Stress, Spite, and the Holidays

The holidays seem to add a burden that pushes people over the edge.

By | December 20, 2004

"The holidays seem to add a burden that pushes people over the edge. The biggest problem is domestic violence. Family disputes seem to erupt over the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. Everything from family members in a physical fight, to murders, or ADW [assault with deadly weapon] calls soar around this time."1

Nothing today attracts attention like bad news. Holiday stress has become as much part of the season as joy, and naturally the sharp businessperson is turning a buck. You can give your loved one a stress-busting chorale CD that "offers a concoction of joy to soothe the soul," or for the more extreme case how about a gift of an anger-management workshop?

So it seems like a good time to ask how biology might lend a hand by providing insight into (and, perchance, improvement in) human behavior. As life scientists look from molecular to systems biology for their inspiration, can we assist our colleagues in the social sciences in illuminating that most complex biological system of all, human behavior and social interaction?

Three articles in the Research section give a sampling of current thinking in the biology of behavior. One looks at the science of spite (p. 14). The field is not yet ready to tackle the gent in Boston who turned on his family with a carving knife when scolded for picking at the turkey.2 Instead it concentrates on the unvarnished brutality of social insects, where spiteful behavior is scientifically verifiable. Spite and the three other classes of behavior – selfishness, mutualism, and altruism – can be applied equally well to humans and to insects in theory. But, we are separated from our biology by culture, imagination, language, and intellect, allowing us, in the words of Richard Dawkins, to "rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators."3

This might suggest that we are a long, long way from a predictive understanding of human behavior, but biologists are on a roll in tackling daunting problems. Consider the sequencing of the human genome. Fifteen years ago it was an overwhelmingly difficult task; today, we have that sequence and are beginning to discover the rules used to build biological systems from component parts.

Can the biology of behavior be tackled in the same way? Possibly, yes. It depends on whether behavior is endlessly complex or whether a circumscribed set of actions and reactions can be identified and cataloged. If so, then this catalog and its interpretation will be the key that unlocks the door to fuller understanding of behavior.

The article on page 16 gives cause for optimism. Language, one of Dawkins' confounding factors, is being picked apart from an evolutionary standpoint, with the conditions leading to the rules of a "universal grammar," à la Noam Chomsky, beginning to take shape.

Another approach might come from studies of "man's best friend." As described by Clive Wynn in the Research Vision (p. 18), dogs have a firm grasp of human commands and cues, easily outperforming our chimpanzee cousins. From playfulness to curiosity, sociability to aggressiveness, dogs share the dimensions of human personality. Might they be superior model organisms for studying human behavior?

This is an area to watch. Over the next few years, the melding of life science and social science approaches will yield fascinating and valuable insights into what makes us and our society tick. And you can rely on The Scientist to cover it.

In the meantime, let's make the most of the season. From all of us at The Scientist, happy holidays!

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