Once people can control what genetic variations their offspring can have will they choose genetic variations that make their children more or less altruistic, more or less empathetic, more or less desirous to see justice done (with different levels of brain rewards for carrying out altruistic punishment), or more or less prone to being aggressive?

Once genetic variations for behavior and cognition become choosable by parents they will make choices that differ from what would happen from chance combination of their genes to produce offspring. So human offspring will change somehow as a result. The question is how?

My guess is that in different cultures the average decision made will be different. So cultures will become more unalike as humans make average different decisions about behavioral characteristics in their offspring.

The abstract:

Abstract: Although 51 twin and adoption studies have been performed on the genetic architecture of antisocial behaviour, only four previous studies have examined a genetic contribution to pro-social behaviour. Earlier work by the author with the University of London Institute of Psychiatry Adult Twin Register found that genes contributed approximately half of the variance to measures of self-report altruism, empathy, nurturance and aggression, including acts of violence. The present study extends those results by using a 22-item Social Responsibility Questionnaire with 174 pairs of monozygotic twins and 148 pairs of dizygotic twins. Forty-two per cent of the reliable variance was due to the twins' genes, 23% to the twins' common environment and the remainder to the twins' non-shared environment.

Paid access to the full article can be made here.

By Randall Parker    2005 January 07 01:55 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (7)
2004 August 30 Monday
Brain Rewards For Carrying Out Altruistic Punishment

Dominique de Quervain, Urs Fischbacher and Prof Ernst Fehr of the University of Zurich used Positron Emission Tomography (PET) brain scans to watch players carry out altruistic punishment against cheaters.

All 14 players chose revenge whenever the double-cross was deliberate and the retaliation free. Only three retaliated when the double-cross wasn't deliberate. Twelve of 14 players punished a deliberate double-cross even if it cost them more money.

The basic outline of the game which was played repeats the work of one these same researchers, Ernst Fehr, and Simon Gächter of the University of St. Gallen which I reported in my post Altruistic Punishment And Genetic Engineering Of The Mind. My guess is that there is genetic variation in the human population on the extent to which people will feel rewarded for meting out altruistic punishments. That opens up the possibility that once people can control which genetic variations their offspring get they may not opt to pass along all the genetic variations that cause altruistic punishment behavior. This could potentially destabilize society at some time in the future. Also see the related post Emotions Overrule Logic To Cause Us To Punish.

The added twist in the latest work is that the researchers were watching the brains of the players using PET scans while the players inflicted punishments at their own expense.

The researchers determined that deciding to impose this penalty, an altruistic punishment, activated a brain region, the dorsal striatum, involved in experiencing enjoyment or satisfaction.

The dorsal striatum and its most important part, the caudate nucleus, form part of a "reward circuit".

We are wired up to enjoy getting even. The term "sweet revenge" is entirely appropriate. I bet if the brain was scanned while someone ate sweets some of the same circuits would light up.

Altruistic punishment was selected for by evolution. (same article here)

"A lot of theoretical work in evolutionary biology and our previous experimental work suggest that altruistic punishment has been crucial for the evolution of cooperation in human societies," said Ernst Fehr, the senior author of the study who is director of the Institute for Empirical Research in Economics at the University of Zurich. "Our previous experiments show that if altruistic punishment is possible, cooperation flourishes. If we rule out altruistic punishment, cooperation breaks down."

Stanford University psychology professor Brian Knutson wrote an accompanying commentary noting that schadenfreude has now been captured in a brain scan.

The researchers also found that the fantasy of revenge is immensely satisfying: "The activation in the dorsal striatum reflects the anticipated satisfaction from punishing defectors" — or, it appears, from seeing them suffer.

As Knutson notes in his commentary, the Swiss researchers "appear to have captured this complex emotional dynamic of schadenfreude with a PET camera."

There are some interesting aspects of phenomenon. First of all, the brain does reward some types of altruism. But the altruistic act is not experienced subjectivly as a loss because the brain delivers an internal reward that compensates for the loss of resources caused by paying to punish others. Also, the actual act that the brain is rewarded for is essentially painful for the direct target of the act while being beneficial for others since it causes the targets of punishment to be less likely to cheat other people. Altruistic punishment then is quite a complex behavior in terms of its effects.

