Charity, do-gooding, philanthropy it’s all just selfishness masquerading as virtue. So says the cynic. In modern times, the theory that each of us, despite occasional appearances of self-sacrificial nobility, is ultimately and invariably looking out for No. 1 got a big boost from Darwin’s theory of evolution. By the logic of natural selection, any tendency to act selflessly ought to be snuffed out in the struggle to survive and propagate. So if someone seems to be behaving as an altruist — say, by giving away a fortune to relieve the sufferings of others — that person is really following the selfish dictates of his own genes. The evolutionary psychologist Randolph Nesse confessed that he slept badly for many nights after absorbing this supposed discovery, which he called “one of the most disturbing in the history of science.”
Before resigning ourselves to a similar spell of disillusioned sleeplessness, it might be instructive to test this theory against a particular case of philanthropy. In recent years, Bill Gates has channeled billions of his dollars to a foundation devoted to fighting disease and poverty. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation may today be the single-most-powerful force in the world for the relief of suffering. But what, one might ask, is in it for Bill?
Evolutionary psychologists have come up with four plausible Darwinian reasons for altruism. First, there is “kinship selection,” which is supposed to lurk behind the sacrifices you make for your biological family. It’s based on the percentage of genetic overlap. One biologist, when asked if he would lay down his life for his brother, quipped, no, but he would for two brothers or eight cousins.
Second, there is “reciprocal altruism,” which doesn’t depend on shared genes. Here, the basic idea is: You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. Reciprocal altruism is seen not just in humans but in some animal species. Vampire bats, for instance, benefit one another by sharing meals of regurgitated blood.
Kinship and reciprocation are, as Richard Dawkins has written, the “twin pillars of altruism in a Darwinian world.” Neither, however, would appear to be of much use in explaining philanthropy. Bill Gates has no special genetic relationship to the beneficiaries of his foundation. Nor does he expect them to reciprocate by purchasing the next release of Windows.
A third explanation for altruism, the Darwinian advantage of having a reputation for generosity, might look more promising. Nineteenth-century “robber barons” like John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie had ample reason to amend their reputations by generous benefactions. The same might conceivably be true of Bill Gates, judging from the tone of the jokes you find about him on the Internet (several of which place him in hell).
And how about the final, and certainly most dispiriting, Darwinian rationale for ostentatious giving: the aim of bankrupting one’s rivals? This is sometimes called the Potlatch Effect, after the competitive feasts (“potlatch” in Chinook) of a Pacific Northwest tribe whose rival chieftains try to humiliate one another by unmatchable displays of generosity. Perhaps the Potlatch Effect could explain Bill Gates’s philanthropy as, say, a challenge to the founders of Google to ruin themselves through comparably enormous bequests.
Champions of evolutionary psychology will complain, justly, that they are being burlesqued here. They do not claim that people always have selfish ulterior motives for being generous. Rather, they maintain that our genes have endowed us with genuinely altruistic instincts. If this is true, then a certain amount of selflessness ought to be wired into the very circuits of our brain. And that is just what researchers at the University of Oregon found in a study published last year in Science. Nineteen students were given $100 each and told that they could anonymously donate a portion of this money to charity. The students who, on average, donated the most showed heightened activity in the pleasure centers of their brain as they gave up the money. Their generosity was accompanied by a neural “warm glow.”
But is altruism really best understood as an urge wired into us by selfish genes?
It may be enlightening here to consider an analogy between altruism and prudence. Caring about others is a bit like caring about one’s future self. You altruistically give money to relieve the misery of others; you prudently put aside money now so that you will not be miserable in old age. What is the source of this concern each of us has for our future selves? From the evolutionary point of view, the answer is simple: our forerunners who lacked such a prudential instinct died out.
But that is not the end of the story. Consider Mr. Improvident, who is just like us except that he is not wired to care about his future. (There’s one in every family.) Mr. Improvident gets no neural kick from saving for tomorrow. Yet we can see that he has an objective reason to do so. He is, after all, a person extended in time, not a series of disconnected selves.
We ought to be able to see a similarly objective reason for altruism, one rooted, as the philosopher Thomas Nagel observed, in “the conception of oneself as merely a person among others equally real.” My reason for taking steps to relieve the suffering of others is, in this way of thinking, as valid as my reason for taking steps to avert my own future suffering. Both reasons arise from our understanding of what sort of beings we are, not from the vagaries of natural selection.
But can an objective reason, by itself, motivate selfless generosity? In the Oregon brain-scanning experiment, curiously enough, two of the students who were the most liberal in their charitable giving were “outliers” who seemed to get no neural reward for their generosity. They did not benefit from the warm-glow effect. Yet they were outstandingly altruistic anyway. Even the cynic might rejoice a bit in that.