Is there a genetic component to varying degrees of cooperativeness?

by on August 6, 2010 at 5:15 am in Medicine, Political Science, Science | Permalink

I have thought about this question and now I see a new paper (ungated here) on the topic:

Genes and culture are often thought of as opposite ends of the nature–nurture spectrum, but here we examine possible interactions. Genetic association studies suggest that variation within the genes of central neurotransmitter systems, particularly the serotonin (5-HTTLPR, MAOA-uVNTR) and opioid (OPRM1 A118G), are associated with individual differences in social sensitivity, which reflects the degree of emotional responsivity to social events and experiences. Here, we review recent work that has demonstrated a robust cross-national correlation between the relative frequency of variants in these genes and the relative degree of individualism–collectivism in each population, suggesting that collectivism may have developed and persisted in populations with a high proportion of putative social sensitivity alleles because it was more compatible with such groups. Consistent with this notion, there was a correlation between the relative proportion of these alleles and lifetime prevalence of major depression across nations. The relationship between allele frequency and depression was partially mediated by individualism–collectivism, suggesting that reduced levels of depression in populations with a high proportion of social sensitivity alleles is due to greater collectivism. These results indicate that genetic variation may interact with ecological and social factors to influence psychocultural differences.

Still, I can't see the evidence.  I don't see the case for causation.  Let's say something about a group's serotonin level made it more susceptible to social stress: couldn't that lead to either greater individualism or greater collectivism?  Is collectivism so calming and are social institutions so functional so as to respond to how stressed we feel from social interactions?  If I were a very stressed out person (I'm not), wouldn't I prefer to live in or construct the social institutions of Sweden, which in this context counts as individualistic? 

You might respond that the evolving alleles should be linked to earlier Swedish society and not Sweden today.  But then one needs to measure collectivism vs. individualism at that earlier point in time.  I wouldn't be surprised if China in the tenth century were "more individualistic" than Sweden in the age of the Vikings, and so on.

(By the way, Is "individualism vs. collectivism" the right spectrum?  We individualistic Americans seem especially apt at being trained to kill people and fire when ordered.  We also seem especially patriotic.)

If you pull out the strangely-placed Colombia from Figure 1 in the paper, it's basically a Europeans vs. Asians effect driving both the genetic contrasts and the collectivism vs. individualism contrasts.  We're left with two quite general contrasts and no theory connecting the two or much of a good reason to think they should be connected.

Don't we just have two data points here — "Asia" and "Europe" — and the split of the data into countries is a phony way to boost apparent statistical significance?

It's a broader question what effects higher serotonin levels have.  I've tried to read a few papers on this topic and I've seen high serotonin levels correlated with both anxiety and calm.  To be sure, this may reflect the inability of this non-specialist to see through to the best and best understood results, but still the relevance of serotonin to human behavior hardly seems like an open and shut question.  I'd sooner suggest that right now we don't understand serotonin very well, at least not as it shapes broader social interactions.

I thank RR for the relevant pointer.

Andrew August 6, 2010 at 5:57 am

It seems that only in macroeconomics is it scandalous to admit that we don’t have all the answers.

Is it okay to not like some cultures yet? I could see a collectivist group neglecting the importance of private property being voluntarily exchanged between individuals, and thus developing completely wrong economic theories where everything devolves to kissing the dear leader’s rear because it is the dear leader who decides what is that nebulous “best for everyone.” I certainly wouldn’t say that the Chinese I know are especially sensitive. Socially, they are usually as subtle as a steamroller.

Anyway, I think it’s more complicated. I am extremely socially attuned to what’s going on, if I do say so myself. I generally know who is in and out, rising and falling and who is ticked off with who. But it is exhausting to the point that I have to limit interactions. Extroverts seem blissfully unaware of the drama and act accordingly. Other people seem to enjoy the adventure of life, to me it is work because everything is a puzzle to be solved. Everyone like me knows there is a difference between small group interactions (in which we excel) and big group interactions (in which we would dominate the world, as long as we could sleep the other 18 hours a day- but this is why extroverts have after-parties, to keep the man down).

Bill Benzon August 6, 2010 at 7:26 am

I’ve not looked at the serotonin literature, but if it’s at all like the dopamine literature I examined a few years ago, then it’s a mess. The experts are far from understanding this stuff. There are 100+ neuropeptides floating about in the brain, and they do not act independently of one another. If you work at it you can probably convince yourself that any one of them is responsible for whatever you wish it to be responsible for.

dearieme August 6, 2010 at 9:04 am

Sometimes it’s useful to embed an inquiry in a more general one. “Is it likely that there isn’t a genetic component to varying degrees of any important human trait”?

Bill August 6, 2010 at 10:09 am

I am speaking outside of my area of expertise, but would offer this hypothesis and criticism of the paper as it would apply to societies, even if it is true that there is a collectivist gene.

When you are dealing with societies as a group, which this paper apparently does, you have to be a bit more sophisticated in your description of genetic traits and their explanation of group behavior.

It is not that genetic traits may not have an impact on individuals or individual behaviour, but there are a wide variety of traits within societies. If you look at this from a social basis, there might be great advantages in having a MIX of traits, rather than having every individual just the same trait. In other words, maybe you need a mix of persons with autistic traits to persue computer programming, or collectivists traits to participate in war.

So, let’s say there is a collectivism trait, held by some but not all, of the group. The group might benefit by having a non-collectivist, individualistic trait of individuals in the mix of persons in the group. In other words, a group composed only of collectivist would be just as disfunctional or unproductive as a group composed only of individualists: it is the mix that matters: what mix of individualist genes and collectivists genes in a group lead to the optimimum level of whatever you are measuring.

That would be why I am a little skeptical of the broad comparisons across societies when societies have mixes of traits because they have individuals with different genetic traits.

Mix may matter.

Slugger August 6, 2010 at 11:16 am

I own a husky and am willing to believe that group adhesion has a genetic component. But the data for human nations may be harder to get at. In the paper, Germany rates low on collectivism. Does that jibe with history? Are Osties different from Westies? Israel is not listed, but are kibbutzniks genectically distinct from Tel Aviv entrepreneurs?

adam August 6, 2010 at 1:44 pm

Tyler, are you proposing that within 70 years, the characteristics of Americans, Japanese and Germans changed so much that you are able to say:
“We individualistic Americans seem especially apt at being trained to kill people and fire when ordered. We also seem especially patriotic.”

You just spent weeks in Germany. Do you agree that Germans and Japanese, for example in 1942, were especially patriotic, and especially apt to be trained to kill people and fire when ordered, more so than Americans – as their respective number of killings, even in later years show?
If you do not agree, do you have data to support your statement that counters the huge amount of datapoints from WWI and WWII?

Mr. Econotarian August 8, 2010 at 12:05 am

I own a beagle, and am willing to believe that group adhesion has a genetic component (beagles don’t follow anything but their nose).

I do find it odd that a particular kind of social authority breaking in Britain seemed to jump start modern capitalism. Meanwhile, there are many other places in the world that kept “big man” rule with forced redistribution until today.

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