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The Company of Strangers: A Natural History of Economic Life

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Human beings are the only species in nature to have developed an elaborate division of labor between strangers. Even something as simple as buying a shirt depends on an astonishing web of interaction and organization that spans the world. But unlike that other uniquely human attribute, language, our ability to cooperate with strangers did not evolve gradually through our p Human beings are the only species in nature to have developed an elaborate division of labor between strangers. Even something as simple as buying a shirt depends on an astonishing web of interaction and organization that spans the world. But unlike that other uniquely human attribute, language, our ability to cooperate with strangers did not evolve gradually through our prehistory. Only 10,000 years ago--a blink of an eye in evolutionary time--humans hunted in bands, were intensely suspicious of strangers, and fought those whom they could not flee. Yet since the dawn of agriculture we have refined the division of labor to the point where, today, we live and work amid strangers and depend upon millions more. Every time we travel by rail or air we entrust our lives to individuals we do not know. What institutions have made this possible? In The Company of Strangers, Paul Seabright provides an original evolutionary and sociological account of the emergence of those economic institutions that manage not only markets but also the world's myriad other affairs. Drawing on insights from biology, anthropology, history, psychology, and literature, Seabright explores how our evolved ability of abstract reasoning has allowed institutions like money, markets, and cities to provide the foundation of social trust. But how long can the networks of modern life survive when we are exposed as never before to risks originating in distant parts of the globe? This lively narrative shows us the remarkable strangeness, and fragility, of our everyday lives.


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Human beings are the only species in nature to have developed an elaborate division of labor between strangers. Even something as simple as buying a shirt depends on an astonishing web of interaction and organization that spans the world. But unlike that other uniquely human attribute, language, our ability to cooperate with strangers did not evolve gradually through our p Human beings are the only species in nature to have developed an elaborate division of labor between strangers. Even something as simple as buying a shirt depends on an astonishing web of interaction and organization that spans the world. But unlike that other uniquely human attribute, language, our ability to cooperate with strangers did not evolve gradually through our prehistory. Only 10,000 years ago--a blink of an eye in evolutionary time--humans hunted in bands, were intensely suspicious of strangers, and fought those whom they could not flee. Yet since the dawn of agriculture we have refined the division of labor to the point where, today, we live and work amid strangers and depend upon millions more. Every time we travel by rail or air we entrust our lives to individuals we do not know. What institutions have made this possible? In The Company of Strangers, Paul Seabright provides an original evolutionary and sociological account of the emergence of those economic institutions that manage not only markets but also the world's myriad other affairs. Drawing on insights from biology, anthropology, history, psychology, and literature, Seabright explores how our evolved ability of abstract reasoning has allowed institutions like money, markets, and cities to provide the foundation of social trust. But how long can the networks of modern life survive when we are exposed as never before to risks originating in distant parts of the globe? This lively narrative shows us the remarkable strangeness, and fragility, of our everyday lives.

30 review for The Company of Strangers: A Natural History of Economic Life

  1. 4 out of 5

    Erik

    Starts strong and peters out. I find this is the case with many books with grandiose goals. Sections 1 and 2 are far better than 3 and 4.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Todd Smalley

    This book is a profound and impressive view of economics. Its broad sweep of history - from pre-agricultural man to the present - and examination of the fundamentals of human interaction leave you with a feeling of "wow, this is deep". And it is meant to: Seabright argues convincingly and enjoyably that we aren't awed enough by the economies that humans have developed. These economies require massive amounts of trust, and as a species we are just not evolved to trust people to whom we aren't rel This book is a profound and impressive view of economics. Its broad sweep of history - from pre-agricultural man to the present - and examination of the fundamentals of human interaction leave you with a feeling of "wow, this is deep". And it is meant to: Seabright argues convincingly and enjoyably that we aren't awed enough by the economies that humans have developed. These economies require massive amounts of trust, and as a species we are just not evolved to trust people to whom we aren't related. So we've developed some social norms and some institutions to help trust along and BOOM, we've developed this massive, sophisticated, and technological economy in only the most recent fraction of our species' existence. This economy, then, is as fragile as the trust we carry in strangers, as supported by these norms and institutions. I don't think I've read a book since "Guns Germs & Steel" that took on such a broad cut of explaining society. The particularly impressive part is the range of disciplines he brings to bear on his subject: not just economics but also psychology, history, literature, anthropology, social sciences, etc. This breadth makes the book interesting and enjoyable. While his writing style is generally engaging, it can take on an academic feel. Fortunately he has organized it academically, with chapter and section introductions and summaries - my advice is if you feel your mind wandering, feel free to skip to the next summary. WIth the weight of feeling you need to read every word lifted, you'll be surprised how often you stay to read everything anyway.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Wilte