By Randall Parker    2004 August 30 03:37 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (4)
2003 June 16 Monday
Emotions Overrule Logic To Cause Us To Punish

If your anterior insula gets the better of your dorsolateral prefrontal cortex then you are probably going to punish someone.

The study focused on an example of decision-making called the ultimatum game, in which two strangers meet and have a chance to split $10. One person is designated the "proposer" and offers some portion of the money to the "receiver." If the receiver accepts the offer, both collect the money as proposed; if the receiver rejects the offer, neither receive anything. The game is played with the explicit stipulation that it is a one-time interaction.

Standard economic theory suggests that the proposer should always offer $1 or some minimal amount and that the receiver should always accept, preferring to receive $1 than nothing. Many previous studies, however, have shown that people often reject what they see as unfair offers, foregoing profit and denying a windfall for the other player.

In their study, the Princeton researchers asked people to play the ultimatum game while the receiver's brain was being scanned by functional magnetic resonance imaging, a technology that allows researchers to see what brain areas are active at all moments during the study. They found that the more unfair the offer, the more activity they saw in an area called the anterior insula, which is associated with disgust and other negative emotions.

Another brain area, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which is associated with working memory and deliberative thought, also responded to unfair offers. When the researchers averaged the results from 19 subjects, who each played 10 rounds of the game with different proposers, they found that the activity of the emotion area exceeded that of the deliberative area in cases when the subjects rejected the offers. The reverse was true when they accepted offers.

"It is not only telling us that there is an emotional response but that there seems to be a competition between these different considerations or ways of processing the situation," said Jonathan Cohen, who directs Princeton's Center for the Study of Brain, Mind and Behavior and is a co-author of the study.

During the study, receivers rejected unfair offers about half the time, which is consistent with many published studies, said Alan Sanfey, the lead author of the study. "When we explain the game to people they often ask, 'So why would I ever reject an offer? What's the trick?' And we say, 'There's no trick; if you reject an offer you don't get any money; if you accept the offer, you get it.' And they say 'OK.' And yet when they get in there and receive an unfair offer, oftentimes they reject it. There's an element of feeling a little betrayed."

"Both the field of economics and the field of decision making have, for a long time, resisted talking about emotions," said Sanfey, a postdoctoral researcher. "Now we can show biologically that emotions are not just important in a tangential way, in that making a decision makes you feel a certain way; they are important in a primary way because a sufficiently negative emotion can induce you to make certain decisions that would seem to go against your self interest."

My guess is that this behavior is a product of natural selection because the impulse to punish people was usually played out against people with whom one would have longer term dealings. If people knew from previous experience that a person would punish people who were perceived to have acted unfairly then it was less likely that the people in a tribe or village would act unfairly toward that person. Emotions essentially were designed to provide a reward in terms of emotional satisfaction under circumstances where the act of punishing exacted an immediate objective cost on the punisher. Therefore emotions were really designed to cause us to act in our longer term self interest. Of course emotions were not flawless in their guidance in ancient times. Emotions are probably even less perfect guides to action in modern environments because we have not evolved to be adaptive to the kinds of environments we can create.

What does this have to do with the future? First of all, we are no longer in the environment we evolved in because we increasingly create our own environments. Will we create environments that are compatible with our nature? Also, the biological basis of human nature throws a light on what we might modify to become something different in the future. Germline genetic engineering will eventually produce humans who are, on average, different in how their minds work than humans now living. What problems lie in the future that are a consequence of our nature? See my previous post Altruistic Punishment And Genetic Engineering Of The Mind.

By Randall Parker    2003 June 16 05:07 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (3)
2003 June 05 Thursday
Altruistic Punishment And Genetic Engineering Of The Mind

One of the recurring themes on FuturePundit is that the greatest danger from human genetic engineering will come from genetic engineering of the mind. We will develop the ability to create minds that will be dangerous or simply not compatible with the kind of societies that most of us prefer to live in. At one extreme, imagine genetically engineered minds devoid of conscience or empathy and at the same time highly calculating and ruthless in the pursuit of their own desires. Or, at a different extreme, imagine minds that so desired to fit in and to serve that they'd make ideal members of a communist collective ruled over by personalities genetically engineered to lead the masses.

