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History of Political Economy 32.4 (2000) 933-989
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Homo Economicus Goes Native, 1859–1945:
The Rise and Fall of Primitive Economics
Up to the last third of the nineteenth century, economic theory bore all too lightly the burden of primitive man.1 This is not to say that hunters, gatherers, gardeners, and nomads were quite absent from political economy, only that their presence was passive, ad hoc, and rarely grounded in careful scholarship. Aboriginal society was the stuff of coarse illustration, not empirical science. Rarely did economists venture beyond the style of conjectural history prominent in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, beyond what Ronald Meek (1971, 1976) has expertly characterized as the “four-stages theory” of economic development: scholars ransacked the Old Testament, Julius Caesar, Tacitus, and a smattering of [End Page 933] missionary reports for support of ideas that seemed simply too logical to be false.
As such, it will come as no surprise that scholars just as rarely saw grounds in their conjectures to doubt the universality of Homo economicus, the model of humanity derived from hedonism and instrumental rationality that was the Enlightenment’s gift to political economy. “The great end of all human activity,” David Hume ( 1985, 148) once wrote,
is the attainment of happiness…. Even the lonely savage, who lies exposed to the inclemency of the elements, and the fury of wild beasts, forgets not, for a moment, this grand object of his being. Ignorant as he is of every art of life, he still keeps in view the end of all those arts, and eagerly seeks for felicity amidst that darkness with which he is environed.2
Hume’s friend Adam Smith claimed nothing so baldly in The Wealth of Nations, but the idea of a primitive Homo economicus is nevertheless suggested in his assertion of “a natural propensity in human nature… to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another,” in his image of a utilitarian division of labor within primitive hunting bands, and in his prominent example of “that early and rude state of society” where, according to a strict labor theory of value, “one beaver should naturally exchange for or be worth two deer” (Smith  1976, I.ii.1, I.ii.3, I.iv.1).3 For that matter, Smith’s ( 1976, I.i.11) paradox of the humble European peasant whose creature comfort “exceeds that of many an African king, the absolute master of the lives and liberties of ten thousand naked savages,” which has been called the central image of his whole project, carries little force without the prior assumption of a universal human pursuit of such comforts.4 [End Page 934]
Admittedly, there ran alongside this tradition of prehistoric “economic man” a contrary discourse, one favored especially by radicals and romantics, that conjured up an aboriginal being whose economic behavior was altogether different. A late example of this may be found in Karl Marx’s Outlines of the Critique of Political Economy ([1857–58] 1989, 375), in which was posited a mind-set of primitive communism, where the purpose of labor is not the creation of exchange value, but rather the subsistence of the group. Man, for Marx, “is individuated only through the historical process. He appears originally as a generic being [Gattungswesen], a tribal being, an animal of the herd” (395–96). But for our purposes the point worth noting is the profound similarity between Marx and his classical antagonists, in that none even pretended to a close familiarity with the specific practices of those peoples about whom they made such sweeping claims. Here was a clear case of the tail of grand theory wagging the dog of specific knowledge.5
All this changed in time, especially after the annus mirabilis of 1859. Most famously, in that year appeared Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, the fruit of long and painstaking field work. Although Darwin’s main concern was zoological and physiognomic, he noted portentously that as a result of his approach psychology, too...