Is the "Fairness Gene" At Fault?

Recent sociological studies and experiments strongly suggest that human beings, indeed most if not all primates, have a genetically based “sense of fairness.” One experiment, for example, sets up a situation where one individual is given something of value, which either directly by its nature, or indirectly through trade or money, can be split. That individual then proposes sharing the item with a second. The first individual gets to propose the terms of division, and, if the second agrees, each gets to keep his or her share.

So… I’m given a hundred dollars. I can offer you anything from $1 to $99 [zero or a hundred wouldn’t allow a split]. If I offer you even $10, we’re both better off than before. But… neither people nor primates think or feel that way. In experiment after experiment, for the most part, people rejected anything less than a 30%-70% split — even though that meant neither got anything. The results, using food and other items, were similar among the primates studied.

So what are the implications of this finding?

One conclusion is that “justice” in human societies is not just a social, governmental, or even a practical requirement, but a fundamental physio-genetic one. If this were the only implication, matters wouldn’t look too bad for the future. After all, even in a totally secular society, it would appear that most people would still have a sense of fairness and justice.

A second and more worrying conclusion is that this feeling is not “rational,” not in the sense of being thought out. A “rational” individual would take any split, because in rational terms, he or she would still end up better off. And that implies that humans have great difficulty in being rational, no matter what we think.

Unfortunately, it seems to me that there’s yet another and far more disturbing possibility. First, of course, one must consider one of the basic conditions of the experiment, and that condition was that the recipient knew that neither party would get anything if “unacceptable” terms were offered and rejected.

Now… consider the world political situation today, with what appears to be an ever-growing divergence between the developed and the undeveloped world, as well as an increasing discrepancy between the wealthy and non-wealthy in the developed world. Throughout history, there have always been the haves and the have-nots, but until the age of modern and near-instant communications, those who were poor, whether the urban poor in the ghettos of developed countries or the masses of the poor in less developed lands, really had limited means of knowing how those who were so much better off lived. In a sense, they didn’t know how the resources were split, and how little they received. Now they do.

Could it just be that some, if not a large portion, of the current global unrest might just be the result of our species’ genetic need for “fairness,” a need that has not been historically as much of a factor because before modern communications the “terms” were not widely known? Interestingly enough, from what I can determine, prior to the eighteenth century and the beginning of “modern” communications, there were very few revolutions fomented by the middle class and supported by those below. Even the American Revolution was essentially an upper-class led uprising. “Popular” revolutions seem to be a comparatively recent development.

Equally important, rational and logical explanations of why these resource divisions are the way they are, such as capital investment, cost of innovation, payback for taking risk, the cost of advanced education, will not change most people’s opinions, because their response is in fact genetically programmed and results in an immediate and ongoing emotional reaction.

So… for all the rationality behind the increasing separation of the meritocratic elite and the working classes, or the distinction between the developed and developing world… with the “fairness gene,” how wide can that separation become and how long can it last?