Is Common Sense a Genetically Inherited Trait?

Please read the information on this link and any other stories about individuals eliminating their genes from the gene pool that you would like to read. Some of the stories are pretty funny!


The theory of evolution claims that organisms in a population that hold traits that put them at a disadvantage for survival are less likely to reproduce, thus changing the overall characteristics of the population over the course of time. Advantageous traits begin to appear more frequently in the population while disadvantageous traits disappear. This mechanism of evolution has to do with whether certain genes are passed on to the next generation or another, meaning that only genetic traits can be affected by evolution. However, what aspects of an organism are controlled by genetics? For example, in human beings it is clear that physical traits are controlled by genetics, but what about our personalities and characters? Are these traits genetically inherited as well?


In 1993, a biological researcher at Stanford University began an email that listed ridiculous things that individuals did that resulted in their deaths. She used the premise that these individuals had removed themselves from the gene pool through lack of common sense and had actually done humanity a favor by removing their lack of common sense from the gene pool. The interest in the email grew and soon people began sending her other stories that they had heard. So many emails were sent that the Stanford email server was overloaded. To avoid interference with the email server, she began a website that handed out awards to individuals “who significantly improve the gene pool by eliminating themselves from the human race in an obviously stupid way.” She gave each individual who did this a “Darwin Award” for helping eliminate his or her genes from the gene pool.


The requirements for such an award are simple. The individual must be unable to reproduce, which means that he or she must be dead or sterile. They became sterile or died because of an “astounding misapplication of judgment” and caused their own demise. Lastly, they must be mature enough to be capable of sound judgment and the event that is depicted must be an event that actually happened. A side criterion is that their actions must have caused harm only to themselves. The nominees cannot cause harm to others or remove other people from the gene pool because of their actions.


The awards seem to claim that common sense is an inherited trait that can be passed genetically from parent to offspring. The whole point of the awards is to remember and recognize those who protected the human gene pool by removing themselves from it through a lack of common sense, but it is unclear whether common sense is actually an inherited trait. The offspring of the individual who removed himself or herself from the gene pool may have been capable of a great amount of common sense and made better choices than their now dead parents made. In this sense, the Darwin Awards seem to be somewhat of a misnomer because the elimination of the trait that they are rewarding individuals for may not even be an inherited trait. In this sense, these awards should not be named the Darwin Awards, since the individuals who eliminated their genes from the gene pool were not eliminating the gene that caused their death. No gene has yet been proven to control common sense or whether an individual has common sense.


Another interesting aspect of these awards is the rhetoric that is used on the website’s page dedicated to explaining the history and rules of the awards. The page discusses how individuals who visit the page should not feel ashamed of laughing at the individuals who were killed by their own actions and should instead enjoy the stories since the perception of humor is distinct to the brain and the result of “the unexpected clash between reality and expectation.” This paragraph subdues any hesitation that a visitor to the website may have about laughing at the dark humor that characterizes many of the stories on the site, thus increasing the possible viewership of the site. It uses a very logical argument to make this point, stating that you are suppose to laugh because the brain finds clashes between reality and perception funny. The site’s author also uses her prior experience as a biological researcher at Stanford to increase her own ethos, ensuring that people can trust her on the topic that site discusses. Lastly, the whole site is an appeal to emotion since the stories are meant to invoke laughter in readers. The readers may walk away with a little bit more information about evolution than they had before, so the emotional appeal draws visitors to the site. While the science behind the site is subject to criticism, the overall rhetoric that the site utilizes draws visitors to not only visit and read the stories that are currently posted, but to send their own stories to the author to augment the Darwin Awards.


What do you think of the Darwin Awards? Do you think that common sense and other personality and character qualities can be genetically inherited?


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12 Responses to Is Common Sense a Genetically Inherited Trait?

  1. jps591 says:

    Personally, I question the validity of some of the stories, but did find some quite humorous and ironic.

