The ruthless gene

dictators.jpgWhile most bloggers are taking note of the NYT article today about the 24/7 stress of blogging (oh my god two old bloggers died of a heart attack so it’s a trend piece!), something far more interesting emerged regarding scientists isolating the “ruthless” gene.

It’s possibly responsible for dictatorial behavior, like the cuddly actions of Hitler, Saddam, Stalin, Roman Emporers, Alexander “The Great” and um, some other dudes history has overlooked or forgotten about entirely. But still, Machevellian principles are near and dear to bloggers hearts – or at least those fighting for precious page views and advertising rates.

Researchers at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem found a link between a gene called AVPR1a and ruthless behaviour in an economic exercise called the ‘Dictator Game’. The exercise allows players to behave selflessly, or like money-grabbing dictators such as former Zaire President Mobutu, who plundered the mineral wealth of his country to become one of the world’s richest men while its citizens suffered in poverty.

The researchers don’t know the mechanism by which the gene influences behaviour. It may mean that for some, the old adage that “it is better to give than to receive” simply isn’t true, says team leader Richard Ebstein. The reward centres in those brains may derive less pleasure from altruistic acts, he suggests, perhaps causing them to behave more selfishly.

So how does AVPR1a lead to ruthless or dictatorial behavior? And is it connected to only males, as they seem to make up the majority of history’s tyrants.

There was no connection between the participants’ gender and their behaviour, the team reports. But there was a link to the length of the AVPR1a gene: people were more likely to behave selfishly the shorter their version of this gene.

It isn’t clear how the length of AVPR1a affects vasopressin receptors: it is thought that rather than controlling the number of receptors, it may control where in the brain the receptors are distributed. Ebstein suggests the vasopressin receptors in the brains of people with short AVPR1a may be distributed in such a way to make them less likely to feel rewarded by the act of giving.

Though the mechanism is unclear, Ebstein says, he is fairly sure that selfish, greedy dictatorship has a genetic component. It would be easier to confirm this if history’s infamous dictators conveniently had living identical twins, he says, so we could see if they were just as ruthless as each other.

So the next time some little Hitler at your work place tries to run you over or step on your toes, or tries to scoop you on some story, cut him some slack it’s probably faulty genes at work. Like balding or importence, just much worse. Since balding doesn’t equate to mass murder, raping or plundering. [via]

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