Hi everyone, I’m a newcomer to the EA community, but I have a thought that may be of interest to some of you. I’m an anthropologist at Rutgers University, and I focus much of my attention on how people cooperate. One particular form of cooperation seems to have been crucial to our ancestors’ ability to survive and spread around the world, including into quite marginal habitats: Central place food sharing. Before I explain what that is, I should point out that although our closest living relatives, chimpanzees and bonobos, do share some food, they share very little compared to humans. If you’re a chimp or a bonobo and you have been weaned, then you’re mostly on your own when it comes to finding food. The same was probably true of the common ancestors of humans, chimps, and bonobos.

We don’t know exactly when, where, or how they did it, but our ancestors came up with a revolutionary new idea: Everyone who can forage does so, eating as they go but also bringing any surplus they may have obtained back to camp. Thus, those who either are unlucky while foraging or who could not forage because they were too old, too young, or too sick or injured to forage could also eat and, thus, survive another day. This created an opportunity for our ancestors to develop a division of labor regarding food acquisition and other necessary tasks, such as child care. For example, females with small children could remain in camp, confident that others would provide for them and their children. This may have allowed for shorter interbirth intervals and higher fertility. Males whose mates had small children could focus on reliable foods such as plants, small game, and honey, while other males could take a risk on hard-to-find and hard-to-capture larger game, confident that they, too, would still have something to eat at the end of the day if they failed, as they would have often done. Sick and injured people could recuperate rather than simply dying, and, thus, survive to contribute to the group’s food supply in the future.

Judging from our species’ subsequent success, central place food sharing seems not only to have been altruistic but also highly effective. So does central place food sharing qualify as our species’ original form of effective altruism?


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Athena Aktipis

Sep 16, 2022


Great points! There are some really interesting parallels with EA and central place food sharing. One thing that stands out to me is the idea that our ancestors were probably 'working' more than they otherwise would (i.e., continuing to forage when they were full) in order to have enough to be able to share with those who were hungry. This is very similar to EAs working in order to be able to donate to causes that do the most good.