Is Selfishness A Brain Defect?

By Mark Esposito, Guest Blogger

120409-rhesus-monkey-130p.grid-4x2Duke neuroscientist, Michael Platt, has an intriguing theory. What if altruism isn’t just learned at your mother’s knee but is really a result of evolved brain chemistry? In a study he co-authored and published in the journal, Nature Neuroscience, Platt wondered why certain primates act unselfishly. Animal behaviorists have long known that monkeys will go without food rather than see a member of their species shocked, and mice will starve to avoid hurting other mice. Major news stories around the world  have told the tales of animals risking their own safety to protect humans and other animals. In one recent episode,  Binti Jua, a female gorilla saved a three-year-old boy from other gorillas when he fell into the gorilla enclosure at the Brookline Zoo.  In another, a dog in Chile dodged traffic on a busy freeway to drag his canine companion to safety after it  had been struck and rendered unconscious.

What isn’t known is the basis for this animal “morality.” Some scientists have theorized that this altruism is the result of emotions or simply instinct.  But Platt thinks the answer may lie deep in the recesses of the brain.  Using rhesus monkeys because of their  similarity to humans both anatomically and physiologically, Platt and his colleagues set up a simple experiment.  Monkeys were shown computer images which when correctly identified  resulted in a squirt of tasty juice coming their way. The monkeys quickly caught on that correct answers rendered a direct benefit. Then, the researchers changed the rules of the game. Instead of a correct answer getting the test subject a tasty squirt of juice, it resulted in one for their neighbor. Of course, the monkey had the choice to give no juice to their neighbor at all by simply refusing to play or answer incorrectly. The deciding monkeys consistently showed a pattern of doling out juice to their friends  And lest you think the other monkeys merely liked seeing the juice squirt anywhere, the experiment didn’t work when the scientists replaced the fellow primate with a bottle of juice as the beneficiary.

During the experiment, the scientists connected brain monitors to the monkeys to record any neuronal activity. What they found suggests that brain chemistry plays an important role in just how empathetic the primates behaved.  Platt concentrated his attention on a region of the brain known as the orbitofrontal cortex, which is known to play a role in reward processing. He found that when monkey benefited themselves,  neurons in a region called the anterior cingulate gyrus fired, but when the monkeys helped their friends different cells in the same area fired. Platt suggests that this rendering of pleasure from helping others may serve as the chemical basis for altruism. He even speculates that the finding has carry-over effects to human behavior.  Believing that the orbitofrontal cortex encodes vicarious experiences which account for happiness and sadness, he theorizes that “vicarious experience and reward is perhaps what actually drives giving behavior and perhaps drives charity in people.”

Could the lack of this neuronal activity account for selfishness?  If so, could its utter absence make a human a sociopath? The answer lies down the road but it could have a dramatic impact on the way we view human behavior and hence the consequences for that behavior.

Sources: msnbc and throughout

~Mark Esposito, Guest Blogger

63 thoughts on “Is Selfishness A Brain Defect?”

  1. I wonder … could it really be that simple?

    Good God! … was John Calvin’s theory of predestination more on target than not??!!

    😈

  2. idealist707 1, December 29, 2012 at 1:49 pm
    @Dredd and others who want to go further back in our evolution.
    For impatient monkeys, here is the link and then the presentation lecture.
    =================================================
    Thanks for the two videos.

    Dr. Jack is arguing semantics, evidently miffed off by creationists.

    His amygdala was acting up on several occasions in those videos.

    Like his apparent rejection of abiotic evolution as “real evolution.”

    That is not accurate.

    In addition to comments up-thread, here is a rebuttal by a scientist who is not itching about creationists, but instead is focusing on research:

    Many cellular processes are carried out by molecular ‘machines’… Despite much speculation, strong evidence of the mechanisms by which these assemblies evolved is lacking. Here we … determine how the complexity of an essential molecular machine — the hexameric transmembrane ring of the eukaryotic V-ATPase proton pump — increased hundreds of millions of years ago … Our experiments show that increased complexity in an essential molecular machine evolved because of simple, high-probability evolutionary processes, without the apparent evolution of novel functions.

