Recently published research by scientists from Oxford University and the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, in the journal Evolution looks at the impact that genes ‘knowing’ which parent they come from has on how selfish or altruistic they want their carriers to be.
This is a process called ‘genomic imprinting’ and is related to the fact that, historically, women moved about more than men. This means that they are less related to their neighbours, and that our paternal and maternal genes are in conflict over how we should behave.
Dr Andy Gardner of Oxford University’s Department of Zoology, an author of the report explains it thus: ‘When women disperse more during their lifetime than men, as seems to be the case for ancestral humans, this leads to you being more related to your neighbours through your father than through your mother.’
The result is that our paternal genes encourage us to be altruistic whilst our maternal genes encourage us to be selfish. Not unnaturally, this leads to conflicts over social behaviour: the genes you receive from your father are telling you to be kind to your neighbours, whereas the genes you receive from your mother, try to make you act selfishly.’
It is not generally the view we have of our mothers, seeing them all as the compassionate and self-sacrificing kind, but if you are someone who has always battled against being selfish (though personally I’ve never seen anything wrong with it) then Dr Gardner has some reassuring news for you. He said: ‘What our research reveals is that the popular idea of someone battling their psychological ‘demons’, that are telling them to behave in a selfish way, has some basis in our genetic makeup – we are all coalitions of conflicting genes.’
So next time you are fighting for the remote control just smile sweetly and say it’s all the fault of your mother – telling someone you are a coalition of conflict in genes has got to be worth a try as well.
Let me know how you get on!