Reciprocity rules when humans share food

"Sharing doesn't just enhance the welfare of humans," says Michael Gurven. "The human subsistence niche would never have been possible without sharing. It's no coincidence that sharing is most pervasive and structured among humans, the one primate whose economy is defined by high levels of interdependence." (Credit: "reaching for food" via Shutterstock)

New research finds that reciprocity is similar among monkeys, apes, and humans, but we’re the only ones that seem to apply the principle to food.

When you share your lunch with someone less fortunate or give your friend half of your dessert, is it human kindness, or a subconscious strategy to assure reciprocity should you one day find yourself on the other side of the empty plate?

And how do those actions among humans compare to those of our chimpanzee cousins and other nonhuman primates?

In an article in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, they compile quantitative date on cooperative behavior from all existing studies in a number of primate species.

A second article in Evolutionary Anthropology goes into greater detail about the origins and maintenance of cooperation among a wide range of primate species, with particular attention to the human case.

(Credit: Julia Frost/Flickr)
(Credit: Julia Frost/Flickr)

“The meta-analysis clearly established that there is reciprocity in sharing both among humans and among other primates that remained significant even after controlling for other factors such as kinship, dominance relationships, and spatial proximity,” says Adrian Jaeggi, a postdoctoral student in anthropology at University of California, Santa Barbara.

“Based on our meta-analysis of existing studies, we were able to find no significant differences between humans, monkeys, and apes.”

However, Jaeggi notes, humans tend to exchange food for food, while primates tend to barter food for other services, such as grooming or coalition support (e.g. assistance in dominance fights). The relative effects of reciprocity, kinship, and tolerated scrounging were similar, highlighting that all are important factors in explaining the act of sharing.

“Our findings support the idea that actions that benefit another individual tend to, ultimately, also benefit the giver—either because the recipient is genetically related to the giver or will eventually return the favor,” Jaeggi says. “Of course, the giver doesn’t have to be consciously aware of the return benefits.”

No scorekeeping required

Through natural selection, humans have evolved to form emotional attachments to others and engage in long-term relationships within which reciprocity benefits everyone involved. “This is supported by research showing that reciprocity in many species develops over long periods of time—much more so than on an immediate tit-for-tat basis,” said Jaeggi.

While the research conducted by Jaeggi and Michael Gurven, a professor of anthropology, identified reciprocity as an important factor in food sharing, kin selection—sharing food with genetic relatives—and tolerated scrounging are also important. In fact, the researchers’ meta-analysis shows them to be roughly equal. “But of these three factors, reciprocity has always been the most disputed,” Jaeggi says.

“But the meta-analysis now establishes that reciprocity makes a significant contribution. This makes sense given that humans and other primates form long-term relationships for mutual gains, within which benefits given to others tend to be returned,” he continues.

“Again, this doesn’t mean that food is shared with the conscious expectation of receiving shares in return. Reciprocity need not require detailed scorekeeping, but could arise from simpler mechanisms such as preferentially associating with friends, or only allowing friends to take shares of your food.”

What are we trading for?

While humans exchange food on a more in-kind basis, primates tend to share their grub in exchange for services. One reason for this is that human foragers—people who rely on a hunting-and-gathering lifestyle—always run the risk of food shortfalls because hunting and foraging returns are unpredictable.

When a hunt is successful, however, it provides an abundance that can be shared with others. Gathered fruits can be brought back to a central home base for subsequent sharing. Reciprocal sharing creates a buffer against the risk of shortfalls, ensuring that no one goes hungry.

“Sharing doesn’t just enhance the welfare of humans,” explains Gurven. “The human subsistence niche would never have been possible without sharing. It’s no coincidence that sharing is most pervasive and structured among humans, the one primate whose economy is defined by high levels of interdependence.”

Among primates, however, food for sharing tends to be something of a luxury that is often monopolized by the high-ranking, dominant individuals, and they share with those who provide other services to them (e.g. grooming, coalitions). In those species where coalitions are more important for achieving a high dominance rank—among chimpanzees, for example—sharing tends to be more common because the dominants rely on others.

While sharing helps primates cement social relationships, the level and diversity of helping behavior is limited compared to what is observed in human societies.

“Through sharing, trust, and reputation management, humans found social means of handling different types of risk—not just day-to-day variation in foraging success—but also disruptions due to injury, sickness, divorce, and death,” Gurven says.

“Sharing, therefore, is central to human life history evolution—from the dependency of children and intergenerational support networks, to the division of labor and cooperative production, to the expansion of human life spans.”

Source: UC Santa Barbara

Original Study DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2013.1615 < a href="" target="_blank" class="source-link">openbookFull Citation