The Good Gene

September 2, 2013

6 min read


Attaining at-onement this Yom Kippur.

All my life I have started my daily prayers with the following inspiring words:

“My God, the soul you placed within me is pure. You created it, you formed it, you breathed it into me, and you guard it while it is within me.”

Our tradition assured me that I was basically good. Not a tabula rasa, an empty slate with no particular leaning towards sin or saintliness, as some philosophies would have it. Not with an innate drive for evil rooted in any primeval original sin, as other religions might preach. No, deep down there is an instinctive pull within me to the moral, to the ethical and to the honorable.

Reaffirming it every day has made it easier to cope with the inevitable temptations that come my way. After all, being good can’t be terribly difficult if it simply means that I’m letting myself be the “real” me.

Incredibly, a recent study has scientifically validated this religious conviction. I can’t imagine why it hasn’t received far more publicity. To my mind it may be one of the most theologically significant insights into human behavior. And if properly understood and taken to heart, it has the power to move mankind in ways never before imagined.

Different forms of happiness were associated with very different gene expression profiles.

The source is a study published last month in the proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Coming from the world of science, it doesn’t deal with souls. That isn’t something anyone has as yet learned to identify or calibrate. Instead, its subject is genes.

As summarized in an article in The New York Times with the intriguing title, They Know When You’ve Been Good or Bad:

“Our genes may have a more elevated moral sense than our minds do… They can, it seems, reward us with healthy gene activity when we’re unselfish – and chastise us, at a microscopic level, when we put our own needs and desires first.”

To speak of genes having a moral sense seems almost preposterous. But here’s what researchers from the University of North Carolina and the University of California did. They first had a “goodly” number of volunteers fill out a questionnaire asking them if they felt satisfied with their lives, whether they considered themselves happy, and, if so, to identify the cause of their greatest joy. They followed this up not with more questions, but by looking at the underlying cellular mechanisms that affect mood and health or, more specifically, the gene-expression profiles for the volunteers’ white blood cells.

Genes direct the production of proteins which jump-start other processes that control much of the body’s immune response. And here was the shocker: Different forms of happiness were associated with very different gene expression profiles.

We tend to use the word happiness indiscriminately, without any reference to what kind of pleasure we’re experiencing or the reason for our delight. It didn’t take too long however for the researchers to recognize a distinct difference physiologically between two kinds of joy.

One is what we would call hedonistic. It’s the result of eating a great meal, enjoying a fine scotch, or experiencing physical intimacy. It’s the body’s reaction to self gratification.

But there is a wholly different category of happiness for which we have the term eudaemonic. It is rooted not in getting but in giving. It is the happiness that comes from the sense of fulfillment that accompanies living a life of higher purpose and service to others. Even as it makes demands on the body and often times stands in the way of physical enjoyment, it succeeds on a higher level. It is the joy felt by a surgeon physically drained after a grueling but successful 12-hour operation. It is the joy felt by the rescuer of a drowning child, weary to the point of exhaustion by his efforts but overwhelmed by the knowledge that he was instrumental in saving a life. It is the joy felt by someone who has made a significant financial contribution, even more than his personal finances would allow, to a cause that epitomizes his highest values.

Our genes can tell the difference between a purpose-driven life and a life limited solely to the goal of self-indulgence

The researchers determined which of the volunteers were happy as a result of hedonistic or eudaemonic reasons. To their amazement, those whose happiness was primarily based on consuming things and physical gratification “had surprisingly unhealthy profiles, with relatively high levels of biological markers known to promote increased inflammation throughout the body. Such inflammation has been linked to the development of cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. They also had relatively low levels of other markers that increase antibody production, to better fight off infections.”

And those whose happiness stemmed from acts of kindness, communal service, or commitment to a higher cause? They had profiles “that displayed augmented levels of anti-body- producing gene expression and lower levels of the pro-inflammatory expression.”

Stephen W. Cole, a professor of medicine at UCLA and senior author of the study, concluded to his own astonishment that “our genes can tell the difference” between a purpose-driven life and a life limited solely to the goal of self-indulgence, and goes so far as to reward the former and biologically express its disapproval for the latter.

Allow me to put it in more spiritual terms. God created us in his image. God created us for a purpose. We weren’t placed on earth merely to be parasites. We have responsibility to others. We are implanted with an ethical and a moral code. And our genes know whether we are being true to our core identity that is rooted in sanctity.

As we approach the awesome day of Yom Kippur we can find new meaning in the name by which it has become contemporarily known in English, the Day of Atonement.

The word atonement can be divided into two. Yom Kippur is the day of At-Onement – the day in which we become one with God.

But now that we know the remarkable truth that our genes are motivated by a moral imperative we can go a step further. It is the day of At-Onement not only because we become one with God. By heeding the still small voice of the pure soul that God has implanted within us, we achieve the greatest blessing of all-At-Onement with the deepest recesses of ourselves and the spark of Godliness within us.

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