The Debate About Genetic Engineering As A Threat To Human Nature

A number of commentators voice worries about human genetic engineering. Others consider those worries exaggerated in part because they think human genetic engineering is unlikely. Let me state up front that I think human genetic engineering is inevitable and that it will become a widespread practice. Furthermore, just because one believes that some specific objections voiced by particular worriers seem naive or unlikely does not discredit the very idea of being concerned about the consequences. It will eventually become possible to use genetic engineering to raise intelligence, to alter personality and to change the behavioral tendencies of our progeny. Whatever alterations parents or governments choose to make to future progeny will have profound effects upon human society. It would be irresponsible to simply dismiss the fears of those who are frightened by this prospect.

Some of those who are opposed to the practice of human genetic engineering are afraid that something vital about human nature will be lost by genetic engineering. Some are afraid that humans will be genetically engineered to be perpetually happy and that this happiness will somehow leave humans spiritually impoverished and devoid of the capacity to understand the deeper meaning of life. Curiously, such critics rarely seem to offer examples of how humans could be made less able to respect the rights of others. I suspect this particular danger from genetic engineering is not cited more often because the idea that humans can be made to have wildly different moral capacities and behavioral tendencies undermines the religious view of humans as moral actors possessed of consciences and capable of judging right from wrong according to some universal God-given standard. Well, the day is approaching within 10 or 20 years when it will become possible to do genetic engineering of offspring in such a way that they will have different behavioral tendencies and different innate conceptions of right and wrong. Therefore we can not afford to continue to avert our gaze from the biological basis of conscience, of the tendency to form moral judgements, and of the biological foundations of human values and normative beliefs. These basic attributes of human nature already vary considerably between humans. Genetic engineering will make these attributes more mutable in ways that constitute a substantial potential threat to the continuation of human civilization.

It seems likely that there are many genes in the human population which have variations that cause people to differ in their personality characteristics. Therefore the large number of different combinations of genetic variations found in human populations contribute to the large variety of personalities and behavioral tendencies also found among humans. Because of the genetic variations that are so largely responsible for the existing variety of personalities it should be possible to use only currently existing genetic variations to create a human population which is much different in average behavioral tendencies from existing human populations. A large change in the average of human behavior could be accomplished just by increasing the frequency of some genetic variations while decreasing the frequency of other variations which influence cognitive processes. Because there are already fairly extreme outliers in behavior and personality in the human population and since in at least some cases part of the reason for their extreme desires and behaviors is genetic it probably will not be necessary to create new genes or new variations of existing genes to do embryonic genetic engineering to create humans that differ considerably from the vast majority of existing humans. To get a sense of just how radically the human population could be altered without developing new genes or new genetic variations one has to look no further than the behavioral differences already existing in the human population.

Psychopaths Demonstrate The Danger Of Existing Extreme Human Outliers

Consider more extreme deviations from the human norm. One of the worst forms of deviations from human norms of behavior is found in psychopaths.

"The murdering psychopaths showed a much more positive association to violence. Psychopaths who were not murderers had a much more negative view of violence," Gray explained.

Unrestrained by the guilt that most humans would feel from harming others psychopaths do not even appear to have memory associations that categorize violence as unpleasant.

Normally, when shown a word on the screen, people take longer to figure out which button to press when non-related words -- such as "violent" and "pleasant" -- are on the same button, Snowden said.

However, psychopathic murderers responded differently, and completed the test "as if they do not associate violence and unpleasant," Snowden said.

Will it some day be possible to genetically engineer violent psychopaths? Why not? After all, a number of non-human predator species enjoy killing and in some species in some circumstances they even kill members of their own species. Surely these behavioral traits are somehow coded for by the genomes of these species. It may well be that there are genetic variations which influence personality that predispose the existing psychopaths to be psychopaths.

