The Enigma of Santa Claus or The Puzzle of Altruism

Those of you non-scientific types out there probably don’t know this (and maybe you don’t care, either), but Santa Claus is an enigma to the scientific community interested in determining the causes of behavior. Actually, to borrow a more eloquent quote from Churchill, Santa is a “riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” I mean, think of it: How do you explain the behavior of someone who spends the entire year running the ultimate toy and gift factory, coordinating the efforts of a group of eccentric elves, and taking care of a group of whimsical reindeer?

All this so that on one special night, he can load up his sleigh and deliver the products of his Herculean efforts to a bunch of kids he doesn’t even know. He does so despite great risk to himself. I’ve always wondered how he is able to convince the flight-safety inspector that it’s perfectly innocent and reasonable to allow a trans global flight in an overburdened sleigh led by an animal with a red nose (was Rudolph’s illuminant proboscis truly a gift from birth, or might it be an acquired trait? If the latter, would you let someone like this drive?).

The prospects don’t get any brighter following take-off: most of the roof tops are coated with a slick white cover not especially conducive to maintaining balance, he has to slide that not so trim body of his down a thin, dark, soot-lined crevice that may or may not contain a flaming heat source at its bottom.

And what thanks does he get? The occasional plate of cookies and milk? Messages from kids requesting more gifts for next year, rather then thanks for the presents from past years? No matter how you look at it, personally, psychologically or economically, there is a heavy tilt to one side of the cost-benefit scale.

Yup, Santa really is the prototypical symbol of altruism. And altruism is a tough cookie to digest scientifically. We just don’t know how to deal with it. Neurobiologists like to think it has something to do with a system in the brain known as the mesolimbic dopamine pathway. This is the system that, when it is turned on, seems to give us pleasure. We know that pleasurable things, good food, fine wine, good sex (however one defines it), and all drugs of abuse, turn on the mesolimbic system. So, maybe there is something wrong with Santa’s system. Maybe it’s not enough for Santa to have a good steak with a vintage Chardonnay, and the subsequent post-prandial frolic with Mrs. Claus. Maybe he needs more then this to get his reward system going. But does this hypothesis solve our problem?

Take a moment to reconsider the things that scientists have shown will activate mesolimbic dopamine: they all involve some form of biological stimulation. If so, how do we account for a non-biological entity being able to turn on the reward system? One possibility is to consider that signals of impending reward can acquire the ability to activate mesolimbic dopamine; sort of like Pavlov’s dogs, who salivated to a bell previously associated with food delivery. Indeed, neuroscientists have found that signals of good things can activate the reward pathway almost as well as the good things themselves. And this goes a long way towards explaining such things as why we get excited and happy by finding a stray $20 bill on the ground. But the existence of such conditioned or secondary rewards doesn’t advance our goal of finding a rich and satisfying explanation for Santa’s altruism. How is giving pleasure to children you don’t even know in anyway associated with a primary reward? Maybe giving itself is “hard-wired” into our brains; we’re born with the capacity to experience pleasure through our generosity. In short, maybe the act of giving is as much a primary reward as the taste of a good steak, the bouquet of a good wine, or the sight of an attractive conspecific.

This may be, but then that runs us right into a problem for those scientists who are more evolutionarily oriented. According to some schools of evolutionary thought, natural selection is biased towards prioritizing only those innate traits that increase the likelihood that your genes will get passed on to the next generation, and the members of the next generation who possess your genes have the highest possibility of surviving at least to the age where they will be able to create your grandchildren. This may explain why you do nice things for your kids, but it certainly doesn’t explain the heroic feat of the stranger running into a flaming house to save a group of children that she has never met. Or, as my good friend and colleague Simon Young has pointed out, it doesn’t even explain why we would volunteer a pint of our own blood so that it can be given to someone you will never meet face to face, and who will never have the opportunity for acknowledging your precious gift of life.

One solution that the evolutionists have advanced is the suggestion that altruism makes evolutionary sense if you consider who you are altruistic to. For example, since your brothers and sisters share, on average, 50% of your genes, if you save two of your siblings, then that is roughly equivalent (genetically speaking) to saving yourself. Saving 4 of your first cousins does the same thing, as would saving 8 of your second cousins. If you assume that people within the same geographic region will share some common genes (because it is difficult to procreate with someone living across the ocean), then saving enough members of your country, as opposed to a completely different geographic region, maintains the likelihood that your genes will see the light of day in the next generation as well as producing children of your own.

This may help to explain nationalism, but back to Santa Claus. If altruism extends beyond race, gender, class, country, and culture, then it becomes scientifically meaningless to wrap altruism in a genetic blanket. And it is essential to remember, as Charles Darwin himself always reminded us, that evolution does not select perfect organisms, it builds organisms with imperfections and flaws; but organisms that work pretty well. And sometimes the organisms that are built may possess properties that don’t really have a good explanation, but should never be taken for granted. Just like Santa…

Here’s wishing you all a happy, healthy, and altruistic holiday season. And we’ll see you again in 2009.

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Posted in Brain, Human.

Posted on 19 Dec 2008

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2 comments to The Enigma of Santa Claus or The Puzzle of Altruism

  1. Diane
    On Dec 21st 2008 at 13:42

    Everyone knows someone in their local community who has helped someone out when they most needed it. Especially this time of year. though it could just be the holidays.
    What the real issue seems to be to me is the altruistic spirit.To have the desire to be selfless. To have the desire to help others at ALL times, not just holidays. To try to work at being a good person in life.
    I realized early in my adult life that I had a choice. I could be an asshole, or I could try to be a nice person. Trust me the former is much easier. It is easy to be a selfish asshole. It is easy to always put yourself first. It is easy to hurt others before you yourself are hurt. It is so much harder to try and be nice. Your ego will suffer repeatedly. The only thing that will keep you going and drive you will be your desire to better yourself, and to do what you think is right. I made that choice, and now years later am reaping the rewards. I fell good about myself.
    The point is this is a choice.
    Choose the harder path. Choose to be a good person. Choose to help others who need help, and expect nothing in return. Shovel your elderly neighbors driveway, just because. Have a little patience with the slow driver in front of you. Smile at others. Choose altruism. It is not a one time decision, it is a life time decision .

  2. Camillo Zacchia
    On Dec 22nd 2008 at 10:51

    Hey Joe,

    On a more serious note, I think altruism is a force that increases the likelihood of a species surviving. It is part of the social instinct that I wrote about in my post on infidelity.

    On a less serious note, did I ever tell you how much I detest the song Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer? Ostracized and laughed at by his reindeer “friends” until he becomes “useful.” Bah, Humbug! May they all receive lumps of coal.

    By the way, I figured out the reindeer method of flight. Yup. Do you realize what happens when all that reindeer food interacts with the digestive system of a ruminant? When the reindeer are waving their hoofs in a swimming motion, they’re actually trying to get some fresh air into their lungs.

    Cheers, Merry Christmas, and all the best in ’09!