The Edmond Sun


July 13, 2012

Gray matter may define humanity’s kindness

EDMOND — Just as I sat down to write the column this week, I got an enthusiastic call from a tender-hearted friend of mine — let’s call him “Tuffy.” Tuffy is a vocal equal rights advocate who tirelessly decries the inequality of resource allocation among world populations. He rails endlessly about the unfairness of large numbers of Americans who enjoy levels of “obscene” material comfort due solely to an accident of birth. In his view, Americans are rich because they were born that way. He claims there is no moral justification for the opulent American lifestyle when so many people in other parts of the world are plagued by malnutrition and disease.

Tuffy dreams of a world where all men are so moved to compassion by the heartbreaking plight of the less fortunate that they would gladly pool the earth’s material gifts and divide them, as nearly as practically possible, in equal shares to everyone.

His dream is for everyone to achieve such a level of social consciousness that they would willingly embrace this revolutionary change in attitude. Universal agreement along these lines is, of course, impossible. In Tuffy’s utopian view, the selfish holdouts would, by government coercion, be forced to share and share alike. He agrees that coercion is bad, but some coercion is necessary to separate the selfish from their unjustly acquired possessions. After all, “You gotta break some eggs if you want to make an omelette.”

Tuffy’s “excitometer” was redlining as a result of a study released on July 12 by Switzerland’s University of Zürich. According to Tuffy, if these study results hold up, the end of the world’s economic inequality is in sight.

Evidently, Ernst Fehr, director of the Department of Economics at the University of Zürich, headed a group of researchers that found a link between brain anatomy and altruism.

Altruistic behavior falls between two extremes. On one hand, the most altruistic take no thought at all for their own welfare. They dedicate all their goods and energies to efforts aimed at bettering the lot of others. On the other extreme, the least altruistic think only of themselves and don’t mind exploiting even the least fortunate as long as the selfish enjoy some benefit from the exploitation.

The University of Zürich study finds that people with the most gray matter at the junction of two brain lobes are also the most altruistic.

Tuffy is ecstatic. “Just imagine,” he gushes. “If we could manipulate the quantum of gray matter in the brain and by doing so we could adjust people’s willingness to share what they have with the less fortunate, coercion would become unnecessary. By simple alteration of brain anatomy, greed would disappear and all of mankind’s energies would be expended not for selfish acquisition but rather for the good of our fellow man.”

I wanted to ask questions, but Tuffy was on an uninterruptible roll. “See, selfishness, we now know, is an accident of birth; a genetic defect. If these greedy souls had been blessed naturally with more gray matter, like us, they would see that we’re right. It’s not their fault really. But there’s hope. We’ll find a way to increase their gray matter content and everything will be fine. The real challenge is for those of us favored with an abundance of gray matter to not assume a superior attitude vis-à-vis the less fortunate. In fact, we could give up some of our gray matter if that would help bring everyone to the state of gray matter equality.

“Of course, there will be some who, because of their conservative nature, don’t want to change. They’ll want to live with the meager gray matter they were born with because they think it’s natural. They won’t want to undergo any procedure to enhance their gray matter deficit no matter how simple and safe such a procedure may be.

“Luckily, we have a simple solution. If they refuse the procedure we’ll simply tax the greed out of them. Either way, we’ll achieve the desired egalitarian result. They’ll share what they have voluntarily because increased levels of gray matter increase their altruism, or they’ll share what they have involuntarily through the operation of the tax code. It’s beautiful in its symmetry.”

When Tuffy paused to chuckle, I seized the opportunity to ask a question. “Hey Tuffy, suppose, after those born with more than their share of gray matter make their gray matter donations and find they are less willing to share their possessions because of their reduced gray matter levels. What happens then?” There was a long pause. “Well, if you want an omelette … .” I’m Hink and I’ll see ya.

MIKE HINKLE is an Edmond resident and retired attorney.

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