The Journal of Graduate Liberal Studies

Helwig

 

Altruism in Life:
The Double Helix and the Five Donors

A Capstone Project submitted to the Faculty of The Graduate Program in Liberal Studies and of The College of Arts and Sciences in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts in Liberal Studies

 By Daniel S. Helwig

Loyola University Maryland
Baltimore, MD
May 6, 2018

 

Altruism Analysis

I have worked in the nonprofit sector as a fundraiser for most of the thirty-one years I have been in the workforce. I have worked for small four-person businesses that were affiliates of larger organizations, huge healthcare monoliths with billion dollar operating budgets, and higher education nonprofits situated between the two extremes. Regardless of the size and scope and mission of the organization, my employment success has always been measured by the amount of money I could raise for its cause. If a professional career could be considered a journey, like, say, an airline flight, my vocational goal of finding people who can give money away, and soliciting these people for contributions could be said to have provided me with a window seat to gaze down upon the landscape of human altruism as demonstrated by philanthropy. 

In the spring of 2017, Professor Suzanne Keilson led a course in Personhood at the Extremes as part of the Liberal Studies curriculum at Loyola University. Throughout the course, Professor Keilson asked us to examine the difference between thinking machines and humans, and between humans as a species and other animals, as we attempted to define what it means to be human in the 21stcentury. One of the traits we considered in examining “human-ness” was altruism: Did it exist in other species? Does it exist as a trait that is distinctive in humans, and if so, is it a genetic tendency in all humans? Upon the completion of the course, these questions as to the genetic, biological, and environmental bases of altruism remained and the intersection of these questions with the vocation of development created a natural opening for the completion of my academic work for a Master of Liberal Studies degree. 

For the purpose of this work, I define altruism as a selfless action which demonstrates concern for others and has no expectation of return benefit. In this paper, I will examine the historical and biological basis and natural presence of altruism as a human behavior. I will review research on the biological foundations of altruism within our species and make rough comparisons and contrasts with other species. I will examine the specific origins within the human brain where an altruistic impulse may originate and activate. I will review altruism as a philosophical aspect of our species to ask whether an impulse of caring is an imbedded part of the self. I will compare these philosophical and biological bases of altruism with four interviews of five individuals who have been exceptional benefactors in their lifetimes, comparing each of the individuals with an archetype of givers established by a landmark study and book in the latter part of the 20thcentury. As a part of these interviews, I will ascertain whether subjects believe that nature or nurture most influenced their capacity to care for humanity in an outsized fashion. Throughout this paper, I will demonstrate that altruism is a genetically wired impulse, intertwined with biological, sociological, psychological, and societal influences that enhance, promote or deter its existence. Finally, I will establish conclusions and propose future research areas based upon my findings, candidly assess the limits of my study, and suggest enhancements or modifications future scholars may wish to consider in preparation for advancing this discussion.

The fact that altruism exists at all seems contradictory to evolutionary biology, which would predict that selfish behavior leads to more resources, rewarding an animal with a greater likelihood of survival and thus an ability to pass on its genes to a succeeding generation. A compilation of the work of many mathematicians, evolutionary biologists, and geneticists considering the question of the origins of altruism can be found in the biography of chemist George Price, entitled, The Price of Altruism,written by Oren Harmen. Price was a complicated individual. He was breathtakingly intelligent, often misunderstood, unkind to his family, unable to hold steady work throughout much of his life, and in the end, an atheist who converted to Christianity and lived life as an evangelist of sorts in a seedy part of London; however, he made contributions which still inform our views of the possibility of altruistic behavior as a genetic trait. 

Price made important connections between the mathematical likelihood of altruism within a gene pool and relatedness. Price’s work that holds that the greater the genetic match between two sets of individuals, the higher the likelihood of altruistic behavior. Siblings, for example, within a species, would show a greater likelihood of altruistic behavior than cousins within the same clan. According to standard genetics siblings will share on average 50% of genes, while cousins might only share 25%. Price theorized that parents in a species behave altruistically towards descendants, and that siblings likewise, and to a lesser degree cousins, all for the sake of survival of the children, siblings, etc and the corresponding preservation of the genetic code of the family. His work is still theoretical; a question as complex as altruism is not determined by a single gene, and therefore, this debate continues. His biography places his scholarly work in context with mathematicians, evolutionary biologists, and chemists in the decades immediately preceding and during Price’s life. 

What is fascinating about The Price of Altruismis that the book weaves perspectives that run alongside an investigation into altruism into the topic. Conversations about altruism can quickly evolve into questions about the fundamentals of human existence and the organization of society. Harmen coordinates a contextual analysis of the economics, political science, philosophy, and theoretical biology positions related to, and juxtaposed with, Price’s studies. Leaders in all of these fields became reference points, collaborators, or agents of dismissal in a sort of worldwide conversation that Harmen traces throughout the 20thcentury. Leading thinkers attempted to square genetics, the relative “goodness” of humankind, ideal forms of governance, and the relative benefits of economic systems provided by governments. Harmen’s integration of so many elements of society into the question of altruism in part created the impetus to compare a biological and genetic overview of the subject with a series of interviews with individuals whom society might easily deem altruistic. 

The text traces Charles Darwin’s journey in 1832 on the HMS Beagle, in which he notices the iridescent zoophytes, small marine animals glowing in the water. The prevalent belief at the time was that God had placed them in the ocean to help sailors navigate on stormy nights. Darwin saw that what was causing the glow was the dead zoophytes decomposing among the live ones, that no divine intervention was at play. “This was purpose enough, God’s benevolence notwithstanding.” (Harmen loc 508)

Darwin also looked for ways that altruism could be a result of natural selection, defined as the genetic tendency of an organism to adapt to its environment and transmit desirable traits to future generations in greater numbers. Because species exist within an environment that is not supportive, Darwin saw the cooperation that exists between and among members of species exist in a vacuum as evidence of a genetic link of helpfulness. While wild dogs may fight over food left in a garbage can, the winner vanquishing the loser and thus providing an ongoing opportunity to perpetuate his strength and fitness in the species, both of the dogs also face a common enemy in the environment. He realized that while two members of a species may compete with each other for resources, invariably they also compete with nature. “For if the struggle could mean both competition with other members of the same species and a battle against the elements, it was a matter of evidence which of the two was more important in nature.” (Harmen loc 555)Darwin thought that species could have instincts for the provision of aid which may have a genetic basis. “The social instincts which no doubt were acquired by man, as by the lower animals, for the good of the community, will from the first have given him some wish to aid his fellows,” (Darwin 103)Darwin was providing a path to morality and altruism.

Peter Kropotkin saw the work of ants, bees, and many other species as evidence humans are wired for cooperation, and “if the altruism of the hymenoptera (the biological order of insects that would include wasps, ants and bees) was imposed by their physiological structure, in these ‘higher’ animals it was cultivated for the benefits of mutual aid.” (Harmen loc 622)Pelicans would form semicircles of cooperation and trap fish within them, heading for shore. While not exclusively the case, antelope, deer, and many wild mammals living in herds seem to work cooperatively against predators. 

Kropotkin saw natural selection attempting to find ways to avoid competition and he took those views and superimposed them onto political systems. “Left to his own devices, man would cooperate in egalitarian communes, property and coercion replaced by liberty and consent.” 

