Hwæt!: adaptive benefits of public displays of generosity and bravery in Beowulf

in Behaviour
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Costly signalling — along with other adaptive mechanisms, including reciprocity and kin selection — supports altruism in human societies. Because literary works can reflect the lives, motivations and ideals of real cultures, the same adaptive forces governing the actions of actual persons may drive the interactions depicted in these stories. Based on this reasoning, we analysed the interactions in the Old-English poem Beowulf, asking whether the beneficent behaviour exhibited by the characters functions as costly signalling or as exchange-based interactions. We found that both mechanisms play a role but costly signalling provides benefits beyond those from relationships based on exchange. Specifically, gift exchange promoted comrade allegiance but costly signalling additionally provided status increase to the signaller. Furthermore, boasting about oneself forged alliances whereas telling tales about the exploits of others increased speaker status. We show that hypotheses derived from evolutionary theory can be explored through quantitative text analyses of period-specific literature.

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Figures
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    Men and women: percentages of total broadcasted signals (top panel) and of total benefits received (bottom panel). Abbreviations are as follows: Public Generosity: BG, beer giving; FH, feast hosting; GG, generalized gift giving; GR, gift receiving; MB, monument building; RG, ring giving. Display of Physical Skill or Risk: PP, physical protection or prowess; PT, presentation of trophy; SB, success in battle; SS, self-sacrifice. Use of Language: B, boasting; TT, tale-telling. Other: GD, general good deeds; QC, queen’s company. Increase in Status: ES, enhancement of status; R, reputation; RK, reputation of kin. Reproductive Success: O, mention or addition of offspring; W, mention or addition of wives.

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    The mean proportion of costly displays that were exhibited (grey bars) or not exhibited (black bars) by a character when the author states that benefits had been received. p0.05; ns, p>0.05. Benefits are allegiance of comrades (top panel), increase in status (middle panel) and increase in treasure (bottom panel).

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    The frequency of broadcasted displays of a character’s attributes (top panel) and of benefits (bottom panel) that were associated with exchange of gifts (grey area within a bar) versus non-exchange (black area); p0.05; ns, p>0.05 for combined variables.

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    Failed signals of men (black bars) and women (white bars). (Top panel) Frequency of failure to signal and of failed signals; (bottom panel) losses resulting from the above failed signals and failures to signal.

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