    I think this argument is similar to the argument of whether one is born evil/good or learns to be evil/good. Rather than being a biological issue, it is more of a sociological issue. Being good or bad is determined by the mores, folkways, and taboos established by a culture. Something is only bad if a majority of people in the culture decide that it is bad, and vice versa. Similarly, common sense isn’t something that one can be born with because it is so subjective. Common sense is more of a cultural thing, where one thing that is common sense here in the United States may not be common sense in other countries that have different values and norms.

    Contrarily, one could argue that eating when hungry, drinking when thirsty, and sleeping when tired are common sense. If one were to examine these traits, the argument could be made that these examples of common sense could be biological rather than sociological since they all fulfill part of Darwin’s theory of evolution, that species do what is in their best interest for survival.

    Common sense would have to have a more definitive meaning before we can decide whether it is a biological or sociological attribute of a person.

    • sm1414 says:

      I would agree with you about defining what common sense is a little better before deciding if it is a genetically inherited trait. However, I think the Darwin Awards focus less on the necessities of life that you do every day (eating, drinking, and sleeping) and more on the conscious decisions that you make. But I agree with the premise that some of these behaviors are biological.

    • drc1995 says:

      In response to jps591, I think I understand where you are coming from in saying that common sense is subjective as to whether or not it is a biological or a sociological attribute. In retrospect though, I think that strictly speaking from an evolutionary perspective, common sense is more of a biological attribute, and directly results from a biological development more than anything else.

      While I agree with you that common sense is based on experiences in a person’s life, I would assert that common sense, is mostly attributed to the brain. What causes a person to have common sense? To that question, I would say common sense is the result of critical thinking skills, which according to a quick google search originates from the neocortex of the brain, and reasoning, which apparently comes straight from the frontal lobe.

      Thinking back to the visit to the National Museum of Natural History’s Hall of Human Origins, we can attribute most of the development of our brain to evolution. As ancient humans faced new challenges (such as climate change), our brains developed to process and store more information. We even have evidence that brains grew bigger and bigger throughout the millions of years by casts created by scientists that show that the brain case of humans grew as we evolved into Homo Sapiens.

      I think this is where I can bring out my point that common sense is more of a biological development than anything. As humans evolved, our brains developed and with this new brain, we as a species were able to think more critically and use reason to have common sense. I mean obviously humans probably have more common sense than animals in general, and I would attribute that to our remarkable brains.

      I would say that any development, especially sociological developments, all have origins in biological developments. I think that is one key idea we have to think about when analyzing any aspect of human society and culture today. Common sense, in my opinion, is no different.

  2. lnzgirl says:

    I agree with jps591 that the idea of common sense is somewhat subjective. Some traditions seem to have no common sense to us, yet are an integral part of the culture in some countries. For example, one might question the common sense in the Running of the Bulls tradition in Spain, yet this tradition is annually celebrated, attracting many participants.

    However, I think that the Darwin Awards can be seen, in some cases, as somewhat biological. The frontal lobe of the brain, which is involved in good judgement, doesn’t develop until the mid to late 20’s. Teens and young adults are more likely to make irrational decisions then people who are older because their frontal lobe hasn’t fully developed. Reading some of the Darwin Awards stories, I think that some of the Darwin Award recipients might have been younger. In this sense, I would consider common sense a biological issue.

  3. tksekf says:

    I would like to agree with jps591’s point that “common sense isn’t something that one can be born with because it is so subjective.”, and would like to add to the claim that stories that might seem ridiculous to us at first glance can actually be somewhat logical if we look at it from the deceased person’s point of view. Take a look at this particular article which has been awarded in 2011 for instance: At first you might say ‘What in the world was this guy thinking, riding bike so stupidly?’. But think of it in his perspective: he was a person who enjoyed the thrill of riding bikes fast, having the wind hit his face hard, and loved the feeling he got when the bike suddenly stopped. Even his brother confirmed that he would have done it again if he was ever given another chance. If his goal in life was to enjoy riding and ride even if he dies from riding, do we have any right to say he does not have any common sense? For him, riding bike was his passion and wearing helmet would have ruined all his fun.

