The Science of Generosity

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Ahimelech Giving the Sword of Goliath to David – Aert de Gelder

Remember the last Christmas gift you gave to your mother: that book you wanted to read, that you borrowed after she finished, that now sits on your bookshelf. People say you’re supposed to give gifts expecting nothing in return. But we all know that isn’t really true, right? Call me a Scrooge, but people don’t give things out of pure altruism. Maybe they think they do, in which case, that warm smug feeling that tells them they are a good person is what they are after. Sometimes donating money to a charity is the only way you can stand looking at yourself in the morning. I, however, find shaving a cheaper alternative. Modern life has made us jaded towards generosity: everything is implicitly a deal, a transaction, a contract. How has our understanding of generosity changed over the course of history? What has modern science discovered to shed light on this trait of humanity? Can it prove that we’re not all Machiavellian dickheads looking out for number one?

The word “generous” derives from the Latin word generosus, which means, of noble birth. The word took on this meaning in the English-speaking world from the 16th to 18th century. The connotations were positive, but one wonders whether a modern understanding of the nobility—people constantly trying to curry favour with the King for their own benefit—has led to our own present-day cynicism with the notion of generosity. Only in the 19th century did generosity become associated with giving and being carefree with one’s possessions. As this definition took hold, so too did the idea that generosity was a status one could gain through morally righteous behaviour.

Science has done nothing to weaken our skeptical understanding of generosity and altruism. In 2006, a study was conducted in which a group of subjects were given a certain amount of money and then given the opportunity to keep it or donate it to charity. With the patient’s brain under an MRI machine, scientists saw that the same reward center in the brain was triggered both when the subject received money and when the subject donated it away. In short, scientists found that it was pleasurable to the brain to be generous. Suddenly it was hard to describe any act as unselfish.

While perhaps no act is truly unselfish, we still generally consider a generous person to be a good person. Yet instances of pathological generosity have illustrated that morality of giving is more nuanced than it seems. The most famous example of pathological generosity was a subject from Rio de Janeiro, named João (his surname was kept anonymous from all the studies he took part in). After suffering from a stroke, João’s personality and behaviour changed radically, to the point that he couldn’t stop being generous. If someone asked him for money, he gave it. If someone asked for French fries from the chip truck he shared with his brother, he gave them away for free. Now this was all hunky-dory for the patrons of João’s chip truck, but it caused major strife in João’s home. If he kept giving stuff away, how could he pay the bills and provide for his family? João’s situation raised issues that evolutionary theorists have always pointed to as the problem of generosity: it makes no rational sense in a Darwinian model of organisms. If you give away all your food, you will starve. João’s condition showed that there was a fine line between generosity and self-destruction.

So for all those rooting for generosity and noble behaviour, things aren’t looking so good right now. From scientific studies all the way down to etymology, generosity looks like a massive sham. But there’s one great counterexample: Meerkats! That’s right, cute cuddly Meerkats. Altruism is a condition mostly seen in humans and rarely in animals. Meerkats are the exception. When Meerkats are infants and can’t forage for themselves, older Meerkats will provide for them, even if they aren’t the infant’s mother or father. Other Meerkats in the gang will forego foraging and stand guard for the others, keeping a look out for eagles and hawks. Throughout their lives, Meerkats display constant acts of kindness. Maybe with their adorable tails, button noses, and innocent eyes they can convince us that humanity isn’t all selfish and horrible? To which I say: Bah-Humbug!

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