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Merchant Ape: The Biology of Trade

Living creatures have adapted to their environments through millions of years of natural selection operating on both physical and behavioral characteristics. Cats climb trees and catch mice because in addition to installing the necessary physical equipment for these activities, natural selection also “designed” cats to want to do them.

Behavioral adaptation is crucial to survival, as is physical adaptation, and naturalselection pressures have influenced the behavior of all the animal species, including the human animal. An inclination to form alliances, greater generosity to relatives than to nonrelatives, mistrust of strangers, and delight in gossip are all examples of human behaviors resulting from millions of years of evolution. They are present, as the norm, in all cultures.

Evolved behaviors are natural tendencies to notice some things more than others, to have feelings about certain things, and to act in certain ways. Behaviors evolve because, more often than not, they foster survival and reproduction in the face of relatively constant environmental challenges. During our evolutionary past, avoiding predators was a constant challenge. This likely led to a human tendency to be nervous in the dark and to lie low at night. The saber-tooth got those who weren’t nervous, and only we nervous ones are left. Nervousness in the dark is an evolved characteristic. So is the human sweet tooth. Those who ate more of the sugary fruits during the ripe period stored more energy, and over the long run had a reproductive edge over those without a sweet tooth. So here we are, the descendants of sugar-craving, fruit-gorging ancestors paying outrageous prices for Godiva chocolate and dieting the rest of the time. But the most interesting human adaptations are the social ones.

We are group-living animals, and we evolved as such. The human mind evolved in the context of a subsistence hunter-gatherer existence in groups numbering upwards of 100 or more individuals. During our millions of years of evolution all the necessities of life emerged from group membership: protective alliances, cooperative hunting, sharing food, all kinds of exchanges of goods and services. And this never was a “one for all” arrangement, but rather one of “reciprocal altruism,” as evolutionary psychologists call it. Goods and services are given to another in the expectation of reciprocation, but not necessarily simultaneously, in kind, or by the same person. Each individual was part of a reciprocation network where a favor in the form of a food donation might be returned with a future gift of food or some other valued item like aid in child-care, support in a dispute, or another endeavor. Also the reciprocator might be a relative, friend, or alliance partner of the original recipient of the food donation. The expectation is that what goes around comes around in one form or another and by one route or another.

For the marginal existence of our ancestors, networking was essential for survival and reproductive success, and those who did it best are our ancestors. Or to put it the other way, we are the descendants of ancestors who were the most skilled in the reciprocal-altruism arena. This means that natural selection favored psychological traits that supported success in this arena—traits like noticing and remembering who gives what to whom, how much, and under what circumstances. When a society is organized around dozens of individuals linked by mutually beneficial exchanges, a sensitive and efficient accounting mind is highly advantageous.

Due to its gradual accumulation in our ancestors over evolutionary eons, we carry the genetic material that supports these accounting capabilities. Our brains evolved under pressures to make efficient neural circuits that serve specific kinds of keeping track-of-things. Once set in this direction in the context of small-group living, the human bookkeeping brain had no trouble extending its calculating abilities to a broader scope. The migrations of peoples led to intergroup contacts, and although warlike conflicts were common, so were commercial contacts.

Archeologists are constantly discovering new evidence of trade between ancient peoples deeper and deeper in the past and over wider and wider areas. Materials were gathered by one set of exchanges and traded in another set, sometimes at great distances, all prior to the advent of writing or currency. The power of the human mind to keep accounts is extraordinary, and it has been at work for a long time. Our great ape cousins, the chimpanzee, the gorilla, and the bonobo (also called pigmy chimpanzee) are capable of rudimentary versions of this kind of bookkeeping and are also socially organized around reciprocal altruism, but we far outdistance them. We are most truly the merchant ape.

Role of Emotions

All this sounds terribly calculating and cold-blooded, but actually emotions are very much involved. Behavior is motivated by emotion, and natural selection has seen to it that our emotions support our mercantile relations. Gratitude encourages reciprocation, guilt discourages nonreciprocation, and anger discourages nonreciprocation by others. Anxiety is evoked by suspicion of nonreciprocation. Contentment comes through inclusion in a reciprocation network, and happiness through personal achievements (skills, reliability, and other virtues) that demonstrate worthiness and therefore value as a reciprocation partner. From an evolutionary point of view, any evolved characteristic must confer a fitness advantage. There is little doubt that human emotions along with human reason were supported by natural selection to the degree that they successfully regulated reciprocal exchanges in the hunter-gatherer context of ancestral life.

