ResearchBlogging.orgMany suggest food sharing is the foundation of society, sowing the seeds of co-operation that eventually gave rise to the complex culture we know and love. Thus explaining why food sharing developed is an area of importance when it comes to understanding Homo sapiens as we see them today.

Of course, as with just about anything else in EvoAnth, this is easier said than done for pretty much the same reasons everything else is difficult – we don’t have early societies on hand to study. Archaeology isn’t especially helpful here either, since we’re talking about behaviour and that doesn’t preserve well.

Instead we must look for modern analogies, which is where anthropology steps into the limelight. By looking at modern hunter-gatherers and why they share food, anthropologists have developed models that attempt to explain how that behaviour arose in the first place.

Luckily this picture already has a witty caption.

One of the more persistent explanations is that they do so out of a sense of egalitarianism – all are equal so all get a share. Such a hypothesis has fuelled the romanticised view of hunter-gatherers as leading a “better” life, living in balance with nature and sharing food so nobody has to worry about anything.

And it’s easy to see why this explanation worked its way into both scientific and general culture since it seems to fit with the evidence (no known hunter-gatherer group denies any member of the tribe access to a kill) and our own perception of food sharing (when we give a friend food we rarely do so with concious ulterior motives).

But on the other hand there are a few flaws with this explanation; namely that there is little direct evidence for it. Although it fits in with what is known there are many other factors at play which could also be explanations. Many tribes, for example, view a carcass as communal property so the hunter is not allowed to hoard it.

Directly proving that hunter-gatherers are egalitarian instead of bending to social convention would require a novel experiment.

Because anthropology is famous for its experiments.

Which is exactly what they did do. To remove all the confounding variables of society and stuff, they invented a game to play with hunter-gatherers based around arbitrary things they had no experience of.  If they were egalitarian at heart, surely they would still play fairly.

Two games were played, the ultimatum game and dictator game. In the first one player divided a stake with another, offering them a share. The receiver could either accept the share or decline it in which case neither would get anything. The dictator game was almost the same except the receiver had no choice – the proposer could divide as they wanted.

In the ultimatum game the average share offered was 30% of the stake (which was rejected 24% of the time) whilst it was only 20% in the dictator game. This is considerably lower than the results when one plays the game with people from “complex” societies such as the West.

The results from the dictator game

But, like the egalitarian explanation that came before it, there are some flaws with this research. Importantly, people tend to be rather different. One of the biggest drawbacks to making general inferences from anthropology is that different groups vary quite a bit, so whilst this shows one tribe isn’t inherently egalitarian doesn’t mean another is.

Further, they were playing with seemingly arbitrary stakes and so the desire to share them may have been neutered somewhat. If I cannot see why you need a share I might not be inclined to give it to you, even if I am a good person at heart. This has been noted elsewhere, with people behaving differently in the more “analytical” situations associated with these artificial games and similar tasks.

However, that is besides point since what these results mean is there is still no evidence for inherent egalitarianism. It’s all well and good pointing out how it’s still possible but there’s nothing here to indicate it is actually the case. So based on the current evidence it would seem hunter-gatherers are secretly selfish.

Frank Marlowe (2004). What Explains Hadza Food Sharing? Research in Economic Anthropology,, 23, 69-88 : 10.1016/S0190-1281(04)23003-7

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5 thoughts on “Hunter-gatherers are secretly selfish”

  1. Sorry, comment was missing from my link! As the link suggests, the Hadza are one of the more ‘selfish’ hunter-gatherer societies. Also, the variability in offers points to the large role that social norms play in the degree of altruism/selfishness in a given society, pointing to the limits of studying this question solely through evolutionary perspectives.

    1. I’m not trying to analyse hunter-gatherers from an evolutionary point of view, quite the opposite in fact. I’m looking at evolution from a hunter-gatherer view, so to speak. Learning about the past from them, not analysing them based upon what we think happened in the past.

  2. I am not sure how convincing I find this approach. An artificial task is much more likely to draw on analytic reasoning since it is novel and… well… artificial. In ‘complex’ society humans, you see that analytic thinking typically suppresses empathy. There is no reason to suspect that the basic neural mechanisms for this would be wildly different between the two societies. However, for the complex society humans, the same task could seem less artificial and novel and thus less likely to engage their analytic faculties, resulting in more sharing.

    In general, if one wants to study the evolution of cooperation, and calibrate their models of hunter-gatherers based on modern examples. it just doesn’t seem to make sense to use artificial tasks. Such tasks are by definition uncommon and thus unlikely to be central for shaping human evolution or culture.

    I enjoyed the post, though, and I would like to read more posts on altruism and hunter-gatherers from you!

    1. I hadn’t considered that, but it certainly seems like an important limiting factor of this study. I may have to amend the post. However, I still suspect the ultimate findings will be born out, should a more rigorous study be conducted. There are numerous examples, albeit anecdotal ones, of hunter-gatherers renegging on food sharing responsibilities where possible. Famously, members of a tribe tried to hide food from others in an anthropologist’s land rover knowing that if they were seen with it they would have to share it.

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