The Man of the Crowd
The Company of Strangers: A Natural History of Economic
Life. Paul Seabright. xii + 304 pp. Princeton University Press,
Humans are economic animals. Although textbooks often deal with a
fictitious Homo economicus guided entirely by rational
self-interest, all of us—even economists—know that
passions, habits and emotions vie with reason in the daily decision
making that keeps up the flow of services and goods. Yet every
generation of economists has come to grips in different ways with
what Adam Smith referred to as our "propensity to truck,
barter, and exchange."
Attempts to integrate economic life into natural history are not
new: Early in the 18th century, Bernard Mandeville published several
editions of his Fable of the Bees, and in 1759, Adam Smith
published his Theory of Moral Sentiments, well before
inquiring into the "Wealth of Nations" in 1776. In the
19th century, both Karl Marx and Herbert Spencer tried to
incorporate natural selection into their doctrines of social
warfare. The transfer of ideas has not been one-sided: Charles
Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace were greatly influenced by Adam
Smith and T. R. Malthus. In the 1960s and 1970s, sociobiologists
such as E. O. Wilson and William D. Hamilton analyzed costs and
benefits of behavioral traits in terms of reproductive success, and
John Maynard Smith hijacked game theory, a tool from mathematical
economy, to investigate the trial and error of mutation and
selection in terms of evolutionarily stable strategies. In return,
Maynard Smith's "game theory without rationality" greatly
boosted experimental economics and in its newest form led to
neuroeconomics, a field in which researchers use functional
magnetic resonance imaging to identify zones in the human brain
specializing in emotional or rational decision making.
Thus microeconomics, which focuses on the activities of individual
people, households or firms, is a branch of psychology, which is a
branch of zoology. But microeconomics is definitely not a branch of
entomology! Social insects run their states along different lines.
One of the major insights of the early sociobiologists was that
Mandeville's Fable of the Bees is utterly misleading. The
division of labor within a beehive or an anthill is based on close
genetic ties: The organisms are a band of brothers (well, mostly
sisters), resembling more a single organism than a city-state. Such
close relatedness is not required for human cooperation within a
firm, a village or a gang.
"Human nature," a dirty word some 50 years ago, has
returned in strength and may be used again in civilized discourse on
sociology and economics. Recently, some of the best books about it
have been written by biologists—for instance, Jared Diamond
(The Third Chimpanzee) and Matt Ridley (The Origins
of Virtue). What makes The Company of Strangers so
remarkable is that this "natural history of economic life"
comes from the other side of the hill: Author Paul Seabright is an economist.
The major problem addressed by all these writers is that the human
species has not changed much during the last thousand generations.
Our "nature," therefore, is that of hunter-gatherers. The
puzzle is this: Why is it that we seem to have no problem adapting
from small-scale societies to mega-cities within the span of one
generation? How do we stand the change?
There are so many aspects to this question that it is hard to know
where to begin. What prepared us for music, for instance, or
mathematics? Why do we enjoy driving a car, or surfing the Internet?
Seabright focuses on one conundrum that is particularly intriguing:
How can we cope with strangers?
Our forebears lived in small groups. Only rarely would they have met
a stranger. From what little we know of hunter-gatherers, such
meetings were no occasion to rejoice, but rather were very tense
moments likely to erupt in violence. There seems to be no evidence
that the third chimpanzee was anything but a shy, murderous ape.
Even when, some 10,000 years ago, humans began to live in
settlements, the situation did not change appreciably. In a village,
the people all know one another.
But in a city, everyone is surrounded by strangers. Nothing in our
past prepared us for this condition. Why don't we get the screaming
fits? How do we manage to keep cool when surrounded by thousands or
millions of strangers? In fact, it is the opposite situation that
seems more threatening. To be alone in a forest is likely to cause
some apprehension, especially when the dark settles in. Yet this
experience must have been quite common in our evolutionary past.
Is that the explanation? If humans have developed instinctive fears
of snakes or spiders, it is because these were common threats. Being
lost, cut off from the group, must also have been a frequent danger,
and this is why stories of castaways are so thrilling. Maybe we do
not abhor cities because they never posed a hazard to our forebears.
Far from feeling apprehensive, most of us enjoy big towns. The lure
of the city is captured well in a tale by Edgar Allan Poe, "The
Man of the Crowd," whose frenzied hero seems driven across town
relentlessly, by an inexplicable passion. In the end, we understand
that he is desperately hunting for the rush and bustle of anonymous
throngs. The man described by Poe is plainly sick—yet we all
share some of his addiction for "the tumultuous sea of human
heads." A well-filled theater, a crowded stadium, a buzzing
coffeehouse increase our well-being. Even social outcasts seem to
feel most at ease within the milling thoroughfare of a large train
station. Cities are sexy. Nubile young villagers swarm to them like
courting birds to a huge lek. Within a short time their urban
foothold takes precedence over their rustic roots.
The human readiness for instant bonding is an evolutionary riddle. A
few strangers in a boat, a soccer team or an infantry platoon will
quickly develop an in-group feeling, and often a ferocious
solidarity directed against outsiders. Change the team, and the
loyalties will shift within weeks.
A few repeated contacts in a soup kitchen, a marketplace or a
hospital ward can suffice to create a sense of familiarity.
Familiarity—the term is telling.
Seabright quite rightly sees in our talent for trusting
strangers—for treating them, in his happy phrase, as
"honorary relatives"—the glue behind the social
institutions that took us from the first enclosed settlements to the
global market and from the defense of herds or grain stores to the
clash of civilizations—while evolution barely blinked.
As any horse-cab driver in downtown Cairo knows, a horse must be
blinkered to navigate the streets, or else the traffic will cause it
to shy. We humans seem able to put on our blinkers ourselves, to
forget the alien commotion and concentrate on the business at hand.
Seabright calls this our tunnel vision, and defines it as
the capacity to play one's part in the great enterprise without
knowing or necessarily caring very much about the overall outcome.
It is an essential requisite for the division of labor, which works
mostly without a master plan, and for the blind—or better,
blinkered—trust needed for social life among strangers.
The Company of Strangers can be summed up as offering a
panoramic view of tunnel vision and its effect on all aspects of
human life. 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. He has
chapters on the murderousness of apes and on the information behind
market prices, on faking laughter and ruling empires, on gifts and
auctions (from slave markets to eBay), on property rights, on water
management, on the search for knowledge as division of labor across generations.
The style is impressionistic, covering a huge canvas with a light
brush. The chapter on cities, for instance, describes deftly the
flair, and the stink, of great cities but relegates their social
history to endnotes and references. If the book has a weak point, it
is the exceptional facility of Seabright's writing—sometimes
his verve threatens to carry him away. But then, this may well be
intentional: The 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.