Books: Lots of money but little sex

The work of a free-market zealot, this is a passionately written book, brisk and entertaining, but it doesn't live up to its own subtitle, argues Eric Beinhocker.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The publicity for Terence Kealey's book, Sex, Science and Profits, promised 'a brilliant, provocative exploration of the biological roots of economics, in the tradition of Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker and Jared Diamond'.

Such a book would be interesting indeed. We all know that sex and money make the world go round but there has been surprisingly little systematic exploration of how the two relate. Yet evolutionary psychologists have recently been discovering the roots of our most deeply ingrained behaviours in our primate ancestors and evolutionary history. A synthesis of this work with economics might offer new insights into the web of human behaviours that underpins the $66trn global economy, as well as on why the boss struts around the office like a mating peacock.

Kealey also seemed an intriguing figure to write such a book. A clinical biochemist and vice-chancellor at the University of Buckingham, he previously wrote a book at the intersection of science and economics, The Economic Laws of Scientific Research (Palgrave Macmillan). Published in 1996, it was a thought-provoking argument against the idea that governments should fund scientific research.

Sadly, this new book has little to do with its subtitle - How People Evolved to Make Money - and is instead largely a repackaging of Kealey's 1996 arguments, in the tradition of Kealey rather than Dawkins, Pinker or Diamond.

The book can be viewed from three perspectives. First as a breezy history of human economic activity from the stone age to modern day, in many ways the most rewarding part of the book.

The second perspective is that of economics. Here, Kealey's argument can be boiled down to 'markets good, government bad', which is neither very original nor very helpful. He correctly points out that for the bulk of economic history people struggled to eke out a living under the capricious control of a parade of tyrants, and that the social institutions that support free markets - property rights, the rule of law, a sound currency - are recent inventions that have been just as important engines of wealth creation as the technological advances of the industrial revolution. But he offers few new insights on those institutions and seems unaware of much recent research.

The third and final perspective is a policy argument against government's role in funding science and protecting intellectual property rights with patents. Much of this repeats Kealey's 1996 book.

The most compelling part of his current book is the contention that economists have misunderstood science by characterising it as a 'public good'. Kealey says only members of the exclusive scientific fraternity can really understand and use scientific information, much not published at all but 'tacit knowledge' in scientists' heads.

This means that there is less of a free-rider problem with scientific investment than economists have supposed. Commercialising scientific advances requires investment in scientists with 'tacit' knowledge, whether one is being a pioneer or just building on existing work. The high entry costs of scientific research keep competition limited and mean companies can profit from it. Kealey shows that companies do indeed invest in and profit from basic research.

Where his argument is less convincing is in making the jump that this means that all scientific research should be privately funded and that there is no role for government. Kealey fails to explain adequately how scientific education would be funded or who would pay for long-term research with scientific merit but no immediate commercial purpose (eg, the CERN particle accelerator). He casually asserts that charitable foundations would step in to fill the gap but provides little explanation as to why foundation-giving is inherently better than government funding.

Kealey writes with the passion of a zealot, which makes the book brisk and occasionally entertaining. But I often wished for a more nuanced argument and proof that Kealey is more aware of the broad literature encompassing the subjects he touches on - many of his references are from the 1970s and '80s and appear not to have been updated from his 1996 work. If one is interested in economic history, there are other books to turn to, particularly Gregory Clark's A Farewell to Alms (Princeton). And if one is interested in a provocative view on how science works and government's role, I would recommend Kealey's own The Economic Laws of Scientific Research. As for the sex promised in the title, one will have to turn elsewhere for that.

Sex, Science and Profits: How people evolved to make money; Terence Kealey; William Heinemann £20.00

Eric Beinhocker is the author of The Origin of Wealth: Evolution, complexity, and the radical remaking of economics (Random House, £9.99).

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