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Essay / Culture Lab

Is a More Generous Society Possible?

Generosity helps communities manage risk and cope with disasters. New research untangles the factors that lead people to help neighbors in need.
A group of women and children from the Ik tribe share a meal.

A group of women and children from the Ik tribe share a meal.

Cathryn Townsend

In January 2016, Cathryn Townsend set out to live among “the loveless people.” So named by anthropologist Colin Turnbull, the Ik are a tribe of some 11,600 hunter-gatherers and subsistence farmers living in an arid and harsh mountainous region of Uganda.

Turnbull studied the Ik in the 1960s and famously characterized them as “inhospitable and generally mean” in his book The Mountain People. He documented how young children were abandoned to starve and how people would snatch food from the elderly. Townsend, a Rutgers University anthropologist, visited the Ik decades later to see how a culture that supposedly lacked basic kindness operated.

Her interest stemmed from an ongoing, multidisciplinary investigation called The Human Generosity Project, which examines why and how human cooperation, in the form of generosity, threads its way through different cultures. The project began in 2014, through a partnership between Lee Cronk, a Rutgers University anthropologist, and Athena Aktipis, a psychologist at Arizona State University. Together, the pair wanted to investigate the cultural and biological factors behind generous behavior. Today, through this project, more than 20 participating researchers use an array of tools, including economic simulations and computer modeling, to study altruism and cooperation at nine field sites.

In certain communities, giving to those in need, with no expectation of return, is normalized and expected. The project researchers have found such behavior around the world, including among herders and hunter-gatherers in East Africa. And findings thus far suggest that such generous societies are more likely to survive during difficult times.

If that pattern holds up, lessons from The Human Generosity Project could be vital as the world faces a multitude of unpredictable challenges from the onslaught of climate change and increasing economic inequality. “Ultimately, it would be nice if we could encourage higher levels of cooperation and higher levels of generosity,” Cronk says.

Townsend, a member of the project, went to study the Ik to find a counterexample to generous cultures. She and her colleagues wanted to see how an allegedly “selfish” society operated. But when she arrived, she found something different: Even among “the loveless people,” there was a thriving tradition of generosity.

Generosity, as Townsend, Cronk, and their colleagues study it, can be thought of as a form of insurance. In certain communities, when disaster strikes, people spring into action to help one another, as though an unwritten contract stated: When it’s really bad, I’ll help you because you would help me in the same circumstances. The Human Generosity Project researchers call this spirit of reciprocal giving “need-based transfer.”

In August 2017, as Hurricane Harvey deluged Houston, Texas, for example, an informal network of boat owners from Louisiana who first emerged during Hurricane Katrina more than a decade earlier streamed into Texas to rescue those trapped in the flood. They call themselves the “Cajun Navy,” and they, too, live in flood-prone regions.

Volunteers with the Louisiana-based Cajun Navy Relief participated in rescue efforts when Hurricane Florence hit North Carolina in 2018.

Volunteers with the Louisiana-based Cajun Navy Relief participated in rescue efforts when Hurricane Florence hit North Carolina in 2018.

Alex Edelman/Getty Images

Such volunteerism is not the only way to respond to a crisis. “Humans have been organizing to manage risk associated with injury and illness since time immemorial,” Aktipis notes. In contrast to need-based transfer, many modern societies offer a market-based alternative in the form of insurance companies, which help people pool risk against future hazards. Participants pay into a network with the presumption that they will be able to tap it if injury, illness, or disaster occurs.

Aktipis explains that although insurance offers an efficient solution, in that it rapidly gathers money in one place, it’s not a perfect fix. “Oftentimes [insurance] doesn’t actually cover you when you need it,” Aktipis says. For instance, as wildfires swept through California in 2018, some residents discovered that their homeowners insurance would no longer cover them because their homes were too close to dry brush.

Need-based transfer, on the other hand, is based on relationships, making it a more reliable solution. You care about your neighbors, and they care about you. “[It] insures against the uninsurable,” Aktipis says.

One of the best examples of such giving comes from Maasai herders in southern Kenya and northern Tanzania who are connected by their osotua network. (The word osotua means umbilical cord in the Maasai’s language.) If one of the members needs help, others in the network support him or her by giving livestock or labor, without any expectation of payback.

Anthropologist and Human Generosity Project researcher Dennis Sonkoi, himself a member of the Maasai, says he didn’t truly appreciate the protective power of osotua until he came to the United States from Kenya in 2008. At the time, he wanted to learn new resource management techniques to safeguard his homeland’s still mostly pristine forests. When he met Cronk and discussed generosity, however, he realized Maasai cultural practices, such as osotua, had likely spared his homeland’s natural resources from development thus far. It was like a “pin dropping in my thoughts,” says Sonkoi.

Computer modeling confirmed what Sonkoi had deduced. Aktipis and her colleagues used an algorithm to compare outcomes in three kinds of community: one using need-based transfer, another in which sharing resources occurs with the expectation of repayment (a practice called account keeping), and a third in which there is no sharing at all. The test was modeled after the Maasai pastoral lifestyle, which involves sharing cattle. The simulation would randomly generate drought or disease, and the researchers could see how the herds endured in each simulated society. Both forms of sharing, the simulation revealed, resulted in better herd survival than no sharing of cattle. But need-based transfer led to more pooling of resources, longer survival of the herd, and greater wealth equality than account keeping.

To date, The Human Generosity Project has turned up many examples of need-based transfer. In Fiji, for instance, extended families in villages practice kerekere, the act of sharing resources when requested, without expectation of short-term repayment. In the arid and semi-arid U.S. Southwest, ranchers fill in with free labor in the event that a fellow rancher is recovering from illness or injury. They call this practice “neighboring.” In Central Appalachia, which includes some of the poorest communities in the U.S., neighbors still help each other by providing free labor without being asked.

Scientists participating in the Human Generosity Project study communities in nine sites around the world.

Scientists participating in The Human Generosity Project study communities in nine sites around the world.

Cay Leytham-Powell/SAPIENS

But Townsend journeyed to Uganda to see a community with a very different reputation from these altruistic societies that first served as a focal point for the project. In his book, Turnbull painted a dramatic portrait of the Ik, warning in the preface that the reader would be shocked by the tribe and tempted to think “how primitive … how savage … how disgusting” and “how inhuman.” (The book, incidentally, left its mark on the tribe and on Western culture, inspiring a play in 1975 called The Iks by director Peter Brook and appearing in Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene.)

But “loveless” is not at all how Townsend would describe the community she came to live with in 2016. Among a tribe that had been derided as cruel, she found notable acts of generosity. For example, she witnessed how the community provided meals for an elderly man who lived alone and shared food with Townsend without her needing to ask. “They’re really people who have very little, but the little they do have is stuff that they’re willing to share,” she says.

Townsend probes generous behavior among the Ik using an experiment called the “dictator game.” One person (the “dictator”) is given the choice to distribute a sum of money to another player. She tweaks the game to see whether various factors will affect how much the “dictator” gives.

In general, Townsend says, the Ik are “fairly normal” in what they give away when comparing them to how members of other societies play the game. In other words, there is nothing inherently more generous or selfish about the Ik.

Turnbull, it turned out, had studied the Ik during a famine that plagued the region in 1965 and 1966. It was a time that a neighboring tribe still calls a “year of one cup,” in reference to the meager annual rations they received from the government: one cup of maize per person.

That period of the Ik’s history revealed that there can be limits to cooperation and generosity. Extreme deprivation may prevent a community from caring for its own. But these circumstances can change. The Ik survived and, Townsend found, they maintain a culture of sharing with extended families and neighbors in need of food, shelter, or labor. Among the much-maligned “loveless people,” there was a rich tradition of need-based transfer.

The Ik’s choice to share food based on need indicates that they have passed the starting point for complex cooperative behavior, Townsend says. When individuals begin to move beyond the most basic need to survive, forms of cooperation that further ensure survival emerge, such as need-based transfers, trade, or something she calls “demand sharing,” where successful members of a society share their surplus by default—a pattern akin to taxation.

Two Ik women in traditional dress walk through a field in Uganda.

Two Ik women in traditional dress walk through a field in Uganda.

Cathryn Townsend

Looking across communities, Townsend and other Human Generosity Project researchers have concluded that the world is not divided into generous versus selfish societies. Rather, charity and reciprocity are baked into human civilization. It’s the mix of cooperation and risk-pooling strategies (such as account keeping, need-based transfer, or market-based insurance) that varies—and it’s probable that societies benefit from combining them.

Going forward, The Human Generosity Project aims to understand which approaches are most beneficial in given circumstances in order to inject these concepts into other cultures. “It’s really about taking these findings and translating them into interventions that can help build the social infrastructure for dealing with challenges of the future, whether they’re disaster response or resource management,” Aktipis says.

Scaling up solutions can be difficult. Aktipis has found that the bigger the society, the harder it is to detect cheaters in a need-based transfer system. However, Aktipis writes that a society’s belief in the supernatural may play a particularly strong role in helping people solidify generous behavior. The Maasai, for instance, consider osotua so sacred that it would be unthinkable to take advantage of that bond. Christians in the U.S. may experience something similar when the collection plate comes by at church.

“I don’t think we share or are generous to each other for any one reason,” says Wesley Allen-Arave, a University of New Mexico anthropologist who is not affiliated with The Human Generosity Project. Allen-Arave interviewed more than 500 households in the United States about charitable giving and found that while people sometimes give to help others in need, they give much more often when they have a personal relationship with the person asking for donations.

And Townsend, too, has seen spirituality tip the scales. If she adjusts the dictator game to mention the kijawikå, earth spirits in whom the Ik believe, the Ik become even more generous. They believe the kijawikå will reward the generous and punish the stingy.

But she’s also observed an additional, intriguing pattern—one that further nuances our understanding of societies in need. As Townsend was conducting the dictator game, she noticed that those people who had experienced trauma in the past were more generous than others who had not. It’s an aspect of the Ik she aims to explore with further research. “It seems that might be some kind of catalyst for extraordinary generous behavior,” Townsend says.

In retrospect, it’s ironic that the Ik were meant to be a prime example of a selfish society. To this day, the Ik barely get by. They face challenges from other tribes and drought, but they stay alive by sticking together, according to Townsend.

“The way that they cope,” Townsend says, “is not by being selfish but by sharing.”


This article was republished at Pacific Standard,, and

Leah Shaffer is a freelance science writer based in St. Louis, Missouri, who writes about health and animal behavior. Her stories have appeared in Discover magazine, Wired, The Atlantic, and Nature Medicine. Follow her on Twitter @LeahabShaffer.


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