Published online 14 January 2004 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news040112-4

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Monkey morality

Sharing might not be as nice as it's cracked up to be.

Begging, stealing and fighting for food could encourage 'sharing'.Begging, stealing and fighting for food could encourage 'sharing'.© alamy.com

Have you ever given a friend part of your dessert just so they will stop bugging you for some? You're not alone - chimpanzees and monkeys share their food with others to avoid hassle too.

The question of why animals give food to others is a tricky one. Previous theories suggested that generous animals might benefit from similar kindness at a later time.

But the no-hassle approach offers a simpler explanation, says Jeffrey Stevens, who carried out the study at the University of Minnesota. Scrounger and donor are both acting in their best interests - the beggar gets food and the other is left in peace.

Stevens placed chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) or squirrel monkeys (Saimiri boliviensis) in a cage and provided them with a meal of fruit. In an adjoining cage was a hungry member of the same species.

The primates rarely passed food through the cage to their hungry mate next door. But if the partition was opened - giving the hungry animal the chance to beg, steal or fight for food - sharing was common1.

It is analogous to a parent buying a child a toy just to shut them up, says Stevens. "It's a selfish way to stop the constant pestering," he says.

Intriguingly, hungry chimps harassed their neighbour more when the food was cut into small chunks. This could reflect the fact that a beggar is more likely to get a handout if it doesn't seriously deplete the donor's stash.

This form of 'strategic begging' could help scroungers find success by setting their sights low, Stevens speculates. "It's like a kid saying: 'Can I have four cookies? Ok, how about one?'," he says. Likewise, most street-corner beggars ask passers-by for nothing more than their small change.

The harassment theory may explain many examples of human 'generosity', says Stevens. But he remains convinced that we are capable of genuine charity too. "It's a pretty decent analogy," he says, "but I think there's also a desire for us to help those who are less fortunate." 

  • References

    1. Stevens, J. R. The selfish nature of generosity: harassment and food sharing in primates. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B, published online, doi:10.1098/rspb.2003.2625 (2004).