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Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Workaholic gene: So that's my problem!

Gene Blocker Turns Monkeys Into Workaholics

"The gene knockdown triggered a remarkable transformation in the simian work ethic. Like many of us, monkeys normally slack off initially in working toward a distant goal"
I wrote another article about a gene for infidelity. The debate over potential applications for lifestyle altering genetic therapies is an old one, but the newer issue I've been pondering is the social impact on relationships when you have an assymetric interest in a behavioral change. It's even more interesting when one side of the assymetric interest is socially acceptable. For example:

In the infidelity case, one spouse may be interested in fidelity, and the other not as interested. And Western social mores prize fidelity. Moreover, the notion of fidelity may evolve; in the very young relationship both parties subscribe to it; later they may not. The impact on the existing social tension in relationships is quite fascinating to consider if we have a pill that can cause fidelity.

In the work ethic case we have an employee and employer on different sides. Here again, society may prize or value the hardworker over the slacker, putting additional pressure on the employee.

Keep in mind that both sides are not necessarily totally opposed. One spouse may find infidelity unacceptable, whereas the other finds is merely distasteful; they wish they didn't have the problem, but don't see anything particularly wrong with it. Who defines the acceptable level of hard work in the workplace or homework or childcare?

What happens when one side offers one of these therapies to the other? What is the social protocol for accepting? Declining? Is it considered a gift to take it? or will it be considered an entitlement? Will a medical organization issue recommendations for such therapies, and thereby be recommending correct behavior, for example, that for the public good we should be faithful or hardworking?

Does that sound crazy? Aren't we already dangerously close when the DSM coding (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, currently on version IV) is tied to the Prozac or Ritalin therapeutic? Isn't that a value judgement? (It's interesting to follow the debate on guidelines for the next DSM.)

It becomes interesting when social pressure, which originally had limited reach into your private behavior, may now have unlimited reach into the behavior of a population. We've seen this happen in risk adversion in the young, and I believe it is damaging to our long-term progress and survival. Uniformity and conformity may be more dangerous than the nuclear weapons in terms of our inability to adapt to survive the changes of the future. If the gene is being superceded by the meme, then uniformity of thought will be the end of our evolution.


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