Nighthawks by Edward Hopper, 1942
Stuffing an entire slice of mortadella into her mouth, her eyes zeroed in on the last slice in the middle of the table. I knew she would cry if I took it. I also knew something she didn’t. There was more mortadella in the refrigerator. So I took the “last” piece, put it on a slice of bread and enjoyed my sausage half-sandwich amidst the blaring screams of a two-year-old girl.
Scientists claim envy is a gift that is learned. The brain has to be sufficiently developed to feel envy. To this effect, the two-year-old girl with her food envy seemed very gifted. We do not show up envious in the world; we become envious a bit later. The first human in the world probably did not have feelings of envy (how enviable). That envy is not biologically inherent in us but a development of evolution first become apparent in experiments with chimpanzees.
The chimps could choose to pull on two different ropes. One rope pushed food closer to the other chimps; the other pushed it into an empty room. The puller always came away empty-handed. In another experiment the test chimp could pull the food toward itself, thereby gaining access to it, or share it with others. The result of both experiences demonstrated that the chimpanzees acted neither selflessly nor in an envious manner. Their pulls were varied, so it could not be determined whether the chimps were egotists or altruists. Based on this, scientists concluded that humans cultivated such traits upon separating from hominids.
Zoff und Futterneid by Urs Schmidli
Okay. But why? What is the use of envy, the deadly sin, lusting after strangers’ meals, coveting others’ bounty? Humans need control mechanisms in order to be human. This is how the sociologist, Helmut Shoeck, in his 1966 classic Der Neid und die Gesellschaft (Envy and Society, CFL translation) explains it: envy, like no other feeling, manages to generate conformity, cohesion and societyitself. The fear of being envied and attacked by others facilitated all of collective life by precluding the very possibility of envy. Humans started sharing and caring for others, so everyone had what they needed and nobody envied anybody else. In a group, an egotist would quickly become an outsider due to envy, and fending for himself, he would have much lower survival odds. From a selfish perspective it is sometimes smarter not to be selfish.
Food envy, envy of another’s food, may indeed be the original envy. In animals food envy manifests as competitive behavior. An alpha does not eat like a beta, and an omega can be at most secretly envious, unless it intends climb the social ladder. In 1899, the Austrian sociologist, Gustav Ratzenhofer, described Brotneid (bread envy) as the “primal force” of social motivations.
In Turkey, I went out to eat with a German woman whose only stipulation for our choice of restaurant was having her own dish. A table full of meze where everyone is at liberty to take from everything was downright stressful for her. She didn’t want to have to pay attention to how much she was getting. No sharing, no envy. Had I already done the research for this article at the time, I would have told her that she would have these misgivings less were she to share her food more often. I probably would have told her about oxytocin.
Linsday Lohan in Mean Girls, 2004
Oxytocin is also affectionately known as the cuddle hormone. Some researchers laud it as a magicalsubstance, viewing it as the biochemical key to love, fidelity and trust. You can buy oxytocin in nasal spray to keep your partner faithful or to quell stress and aggression. It is a well-researched hormone, or more precisely a neuropeptide, which influences our social interactions.
Oxytocin is with us from the start. Released in the brain, the hormone regulates the mother’s psychological processes and strengthens her emotional ties to her babies. High levels of oxytocin have been demonstrated after sexual intercourse, providing for relaxation and emotional connection to the partner. Oxytocin has also been shown to make voles monogamous. Montane and prairie voles differ only slightly from one another but are worlds apart in their love lives. Whereas montane voles do it with anyone and live alone, prairie voles prefer a trusting arrangement similar to marriage. The varying distribution of oxytocin receptors in the brain is responsible for their respective preferences. Gene manipulation made faithful partners of montane voles and turned prairie voles on to polygamy.
But back to eating. Oxytocin is essential to nutrient absorption. In expecting mothers, hormonal glands release oxytocin into the bloodstream, prompting labor and later, milk production. Cows, too, have to release enough oxytocin before they can be milked. And scientists have recently observed that monkeys release considerable amounts of oxytocin when sharing their food – more than during an affectionate delousing session.
Photo of the day, August 30th 2010
When we share our food, in motherly breastfeeding moments or eating with friends, oxytocin is released. It is in charge of the wonderful virtues of empathy and trust. When we trust more we feel less food envy and are more likely to share. By cultivating our oxytocin levels and allowing others to join the meal, we feel more compassion and less resentment, the basis of all collective life.
Exemplary in this vein is the common vampire bat, a species that has understood that sharing is truly vital. Subsisting exclusively on blood, these highly socialized creatures regurgitate their own food to share it with their fellow bats. Their yearly death rate would be over 80% if they did not share; sharing keeps it at 24%.
Although we do live in a time when we share our couches, cars and apartments, it is also a time in which we eat alone, in-between and to-go, in comfy solitude in front of the television or laptop or standing in the kitchen. Eating alone means not cultivating food envy and thus not having to feel it. Envy, after all, is like love: it takes two to tango.
Yet while food envy cannot exist because we all eat alone anyway, it follows that nothing can be shared. Or: no oxytocin, no empathy. No socialization, no togetherness. (If that isn’t compelling enough for you, read Keith Ferrazzi’s Never Eat Alone And Other Secrets To Success, One Relationship At A Time). There must be the potential for envy so that it can be surmounted.
By way of conclusion a small note on the marvelous word, companion. It comes from the Latin com, meaning “with,” and panis, or bread. So friends, eat communally and share your sausage sandwiches!
Kevin, finally alone