Could be, according to a new study that suggests how well we empathize is influenced by our oxytocin receptor gene. The hormone oxytocin, as regular readers of this blog will remember, has long been linked to our sense of trust and desire to connect with others.
We inherit a variation, or “allele,” of the receptor gene from each parent, and Oregon State University psychologist Sarina Rodrigues and her colleagues found that the most empathetic people had two copies of the G allele. Those who had two copies of the A allele or one copy of the G allele and one copy of the A allele had a tougher time reading others’ eye expressions and emotions. Of course, genes alone do not dictate behavior, Rodrigues cautions:
I tested myself and while I am not in the GG group, I’d like to think that I am a very caring person with empathy for others. These findings can help us understand that some of us are born with a tendency to be more empathic and stress reactive than others, and that we should reach out to those who may be naturally closed-off from people because social connectivity and belongingness benefits everyone.
Kristi Scott, a doctoral student at Southern Illinois University, has written a thought-provoking paper about the ethical dilemmas surrounding cosmetic plastic surgery, especially when it comes to misrepresenting our genetic code and fitness to the opposite sex.
As Scott explains:
Evolution continually selects the best genes to proliferate the species. Emerging cosmetic plastic surgeries allow us to bypass our genetic code and cheat our naturally predetermined appearances by altering the perceived external flaws and ignoring the intact internal code where the “flaws” remain. Without these self-identified unwanted physical attributes, people who otherwise might not have been perceived as desirable mates for procreation allow themselves to be perceived as desirable enough to pass on their genes. … What we see on the outside is not necessarily what we are going to get on the inside, genetically speaking.
Which means those who have had cosmetic surgery owe it to their potential mates to disclose which procedures they’ve had, Scott writes:
Genetically it is important to communicate and give a visual reference so that the mate/potential mate is aware of what genetic predisposition they are getting involved in.
This disclosure then opens up for discussion whether or not that attribute that was modified by CPS will be a problem to pass on to potential offspring. In addition, there is a question of how the two individuals will deal with the attribute if it does produce itself in their offspring. As parents, will they raise the child to handle the attribute by acceptance (in contrast to how the parent handled it), or will the child grow up to receive a similar CPS to “correct” the attribute? This decision starts a spiraling decision process of parent to child in dealing with the “undesirable” attribute. Without the availability of CPS, the attribute may have been hindered in procreation, and been naturally weeded out, but with CPS it is given a potential chance to continue on, despite its perceived lack of desirability.
Biosocial criminologist Kevin Beaver and his colleagues at Florida State University have a new paper that looks at the link between genetics and violence. According to their study, boys who have a particular variation of the gene Monoamine oxidase A (MAOA) are more likely to join gangs, behave violently, and use weapons. (While previous studies have linked this variant to violent behavior, this is the first to show it can predict gang membership.) The findings do not apply to girls who have the same variation of the gene, however.
Beaver explains why:
What’s interesting about the MAOA gene is its location on the X-chromosome. As a result, males, who have one X-chromosome and one Y-chromosome, possess only one copy of this gene, while females, who have two X-chromosomes, carry two. Thus, if a male has an allele (variant) for the MAOA gene that is linked to violence, there isn’t another copy to counteract it. Females, in contrast, have two copies, so even if they have one risk allele, they have another that could compensate for it. That’s why most MAOA research has focused on males, and probably why the MAOA effect has, for the most part, only been detected in males.
The MAOA gene affects the levels of neurotransmitters like dopamine (often called the brain’s “feel-good” chemical) and serotonin (linked to mood and emotional control), and researchers say the variant of the gene that predicts violence is hereditary.
Dr. Alberto Halabe Bucay from Mexico has put forth a startling new idea: He says that the feelings we experience during our lifetimes can affect the way our children develop. His theory is that the hormones and chemicals generated by our brains when we’re in different moods can influence the way genes are expressed in the “germ cells” that become eggs and sperm. These cells are responsible for getting genes into the next generation.
“It is well known, of course, that parental behavior affects children, and that the genes that a child gets from its parents help shape that child’s character,” Halabe Bucay explains. “My paper suggests a way that the parent’s psychology before conception can actually affect the child’s genes.”
Keep in mind, however, that the paper appears in the journal Bioscience Hypotheses, which publishes groundbreaking ideas that haven’t yet been peer-reviewed or tested by other scientists. —Heather Wax