Tuesday, August 7, 2007

The Mean Gene

Recently I was attending the wedding of two very close friends. After the joyful, and for me, slightly tearful ceremony, I joined the rest of the guests outside and was excitedly chatting the typical talk that comes with a marriage ceremony: how beautiful the bride looked, how happy the groom was, whether or not there would be food before dinner. I was wearing what my friends had deemed a “fairy dress—“ a sort of pink tulle dress that was light, airy and gave me a great deal of happiness. In other words, everything up to that point was perfect.

I then ran into an ex-colleague from my days in medical school, and after I gave him my obligatory hug—a half hug for the half-hearted since I already sensed a poor encounter—he asked me what I was doing with my life. I told him that I was beginning law school in the fall, and he said, “Oh, so you changed your mind again?” And he added behind it what the casual observer would call a snide little laugh, as if to make his comment appear as some fantastic joke.

That hit me with a jolt. “What do you mean?”
“Well, isn’t that why you left first year?”
“Yes, and then I came back…”
“And then you left again.”

At that point, I left the conversation. I felt his rudeness was extraordinary, and he deserved second class status. It was particularly striking that he—a student who had left his PhD program, worked as a lab technician for a number of years, and then returned to medical school at the age of 30—could be so judgmental of someone else’s choices. At twenty-five, I’m not exactly out with today’s trash. Now, of course he cannot be faulted for his ignorance of the circumstances surrounding my years in medical education. But he can be faulted as being someone who felt perfectly fine acting as an asshole.

Later on, I began to think about meanness. I like to think that I make an effort to be kind to everyone I meet. But I’m not perfect, and I know that I’ve been less than pleasant on more than one occasion. I began to wonder, is there some evolutionary explanation for cruelty?

It turns out there’s been some research on the issue by scientists as prominent as Frans de Waal. But there is very little that is black and white in terms of cruelty, or for that matter, in terms of any emotion. A seemingly unalterable social hierarchy can change with new developments in a community--one such example is when a non-dominant male chimp obtains meat, a highly valued commodity, leading to the normally dominant males to beg him for a share in the prize.

Many scientists also believe that cruelty requires a theory of mind—that is, an ability to empathize. A behavior cannot be cruel, or kind for that matter, if one is not aware of the implications of said behavior. This perhaps explains the release of endorphins, the hormones responsible for "highs," that so often accompanies a cruel act. After a hunt, for example, the smell of blood and the sight of suffering often triggers such a release. Frans De Waal describes a couple of examples that demonstrate the cruelty/empathy foil well: chimpanzees luring chickens with bread, only to poke and harm them with wire as compared to a bonobo’s attempt to help a fallen bird to fly by emulating the creature’s behavior. Cruelty and compassion, then, are yin and yang to each other.

So what about humans specifically? Humans are social creatures and have lived in groups for the entirety of their existence. While intra-group cruelty exists, it is perhaps more common to think of it as a survival tactic to be used by one group against another. Its place can still be seen worldwide, from the horrific— genocide, wars, and gang battles—to the seemingly banal—the playground, women’s society luncheons, and gangs in musicals. Pitting one group against another, picking on another’s vulnerabilities—these are all staples of both ancient and modern society.

I eventually related this information to my life by deciding that the person I described at the beginning of this essay must have felt that he had some highly prized commodity to wave over me—namely, his medical school education. This would throw off the typical social hierarchy of my innate superiority, though only temporarily, and he was able to behave cruelly and assume I wanted what he had. He could then deem himself as having an advantage over me and experience the pleasure that comes from the release of endorphins in the brain.

Of course, as humans, the trick is that we all have differing views of what’s valuable and what’s not, so the justification for his cruelty, as seen by me, was unfounded and made him look like a bit of a doofus. I think that for a person who only has a B.S. in biological anthropology, that’s a pretty good explanation. But then, if someone wants to pit their dominance over me at me, by all means, go ahead.

Editor's Note: To read more about Frans De Waal, please visit the following sites.

Emory University Bio

Frans De Waal at Amazon

Audio Interview

Short Time Magazine piece

Short piece from New Scientist

1 comment:

Ishtar said...

Fascinating analysis of a most unfortunate situation. Men & women both often compensate for their own insecurities by putting down others. But this is the first time I've been aware of an evolutionary reason for this behaviour (I guess it only makes sense).

I find that, increasingly, I'm incapable of even being mean to those who have been mean to me or wronged me. It's not the worth the effort, for one. Secondly, it doesn't do anything for me. Thirdly, it just makes me feel bad that I would bow to that level.

So I try be warm, genuinely so, as much as I am able.

And what does another know of what we have experienced? How can anyone know of our trials and tribulations?

I'm glad you left that conversation. As Lucy of Peanuts might say, I would have slugged him.