We found a way to solve that ultimate fairness conundrum between kids – how to equitably split the final piece of cake, pie or brownie between our two daughters without one of them leveling claims of inequality because the other “got the bigger piece.”
What we do is we’ll flip a coin to decide which of them will cut the last piece of dessert into two pieces. Then, regardless of who did the cutting, the other child gets to choose their preferred piece first.
As the girls have matured they talk during the “cutting process” and the “chooser” frequently takes the smaller piece for herself.
What used to be a startling escalation of allegations and counter allegations has transformed into collaboration and altruism.
This little slice of our life showcases the nearly universal human need and cry for fairness.
Even as little kids we instinctively understand that it’s not fair to budge in line, take a toy or snack that belongs to someone else or swing too long on the playground swing while other kids are waiting.
Where did this innate sense of fairness come from?
Apparently, NOT from evolution.
A fascinating study published this week in the Journal of Biology Letters found that the primates we’re most similar too genetically (chimpanzees and bonobos) have NO sense of fairness or equity when it comes to food.
A summary of the study can be found at ScienceDaily, but the bottom line is that after a series of different scenarios played out among these animals it was universally clear that the apes didn’t care if they stole food from others in their group or family.
Here’s an interesting quote from the head of the study, professor Keith Jensen, from Queen Mary’s School of Biological and Chemical Sciences:
“Our findings support other studies of chimpanzees but also extend these to bonobos. Both apes have no concern for fairness or the effects that their choices may have on others; in stark contrast to the way humans behave. We can therefore conclude that our results indicate that our sense of fairness is a derived trait and may be unique to the human race. If fairness considerations are important for cooperative activities such as trading goods and services and sharing, the question then is, when did they evolve in our species? And if fairness is important only in humans, the question is why only in humans?”
Why indeed. This study is just one of many that show a widening gap between our innate behaviors as humans and those of animals, throwing another monkey wrench into the machinery of evolutionary belief.
Perhaps the reason fairness and considering the needs of seems uniquely human is because it’s more of an issue of our spirit than our genetics? In fact, in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus requires us to go even farther than merely being fair with someone:
You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors (or the wicked) doing that? (Matthew 5:43-46)
The success or failure of a society hinges on how its members treat and care for each other. While a sense of fairness is at society’s core we as humans are ultimately called to more.
Question: Do you have a personal story about the importance of “fairness”?