Published by EH.NET (May 2002)
Haim Ofek, Second Nature: Economic Origins of Human Evolution.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. x + 254 pp. $27.95 (paperback),
ISBN: 0-521-62534-3; $74.95 (hardback), ISBN: 0-521-62399-5.
Reviewed for EH.NET by Jo?o Ricardo Faria, School of Social Sciences,
University of Texas at Dallas.
Remarkable books build their reputations by providing comprehensive and
exhaustive answers to well established problems, or by setting a new agenda of
research through the provision of new data and by looking at old problems with
a new and fresh approach. This highly readable book of Haim Ofek falls into
both categories. The book applies economic principles to understand many
important issues in human evolution. However Ofek does not confine his analysis
to economics. On the contrary, his assessment of the economic origins of human
evolution relies heavily on literature, data and facts from anthropology,
biology and other natural sciences.
In the introduction, Ofek exposes the issues and puzzles about human evolution
that possess an important economic dimension — such as the domestication of
fire, the creation of stone tools, human migration from Asia to America in the
midst of an ice age, the transition from the feed-as-you-go strategy through
hunting-gathering and finally to agriculture, and the paradox of husbandry. The
book addresses these issues in different ways: using available evidence, making
logical inferences, and proposing new conjectures. Underlying the answers lies
the main thesis of the book, that human propensity to exchange played a central
role in human evolution.
The remainder of the book is divided in two parts: bioeconomics and
paleoeconomics. Both parts are divided in six chapters. Chapter two deals with
exchange in human and nonhuman societies. Ofek identifies two patterns of
exchange, the nepotistic and the mercantile. Nepotistic exchange is regulated
by evolutionary mechanisms such as kin selection and sexual selection, while
mercantile exchange is purely human. Chapter three discusses the evolutionary
origin of humans’ predisposition to exchange. The key question is: Was exchange
an agent of human evolution or merely a late by-product of human intelligence?
The problem arises because the expansion of the human brain seems to be
excessive relative to prehistoric needs for human survival. However, according
to Darwin’s principle of utility, natural selection cannot produce a structure
that is harmful to an organism, nor a structure of greater perfection than
necessary for an organism at a given stage in its evolutionary story. Alfred
Russel Wallace (who shares with Darwin the creation of the concept of natural
selection) concluded that forces other than natural selection were at action to
explain the evolution of the human brain. For Ofek, exchange is the independent
agent of brain evolution.
Chapter four considers the evolutionary implications of the division of labor
to address the fundamental problem of human diversity in skills and talents.
While the division of labor may happen in nonhuman societies, it never occurs
in any significant way above the level of the organism or its immediate kinship
group. Ofek attributes to mercantile exchange the capacity to enable the
division of labor in human society to operate on a large scale within and
Chapter five makes an interesting link between the transitions from the
feed-as-you-go model of subsistence to hunting-gathering to the peculiarities
of human gut, which is markedly small relative to body size. In the
feed-as-you-go strategy, food items are ingested on the spot and strictly in
the order of acquisition. However, by following this strategy the feeder faces
a trade-off between procurement and digestion. If it decides to minimize the
energy cost in procurement, it will face the cost of digestion. On the other
hand, if the feeder decides to minimize the costs of digestion, it runs the
risk of starvation because of the costs of procurement. The hunting-gathering
strategy solves this dilemma because it separates in space and in time the act
of procurement from the act of ingestion and thereby, it minimizes both costs.
As a consequence, the transition from a feed-as-you-go to a hunting-gathering
strategy leads to a quantitative and qualitative improvement in the human diet,
having an economizing effect on the digestive system. This transition is in
line with the expensive-tissue hypothesis, which says that animals with cheap
guts can afford expensive (i.e., large) brains.