But all this doesn’t imply that we are evolved to follow a golden rule. Skillful participation in networks of reciprocation also included skills for cheating and deceit. Clearly nonreciprocators were unlikely to be carried as free riders by our struggling ancestors. However, stingy reciprocation that escapes detection is another story. Successful cheating gives a reproductive advantage, so selection pressures supported it. And, of course, those best at detecting deception also had a reproductive advantage over those easily duped. As a result, through a kind of arms race, we evolved mental talents specifically “designed” both to detect deception and to deceive. At some point in this arms race a new weapon came along that had a pervasive impact on human nature: self-deception.

What better way to deceive another than to be oneself deceived? No clues in facial expression, body stance, or tone of voice are available to alert the target. We can be so convincing. The division of the mind into unconscious and conscious realms may well have evolved because it supported selfdeception in the service of deception of others. Again, to reiterate our theme, those best at self-deception were our ancestors. They were the best at gaining advantages over others in the exchange of goods and services. Escalation of this talent was inevitable as self-deception dealt with ever-refining deception detectors. We are a species of selfdeceivers. Freud told us this, as does great literature and our own introspection. Now evolutionary psychology weighs in.

Self-deception is adaptive because it served mercantile cleverness. It allows for storage of information outside of awareness, and authentic-appearing behavior inconsistent with unconscious knowledge. I can make a deal with you that is biased to my advantage and negotiate with you in a belief that it is a fair deal, and by my honest appearance be more effective. You may also have an interest in deceiving yourself about it.

Hierarchic Groups

Human groups are hierarchic arrangements of dominants and subordinates. An individual may be dominant in one context and subordinate in another (at work and in a church group for example), but we are all subordinate somewhere. Let’s say your boss has decided to promote a colleague rather than you. The reason he gives is that you will have time for special training that will be a greater ultimate advantage for you. In spite of evidence that he is really acting out of self-interest, you might benefit from deceiving yourself into believing his story. Selfdeception in this case would support authentic-appearing good-humored deference, and you would avoid the costs that might be incurred if suspicion and resentment should reveal themselves. Perhaps, in his own self-deception, your boss also misleads himself and really believes his decision is in your interest. This allows him to behave convincingly toward you and also get the bonus of feeling beneficent.

However, all this isn’t to say that our commercial psyche is strictly designed for manipulation and exploitation, deception, and self-deception. Equally essential for successful participation in exchange networks are empathy, a sense of fairness and of right and wrong, and an inclination to form trusting bonds of mutual support. Warm feelings develop between consistently reliable coalition partners. Feelings that support mistrust are useful when dealing with a new partner, but an emotional bias supporting trust of a tried and true partner will get you past misunderstandings that might destroy a vital alliance.

In other words, reciprocal altruism, the exchange of goods and services, flows on a rich and sensitive current of human emotional life that may itself have been selected for the mercantile advantages it provided. This means that along with cheating and deceit, what we might think of as the worst of the human character, our merchant nature also gave rise to the capacity for social responsibility and for commitment and loyalty between friends and partners in endeavor and trade. One might even speculate that this capacity laid the groundwork for long-term, affectionate working partnerships between men and women.

Perhaps such partnerships were the beginning of divisions of labor. Because of differences imposed by reproductive biology, as with all species, human males and females always did different things. But at some point these differences became coordinated into mutually beneficial systems. We don’t know when or why domestic arrangements changed so many thousands of years ago. Perhaps it had to do with the ice ages when meat became more essential and the dependence of females on male provisioning increased, as would have the need for females to maintain the all-important fire while males hunted. But division of labor is also based on individual differences in talents and inclinations within the sexes as well as between them. In ancient times, for example, one guy might be better at finding promising rocks and another better at chipping the tools out of them. So the second guy makes two tools and repays the first for his trek to the mountain.

However it started, evidence for division of labor or specialization and, by inference, systems of barter date from 1.5 to 2 million years ago. Over subsequent millennia, trade increased in geographical ranges. If we fast forward until about 30,000 years ago we may see awkward barter systems eased by the use of money. The existence of representational ornaments and cave paintings suggest that the symbolic psychological processes necessary for the use of intrinsically valueless items for the representation of IOU’s for goods or services were in place. There is no evidence of these economic or psychological developments for contemporaneous Neanderthals who were then becoming extinct.

We are certainly the symbolic species. But what selection pressures, besides social selection for the exchange arts, could have driven the evolution of human psyche to this level of sophistication? We have been called the bipedal ape, the tool-using ape, the language and symbol-using ape, and we are all of these, but, I suspect, we are most fundamentally the merchant ape.

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