    Thus I think discussing whether or not common sense is a genetically inherited trait does not have any meaning in it, because common sense itself is a social norm and cannot be set.

  4. sm1414 says:

    I would tend to agree with both jps591and tksekf about how common sense has more to do with social norms and what a given society chooses to do. As we all know, society has a large impact on how we as individuals behave and what we value. I also find the comment by lnzgirl about how the human frontal lobe is still developing until a person reaches his early twenties very interesting. Since judgment resides in this part of the brain, the poor choices that younger individuals make seem to be simply developmental defects rather than incorrect choices.
    However, I think there is a lack of research and a lack of evidence as to whether our cognitive abilities are inherited traits or aspects of nurture. I could not find a lot of information on these traits and whether they were inherited or not when I researched them on the internet, but from personal experience, I know that many people obtain similar preferences and character traits to those of close relatives. For example, my father and I both have short-tempers and a condescending persona. My aunt and I both love to eat pizza even though my mother hates it. On the contrary, studies have been done where identical twins have been separated from one another and have led completely different lives (even though their DNA is believed to be identical).
    I think more research should be done to determine exactly how much of our cognitive ability is a result of genetic inheritance and how much of it is a result of the environment in which we are raised.

  5. greenDC says:

    I agree with jps591 and tksekf’s view that common sense is not innate. Sharing Locke’s theme of a “blank state”, common sense is something that is a learned behavior. While one could consider common sense to be subjective, I think when it’s depicted in the satirical way that this website does, the audience has to understand the exigencies of the rhetor. All of the posts are supposed to be presented in a comical light; however, some of the less severe awards could leave one with the impression that they were not deserving of such patronization as tksekf suggested. By contrast, purchasers of the “bullet proof potion” in demonstrate the reason the award was created.

  6. ojc31084 says:

    I think the idea of Darwin Awards is entertaining though somewhat disrespectful to the deceased. I don’t think that common sense is a quality that can be genetically inherited. I think that common sense is more as a result of nurture rather than nature. The choices and morals and decisions you make largely depend on how your parents or how society encouraged you to make them. Personality can be bother nature and nurture since the chances of having a personality disorder is greatly increased if parents or grandparents suffered from such disorders. I believe that some of the mistakes, which led to the deaths of the people on this site, may have been a result of an underdeveloped pre-frontal cortex. This may have been a biological mistake or it may have been because the person was not old enough and therefore the pre-frontal cortex of their brain had not been fully developed and thus led to stupid decisions that ultimately led to their deaths.

  7. findwhatwind says:

    To begin with, I firmly disagree with sm1414 in the original post and with the website overall in that I find this completely morbid and am offended by the rhetoric on the history page. I find it disgusting to define anyone’s death, no matter how ridiculously caused (and when I clicked “random story” I got a story of a suicide, which I would never in a million years consider laughing at), as an “improvement to the gene pool”, and although the author was clearly trying to appeal to the audience’s sense of humor, I feel that it is horribly misguided. I am also offended that the author clearly anticipated the audience’s reaction in the heading entitled “Laughter” and tried to justify the morbid humor using a red herring. The fact that the deaths are not what you “expected” does nothing to reconcile the fact that these are true deaths, which is what the reader should be uncomfortable with.

    On the actual issue of whether or not common sense is an inherited trait, I once again disagree with sm1414 in their suggestion that having similar personality traits to family means that personality traits might be inherited. I actually believe that the examples provided point much more to nurture than nature. For example, if you grew up with your father who has a short temper and a condescending persona, it is most likely that you saw this as something appropriate to imitate from a very young age, and therefore it might seem like it was a trait you were born with, when in fact it has to do with the environment you grew up in. For example, I grew up in the liberal north with a father who is extraordinarily Democratic, and therefore I am also strongly Democratic, because I was raised from birth to believe that is what’s right.

    Overall I believe that not only is the idea of “Darwin Awards” morbid and offensive, but it is based in an idea that is very very likely not true at all.

