Paul Seabright on evolution and human cooperation

Paul Seabright author of The Company of Strangers: A Natural History of Economic Life, interviewed at The Browser.

You have turned to evolutionary biology and anthropology to help understand the development of economic institutions and behaviour. Why are they important in helping us get to grips with today’s complex and fast-moving world?

They are important because we are a species like any other and have this wonderful construction, which is the society we’ve built. It’s as wonderful, or more so even, as the extraordinary nests built by ants and termites or the incredible song and other behavioural patterns of birds. I’ve always thought that if we take animals seriously as producing behaviour and not just bodies, then we should do the same for ourselves. We should see our behaviour as coming out of the constraints of our environment and the adaptations that have developed in the history of our species.

It used to be fashionable to think that genes, and indeed the process of natural selection, affected our bodies but not our minds. We’ve come to realise that that’s untrue and that our minds are profoundly shaped by natural selection – even if the environment we now live in is massively different from the one in which most of that evolution took place. So you can learn a lot from the fact that our minds are not just any old general purpose computer. They are actually shaped by evolution, though we have to remember that the circumstances in which we evolved are startlingly different from the circumstances in which we now have to navigate.

The world has got a lot more complex in the last 100 years or so and human minds have to process ever larger amounts of information. Are they evolving fast enough to deal with it?

No, in some ways they aren’t. A very good example is the way in which we process a lot more digital information now than we used to – we read a lot more text. People sometimes say we are completely overwhelmed with incoming information in the modern world, and that’s true. But in a certain sense our hunter-gatherer ancestors were also overwhelmed with incoming information – they would be sitting around their fires with their senses very carefully tuned for predators, for example. They would also take in information about their environment with a tremendously high bandwidth, in terms of how they judged their fellow human beings as being hostile or friendly, reliable or untrustworthy. Natural selection produced a number of mechanisms that helped them deal with that bandwidth. For example, we know we have these abilities to size up people’s faces with extraordinary speed and sophistication – we can tell just from the location of the white of somebody’s eyes who they are looking at, and whether their relationship with people around them is dominant or submissive, aggressive or defensive, competitive or collaborative.

In the modern world we can still do all that sort of thing rather quickly, but a much larger part of the information comes in the form of text, some of which we deal with using a part of the brain called “working memory”, which has a much lower bandwidth. For example, the standard idea is that you can hold about seven to nine items of information in working memory at one time. That’s enough to remember somebody’s telephone number, but if you try to remember somebody’s telephone number and try to do something else that requires textual manipulation at the same time, you are very quickly overwhelmed. That’s a good example of how natural selection shaped the brain for the kind of tasks that we needed to do in the Pleistocene but didn’t – for obvious reasons – foresee the kinds of tasks we would have to do in the 21st century. [Continue reading…]

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