The economies of gratitude….

An November 2009 article in Nature looks at non-kin cooperation models in animal societies. It examines reciprocity, mutualism, and manipulation in economic terms – with future expectations, biological expense, and cheating included in some of the trade values.

The overarching perspective is “why would an animal incur costs to their survival fitness unless there was some clear selection benefit to their behavior?”

Couching animal and human behavior strictly in economic terms has been an increasing trend over the last few decades. And while it does reveal expected value-exchange patterns and allows for repeatable assessments of behavioral incentives, it is a fairly narrow framework that comes at a pretty high “cost” – to extend the metaphor.

For example; it is this reductionist framing that justifies destruction of habitat because the economic value of the “extracted resources” outweighs the “environmental services” provided by the habitat.

Looking at biological systems as “economies” can suck the air out of environmental preservation discussions. I believe it also misses a fundamental reason for being alive.

Two compelling stories came up this month that illustrate this point; stories that would not fit well into the bio-economic models.

In one story a National Geographic photographer jumps into the water to film a leopard seal – a large deadly predator that is known to attack and eat humans. It turned out that the leopard seal “took pity” on this skin-and-bones visitor and spent the next few days capturing penguins and trying to feed him. In the second story a Humpback whale saves a Weddell seal from hungry Orcas with no clear biological incentives or expectations of reward.

Both of these examples of inter-species cooperation could be explained as “misdirected mothering instincts” – an explanation that is sort of a “work-around” when the economic model doesn’t fit very well.

Or it could be looked at as acts of gratitude: If you have something good going for you, it just feels nice to share it.

I hope that this finds you with lots to be thankful for, and abundant opportunities to share it with others.

Happy Thanksgiving!