    An economist looks at evolutionary roots of human society and its structures. How does our evolutionary path shape current institutions and mutual trust? p53 Remarkably, trust in non-relatives has become an established fact of social life. p53 cites Carol Ember - myths about Hunter-Gatherers p65 Social Capital (World Bank 1999) Dasgupta and Serageldin http://www-wds.worldbank.org/external... p65 What all stable societies have in common is that the balance between reciprocity and self0-interest holds An economist looks at evolutionary roots of human society and its structures. How does our evolutionary path shape current institutions and mutual trust? p53 Remarkably, trust in non-relatives has become an established fact of social life. p53 cites Carol Ember - myths about Hunter-Gatherers p65 Social Capital (World Bank 1999) Dasgupta and Serageldin http://www-wds.worldbank.org/external... p65 What all stable societies have in common is that the balance between reciprocity and self0-interest holds even when unscrupulous individuals test its strength. p86 The best bank is now the the one with the shrewdest eye for sound investments. It is the most convincing purveyor of trust in the many claims made by would-be borrowers for the quality of their business propositions. p153 The human species now produces around 50 times as much output, consuming over 75 times as much energy and over 60 times as much freshwater, as we did 200 years ago. (Bourguignonne & Morrison 2002; McNeill 2000) p193 The more elaborate the division of labour the greater the possibilities for the web of trust that sustains it to unravel. p206 Holmstrom & Milgrom (1991) when agents forced to work for a principal are forced to choose between tasks whose results are easy to verify and tasks that are important but hard to verify, they not only cut back on the tasks that are hard to verify but may even put too much effort into the easy ones! p243 Human beings 10000 years ago had inherited a psychology that made them intensely suspicious of strangers and capable of savage violence toward them under some circumstances, but able to benefit spectacularly from institutional arrangements that made it reasonable to treat strangers as honorary friends. p251 Strength of our trust-building institutions is how decentralized they are. We ourselves are the real police; those who wear uniforms are just the special forces, playing a crucial but minority role in overseeing the billions of daily interactions between strangers in our modern world. p252 In a smoothly functioning modern society, you can trust me to to transact reasonably with you not because of my character or personality (about which you know little and care less), nor because you share my religion or my politics (which may repel you), nor because you know my family, but simply because of the social space we share. Such a social space (...) requires a degree of impartiality. (...) Schools in the 21st century need above all to teach children the one vital skill for the survival of humanity, namely, how to live peacefully and profitably with people whose community and religion are not one's own

  4. 4 out of 5

    Ricardo

    An excellent book!! it´s a must read for everyone interested in the dynamic of the relationship between our apparently simple life and the rest of society. As spicies, our success is completely due to our team work; but, at the same time, the biggest challenges for the continuity of the species are the outcomes of our team work. 100% recommended!!

  5. 5 out of 5

    Rhys

    As with any 'history of ...' book, there are moments of insight mired in gross generalizations, polarities and platitudes. For Seabright 'Economic Life' means uncritical 'free market' capitalism and an end-of-history political order based on the State. Where I think he has it correct is his misgivings around our ability to collectively navigate degradation of the natural enviroment.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Aniruddh Naik

    The language is not fluid. Still follows complex narration. Expected some more anthropological examples but turns out the author explains more than the examples should have done. Some good, new perspectives on institutions and the under current is the need for branding (this is my interpretation of the author’s views). You can skim through most portions with not mote than a glance.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Solveig Singleton

    One of the finest things I've read in years. An account of how our behavior as individuals affects systems (economic, political, environmental) in the big picture. Wonderful mix of economics, history, and the natural sciences.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Terry

    thesis is that in order to transition beyond tribal hunter gather societies, a system of trust needs to evolve - trust between strangers. Today's economy is all about systems of trust. foreward by D. Dennett revised edition 2010 (address 2007-8 financial collapse, ie lost of trust) Notes p. 1 Intro to Revised Edition; Post 2007-8 financ. crisis. Amercian loan losts = $9K per person 2 trust is fundamental to our economy & life. When trust is broken, all hell breaks out. Past examples: belief in witchcra thesis is that in order to transition beyond tribal hunter gather societies, a system of trust needs to evolve - trust between strangers. Today's economy is all about systems of trust. foreward by D. Dennett revised edition 2010 (address 2007-8 financial collapse, ie lost of trust) Notes p. 1 Intro to Revised Edition; Post 2007-8 financ. crisis. Amercian loan losts = $9K per person 2 trust is fundamental to our economy & life. When trust is broken, all hell breaks out. Past examples: belief in witchcraft (Locke and Newton believed in it, BTW); modern day hysteria examples. 3 10K years ago, man became agrarian & things changed! 134 ch. 9; interesting (from the classics) story of the 'parasitic' defeated Greek army trying to maintain dignity/honor even though they must plunder and fight to get back home through areas where they are unwanted. 136 parallels to duty & Nuremberg Trials 137 the classic Greek narrative (honorable life) - agrarian - nobleman vs trades person 138 Indian Caste extreme example of defined public roles 144 'Good War' by Studs Terkel - bonding of men like hunting groups of yore - Richerson/Boyd theory. Narrative is we found evil Nazis but reality is we also committed some atrocities including rape. Politically liberal men at Law. Livermore Nuclear Lab design nuc. weapons 7 (147?) tunnel vision - division of labor - trust in others - individuals w/ narrow focus that melds w/ their society

