zondag 13 februari 2011

Is mankind really unique in its propensity to exchange?

One of the central propositions in "The rational optimist" (see my review of December 2010) is that human progress results from our propensity to exchange, which, according to Matt Ridley, is unique to mankind.

Apparently, it is time to reconsider this assumption.

Recent laboratory work by Keith Chen has shown that capucin monkeys do not only understand monetary exchange, but they also understand the basic laws of demand and supply. Moreover, they also appear to act irrationally in exactly the same settings as humans do (to be  more precise, they are risk-averse: they attach more value to losses than to gains of the same amounts). Finally, when they were allowed to barter not just with the experimenters, but also amongst themselves, the first profession that was created was..... indeed, prostitution!

An accessible discussion of these experiments is provided in Levitt's and Dubner's Freakonomics, which I intend to review more at length in the coming days. Who ever said that economics wasn't fun?

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