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Throughout history, humans have helped one another in times of need. These need-based transfers are the foundation of systems of spiritually-rooted mutual aid that help people around the world to manage risk. Examples include hunter-gatherer food sharing, pastoralist livestock sharing, and godparenting. Although need-based transfers are a fundamental part of the human behavioral repertoire, research on them has been hampered by the lack of an appropriate conceptual vocabulary. A new vocabulary is needed to describe many instances of sharing and generosity that are inspired simply by the needs of others and a sense of spiritual kinship, rather than the logic of debt or exchange.

The Human Generosity Project is the first large-scale transdisciplinary research project to investigate the relationship between biological and cultural influences on human generosity. We will use multiple methodologies to understand the nature of human generosity. We will: 1) Study need-based transfers through anthropological fieldwork at five field sites around the world: Tanzanian foragers, Fijian fisher-hortoculturalists, Ugandan and Tanzanian pastoralists, and American ranchers. 2) Use computational models of need-based transfers to explore the causes and consequences of the use of various sharing norms. 3) Conduct laboratory experiments to better understand the conditions under which need-based transfers occur and to explore the influence of various cultural norms on sharing behavior.

We will disseminate our findings through professional conferences and peer-reviewed journals. We will also develop interactive and online science exhibits illustrating key concepts underlying need-based transfer systems for the Exploratorium in San Francisco and the Museum of Life and Science in Durham, NC. We are also working on the application of need-based transfer systems to complex modern problems such as water management in the Phoenix area and disaster recovery in the Northeast.