Darwin suggested that altruistic groups may have shown a greater likelihood of survival; thus, the collection of genes favoring altruism and a tendency to altruistic behavior would have been rewarded in this fashion. “If selection sometimes worked at a level higher than the individual, even the ultimate sacrifice of the stinging bee or ant centurion could evolve.” (Harmen loc 400)

Darwin’s suggestion also led George Price to consider antlers. From an evolutionary standpoint, antlers were curious. Biologists had studied deer and determined that antlers were used to dissipate heat, and male deer are larger and therefore have a greater need to dissipate heat, and thus, you have male deer with antlers. But from an evolutionary standpoint, why not have the antlers serve as greater weapons? Male deer already use their antlers in combat, so why hadn’t evolution provided a path to antlers that were more effective in harming the losing combatant? Price saw the answer in the dynamic of the Cold War between America and Russia – the threat of deterrence.

Suddenly it all connected: If deer really needed to cool off, skin flaps and large ears were surely a less expensive route to follow than seasonal renew of antlers… … Rather, they were ingenious accessories to nature’s invention of limited combat… … Here was its logic: If a group of male deer varied in both fighting ability and ability to deescalate combat, one could go about calculating just how each deer might fare against another.” (Harmen loc 3319)

Price imagined that over generations, these limited combat strategies evolved. Price saw game theory and genetics coming together, and it was the beginning of how he came to view altruism as a mathematically discernable trait.

Just as with two poker players staring each other down, Price had considered combat to be a game in which each animal’s strategy is dependent on the other. That led him to see that if animals adopted a strategy of ‘retaliation’ whereby they normally fight conventionally but respond to escalated attacks by escalating in return, this (discretion) would be favored by selection at the individual level. It was a strikingly original insight. (Harmen loc 4288)

Price saw altruism as “the flip side” of combat. “Since an individual would increase in fitness both by helping others and thereby avoiding attacks, and by attacking deviants enough to cause them to help him, both the tendency to cooperate and the tendency to attack those who did not cooperate would be selected for in evolution.” (Harmen loc 3354)

Others have followed Price’s lead, not always from the field of biology or genetics. Economist Robert Frank finds the argument persuasive. “To do well in life, our simian and hunter-gatherer ancestors needed to forsake the short-term temptation of self-interest, since they lived in small, mutually dependent groups” (Harmen loc 5350)Frank said that life was a dance, and we couldn’t do it alone, so we must account for a genetic predisposition for help. “Since in evolutionary terms life is a game in which one seeks trusted partners to play with, emotions that trigger loyalty and altruism (even to rational ones) are adaptations for regulating behavior.” (Harmen loc 5350)

While the book segues between biographic sketches of the protagonists and connections to world events, it always eventually returns to altruism and its possible presence. Philosophers, geneticists, economists, and government leaders alike were all influenced by the question of whether mutual aid was a genetic tendency. What is important to keep in mind is that the progression of thought brought about by Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species. Darwin could not shake the thought that although natural selection was the rule of nature, this same natural selection may also be operating a level that influenced cooperation, and by association, altruism. For the purposes of this paper, it is sufficient to say that Darwin’s work was cross-influential, that it led to a reimagining of a great many philosophical and economic theories and strategies, and that leading scientists and philosophers of the day saw the question of mutual aid, and therefore, altruism, as fundamental to the very nature of the human species. 

Throughout The Price of Altruism, Darwin’s work is a constant thread. And Darwin believed that if we wanted to understand our own values, judgments and morality, we needed to look at the natural world around us. “The mind had been crafted by millions of years of evolution. If man wanted to comprehend his own morality, he’d need to take a careful look back at animals.” (Harmen loc 5369)(A modest review of altruism and reciprocity within various species follows within this analysis in Harmen’s work.)

The question of whether such social tendencies such as altruism exist within the gene pool, and more specifically if natural selection can occur at anything above the individual “selfish gene” level (Dawkins), are still in play, meaning that the question of group selection is at this point, still unsettled. Michael Gazzaniga, professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, is director of the Sage Center for the Study of the Mind. Gazzaniga’s book, Human, the Science Behind What Makes Our Brain Unique, briefly touches upon the ongoing debate. There are camps of evolutionary biologists who contend that group selection is a theoretical possibility, “if group advantageous behavior maximizes relative fitness within the social group.” (Gazzaniga 82)If humans do have a genetic predisposition to behave in an altruistic manner, we should be able to find the regions within our brain responsible for this behavior and trace back evolutionary reasons for our socially-wired brains to function as they do.

Gazzaniga maintains that our departure from primates was based upon a development of social order, and that we needed bigger brains to keep track of our social groups. “And the fact is, in order to survive and prosper, we had to become social. So understanding how we got here requires reviewing evolutionary biology, and to understand the biology of our current social abilities, which include phenomena such as altruism, we need to remind ourselves how evolution works.” (Gazzaniga 83)He points out the fact that in most mammalian species, the female of the sex has a more finicky attitude about mating; while the male has more interest in mating, period. As humans developed, female choices “influenced physical, behavioral, and social evolution in males,” (Gazzaniga 87)which could have created a feedback loop in which behaviors such as altruism are just one more fitness indicator. If females prefer altruists, they will mate more frequently with altruists, ensuring a greater number of altruists in the gene pool.

In fact, perhaps the development of speech itself is an altruistic tendency. Speech may have begun as a worthwhile way of passing along information about where the wooly mammoth was last evening or whether the fish are biting, but we quickly developed a tendency for solving problems in groups, grooming one another in talk (gossip is just another form of grooming), and demonstrating our fitness to one another with our language. Evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller contends that, “Most speech appears to transfer useful information from the speaker to the listener, and it costs time and energy. It seems to be altruistic. What fitness benefit can be attained by giving another individual good information?” (Gazzaniga 107)While language also affords the opportunity for deception, we likely would have evolved with a predisposition to punish “cheaters.” Offering unreliable information over time would have led to a breakdown of group work or perhaps jeopardized the survival of the clan or group. 

Altruism may have evolved with our concept of reciprocity, combined with our sense of self or theory of mind. Gazzaniga says that “It is probable that many of the moral emotions arose in the context of reciprocal altruism… … However, reciprocity is not built on an innate sense of fairness; it is built on an innate sense of reciprocity.” (Gazzaniga 133)If we have an innate sense of reciprocity – you hold the door open for me and I in return hold it for the next person – and we have a theory of mind which enables us to imagine the benefit the recipient receives from this charitable gesture, a predisposition towards altruism is an easy link to make.

From a brain development perspective, science has located the region that controls or is activated by altruism. “The ability to understand others' perspectives has previously been associated with activity in a brain region known as the temporoparietal junction (TPJ).” (Science Daily)TPJ is the section of the brain that activates in considering and managing social relationships. Researchers conducted magnetic imaging on the brains of participants while they played a computer game in which they and anonymous partners were splitting a theoretical pot of money. More generous participants had more activity in the TPJ, and more difficult decisions with regards to generosity showed a spike in activity, also. 

