What makes us good or bad? Is it our surroundings? Our childhood? Or something deeply entwined in our genetic code?
A University of Exeter scientist has developed a breakthrough mathematical model which explores why some individuals evolve to be genetically nasty, or nice.
Dr Sasha Dall along with a team of colleagues around the world have designed a framework which applies to a range of different species and could help us better understand the evolution of society.
Rather than suggesting that these individuals are acting because of some self-taught heroism, the model predicts that some creatures in nature have been genetically bred to act in a way that we would perceive as selfless.
Bees are a prime example of this. As Dr Dall points out worker bees will selflessly lay down their lives if they know it means potentially saving the Queen.
The model then suggests that an individual can evolve into gaining a set of inherited genetic tendencies which then accurately predict the society into which they enter.
In the same way that a species will become a strong swimmer if it is surrounded by water so too do worker bees evolve to become selfless if they know that their society will flourish when the Queen stays alive.
Commenting on the paper Dr Dall said: As humans our behaviours are flexible and we base what we are meant to do on what we see after processing information about our world."
"However, some species rely on inherited instructions on what to do -- individuals behave differently according to which specific genetic variants they are born with.
"What we have been able to show is how you can get a situation where you end up with distinct levels of genetically determined niceness coexisting within populations."
Dr Dall along with lead author Professor Olof Leimar of Stockholm University are now hoping to test their model experimentally with other species with the hope being that it will better explain our own societal behaviours as humans.
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