You might argue that very few people will want to choose genetic variations for their children that would increase the odds that the children will be psychopaths. True enough. But these outliers in human behavior and human cognition demonstrate just how far existing human nature extends without the use of genetic engineering. Genetic engineering will make it possible to create humans whose emotional make-up will differ substantially from what we see in most humans today.

Could Subtle Changes In Personalities Cause Huge Societal Changes?

Are there changes in human nature that at first glance might strike people as less extreme and less threatening than the creation of psychopaths and yet that could still cause huge problems for the healthy functioning of human societies? Are there changes in personality and in behavioral tendencies that people might want to give their offpsring that would have profound and negative consequences if a sufficiently large percentage of the populace opted to do genetic modification of embryos to cause personality changes in their offspring?

An accurate answer to those questions would give us a better idea of whether the ability to do genetic engineering in the embryonic stage of our future progeny could lead to disastrous consequences for the future of human civilization. One way to attempt to answer these questions is to look for evidence of characteristics of human nature that are beneficial for society, which may be genetically based, which are not equally shared by all humans, and for which we could imagine reasons why at least some prospective parents would want to modify those characteristics in their future offspring. This brings us to the topic of altruistic punishment.

A Study Of Altruistic Punishment

Ernst Fehr of the University of Zurich and Simon Gächter of the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland published an interesting study "Altruistic punishment in humans" in the January 2002 issue of Nature. This study has occasioned a great deal of discussion about the implications it holds for human nature. Fehr and Gachter showed that many people will pay to punish those who do not cooperate even though the punishers derive no other benefit from punishing aside from the satisfaction of carrying out the punishment.

In an investment game with shared profits, players punish those who do not contribute to the group's good, despite the personal cost. The emotional satisfaction of dispensing justice seems to spur them on: "People say, 'I like to punish'," says Ernst Fehr of the University of Zurich.

The punishment was doled out to people who the punishers knew they would not play again. The ability to dole out punishment caused people to cooperate to mutual benefit.

Investment climbed to four times the previous level as the threat of punishment encouraged cooperation.

Researchers said that anger was the reason the players handed out punishment, even though it cost them money to do so.

"At the end of the experiment, people told us they were very angry about the free-riders," said Fehr. "Our hypothesis is that negative emotions are the driving force behind the punishment."

These people doled out punishment at cost to themselves even though one rule of the game was that players never played with other players more than once. The punishment therefore did not benefit the punisher by causing the punished person to be more cooperative toward the punisher in future rounds of the game.

In a separate series of games that Fehr and Gachter conducted where it was not possible to inflict punishment the amount of cooperation quickly declined. However, in game series where it was possible to inflict punishment on non-cooperating free riders the amount of cooperation rose in successive rounds even though each person played a completely new set of people in each round.

"It's a very important force for establishing large-scale cooperation," Dr. Fehr said in a telephone interview. "Every citizen is a little policeman in a sense. There are so many social norms that we follow almost unconsciously, and they are enforced by the moral outrage we expect if we were to violate them."

People expected to be punished based on their previous experience and they adjusted their behavior accordingly. This expectation that others would punish them even though others had nothing to gain from doling out punishment was key to increasing cooperation in successive rounds of games.

You can read the full paper "Altruistic punishment in humans" in PDF format.

Altruistic punishment took place frequently. In the ten sessions, subjects punished other group members a total of 1,270 times; 84.3% of the subjects punished at least once, 34.3% punished more than five times during the six periods, and 9.3% punished even more than ten times. Punishment also followed a clear pattern. Most (74.2%) acts of punishment were imposed on defectors (that is, below-average contributors) and were executed by cooperators (that is, above-average contributors), and punishment of the defectors was harsh (Fig. 1). For example, if a subject invested 14±20 MUs less than the average investment of the other members during periods 5 and 6, the total group expenditures for punishing this subject were almost 10 MUs. Moreover, the more a subject's investment fell short of the average investment of the other three group members, the more the subject was punished. The pattern and strength of punishment was also stable across time (Fig. 1). A Wilcoxon signed rank test of punishment in periods 1±4 versus periods 5 and 6, with 10 matched observations, yields z = -1.07, P = 0.285 (two-tailed). The same test for periods 1±5 versus period 6 yields z = 0.178, P = 0.859 (two-tailed).