Several studies have begun to explore whether altruism may be plotted as stronger or weaker among individuals, based upon certain mental constructs, world views, or even diagnosed conditions, suggesting that an ability to process an emotional response based upon an outside impulse is variable. A Duke University study from 2007 showed that the characteristic is possibly more tied to how people view the world than their actual actions within the world (ScienceDaily)Specifically, the ability to perceive the individual, meaningful interactions among human beings is not a fixed ability, and a greater ability to perceive meaningful interactions is correlated to a greater predisposition to respond altruistically. That is to say, if a person believes that individual action can have a corresponding effect, he or she is more likely to behave altruistically

Individuals within the autism spectrum disorder usually display behaviors which indicate a difficulty with social relationships. Does this translate to less of a tendency towards altruism? A 2014 British study surveyed over 500 students for the presence of autism spectrum disorder, then took the highest and lowest 10% of scorers and conducted a second survey designed to determine how each group would respond to a situation which asked them to offer assistance to a bystander. Individuals who scored higher on the initial survey were more likely to choose a more selfish response to the hypothetical situation, and more likely to believe they would be satisfied with their actions afterwards. (British Psychological Research Journal)An interesting, if small, Master’s Degree study by Steven Thomas (Thomas)reviewed how autistic and non-autistic audiences responded to messaging asking for charitable support for a refugee crisis. Thomas provided sad images of refugee children to both groups, and then sad images and a corresponding story to both groups, to determine if there was measurable difference between the groups in their response rate for empathy, sympathy or charitable inclination. Both groups showed a similar (a statistically insignificant difference) willingness to donate when shown the sad images, but the autistic group showed a markedly lower tendency to contribute when the sad images were paired with a story. Thomas speculated that two factors could be at play: 1.) the inability of some autistic individuals to process cognitive empathy; or 2.) the tendency of autistic distress to inhibit a charitable response. (Thomas)Using the autism spectrum as a proxy for social skill variances within the human species, then, one might conjecture that altruism exists in all humans within the limits of each individual’s ability to process and understand the emotions and needs of others. (Science Daily)

To this point, we have examined possible theories about the biological bases of altruism as a behavior. We have traced the possible biological and genetic roots of altruism, beginning with the work of Charles Darwin, continuing through the twentieth century and through to today. We have considered the development of speech, altruism and social reciprocity, and isolated the tendency for altruism within the brain. At this point, before considering too deeply the tendencies and characteristics of other animals, we pivot to the philosophical examination of altruism. 

Philosopher Thomas Nagel, in his book, The Possibility of Altruism, argues that altruism exists because we are both “one” and “someone;” that is to say, our theory of mind allows us to simultaneously see ourselves as individuals and as part of a group. 

Altruism itself depends on a recognition of the reality of other persons, and on the equivalent capacity to regard oneself as merely one individual among many.” (Nagel 3)Nagel argues that altruism is a component of behaving rationally, and he distinguishes between feelings and behavior in his analysis. “The altruism which in my view underlies ethics is not to be confused with generalized affection for the human race. It is not a feeling. (Nagel 5)

In spite of this disclaimer, Nagel believes desire can be/should be considered to be intertwined with rational motivation. Although desire, “even if it is in fact universal, is nevertheless merely an affection to which one is either subject or not,” (Nagel 4)Nagel says that ethical conduct must recognize and, in part, synthesize these desires. “The picture of human motivational structure as a system of given desires connected in certain ways with action is a very appealing one, and it can seem that any persuasive justification of ethical conduct must find its foothold in such a system.” (Nagel 5)

Nagel makes his case at the intersection between ethics and motivational theory, positing that “conscious beings must apply the system of normative principles to themselves when forming their intentions… The general thesis to be defended concerning altruism is that one has a directreason to promote the interests of others – a reason which does not depend on intermediate factors such as one’s own interests or one’s antecedent sentiments of sympathy and benevolence.” (Nagel 15)

Nagel attempts to remove sentiment from the equation and concentrate on altruism as an interaction which is at the confluence of self-interest of two or more parties. He defines altruism, as a result, in a mechanical fashion. 

There is in other words such a thing as pure altruism (though it may never occur in isolation from all other motives). It (altruism) is the direct influence of one person’s interest on the actions of another, simply because in itself, the interest of the former provides the latter with a reason to act. (Nagel 80)

To Nagel, the fly in your soup or the cell phone you left on the hood of your car is an automatic and rational impulse for me to intervene. He calls this impulse altruism and believes it is a natural byproduct of us being both “one” and “someone” all at the same time. Our ability to project how we might feel is based upon our theory of mind.

Nagel calls upon the familiar sandbox argument that every parent has given their child in attempting to train up a toddler, the old How would you like it if someone did that to you?saw. If you have ever admonished a four-year-old for throwing sand or stealing buckets or generally exhibiting foul and egregious behavior at the expense of another four-year-old, you understand the effectiveness of the argument parents naturally employ. Nagel analyzes the reasons why we may be susceptible to this argument, then looks to poke holes in these arguments, and finally concludes that judgment plays the leading role in the argument. 

There is something else to the argument; it does not appeal solely to the passions, but it is a genuine argument whose conclusion is a judgment… You would think that your plight gave the other person a reason to terminate or modify his contribution to it, and that in failing to do so he was acting contrary to reasons which were plainly available to him. (Nagel 83)

Nagel believes that our ability to rationally see and assess the outlook of someone else is the key to altruism’s existence. “Recognition of the other person’s reality, and the possibility of putting yourself in his place, is essential.” He says that we recognize ‘the other’s’ situation and it creates within us a natural objectivity that allows us to place our own needs and desires in their stead. Furthermore, this objectivity creates within us the mindset that we are not helping because of specific connection, or correspondingly that others would not help us because of who we are specifically; rather, we help or we are helped because we are someone who requires it. It boils down to his contention that we have a default setting: “It is neither paradoxical nor counter-intuitive to maintain that one automatically has a reason to help someone in need if there is no reason not to.” (Nagel 128)

To Nagel, it is rational for us to behave altruistically because we are motivationally accepting of the fact that human happiness has value and is worth pursuing; therefore, we are accepting of the fact that others may also pursue happiness. “Since it is widely believed that human interests and happiness have value as ends, an argument which shows that such value must be objective will be in effect an argument for altruism, since it will mean that the ends are common rational objects of pursuit for everyone.” (Nagel 97)

Nagel establishes that altruism is a byproduct of our sense of self superimposed by our understanding that we are one of many, all of whom can be expected to be pursuing common goals. We see in others our own needs and we act altruistically as an automatic impulse. He concedes however, that altruism can be tempered by many situations, resulting in the book’s title, The Possibility of Altruism. “Even though altruistic motives depend not on love or any other interpersonal sentiment, but on a presumably universal recognition of the reality of the other persons, altruism is not remotely universal, for we continually block the effects of that recognition.” (Nagel 145)

If not universal, is altruism the special attribute or characteristic of being human? Nagel suggest that our theory of mind allows us to be wired for empathy – in varying degrees – and we have developed social organizations that teach it as a tenet or major thrust. Kropotkin’s ideas notwithstanding, comparing what we call altruism in humans with what might be considered altruism in other species is more difficult. At this juncture, it may be necessary to distinguish between altruism as a societal good and nurturing as instinct. “A mother does not typically nurture her baby because she empathizes with it, sympathizes with it, or feels morally bound to do so. She nurtures it because she loves it.” (Scientifique)

