Recordkeeping and Human Evolution
45 Pages Posted: 29 Jul 2005
Date Written: November 8, 2005
We seek to characterize the evolutionary role played by the transactional record that forms the foundation of modern accounting. We hypothesize that formal recordkeeping institutionalizes memory, which along with law and other institutions (e.g., weights and measures and money) promotes the trust necessary to secure the gains from large-scale cooperation in human societies where complex exchange occurs between strangers over time. This hypothesis yields two predictions: (1) formal recordkeeping emerges as a mnemonic device when complex exchange between strangers over time becomes more common, and (2) formal recordkeeping and other exchange-supporting institutions co-evolve and feed back to facilitate extraction of further gains from exchange and the division of labor. Several aspects of ancient Mesopotamian recordkeeping are consistent with these predictions, which we believe suggests our hypothesis is plausible. We also identify opportunities for directly testing our predictions with experiments and ethnographies as well as other implications for the co-evolution of accounting, law, cognition, and language.
Keywords: intertemporal trade, verifiable history, dispute resolution, cultural selection
JEL Classification: D74, D83, M4, O31
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation