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An Interview with Paul Seabright

An Interview with Paul Seabright

by Paul Seabright

Professor of Economics

Jun 11, 2024


Q: Published 20 years ago this year, The Company of Strangers chronicles the evolution of a uniquely human ability to trust in and collaborate with strangers. “Nowhere else in nature do unrelated members of the same species — genetic rivals incited by instinct and history to fight one another —cooperate on projects of such complexity and requiring such a high degree of mutual trust as human beings do,” you wrote back then. This is territory where one typically finds evolutionary anthropologists at work, yet you’re an economist. What triggered this line of inquiry for you?

A: A fortuitous meeting of two ideas, really. First, I was struck by how often I would talk to economists and sociologists and political scientists and realize each of them had a theory about the fundamental nature of human beings without ever having asked whether the empirical evidence backed them up. Economists would say, “I know people don’t care only about material benefits but it’s a good working hypothesis to start with…” Political scientists would say, “I know people don’t care only about power but…” Sociologists would say, “I know people don’t care only about social norms, but…” And so on. But there’s now a mass of empirical evidence about this — we don’t have to stay stuck in armchair philosophizing!

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