Written for my Neurobiology 500 seminar at the University of Wisconsin – Madison.
I see two people who are both begging. The first man is just standing on the sidewalk with a cup asking for money; the second man is playing a jazz sax and has his instrument case out for money. I know nothing about either of them except what I see them doing at the moment. In my pockets I can feel the change from the burrito that I just bought. As I walk by the first man I maintain a coordinated steady pace and gaze straight ahead. My brain’s internal regulation controls my breathing and cardiovascular system. It also controls my movement and coordination without much input allowing the higher level processes within my brain to decide how I want to react. When he asks me for change I either lie and say I have no change or just keep walking. However, when I approach the man who is playing the jazz sax I may stop to listen and watch for a few seconds and then give him my change.
Why the difference? There are two reasons for not giving the first man my money. The first is a result of an innate (or primal) desire for increased fitness. I would rather give up my money for something that would benefit me or my offspring. Giving money to an unrelated man offers no chance for improved fitness. Secondly, his begging does not elicit any emotional response. Rather, I would only think that instead of begging he could find a paid-by-the-day construction job and be a productive citizen. The man playing the instrument, however, does elicit an emotional response. The man then becomes more of an skilled entertainer than a beggar. While I will get no fitness benefit by giving this man my money, he earns it more than the other man. The jazz player appeals to my cognitive awareness which includes emotions and appreciation of music.
As humans with a greater sense or development of higher awareness than other animals, we have the responsibility to choose how we want our resources spent. Altruism, or helping others with little or no interest in being rewarded, is a concept that only humans can obtain. Therefore, with limited monetary resources we have to decide how best we want our money spent. Yielding to a very real example, I personally would rather give my money to the American Red Cross to help those suffering from Hurricane Katrina than to give it to a man whose negligence may have contributed to his current state.
However, even the benefit of my charitable donation can be debated. I was reading a blog post in which a man claimed that “The disaster was the ‘American Dream’. Katrina was the aftermath.” He said that “The ‘naturalness’ of a disaster is dependent on the extent to which the system does not lay the foundations for the occurrence of such a disaster. We must not forget that the ‘American Dream’ claims its fair share of victims on a daily basis in a myriad of ways.” For him, a different sense of good and bad prevails, showing that the concept of “good” is largely dependent on the emotional and sociological state of the individual. “I realised that being ‘good’, or ‘doing the right thing’ requires the right socio-economic conditions in order to not turn good into evil.” While this is not the time to debate such deep accusations, it does plainly illustrate the wide range of ideas that our amazing brain can create.