In the recently published article ‘Association of MAOA-uVNTR Polymorphism with Subjective Well-Being in Men,’ a team of researchers was able to statistically monitor the impact of the monoamine oxidase A gene (MAOA) on the subjective evaluation of well-being among men. This work became the latest step towards an understanding of how genes can affect social phenomena.
In a recent column, one of the article’s authors, Laboratory for Comparative Social Research Head Eduard Ponarin, discusses why sociologists should care about genetics.
Our laboratory’s interest in genetics mostly stems from the fact that we are seeing in research how society is moving from one condition into another. The bulk of these studies are devoted to modernity and are largely connected to the theory of modernisation, which assumes that when living conditions improve people shift from basic needs (safety, survival, etc.) towards higher level needs related to freedom of choice, for example. This is how social, economic, and political transformations take place, including the emergence of democracy.
If we monitor the evolution of civilization since ancient times, researchers mostly link differences in societal development with geographical characteristics, culture, and the nature of institutions.
Societies near the equator that have a very warm climate are more prone to epidemic disease due to an abundance of harmful microbes. A long history of survival has taught these societies to avoid contact with other people (potential spreaders of new illnesses) and to keep to smaller blood-related groups. This is at the same time that large collectives of humans are necessary for the development of a complex society.
The situation is different in the valleys of the large rivers of the tropics, where the first civilisations developed in the hot but dry climate. Under these conditions, large agrarian collectives arose that were tied to natural water resources or irrigation systems. When invaders triumphed there, these societies had to obey and pay tribute or else go into the desert and face certain death since they could hardly survive without farming.
This sort of development of civilisation led to what Karl Marx called the ‘Asiatic mode of production,’ which is when people are bound to water resources and the rulers who control them. Despotism would generally arise in these societies.
In moderate geographic areas with a cooler climate and a lot of water resources, farming communities arose later on and differed in their significantly individualistic autonomy. This made a more contractual relationship between the individual and the state possible. Additionally, individual autonomy contributed to the emergence of democracy and more effective economic systems.
In his book Freedom Rising, Christian Welzel posits that societal culture is formed based on climate and geography, and this culture is what defines the institutions that are created. If the institutions are imposed on society from within, and if by virtue of its culture this society is not prepared to accept them, then the institutions will not work. An example of this point is Russia during the 1990s, when an unsuccessful attempt was made to create institutions using the western example.
Researchers also consider genetics to be one of the possible factors that impact culture. In its development, humanity has gone through so-called ‘bottlenecks,’ when its population was very small due to various catastrophes. Genetic material was subsequently rather homogenous, which is why all individuals who are currently alive are more similar to one another than certain types of animals that live in the same pack. Over the course of many millennia, starting from the last catastrophic event roughly 70,000 years ago, smaller human collectives nonetheless split up in different directions. In one of these groups, a certain variant of a gene might suddenly disappear (due to a low number of groups and their being relatively isolated from one another), while a different type of gene might disappear in another group. Because of this, in different parts of the globe people are still somewhat different from one another in light of genetic drift.
There is also the assumption that different types of societies need different human qualities. For example, in a primitive communal system the ability to concentrate on a single job was not as important as the ability to respond instantaneously to danger and protect yourself from harm. When governments appeared, the social order became more complex. New types of jobs emerged that were generally not carried out previously, and these jobs required that people have new qualities, including the ability to carry out monotonous tasks without getting distracted. These necessary qualities gain traction in a culture through value paradigms (the idea of right and wrong), and in different societies they can differ from one another considerably. It can also not be ruled out that at the genetic level certain characteristics can prevail in light of social selection or that they can randomly be due to genetic drift.
Based on these assumptions, my colleagues from the RAS Vavilov Institute of General Genetics and I looked at the impact of certain genes on social, psychological, and even economic phenomena.
The article that was published describes just one of the study’s results. The study, which is not yet complete, focuses on the connection between life satisfaction and the genetic factors behind stress. It is thus far clear that we were able to use statistics to confirm the impact of MAOA, which regulates monoamine oxidase, on the subjective sense of well-being.
Monoamine oxidase is an enzyme that deactivates adrenaline, serotonin, and dopamine, that is, the substances that help regulate brain activity. They impact emotions such as happiness, bad moods, and depression, for example.
The gene that codes monoamine oxidase in a person can exist in different forms. One (4R) gives off a higher quantity of the enzyme, while another (3R) is less active and a smaller amount of monoamine oxidase forms in its carriers. We studied the link between forms of the gene and self-assessed well-being.
We were able to establish this relationship thanks firstly to research on DNA extracted from a biological sample (spit) of men from six Russian regions, and secondly to a comparison of their genotypes with their answers to questions concerning their sense of well-being, or conversely, the feeling of alarm and danger.
The study showed that compared to carriers of the 4R allele, carriers of the 3R allele more commonly assess their situation as safe and often say that they are happier. These differences were reproduced in all of the regions under study and among all representatives of all ethnic groups involved in the study.
It is important not to forget that genetics is not a strictly deterministic factor. Its impact on a subjective sense of happiness and well-being does not exceed 30%-50%, which is in line with previous research. Additionally, the contribution of individual genes is estimated to be no higher than 4% or 5%. The influence of genes is probabilistic in nature and also connected to the environment in which an individual lives. The same type of gene can manifest itself differently depending on a person’s living conditions.
Study Authors: Eduard Ponarin, Ronald Inglehart (both from the HSE Laboratory for Comparative Social Research), A. Gureev, E. Ananieva, A. Rubanovich, and S. Borinskaya (all from the Vavilov Institute of General Genetics)