Links Between Genetics & Social Status
By Terence T. Gorski
January 24, 2002
Genes and environments are locked together in complex loops that affect
each other. Certain environmental conditions stimulate the activity
of certain genetic traits. Other environmental conditions inhibit
the activity of certain genetic traits. This means that genetics
provide dispositions or tendencies that require certain environmental
conditions in order to be activated. Hence, genetics influence but
do not control or determine behavior.
Michael Nader and his
colleagues at Wake Forest University, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina,
examined whether there was any relationship between an animal's social
status and its tendency to get addicted.
They found that there was indeed a difference between the addictive
propensities of individuals. The difference seemed to be linked to a
cluster of factors including social status, personality style, and the
activities of a specific gene.
This difference in addictive propensities was note exclusively caused by
It was caused by an interaction between genetics and psychosocial
factors. Three seem to interact in a predictable but complex way to
raise or lower the risk of addiction. These three factors are:
social status/dominance, personality style, and genetic
Social status affects personality style by providing limitations within a
social context for action and reaction. A person born and raised in
the lowest classes of totalitarian kingdom in the middle ages would have
far more constraints upon access to knowledge, power, and influence than a
person born into a wealthy family of modern industrial nation whose family
has a successful history in business and politics.
Personality style is in turn is affected by genetic predispositions that
affect brain chemistry and behavior. People with genetic tendencies
that create aptitudes for social cooperation, assertiveness, and
intelligence will influence personality tendencies different than a person
born with genetic tendencies that create an aptitude for good hand-eye
coordination, the ability to notice cause effective relationships among
physical object, and the tendency to be shy and isolated.
These genetic predispositions create propensities and impose limits on the
ability of the individual to adapt and respond to certain social
The social and personality factors in turn influence the activation of
genes that regulate the base-line levels of dopamine and other
These differences in in neurotransmitter levels influence emotional and
motor responses and the ability tolerate and manage stress.
Different base-line levels of dopamine and other neurotransmitters, in
turn, cause differences in the subjective feelings experienced when
cocaine and other drugs are used.
An individual's position in a group's dominance hierarchy determines the
activity of a dopamine receptor protein called D2.
Socially dominant monkeys produce higher base-line levels of D2 than
monkeys who are not dominant.
Because D2 is a dopamine reuptake inhibiter, high levels of D2 result in
base-line levels of dopamine. Low levels of D2 result in low
base-line levels of dopamine.
Different levels of social dominance result in different base-line levels
of D2, which in turn causes different base-line levels of
Engaging in the behaviors needed to maintain high levels of social
dominance creates a tendency to produce high levels of D2 and
People who don't engage in the behaviors associated with social dominance
produce lower levels of D2 and Dopamine.
Individuals at the lowest end of the social dominance scale may have such
low levels of D2 that they could be described as having a dopamine
Cocaine can compensate for this deficiency because it is a dopamine
reuptake inhibiter that can raise the level of dopamine and normalize
So individuals with low levels of D2 and dopamine who take cocaine have a
normalization phase before the intoxication phase. When the Cocaine
is stopped, the dopamine levels return to their previous deficient
levels. This causes a return of the symptoms of dopamine deficiency
which creates a strong incentive to use more cocaine.
high dominance individuals have more D2 and hence higher base-line levels
of dopamine, they don't experience the symptoms associated with low dopamine
levels. When they use cocaine they feel a drug effect, but it is
less dramatic than the person with a D2 deficiency. This is because
they have higher levels of baseline D2 and dopamine and usually do not
experience the dysphoric symptoms of dopamine deficiency. When the
individual with high base-line levels of D2 stops cocaine, the level of D2
and dopamine return to the previous higher base-line level rather than to
lower deficient level. Hence there are no symptoms of dopamine
deficiency and no strong urges or cravings to use more cocaine to raise
dopamine levels to relieve those symptoms.
This study would suggest that people with low social dominance and social
status will have lower levels of D2 and lower levels of dopamine.
Those at the lowest baseline levels will tend to experience dysphoric
symptoms associated with a dopamine deficiency. When they use
cocaine they experience a normalization effect first and need to take more
cocaine to experience an intense high. When they stop they will
experience strong dysphoric effects as the dopamine levels crash back down
to their original deficient levels. This will create powerful
conditioned cravings that motivates continued use and can lead to
In contrast, people with high social
dominance and social status will not be likely to experience symptoms of
dopamine deficiency and would be less likely to seek cocaine or other
drugs to normalize relieve the dysphoria. Upon using cocaine they
tend to experience a less dramatic mood change because of a low relative
change in Dopamine levels. When they stop their dopamine levels will
tend to return to normal, rather than deficient levels. Hence they
will be less like to experience cravings to keep using and be less likely
to become addicted.
This does not mean that people with high social dominance and high social
status can't become addicted to cocaine. Clinical experience shows
that many do. It means that more cocaine will need to be used for
longer periods of time before craving, loss of control and addiction
occurs. The principles of tolerance dictates the frequent and heavy
use will alter preexisting brain chemistry processes. In essence, if
a person is taking cocaine which is producing a surplus of Dopamine, the
natural system for producing D2 will state to become lazy and slow down
the production of D2 lowering the natural level of dopamine and creating
need for the use of more cocaine to get the desired effect. Then
when cocaine is stopped, the level of D2 will be low and the person will
experience the symptoms of dopamine deficiency and be more likely to
experience craving and to keep using and become addicted.
following article from The Economist summarizes Michael Nader's