I recently finished reading The Generous Man by Tor Nørretranders in which the author tries to explain the awkward act of giving away, charity, by invoking social mechanics – sex to be more accurate. People are generous, and by giving they prove they posses enough resources and skill to make it in the world with a handicap. As preposterous as it may sound, Nørretranders explains in a very optimistic and satirical manner how sexual selection and generosity are powerfully linked together going as far as saying that even science, which has altruism at its essence, is driven by sex.
However entertaining and even logical Nørretranders’ book is, I’m more inclined to perceive the scientific approach to altruism revealed in a recent study conducted by the University of Bonn and published in the journal Social Cognitive & Affective Neuroscience. According to the study, scientists have found a link between a genetic mutation of the COMT gene and altruism. The COMT gene is responsible for building instructions for an enzyme, which inactivates certain messengers in the brain – the most well known of these messengers is dopamine.
So has it people possessing the COMT-Val gene variant are twice as likely to donate to charity than people possessing the other variant, COMT-Met. This conclusion was taken after researchers worked together with psychologist Professor Dr. Martin Reuter who invited 100 of his students to take a “retention test”. Each student was presented with a series of numbers which they needed to memorize, after which they were required to repeat them as correctly as possible. For this task, each student was awarded 5 euros. Under the mask of anonymity and with complete free choice at their disposal, the student could either take the money with him and spend them or give it away to charity. “We always knew how much money was in the cash box beforehand and could therefore calculate the amount donated”, explains Reuter as to how the results became relevant.
The study might prove to be extremely valuable seeing how this is the first time researchers have managed to establish a connection between a particular gene and altruistic behavior. Previous studies conducted on sets of twins, which brought in similar results, enforces this theory.