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Do you inherit your morals?

Updated: Aug 26, 2020

Where do our morals come from? It's not something that’s usually spoken about by biologists, but recently I’ve been seeing a lot of papers suggesting our moral codes actually might be determined by our own DNA.

Morals don’t tend to make much evolutionary sense.


Imagine two animals, one selfless and one selfish. They have half the amount of food they have to survive the week.


The selfish animal will be more likely to steal from the other to make sure it has enough food to last the whole week. Which means its more likely to survive the whole week.


The selfless won't steal the others food, but may actually offer to share its food with the other which reduces its prospects for survival.


In short, selfishness should thrive in an evolutionary timeline. Right? It just doesn't make sense.


Scientists have shown that people taking serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI’s) otherwise known as anti-depressants, tend to make different moral decisions to those who aren’t on the drug. Which is absolutely crazy to me.


These scientists asked a group of people, all taking antidepressants, if they would allow a group of five people to live or just one person to live, given that the death of one party would be inevitable, they were overall all less willing to say that killing one person was more morally justifiable than the group of five.


This research inspired lots of other projects to take place, mainly looking at serotonin in making moral decisions.


They found that there are slight changes in serotonin genes ( this naturally happens in some of us).


Some of the genes were found to be long, and others short.


Those people with long genes had normal serotonin levels, those with shorter had lower uptake levels. The lower uptake levels were similar to those taking SSRI’s that we spoke about earlier, the antidepressants.



So what does this all mean?


Knowing that, meant that researchers unlocked a whole new chamber of secrets. They did more experiments and studied people who had these long and short genes. They asked them the same questions before, about the death of one person or of five and compared the answers.


They found huge differences in answers in people with short and long genes. They realised that having a long and short gene affects how morally conflicted you feel in making decisions.


This research went a huge way in showing that our genes are responsible for impacting our moral decision-making process. With one gene making us more emotionally charged, it seems that genetic factors really could go some way to explaining conflict between people when making moral decisions.

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