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?
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.