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Human Behaviour: Can we really move beyond innate genetic programming to fight for resources?

Tuesday 9 February 2010
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We exhibit a bewildering variety of behaviours, from selfishness, violence and war to altruistic charity giving or volunteering. Our Future Planet considers the evidence.

There are some serious challenges facing tomorrow’s planet. It’s obvious that resources are diminishing, and this will require new ways of thinking or a new kind of politics is likely to be necessary to face these realities.

But perhaps more fundamentally, can we really move beyond innate genetic programming to fight for resources? And are opportunities for our global future defined by our genetic mindsets and behaviours?

It’s a disconcerting argument, because whilst many of us would like to believe in a more altruistic nature, few of us would allow our own children to starve for the benefit of others. Expressed in such stark if simplistic terms, it’s tough to see beyond inbuilt mechanisms to protect and nurture our own gene pool.

State of mind

It might be argued it’s up to Nation States to take a lead in such arguments, especially given the fact governments control volumes and directions of foreign aid and policy. A recent report by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, ‘Public Health: Ethical Issues’, asks: ‘Is it entirely up to us as individuals to choose how to lead our lives, or does the state also have a role to play?’

Interestingly, the report notes that in many cases ‘‘Choices’ that individuals make

about their lifestyle are heavily constrained as a result of policies established by central and local government, by various industries as well as by various kinds of inequality in society.’

‘People’s choice about what to eat, whether or not they allow their children to walk to school, or the kinds of products that are marketed to them, are often, in reality, limited. This means that the notion of individual choice determining health is too simplistic.’

Maybe it’s possible to apply a similar logic to unselfish or selfish behaviour. Perhaps external drivers have a greater impact than we may imagine on how, where and why we choose to act ‘ethically’ or not.

The Nuffield report continues to explain: ‘John Stuart Mill’s ‘harm principle’, to which we refer as the ‘classical harm principle’, suggests that state intervention is primarily warranted where an individual’s actions affect others.’

But perhaps there’s a need to reverse this logic, a need for individuals to intervene when the state fails to adequately represent their ethical desires through foreign and domestic policy decisions, through failure to deliver effective tax breaks to charities, or failure to invest in sustainable forms of trade with developing countries.

These are very simple ways we might change day to day living to a more equitable type of ethics.

Taking action

Richard Evans is Director for Ethics Etc. It’s an independent consultancy partnership, offering services to businesses or social enterprises to help them respond effectively and efficiently to the need for a more just and sustainable society.

“The scope of the article you are trying to write seems very broad, but maybe boils down to the old theoretical dilemma, for biologists and ethicists, about nature and nurture.” he suggests.

“I hope Our Future Planet will eschew the largely sterile and insoluble theoretical argument and embrace people’s ideas for action and evidence.”

“I cannot reconcile the determinism of the ‘selfish gene’ notion with the evidence I see in society, though I have no difficulty in recognising that individuals and communities behave selfishly.”

“Whatever theoretical basis for such behaviour may be hypothesised, we know from our own choices, and are able to observe in others, that people and communities make conscious choices that are selfish.”

“We also know, and are able to observe, people and communities making altruistic choices, putting the interests and benefit of others above their own or their community’s.”

Evans goes on to note two obvious topical examples, bankers currently awarding themselves bonuses of nauseatingly large amounts of money, and justifying the action in terms of some market-mediated benefit for all. He contrasts this with the response of individuals, groups, churches, organisations and national governments to the humanitarian relief effort in Port Au Prince.

“From an empirical perspective selfish behaviour is unethical and unsustainable. Selfish behaviour is not inevitable. Whether biologists understand the reasons why, or not, we are human and we make determinate choices, and our choices always affect others.”

Perhaps what’s most important are not theoretical or practical elements to the argument, but instead fostering a wider willingness to take responsibility for how each of the decisions we make daily changes our planet and the people living on it.

Planetary ethics

Another Nuffield report, ‘Genetics and human behaviour: the ethical context,’ observes: ‘There can be no doubt that genes do make some contribution to behavioural traits, including fundamental aspects of human character. Since people do not choose their genes, and are therefore not responsible for them, it seems to follow that they are not responsible for these aspects of their character.’

Whilst this may well be true in an isolated research or clinical sense, the argument doesn’t do much to explain how we might improve or better understand the world we live in and how we react to and treat one another.

Yet the report continues: ‘Any sensible understanding of human freedom and dignity must allow for some starting point in the development of the abilities which are central to this freedom and dignity.’

‘Behavioural genetics promises to elucidate this starting point, and thereby contribute to the understanding of humanity. But it no more offers a complete theory of human behaviour than does any other single scientific discipline.’

Maybe in the final analysis it is just not possible to use any one field of science, any one example of altruism or selfishness to determine how we might improve the future. The complexities of our behaviour seem governed by vast, changing scenarios and drivers that impact in many different ways.

Perhaps only as individuals can we rationalise our unique viewpoints and actions, and only as individuals can we choose which behaviours seem the best ones.

What are your views?  Not sure? Read the resources below for more information. Add your comment below. We welcome your thoughts and proposals. Not a Planetary Citizen? Sign up to Our Future Planet now!

Resources:

The Guardian: Living our values Social, ethical and environmental audit 2005
Nuffield Council on Bioethics: Mental disorders and genetics
Nuffield Council on Bioethics: Genetics and human behaviour the ethical context
Nuffield Council on Bioethics: Public health - ethical issues
Big Picture: The wonder of you - Exploring your genetic identity
The Cooperative Bank - The Partnership Report 2000
BNFL: Corporate Social Responsibility Report 2003

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