Philanthropy? It’s in our nature

Neuroscience suggests that we are hard-wired 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 wakf and Hindus have ahinsa. 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 — tzedakah — is the same concept, let alone from the same root, as justice.

Nietzsche wrote that humans “need to give”; neuro-economics shows that philanthropy is indeed hard-wired into our makeup. MRI scans show that when 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 profit-maximiser. 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.

Stephen Pollard is Chairman of the European Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism

    Last updated: 4:02pm, May 13 2008