Mary did it, George! Mary did it! She told a few people you were in trouble and they scattered all over town collecting money.
They didn’t ask any questions— just said:
‘If George is in trouble—count on me.’
You never saw anything like it.
- The film It’s a Wonderful Life
Here comes Thanksgiving, the American holiday built around food. This is not only distinct from holidays that include gift giving; it is also one where many people act charitably to others. Thanksgiving is a harvest festival, however much of the traditional Thanksgiving foods were hunted and gathered rather than farmed. To celebrate the holiday, here is a post about an anthropological study which finds that hunter-gatherers who share generously are better cared for when they need support than those who keep their food resources for themselves.
Why do individuals give away valuable fitness-enhancing food resources to other individuals? Answers from anthropology generally fall into one of three categories: nepotism (supporting relatives), reciprocal altruism (mutual back-scratching), or tolerated theft (not giving up ownership, but not prosecuting people who need and take). In “It’s a Wonderful Life”: signaling generosity among the Ache of Paraguay, Gurven, Allen-Arave, Hill, & Hurtado from the Department of Anthropology at the University of New Mexico show that,
…those who shared and produced more than average (signaling cooperative intent and/or ability to produce) were rewarded with more food from more people when injured or sick than those who shared and produced below average.
Although they currently reside on permanent settlements, the Ache of eastern Paraguay were full-time hunter-gatherers occupying a 20,000-km area of the upper Jejui watershed up until the time of contact with researchers in the mid-1970s. They continue to spend up to 33% of their time on extended foraging trips.
It is important to note that consistently high food producers who give more than they receive, gain the least risk-reduction benefit from daily pooling of food resources because they are the least likely to go without food on any given day. The study shows that, even though these generous individuals do not receive the proportion of food they give, they receive additional food during hard times. These hard times might include episodes of sickness, disease, injury, or accidents which are fairly common events in traditional societies and can render individuals incapable of producing food.
What seems to be important in this research is that these people have a reputation for being generous that endures over time. So even when they are not able to share, they are known as people who would if they could – based on their past behavior. It also seems important that, by sharing generously, they build a reputation for being able to produce large amounts of food. For that reason, there is motivation in the rest of the community to support those people, so that they can recover and return to high levels of food production (and then share it). The authors conclude:
If altruistic behavior is analogous to paying a high premium for long-term health insurance, then extensive food sharing can be construed as risk-averse behavior in the long term, even if it may appear as risk-prone behavior in the short-term.
Are you generous with your food resources, during Thanksgiving and throughout the year? If so, why? If you are not generous, why not? This time of year is also traditionally a time of reflection, so consider what you are gaining and risking with your habits and practices.
Not what we say about our blessings,
but how we use them,
is the true measure of our thanksgiving.
- W. T. Purkiser
Happy Thanksgiving everyone!