James Doty is not a subject under study at the altruism research center that he founded at Stanford in 2008, but he could be. In 2000, after building a fortune as a neurosurgeon and biotech entrepreneur in Silicon Valley, he lost it all in the dotcom crash: $75 million gone in six weeks. Goodbye villa in Tuscany, private island in New Zealand, penthouse in San Francisco.
His final asset was stock in a medical-device company he’d once run called Accuray. But it was stock he’d committed to a trust that would benefit the universities he’d attended and programs for AIDS, family, and global health. Doty was $3 million in the hole. Everyone told him to keep the stock for himself. He gave it away—all $30 million of it. “Giving it away has had to be the most personally fulfilling experience I’ve had in my life,” Doty, 63, said on a sunny afternoon at Stanford in 2014. In 2007, Accuray went public at a valuation of $1.3 billion. That generated hundreds of millions for Doty’s donees and zero for him. “I have no regrets,” he said.
So what exactly is wrong with Doty? Is it normal for a human being to commit a generous act that helps others and not himself? Or is his selfless act merely an act of veiled self-interest? Anthropologists and evolutionary biologists have been wrestling with these questions for decades. Recent research suggests it’s more complicated than that—that evolution has pushed us toward a trait that binds communities and helps them prosper, and that altruistic acts promote individual well-being in biologically measurable ways. These are precisely the kinds of issues and questions that motivated Doty to form—with a seed donation of $150,000 from the Dalai Lama, whom Doty had met in a chance encounter—the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, or CCARE, part of Stanford’s School of Medicine.