Note that the most enthusiastic cooperators were also the ones most likely to punish. Those people who most enjoyed working in a cooperating group also had the strongest drive to make others cooperate as well. It may be that the anger that came from observing free rider behavior came as a response of being denied the joy humans experience from working in a cooperating team. Are there genetic variations that make people feel greater or lesser amounts of pleasure from working in cooperating groups? If there are (and this seems likely to be the case) then imagine how much human societies would change if a substantial portion of the population chose to give their offspring genetic variations that increased or decreased their desire to work in cooperating groups or to punish those who didn't.

The chain of cause and effect that leads to the infliction of punishment probably has a few different parts that are each separately variable from person to person. The participants in this study were motivated by anger. But in order to feel anger they first had to perceive unfairness. In order to do that they had to believe that people in a group have an obligation to cooperate for joint benefit. This desire to work together is an important human desire. Is there a genetic basis for just this desire? Well, look at other species. Some like to work together in groups. Others prefer solitary existences. Surely there must be a genetic basis for this inter-species difference in behavior.

The participants also had to be willing to act on their anger, pay a price for that action, and to act even when they stood to gain nothing personally from acting. It is likely that different groups of genes and genetic variations separately influence different parts or stages of the response that leads to infliction of punishment. Though it is not clear just what those parts are.

Is Altrustic Punishment The Result Of A Lack Of Discernment?

Cooperation is encouraged by the ability of people to reward each other for cooperating. But what Fehr and Gachter found was that the ability to punish non-cooperators encouraged cooperation and, crucially, that most people are willing to incur costs in order to punish non-cooperators. Those who elected to pay to punish must have derived satisfaction from the ability to punish those who angered them by acting in what the punishers saw as an unfairly selfish manner.

Why would altruistic punishment be selected for by evolution? One possible explanation is that the behavior that was selected for caused benefit to those who had the trait in ancient environments but that in modern environments the trait frequently causes humans to engage in altruistic punishment. In this view we are seeing it because humans are living under conditions which are far from the conditions in which we evolved. It is quite possible that historically humans were far more likely to benefit from punishing those who did not cooperate with any group they were members of because people were members of fewer groups and for longer periods of time per group. Anyone who was punished was almost always someone with whom the punisher would have future dealings. Therefore humans may not have been under enough selective pressure to become more discerning about whom to punish. There wasn't as great of a need to be able to accurately judge when the costs of inflicting punishment would be a net benefit to the punisher because of the longer term nature of most relationships. Therefore the willingness to mete out punishment to noncooperators probably didn't need to be complex enough to make humans draw distinctions between people they would or would not have future dealings with.

If you think that humans do not have traits that are expressed in ways that show insufficient use of cognitive processes to discern the appropriateness of emotional responses then consider sexual jealousy in human males. It was probably selected for in men so that men would have a motive to prevent their women from mating with someone else. A man unknowingly who raised another man's child wasted his own precious resources and decreased his reproductive fitness. Emotional responses that decrease the likelihood of that happening were selected for. But in the modern era sexual jealousy happens in men who are in relationships with women who are incapable of having children or unwilling to do so. So why should jealousy happen under those circumstances? Because the emotional response of jealousy was never selected for to use a cognitive process that is sufficiently discerning to be able to take into account mating that did not have the possibility of causing reproduction. That kind of mating is far more common today than it was in our evolutionary past when our traits were selected for. Also, people who are not going to reproduce are not going to pass along a greater or lesser tendency toward sexual jealousy and therefore there is not much of a mechanism available to even select for a more complex sexual jealousy response in the modern world.

Not everyone in the Fehr and Gächter study meted out punishments. There are, broadly speaking, two possible major reasons why some did not pay to punish. Some people may simply be less easily roused to punish uncooperative people in general. Some step in the process leading to the act of punishment may be harder to stimulate in them. Another possibility is that some may be far more discerning (either for genetic or environmental/educational reasons) in evaluating when paying to punish is worth it to them. It is likely that both of these factors cause differences in how people respond to non-cooperators and that genetic variability has an effect on both factors.

