The “Selfish” Gene

September 23, 2012 § 1 Comment

Genetically engineering one’s kid to be altruistic would be, in my opinion, a terrible idea. Altruism is “the belief in or practice of disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others.” I would like my kid to be kind, sure. But like any parent, I imagine I’d want my child to have the best life he or she could have, and oftentimes, you have to be a little selfish to get what you want. Of course, this all depends on just how altruistic this “altruism” gene would make the child. If it was just “I’m going to make it so my kid’s the kind of person who would allow his friend to have the last candy, even when he wants it for himself,” then that’s one thing. Having a child so altruistic that he would grow up to pass on promotions because someone else wanted the same promotion is another thing entirely. What if the kid turned out so altruistic he couldn’t even support himself because he gave everything away?

The thing about altruism is that, by definition, it does not help the person being altruistic—except by perhaps ingratiating him to others. As a society, we value altruism because selflessness is upheld as a virtue. Certainly, it makes our world a more pleasant place in which to live. But as a mother, I’ll care more about the possible negative effect an overactive “altruism” gene might have on my child’s personal wellbeing than the possible positive effect it might have on the nebulous societal wellbeing.

In addition, I feel like there’s a big difference between “programming” a child with things like height, hair color, and diseases-susceptibility and programming him or her for traits that edge closer to the “nurture” side of the nature/nurture spectrum. Some people are naturally more selfless than others, sure, but life events affect one’s attitude to a great degree. I could just imagine my kid getting some kind of complex because every time he or she has a selfless thought or wants to help someone, s/he thinks, “Is this really me? Am I just feeling this way because my parents gave me this gene?”

There might come the situation, of course, that everyone starts programming their kids to be naturally altruistic. If this were possible, our world might run more smoothly (Or it might not. Would excessive altruism lead to less competition and less drive to succeed and innovate? Or perhaps the same drive would be there, but be supported instead by a desire to make the world better and easier for all). However, I find it hard to believe that such a situation would ever exist. As I said, on the whole, parents will act in whichever way will give their offspring the best possible chance at life, and bestowing them with a tendency for altruism just won’t provide the benefit they desire.


-Kat Zhang


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