  8. nicolina1215 says:

    I agree that common sense is not a hereditary trait and that as sm1414 said, “In this sense, the Darwin Awards seem to be somewhat of a misnomer because the elimination of the trait that they are rewarding individuals for may not even be an inherited trait.” That being said, there are other often more important factors that lead to an offspring’s behavior. As we saw in the museum and throughout evolutionary research, many of the evolutionary changes that occur are due to environmental influences. As the famous saying goes, monkey see monkey do. If a child sees their parent performing completely insensible activities on a daily basis, they are more likely to do it themselves. Dr. Laura Schlessinger, a physiologist specializing in Marriage and Family Therapy explains in her book Stupid Things Parents Do To Mess Up Their Kids, that, “In our society, reproductive freedom means anyone can decide to create a life by any means with no, and I mean no, consideration of what is in the best interest of that new human being.” She then explains that some of the current problems arising in the realm of child raising are, “the redefinition of immoral behavior as lifestyle choices, and societal intolerance for the concept of judgment” ( and These two observations are two specific reasons explaining why, contrary to sm1414’s point that stupidity is not hereditary, it is still possible that people who lack common sense (and thus put themselves in a more likely position to win the infamous Darwin Award) are still more likely to produce unintelligent and ignorant children than those whose genes remain in the pool. This argument completely supports jps591’s opinion that common sense is more of a “sociological issue” than a biological one.

    I also agree with the interpretation of the website’s rhetoric by sm1414. It is logical to construct the website so that it can be a forum for people to laugh and share in other’s unfortunate stupidity. Though it is also slightly incomprehensive to the whole idea that natural selection is in short a genetic issue. It can be slightly confusing, because as we’ve already stated, it is not the genes that produce unintelligent children so much as the conditions under which that child was raised. Though it is still a captivating title and idea, seeing as it appeals to the self-esteem of those who clearly think of themselves as having both common sense and a leg up in the future generations of evolution. The mockery of others when no one thinks it can be applied to them is always a sensible use of pathos.

  9. johnd0pe says:

    I believe common sense must have been a component of our evolutionary psychological development. As our brains developed over history, one of the features that must have triumphed is at least some degree of common sense. In all likelihood, the subjects of the Darwin Awards would not have had the intellect to survive in the wild if they lived in prehistoric times. However, one result of global civilization and societal progress is a much greater human population whose ability to reproduce far exceeds its mortality rate and thus, a population in which an individual’s survival is subject to far fewer threats. Because of this, recent history has applied less pressure on the development of common sense in humans, though the margin of evolutionary progress attainable in such a short period of time may be inconsequential.

    What has certainly influenced the reduced necessity for common sense though, is the superfluous amount of “coddling” put in place in modern society. Because every person’s stupidity is now a legal liability to someone or some company or some organization, gratuitous warning labels and safety measures have been instituted in every possible situation. In this overly litigious society, every institution minimizes its legal risk by ensuring that they can’t be held liable in the case of any accident. When a person must be warned not to drink their coffee before it cools or eat uncooked chicken with a label on the packaging, their common sense is not utilized. When signs tell us not to lean over the railing atop a rooftop balcony and inform us that icy stairs could be slippery, common sense is dormant. Because of excessive lawsuits, risks of individuals have been assumed by any party which could be viewed as having responsibility. Therefore, they handle the matters which should be left to our own common sense, lest they be the target of one of thousands of frivolous lawsuits.

    • shoutoutjfk says:

      I definitely understand your viewpoint that a lack of common sense within an individual is a problem to society. Although I believe that if anything, the Darwin Awards are oddly a positive reflection of evolution occurring on a small scale. When studying neuroscience, I learned about the extreme amount of plasticity that our brains are capable of. It is this same wonderful plasticity that causes us to do incredibly dumb things that also allows us to create civilization, build empathetic ties, and be so complex and different. The brain is able to physically change its structure and incorporate every new piece of information into a vast data storage network with more theoretical capacity than the world’s best supercomputers. To have a small number of individuals neutralizing their genes from the gene pool is an inevitability that only displays the fact that we are still growing as a species. And ultimately, there is nothing more important than growth to distinguish us and give us purpose.

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