Human Nature

, Volume 14, Issue 2, pp 165–190 | Cite as

Social roles, prestige, and health risk

Social niche specialization as a risk-buffering strategy
  • Lawrence Scott SugiyamaEmail author
  • Michelle Scalise Sugiyama


Selection pressure from health risk is hypothesized to have shaped adaptations motivating individuals to attempt to become valued by other individuals by generously and recurrently providing beneficial goods and/or services to them because this strategy encouraged beneficiaries to provide costly health care to their benefactors when the latter were sick or injured. Additionally, adaptations are hypothesized to have co-evolved that motivate individuals to attend to and value those who recurrently provide them with important benefits so they are willing in turn to provide costly care when a valued person is disabled or in dire need. Individuals in egalitarian foraging bands can provide a number of valuable benefits, such as defense, diplomacy, food, healing, information, technical skill, or trading savvy. We therefore expect that humans have evolved psychological mechanisms motivating the pursuit and cultivation of a difficult-to-replace social role based on the provisioning of a benefit that confers a fitness advantage on its recipients. We call this phenomenon social niche specialization. One such niche that has been well-documented is meat-sharing. Here we present cross-cultural evidence that individuals cultivate two other niches, information and tool production, that serve (among other things) to buffer health risk.

Key words

Altruism Banker’s paradox Cooperation Costly signaling Cultural production Health risk Information exchange Prestige Social roles 


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Copyright information

© Walter de Gruyter, Inc 2003

Authors and Affiliations

  • Lawrence Scott Sugiyama
    • 1
    Email author
  • Michelle Scalise Sugiyama
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of AnthropologyUniversity of OregonEugene

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