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The Company of Strangers: A Natural History of Economic Life [Hardcover]

Paul Seabright
4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)

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Book Description

11 April 2004

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.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press; 1st edition (11 April 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691118213
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691118215
  • Product Dimensions: 23.9 x 15.7 x 2.5 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,035,851 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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Shortlisted for the 2005 British Academy Book Prize, The British Academy

One of Strategy & Business's Best Business Books for 2004

"The Company of Strangers is a model of how different disciplines can enrich each other to explain human progress."--George Peden, Times Literary Supplement

"A welcome and important contribution. . . . The Company of Strangers exemplifies a new breed of economic analysis, seeking answers to fundamental questions wherever they are found and ignoring disciplinary boundaries. . . . [It] is highly readable and will be accessible to a wide audience."--Herbert Gintis, Nature

"A very unusual new book about economics, and much else besides. . . . Elaborate co-operation outside the family, but within the same species, is confined to humans. The requirements for such co-operation, and hence for modern economic life, which is founded on specialization and an infinitely elaborated division of labor, are more demanding than you might suppose. . . . The fact that things could have turned out so differently makes the modern global economy, with all its awesome productivity, seem even more miraculous."--The Economist

"A clear, thought-provoking and elegant book."--Howard Davies, Times Higher Education Supplement

"An important and timely book."--Giles Whittell, The Times (London)

"An entertaining, wide-ranging account about how the economy evolved in a way that allowed strangers, even potentially hostile strangers, to cooperate and even collaborate within market-based institutionsŠ. Seabright tells the story of how human beings, despite their genetic predisposition toward violent and even murderous behavior, have managed to produce a complex civilization through market-based institutions."--Choice

"We now depend on the efforts of many strangers for our lives. In these days of terror and conflict, Seabright's stunning exploration of this human social experiment is timely. . . . This is a book every concerned citizen should read, along with anybody in business who ever has to tangle with government regulations or the law, and who wants to understand why those relationships are so complex."--Diane Coyle, Strategy and Business

"A brilliant book."--Martin Wolf, Financial Times

"In his absorbing book, Seabright . . . marvels at how easily 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.' It's not often that an economist provides nuggets for cocktail party conversation."--Peter Young, Bloomberg News

"Few economists are so sweeping in their ideas as Seabright, and few so anxious to make us look freshly at the world. . . . In The Company of Strangers, Seabright has produced one of those books that lie low, speak quietly, but work a change on the reader."--Robert Fulford, National Post

"There seems to be no place where Seabright is a stranger. He obviously feels as much at home among classical economists as among evolutionary biologists, quotes modern literature and ancient history with equal aplomb, jumps from experimental psychology to political philosophy and draws liberally on his personal memories of places from Ukraine to India. . . . [His] book is obviously not meant as an exercise in planned economy, but as an excursion, without blinkers and without apprehension, through a tumultuous crowd of ideas."--Karl Sigmund, American Scientist

"Paul Seabright contends that the Neolithic revolution, which saw the beginning of farming, changed not only the environment but also human nature. Settling down to tend fields promoted societies based on trust. Today, he says, all our economic institutions rely on trust. . . . [I]t is a provocative read."--Maggie McDonald, New Scientist

"So what does it take to become truly global? In a nutshell, it means learning how to live in The Company of Strangers. In [this] illuminating book . . . Paul Seabright, himself an economist, brings together insights from history, biology and sociology to explain the concept of modern civilization."--Korea Herald

From the Inside Flap

"No one, economist or civilian, could turn the pages of this book without spotting, time and again, some unexpected and arresting idea that really wants to be thought about. Paul Seabright takes the evolutionary point of view seriously and asks how human institutions make social life possible at all, especially when the many people on whom we depend for our subsistence are strangers. From biology to banking, it is a lively landscape."--Robert M. Solow, Institute Professor Emeritus, Department of Economics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Nobel Laureate in Economic Sciences

"For too long, economists have been talking only to each other. Paul Seabright's achievement is to locate economics firmly in the mainstream of modern intellectual life, and to do so with style and verve."--John Kay, author of The Truth about Markets, columnist for the Financial Times

"The Company of Strangers is a gem--an undiluted delight to read. It addresses some of the most central problems of social science with compelling arguments, lightly worn rigor and erudition, and utterly jargon-free language. Seabright has an amazing eye for the telling detail, whether drawn from fiction, biology, social science or current news. I can think of no better introduction to the problem of social order-how is it possible?"--Jon Elster, Robert K. Merton Professor of Social Science, Columbia University, author of Alchemies of the Mind and Ulysses and the Sirens

"The division of labor among strangers is humankind's most momentous invention, on which all modern society depends. Yet since Adam Smith pointed this out in 1776, the question of how such relations between strangers are possible has continued to puzzle us. Now Paul Seabright deepens, adjusts, and extends the idea in the light of what we now know from psychology, genetics, and economics about human motives. Drawing on an extraordinary breadth of study, he explains how, unique among species, we found ourselves with a nature that equipped us to build this division of labor and so come to treat strangers as honorary friends."--Matt Ridley, author of Nature Via Nurture and The Origins of Virtue

"Fascinating. If you really want to understand who we are today, and how we make a living, read The Company of Strangers to learn how, some 200, 500, even 140,000 years ago, we grew and evolved--in rather amazing ways."--Shlomo Maital, author of Executive Economics: Ten Essential Tools for Managers

"This is a wonderful book, very well written and accessible to a wide audience."--Diane Coyle, author of Paradoxes of Prosperity and Sex and Drugs and Economics

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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Packed with Knowledge! 30 Mar 2005
By Rolf Dobelli TOP 500 REVIEWER
Credit author Paul Seabright's achievement on several scores. First, he is an economist who thinks outside the supply-and-demand box, and whose thoughts actually are comprehensible to the average reader. Second, his ideas are original, blending evolution, economics and sociology. In his view, the daily trusting interaction of complete strangers is a marvel that is unprecedented in the animal kingdom. Moreover, this high degree of non-familial social cooperation has only arisen in the past 10,000 years or so, despite the six to seven-million-year existence of 'Homo sapiens'. Although the average businessperson probably has no direct application for Seabright's book, it's interesting, worthwhile reading anyway. In a world where the need for global cooperation is greater, and its existence more fragile, we recommend this book for its unique, valuable perspective.
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17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Future of Reciprocity 26 May 2004
Very briefly, the book is extremely illuminating on the strangeness of economic communities, on what in our nature makes these possible, and therefore very suggestive on the implications for future communities and future roots of conflict. It is also very well written and purposely avoids economic jargon - a light touch on a deep subject.
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17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Is everything for sale? 28 Jun 2004
This book ranges from the role of delegated decision-making to the auction of dancing girls at Sotheby's. In between it explains how we can exist in a world full of strangers without being mugged, robbed and cheated every time we enter into a transaction.
Economic theory can be dry and the examples used be economists often leave the rest of us cold, but Paul Seabright brings to life some of the arid territory of abstract reasoning and shows that once it is well watered with insight from other disciplines, it can be a fascinating area of study. The writing is lively and well sprinkled with vivid examples that make you grin, rather than grimace.
But this is more than just a treatise - the final section of the book shows how fragile this 'great experiment' could be. Seabright deals with the threats to our life among strangers in a way that could almost make you begin to appreciate the way your credit card company chases you for a payment every month!
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15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
By A Customer
It's a scary world out there, but Professor Seabright helps explain why we're prepared to put our trust in people to whom we're not related. Starting with the example of the (unplanned) global cooperation needed just to enable Paul to buy a new shirt, he takes the reader on an ambitious tour of the economic evolution of human nature.
Previous Seabright publications have included macroeconomic monographs on Eastern Europe. Though still not an easy read, this will appeal to the intelligent general reader looking for a new perspective on world affairs.
And what links this to Iron Maiden, the heavy-metal rock group? From 1972 to 1976, Paul Seabright was at the same school (and in the same house) as Bruce Dickinson, who would go on to become lead singer of that group. It is a strange world, and one wonders how much trust there would now be between the two.
My belief is that this could be one of the most important books published this year. It would also make a great documentary TV series, if the BBC were prepared to make another epic in the mould of 'The Ascent of Man'.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars How to trust strangers 22 Jun 2014
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Professor Seabright's great work, first published in 2004, is beginning to show its age. Ten years is an age in evolutionary biology and the "update" doesn't update much.

Nevertheless this is a fascinating, if not particularly original, account of how human beings overcame the big problem: when you're not actually related to the person you're dealing with, how can you do the deal? Humans are by far the most violent creatures to their own species that have ever roamed the earth, so it's a puzzle how we learnt to cooperate.

The author is by training an economist, and though he sportingly spares us the differential equations (and any real maths at all) he can't quite get rid of the jargon. This makes for an occasionally difficult read, though at significant points he supplies an English translation. The book is longer than it might be, and based on the usual format of lecture notes: tell them what you're going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you've told them.

The central dilemma, trust, seems to me somewhat easier to solve, given recent research advances, than Seabright makes out. Scarcity is the basis of economics, but saving a surplus for a rainy day is impossible in hunter-gatherer society. Imagine two hunters. One is pretty useless, the other highly skilled. But even the good hunter has an off day and the bad hunter gets lucky. The bad hunter offers to share his kill (which will go off anyway) with the good hunter, thus creating an implied debt. The parent cares for the child, the child will return the favour (at least until the invention of pension schemes). This system of obligation over time is a foundation of trade that is pretty easy to conceptualise. Likewise the first barter. (Probably not barter, also framed by time.
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