Thursday, February 14, 2008

On Charity

The parable of the sparrows

Imagine a little old lady sitting at her window. She looks out and sees a flock of the local sparrows desperately pecking at the frozen ground, trying to find food where none exists. In her kind-heartedness, she gets out of her chair, fetches some bread, and scatters it around the door. The sparrows descend on the bread in a cloud of tiny fluttering wings, and the nourishment it provides gets them through the day.

The next day, the little old lady sees the sparrows hungry again, and feeds them some more bread. This turns into a habit that she keeps up for the rest of the Winter. As a result, many more sparrows survive the cold.

The following year, the sparrows breed at their usual rate of a couple of surviving offspring per adult. But, because there were more adults, there are more offspring. More survive the Autumn.

When Winter strikes, the little old lady's heart breaks for the sparrows. She feeds them again and again, and far more survive than would usually have done so. The following year, the flock size increases yet again.

The next Winter, the sparrows frantically peck round the old lady's door, but she isn't there. She's gone to live with her daughter in Melbourne.

Any observer watching the poor starving birds struggle and fail and die in the snow would have to ask themselves: was the old lady actually compassionate, if her actions resulted in more sparrows starving to death than would otherwise have done so?

Malthus strikes back

Painful though it may be to make the link with human populations, the analogy is inevitable. In many poor countries, most members of the population are happy to breed at the maximum possible rate. And, if we include this "animal assumption" in our assessment, we can see that cataclysm - war, famine or plague - is inevitable.

Many commenters have looked at the world today, in all its technological glory, and asked why, if our science is so advanced, we can't cure world hunger or bring an end to disease. Some even declare this to be a failing of science, that it can't welcome us into an age of universal utopia.

But the problem isn't science. The problem is that the people we have in this world are too inclined to squander the windfalls which science offers. Science is no more culpable for hunger in Burundi (with its 3.6%pa population growth rate) than it is for the AIDS-related deaths of South Africans (whose president is an AIDS denialist). Technological solutions to social problems almost never work.

Darwin takes his due

So the question becomes: how do we break the "animal assumption" of blind increases in population size? The problem is that, in many circumstances, this increase is actually the best evolutionary strategy. In a high-risk environment such as your average third-world country, the more kids you have, the better your genes' chance of survival in the short term. It's a classic tragedy of the commons.

But why isn't this true in the western world too? How have we overcome this paradox?

The answer seems to be: education. An educated population is in general slower-breeding than an uneducated one. In particular, education of females makes a hell of a difference.

There are two obvious reasons for this. Firstly, a good educational system will typically include some sex education, which reduces the chance of "accidents". This alone could be a major aid in poor countries, but its effect is limited by the fact that (for the aforementioned Darwinian reasons) people want to have kids early and often.

Secondly, and more significantly, education creates opportunities. If you're a young woman without education, you've got no prospects - the only consequence of waiting to have kids will be to reduce the number you can have. If you're a young woman with education, though, waiting to have kids may give you the chance to grab a high-paying job, earn lots of money, and thus raise the kids in an environment where their survival odds are greater.


Charity that treats its recipients as animals, that simply feeds, shelters and heals them, may make the donor feel warm and tingly in the short term, but in the long term it's self-defeating. If we're going to perform acts of pure charity, we should do so in a way that achieves greater happiness for a greater number. We can only do that by breaking the "animal assumption".

In this post, I've discussed one possible way of achieving this: education, and particularly education of girls. If anyone knows of any others, please tell me. In the meantime, I know where my money is going to go.

Hat tip to Berlzebub at the Common Ground group blog for reminding me I had this essay in my Drafts folder.

No comments: