The Gift: Giving among People and other Animals

Editorial by Alexander Massmann

In spite of stagnant wages, in recent years British consumers have increased their average monthly spending by about a quarter for Christmas, and German shoppers are expected to cross the 100 billion Euros mark in the 2019 Christmas season. Children are delighted about little treats, and families and friends prepare for being a “secret Santa.” It may seem that the tail is wagging with the dog – shopping and gift-giving defines Christmas, rather than the other way around. From a Christian perspective, however, it is not surprising that we give gifts for Christmas.

Paul calls God’s grace, and ultimately Christ himself, as God’s gift (e.g., 2. Corinthians 9). Giving seems to be something fundamentally human, even if it takes on different forms. But does giving distinguish us from animals, or does it unite us with other creatures? In a short film, friends and I asked these questions, not only in dialogue with biologists, but also with social activists. In this article I am adding a few aspects to our discussion of giving.

We can observe giving and sharing already among animals. The fact that Vampire bats leave the roost at night in order to drink some blood from other animals may sound creepy. However, those who were unsuccessful may well receive a donation from neighbours at the roost. Notably, the recipient later pays the donation back in kind. Such sharing occurs not only among relatives. It is even the benefactors themselves that take the initiative in sharing, so it is not that they simply respond to begging. In fact, many kinds of animals follow the principle, “you scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours” – e.g., rats, impala, monkeys and apes, but also certain birds and fishes. Even trees exchange nutrients, via subterranean connections that are created between roots by fungi (the so-called “wood-wide web”). Mutual giving and taking results in stable social relationships, which is a benefit to all participants.

Such forms of sharing among animals are often not described properly, as we measure them by the contrast of egoism and altruism. Reciprocal giving is neither altruistic (providing a benefit at one’s own expense) nor egoistic (receiving a benefit at others’ expense). For that reason, Richard Dawkins is among those who have difficulties with “tit for tat.” Famously, he portrays evolution as selfish, and humans along with it (at least in the early editions of his book, The Selfish Gene). True, there is a lot of selfish behaviour in nature. If, however, organisms follow the rule, “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours”, then those animals that take advantage of others without paying a favour back (“cheats”) will find themselves in the minority.

Then again, a common reaction to the “selfish” account of evolution is to emphasise the altruistic side of particular animals. At time this is how the primatologist Frans de Waal argues, and there are interesting observations of animal life that may support this case. However, I suggest that we should not become prisoner of our own standard social categories, like altruism vs. egoism. Egoism and altruism are both relevant, yet the behaviour of organisms is not exhausted by them. It includes reciprocity as well, which should not be reduced to either selfishness or altruism or even both.

We may of course object that reciprocal giving and taking is a bit prosaic – don’t people, by contrast, give freely without conditions? That is not necessarily the case – our Christmas giving, for example, often follows expectations and previous giving. That does not make a gift any less free or generous – after all, mathematicians also follow a logic inherent in their subject matter and would not consider their activity any less free for it. Gift and return gift play a prominent role in our everyday lives, as surveys show. Those who give a lot, also remember receiving many gifts in turn. Notably, in western Europe, this is true for women and younger people generally. Men, by contrast, often occupy the more prestigious professional positions in which they can formally enforce demands in return for their actions. Others, however, are in a social niche in which they accumulate social capital and cultivate personal connections via reciprocal giving. This distribution of roles along the lines of gender and age is unfair, yet it is not much better to idealise in turn a kind of giving that does not ask for whether someone is a grateful recipient or does not reciprocate. In giving, being grateful, and giving in return, we intentionally live our lives within social bonds.

This is different, however, from a strategic kind of giving that merely vies for a return service, seeing social relationships merely as an instrument on the way to another goal. One primatologist observed how one alpha male took away meat that others had hunted, in order to them distribute it only among his loyal supporters. Here as well we share a lot with our animal relatives. For example, famous museums have decided no longer to accept the large donations of the Sackler family. The family earned a lot of money through its pharmaceuticals company and then became famous because of their lavish monetary gifts. Eventually, however, it became clear that a drug that their company famously sold often resulted in addiction, thus contributing to the hundreds of thousands of deaths of the opioid crisis. Almost 2,700 court cases have been filed, alleging that members of the Sackler family knowingly earned a lot of money with immense suffering. The suspicion would arise that the family tried to whitewash their name with generous donations. The motto quid pro quo – or a dubious horse trade – sums up the essence of corruption also among humans, so reciprocal giving is not always as benign as it might appear.

Moreover, reciprocal giving can exclude others. Among animals, we can observe that when baboons preferably share with particular individuals, excluding others from which they would profit less. Among people, social participation is reduced when families are unable, for example, to afford birthday presents for their children’s friends. In sum, reciprocal giving can be an ambivalent, as we’ve seen already with commercial Christmas giving.

From a theological perspective, God’s grace disrupts precisely those relationships in which people first need to live up to unrealistic expectations in order to be well regarded. That does not mean, however, that altruism – the more selfless, the better – summarily replaces the model of gift and return gift. To be true, the Apostle Paul portrays God’s grace as unconditional in saying that Christ died for us when we were God’s enemies (Romans 5). That does not imply, however, that God’s giving was simply selfless and people might just as well remain God’s enemies. Rather, sometimes it takes a sacrifice in order to make a relationship possible. When essential things are at stake, a sacrifice may be called for: at a particular point, the reciprocal logic of the gift, which is so important in our everyday lives, is disrupted by a sacrifice. Social relationships of gift and free, generous return gift may then be restored again.


In our short documentary “Give and Take,” we explore giving: why do we give, and how do we understand giving? It is not a coincidence that even young children readily give, considering our evolutionary heritage of sharing. And yet there are differences between the ways animals and people share. We are in conversation with biologists and a psychologists, but also theologians, a political scientist, and a social worker.

Alexander Massmann
Published December 2019

Alexander Massmann is associate lecturer at the Faculty of Divinity, University of Cambridge (UK). His work focuses on the dialogue between theology and the sciences as well as on biomedical ethics.


On Christmas shopping: British Retail Consortium, Retail at Christmas: Festive FAQs 2018/19, (accessed 6 Dec, 2019); Handelsverband Deutschland, “HDE erhöht Jahresprognose auf +3,2 Prozent …”, 7. Nov. 2019, (accessed 5 Dec 2019).

Articles on reciprocity in nature are legion. See, for example, Gerald G. Carter and Gerald S. Wilkinson, “Food Sharing in Vampire Bats: Reciprocal Help Predicts Donations More than Relatedness or Harassment,” Proceedings of the Royal Society B 280, no. 1753 (2013): 20122573; Eric A. Fischer, “Egg Trading in the Chalk Bass, Serranus tortugaram, a Simultaneous Hermaphrodite,” Zeitschrift für Tierpsychologie 66 (1984): 143–51; Manfred Milinski, “TIT FOR TAT in Sticklebacks and the Evolution of Cooperation,” Nature 325, no. 6103 (1987): 433; J. David Ligon and Sandra H. Ligon, “Reciprocity in the Green Woodhoopoe (Phoeniculus Purpureus),” Animal Behaviour 31 (1983): 480–89; Benjamin L. Hart and Lynette A. Hart, “Reciprocal allogrooming in impala, Aepyceros melampus,” Animal Behavior 44 (1992), 1073–83; Thomas Zentall, “Reciprocal Altruism in Rats: Why Does It Occur?,” Learning & Behavior 44 (2016): 7–8; Suzanne W. Simard et al., “Reciprocal Transfer of Carbon Isotopes between Ectomycorrhizal Betula Papyrifera and Pseudotsuga Menziesii,” New Phytologist 137 (1997): 529–42;

On reciprocal giving in contemporary society (including the potential exclusionary effect of reciprocity): Aafke Komter, Social Solidarity and the Gift (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

An chimp alpha male distributes meat among his supporters: Toshisada Nishida, Chimpanzees of the Lakeshore: Natural History and Culture at Mahale (Cambridge University Press, 2012).

Exclusive reciprocal partnerships in baboons: C. Packer, “Reciprocal Altruism in Papio Anubis,” Nature 265, no. 5593 (1977): 441.

On the Sackler family: Sam Roberts, “Beverly Sackler, 95, Dies; Philanthropist and Purdue Pharma Director,” The New York Times, 15 Oct 2019, (accessed 6 Dec 2019).

Picture Credits

"Top view of wrapped present with yellow ribbon on grey background" Adobe Stock #237567585 © LIGHTFIELD STUDIOS

"Close up small sleeping horseshoe bat covered by wings, hanging upside down on top of cold natural rock cave while hibernating. Creative wildlife photography. Creatively illuminated blurry background." Adobe Stock #255703698 © Martin