Biology, Fundamentals

How Generosity Creates Life and Makes Life Worth Living

“If we are going to be kind, let it be out of simple generosity, not because we fear guilt or retribution.”

J.M. Coetzee

A History of Generosity

Generosity is so important that it’s now considered a science, and maternal generosity is one of its most studied subjects. Researchers at the University of Notre Dame are working on several projects to learn more about generosity, perhaps the human trait most responsible for the continuation of our species.

In one article written for Mother’s Day, the author points out just how indebted we all are to maternal generosity by describing in detail the physical sacrifices mothers make for their children even before they are born. Attempting to answer the question of what makes humans generous, one author offers a number of possibilities.

The primordial origin of maternal generosity lies partly in the experience of caring for offspring. Neuroscience research conducted by Stephanie Brown and James Swain at Stony Brook University suggests that becoming a parent changes the way human brains are wired. These chemical and biological changes encourage parents to respond more generously to others’ needs. In the human evolution from hunter-gatherer societies in which danger and scarcity demanded sharing among family and tribal members, natural selection favored the characteristic of maternal generosity.

In the past, natural selection worked against those who were incapable of the potential self-sacrifice that was often necessary to guarantee collective survival. As modern technology continues to make the world ever smaller, humanity’s continued survival depends upon its ability to expand that generosity beyond family and tribe to include the entire family of man.

Generosity: Nature and Nurture

Scientific research has shown that much behavior is the result of a complex interaction between biology, chemistry, and environmental triggers. One example of a chemical and biological response to an environmental trigger is that of a mother’s breasts producing milk in response to the sound of the cry of her infant. Maternal generosity is a matter of both nature and nurture.

Some research with primates suggests that instances of sharing behavior between mothers is more frequent when androgen levels are higher. The vulnerability of new mothers and their infants also results in begging behaviors, a form of maternal generosity in times of need which serves as a societal trigger for sharing behaviors of the larger group. Human mothers and infants share that vulnerability, and the generosity of a society is often measured by the extent to which it shares its resources with its most vulnerable members. Children’s survival is largely dependent upon the level of generosity of the culture into which it is born.

The Role of Maternal Generosity in Society

The level of generosity can often be determined by observing social programs in place for women and children. According to one article, in the U.S., seven out of ten children of single mothers live in poverty, as compared to one out of ten in Finland. However, child poverty rates in the U.S., even among two parent families are higher than those of Nordic countries. In the U.K, it is estimated that approximately 25% of children live in poverty compared to approximately 17% in Australia. According to the Hunger Project, an estimated 805 million people in the world today live with chronic hunger.

In humans, the biological production of chemicals which encourage generous behavior has been shown to exist in both new mothers and fathers. Researchers theorize that cultivating generous behavior that resembles maternal generosity may require creating and activating other social triggers that act in much the same way as the cry of an infant. Developing societal triggers that promote generosity is contingent upon routinizing factors that promote and encourage generous behavior. Perhaps the single most important of these routinizing factors is that of parents modeling such behavior.

In the world of research, individual families are viewed as macro cultures which have the power to produce young people who are more generous than other macro cultures. Research regarding the details of what parenting behaviors contribute most to encouraging generosity is difficult because many complex psychological and social mechanisms at work in the parent/child relationship are not empirically observable. In short, observing psychologists are not able to understand or interpret the full psychological effect and significance that something as seemingly trivial as a raised parental eyebrow may have upon a particular child.

Sharing behaviors, however, are entirely observable in individual people as well as governments. Children who observe their parents sharing their resources with the wider community are more likely to adopt that behavior themselves. Despite our continued evolution, our survival as a species is still dependent upon our ability to share resources. Generosity is a one of the traits that most defines us as human. It also serves to help make our lives worth living and affords us all the opportunity to flourish rather than merely survive.

maternal generosity

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