Friday, September 15, 2023

Thomas Gilcrease, Master of Altruism

As described in Connie Cronley’s masterful and readable biography of the Oklahoma progressive crusader Kate Barnard, young Native men and women who had oil rights on their Oklahoma allotment properties were frequently the targets of white grafters who would stop at almost nothing to get the oil rights of those properties. This would include a kind of gentle kidnapping known as “spiriting away.” The young Natives, usually from the Muskogee Creek Nation, were invited on trips and given a good time. Alcohol was usually involved. The young Natives were kept under constant supervision, and once they were good and drunk, they were asked to sign a contract giving one of the Tulsa oil magnates the rights to their oil. One young woman was taken on a hog-shooting trip, beered up, and told to sign a contract. She said that she had been threatened with jail if she did not sign.

Yes, this happened in the United States, early in the twentieth century. It happened in Oklahoma after statehood. In one case, the oil multimillionaire was Thomas Gilcrease.


I will quote from Cronley’s book (p. 159):

Usually, the minors were taken to neighboring states—Texas, Missouri, or Arkansas—but the case of a Creek minor named Marcus Covey was remarkable for the distance he was taken. Marcus disappeared in late 1911, just as oil was discovered near his allotments. His parents…were frantic to find him. His mother contacted the secretary of the interior, and his father, a member of the Masonic fraternal organization, asked the Masons’ help in finding the boy. The Secret Service searched for four months and finally found Marcus in Southampton, England. “He was sent there by one Thomas Gilcrease,” the Secret Service agent reported, and was found “in company with a hired lieutenant of Mr. Gilcrease’s.”

Nobody in Tulsa, where I live, would fail to recognize the name. Thomas Gilcrease became one of the most famous philanthropists in Tulsa. His money was the basis for what is popularly known as the Gilcrease Museum, which is a museum and historical society of world renown. It even publishes its own journal. Its major emphasis is Native American history and culture. I have attended Native American displays and events at “the Gilcrease.”

Now that your mind has had a chance to process this breathtaking story, let me break it down a little further in terms of evolutionary theory. Thomas Gilcrease was a master of altruism, that is, of doing good things in the service of his own resources and power. In this, he is no different from thousands of other rich people. It’s just the astonishing hypocrisy that makes this story stand out.

In evolutionary theory, there are three levels of altruism, and each of them confers an evolutionary advantage that far outweighs the cost of the good deeds themselves, as I described in my Encyclopedia of Evolution.

  • Kin selection. A rich person can invest in his offspring, or his extended family, which are the only way that his genes can get passed into future generations. Gilcrease certainly made his family rich.
  • Direct reciprocity. Do something generous for me, and I might do something generous for you. You can’t be sure, but it usually works. Gilcrease was good to his friends, and undoubtedly received favors from them in return.
  • Indirect reciprocity. By being generous, a rich person can buy a reputation for generosity. This will make society in general trust him more, which will cause him to get even richer. A good reputation can be worth more than money in the bank. The generosity has to be, however, very conspicuous. Gilcrease raked in the benefits of adoration bestowed upon him by Tulsans. Gilcrease got rich partly by kidnapping a young Native man and stealing his oil, and this allowed him to endow a museum that is a world leader in promoting Native studies.

Gilcrease could have helped the Creek tribe (he was himself one-eighth Creek) more by simply not kidnapping young Marcus than by stealing his oil money and then giving it back to the Creek tribe indirectly through his museum. But it was a lot more fun this way. If he had simply not stolen the oil, who would know it? To Gilcrease, the adulation he got from Tulsans, including Creeks, was a thousand times more satisfying than the quiet knowledge that he simply did not kidnap the young Creek man. Oh, and I bet there were tax breaks for his generosity also.

Thomas Gilcrease ruthlessly stole money then leveraged it to buy admiration. This is the highest expression of the evolution of altruism.

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