Trade Made Us Human

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Just friends

The journal Science is publishing a fascinating new study (subscription required) in its March 11 edition in which researchers suggest that the conventional anthropological explanation for the development of humanity's unique penchant for cooperation may be wrong. First, what's so unique about humans? As the researchers note: 

Evolutionary behavioral scientists have attempted to understand how cooperative temperament might spread in small-scale human societies and how it might account for "prosocial" and "other-regarding" behaviors (9), exceptional social cognition and shared intentionality (10), orientation toward teaching and learning (11), a taste for equitable distribution (12), and a widespread willingness to punish norm violators, even when not directly affected by the noncooperative behavior (13). These traits appear to be derived in Homo because they are rare or absent in other apes (14).

Earlier anthropologists and evolutionary psychologists have argued humanity's robust prosociality evolved because "being nice made evolutionary sense when we lived in small bands surrounded by relatives, because helping them helped our genes survive." This is known as the inclusive fitness hypothesis. As the new study observes: 

Traditionally, anthropologists have suggested that hunter-gatherer co-residence is almost entirely based on kinship…and if foraging bands are mainly collections of close kin, inclusive fitness gains might be the primary motivator of ancestral human cooperation. 

However, it turns out that contemporary hunter-gatherer bands are not chiefly composed of close kin. The researchers analyzed data on band composition for 32 hunter-gatherer societies. They found

… bands are mainly composed of individuals either distantly related by kinship and/or marriage or unrelated altogether. In our sample of 32 societies, primary kin generally make up less than 10% of a residential band.

If this finding holds for our Stone Age ancestors, the development human cooperation among strangers must have another basis than inclusive fitness based on kinship. The researchers go on to suggest … 

…we cannot necessarily assume that cognitive features such as inequality aversion and enhanced prosocial emotions evolved in ancestral environments composed mainly of close kin. Given the constant flow of individuals between groups, genetic group selection at the level of the band also seems improbable. Instead, cultural group selection (27) may lead to the spread of cooperative institutions within ethnic groups, which might then create a context favoring the genetic evolution of prosocial cognitive mech- anisms through individual-level selection.

Second, mathematical models suggest that large interaction networks may be required for culture to accumulate (21, 23). In small populations, cultural innovations can be lost because of infrequent interaction between potential models and imitators and/or stochastic events that eliminate models with particular cultural knowledge. For example, one of the authors (K.R.H.) observed that the Northern Ache, isolated from their ancestral core territory in the 19th century, were unable to make fire by the time they were contacted in the 1970s. However, older informants stated that their parents and grandparents had told them that their ancestors could make fire, and had partially described to them the technique, even though none had ever observed it directly. In contrast, the Southern Ache groups did maintain fire-making knowledge until their first contact in the late 20th century. Likewise, Tasmanians failed to maintain previously known methods for fishing when their island was cut off from mainland Australia in the early Holocene (23), and fishing technology in Polynesia shows reduced complexity on islands with smaller populations (28). In contrast, Wiessner [(29) and references therein] conducted studies on style and social information in material culture among Kalahari Bushman bands from four language families connected by intermarriage, exchange partnerships, and visiting. She found that tapered bone points were rapidly replaced everywhere by iron tips when fence wire became available in the 20th century, and that new point styles emerged and became relatively homogeneous within language groups over a period of 40 years.

When people reside together, they have frequent opportunities to observe innovations, evaluate their success, and imitate traits judged most successful or most common. Our analyses suggest that the increased network size that follows a unique shift in ancestral human residential struc- ture may have led to greater exposure to novel ideas worth copying, and may explain why hu- mans, but not other animals, evolved costly social learning mechanisms (such as high-fidelity over-imitation or conformity-biased transmission) that may have resulted in cumulative cultural evolu-tion (21). This unique expansion of network size in our hominin ancestors can be detected archaeologically by the emergence of long-distance flows of tools and raw materials that appear at least as early as the middle Pleistocene (30).

To summarize: trade and the division of labor are hallmarks of human cooperation. These findings bolster the arguments made in my friend Matt Ridley's superb new book, The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves. Ridley argues that groups that took advantage of the division of labor and traded peaceably with strangers outcompeted less cooperative groups. And more cooperation leads to more invention and more prosperity over time. 

NEXT: The Extreme Bill in Wisconsin That Would Put the State's Public Sector Collective Bargaining Rules Roughly In Line With Half the Other States

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  1. Without the ability for humanity to improve itself through innovation, without the freedom necessary to conceive, fund, and implement our ideas, we would be no different from our ancient ancestors, subject to the whims of natural selection.

    1. That would make Al Gore and the greens happy.

  2. That’s a lie! We first had government and THEN we became human! Tony told me so, and he wouldn’t be bullshitting me, would he???

    Would he?

