Would you give a penny to the needy? How about a kidney? A heart?
The thought of spring break brings up images of partying in warm weather, drunken one-night stands, and the raging hangovers that follow; yet for Rachel Garneau, a junior at Notre-Dame, it represented an pseudo-holiday opportunity for giving, and give she did. This twenty year old gave up a kidney for a complete stranger. There was an air of psychosis to her as she walked right into the University Of Chicago’s Bernard Mitchell Hospital, calm as ever; her demeanor quite indifferent, her nonchalance quite unnerving. Funny how we find this act of complete altruism ‘weird’; because it is weird, all that we know from evolution, Darwinism, basic human tendencies, and even the insightful field of behavioral economics contradicts what Rachel Garneau chose to do at 5:45 a.m. on a Tuesday: she gave till it hurt, and then some more.
Economics, a field based on profit and gain, when taken into context of human choices and decisions, leads to a deeper understanding of the motivation behind our actions. The fundamental theory behind welfare Economics is: “Assume all individuals are selfish price takers. Then a competitive equilibrium is Pareto optimal (Feldman 1987, IV, 890)”. The amalgamation of the life’s work of Adam Smith was proving that humans are selfish and that we will, when it comes down to it, succeed for our own profit. So how would he explain a concept so selfless as altruism? How would he go about making sense of Rachel Garneau’s actions?
Surprisingly, it is a culmination of pure science and theories of economics that helps us unravels the mysteries of this very ‘God-like’ selflessness. Research in modern cognitive neuroscience has led to a new theory on altruism. We think of giving as a choice, as a conscious decision we make out of the ‘goodness of our hearts’; but what if there is more, what if our very evolution has primed us in ways that lead to not individual gain but social cooperation? Studies conducted on the early developmental egalitarianism and parochialism in children show that other-regarding factors are, to some extend, exist as inherent tendencies in all humans: when allowed to choose between how candy is distributed among an anonymous partner and themselves, the children chose to be heavily selfless in their distribution. As Fehr et al. come to this startling conclusion in their paper “Egalitarianism in young children”, we see how proper upbringing and cultural norms are not solely responsible for our altruistic nature. We have evolved to take others into consideration in our choices; we have evolved a ‘heart’.
The innateness of these ‘selfless’ tendencies is exemplified by the close study of our primitive ancestors. Frans de Waal, professor of psychology at Emory University, studied the habit of the greater apes. In his work “Homo homini lupus? Morality, the Social Instincts, and our Fellow Primates”, deWaal talks about the surprising altruism we see in...