Yet another year draws to a close, and with it comes the promise of new adventures, new scientific discoveries and, of course, sappy yet sentimental articles and speeches reminiscing on the past and attempting to be inspiring. After five years and two degrees, Stanford is finally kicking me out the door, and I won’t try to conceal my own attempt at the latter.
Over the past couple of months, we’ve literally talked about everything in the universe, from finding life far beyond the galaxy, to unlocking the secrets of the tiniest subatomic particles. We’ve talked about the incredible benefits research can bring us, from cancer treatments to the space shuttle, and we’ve also talked about the dangers of misusing science and technology, from the Deepwater Horizon Leak to AIDS denialism. We’ve talked about poetry, sleeping, laughter and why Stanford is definitively the best university in the world. Perhaps to put it all in context, it’s best to look to our founders, to see where the Stanford spirit comes from.
Anyone who has been on a Stanford tour knows that Leland and Jane Stanford founded the University to honor their son Leland Junior, who died of typhoid at the tender age of 15. In the face of incredible tragedy, the Stanfords chose to memorialize their son by giving other children in the world the chance at a successful life their son never had. Jane Stanford admonished her first class of students that she wasn’t just giving them a world-class university, but that she expected them to use the skills they developed to help better the world around them. In the same spirit, Stanford’s first president, David Starr Jordan, selected the motto “The Wind of Freedom Blows,” to inspire Stanford students to use their knowledge to spread freedom and hope throughout the world. But again, rather than take the advice of people who died long ago, let’s look at some recent studies in science on the importance of altruism.
A study out of Harvard last August looked at altruistic tendencies in both small children and chimpanzees. The journal article in “Trends in Cognitive Science” is one of a small handful of works that includes both informative graphs and tables, and adorable pictures of small children. The study concluded that from an early age, children are born with a desire to be helpful and generous. While the study did not look into a mechanism, the researchers posited that social reinforcement is necessary to maintain altruistic tendencies as children mature. Perhaps it seems trite, but there’s something comforting in knowing that science confirms that people are naturally born with the instincts to help each other.
Coming from an entirely different angle, a series of studies out of the University of Nottingham in 2008 and 2010 analyzed how altruism played a role in sexual selection. Several hundred participants were analyzed both by acting altruistically themselves, and by preference for altruistic people. The correlation between the two was a predictably high .82, and one of the more interesting results found was that longer lasting relationships involved a significantly higher amount of people who were both altruistic and desired altruistic partners. While it doesn’t take a scientist to figure out that people that help others more than themselves take care of their partners better, again it’s nice to have the force of science behind this claim.
Finally, a study printed by the American Society for Information and Technology describes how technology is making it easier than ever for people to help each other out. In essence, the study describes how rapidly developing technology and social networks have made it easier to spread information. The tangible result of this is that when someone performs an altruistic act, they are rewarded, while a selfish act leads to social isolation. At the end of the day, all that these studies mean is that it’s good to give back to society. Whether you’re doing it because it’s what we were born to do, because it could help you with the ladies or gentlemen, or because technology is making it easier than ever, you will each be well-served to live up to Jane Stanford’s expectations and use the incredible opportunity you’ve been given at Stanford not just to help yourself, but to help the world. And I know you will.
Stanford is an incredible place to get an education, arguably the best in the world. Stanford is also an amazing place to have adventures, and is filled with 14,599 of the most fun-loving students, along with 1,910 of the greatest faculty and 11,404 staff and other members of the community. But when you get right down to it, the thing that makes Stanford truly great is the common desire within all of us to keep making that Wind of Freedom Blow, in whatever fields we are most capable. Am I an entirely biased source? Probably. Have I spent way too much time on this campus? Certainly. But is this the place on the planet most capable of changing the world? Absolutely. It’s been an absolute privilege. Thanks for reading. Keep making the world better, and never stop learning.
Jack is off to new adventures in the far parts of the globe! Keep in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.