Gene of the Week: the Ruthless Dictator Gene

Posted by Jesse Reynolds April 9, 2008
Biopolitical Times

Nature opens a news article with this:

Could a gene be partly responsible for the behaviour of some of the worlds most infamous dictators?
Selfish dictators may owe their behaviour partly to their genes, according to a study that claims to have found a genetic link to ruthlessness. The study might help to explain the money-grabbing tendencies of those with a Machiavellian streak - from national dictators down to 'little Hitlers' found in workplaces the world over.

Reading the article a bit more deeply, one learns that the researchers based their conclusions on a well-known psychological game in which volunteers (in this case students) are given money, as well as the power to distribute it among other people. The researchers looked at a gene that had previously been linked to "pro-social" behaviors, and found a correlation. The students who kept the money for themselves instead of sharing it were more likely to have a shorter version of the gene.

Psychologists and economists have nicknamed this experimental situation the "Dictator Game." Although the researchers who used it in this study reference the name of the game in the title of their article, they phrase their observations in terms of the degree of "altruism" exhibited. But Nature's reporter casts the experiment as revealing a "ruthless dictator gene." In turn, that framing was adopted by various othernews outlets, using attention-grabbing titles like "Some are born despots" and "Dictatorship may lie in ones genes."

This case goes a step beyond the excessive simplification of much reporting of genetic associations, which too often touts the gene for happiness, aversion to foods, or propensity to vote. And it goes beyond typical misleading framings that, once established, dominate news coverage. In this case, a news article in one of the world's most respected scientific journal tells us that a genetic characteristic can lead to the worst of possible human behaviors. To the extent that this framing becomes adopted as truth, how will society react to the identification of the gene in individuals? Or in fetuses? Or during preimplantation genetic diagnosis?