HI network member Gene Robinson recently sat down with HCEO to discuss his research on what the genes, brains, and behavior of honeybees can tell us about human nature, an approach that he calls sociogenomics.

"The main issue is to reframe nature/nurture," Robinson says. "Nature/nurture has long been thought of as two separate forces, two separate influences more technically known as genes and the environment. It's possible to see things entirely differently thanks to the new science of genomics. Genomics has given us the tools to be able to study the activity of genes in real time."

Robinson and his team use animal models, which allows them to study gene activity very intensively, changing different variables, monitoring how changes in gene activity occur, and how those changes relate to behavior.

"The big discovery is that the gene expression in the brain is very, very sensitive to environmental conditions, and in particular to social stimuli. This really has changed the way we understand the regulation of behavior," Robinson says. "These changes in gene activity come from the environment. What that means then is that we can reframe nature/nurture. It’s not genes and the environment, both nature and nurture act on the genome, just at different time scales. A better way to see it is that there are long-term inherited changes and influences on the genome. This is what we call nature. And then there are more short-term environmental influences on the genome. This is what we call nurture."

Robinson notes that sociogenomics is built on two foundations. One comes from sociobiology, particularly the idea that social behavior has a biology, meaning there are mechanisms that regulate it and that there's an evolutionary history. The second comes from the science of genomics. "The first major discovery in the science of genomics is that all organisms are playing with the same deck of cards. That is, all organisms share a large number of genes," he says. "It has really revolutionized all areas of biology."

"Knowing that we’re all playing with the same deck of cards has given us strong analytical insights, as well as the tools to be able to understand and dissect social behavior, and its environmental influence at the genomic level," he says.

Robinson holds a Swanlund Chair at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he also serves as Director of the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology.