“The Company of Strangers: A Natural History of Economic Life”

By Margret Laird

Paul Seabright socks his opinion to us at once: “Our everyday life rests on fragile foundations. Our teeming, industrialized, networked existence is not some gradual and inevitable outcome of human development over millions of years. Instead, we owe it to an extraordinary experiment launched a mere ten thousand years ago.” Gripped, then, from the start, the reader learns that one of the great apes, “that shy, murderous ape”, began to settle down to agriculture after the end of the last ice age and that within a few hundred generations had formed social organisations of startling complexity.

Professor of Economics at the University of Toulouse, France, Seabright draws on evolutionary biology, social science, literature, experimental psychology, history, political philosophy and current events to hurtle a torrent of information, arresting ideas and compelling arguments at us to bear out his thesis that modern society is an opportunistic experiment, founded on human psychology that had evolved before we had to deal with strangers in any systematic way. He asks why the experiment has not collapsed. The key is that homo-sapiens sapiens is the only animal that engages in elaborate task-sharing between genetically-unrelated members of the same species.

The book’s strength lies in its clear exposition of four key points: how the unplanned but sophisticated coordination of modern industrialized society is driven by the necessity of dealing with strangers; how institutions make human beings willing to treat strangers as “honorary friends”; how, when humans come together in a mass, the unintended consequences can be impressive or very troubling; and, how our very talents for cooperation and rational
reflection could provide solutions to our most urgent problems but could also be the source of our species’ terrifying capacity for organized violence between groups. Part of the book’s appeal lies in Seabright’s employment of crisp definitions of sociological driving factors, drawn from his own and others’ work (“tunnel vision”, “Pareto-efficiency”, “calculation and reciprocity”, “water as an economic good”) and on his eclectic sources (Locke, Zenephon,
Studs Terkel).

Written by a born teacher, the book is laid out in four sections, with a helpful prologue/epilogue structure. Because the book covers such complex ground, it is not always easy to grasp a point immediately. The sheer verve of the author, his fresh and arresting examples (“This morning I went out and bought a shirt …”), and his passionate desire for the reader to see how easily current social problems could escalate unless the lessons of history are learnt, makes for the sort of exhilarating read that few students or general readers could ever expect.

Stimulating throughout, the book ends with clearsighted comments on trust between nation-states (very perceptive on the United States), and on attitudes to globalization. The author reminds us that the “experiment” of dealing with strangers is still young, still volatile and fragile, and that, therefore, our capacity for abstract symbolic thought is crucial to progress.

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