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What are regulations?

Wednesday 29 March 2017

by Dr Bob Murray

It may sound like a silly question: What are regulations? Of course you know what they are, you deal with them every day. They’re directives, somewhat less than laws. They’re designed to prevent one set of people from taking advantage of another, or maybe to enable one set of people to take advantage of another. They also serve to lay down the ground rules under which an activity can take place.

For GRC professionals they are a major part of their workload—defining governance, limiting risk and demanding compliance.

But, as a behavioural neurogeneticist and a psychologist, I see them a bit differently and my interest in rules and laws stems from my fascination with human genetics, evolution and neuroscience. Why do we have regulations—or laws for that matter, or ethical codes? What is it in our psyche and our biology which makes these seem necessary? Do other species have ethical codes, laws and regulations? Why do some people seem to want more of them and others less? What is “deregulation?” Is there any such thing?

The first thing that comes to mind is that every human society on earth has laws, regulations and ethical codes. To a geneticist the universality of these things signals that they’re part of our human DNA. For some reason we can’t do without them.

But is it just human DNA? There’s a lot of evidence to indicate that pre-homo sapiens species (i.e. pre us) formulated rules and even ethical standards to govern their lives. We know that Neanderthals did and almost certainly the earlier homo erectus. (OK, I know Neanderthals were not the immediate ancestors of all humans, it’s just that all modern humans, with the exception of those of pure African ancestry, share some Neanderthal DNA and we have a common ancestor with them—h. erectus).   “Formulated” means that they did it, to some extent at least, consciously.

In us and our immediate ancestors the drive to regulation is rather like the drive to parenthood. Parenting skills are learned rather than instinctual and the particular regulations, laws and ethical codes that we adopt are also not part of our instinctual baggage. But the drive to regulate our behaviour and the drive to parenthood are both, more or less, innate to all of us.

Regulations of one kind or another are an essential part of what we call “culture.” GRC professionals are, in a very real sense, cultural guardians—like priests are of our religious rites and rituals or police men and women are of our laws. We can see the same thing happening in societies of chimpanzees who also exhibit cultural differences. Like ours their cultures are formulated and passed down from generation to generation. As in our societies, chimps have cultural guardians and sets of regulations to ensure fairness and continuity. Judges, dominant male chimps, dominant female baboons and female elephants are all part of a genetically-driven regulatory process.

As we can see in nature, hominids (us, our ancestors and the other great apes) are not the only ones who can deliberately formulate regulations. There is increasing evidence that groups of corvines (crows etc.) have different, non-instinctual, cultures and maybe even bees and ants do also. It’s interesting that the drive to behavioural regulation may be integral to all those species which have a high degree of intelligence (in terms of raw IQ some species of ants have us beat and some bird species have IQs equal to those of many higher primates).

But some regulations, some values, some ethical standards may be
universal to all humans and thus genetically based. The drive to preserve the lives of, and be altruistic, towards people we regard as being part of our “tribe” or “family” for example. The strong drive to formulate rules, regulations, ethical standards and laws to protect the young of our tribe or our family is another.

By now you may be seeing something that to a behavioural neurogeneticist is fairly obvious: all of the animals that seem to be formulating their ethical codes, their laws and their regulations are highly social. Ants, bees, humans, chimps, crows, elephants all live in societies (whatever we call them) and all societies need regulation.

It is the acknowledgement of the validity of these non-instinctual social regulations (whether we call them laws, ethical or moral standards or banking regulations) that help to bind a society together. It’s this binding characteristic which makes them part of our (and the other social animals’) DNA.

But what if someone disagrees with particular laws, regulations or ethical take on any situation? If these things are genetic, why do we have differences of opinion? This is where it becomes important and very interesting. When someone denies the validity of regulation as such, or the need for laws on a particular subject, or have fundamental ethical disagreements with the rest of society they are making a statement not necessarily about the regulations, or the laws, or the ethical framework.

What they are saying is often code for the fact that they don’t want to be part of the society they’re in. They are doing what anthropologists and psychologists call “splitting.” As the renowned evolutionary psychologist Prof. Robin Dunbar of Oxford University
[i] and others have pointed out, when human societies get too large, individuals split from them to lead and create new societies. They will take sufficient followers to bring the original society back to stasis.

Functional human societies are actually quite small, about 150 individuals according to Dunbar. This splitting is why you have divergent cultures within large organisations, each with its own behavioural mores (i.e. regulations).

Of course after the split new regulations and ethics and laws will quickly evolve to keep that new society together.

So what? Why should any GRC professional care about the genetic underpinnings of what you do? I believe it’s because a large part of your role is to understand why people resist your pleas for compliance, or go against the basics of what you would regard as good governance or contravene the parameters of risk. Only by understanding can you really fulfil your role. You have to ask: what is the message about the society (the firm, the corporation, the enterprise) that the nay-sayers are trying to convey? What is causing them to move to “split?” You have to find out what the real underlying message is that they are trying to convey.

Only then can you use the persuasion tools that I have written, and spoken, about before to get commitment to both you and your message.


 Dr. Bob Murray Co-founder of Fortinberry Murray

Dr Bob Murray is a co-founder of the international consultancy
Fortinberry Murray. He is the author of 10 books. The latest, published
this month, is “Leading the Future” (Ark Publications), co-authored
with Dr Alicia Fortinberry. He works with Global 500 companies,
Governments and major professional service firms in Asia, the US,
Europe as well as Australia. He can be contacted at

[i] Dunbar, R (2014) “Human Evolution” Oxford UP