    (Evolution of Increased Complexity in a Molecular Machine, Journal Nature, Jan. 2012). For a scientist to say evolution has nothing to do with the origin of life is laughable.

    Evolutionists have a rap for exactly when it occurred, and where, in terms of sequence of events.

    Clearly, the theories and hypotheses indicate that machines evolved into carbon based organic life on Earth about 3.54 billion years ago, which is about 10.51 billion years after evolution entered the picture at the Big Bang.

    Molecular machines are chemical, made up of atoms, but not biological.

    Therefore they are the subject of brain chemistry, as Mark mentioned, and would be the focus to answer the question Mark poses:

    What if altruism isn’t just learned at your mother’s knee but is really a result of evolved brain chemistry?

    Just sayin’ …

  3. most serial killers are generally referred to as a “lone wolf”

    not to be confused with loan sharks, although i seem to recall most great whites are solitary creatures.

    whether selflessness or selfishness is a survival feature would depend entirely on the situation.

    the idea does seem to bring out the best/worst in people though.

    accolades Mark 🙂

  4. MikeS, I’ll “give you a quote”. You stated “lone wolf is a perjorative.” In the American Indian culture “Lone Wolf” is a name given to great warriors and chiefs. In our culture there is a mystique to the lone wolf..self sufficient and mysterious. I guess it’s just different in Spindellworld?

  5. Mark,

    Two of my comments went into moderation.

    Please delete the first one, the second one is a correction to the first one.

  6. Mark asks:

    What if altruism isn’t just learned at your mother’s knee but is really a result of evolved brain chemistry?

    Brain. Chemistry.

    One nice thing about chemistry, it works the same in brains as it does elsewhere.

    The fundamentals of abiotic evolution say yes, chemistry can and did evolve for some 9.21 billion years prior to the beginning of biotic evolution.

    Machines evolved into biological life is the big story, but evolutionists and others shy away because it is inexplicable to our dangerous intelligence (Mayr).

    Example of scary evo words:

    Dr Clarke said: “There are a lot of fundamental questions about the origins of life and many people think they are questions about biology. But for life to have evolved, you have to have a moment when non-living things become living – everything up to that point is chemistry.”

    “Our cells, and the cells of all organisms, are composed of molecular machines. These machines are built of component parts, each of which contributes a partial function or structural element to the machine. How such sophisticated, multi-component machines could evolve has been somewhat mysterious, and highly controversial.” Professor Lithgow said.

    Many cellular processes are carried out by molecular ‘machines’ — assemblies of multiple differentiated proteins that physically interact to execute biological functions … Our experiments show that increased complexity in an essential molecular machine evolved because of simple, high-probability evolutionary processes, without the apparent evolution of novel functions. They point to a plausible mechanism for the evolution of complexity in other multi-paralogue protein complexes.

    The most complex molecular machines are found within cells.

    Writing in the journal PLoS Pathogens, the team from Queen Mary’s School of Biological and Chemical Sciences show how they studied the molecular machine known as the ‘type II bacterial secretion system’, which is responsible for delivering potent toxins from bacteria such as enterotoxigenic E. coli and Vibrio cholerae into an infected individual.

    Professor Richard Pickersgill, who led the research, said: “Bacterial secretion systems deliver disease causing toxins into host tissue. If we can understand how these machines work, then we can work out how it they might be stopped.”

    (Do Molecular Machines Deliver Toxins of Power?). Why the aversion to chemical evolution, whether in the brain or in the universe at large?

    Brave question Mark.

  7. P Smith 1, December 29, 2012 at 4:05 pm

    The claim is a load of crap. As Richard Dawkins showed in his film, “Nice Guys Finish First”, selfishness is the optimal survival strategy when animals interact on a one-time basis, but cooperation is the optimal survival strategy for animals that interact constantly.
    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
    idealist707 1, December 29, 2012 at 1:49 pm

    @Dredd and others who want to go further back in our evolution.
    =======================================
    Remember what the researcher / psychiatrist said in my comment up-thread:

    Are you aware that the bulk of current scientific knowledge has been discovered in the past ten years? And that many of the most original results have appeared in the last year?

