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An interview with Paul Seabright

Greg Ross

Economist Paul Seabright is fascinated by human cooperation. Mistrust and violence are in our genes, he says, but abstract, symbolic thought permits us to accept one another as "honorary relatives"—a remarkable arrangement that ultimately underlies every aspect of modern civilization.

In developing these ideas for his latest book—The Company of Strangers: A Natural History of Economic Life—Seabright traveled widely, especially in Eastern Europe and Asia. He currently lives in southwest France, where he teaches economics at the University of Toulouse.

American Scientist Online managing editor Greg Ross interviewed Seabright by e-mail in March 2005.

You point out that human society has led us to interact as strangers only in the last 10,000 years, while we still carry deeper instincts toward violence and suspicion of outsiders. How fragile is the social contract? Paul SeabrightClick to Enlarge Image

How full is the glass? It can seem extraordinary that the vast complexity of human cooperation—from road traffic patterns to markets, the Internet and the systems that keep our houses and cities safe—should rest on nothing more solid than social convention, as though civilization were founded purely on table manners. I may think my property is secure and my life reasonably protected, but that is only because the rest of the world has agreed, for the time being, to let them be so. And what people have agreed to respect today they can agree to violate tomorrow. Yet it is just as remarkable how robust many of our conventions turn out to be in practice. Partly this is because conventions govern our reactions to people as roles and not just as individuals—an assassinated president can be replaced by a vice president, and the system as a whole can go on functioning, with people listening to the new president much as they would have listened to the old. Partly it is because the hydra of social life has too many heads to be easily incapacitated: The conventions that sustain our physical security are not coordinated in one place, such as the U.N. or the Pentagon, but are the result of billions of individual decisions concerning how we react to neighbours, friends and colleagues. Some circumstances—the genocide in Rwanda, for instance—upset those conventions radically, so that neighbours, friends and colleagues become each others' greatest threat. But those circumstances are—fortunately—rare, and the capacity of societies to recover from them has historically proved remarkable.

It seems a huge gamble for our early ancestors to risk trusting each other. Even if they could calculate the potential benefits of cooperation, the outcome was uncertain and our nature is quite violent. How do you think that first experiment took place?

It doubtless took place many millions of times, and led to millions of unrecorded tragedies. The first itinerant traders of prehistory may have lacked the panache of great warriors, but they are among the true heroes of our civilization. Two things must have tipped the balance: need and familiarity. Need because many isolated hunter-gatherer groups lived a very precarious existence, with starvation perpetually threatening, along with other costs of isolation, such as inbreeding. Of those that took the risk of reaching out towards strangers, many must have regretted their temerity. But those that succeeded—perhaps only a few of those that tried—thrived and spread, and became the ancestors of everyone alive today. What helped them to win the trust of strangers would have been to play upon familiarity—behaving in ways that are like the ways we behave towards our family and friends. That's why we smile at strangers, just as babies smile at their mothers. That's why we invite strangers to eat with us, because the common table is the centre of family existence. Mastering the mimicry of family interaction must have helped enormously to interact safely with unfamiliar people.

No one directed the evolution of society; the institutions we have are simply the ones that were tried and proved viable. Are there other theoretical paths we could have chosen?

Some turning points in our social evolution seem luckier than others. Agriculture was independently adopted at least seven times in different parts of the world, suggesting that prior conditions made it highly likely, if not inevitable. And agriculture, by making us sedentary, made it more or less inevitable that we would evolve some kinds of institution to mediate our dealings with strangers. It also allowed for the increases in population that enabled us to colonise a wide variety of habitats and thereby become less dependent on the vicissitudes of nature in the woodland savanna where we first evolved. On the other hand, the mutations that made modern Homo sapiens so very different from our hominid ancestors and cousins seem very contingent indeed. And there were probably many periods when the human population was so low that our survival owed a great deal to sheer luck (after all, several other promising hominid species did not survive). So, yes, we might never have become an agricultural, social species, though perhaps only if we never had the genetic mutations that gave rise to modern Homo sapiens. And once we did, it was probably inevitable that we would have hierarchy, warfare, slavery, markets and religion (and perhaps also, sooner or later, take-out pizza and Sex and the City). But these might have taken very different forms than they did—just as they have taken widely different forms throughout history.

