Tank fires in Mariupol
Pro-Russian troops fire from a tank during fighting near the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol, Ukraine. REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko

Various pundits have speculated as to the reasoning behind Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Was it antagonism toward the West and NATO, or an attempt to re-unify the former Soviet bloc, starting with his incursion into Georgia in 2008?

Putin stated, for popular consumption within Russia, his desire to “de-Nazify” Ukraine. This is bizarre as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is Jewish.

What motivates Putin and despots like him? Setting aside the “blame-their-mothers” explanation as not at all likely — or at best playing a minor role — could there be reasonable alternative explanations for egocentric behavior?

Why are these men aggressive, greedy, dispassionate and corrupt while the majority of humans are quite the opposite? Political corruption, excessive greed, voter suppression and warfare are most often activities of a few notable men. There have been ruthless and belligerent leaders throughout history.

These humans began their lives as beautiful little cherubs, then were slowly transformed into monsters. Why are these few individuals lacking in compassion?

Our species, Homo sapiens, has existed for 300,000 years, but we did not evolve alone. There have been dozens of other hominin species, very similar to ours, that co-existed together. Living in a brutally harsh environment, competing for food and territory, it was the fittest species — us — that outwitted, outplayed and outlasted all the other hominins.

Given the competitiveness necessary to survive in pre-historic times for early humans, it was likely necessary to be combative and hostile to outsiders. At times we were savage. We are a species whose ancient genetic survival traits remain vibrant. 

It has been estimated that as much as 50% of our behavior is genetic. With the exception of identical twins each of us has a unique DNA makeup. The Minnesota Twin Studies have shown identical twins, separated at birth and raised in different homes, have as adults remarkable similarities in behavior, temperament and attitudes. Children often show behavioral similarities to their parents and their siblings but not as similar as identical twins.

There is a plethora of scientific research which correlates certain behaviors with DNA. One’s unique DNA codes for numerous brain chemicals, their pathways and associated structures that together with environmental circumstances influence behavior. 

Excessive greed and ruthlessness are associated with individuals who possess the shorter version of the brain-associated gene AVPR1a. The longer version of this gene is associated with normal behavior. Uncontrolled anxiety and aggression are most prevalent in those individuals who have a variant in the neurotransmitter serotonin’s pathway causing a lower level than normal for serotonin. 

We have the rational thinking ability to comprehend consequences. We can foresee various outcomes which may lead us to fame or imprisonment. Having inherited a particular gene variant may play a role in one’s abnormal behavior, but genes alone do not predetermine an individual’s specific behavior. Environmental factors play a role as well. Most of the time we can make rational decisions as to the level of behavior we express.

Our well-developed brains have inspired humans to develop democracies, constitutions, agreements, pacts, alliances and treaties to avert wars and live peacefully. These efforts have not always been successful. Unfortunately, there are individuals who either lack the ability or interest in behaving humanely. Nothing can be done to alter the genetics of any individual. Dictators still run rampant over peace-loving peoples.   

It could be stated that we are witnessing a darkened theater where corruption of human nature by vanity, greed, aggression, ethics blindness and lack of compassion have taken center stage. Savagery may be in our genetic heritage.

To counter this notion of savagery is the extremely heartwarming and worldwide support for Ukraine as well as the imposition of sanctions, boycotts and seizures of bank accounts and yachts. The devastation wrecked upon the people of Ukraine is sad. Even the citizens of Russia will suffer, but not to the extent of the brutal suffering caused by Putin to the Ukrainians. Unfortunately, there are Putin sympathizers in the United States including a few politicians and TV commentators.  

To combat the misinformation, conspiracy chatter and political propaganda emanating from the extreme right we must ensure that our children are well educated in both the sciences and the humanities.

The future may look dark, but with young people such as Greta Thunberg, the Swedish activist who has led climate change protests worldwide, and Amanda Gorman, the National Youth Poet Laureate who performed in President Biden’s inauguration, there is a glimmer of light for the future of humanity.                                                         # # #

Ron Newby is a retired research biologist from the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California. He was the director of the Bronowski Art & Science Forum from 1999 to 2012. He is the author of “Tribalism: An Existential Threat to Humanity.” He lives in Del Mar.