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The Company of Strangers: A Natural History of Economic Life (Revised Edition) [Kindle Edition]

Paul Seabright
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (16 customer reviews)

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Book Description

The Company of Strangers shows us the remarkable strangeness, and fragility, of our everyday lives. This completely revised and updated edition includes a new chapter analyzing how the rise and fall of social trust explain the unsustainable boom in the global economy over the past decade and the financial crisis that succeeded it.

Drawing on insights from biology, anthropology, history, psychology, and literature, Paul Seabright explores how our evolved ability of abstract reasoning has allowed institutions like money, markets, cities, and the banking system to provide the foundations of social trust that we need in our everyday lives. Even the simple acts of buying food and clothing depend on an astonishing web of interaction that spans the globe. How did humans develop the ability to trust total strangers with providing our most basic needs?



Editorial Reviews

Review

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.
(bert 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 institutionsS. 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)

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)

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)

Review

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)

Product Details

  • File Size: 1093 KB
  • Print Length: 397 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 0691146462
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press; Revised Edition edition (May 2, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B003TXTC6I
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #571,713 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
47 of 50 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Great Experiment -- Trade and Trust June 1, 2004
Format:Hardcover
The Company of Strangers starts with the purchase of a shirt. How is it that exactly the item we want is available in our local store, when we didn't know the farmer who grew the cotton, the dyer who dyed the thread, the tailor who sewed the pieces, nor the shipper who shipped the shirt? Nor did most of these people know each other. Of all the things that might puzzle a Neanderthal who wandered into our time zone, this would be one of the strangest.
In this wonderfully readable book, subtitled "A Natural History of Economic Life", Paul Seabright follows the story of what he calls the "shy, murderous ape" from lonely hunter to homo economicus, confidently mingling with crowds of strangers and daily dependant on numerous people whom he has never met. Amazingly, to our Neanderthal, we have learned to trust strangers.

The question asked in the second half of the book is how far we should rely on such leaderless chains. Some items, such as airline travel and hospital care, don't lend themselves to blind trust. And who is to stop the cotton farmer from polluting the river that the dyer downstream drinks from, or the dyer from polluting the air that the tailor breathes? At what point do the connections between countries or companies become impossibly fragile?
Finally Professor Seabright dismisses recent talk about globalization as "excitable" and dismisses it as a mere continuation of a trend of "at least the last ten thousand years." That does imply that, as far as economics is concerned, camels and the Silk Road are no different from container ships and the internet highway. This is one of several topics in the final chapters of the book which are only touched upon and which would repay our closer attention.
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22 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful stuff June 13, 2004
Format:Hardcover
Academic press books rarely get the attention they deserve, so I hope this book does not get lost in the mix. Paul Seabright is a terrific writer, and his account in this book of the origins of cooperation is lucid and exciting. Seabright makes the important point that successful economies and societies depend on cooperation, and that even though self-interest would seem to lead us to reject that, time and again we manage to work together. This cooperation with strangers is, though, a fragile thing, and Seabright's conclusion raises the specter that in the future we may need to work a lot harder to remain in the company of strangers. I'm not fully convinced by the book's end, but the argument is worth thinking about. Also see Robert Wright's "Nonzero," Howard Rheingold's "Smart Mobs," and James Surowiecki's "The Wisdom of Crowds" for variations on this argument.
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31 of 33 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Bioeconomic Masterpiece July 10, 2005
Format:Hardcover
Despite the rough treatment handed to Edward O. Wilson's call for a unification of biology and the social sciences some three decades ago, and despite the hostility still aroused by the notion of "sociobiology" by some traditionalists, the process of integrating social science into natural science appears to be in full swing. Paul Seabright's new book is a welcome and important contribution to this process.

The idea behind sociobiology is that there are many social species, and our understanding of ourselves will be enhanced by analyzing the similarities and differences between human and non-human social systems. The main title of Seabright's book, "In the Company of Strangers" isolates a unique characteristic of human sociality: while several species evolved a highly complex and decentralized division of labor, humans are the only species with extensive cooperation among unrelated individuals.

