IS GIFT GIVING UNIQUE TO HUMANS?

by Whit Gibbons

December 26, 2010


December 25 and 26 bring us two gift-giving days in a row—Christmas, then Boxing Day. The origin of the latter has almost as many explanations as mistletoe has berries, but there is general agreement that Boxing Day began in Britain and was marked by giving money or goods to the less fortunate. Is the giving of gifts a practice unique to humans?

Praying, exploring outer space, and being a lawyer are three uniquely human activities. But some other species do give gifts. Think of your cat who has just presented you with a dead shrew from your front yard. What could be a more delightful offering? The lioness Elsa in "Born Free" brought her cubs to her former human owners, presumably as a gesture of giving.

The practical aspect of parent birds feeding their young is obvious, but in one sense they are simply bringing gifts. Bower birds of New Guinea go several steps further in their approach to giving gifts. To attract a female for mating, the male uses twigs and vines to build a bower, an elaborate structure on the ground. Brightly colored berries and flowers are arranged around the bower to make it attractive to the prospective mate. The objects used to adorn the bower are not major food sources or otherwise useful to the builder or the object of his ardor. They are merely decorative, much like ornaments and lights hung on a Christmas tree to make it more attractive. Extreme gifting is exemplified in the spider world by a male that offers itself as a meal for the female with which it has just mated.

A decade ago, I described an unusual and impressive act of gift giving by our dog Gilbey. The story of his extraordinary behavior seems to me to bear repeating during this holiday season. Gilbey was not noted for aggressive behavior. Though he was large and looked threatening, like a long-toothed doberman-rottweiler mix that might rip your throat out if you smiled crooked, in reality Gilbey was more like a kitten in a dog suit. His role as watchdog was to bark so that Nero Wolfe, our real dog, knew that danger lurked. I'm not sure what Gilbey would have done if actually put to the test.

But even for a dog in kitten's clothing, Gilbey demonstrated remarkable behavior when friends brought their two-month-old baby for a visit. They put the baby on a blanket on the floor to do whatever babies do while grown-ups are talking. When the dogs came into the room, each gave a disinterested sniff at the baby and then went about doing whatever dogs do while people are talking.

But in a few minutes Gilbey returned with a dog bone in his mouth (not the bone of another dog but the kind that comes in a box from the grocery store). Knowing how ardently he guarded these valuable objects from the other dog and the cat, we were amazed to see him walk over to the baby and drop the bone on the blanket. He then moved back a foot or so, lay down, and watched. Without any doubt, he had presented the baby with a gift.

I think this kindly act was a holdover from the dog's ancestral past wherein wolves, the highly social ancestors of dogs, qualify as gift givers by sharing their prey with other members of the pack. Gilbey clearly still had some wolf in him.

Who knows what the story is with domestic pets, but one common feature of gift giving among wild animals is that the behavior is not altruistic. Any animal giving a gift is doing so for a self-serving reason--to raise its young, to attract a mate, to survive by a division of labor among a group's members. The gifts have a practical value for the giver. As for humans, let's hope that for most of us gift giving is prompted by the belief that it is more blessed to give than to receive.


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