November 19, 2007 | David F. Coppedge

How Early Man Got High on Generosity

Are you generous because of a chemical?  That seems to be the claim of researchers from UCLA, Chapman and Claremont.  They did a double-blind test with students where they played computer games that required them to make decisions about how to split up a sum of money.  The ones who got a whiff of oxytocin in the nose were 80% more generous than those with a placebo.  The study was published in PLoS One.1
    What causes humans to be generous?  “Several evolutionary mechanisms have been proposed to explain altruistic giving,” they said, but found problems with the common hypotheses of kin selection (help the family), reciprocal altruism (scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours), indirect reciprocity (smile and the world smiles with you), group selection (we help people who look like us), and strong reciprocity (we love everybody except the bad guys).
    “In this paper we investigate a mechanism that may produce generosity while dissociating generosity from altruism,” they continued.  That’s where they proceeded to explain it as a chemical reaction.  Oxytocin is one of the chemicals in the brain that makes us feel good.  Being generous with total strangers stimulates the release of this chemical, they hypothesized.  This means that generosity is really a form of selfishness.
    Although they allowed for the possibility that other mechanisms might exist to explain generosity and altruism, they were sure that whatever the causes, they were mechanistic:

Generosity may be part of the human repertoire to sustain cooperative relationships.  Several neural mechanisms likely support generosity.  OT can induce dopamine release in ventromedial regions associated with reward reinforcing generosity….
    Although we artificially raised OT [oxytocin] levels in this study to establish a causal mechanism producing generosity, OT can be enhanced nonpharmacologically in a variety of ways, including touching, safe environments, and receiving a signal of trust from another person.  By increasing OT the ability to empathize with others, and the motivation to be generous with them, are enhanced.  Indeed, mice that lack OT receptors suffer from social amnesia.  This suggests that a variety of factors we encounter in our daily lives may motivate us to be generous—even with strangers.

This view, without doubt, differs radically from the view that generosity is a free moral choice.2


1.  Zak, Stanton and Ahmadi, “Oxytocin Increases Generosity in Humans,” Public Library of Science One, Nov. 2007.
2.  For examples, read St. Paul’s treatises on charity and generosity from theological and moral foundations: II Corinthians 8 and I Corinthians 13.

It is one thing to claim that generosity produces physical effects in the human brain.  It is another thing entirely to claim that generosity is merely a physical phenomenon.  The researchers are implying that elevated oxytocin levels in neurons of primates became associated with social behaviors that were selected for survival somewhere in our evolutionary past.
    This paper is a prime example of physicalism (roughly equivalent to materialism).  The authors see a moral behavior and want to reduce it to interactions between physical objects – molecules and members of a social group.  Since they think they are doing “science,” they think they inherit all the prestige and authority science has achieved in our culture.  Confident that they alone have a methodology that generates reliable knowledge, they can weave their evolutionary tale without any fear of rebuttal from those who traditionally engaged matters of the mind, society and morals.  Those people need not enter the discussion: philosophers, theologians, historians and, especially, the ones who have lost all authority in our culture: preachers. 
    If scientists like these really demonstrated the superiority of their physicalist explanatory power, the traditional parties would have to humbly bow the knee and acquiesce.  But they cannot.  The physicalists commit at least two logical fallacies that undermine their whole approach.  One is reductionism, the fallacy of assuming a phenomenon can be sufficiently represented by a summary of its component parts: i.e., morals reduces to chemistry, which reduces to physics.  This is like saying the Constitution reduces to paper and ink.  The most significant aspect is lost in the reduction.
    This leads to the second problem, the self-referential fallacy.  If generosity and altruism can be reduced to chemistry, then so can scientific explanations.  As such, they have no claims to validity; the scientists can no longer appeal to rational concepts of truth, coherence, consistency and logical inference.
    These researchers have a bad case of the Yoda complex (09/25/2006 commentary).  We cannot allow them to speak from some disembodied platform of knowledge to the rest of us mortals.  Their spirits must come back and melt into the atoms and molecules of their human bodies, where, according to their assumptions, truth and abstract concepts have no independent reality.  There is, therefore, no possible way they could know anything – including the claims made in their paper.
    You can therefore dismiss this paper as boorish nonsense, the chaff of a windy worldview that denies the existence of grain.  And that’s being generous.

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Categories: Early Man

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