The development of the argument in chapter six is less clear than in other
chapters. The author attributes the origins of nepotistic exchange to the
larger pool of primate inheritance. Ofek believes that humans are a more
authentic representation of the common ancestral type than any other existing
species among the hominoid species (e.g., gibbons, orangutans, gorillas and
chimpanzees). The two major adaptive innovations of humans are the direct
feeding investment in mates and offspring by the male and the loss of overt
estrus and concealment of ovulation by the female. He also notes that another
important difference lies in the reproductive behavior of humans, which display
a diverse system of mating across cultures.
The natural history and social structures of the baboon are used in chapter
seven to better understand some conceivable early indications for the existence
of human exchange. The similarities between baboons and humans extend from diet
to anti-predator behavior. However, baboons maintain a degree of genetic
separation despite the absence of sharp geographical divides. Humans, on the
other hand, lost this capacity for adaptive radiation and gained capabilities
for adaptive specialization. Ofek argues that this was an inevitable outcome of
the introduction of trade as a principle of organization in human affairs.
Paleoeconomics is the subject of part two of the book, which deals more
explicitly with economic problems. Chapter eight explores the idea that trade
was instrumental for the transition from the feed-as-you-go strategy to
hunting-gathering. The main problem concerning the hunting-gathering strategy
is food sharing or redistribution. Ofek claims that the only way to make
economic sense of the food sharing for humans is to view it in the context of
some form of market exchange. This is due to the fact that all organisms that
rely on sexual reproduction have only two known options to redistribute the
output of hunting-gathering activity: eusociality or market exchange. However,
eusociality entails a lifestyle in which breeding is primarily limited to a
single reproductive female, which is not the way humans evolved.
In chapter nine Ofek puts forward the exciting hypothesis that contrived
commodities (characterized by exclusion and non-rivalry) provide an ideal
starting point to construct a model of early exchange. The two entities most
clearly identified as contrived commodities in prehistoric times are large game
and fire, since any additional consumer willing to pay can be accommodated at
no extra cost to the provider, and with no detraction in the consumption
available to others. Incidentally, the domestication of fire is the subject of
chapter ten. Ofek hypothesizes that fire by promoting trade was an agent of
evolution, and civilization. He makes interesting conjectures concerning three
important technical problems related to the domestication of fire: how to
create, contain and keep it.
Chapter eleven considers the upper Paleolithic creative explosion. According to
Ofek the refinement of upper Paleolithic tools suggests innovation in trade,
increased division of labor and improvement in market structures. The most
important and perhaps controversial conjecture of the whole book is that Ofek
associates trade with human migration. Specifically, he conjectures that the
incentives related to trade could be strong enough so as to justify migration
and long-term occupation of harsh environment, such as the migration during the
ice age from Asia to America.
The transition to agriculture is the object of chapter twelve. It is argued
that a necessary condition for agriculture is climate stability, however this
is not a sufficient condition. In chapter thirteen Ofek asserts that exchange
is the facilitating factor for the transition to agriculture, since exchange
reconciles the need for specialization in food production with the need for
diversification in food consumption. Exchange also explains the paradox of
husbandry (characterized by the fact that it takes more time and effort to
raise and slaughter a domesticated animal than to hunt and kill its wild
counterpart), as the meat obtainable from a domesticated stock is a highly
durable commodity because it comes into human possession in a live animal.
As seen above, Ofek’s book is in fact remarkable because it gives interesting,
exhausting and insightful answers to old problems and, at the same time, it
provides a new way to approach human evolution from the economic viewpoint. I
hope it will stimulate the research on the economics of prehistory.
Jo?o Ricardo Faria is the co-editor with Amnon Levy of Economic Growth,
Inequality and Migration, Edward Elgar, 2002, forthcoming. Among his recent
articles are “What Happened to the Neanderthals? – The Survival Trap,”
Kyklos 53(2), 2000, pp. 161-172; “Habit Formation in a Monetary Growth
Model,” Economics Letters 73(1), 2001, 51-55; and “Testing the
Balassa-Samuelson Effect: Implications for Growth and PPP,” (with M.
Leon-Ledesma), Journal of Macroeconomics, 2003, forthcoming.