  9. 5 out of 5

    Will

    "The predicament of unemployed steelworkers, coal miners, fishermen (not to mention the rich world's textile workers, secretaries, automobile assemblers - all those whose skills are less in demand than they used to be) is not at all new in history. But it has added to the risks with which our hunter-gatherer ancestors were more familiar, the risk of the natural world and its predators and the risk posed by human enemies, neither of which has disappeared. Our emotional reactions to risk are still "The predicament of unemployed steelworkers, coal miners, fishermen (not to mention the rich world's textile workers, secretaries, automobile assemblers - all those whose skills are less in demand than they used to be) is not at all new in history. But it has added to the risks with which our hunter-gatherer ancestors were more familiar, the risk of the natural world and its predators and the risk posed by human enemies, neither of which has disappeared. Our emotional reactions to risk are still shaped by that hunter-gatherer heritage. We treat those who suffer the hazards of life either as casualties of a blind chance that we may fear but cannot logically resent, or as victims - chosen sufferers of deliberate aggression to which the only emotional response is resentment and the only justifiable response, revenge. Even today the debate about the costs of economic change in an integrated world is polarized between those who see no casualties, only victims (like the doomed heroes who fought on picket lines to prevent the closing of British coal mines in the long and futile strike of 1984-85), and those who see no victims, only casualties (like those brisk prophets of globalization who are only concerned about reducing trade barriers and not about those who will be hurt as a result). The truth is that those who are hurt by economic change in today's world fall into a different category, one needing both an emotional and a practical response for which our history has poorly prepared us. This brings us back to the theme which which we began. The practical intelligence that has evolved among human beings is very skilled at manipulating the natural environment and managing the interactions of small groups of individuals who see each other frequently and know each other well. It is only in the last ten thousand years - far too recently for genetic evolution to have been affected - that human beings have had to come to terms on a significant scale with the impact of strangers, and it is only in the last two hundred or so that this impact has become the dominant fact of everyday life. To manage the hazards imposed on us by the actions of distant strangers has required us to deploy a different skill bequeathed to us by evolution for quite different purposes: the capacity for abstract symbolic thought. In their response to risk no less than in their handling of conflict, modern political institutions seek to restrain by the slender threads of abstract reasoning the passions and resentments of the prehistoric tribe."

  10. 4 out of 5

    Fritz-Anton Fritzson

    In this book, Paul Seabright (a professor of economics) discusses a wide range of topics including how we have tamed our violent instincts, how human social emotions evolved, and the rise (and sometimes fall) of institutions such as money, banks, cities, firms, states, and empires. He calls our evolution from family bands to industrial cities "the great experiment" and ends up discussing how fragile this experiment is. He asks many interesting questions along the way, but his treatment of these In this book, Paul Seabright (a professor of economics) discusses a wide range of topics including how we have tamed our violent instincts, how human social emotions evolved, and the rise (and sometimes fall) of institutions such as money, banks, cities, firms, states, and empires. He calls our evolution from family bands to industrial cities "the great experiment" and ends up discussing how fragile this experiment is. He asks many interesting questions along the way, but his treatment of these questions often leaves something to be desired. The chapters on violence advance the same general thesis as Steven Pinker’s brilliant work on the subject: The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. The chapter on how the social emotions evolved is similarly congruent with Matt Ridley’s excellent The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation (among some other similar books). Seabright is however a somewhat less engaging writer than Pinker and Ridley, and his analyses are not as deep and thorough as theirs. The respective chapters on the development of cities and firms are interesting. In the latter, it is argued that the modern firm grew out of the traditional family. The chapter on water is very good in its own right, but it does not fit very well within the theme of the book as whole. The revised edition contains a new chapter on the recent financial crisis as well as a foreword by Daniel Dennett, but these add little of value. Overall, it is a good read, but it promises somewhat more than it delivers. A much better book on a similar theme is Darwinian Politics: The Evolutionary Origin of Freedom by Paul H. Rubin. (see my review of Rubin's book here: http://www.oxymoronsreviews.com/oxymo...). Fritz- Anton Fritzson http://www.oxymoronsreviews.com