    1. Did he also tell you he’d respect you in the morning?

      1. Re: Lithping,

        Did he also tell you he’d respect you in the morning?

        I don’t answer loaded questions.

        Next question?

  3. Ridley argues that groups that took advantage of the division of labor and traded peaceably with strangers outcompeted less cooperative groups. And more cooperation leads to more invention and more prosperity over time.

    Statist fucks would construe “cooperation” as “giving away free stuff,” and not trade, which sounds so icky.

    1. Remember kids, there’s no “I” in herd.

      1. Re: Obama’s Favorite Grandson,

        Remember kids, there’s no “I” in herd.

        There’s no brain in ‘herd’, either.

        1. Please don’t change my moniker, even if you don’t realize I’m agreeing with you. Thanks.

          1. I AM agreeing with you. Sheesh! It’s just difficult to write a moniker that has a &, a #, a 0, a 3, a 9, a semicolon and an “s” together with the rest.

            1. I apologize for choosing one with an apostrophe, which (I read somewhere in a comment long ago and forgot when I did it) causes H&R’s system to insert the & and all the rest.

              Oma’s Favorite Grandson

  4. In small populations, cultural innovations can be lost because of infrequent interaction between potential models and imitators and/or stochastic events that eliminate models with particular cultural knowledge

    More humans = more resourcefulness

    Who would have guessed?

    Though, in retrospect I suppose it should be obvious in the fact that societies with no people are generally dirt poor.

    1. The first step in setting up the Reason offices for an anti-terrorism raid.

      1. Quick! Get someone from Sinn Fein to post to cover us!

        1. Go raibh maith agat

  5. I’m pretty sure THIS made us human. Top Bloomberg article yesterday.

    1. MP: That too.

    1. No – thank you for just being you!

  6. That’s right, without trade, why work? Why go to college? Why do anything at all?

    I don’t even volunteer, there ain’t no way you’re gonna get me to work for free. Habitat for Humanity didn’t build me a home, why the hell should I help them get some folks homes? Let them rent, let them buy a trailer, I’m a great believer in the law of unintended consequences and working for free has lots of unintended consequences.

    Scholarships for White Students – Racist or Fair?
    http://libertarians4freedom.bl…..hy-is.html

    1. Please, stop calling yourself a libertarian. Even a hint of your name being related to us brings vomit to my mouth.

  7. Yet we still instinctively distrust trade. Among our group it is fine. Our friends, neighbors, kinsmen. But with other groups it is still viewed suspiciously. So is trade that leads to a percieved imbalance of benefit.

    We still have not evolved past the tribal stage.

    1. What do you mean “we,” paleface?

      Actually I agree with you entirely.

    2. We should always be skeptical around trade, since it certainly presents an opportunity to screw and get screwed. Skepticism and senseless hostility are not the same thing, however.

  8. This sentence seems to miss the point somehow:
    primary kin generally make up less than 10% of a residential band

    It is way too narrowly focused on very immediate family. Imagine a very simple scenario, where one person marries an outsider, has 4 kids, each whom marry an outsider and have 4 kids each. Each of those grandkids are only primary kin to 7 of the 26 people in that group when objectively, only 5 have no obvious genetic relation.
    It is not a new theory that there is intermarriage between clans for different reasons; political as well as genetic.
    I don’t doubt there is something to this hypothesis, yet like most monkeys they feel a need to fling .. stuff around to make themselves look better by comparison.

  9. No! It was not trade that made us human! It was governments! Governments, in their infinite wisdom, guided and directed us up from the primordial soup, from single celled organisms, to more complex forms of life, to walking on land, to standing upright, to hunting, to cooperation, to forming rudimentary languages, to developing villages, to developing trade, to developing agriculture, to developing culture… etc. We needed government for ALL of it! Do you want to go back to just being a complex bunch of amino acids in a soup? If not, then you better support teh gubernmentz!!!1

  10. It looks to me like a lot of what made human culture was the development of driven, egotistical, visionary (sometimes charismatic) individuals.

    Look at those big Easter Island statues. They all look alike!

    Prehistoric Thomas Edison’s, Steve Job’s, Henry Ford’s, Howard Rourke’s?

  11. “Instead, cultural group selection may lead to the spread of cooperative institutions within ethnic groups, which might then create a context favoring the genetic evolution of prosocial cognitive mechanisms through individual-level selection.”

    This statement has both a cart-before-the-horse-ishness and a chicken-and-egg-ishness character that cries out for a mathematical model that make absolutely explicit what the authors are really claiming. Can a group of rugged individualists develop a sharing, caring culture without recourse to a shared genetic heritage and then, in that new sharing, caring context, have that samed rugged individualism selected against by these new selective pressures?

    I don’t claim that that can’t happen, I just think that that is a much larger question than the one they chose to answer. Sort of like Steve Martin’s “You can be a millionaire and never pay taxes” joke.