For about fifteen years, I owned a small farm in rural Pennsylvania. This provided a first-hand look at the behavior of some species. I learned a lot. For example, a mother cat in rural districts such as those surrounding the farm would distribute her litter hither and yon, to neighboring properties and barns where they could stake out a new claim. This instinct seems cold and calculated and in the best Darwinian tradition. When I moved to the farm, there was already a young, resident barn cat, who may have arrived in just this fashion. This cat eventually had a litter of kittens, one of whom remained on the property and became a house cat. Years later, these cats would continue to groom one another, while neither would groom other cats on the premises. This seems to support Price’s contention that we can mathematically predict the likelihood of altruistic behavior based upon closeness of the genetic relationship. It is important at this point to disclaim that when we consider animals, it is nearly impossible to prove intentionality of actions. As a result, it is difficult to call any animal behavior purely altruistic, simply because we can see the behavior, but we cannot for certain draw a straight line to the reasons underpinning the action, and so this analysis is limited to behaviors which, by human standards, may help explain our own behavior. 

It is also important to note the distinction between altruism and reciprocity. Many species of birds are known for warning others of danger or raising other nesting pairs’ young. However, Walter Koenig, Ph.D., of the Hastings Reservation and Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, says this is more about reciprocity, an exchange with perceived mutual benefit. “No definite case of reciprocal altruism is currently known in birds, but examples in which this phenomenon may be involved include helping behavior in a few cooperative breeders and cooperative feeding in a few taxa including gulls, jays and juncos.” (Koenig)

Another story from the life of a gentleman farmer: When my daughter was a teenager, she became an equestrian and I learned a great deal about horses. Horses are herd animals who are most comfortable in the presence of other horses or, at the very least, other herd animals such as sheep or goats. I remember vividly the experience of bringing new a new horse into the pasture when two horses were already present. My daughter and I came up the driveway with the new horse in the trailer, backed the horse off the trailer and opened the gate, letting her into the pasture. For the space of about 90 seconds, the three horses sniffed, reared and pawed the ground around the gate. In an amazing, nonverbal display, these half-ton mammals communicated the decision of which horse would be in charge – it would be the new horse. And there was no more discussion on the subject. 

The creation of social order within a group is not necessarily altruistic, although the horse in charge is most often “on duty.” He or she stays awake and upright, while the others may rest, sometimes even laying down in the pasture. The other horses defer leadership; they gain rest and a more peaceful existence. It is a bargain struck rather than selfless regard for another.

But when horses are “friends” with one another, during the hot summer months, you will often see them stand beside one another in opposite directions to one another, each using their tails to swish and swipe the flies away from the head of the other. This is a reciprocity that is mutually beneficial, and while it may not be altruistic, it approaches the characteristic, and it is curious that only horses that are “friends” will behave in this way. 

Once under attack, though, herd animals demonstrate a desire to cluster. Generally, the smaller the animal, the tighter the cluster of the pack; thus, sheep cluster very tightly when danger is detected, while horses or other large animals will travel together, but not right next to one another. “Each animal will attempt to push itself into the middle of the group where it will be safe from predators. The strongest animals will end up in the middle of the milling herd.” (Grandin and Deesing)Thus, herd behavior is both preservationist for the group and a demonstration of the survival of the fittest. 

Altruism between and among species does exist anecdotally. In 2013, a group of whales in waters off the coast of Portugal befriended a bottlenose dolphin while under the watchful eye of evolutionary biologists, accepting him as part of their group, playing with him, and socializing. (Andrews)

In controlled environments, and as part of extended experiments, some of our closest primate neighbors do not exhibit a tendency to altruism. In a study published in 2006, chimpanzees were given the opportunity to share or provide “fair” distributions of food to each other, and they “made their choices based solely on personal gain.” (Jensen, B and Call)However, some researchers believe that primates may have an evolutionary disadvantage in comparison to other mammals, such as wolves or other predators, when it comes to social interaction, as revealed by work by neuroscientist, Gregory Berns, M.D., Ph.D. (Berns)

Berns is the Distinguished Professor of Neuroeconomics at Emory University. In his 2013 book How Dogs Love Us: A Neuroscientist and His Adopted Dog Decode the Canine Brain, Berns argues that dogs are better suited to feel empathy and love, the building blocks of altruism. “Because wolves were predators, they were already well evolved for intuiting the behavior of other animals, which meant that wolves had a high level of interspecies social cognition, perhaps even a theory of mind.” (Berns loc 3057)

Berns believes that dogs may be “man’s best friend” in reality. “The defining trait of dogs, therefore, is their interspecies social intelligence, an ability to intuit what humans and other animals are thinking. (Berns loc 3075)His longitudinal studies are revealing much more to us about the similarities of brain function and helping us decode empathy, what he calls “the fundamental attribute of love.” (Berns loc 3078)It seems likely that the more we learn about our canine friends, the more we will learn about our own ability to love and empathize with another. While the heroic stories of dogs saving their owners from the edges of a precipices on dark winter nights or cats which find their way home after inadvertent journeys under the hoods of pickup trucks will always promote a certain sense of wonder and encourage a belief that other species care about us, dogs and cats don’t go out of their way to assist a perfect stranger in peril – regardless of whether that stranger is human, canine or feline. Only our species will knowingly and without any expectation of gain extend a favor or provide resources from our own bounty to an unknown stranger.

In the examination of other species, we have looked for both the biological and anecdotal evidence for the presence of altruism. There is ample evidence of social order and some evidence of reciprocity, but not a great deal of evidence of absolute altruism. It also appears that the closer an animal’s success is linked to interaction with the human race, the greater the tendency either of humans to see actions as motivated by altruism or for the animals themselves to behaving in manners that could be considered empathetic or perhaps even altruistic. 

Having considered the conversation about altruism from a biological, and philosophical perspective, we’ve learned that if altruism exists as a trait, it is linked to the presence of a theory of mind. We may have developed a social empathy because group function required cooperation, amplified by our impressive language skills which appear to be much more robust than other species. Other species, large and small, have similar societal orders and rules, but our theory of mind allows a projection of the concerns of others onto our own lives. The next portion of the paper will consider individuals who demonstrate great altruism by Western civilization’s standards – they willingly give away resources which could have been stored for the future. 

In the course of studying altruism, it occurred to me that individuals who are exceptionally generous may have a view of the subject that is worth considering. As indicated in the opening paragraphs, my vocation in the world of nonprofit fundraising has given me an outstanding opportunity to make a study of this unique, subset of humanity. Since graduating from college in 1986, most of my professional life has been in the field of philanthropy. My work has involved the conversion of altruistic tendencies in human beings into contributions to benefit nonprofit organizations. I have worked in healthcare, in social service organizations in and higher education, encountering philanthropists in many settings and from myriad backgrounds. In my time in the profession, I have learned that regardless of the timespan under consideration – a day, a month, or a year or more – and regardless of the number of gifts processed by the institution – ten, one hundred or three thousand or more – there will always be two or three top gifts which make up 40 percent or more of the total of contributions. The impact that ultra-generous donors have on total fundraising, and therefore on institutional mission, cannot be overstated. 