The maturation of sociobiology since E. O. Wilson's call to arms has included several key strands of research. One is a broadened concept of sociality, in which it is recognized that from the emergence of multi-cellular organisms to the rise of Homo sapiens, major evolutionary transitions have required novel mechanisms facilitating the cooperation among the complex parts of biological wholes. It is now routine, for instance, to note that the disciplining of an aberrant cell in an organism, an ovipositing worker in a bee hive, and a shirking worker in a business enterprise are modeled in a similar manner. A second contribution is gene-culture coevolutionary theory, important because human sociality has been far more cultural than that of any other species.
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17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Incoherent but fascinating May 25, 2005
Format:Hardcover
Both a disappointment and a pleasant surprise. I was expecting a rich and cohesive economic treatment of the role strangers play in each others lives. While that was the theme of the book, it did not hold it very well. The good news is that there are redeeming features of this book, and I would recommend it.

The thesis of the book is that the role that strangers play in our lives is immense and surprising. This is an interesting idea, and the author goes through several examples illustrating what he means in the first couple chapters. He then spends several chapters talking about various economic institutions and wraps up with the potential danger of nations and the dark side of this dependence on strangers. The problem is that as the author goes further into the book, he wanders further and further away from his main point. At the end, he is completely isolated from it, and cannot tie things together in the last few pages to justify his departures.

But the discussions that take him off of the path are illuminating and fascinating. His discussions of negotiation, money, water, and western liberalism are page-turners, and would be great essays.

In the end, given the subject matter, the book was way too long, as many in this genre are. The extra material is interesting in its own right, but is frustrating in the context of the book.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Evolutionary Psychology Meets Economics
Seabright brings our understanding of economics to a deeper level by rooting it not just in a natural desire to trade but in the ability - developed over the last ten thousand... Read more
Published 10 months ago by Stuart R. Lynn
4.0 out of 5 stars Great introduction and a nice read..
A great introduction to the history of economic life as well as a reference to numerous phenomena that play a vital role yet remain unnoticed in our everyday life. Read more
Published 14 months ago by Konstantinos Nakos
5.0 out of 5 stars wow, what a book!
I'm an economist who researchers, thinks about, and writes about these issues all the time. It has been a long time since I was so impressed with an author's creativity. Read more
Published 19 months ago by F. Bailey Norwood
5.0 out of 5 stars A Life Among Strangers: A 10,000 Year Experiment in Trust
The progress of humans over the past ten thousand years and, in particular, over the past two hundred years has been both remarkable and entirely unforeseen. Read more
Published on October 26, 2010 by Jean Parmesan
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting
Interesting book which is similar to Matt Ridley's the rational optimist. The underlying theme is great for non economist, how do we prosper through cooperation.
Published on October 14, 2010 by PKHonduras
5.0 out of 5 stars Cooperation with no one in charge
A fascinating look at "the grand experiment"; why is it that human beings are the only species where genetically dissimilar individuals rely upon each other for task sharing and... Read more
Published on June 12, 2007 by Ron Hekier
3.0 out of 5 stars Great subject, decent book
This book addresses the question how trust between strangers is possible to the extent that we have build a whole social and economic system on it. Read more
Published on June 7, 2007 by JJ vd Weele
3.0 out of 5 stars Political Biases?
"The Company of Strangers" is heavily dependent upon author Seabright's interpretation of human evolutionary history and sociology and hence the material is sensitive to his... Read more
Published on October 29, 2005 by Robert K. Adair
3.0 out of 5 stars Opens a great question, never quite closes it
This book is organized around a fantastically interesting question. How did human groups develop the social capacity for exchange? Read more
Published on July 29, 2005 by Slacker79
2.0 out of 5 stars Ignores recent discoveries in primatology
Bishop Usher is famous for defending a Biblical history of man, starting 6000 years ago. This is the 'short history of man' theory. Read more
Published on May 16, 2005 by Mark Mills
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