Change The Desire To Punish Free Riders Or The Ability To Discern One's Interests?

How does all this matter to the genetic engineering of offspring? Suppose genetic variations will be discovered that affect how easily people become angered by uncooperative behavior. Imagine that some people choose to give their offspring genetic variations that decrease their tendency to be angered by noncooperation. It is possible to conceive of plausible reasons why some people will make these choices for their progeny. Parents might decide they want their children to go thru life feeling less anger about perceived injustices in their lives. If that happened then future generations would be less inclined than current generations to enforce cooperation. The consequences for how human societies functioned would be profound.

It is also possible that there are genetic variations that make a person more able to evaluate whether paying to punish someone is worth it. One can easily imagine why a parent would want to make their children more capable of subtle discernment of where their real interests lie. This ability would give their kids an edge in dealing with other people in business negotiations and in other settings. But that enhanced capacity to discern where one's own interests lie might come at the expense of making society function less well as a whole - at least in some respects. In a society where people get less riled up when they are able to more accurately calculate their own self-interest then there would be less altruistic punishment doled out. This would effectively lower the amount of informal policing of norms in a society. Therefore those who would go unpunished would, as a consequence, be more willing to be uncooperative and to free load off the efforts of others. Again, the consequences would be profound and problematic.

The More General Desire To Punish Perceived Unfairness

Avoidance of cooperation in working toward a group goal is just one way that individuals can cause problems for others in a group. People can also take the possessions of others, hurt others, and deceive others for a variety of reasons. These other types of perceived unfair behavior are all also capable of eliciting an anger response and a desire to punish.

The desire to punish perceived unfairness is important. That desire causes behavior that is altruistic and that is necessary to maintain cooperation between members of groups. The desire to punish the unfair among us probably motivates police officers, prosecutors, soldiers, government and corporate whistleblowers, and a great many others as well. Imagine a society where either a smaller percentage of the population would ever feel angry enough to perform altruistic punishment or where those who did feel the desire didn't feel it as strongly and didn't act on it as often. The resulting society might have more crime for a number of reasons. Law enforcement personnel might be less motivated. Fewer would be willing to work at the most challenging law enforcement jobs since job satisfaction from meting out punishment would be felt to a much lesser extent. Witnesses to crimes would be less motivated to come forward to testify or to intervene to stop a crime. An assortment of other behaviors would change in ways that reduced restraints on law-breakers.

But the effects would not be limited to law enforcement. Members of groups punish each other in an assortment of ways in a variety of environments including businesses, volunteer groups, militaries, and families. Imagine every kind of situation where you've wanted to punish someone for something they did. Genetic engineering that affected that desire would change human behavior in all of those situations.

A person making a purely selfish economic calculation would probably not choose to punish unfairness in cases where the bulk of the benefits of meting out the punishment would flow to other people. Witnesses to crimes, to unfair acts in the workplace, and to unfair behavior in general are frequently in the position where they have little at stake and yet often are willing to intervene or testify or otherwise pay a price to prevent or punish unfairness that is not directly aimed at them personally.

Another possible consequence of a reduction in the desire to perform altruistic punishment might be that governments would be more likely to abuse a small fraction of the populace. The rest of the populace would be less inclined to get angry about it and to make sacrifices to protest and oppose such government actions. Therefore governments would be less constrained. On the margin a large number of decisions would be made differently in ways that would make a society function less well and a society whose populace was less motivated to dole out altruistic punishment might well become less free as a consequence.

Fehr and Gachter have uncovered a human behavior that is most likely the product of natural selection. The fact that people desire to punish others even though they have to pay to mete out the punishment suggests that the punishment behavior is deeply built into human minds. This desire to punish those who are viewed as unfair is probably an essential element of human nature needed to maintain a civilized society.