In 1994, a landmark study of philanthropists was published, The Seven Faces of Philanthropy, by Russ Alan Prince and Karen Maru File. Prince and File identified seven archetypes of charitable contributors and explained that the motivations of contributors are quite varied. Prince and File wrote their book to assist nonprofits in their search for finding more support. They felt that by defining types of contributors, nonprofits could more effectively solicit and steward support for their nonprofit missions. 

Because our careers have focused on working with nonprofits in various capacities, we waw an opportunity to advance the field by developing a framework of donor behavior. Thus the Seven Faces framework, built on a multi-year program of research and testing, is the application of social science methods to the development field. (Prince and File loc 38)

They grouped benefactors into the following archetypes: communitarians – people who believe it makes good sense to do good and benefits their communities; dynasts – people who have inherited both their wealth and the socialization to make charitable contributions; repayers – donors who have personally benefited from an institution or service and have developed a sense of obligation; investors – contributors who give to maximize a tax benefit or estate consequence; devout – donors who are motivated almost exclusively by religious motives; socialites – people who enjoy the social aspects and networking benefits of charitable activities; and, last but not least, altruists – donors who make contributions out of a perceived need, and often wish to remain anonymous. (Prince and File)

In about 30 years of discussing charitable endeavors with contributors, I have met donors who match all of the Prince-File definitions. In their analysis, Prince and File suggested that altruists represent 9 percent of the donor population. After a lifetime in the profession, I would offer that most of the major contributors with whom I’ve had the pleasure to work have demonstrated a strong altruistic tendency, but they have rarely made contributions from purely altruistic motives or without additional impulses. The donor who drops the gold coin into the Salvation Army bucket may be seemingly actuated by purely altruistic motives, but my sense is that he/she loves reading the story the next day in the newspaper. If altruism is founded upon an innate desire to assist others, it is unquestionably nourished in a positive feedback loop. 

As indicated in the opening paragraphs, my vocation in the world of nonprofit fundraising has given me an outstanding opportunity to make a study of this unique, subset of humanity. In my time in the profession, I have learned that regardless of the timespan under consideration – a day, a month, or a year or more – and regardless of the number of gifts processed by the institution – ten, one hundred or three thousand or more – there will always be two or three top gifts which make up 40 percent or more of the total of contributions. The impact that ultra-generous donors have on total fundraising, and therefore on institutional mission, cannot be overstated.

Interview Analysis
I interviewed five individuals as a part of my research – one couple and three unique individuals, ranging in age from 49 to 94. All of these subjects made their homes in the central part of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and all of them had made gifts of $1 million or more in their lifetimes. I had personally engaged each of these contributors for support of an institution for which I was under the employ, and each of them had provided generous support. Each of them also had myriad other causes for which he/she provided generous support. My conversations ranged from 45 to 90 minutes, and for each of the individuals, I attempted to glean their thoughts on the basis and origins of their generosity, understand how they believe it correlated to an altruistic impulse, and ascertain what aspects of their lives influenced their of exceptional generosity. 

Subject #1 is a male executive who has been a part of a successful family business that has thrived for three generations. He is married with five children. He says family lore and legacy helped to inform his views of charity. 

I remember my father talking about my grandfather being helpful to people. There were people that would come to their front door who were hungry and they would invite them in and have a meal with them. And I remember him talking about my grandfather…at the end of a long work day my father saying, “I just want to leave Dad,” and he’d say, “No. Wait a minute. There are kids lined up outside with their bicycles that need to be welded.” Their bikes were broken and they had brought them to the shop to be fixed. And, he said that he kind of learned it that way. I kind of learned it from my father’s stories talking about his grandfather. He would fix the kids bikes for free so that they could be on their way and use their bikes again. 

Along with family history, subject #1 said that his own personal views had evolved on charity. He credits his spouse, her different upbringing, and just the process of aging as providing him with the inspiration to reconsider his motives and his charitable impulses. 

What I was exposed to was more kind of…you’re giving which is helping the community but it’s also helping the business and it’s helping you personally. As I learn more about that and thought more about that…it’s not really the reasons why I want to give, you know? And it has caused me to think about it more and think about… I think I would do it differently; given the choice I would do it differently and now that I am almost 50, which I will be in March, I think I can make the choice now to do it differently.

Subject #1 has subsequently begun to think about charity a purely altruistic gesture, eschewing all recognition for the gift and often preferring to remain anonymous if possible. 

Now, the business side … that’s the way I was raised … remember that’s an important piece of it and you want to capture it because it’s all part of the business kind of benefit to get out of it. So again I am changing my views as I go through time. I think differently … I think that you should be giving because you want to help somebody or help an organization that can help others. And that’s the sole reason you’re doing it, maybe you feel good because you were able to help in some way. But, you’re not doing it because you want them to give you an award or you want them to put your picture all over the newspaper. Then it feels like it cheapens the giving, it cheapens the gift.

Subject #1 matches the Prince-File archetype of altruist very closely. 

Altruists give because they believe it is a moral imperative, and because it helps them grow as human beings or evolve spiritually. Altruists make giving decisions without the input of advisors and are not usually interested in active roles in the nonprofits they support. A far greater proportion of altruist than any other group focus their philanthropy on social causes. (Prince and File loc 253)

When I asked Subject #1 if the laws were changed in a way to eliminate a financial benefit to donors, imagining a future where contributions were not incentivized by the tax code, he indicated that he believed that the perceived benefit to the contributions would still sway businesses and business owners. “I think business owners realize that’s (the tax deduction is) a benefit. That’s another reason they want to give. But is it the sole reason they give? Probably not. I think they give for other reasons and I think they give for visibility for their business and for themselves.” 

Subject #1’s experience and upbringing in a family where caring for the community was both good for the community and good for business led him to become much more discerning about his purpose in giving, and much more altruistic in his approach. He could also point to experiences as a youth in a family where wealth and stature also served as a detriment to his altruistic urges. I asked him specifically about whether urges to assist others – say rescuing someone from a burning home or stopping at the scene of an accident, were an innate response, and his answer was surprising.

I think most people, not everyone, would want to help. It leads me to think about things that I was told when growing up about helping people that are in situations like that (accident on the side of the road). And I not sure it was all good … I heard things like, “Well if you do something wrong you could be sued and given your position in the community or business or whatever that’s a big deal.” You know, so I don’t think comments like that helped me to want to help others. Do you know what I mean? So in general I think we are … naturally most people would help others. But I think we can get information from others that may rethink that.

Throughout his life, Subject #1 has had experiences that have allowed him to see the connectedness of community, the mutual benefit of altruism expressed through charitable support. 

We can continue to learn about philanthropy and expand our horizons; my wife is helping me to do that with the adoption of our two children from China, and learning about the needs of orphan Chinese children and medical needs. Our one daughter was actually helped by an organization, Love Without Boundaries. People in the United States raised money for her heart surgery. And she had life-saving heart surgery in China before we adopted her. And we didn’t know this until we got her picture and learned later that she had been helped by this organization. They saved her life and now she’s our daughter. I mean that’s incredible. I mean it’s just amazing to me…. And then you realize, Wow, we are all connected in some way.

