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The Company of Strangers: A Natural History of Economic Life Paperback – May 2, 2010

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Editorial Reviews


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

Shortlisted for the 2005 British Academy Book Prize

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

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

"Why is everyday life so strange? Because, explains Mr. Seabright, it is so much at odds with what would have seemed, as recently as 10,000 years ago, our evolutionary destiny."--Economist

"An important and timely book. . . . It starts in the mists of prehistory but ends emphatically in the here and now."--Giles Whittell, Times (London)

"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

"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

"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 institutions. 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

"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

"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

"Human civilisation is the result of a magnificent collaborative effort, the unwitting by-product of countless individuals working together. . . . Drawing on history, biology, literature, anthropology and economics, his argument is subtle and compelling."--Guardian

"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 Publisher

Short listed, 2005 British Academy Book Prize, The British Academy One of Strategy & Business's Best Business Books for 2004 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press; Revised edition with a New foreword by Daniel C. Dennett edition (May 2, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691146462
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691146461
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 0.9 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #733,371 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

47 of 50 people found the following review helpful By Celia Redmore on 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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33 of 35 people found the following review helpful By Herbert Gintis on 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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22 of 22 people found the following review helpful By Steven Kurson on 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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18 of 20 people found the following review helpful By Karl M. Whealton on 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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