french fries trans fat ban

One of the greatest accomplishments of the “public health advocacy” was the almost total banning of cigarette smoking in every public space. The campaign to ban smoking has now spread worldwide including, believe it or not, France. Anybody who ever visited a restaurant in France knows how revolutionary this change is.

Interestingly, the campaign to ban smoking gathered unstoppable momentum only after it was demonstrated conclusively that second-hand smoking is as harmful as the first-hand variety. Arguments of personal freedom, free choice, equal rights—all paled against the realization that smoking is injurious to the smoker and to the innocent bystander alike. Opposition to the ban didn’t quite disappear voluntarily, but in the face of overwhelming public demand, the laws were passed in all fifty states. From a biological perspective, this episode was a quintessential case of enforced altruism.

New York City’s ban on using trans fats in restaurants can be viewed in the same light. And as in the smoking case, it created a heated debate pitting civil libertarians, free marketers, civil rights advocates, and French fries aficionados against public health advocates.

When confronted with fraught issues that touch on human behavior, societal mores, conventions, and taboos, it is always instructive to examine what biology has to say about it.


What makes us tick?

Recent research in genetics, neurobiology, and evolutionary psychology reveals that a large component of our behavior is genetically determined. All we do with our thin veneer of civilized behavior is modulate, modify, tinker around the edges—the core is hardwired!


What can we learn from social insects?

In a previous post, we looked at the fascinating society of the honeybee. In that society, there is a queen whose sole function is to lay eggs, a few males (with the unsexy appellation of “drones”) whose function is to fertilize the female, and a vast majority of females, whose sole function it is to do the work. Mind you, these workers have functioning ovaries and are potentially fertile.

It has been known for a long time that social insects have a peculiar genetic system called haplodiploidy, which makes full sisters in ants, bees, and wasps related by ¾. This is 50% more than the standard value of ½ of other animals, including us.

The evolutionary theory to explain this unusual phenomenon is called the “kin selection theory” and was first proposed by W.D. Hamilton in 1964 (Journal of Theoretical Biology, vol. 7, pp. 1-52, 1964). Basically, the theory posits that workers evolved to create a closer genetic kinship in order to altruistically forgo reproduction because they can pass on more of their genes by raising siblings.

Implicit in this theory is that kinship encourages altruistic behavior. Indeed, there is a great deal of evidence to support it, but we really don’t need to go to the scholarly literature; just think of the altruistic behavior of 1st degree relatives, like parents toward their offspring, the somewhat less altruism shown by first cousins, and even less so by 3rd and 4th degree relatives. We ascribe it to love, devotion, or loyalty. But at its most fundamental level, it is evolution’s way of making sure we maximize the chances of our DNA’s survival.


Is that all there is to it?

Well, not quite. Comparative studies of several bee, wasp, and ant species (all social insects) show that genetics is not everything. In a fascinating paper titled “Enforced Altruism in Insect Societies” (Nature, vol.444, p. 50, 2006), Tom Wenseleers and Francis Ratnieks of the University of Leuven in Belgium show that altruism is modulated more by constraints on worker reproduction than by relatedness. Yes, relatedness does play a role, but more workers are fully committed to work rather than lay eggs when policing by others is most effective. The rules against workers engaging in the sin of egg laying are enforced by workers, and sometimes the queen herself, eating the eggs of those “rebellious” workers.


Fascinating indeed, but is there a parallel here to human affairs?

I think so. Genetic relatedness works in humans, as I alluded to above. To wit, mothers are more likely supporters of the campaign to ban trans fats than supporting the free choice camp. The campaign for healthy foods in fast food restaurants and supermarkets is spearheaded by parents of young children.

On the other hand, people who have no genetic relationship to children are more likely to oppose such “heavy-handed” regulation. They just don’t want to give up their cherished individual rights for the greater good of the community. Stated differently, they refuse to be altruistic.


So what is a society to do?

Enforce altruism through regulation, and punishment if need be. Sounds so illiberal, but sorry, it is purely biological.

One more thought on enforcement. The punishment meted out to the law-breakers is not designed to inflict pain, or “eliminate” them. Rather, it is designed to make breaking the law pointless and unrewarding. The enforcers simply eat the eggs!

Does punishment work the same way with humans? We’ll address this question next time. Stay tuned.

Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD
Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD loves to write about the brain and human behavior as well as translate complicated basic science concepts into entertainment for the rest of us. He was a professor at the University of California San Francisco before leaving to enter the world of biotech. He served as the Chief Medical Officer of biotech companies, including Aphton Corporation. He also founded and served as the CEO of Madah Medica, an early stage biotech company developing products to improve post-surgical pain control. He is now retired and enjoys working out, following the stock market, travelling the world, and, of course, writing for TDWI.