Fairness In Real Life Situations Is Harder To Judge And Open To Dispute

The desire to mete out justice is problematic because determining what is fair is difficult and open to dispute. Fehr and Gachter defined the rules of simple games that their experimental subjects played. The actions of each of the players were easy for the other players to understand. There was no uncertainty as to the number of players, the actions taken, or their ramifications. There was no dispute as to the legitimacy or interpretation of the game rules. There was no need for reference to events of previous days, months, years, or centuries. By contrast, real human societies have all these complications and much more.

In real life situations disagreements over what is fair and over what are the relevant facts in a given situation make many acts of punishment itself seem unfair to those receiving it or to observers. One reason people differ on whether any particular act of punishment is justified is that people can be and frequently are misled by others or by their own flawed cognitive processes into reaching false conclusions about who did what and why. The desire to punish unfairness can occur in situations where the real facts of the matter do not justify the response. Also, some react with to perceived unfairness with what others see as excessive anger and their response can seem a disproportionate act of punishment compared to the original act that evoked the perception of unfairness. It is easy to see how that can get out of hand. For instance, if members of a nation, religion, or other grouping become convinced that they have been on the receiving end of a great injustice (e.g. the famous Nazi myth about being stabbed in the back by Jews in World War I which contributed to World War II) this sort of belief can be used to motivate them to commit all manner of violent acts individually and collectively. But incorrect beliefs about unfair treatment and excessive responses to perceived unfairness are common well below the level of grand historical events. Such beliefs can be found everywhere in school playgrounds, work places, and marriages. Surely, the impulse to punish unfairness is not an unmitigated benefit to the human race.

Still, in spite of all the problems that arise from the desire to punish a bigger problem would occur if people had a weaker desire to punish the unfairness of others. Societies absolutely need cooperation and the ability and desire to inflict punishment are essential to the maintenance of a sufficient degree of cooperation to make societies function well.

We Need To Understand The Genetic Basis Of Human Nature

The most important missing element in research on the intersection between economics and psychology is the genetic link. But at this point in time it is hard to make that connnection. The cost of DNA sequencing is still in the millions of dollars per person. It is too expensive to find connections between genetic variations and variations in behavior. Surely progress along that front is being made. But it would be far easier to do if every experiment on human behavior could include complete DNA sequence information on each study participant. Then genetic variations could be compared with behavioral differences. The inability to effectively control for genetic differences when doing experiments is one of the biggest factors holding back the advance of a more accurate social and psychological science of human nature.

Science is starting to supply us with information about how genetic variations affect human nature. The coming abililty to do make use of this information when doing germ line genetic engineering will cause a huge conflict between the desires of parents to give their offspring characteristics that the parents prefer versus the interests of the larger society on how members of future generations act toward the rest of us. The ability to affect how and when future generations will act in altruistic fashions will be politically far more contentious than current issues such as abortion or embryonic stem cell therapy.

The problem with allowing parents alone to decide on what future generations will be like is that we all have to live with the consequences of their decisions. Currently the effects of decisions that people make over who to mate with can not be easily measured or predicted. Also, currently there are limits to how much a difference each person can make in the genetic make-up of their progeny because they can only pass down what they have. What is going to change is that much of the uncertainty will be eliminated and the degree of control on the outcome will rise enormously. This will allow much larger changes in distribution of behavioral tendencies in populations. Averages and extremes will shift in ways that we can only begin to guess at today.

If one wants to have a relevant debate about the dangers of genetic engineering of humans then the central issue must be genetic engineering of the mind. The biggest benefits and greatest dangers come from the decisions people make when they start genetically engineering the minds of future generations.

Update: See Kenneth Silber's essay on Tech Central Station entitled Genetic Paradoxes.

And yet, it is precisely such automatons that would be most readily manipulated by genetic engineering. Genetic engineering's conservative critics seem to believe both that humans are beings of depth and complexity, and that humans can be transformed by science with relative ease. These positions are in considerable tension with each other. Could it be that conservatives who worry about genetic engineering actually regard dignity as an illusion that must be protected from scientific probing?

