Ever since biology has become comfortable with the ideas of genes and their deterministic imprints on behaviour, evolutionary biologists have been trying to understand if altruism in a species like wasps is hard-wired and a result of how they share their genes with descendants and relatives. Put simply, is kindness coded in our genes?
An intriguing study published this week in the journal Science poses crucial questions about altruism in wasps. Wasps, as several experiments have shown, are the Mother Teresas of the biosphere.
Worker wasps, as new research suggests, are not really the sacrificial beings that are vassals of their queen and inexorably choose sterility to build, forage and care for their queen’s progeny. In fact, the wasp species P dominula actually indulges in selfish action such as stealing its own eggs into the queen’s nest and sometimes acts to ensure that its progeny eventually inherit the nest—a turnaround from conventional wisdom about wasp behaviour.
There have been complicated theories that have tried to explain how the genetic peculiarities of wasp reproduction can account for their “false” altruism. These new set of findings —which, it may be noted, also rely on some amount of debatable, statistical assumptions— seriously challenge a three-decade-old body of work.
Humans, it’s known, operate differently from wasps. The intriguing Dunbar number, as proposed by Robin Dunbar, a professor of evolutionary anthropology at Oxford, indicates that people can maintain meaningful relationship with not more than 150 others, even if they boast far higher numbers as Facebook friends, given the psychological and emotional effort needed to maintain relationships.
If wasps aren’t genetically prone to altruism, then it rekindles an old debate on human behaviour and its social implications. Economists from Adam Smith to John Nash Jr have long argued that rational behaviour —understood sometimes as “selfish” behaviour by others —lies at the foundation of modern market economies. Wasps, unlike their sting, are often held as examples of alternative, more kind, behaviour—very different from the “corrosive” market order. It raises the intriguing possibility that acts of giving and individual charity may be, after all, guided by deeper, selfish motives such as vanity, getting around benefits and tax breaks.
If goodness isn’t some kind of lighthouse life force that doesn’t gush from deep within, what’s in store for humankind? More interestingly, can it be that goodness—and there is undeniable evidence of people being irrationally good—is actually an evolved form of selfishness?
Does kindness rest in our genes? Tell us at email@example.com