  12. Northern Ache and Southern Ache? What’s that, migraine with hemorrhoids?

  13. Nothing new here.

    Not mentioned, of course, is that humans continue to evolve, faster than ever, and that human groups are becoming more different from each other.
    E.g. http://the10000yearexplosion.com/

  14. Was exchange an early agent of human evolution or is it merely an artifact of modern civilisation? Spanning two million years of human evolution, this book explores the impact of economics on human evolution and natural history. The theory of evolution by natural selection has always relied in part on progress in areas of science outside biology. By applying economic principles at the borderlines of biology, Haim Ofek shows how some of the outstanding issues in human evolution, such as the increase in human brain size and the expansion of the environmental niche humans occupied, can be answered. He identifies distinct economic forces at work, beginning with the transition from the feed-as-you-go strategy of primates, through hunter-gathering and the domestication of fire to the development of agriculture. This highly readable book will inform and intrigue general readers and those in fields such as evolutionary biology and psychology, economics, and anthropology.
    Second Nature: Economic Origins of Human Evolution

  15. Was exchange an early agent of human evolution or is it merely an artifact of modern civilisation? Spanning two million years of human evolution, this book explores the impact of economics on human evolution and natural history. The theory of evolution by natural selection has always relied in part on progress in areas of science outside biology. By applying economic principles at the borderlines of biology, Haim Ofek shows how some of the outstanding issues in human evolution, such as the increase in human brain size and the expansion of the environmental niche humans occupied, can be answered. He identifies distinct economic forces at work, beginning with the transition from the feed-as-you-go strategy of primates, through hunter-gathering and the domestication of fire to the development of agriculture. This highly readable book will inform and intrigue general readers and those in fields such as evolutionary biology and psychology, economics, and anthropology.
    Second Nature: Economic Origins of Human Evolution
    (darn spam filter)
    http://www.amazon.com/Second-N…..0521625343

  16. Was exchange an early agent of human evolution or is it merely an artifact of modern civilisation? Spanning two million years of human evolution, this book explores the impact of economics on human evolution and natural history. The theory of evolution by natural selection has always relied in part on progress in areas of science outside biology. By applying economic principles at the borderlines of biology, Haim Ofek shows how some of the outstanding issues in human evolution, such as the increase in human brain size and the expansion of the environmental niche humans occupied, can be answered. He identifies distinct economic forces at work, beginning with the transition from the feed-as-you-go strategy of primates, through hunter-gathering and the domestication of fire to the development of agriculture. This highly readable book will inform and intrigue general readers and those in fields such as evolutionary biology and psychology, economics, and anthropology.
    Second Nature: Economic Origins of Human Evolution
    (darn spam filter!)
    http://www.amazon.com/Second-N…..0521625343

  17. Was exchange an early agent of human evolution or is it merely an artifact of modern civilisation? Spanning two million years of human evolution, this book explores the impact of economics on human evolution and natural history. The theory of evolution by natural selection has always relied in part on progress in areas of science outside biology. By applying economic principles at the borderlines of biology, Haim Ofek shows how some of the outstanding issues in human evolution, such as the increase in human brain size and the expansion of the environmental niche humans occupied, can be answered. He identifies distinct economic forces at work, beginning with the transition from the feed-as-you-go strategy of primates, through hunter-gathering and the domestication of fire to the development of agriculture. This highly readable book will inform and intrigue general readers and those in fields such as evolutionary biology and psychology, economics, and anthropology.
    Second Nature: Economic Origins of Human Evolution
    (darn spam filter won’t let me post a link!)

  18. Was exchange an early agent of human evolution or is it merely an artifact of modern civilisation? Spanning two million years of human evolution, this book explores the impact of economics on human evolution and natural history. The theory of evolution by natural selection has always relied in part on progress in areas of science outside biology. By applying economic principles at the borderlines of biology, Haim Ofek shows how some of the outstanding issues in human evolution, such as the increase in human brain size and the expansion of the environmental niche humans occupied, can be answered. He identifies distinct economic forces at work, beginning with the transition from the feed-as-you-go strategy of primates, through hunter-gathering and the domestication of fire to the development of agriculture. This highly readable book will inform and intrigue general readers and those in fields such as evolutionary biology and psychology, economics, and anthropology.
    Second Nature: Economic Origins of Human Evolution
    (darn spam filter won’t let me post a link!)

  19. Take it back a step and you get a better fit with the facts. Trade was but one of several beneficial outcomes of a preceding phenomenon… food surpluses. Food surpluses gave rise to inventory management, the conceptual side of which gave rise to writing, weights and measures and higher math, and the practical side of which gave rise to potters and other full-time craftspeople and the development of improving storage and processing technologies. All of this, in turn, abetted increasing trade in both food and non-food stuffs.

    Of course, you could also go back another remove to the successful domestication of certain species of plants and animals.

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