Subject #1 is an evolved altruist. He believes that we are all connected and that he has a duty to help. He has no expectation of return benefit to any gift that he or his family provides. He believes that while nature may provide everyone with an impulse to help, nurture can aid or deter that impulse. 

Subject #2 is a white female executive managing a second-generation family business in central Pennsylvania. She is between the ages of 50-70 and is married with no children. Her father began the business. Subject #2 lives in the town in which she was born, where her father founded the business. Subject number two has given more than $1 million to charities in the region in which she lives and for other varied purposes across the globe.

When I asked Subject #2 for her earliest memories on altruism and behaving in a manner that cared for others, her response was clear and she could point to a specific experience.

There is a very early memory that comes to mind. I was maybe in junior high school, that kind of age, and a babysitter that we had for me and my brother years before was ill and was in the hospital and my mother was going to see her, and she said, “(REDACTED), get your coat.” And I said, “I’m not going to the hospital,” and she said, “Oh yes you are.” 

“Why do I have to go?” 

“Because Nana is sick in the hospital, and just because you don’t want to go is not enough of a reason. She will appreciate it and she will enjoy this visit. You are going to take this time and go with me.”

Subject #2 said that this experience was the first time she could remember a specific experience that provided a glimpse of how she was raised – the idea that we cared for others, we did things to show we care, and we did not expect reciprocity. 

She really had to take me aside and said, “This is what we are doing.” 

This is what you are expected to do. This is what people do. More importantly this is what we do and this is what you are expected to do. And I think even though there was no money involved in that particular case specifically, it was the notion that you do things for other people because it’s valuable to the other person even if you don’t get anything out of it. And there is a relationship, and the other person really benefits from you doing whatever it is, which I really think is the basis of altruism and ultimately charitable philanthropy is the same thing.

Subject #2 said there were other, more conventional memories of modeling that her parents provided that showed that behaving in an altruistic manner towards the community was important.

In the same regard my parents, both of them, were both very active volunteers in the organizations, whether it was my father was in the Rotary or my mother on the hospital auxiliary for years and numerous other organizations. They devoted their time to things and they didn’t insist that I do them, but it was modeled for me my whole life. And I don’t know if I ever thought of it as an expectation. It was just what they did…

… It was just the right thing to do. There was no expectation. I never heard it mentioned, implied, assumed. Whether it was the babysitter, whether it was belonging or working for Rotary or any of the other organizations that both of them spent time with, or charitable giving. It was never any expectation of return benefit.

Subject #2 aligns with the archetype of communitarian. “Communitarians see themselves in a web of interlocking relationships in their local communities… … Because they have been successful, communitarians recognize a strong psychological bond to their local environment.” (Prince and File loc 297)

Although reciprocity is not something that subject #2 considers when she makes charitable commitments, and although repayment or community benefit is not a factor in the considerations she makes in her giving, subject #2 said that acknowledgement is important to her. 

If I were to give something to … say one million dollars … to an organization and all I got was a thank you note that looked just like everybody else’s thank you note, I would be miffed. That was not a thank you that was commensurate with the size of the gift. A thank you is a form of recognition and I have some sense of … it’s a sense of equity for me. 

And somehow, and I don’t know how this fits, the way these thank you(s) have come has also been … you feel more involved. You get to know the people better, you see what’s happening, you get to go wherever this thing is whatever you’re supporting. Someone makes a little fuss over you … but you feel more a part of it. I don’t know if I am explaining this very well but … because if it’s some issue / subject like education / wildlife that you care about you kind of like to feel like you are helping. And, all you can do is give money and nobody is asking you to be an employee … that’s not what you are asking for either, but you just want to know this is working.

Subject #2 believes that a feedback loop helps to show that an altruistic gift has had its intended impact. As a business person, she makes investments for an expected return on those investments, and at some level, charitable investments pass a similar test – not that they must produce a return financially, but that they must produce the desired effect. 

Subject #2 does believe that an innate desire to assist exists within the species. She sees it in the automatic response sometimes evident in emergency situation. 

We all have seen stories of some accident or something and bystanders just rush to the car, drag somebody out. The car may be on fire … risking and they pull somebody out. Well they didn’t have to do that and they will say afterwards. “It just happened; it wasn’t conscious …didn’t stop to think I just ran over to help”….clearly someone was in danger or in need of help. And so there is obviously something there that we go to help our fellow man under circumstances…not even somebody you know….it can’t be because you think you will be rewarded afterward….it is such an automatic thing…

Subject #2 sees some similarities to our response to the response of a species she has invested other charitable dollars to protect – elephants. Subject #2 has contributed major commitments to the Nature Conservancy in an effort to preserve elephant habitat and reduce poaching. She believes evidence of the both the benefits of group behavior and also the “hard-wired” nature of belonging may be seen in the behavior of elephants.

I guess I would look at where you need groups. I know a little bit about elephants…they are always in a community…they travel together…they raise young together…mom and aunt and grandma take care of the kids in a communal way. Elephants are pretty big creatures so one elephant could protect one baby but they don’t… … it’s not even a choice…they do … it’s the way it is…they don’t consciously choose. Various animals in packs… They are not choosing to; they need to. So there is some functional benefit to that group behavior, in those cases. And, there are plenty of those cases with humans. It’s one of those cases … Hillary Clinton talks about it takes a community or it takes a village to successfully raise children. And there is certainly a certain truth in that. How much of this is innate, how much is just because one can’t do it …and you need other….even in older days when …say go back 200 hundred years when dad was out working trying to make money on the farm and mom was figuring out how to get food …did cooking and was busy…trying to maintain…you needed more people. There is something innate about it.

Yet, Subject #2 recognizes that in spite of a perceived “innate” response to behave altruistically or to recognize that humans function in a community, she stumbles over the fact that contemporaries with similar upbringing are not endowed with similar charitable or altruistic impulses. 

And I think of some of my friends who live different lives. They’re not on boards they don’t do volunteer activity. They may do some charitable work but I think it’s very little. Not because they can’t … they just don’t. And some of them are pretty close friends of mine and I think we grew up very similarly… … There is some innateness there. But there is not enough innateness for my friends to be philanthropic or to volunteer. So you manifest (it) differently at different levels…different degrees.

Subject #3 is a fascinating widowed woman who was born in central Pennsylvania, lived in other parts of the nation with her husband (now deceased), and returned to the region in her reclining years. She is elderly and lives in a retirement community. She and her late husband had no children during their long marriage to one another. 

Subject #3 grew up on a farm during the Great Depression. She felt that living on the farm insulated her from the serious issues of hunger that some people faced. 

My mother’s family were all farmers so we always had plenty to eat. But I always liked clothes and I wanted fancy shoes and I had to wear plain shoes that cost $1.98’s without any design, that’s how awful the Depression was for young people. The old people were worried about (bigger things). The young were sad because they couldn’t have the best of what they thought they wanted.

Subject #3 had a specific memory of altruism growing up on the farm. It involved a family member who was elderly who came to stay at the farm during the summer. 