Silber sees contradictions with the conservative critique of genetic engineering by Leon Kass, Bill McKibben et.al. that are similar to the problems I see in their arguments. If there is something irreducibly magic about being humans then we can't possibly genetically engineer humans who are missing the magic elements. Are we just going to reduce human dignity and make life less meaningful if we genetically engineer people? Or are we going to gain the ability to change human nature? Also, when people talk about "human nature" it is only sensible to mean charactertistics of the mind. Are there characteristics of the mind that are inherent to human nature that will be changeable some day with genetic engineering? I think so. Others differ.

There are others who are attacking the conservative critique who also seem quite wrong to me. Charles Murtaugh recently made an argument in a recent article on Tech Central Station arguing it is all so complex we may never figure it out.

When the trait is complex, and the genetics are complex, their interaction may well never be unraveled.

But to illustrate his point Charles uses an example where the womb environment differences between lab mouse strains turned out to be important. But the scientists investigating did find the factor that accounted for a developmental difference even though the genetic difference between the strains operated by changing the womb environment in a way that changed behavior. The mechanism of action was seemingly obscure and yet it was identified. The cause did not remain unknowable. Well, I'm reminded of a quote spoken by the character Yama-Dharma the Death God in Roger Zelazny's Lord of Light:

"It is the difference between the unknown and the unknowable, between science and fantasy - it is a matter of essence. The four points of the compass be logic, knowledge, wisdom and the unknown. Some do bow in that final direction. Others advance upon it. To bow before the one is to lose sight of the three. I may submit to the unknown, but never to the unknowable. The man who bows in that final direction is either a saint or a fool. I have no use for either."

(You can see the chapter context here)

Yes, we will figure out what all the genes do and how they interact with each other and with the environment. Long before we understand what they all do we will understand what many of them do and how differences between them create differences in personality, intelligence, and behavior. We will be able to figure that out by sequencing millions of people and comparing their genetic sequences and their mental qualities (as well as medical histories and assorted other things about them).

Aside: For more on how it will become possible to do massive comparisons of genetic sequences see reports on efforts to drive down the costs of DNA sequencing by many orders of magnitude in my Biotech Advance Rates archive.

What annoys me about the arguments by Steven Pinker, Charles Murtaugh, Kenneth Silber, and Amy Greenwood (see my pleasant debate with Amy in the comments section of this post) is the way they try to down play the fears of the spiritual conservatives of the Kass school of bioethics (no, there is no such formal school but close enough) by arguing that it will not even be possible to abuse biotechnology to create intelligent creatures that are far from the human norm. They sound like Officer Barbrady of South Park: "Move along folks. Nothing to see here".

An argument that it will be hard to develop the knowledge needed to do germ line genetic engineering is not an argument that it will never happen. Even if it takes 20 years (as Amy estimates for single location genetic changes to fix genetic diseases - see the comments of this post) to develop the ability to do germline genetic engineering, well, 20 years is not all that long a time. Humans seem to have a tendency to think that 20 years into the past is more real than 20 years into the future because they can remember back 20 years. But while we can not go back in a time machine 20 years into the past most of us now alive will slowly but surely travel in the unidirectional time machine of this universe to 20 years in the future (at least barring global thermonuclear war or a massive asteroid strike). We will live in that day when we will have the ability to do a great many more things with biotechnology than we can now. Even if germline genetic engineering to change many genetic locations to affect a complex trait such as the mind is 30 year out it will happen. It is real kids. It is coming. We are moving along into a future where many more things will become possible.

Another argument these folks make is that so many genetic variations are involved in causing different types of minds that we will not be able to manage to make changes complex enough to change the desired traits while also avoiding undesireable side effects. But this is an argument that the task is difficult, not that it is impossible. We are gaining the ability to manage more complex processes all the time. Our tools for understanding and modelling complex processes continue to improve and in all likelihood will continue to do so. We will eventually gain the ability to genetically engineer offspring to intentionally cause them to have minds which will be substantially different than what their minds would have been like had they just gotten the unmodified genes of their parents. We ought to discuss what problems may arise as a consequence of this inevitable development and what we will need to do to try to avoid the dangers that unwise and malicious uses of these technologies will make possible.

By Randall Parker    2003 June 05 05:57 PM   Entry Permalink | Comments (20)
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