GIFT GIVING UNIQUE TO HUMANS?
December 26, 2010
25 and 26 bring us two gift-giving days in a rowChristmas, 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?
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
you have an environmental question or comment, email