Archive for August 28, 2016

The Biology of Giving

“It is more blessed to give than to receive.”

–Paul quoting Jesus, Acts 20:35


Paul and Jesus, both generous and prophetic guys, surely were thinking ahead with these timeless words designed to comfort modern day parents who have just watched their greedy children revel in the Christmas booty with only the faintest nod of thanks to Santa. We’re all born hungry. Receiving comes naturally, but giving is an acquired taste and talent. Our societies have to train us with gold stars and heroic tales and aphorisms from our spiritual leaders to keep us on the giving track.

I learned a new word about societies this week from the entymologist E.O. Wilson: “eusociality.” Wilson is a bug man and a book writer (26 books in 55 years) now in the twilight of his academic career. I’ve been reading his 2012 book The Social Conquest of the Earth to understand better what we Homo Sapiens share with the other conquerors of the earth, the ants and the termites. It turns out that if you want to proliferate and dominate other forms of life in this world, eusociality is one feature your species cannot afford to bypass.

Here’s what the ants and termites figured out 65 million years ago, and we just figured out yesterday, or 3 million years ago: “Eusociality, the condition of multiple generations organized into groups by means of an altruistic division of labor, was one of the major innovations in the history of life. It created superorganisms, the next level of biological complexity above that of organisms. It is comparable in impact to the conquest of land by aquatic air-breathing animals. It is equivalent in importance to the invention of powered flight by insects and vertebrates.”

Eusociality is the next jump up from every-organism-for-itself. If eusociality is so essential to winning the evolutionary competition, why hasn’t every species adopt it? Apparently, it’s not an easy evolutionary jump to make. The rarity of eusociality remains a mystery. Only 15 of the 2600 taxonomic families of insects are known to contain eusocial species. And only two of the vertebrate families have made the jump: two species of subterranean naked mole rats of Africa and Homo Sapiens. I hope that fact improves your opinion of the naked mole rat of Africa.

So, if you want to be one of the rare superorganisms in this world, you better master eusociality. There are two steps. Step 1: establish altruistic cooperation to protect your nest from enemies. Step 2: organize members of multi-generational groups to divide labor in a way that sacrifices some personal interests to the interests of the group. Altruism is a key to rapid proliferation and dominion. Giving gives us power.

If that sounds too academic to guide your daily life, here’s a new study that brings that evolutionary lesson into your nest. Inagaki and colleagues wondered whether it was not only more blessed but more biologically beneficial to give than to receive. Using sophisticated psychological measures and fMRI brain scans that track the activity of specific brain circuits during tasks, they examined 36 participants in their twenties while engaged in a raffle game. The aim of the study was to examine how the experience of giving support, compared to receiving support, affected two regions of the brain known to be sensitive to stress in relationships, the ventral striatum and the septal area. In this raffle game, the participants could choose to earn tickets either for themselves (receiving support) or for someone they knew who could use the money (giving support, i.e., $300). That’s putting altruism under the fMRI scan.

The Inagaki study found that both giving and receiving support reduced distress and made the participants feel better. But only giving was associated with biologically beneficial outcomes. Specifically, giving (but not receiving) activated the ventral striatum, which is particularly sensitive to social rewards and to the degree of closeness between two people. Epidemiologic studies have shown that giving is associated with lower mortality, fewer sick days at work, and better cardiovascular resilience.

It’s just one study, but in the context of the powerful evolutionary advantages of groups that protect their nests through altruistic divisions of labor, this study lends modern weight to the Biblical blessing of giving. It scientifically affirms the value of random acts of kindness. It reminds us why sometimes those with the least give the most—we get it back in the currency that most counts: affiliations with people we care about.

And it implies what we already know from other tales in all the good books (the Bible, Koran, and Gita): when you’re feeling stressed, bereft, and short on resources, try giving what you can. Giving may work better than receiving—better for your health and better for those in your nest.