Behaving like monkeys

A couple of articles discussed recent research in to the genetic programming of fairness. A study by Keith Jensen of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology published in Science concludes that a sense of fairness is genetically encoded in humans, but not in chimpanzees. It is also apparent that some people are fairer than others. And the research suggests that it is as much a genetically programmed sense of fairness, rather than intellectually learnt.

Fairness is important to the stability and prosperity of social groups. The sense of fairness, and a willingness to punish the unfair even at some cost to oneself, is what allows large social groups to form. Without it, free-riders would ruin such groups, because playing fair would cease to have any value.

While I might frivolously accuse the “rich and powerful” of behaving like chimps when greed and power are displayed without empathy, the consequence of humanity having a significant proportion of the population without the “fairness gene” raises important paradoxes. If it is necessary that humanity’s social order becomes more equitable to resolve the pressures on the biosphere, and this requires individuals to give up excess consumption, how can those without the “fairness gene” achieve this? Perhaps it requires that those with the “fairness gene” behave less patiently (patience is the other advanced characteristic shared with the taxonomic tribe hominini) as this appears to help balance social exchanges. Further research might also indicate whether this “fairness gene” is more prevalent in some ethnic groups than others which might account for different social trajectories of societies around the world over the past 5 millenia. If so, as economic wealth reaches eastern and southern populations, the trend to equity would accelerate. We can hope so, anyway.

Further reading: Science Daily: Chimpanzees, Unlike Humans, Apply Economic Principles To Ultimatum Game; Science Daily: Genes Influence People’s Economic Choices; The Economist: Patience, fairness and the human condition; BusinessWeek: Of Economic Choices—Human And Otherwise


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