Monday, May 2, 2005

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Trade free or die

I've been traveling so much as of late that I've missed out on a few developments worthy of posting. Last month the Economist ran a story about a study suggesting just how important free trade is to human development:

Since the days of Adam Smith and David Ricardo, advocates of free trade and the division of labour, including this newspaper, have lauded the advantages of those economic principles. Until now, though, no one has suggested that they might be responsible for the very existence of humanity. But that is the thesis propounded by Jason Shogren, of the University of Wyoming, and his colleagues. For Dr Shogren is suggesting that trade and specialisation are the reasons Homo sapiens displaced previous members of the genus, such as Homo neanderthalensis (Neanderthal man), and emerged triumphant as the only species of humanity....

One thing Homo sapiens does that Homo neanderthalensis shows no sign of having done is trade. The evidence suggests that such trade was going on even 40,000 years ago. Stone tools made of non-local materials, and sea-shell jewellery found far from the coast, are witnesses to long-distance exchanges. That Homo sapiens also practised division of labour and specialisation is suggested not only by the skilled nature of his craft work, but also by the fact that his dwellings had spaces apparently set aside for different uses.

To see if trade might be enough to account for the dominance of Homo sapiens, Dr Shogren and his colleagues created a computer model of population growth that attempts to capture the relevant variables for each species. These include fertility, mortality rates, hunting efficiency and the number of skilled and unskilled hunters in each group, as well as levels of skill in making objects such as weapons, and the ability to specialise and trade....

According to the model, this arrangement resulted in everyone getting more meat, which drove up fertility and thus increased the population. Since the supply of meat was finite, that left less for Neanderthals, and their population declined.

A computer model was probably not necessary to arrive at this conclusion. But what the model does suggest, which is not self-evident, is how rapidly such a decline might take place. Depending on the numbers plugged in, Neanderthals become extinct between 2,500 and 30,000 years after the two species begin competing—a range that nicely brackets reality. Moreover, in the model, the presence of a trading economy in the modern human population can result in the extermination of Neanderthals even if the latter are at an advantage in traditional biological attributes, such as hunting ability.

Jackson Kuhl provides a lengthier summary of the paper at Tech Central Station. And here's a link to a University of Wyoming press release about the article, as well as a link to the actual paper, which is forthcoming in the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization.

posted by Dan on 05.02.05 at 01:59 PM


I heard the CroMagnons' main error was their protectionist flint-manufacturing policies.

posted by: praktike on 05.02.05 at 01:59 PM [permalink]

1) Why are the specialization of labor and trade conflated in this article?

2) Is it not disturbing that the form of economic organization purportedly allowing Homo sapiens to overcome Homo neanderthalensis is (surprise!) the same one that allowed white caucasian EuroAmericans to subjugate all the world's differently colored peoples?

3) How inconvenient would it be for an anthropologist to point out that almost all trade between family band and tribal peoples seems to have been exchanges of decorative or magical objects, not commodities or capital goods?

4) Is it not more likely that the evidence of a division of labor within Cro-Magnon society represents an indication of a strong demarcation of sex roles rather than a non-gender specific specialization of labor?

5) Do we not see specialization of labor among other primates, especially in terms of child rearing and defense?

6) If greater societal efficiency through specialization of labor was so decisive in driving the Neaderthals to extinction, why did some Homo sapiens then reverse course and develop communitarian societies lacking strong labor specialization which proceeded to persist for tens of millenia?

posted by: MTC on 05.02.05 at 01:59 PM [permalink]

So, now when someone calls Pat Buchanan a Neanderthal we can assume they are talking about his views on trade?

posted by: Crank on 05.02.05 at 01:59 PM [permalink]

My God. Now you've gone too far, man.

posted by: herostratus on 05.02.05 at 01:59 PM [permalink]

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