'Doing Good' Isn't In Your Genes, Study Says

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Victoria Fine Huffington Post

What makes people help others? Evolutionary scientists have long debated whether our genes have anything to do with behaviors that make us help strangers at possible risk to ourselves. Now, new research featured in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences says that altruism has more to do with nurture than nature.

Researcher Adrian Bell of the University of California Davis and his colleagues "used a mathematical equation, called the Price equation, that describes the conditions for altruism to evolve," a recent article by the National Science Foundation explained. The researchers compared the genetic and the cultural differentiation between neighboring social groups and found that the role of culture had much more to do with our pro-social behavior than genetics.

That means that all those altruistic urges we feel, from serving as soldiers for our country to donating blood a few times a year is the result of people around us encouraging our behavior, rather than an innate sense to do good.

Bell is currently in Tonga doing additional research about the impact of culture versus evolution on pro-social behavior. In a short slideshow on the NSF's site, he says that he hopes "that in Tonga, through ethnography, I hope to estimate what kind of social learning preferences people may have and how does that affect the distribution of cultural beliefs?"

To do so, Bell is developing a survey instrument that will help capture people's cultural beliefs and measure the effect of migration on the similarities and differences between populations.

So how do you make more people make nice in your community? A lot of kindness starts with kids. To hear about an experiment in altruism in one kindergarten teacher's classroom, check out This American Life's podcast on The Cruelty of Children. In Act III, MacArthur Genius Grant recipient Vivian Paley tells the story of an experiment she conducted in her classroom to make children less cruel to each other.

Paley gave the children a rule: "You can't say you can't play."

"In other words, if two children are playing, and a third child comes over and wants to join them, they can't tell him or her to get lost. They can't reject him or her," This American Life describes.

Paley's effort to end one of the most common heartbreaks in classrooms and playgrounds turned out to be "a remarkable and immediate success." Her segment is at 46:50 of the Podcast.

Shall we try the same thing? How about a rule: No negative comments on this post. Can an online community work as well as the playground? Let's find out.