The Earthling

Bill Gates, Big Man on Planet 

A headline from the Feb. 29 New York Times: “Couple With Computer Riches Give M.I.T. a Record $350 Million for Study of the Brain.” A headline from the following day’s New York Times: “Gates Foundation Gives $350 Million to Education Over the Next 3 Years.”

Can this be mere coincidence? Or is it proof that “The Slate 60“—an attempt to gin up competitive virtue by ranking philanthropists in order of magnanimity—has succeeded, turning big-bucks altruism into a day-to-day tit for tat? Will next week’s headline read, “Soros to Gates and Computer Couple: I’ll See Your $350 Million and Raise You a Billion”?

With all due respect for Slate’s influence, I favor the “mere coincidence” theory. Still, I do think something important is happening here, that philanthropy is crossing a threshold of sorts. To see the threshold, you have to first see that philanthropy goes way back. In fact, philanthropy predates money.

Flashback to, say, 6000 or 7000 or 8000 B.C. In parts of Eurasia, social organization has moved beyond the level of the simple hunter-gatherer village. Some societies are what anthropologists call “Big Man” societies, with distinct leadership. What do Big Men do with their time? To judge by observed Big Man societies, lots of things: They coordinate capital projects (building storage huts, etc.), provide military leadership and, every once in a while, show off their generosity.

The most famous example of competitive generosity in a Big Man society is the potlatch, practiced by the Northwest Coast Indians (who lived around where Slate and Gates live today). After months of arduously amassing wealth, a Big Man and his followers would hold a feast for another Big Man and his followers. The hosts would lavish food, blankets, candlefish oil, and other premium goods on the guests. This often amounted to charity, for it happened when the guests were needier than the hosts. Still, the motivation was hardly charitable—it was to raise the giver’s status. As the anthropologists Timothy Earle and Allen Johnson write in their book The Evolution of Human Societies, “The Big Man and his following seek ‘to flatten’ the name of another group by ‘burying’ it beneath piles of gifts.”

The potlatch was depicted by some early anthropologists as an odd, even freakish, institution. But it turns out that something like the potlatch is found in other Big Man societies. And, time and again, the Big Man’s largess is a bid for status. A Big Man in New Guinea, having piled oodles of food and wealth on another Big Man, was heard to say, “I have won. I have knocked you down by giving so much.”

How much has really changed in the world of philanthropy since Big Men turned generosity into a performance art? For one thing, the size of the stage. As technology has expanded the scope of social organization, altruism has extended over larger areas. Andrew Carnegie’s philanthropy crossed national bounds but still was focused on the English-speaking world. Today philanthropy is truly global. Bill Gates fights disease in poor nations, Ted Turner gives $1 billion to the United Nations, and George Soros subsidizes liberty around the world. These days Big Men are really big.

So where does all this leave the Slate 60? Well, according to this view of philanthropic history (which is but one tiny facet of the Earthling’s grand, all-encompassing theory of history ), the Slate 60 is—how can I put this gently?—mere froth on the currents of change. Competitive virtue, a deeply human institution, was bound to reach the global level when globalization arrived. And, in the information age, philanthropists were bound to become more immediately aware of the competition’s latest move. Put a few Big Men in a global village, and things get intense.

But, actually, “froth on the currents of change” is a bit ungenerous. Even if philanthropy’s expansion is in the cards, it can be slightly slowed or sped up. By lubricating the competitive virtue that comes naturally to people, the Slate 60 may actually increase the amount of good in the world—which, come to think of it, is more impressive than anything the Earthling has done lately. The other thing that can be said for the Slate 60 is that it recognizes a basic truth about improving the human condition: Progress usually comes not from the out-and-out stifling of selfish interest but from aligning self-interest with the greater good.

The philanthropic threshold now being crossed—into the global potlatch—is far from complete. Though the cash flows somewhat globally, its origin is still largely Western. Presumably that will change as Western-style prosperity reaches more corners of the world. But maybe here, too, Slate can speed things up a bit. The Slate 60 is confined to Americans. Opening it to all of humanity could hasten the coming of a day when rich people in Asia and Africa are inspired to new heights of goodness by this challenge: Bill and Ted and George have knocked you down by giving so much. Your only recourse is to flatten their names.