Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Orcas, Evolution and Personality

Written by: on April 14, 2022

I do not know anyone who is a long-time resident of the Puget Sound area that does not have some level of awe and appreciation of Orcas. Whale watching and particularly, searching for the fascinating black and white Killer Whale is a major tourist attraction. Reading Daniel Nettle’s Personality: What Makes You the Way You Are, [1] and his explanation of the big five personality [2] spectrums in terms of their evolutionary benefits causes me to look at the changes in Orca viability in Puget Sound. There are two types of Orcas with distinctly different personalities or behaviors.

The resident Orcas inhabit Puget Sound year-round. These salmon eating, slower swimming neighbors could be perceived as agreeable and open. Their agreeableness in mark by them tolerating the more aggressive behaviors of the people who invade their waters with ferries, pleasure crafts, fishing, which impact their survival. Scientist have been concerned for years that there are fewer and fewer Orcas being birthed.

The last year, according to my unofficial and unprofessional observations, seen an increase in regular sightings of transient Orcas in the area. These fast-swimming consumers of small and medium sized water mammals have not only decided to hang around more, but they are reproducing. Could it have something to do with their less agreeable nature? Or maybe they have acquired a particular gene that is more adaptive the environmental changes that have occurred as a result of human encroachment.

Nettle weaves his behavioral, biological, and social science background together to provide the reader with an evolutionary look at the psychological expression of personality. He is an author of a number of books exploring social life, our societal behaviors and their effects. A Professor of Behavioral Science, Nettle, explores the “trade-off between different fitness costs and benefits,” [3] as they exhibit themselves in human genes and their usefulness for species survival in regard to where they fall in each of the five factor continuums. Throughout the book he emphasizes that while every human being is unique their personality is a composite of their individual spectrums within the big five: extraversion, neuroticism, conscientiousness, agreeableness, and openness.[4] He continues by saying that despite the uniqueness these “traits are meaningful, stable, partly genetically inherited,” [5] and can be powerful predictors of how a person might behave throughout their life. [6]

The discussion the author explores that “personality traits…are heritable” [7] which provide a species the necessary adaptability gene for optimal survival. [8] This is the portion of the book that reminded me of Orcas. Because much like the “beak of the finch,” [9] the distinct physiological and personality make up of transient and resident Orcas impact or respond to the food supply. In recent years, the sea lion population in Puget Sound exploded. This is problematic because these protected sea mammals eat the same salmon as the residents Orcas. However, the transient Orcas eat those sea lions, possibly demonstrating Nettle’s explanation “fluctuating selection.” In humanity’s, protection policies of one specie, in an attempt to rectify the careless and egocentric environmental damage, did nothing more than disrupting the evolutional balance resulting in the decline of another specie. I am a proponent of wise laws and responsible care of our environment; I just wonder if we are too narrowly focused resulting in the development of a less resilient nature within a specific animal and even people. I am continually remined of the example of diminishing the struggle of the butterfly by helping them out of their cocoon. Only to result in the butterfly’s deformation of wings and certain death. Could this be why the resident Orcas are struggling?

This is all interesting but what does it have to do with leadership in general, leadership in the community of faith, and the role of individual personality.

Over the last century, particularly in the Northern Hemisphere, people are able to independently provide for their basic needs without the use of extreme self-preservation behaviors, genes, and personality traits. This is seen in the emergence in the single-family home and the nuclear family prospering without daily assistance of extended family members. [11] It is also reflective in the reasons for procuring products. It is no longer solely for their usefulness but often for the sheer pleasure [12] or dopamine enjoyment of receiving that box from Amazon that is never fully satisfied. [13] The current societal push is more about how we can make life fair rather than how can we release a person’s personal power to develop a character of resilience, with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, creating a story of an overcomer that inspires and strengthens others. [14]

Nettle’s book explains the core of one’s personality and how it manifests itself in the world, but it is lacking in the potential impact of a regenerated & sanctified life of submission to Jesus. He only slightly discusses how family and environment influence the expression of one’s personality.

[1] Daniel Nettle, Personality: What Makes You the Way You Are, 1. publ. in paperback (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2009).
[2] Ibid., 29.
[3] Daniel Nettle, “The Evolution of Personality Variation in Humans and Other Animals.,” American Psychologist 61, no. 6 (2006): 622, https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.61.6.622.
[4] Nettle, Personality, 53.
[5] Ibid., 52.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid., 55.
[8] Ibid., 56.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid., 70.
[11] Vincent Jude Miller, Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture (New York: Continuum, 2004), 47.
[12] Ibid., 57.
[13] Daniel Z Lieberman and Michael E Long, The Molecule of More: How a Single Chemical in Your Brain Drives Love, Sex, and Creativity-and Will Determine the Fate of the Human Race, 2019, 54.
[14] Jason Paul Clark, “Evangelism and Capitalism: A Reparative Account and Diagnosis of Pathogeneses in the Relationship” (Faculty Publications – Portland Seminary, 2018), 230, https:// digitalcommons.georgefox.edu/gfes/132.

About the Author


Denise Johnson

Special Education teacher K-12, School Counselor K-12, Overseas field worker in Poland,

5 responses to “Orcas, Evolution and Personality”

  1. mm Roy Gruber says:

    Denise, such a great summary and application of Nettle’s book. I appreciate how you note the absence of the presence and power of the Holy Spirit and the ways in which that will impact change of personality. You also state this from Dr. Clark’s work: “The current societal push is more about how we can make life fair rather than how can we release a person’s personal power to develop a character of resilience, with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, creating a story of an overcomer that inspires and strengthens others.” I agree with that statement and wonder that means specifically. How do you think a ministry can help people be “overcomes” and “inspirers” or others? Happy Easter to you and yours!

    • mm Denise Johnson says:

      Thanks Roy!
      I believe we need to do a better job of telling stories, the good, the bad, and the ugly of our journey with Jesus. There is a reason the Scripture encourages the older men and women are to teach the younger. We have over spiritualized testimonies and diluted their protentional in inspiring others. Life is unfair for everyone BUT I can and have overcome amazing situations because of Jesus. His help and power transcend all individual circumstances and short comings. Happy Resurrection!

  2. mm Eric Basye says:

    Thanks for the post, Denise. So, if either you could add a section or Nettle’s book, or have him add it as it relates to the role of family and environment, what would be your talking points?

    • mm Denise Johnson says:

      Eric, yet another great question.
      I think I would like to see how family values, expectations, and character development impact the expression of one’s personality. Does it change or is impacted by birth order? How does trauma within the family unit influence personality? How do these factors change when someone is raised within a multigenerational home or community?

  3. mm Nicole Richardson says:

    Denise I appreciate your connection with Orcas. My love for our ocean dwellers is deep. 🙂

    You ask the question about what does this mean for leadership…you have outline some important situations but I would like to hear more of your thoughts about what you envision what leadership looks like in these.

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