We would spend summers with our grandparents on the farm and there would be a wagon and horse come by and an old lady would get out, and I would notice that they were filling a mattress with straw. So this was a great grandmother who only spoke Pennsylvania Dutch. We never had a conversation. But, she would be dropped off and spend a month and do mending and be like a slave almost. And, it was family…somebody’s mother or something. But, then another wagon would come by a month later…it would be no longer than a month, and she would pack up her bag and she would go someplace and that’s what they did with the elderly family instead of putting them in some home…well I guess they didn’t have any money to pay for to be anywhere. So they just rode her around. And I remember, I thought it was so funny after she left that day, they took the mattress out of her bedroom and they set fire to it. Now, as an adult I think I wonder if she had bugs? I mean why would they burn it? But, I guess they wouldn’t know what else to do with it. Not give it to somebody else to sleep on. 

Subject #3 felt that in her part of rural Pennsylvania, perhaps informed by the Depression, families did not contribute to the welfare of the greater community. She says that times were very hard, and that families pretty much had to concentrate on survival. “My memories are everybody had trouble supporting themselves. The people I knew…I wasn’t with, what they called the rich people. Because mother worked at home. A sewing factory would bring her like collars to deliver; so that she could be at home with my brother and me.”

Subject #3 felt that her late husband’s family was similar in their makeup and comportment to her own family, not given to charity or to profligate spending. Although her husband’s family were not farmers, they were of the same Pennsylvania German heritage and in the same community, and they made their vocation in working with farmers. 

They lived well but they never joined anything. (REDACTED)’s family loved counting their money. I noticed old timers like that that worked so hard or inherited it, they liked to see how much money they could have… … And, I think like those ladies and they were farmers originally before that. At least their spouses were and they just cared about a few nice things and no debt and that sort of thing. They weren’t interested in joining a club or taking a cruise. They thought that was ridiculous. They just invested it and made more…

…. After we were married and in the summertime trucks with farmers would line up all night long because they needed their money they wanted to sell their grain and move on. And I would work all night then with my husband because the other people who were doing those jobs had their day and it was just interesting for me to see how hard people worked and how much they needed their money and they’d want to be paid right away that’s why we would be open all night. And they didn’t want to wait until morning they wanted when they left to take their check with them. So you learn that life isn’t easy for everybody. People worked hard to get their money.

Subject #3’s husband graduated from a college in the region where she currently lives. She said that her husband began to make contributions to the college during his lifetime because she felt that his instruction had made a difference in his life. In this way, Subject #3’s husband is a classic “re-payer” in the Prince-File archetype of contributors. Subject #3 continued to provide support to the college after his demise, in recognition of her husband’s wishes and because she believe its mission is important. “The only thing that we did together was things at the college, if they wanted a building or something. And when he passed away I supported things I knew he would like there which were buildings.”

Like George Price’s mathematical formula attempts to prove, Subject #3 believes that altruism is strongest at the bond between and among family. She points to her contemporaries for evidence. 

I think people with families have a different feeling about giving money away. They want it for their children. Most of my friends feel that way. If I didn’t have children they would say…like they are making up for what I do…they don’t do because of their children. And, I can understand that. Because if you struggled to make a lot of money and you have, say, four or five kids you wouldn’t want them to struggle that much. 

Eventually, Subject #3 began to branch out in her support, assisting with charitable support for healthcare, for other colleges and private schools, for youth development, for blindness and disabled, and for theater/arts organizations. Subject #3 became known in the region for her charitable endeavors as a benefactor who was exceptionally generous. Subject #3 identifies most closely with the Prince-File archetype of socialite. “Socialites do not believe that they are philanthropic because they have money are are able to give some away. Instead, they believe that philanthropic behavior is part of their personality, and that having wealth just allows them to express this side of their personality in the way they do.” (Prince and File loc 669)She tied her generosity back to the fact that she has no immediate family for whom she may wish to secure a future. 

I feel that not having a family, why would I not want to share with somebody who is less fortunate? And, actually I guess in my heart, I feel like it was (REDACTED- late husband)’s gift. I just feel like you should share. It’s a warm feeling to know that you made life easier for somebody. And I have nieces and nephews and so did (REDACTED-late husband) and he set up trusts for them years ago. And I figure they have that and will have it until the money runs out. I don’t plan on giving them another thing. Let them do for themselves. They do well enough with their trusts so … … And just like when you go and see what buildings these people are working from and what they do to help people. It just is a good feeling to be part of it. 

When I pressed Subject #3 to make a commitment regarding whether people have a natural tendency to be altruistic, to care for another, or whether we learned this (or not) over time, she felt that the tendency was innate, echoing some of Nagel’s perspectives, that humans have a rational ability to imagine a better life for another and that they reflect that reality in their own actions. “If you had somebody that you felt you could make life better for, that that would be worth supporting. Or if you find out what you could do to make their life better, most people would do it, and you wouldn’t have to have a big thank you or anything. That’s the way I feel about it.”        

Subjects #4 and #5 are a married couple who live in central Pennsylvania. Subject #4, the male, was born in the region and managed a successful family business, leaving only to for college and returning to work and then own the business. Subject #4, the female, married Subject #4 approximately ten years ago. She was originally from New England and had family who were in blue-collar professions. She worked in healthcare all of her life, eventually as an executive. Both are between 65-80 years old. Subjects #4 and #5 have given more than $15 million to regional and national charities. 

Both Subject #4 and #5 pointed to the role of family in forming their earliest views of our need to support others. They pointed to parents as modeling a way to treat others, for charitable intent, and for humanitarian concern. 

Subject #5: 

I came from a relatively poor community. We were blue collar. Mother and father when they both retired they were making $14,000 a year back in 1966 or something. But my father was an electrician and he … we couldn’t give financially but if there was somebody in the church that they were building a new house and they needed the house wired, my father would do this at no cost. (Subject #4: he gave service) He gave services. And my mother did work for a doctor but it was my dad that I remember was doing things for others. 

Subject #4: 

First of all, yes, I was mentored. My father was a generous person period. In a lot of ways my father was a very kind gentle person. But I think that your statement of what causes … I still think it’s your surroundings and part of it … why are some people more generous or kind or … I don’t know. That’s a good question. I think part of it if you’re in an area where you are helping people. If you are going in an area where you are more financially or using money as capital and so on, you are going to use that capital to grow businesses. You are helping people more people to have employment, and doing a great job and things like that. 

Although their careers were very different from one another, both thought of their careers as contributing to their outlook on helping others. Subject #4 saw his role in life as to provide opportunities for others through employment, and to provide a valued service to society. Subject #5 entered healthcare at first because of what she saw as the limited options as she was entering the workforce, but also because of her inclination to help others.

Subject #5

At the time when I graduated from high school there were only three things for women … being a secretary, a nurse or a teacher. Now we are talking, Dan, back in the sixties. And that was it, there weren’t all these other degrees for women to get into… … there was never a question in my mind of what I wanted to be from as early as I can remember I wanted to be a nurse. And, that’s how my career started… … If anybody needed anything and I was working, even though I really couldn’t afford to do it, I would help them. Whether it was their rent … maybe one of my nurses was having a hard time I would help them in anyway … I would give them extra hours, but even financially at times doing things I really couldn’t afford to do. But it was like my heart just went out to them.