  11. 4 out of 5

    David Barnhill

    This book elucidates the reasons for why society operates the way it does. It can be dense at times but this does not takeaway the overall impact of what the author wants to get across. Why do we trust people we do not know? What assumptions do we make on a day-to-day basis, sometimes unknowingly, that allow us to function socially? Why are we comfortable with these assumptions? Far from a simple individual perspective, the author starts with genetics and proceeds to a macro-level, peeling the o This book elucidates the reasons for why society operates the way it does. It can be dense at times but this does not takeaway the overall impact of what the author wants to get across. Why do we trust people we do not know? What assumptions do we make on a day-to-day basis, sometimes unknowingly, that allow us to function socially? Why are we comfortable with these assumptions? Far from a simple individual perspective, the author starts with genetics and proceeds to a macro-level, peeling the onion back and revealing why our society can operate, somewhat efficiently. While the book takes mostly an economic slant to societal relations, it details principles that can easily translate to other facets of life. Further, it provides perspective on why a powerful country, such as the US, must accept limitations on its potential power when operating with a less powerful nation-state. In fact, one of the more poignant parts of the book describes how and why a weaker partner in a relationship must be made to feel a valuable part of society: "If the Great Experiment is to survive an era of globalization, environmental degradation, and arms proliferation, international relations will need the weak to see the advantages of participation, and the strong will need to see the point of granting the such advantages." Apply this to international relations but go one step further and apply it to the current US domestic disposition. This is a fine book in the best sense. Could have been shorter but gets an impressive and necessary point across, nevertheless.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Peter Norman

    This book takes a shot at one of the central questions of modern social science: how do social institutions, whether markets or political systems hold together when comprised mostly of anonymous strangers. Seabright explores the topic mostly through the lenses of evolutionary biology and game theory (skeptics of these fields on the left should pause to consider the positive reviews the book has received from Sam Bowles and Herb Gintis, among others). Unfortunately, while he offered scattered ins This book takes a shot at one of the central questions of modern social science: how do social institutions, whether markets or political systems hold together when comprised mostly of anonymous strangers. Seabright explores the topic mostly through the lenses of evolutionary biology and game theory (skeptics of these fields on the left should pause to consider the positive reviews the book has received from Sam Bowles and Herb Gintis, among others). Unfortunately, while he offered scattered insights, Seabright's account never really coalesced for me. While the book is not badly written, I ultimately found it hard to sustain my interest.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Ahmed Taher

    The book is very interesting, however the writer is very far right wing thinker and very capitalist. The book gave a nice introduction of the evolution of the mankind economy.Although, it neglected many eras of the mankind history, such as the era of the Islamic domination from the 6th till the 12th centuries. It also didn't consider all the negatives of the increasing influence of the corporations over the world economy and the governments and obviously the free markets.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Matt Olson

    This was a fascinating perspective on modern economic systems viewed through the lens of cultural anthropology and societal evolution. For anyone who wants to understand why humans have organized economic activity the way we have, this is a must-read. The evolution of trust between non-related members of the same species is fairly unique to humanity and I found the views presented in this book to be very interesting.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Margaret Sankey

    Using anthropology and evolutionary biology, an economist analyzes the key feature that allowed us to settle down and farm in groups including people to whom we were not related--humans had to employ abstract thought to envision rituals and institutions that would allow us to contribute to works (central banking systems, armies, sewer projects) that cost us and benefit people in whim we have no genetic investment, but which may also be to our advantage.

  16. 5 out of 5

    !Tæmbuŝu

    KOBOBOOKS KOBOBOOKS

  17. 4 out of 5

    Ryan Travis

    This is my favorite popular economics book.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Pavel

    Another title recommended by Dan Dennett in personal communication.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Trevor

    The starting chapters are pretty good but skimmed through the end chapters.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Bryan Kim

    Recommended by Hal Varian, Google's chief economist. A good primer on intermediate economics.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Michael Economy

    Pretty good book, interesting concepts. It was weird that he went into so many different disciplines.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Chris

    Well formulated, but if you've read similar books there is little new insight.

  23. 5 out of 5

    James

    Fairly interesting book about how economies develop through humans' treatment of complete strangers as "honorary friends."

  24. 5 out of 5

    Laura

  25. 4 out of 5

    karri

  26. 4 out of 5

    Jakob Klinkby

  27. 5 out of 5

    Harry Lynch

  28. 5 out of 5

    Alex Foti

  29. 4 out of 5

    Benjamin Terry

  30. 4 out of 5

    Julian

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