The Monkey Business of Pure Altruism
I’ve been reflecting on how Bill and Melinda Gates resemble a pair of monkeys. Earlier this month, the Lasker Awards were announced. The prestigious prize, known as the “American Nobel,” is given annually to a few extraordinary biomedical scientists. A Lasker for public service is also usually awarded—this year to the Gateses.
Great move. They’ve given vast sums of money to medical research and have galvanized other billionaires into doing the same. They’ve targeted research about diseases that bring incalculable misery to the developing world. All with great wisdom.
Philosophers have long debated whether truly selfless altruism is possible. Some argue that pure altruism can occur, while others proclaim the jaundiced sound bite, “Scratch an altruist and a hypocrite bleeds.”
After all, altruism can be immensely fulfilling, and neuroimaging studies show that altruistic acts activate reward centers of the brain. Altruism also can enhance a giver’s reputation and prompt reciprocal gifts. And costly displays of prowess, evolutionary biologists have demonstrated, can serve to attract mates—”If I can afford to grow these gigantic antlers, I must have some studly genes.” Some scientists speculate that altruism evolved as a costly signal meant to impress prospective mates.