Monday, October 6, 2014

Personalities Aren't Just For Humans

Recent studies show that animals far removed from mammals have recognizable personalities.

There are extroverted and introverted sharks in the same species.  The extroverts scare away threats by hanging out in groups.  The introverts head off alone to isolated places and rely on camouflage.

There are also aggressive and docile female communal spiders, common in the American Southeast.  Different mixes of personality are favored in different locations, with the proportion of each personality, which are hereditary, providing the first solid evidence of group selection.  The personality proportions remain the same, even in places where the radically different mix of aggressive and docile females found in local spiders of the same species would be more adaptive.

Anthropologists have demonstrated fairly convincingly that there are differences at the level of coherent ethnic, regional and national cultures in what would normally be considered to be personality traits, such as differences between cultural norms in Northern China, which was traditionally a wheat and millet farming area relative to Southern China, which was traditionally a rice farming area.  One of the ongoing debates in cultural history, anthropology and genetics is the extent to which a nation's "national character" is purely a product of cultural transmission, or instead involves (at least in part) differences in population genetic make up with group selection favoring different mixes of personalities in different environments that continue to manifest even as migration and cultural change make old the balancing selection that produced the ancestral mix of personalities of a "nation" dysfunctional in a new environment.  (The evidence concerning the wheat v. rice farming dichotomy in China tends to favor a cultural rather than a genetic source, by the way, which is the leading view, for the most part.)

While some seemingly complex phenotypes really do have complex genotypes as their source, other seemingly complex phenotypes can arise from just a single genetic locus (in the reference, butterfly wing patterns).  There are also a variety of candidate simple genes with apparent impacts on personality.  Scientists have similarly identified a very simple single locus that can be used to make fruit flies homosexual or heterosexual.

The relatively discrete personality categories observed in some species, patterns of balancing selection within groups of personality types, and the fact that, for example, the personality distribution of humans with high IQs is quite similar to the personality distribution of other humans, suggests like unlike massively polygenetic traits like IQ or stature with a quite continuous range of values and strong bias towards the fitness enhancing direction, that a fairly modest number of common genetic variants may account for personality differences.

But, large scale comprehensive searches for personality genes in humans have mostly come up empty.  Yet, there is strong evidence that personality has a strong hereditary component from sources like twin studies that strongly suggests that at least some genotype plays a major role in shaping a person's personality.  As recent studies of schizophrenia reveal, one problem with these studies may be insufficiently precise definitions of personality types to capture the link between genotype and phenotype.

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Not quite on topic, but also fascinating is a newly discovered species of parasitic ant that evolved from the species of ant for which it is a parasite (something confirmed with a genetic analysis), in the very same ant colony.  This is essentially the insect equivalent of vampires evolving as a new parasitic species of humans within a single human community.

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