    Time for us to stop showing baby pictures of the scientists of the old school, throw out the old textbooks, and stop buying them at second hand stores.

    That way we can open up our minds to see that human evolution is the most recent, and possibly VERY LAST thing in evolution:

    And what he [Ernst Mayr] basically argued is that intelligence is a kind of lethal mutation … you’re just not going to find intelligent life elsewhere, and you probably won’t find it here for very long either because it’s just a lethal mutation.

    (comment @ Mike S’s thread “Rugged Individualism“). I am beginning to think some of the folks here are lawyers who keep old books around so they can quote English Common Law cases from 1346 A.D. 😉

    I have never once heard a good discussion here about the epoch when there was no selfishness or altruism, in other words the greatest span of time when evolution took place:

    The Earth is said to have formed “around 4.54 billion … years ago” (History of Earth).

    Therefore The Big Bang happened about 9.21 billion years before the Earth formed (13.75 – 4.54 = 9.21).

    Biological organisms formed on the Earth about a billion years later, which would be ~10.21 billion years after The Big Bang.

    Humans, homo sapiens, are said to have evolved about 200,000 years ago, which would be ~13.7498 billion years after The Big Bang (13.7498 + 00.0002 = 13.75 billion years). Homo sapien evolution is 0.0002 billion years of the 13.75 billion year story.

    (Putting A Face on Machine Mutation). Discussing how altruism or selfishness first evolved (e.g. in the abiotic phase or the biotic phase?) would lend insight.

    For those who want to challenge biologist / evolutionist Mayr, it might be fruitful to explore the greatest evolutionary timescale to see if there was intelligence before abiotic evolution produced carbon, making biotic life possible (Did Abiotic Intelligence Precede Biotic Intelligence?).

  8. For those tired of my praising the Swedish way, here is an alternative which shows how rotten it is here. Unfortunately it is in Swedish, and given place in our second largest evening newspaper.

    A short summary.
    Sweden have politicians that use the revolving door, selling themselves to venture capitalists and industries that provide bad care for old people.
    CAREMA is largest private company in Sweden giving such bad care.
    As deregulation and costs have chased the public care facilities out of the market, CARREME dominates care for the elder.

    And they attempt via their lobbyists and media compannies to deny what doctors and other thousands have reported to the agency responsible for all social care and medical practice in Sweden. To what avail. Money speaks loudest. The patients/clients have no lobbyist.

    See if you can transate:

    http://www.aftonbladet.se/ledare/ledarkronika/anderslindberg/article15982972.ab

  9. If altrusim was the natural state of mankind, communism would be heaven and it isnt.

    This is a misunderstanding. For any community, (dog pack, group of apes in the zoo, suburban neighborhood, apartment building with 11 floors and 400+ residents, nation of 300 million people, etc.) it should be easy for the members of the community to realize that threats to one are threats to all, to a lesser or greater degree depending on circumstances. Thus, doing one’s part for the good of the community is not “altruism,” it is “good sense” and “successful behavior.” NONE of this implies any heavenly result or any ultimate health or economic success of the whole community, but without it, there will definitely be trouble, and strife, and all sorts of not great stuff.

  10. The claim is a load of crap. As Richard Dawkins showed in his film, “Nice Guys Finish First”, selfishness is the optimal survival strategy when animals interact on a one-time basis, but cooperation is the optimal survival strategy for animals that interact constantly. Nearly all socialized animals cooperate and take note of who is cooperative (e.g. bats that only share blood meals with bats they share a social bond, animals protecting the young of competing adults).

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I71mjZefg8g

    When I’ve said that before, inevitably some idiot says, “Why don’t we all steal if we meet other people only once?” They’re ignoring the fact that we are socialized animals with reputations that go beyond one-time meetings.

    Your action upon meeting with someone – shaking his hand or punching his face – is seen by others and there may be consequences. It’s never a “one time only” meeting unless no one ever sees or knows about it.

  11. Fisdicon99 Here. I read years back regarding monkeys with what they call schizophrenia. I believe the article was in Science or Nature. There was also an article on imitation rubies and microwave irradiation. < Key Note to the Monkeys. s/Fisdicon99.

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