Phi­lan­thropy? It’s in our na­ture

Neu­ro­science sug­gests that we are hard­wired to make money — and give it away


LEVY WALKS into a bank and asks for a £5,000 loan, with no penal­ties for early re­pay­ment. The man­ager says he’ll need some col­lat­eral. “How about my Rolls?” asks Levy. “It’s parked out­side.” The man­ager takes the car and parks it in the car park. Two weeks later, Levy re­turns, pays off the loan and the £15 in­ter­est and takes back his car. “A plea­sure do­ing busi­ness with you,” says the man­ager. “But I have a ques­tion. While you were away, we checked your ac­count and saw you have mil­lions in the bank. Why did you need a £5,000 loan?”

Levy replies: “Where else can I park for two weeks for £15?”

Funny as it is, that joke con­tains pretty much ev­ery Jewish car­i­ca­ture in the book. The rich Jew. The Jew who toys with and gets one over the gen­tile. The tight Jew.

The most preva­lent of all such car­i­ca­tures is the Jew as wealthy busi­ness­man. So it’s salu­tary to read Prof Ter­ence Kealey’s new book, Sex, Science and Prof­its: How Peo­ple Evolved To Make Money. I’d rec­om­mend it highly, since its mag­is­te­ri­ally broad can­vas of science and hu­man eco­nomic his­tory should in­ter­est any­one who wants to know why we –— we as hu­man be­ings, that is — be­have the way we do. And it has, as I’ll ex­plain, par­tic­u­lar per­ti­nence to Jews.

Kealey’s ba­sic the­sis is that com­merce is an ac­tiv­ity based on trust and that, in or­der for trust to work as the bind­ing agent for com­merce, hu­mans have evolved in­stincts such as guilt, shame and pride. This is not spec­u­la­tion — it’s based on sci­en­tific ob­ser­va­tion, re­vealed in func­tional mag­netic res­o­nance imag­ing scans which show ac­tiv­ity in the brain. The rel­e­vant parts of the brain light up when stirred. As Kealey writes: “They [brain scans] ex­plain how we evolved to make money, since emo­tions such as guilt and shame rep­re­sent the in­ter­nal­i­sa­tion of the co­op­er­a­tion and trust that shift an econ­omy.”

That ex­plains what hap­pens. As for why it hap­pens: “[T]he self­ish genes en­sure that our en­light­ened emo­tions are chal­lenged by Manichean ones, and the tri­umph of one set of emo­tions over the other is de­ter­mined by the so­cial con­di­tion­ing of child­hood.” That’s where the more spe­cific rel­e­vance to Jews comes in: Jewish cul­ture and thus a Jewish up­bring­ing.

Ge­n­e­sis records an early ex­am­ple of com­merce: “And Abra­ham spoke to the sons of Heth say­ing, ‘I am a stranger with you, give me pos­ses­sion of a bury­ing place with you that I may bury my dead... Give me the Mach­pelah cave for as much money as it is worth’... And Ephron the Hit­tite... an­swered: ‘The land is worth four hun­dred shekels of sil­ver’.”

In the mid­dle of the sec­ond mil­len­nium BCE, pre­cious metal was al­ready be­ing used by Jews as money, while in most places noth­ing re­motely as so­phis­ti­cated had emerged.

As the pas­sage shows, the Jews, the Canaan­ites and the Hit­tites shared a cul­ture of com­merce. Such rel­a­tively small groups stood in con­trast to the back­ward­ness of the main em­pires through­out the Bronze and Iron ages.

The ev­i­dence of his­tory and eco­nomics is that there are three pr­ereq­ui­sites for eco­nomic growth: a mar­ket, private prop­erty and the rule of law. Jewish cul­ture and rules pro­vided the foun­da­tion for just that from the very start.

But there’s an­other no­tably Jewish as­pect to the mak­ing of money: its sub­se­quent giv­ing away. All the great cul­tures of the world have in­sti­tu­tion­alised phi­lan­thropy. Is­lam has the and Hin­dus have Ju­daism is far from unique in that re­spect. But it is Is­raelis who to­day give away the largest per­cent­age of a coun­try’s GDP. Hardly sur­pris­ing, given that Ju­daism is the only cul­ture in which the word for char­ity — — is the same con­cept, let alone from the same root, as jus­tice.

Ni­et­zsche wrote that hu­mans “need to give”; neu­roe­co­nomics shows that phi­lan­thropy is in­deed hard­wired into our makeup. MRI scans show that when



tzedakah peo­ple are in­vited to give money to a char­ity, their brain re­ward cen­tres light up. Bi­ol­o­gists have con­cluded that hu­mans evolved to seek, above all else, the re­wards of so­cial hi­er­ar­chy. But be­cause most of us are not out­stand­ingly sci­en­tific, witty or artis­tic enough to achieve sta­tus di­rectly, we seek it via the mes­sage sent out about us from our money — both hav­ing it and giv­ing it away.

To make money, we might have to be­have as a prof­it­max­imiser. How­ever, as Kealey puts it: “[O]nce that per­son has made their money, they may well barter it for the cur­rency that re­ally mat­ters, ap­pro­ba­tion.”

So the renowned gen­eros­ity of Jewish phi­lan­thropists fol­lows both bi­o­log­i­cally and cul­tur­ally: bi­o­log­i­cally across the hu­man species from the ac­cu­mu­la­tion of wealth, and cul­tur­ally from the Jewish re­li­gion.

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