Ten or so millennia ago, some courageous peddlers had the nerve to approach strangers in the hope of making a few deals. They lacked the charisma of warriors, but their enterprise made them heroes. Their bravery founded what we call society. Many must have been killed by their potential customers, because killing strangers was natural. Those who survived became your ancestors and mine.
Paul Seabright, the author of The Company of Strangers: A Natural History of Economic Life, writes of those primitive traders with such respect and affection that he makes me feel I know them. A professor at the University of Toulouse, he's one of those economists who have moved from a concern with how money flows to speculation about how humanity works. When The Company of Strangers appeared in 2004, it wasn't given the attention it deserved; this summer's paperback edition may provoke more discussion.
Few economists are so sweeping in their ideas as Seabright, and few so anxious to make us look freshly at the world. He marries Adam Smith to Darwin and searches for help in psychology, anthropology, and biology. He marshals all this evidence behind his central point, that our industrialized, networked life is not the inevitable outcome of human development, as we usually assume. "Instead we owe it to an extraordinary experiment launched a mere ten thousand years ago" -- by what we would call salesmen and entrepreneurs. They invented the idea of co-operating with strangers when the agricultural revolution gave them surplus commodities to exchange.
Seabright's respect for commerce will seem eccentric to some readers and sinister to others. In our censorious times, all motives are suspect and we expect that improvements in society will be made by those who state their goals with appropriate piety. Adam Smith, whom Seabright follows, cautioned his readers against thinking the way most of us routinely think now. In Seabright's paraphrase, Smith told us never to imagine that by judging someone's motives we can decide whether their actions should be encouraged. Motives have little to do with it. Outcome is everything.
According to Seabright, it is something of a miracle that most of us find it natural, most of the time, to trust others. Ten thousand years ago, just a moment in the time-frame of evolution, we regarded everyone except our relatives as enemies. Now we assume that most people will do what they say they will do. As Seabright reminds us, we "entrust our lives to the pilot of an aircraft, accept food from a stranger in a restaurant, enter a subway train packed full of our genetic rivals."
How did we change? Seabright devotes many pages to this process but never forgets that we act today in violation of our primitive and still inherent desires. "This experiment is still young," he says.
Unfortunately, humans have learned to use co-operation to make war. This means we now need "better-directed forms of co-operation" on a world scale. How will this be managed, given the failure of our most idealistic efforts? Seabright's answer is no better than anyone else's. He grounds his hope in the study of past accomplishments, but it remains just a hope.
In The Company of Strangers, Seabright has produced one of those books that lie low, speak quietly, but work a change in the reader. The central thesis comes as a surprise (how often can we call the work of an economist celebratory?) and the details challenging. Were we humans a bunch of bloody murderers 100,000 years ago? Yes we were, and a good thing it was, too. "The more murderous the species, the greater the selective benefits of intelligence to individual members." The presence of murderers requires intelligent defence; we are the beneficiaries.
After he spent years with these ideas, Seabright was asked how, if at all, they had changed him. He replied that in his daily life he now complains a little less when a train is late or the bakery runs out of bread. "I have become more conscious of how strange it is that we should ever expect modern society to work at all."
This sense of wonder colours all of his thinking. He begins his book by telling us that "Our everyday life is much stranger than we imagine, and rests on fragile foundations," then leads us toward an understanding of a historic transformation that governs our existence. We can't see it, we hardly know how to appreciate it, we can't really define it; but we live it, every minute.