 Subject #4

I wanted my businesses to prosper … the more I earned, the more I could give away, the more I could do. My goal was not to maximize profits and minimize expenses. No it wanted them both to go together. Now there is a way to be competitive and there’s a way to be fair … labor was by far the biggest cost. And, now today health care is the biggest cost. So overall my philosophy was to mentor people in a way …. You are going to get a better and better job and get more and more financially secure. If I’m helping somebody who is helping themselves, they’re working harder. They’re doing more.. I’ve also been more helping people who are trying to help themselves. And to the maximum I can do it.

When Subject #4 and Subject #5 came together, they had very different outlooks on charitable support and to some degree this tension is still at work in the decisions that they make about support. Subject #5 tends to look at a possible grant based upon the needs of the regional or national population, and whether a gift could be an influential part of meeting needs. Subject #4 tends to look at the business side of the nonprofit; is the grant likely to lead to more success for the organization in executing its mission? 

Subject #5: 

I think as far as philanthropy, so much of it is about relationships and then learning about, you know, what an organization’s doing. And, does it strike a chord with you. We donate to (REDACTED) Health Services and that’s an organization that serves like 3,500 WIC, which is Women Infants and Children, a month. They basically help … and that’s. I mean mine has been more trying to help people.

Subject #4: 

And I guess that’s the challenge the college has. You want to help a winner. I don’t care at what level. I think the Y(MCA) is very well run. It’s obviously a non for profit. It helps a fair amount of the community as far as… But over the years it has been very fortunate to have good management and the Y does a good job. And so for helping them I have no problem. They are a good organization that serves the community and they do it in a good manner.

In this way, Subject #4 acts very much like an investor in the Prince-File archetypes, and Subject #5 is closer to an altruist. Subject #4 wants to understand how this particular gift will assist a charity in its mission, and also meet some financial goal for the charity. Subject #5 is less interested in the financial goal of the organization, more interested in the people assisted by the project and whether or not that project speaks to what she sees as a societal need. 

When I asked whether some level of caring for others was hardwired into our beings, Subject #5 was quick to support the idea that all of us are born with the capacity to care for others: “See I think you gotta help… … I really do have a visceral response if I feel like I’ve helped somebody. Whether that was like a genetic thing … I don’t know. It’s not euphoria, but it’s just a like I said it just a visceral reaction. I feel if I’ve done something.” In this way, Subject #5 most closely aligns with the altruist archetype in the Prince-File study. “Altruists say they support nonprofits principally because it gives their life a greater sense of purpose. Altruists associate their charitable behavior with personal fulfillment; they give from within themselves.” (Prince and File loc 763)

When faced with the same question of whether altruism could be innate, interestingly, Subject #4 turned the conversation upside down, to consider the reverse of caring. If he could not determine whether there was an innate possibility that we all have altruism within us, he could say that we are genetically predisposed not to do harm. 

I read a book once about the effect the first time you shot somebody … like in World War II when you could see the person you were shooting … you threw up … a lot of soldiers; the second one you were upset but not as much; by the time you killed the fifth person, you were fine…. so you learn the reaction. Your natural instinct was not to kill. 

Subject #4 is very much aligned with the investor archetype in the Prince-File study. “Investors are skeptical that anyone is truly altruistic or selfless. They personally do not fell this way and are able to recognize such an approach to philanthropy.” (Prince and File loc 560)It was much more difficult for Subject #4 than his spouse to consider an innate response; his ability to see the response as innate was linked to an his ability to preserve life as also innate. 

Both Subject #4 and Subject #5 relayed a story to me about a lost dog – Subject #4 had ordered flowers for Subject #5, and as they were being delivered, a beloved pet escaped unbeknownst to Subject #4. Subject #5 was frantic. Hours later, a good Samaritan found and returned the pet, and wanted no thanks or payment in return. It had struck both of them, in the course of our conversation, as an act of altruism. In the final analysis, both Subject #4 and Subject #5 believed that there could exist a genetic tendency to altruism, but that this tendency was strongly aided or deterred by the environment for upbringing, by profession, and by life lessons.

Subject #5: 

You know that as you learn more about need and you are in an environment that is like here … you know that people do give, that (your outlook) can change … if you already have the genetic tendency that (environment) enhances it. But it can also be a deterrent.

The five interviewees for this project were diverse in their outlooks, but relatively similar in their demographic makeup. When pressed, each of the subjects believed that humanity may be hard-wired with an impulse to help another. However, all of the subjects expressed a strong belief that environment plays a role that is at least as prevalent to any genetic makeup. Subject #1 indicated that the environment can lead one to act on a caring impulse or can lead one to withhold care. Subject #2 pointed to elephants, large mammals that act in community to care for the growth and development of their young, as evidence of our own need for community, but she was stymied in understanding how she felt a need to care for others that was not evidenced by her peers. Subject #3 said that she believes if you see someone who needs help, you have an instinct to act upon those needs, but she reflected upon her Depression-era upbringing with clear memories that families in the depression were not sharing people. They were not generally altruistic, possibly because the Depression created an environment that made each family more concerned with its own future. Subject #4 felt she always wanted to be in a caring profession, to help others, but she acknowledged that some of that may have come from limited options in her youth and an example set by her father. Subject #5 was least certain of the genetic tendency, but he saw the correlation between an innate desire to not take another human being’s life as a possible inverse to the question, which made this genetic tendency a plausible scenario. 

Subject #5, unexpectedly, provided me with remarks that provide the best anecdotal evidence that altruism is a genetic or biological presence. If we can agree that we have an innate aversion to taking another human’s life, that aversion comes from somewhere within us, and it is likely based upon the same philosophical foundations explored by Nagel; that is to say, our theory of mind is our own personal projection screen of our own life – whether it is the life at the other end of a rifle sight, or the life at the highway intersection in the green canvas jacket, holding the cardboard sign that says, “Please help – daughter needs life-saving surgery.” 

Although this paper was the culmination of hours of research, it was broad, and in some ways, the topic is too comprehensive to be the subject of a comprehensive review. A narrower paper looking specifically at the brain function of individuals engaged in charitable behavior would be an interesting topic for follow-up. The presence of social media and its influence on sense of self, plus its influence on altruistic behavior, is another area that I believe requires further investigation. The work of Douglas Rushkoff and how it may intersect with social sense of community, responsibility, and self, would be an interesting analysis, particularly paired with the work of Nagel. The interviews themselves were likely too narrow a slice of humanity for close scrutiny. Ideally, follow-up study would consider the charitable or altruistic impulses in cultures and regions which are international and attempt to remove any Judeo-Christian bias to the discussion. 

In spite of these deficiencies and the obvious need for additional research, the examination of the topic through this paper has attempted to weave the various threads of altruism together, to create a fabric that wraps up humanity like a blanket that cannot easily be rent. Altruism is a genetically wired impulse. Throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century, geneticists and theoretical biologists have found reasons to believe that our species developed a social order that required cooperation; altruists provided beneficial behavior that allowed for the genetic predisposition to flourish. There are specific locations within the human brain where an altruistic impulse may originate and activate, and altruism may be modulated based upon conditions affecting growth and development of social skills. The fact that humans possess a theory of mind forms the philosophical underpinning for our ability to consider the straits of another as we consider our own existence. Finally, each of the benefactors interviewed as part of this analysis saw both nature and nurture at work as an influence on humanity. We are both “some one” and part of a larger herd, and we project our own feelings, thoughts and desires onto the lives of those who need help.