Are there gene variants in humans associated with a greater probability to help others in an emergency? That is, is being a hero in our DNA?
The question intrigued three friends—Alexis Chaine, Andy Russell, and Camille Bonneaud—all biologists and colleagues with diverse backgrounds but complementary skills and common interests in studying behavior and cooperation. They had been studying animals because these sorts of things are hard to study in people.
Or so they thought. They then heard a segment on Radiolab, a public radio show that highlights the links between science and society. The segment featured the Hero Fund and kicked off an animated discussion among themselves. Carnegie Medal awardees, these Ph.D.’s realized, could change everything, as they have shown a willingness to jump in and help others who are in dire need. “Studying the awardees would finally allow us to understand how genes might contribute to altruistic behavior in humans and possibly other organisms too,” Chaine said. Developing a research plan, the threesome managed to get funding for the study from the Laboratory of Excellence TULIP, a working group that Chaine is a part of. After a positive response from the Hero Fund, the project got underway earlier this year.
Altruism – where someone puts themselves at risk to help another – “captures our imagination in often repeated stories,” Chaine said, “yet we still have a relatively poor understanding of what moves people to be altruistic. Many might think of themselves as a hero, but only a minority has done something truly heroic. Why we vary in our propensity to participate in a heroic act lies at the heart of understanding societal stability.”
Recent research has shown that the environment and experience (such as training for rescue personnel) at key moments in life can influence a person’s future likelihood of helping others in need, by changing levels of hormones and neuro-transmitters. Many of these insights have been made possible by the participation in research studies by people like recipients of the Carnegie Medal. More recently, it has been suggested that how cooperative a person is might even have a genetic basis, meaning that people with certain genes are more likely to show a given behavior like cooperation under certain contexts.
“While it is abundantly clear that genes do not directly control behavior,” Chaine said, “we do know that variants of some genes are linked with differences in physiology that might make some people a little bit more likely to help in an emergency. We have been reaching out to the medal awardees to test this idea. Through this study, we hope to better understand the role that physiology and genetics may or may not play in heroic acts under specific situations. The participation of the heroes in this project is critical to the success of our research.”
Requesting participation by medal awardees in scientific research projects is not unusual. Results of three such studies have appeared recently in imPULSE: Over 100 years, heroes have grown older, while other factors show little change, by Temple University graduate student Thomas Dixon; Heroes may act first and think later, according to Yale Study on altruism, by Yale University professor David G. Rand; and Exploring similarities and differences in characteristic profiles of heroes, by Brian R. Riches, a doctoral student at Claremont (Calif.) Graduate University.
The Chaine et al. study, however, is unusual in its method, as participants are not being asked to be interviewed but to provide a sample of their saliva. DNA is then to be extracted and scrutinized for specific genes known from past studies to relate to cooperative behavior. Measures are being taken to ensure confidentiality of the information gathered and the anonymity of the participants. Initially about 130 of the most recent awardees of the Carnegie Medal have been asked to participate, with the researchers hoping for a target of at least 100 participants.
Chaine, Russell, and Bonneaud met at a remote field station in the French Pyrenees. All three were developing projects there, and chance would have it that they converged at that place and time despite their research activities throughout the world. Chaine grew up near San Francisco and is now a researcher at the National Scientific Research Center (CNRS) in France, with field projects in both France and California. He is particularly interested in social interactions between individuals in a variety of animals, and cooperation has always intrigued him.
Russell grew up in Scotland and has now settled down as a professor at the University of Exeter, U.K., after working in Sydney, Oxford, and Harvard. With main projects currently in France, Australia, and Finland, he is very interested in understanding to what extent the things learned from a variety of animals can be applied to humans. Bonneaud shared her time between Paris and California, and after conducting research at UCLA, Harvard, Sydney, and southern France, she is now a lecturer at the University of Exeter. Her focus is on how specific genes come about and spread through populations with her main projects in France and throughout the central U.S.
More information on their current project can be found at online.