It seems we've gone beyond trust and into mutual reliance. Today many people would starve without trade.

Certainly they would—but that doesn't mean they are necessarily more exposed to risk than they would be without trade. Historically, trade has been a great way of spreading risk, since it makes any one community less vulnerable to geographically concentrated disasters. Most self-sufficient communities in history have had much higher mortality rates from disease and starvation than we do from all causes combined. Many countries that have espoused strategies of self-sufficiency have had cause to regret it—because, for instance, the absence of export goods makes them unable to import supplies when their own harvests fail.

There are externalities—pollution, or the poor management of shared resources like water. But we devise rules to address even these. This seems so abstract as to be almost altruistic—some people "vote green" even though they have no immediate personal stake in the issue.

Our rules for addressing externalities are of mixed effectiveness—some work well, but others amount to little more than pious injunctions that make us feel guilty without effectively coordinating our behaviour. One great advantage of price measures (such as charging for water) is that they give us a personal stake in conservation: We use water only if the benefits are really more important to us than the "opportunity cost" (the next most important thing we could do with it). They thereby also economize on our altruism, allowing us to focus our civic-mindedness on other areas where pricing measures are not feasible or don't work well.

Terrorism directly challenges the trust between strangers. You point out that most modern societies would survive the assassination of a leader or the destruction of a symbolic target. But terrorists also sow fear and mistrust among a general population. How serious is this threat?

Terrorists are not average or typical people, but in modern society we depend upon so many others that we have to worry not just about their reliability "on average"; the whole chain of our dependencies can be threatened by just one weak link. So, yes, terrorists benefit from a multiplier effect: A single act of violence can frighten millions or billions of us. On the other hand, terrorists are skilful symbolic manipulators, often making us afraid in ways that bear little relation to objective risks. In today's world you are 20 times as likely to die from a stranger's infectious disease as from a violent act. The guy in the subway clutching a holdall and muttering imprecations may do you much less harm than the placid-looking businessmen who, unknown to both you and him, has just contracted avian flu. This doesn't take away from the seriousness of terrorism, but it underlines how keeping it in check requires initiatives in the realm of ideas and not just of surveillance and repression. We can never eliminate entirely the threat of violence on our streets, but wise political leadership can do a lot to make sure the threat does not paralyze us.

As a species, we're prone to arms races—when one group promotes its security, other groups feel less secure. Can we overcome the modern mistrust among ideologies? What outcome do you see?

One of the difficulties of ideological competition is that many ideologies blur the extent to which we have common material interests that transcend group membership, by holding out the promise of a victory over rivals, whether phrased in terms of class struggle or jihad or the Second Coming. That may be why we evolved to be susceptible to ideologies—by making us less willing to compromise, ideologies make us fight harder to hold on to what we have. In the zero-sum competition that must have characterized many hunter-gather encounters in resource-scarce habitats, that may have been very adaptive—fanatical fighters were probably more useful to the tribe than negotiators (let alone reflective philosopher types) and were probably more successful in impressing females as a result. But today, when global interdependence means that almost none of our encounters with rival groups have this zero-sum character, we need to find ways to overcome our fatal emotional weakness for narratives that entice us with the prospect of eliminating our rivals entirely. That means finding a more explicitly businesslike way of speaking about ideological competition—what does the Islamic world need from the West, for instance, and can we find ways to make that possible, compatibly with what we need from the Islamic world? Can we do deals? The language of deals doesn't have much panache or passion, and that is precisely why we need it.

Have these ideas affected your own daily life?  When you watch the news today, do you see it differently?

Watching the news can sometimes make the veneer of civilized behaviour displayed by politicians seem very thin indeed. The biggest impact has come from my sense that the capacity for violence is quite close to the surface in most of us, especially in men. When I read about soldiers who commit atrocities in wartime, for instance, I wonder how likely I would have been to act differently.  The fragility of our defenses against our violent nature makes it all the more important, obviously, to strengthen those defenses we have (including through social condemnation of violence). But we should not be naively surprised at the consequences when we place young men in situations from which most of the social defenses against violence and aggression have been removed.

In terms of a more humdrum influence on my daily life, I complain a little less than I used to when a train is late or the bakery runs out of bread, as I have become more conscious of how strange it is that we should ever expect modern society to work at all.

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