A brief history of money and human evolution

 

Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun. Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-two million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea. This planet has – or rather had – a problem, which was this: most of the people on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time.  Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these  were largely concerned with the movements of small green pieces of paper, which is odd because on the whole it wasn’t the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.  And so the problem remained; lots of the people were mean, and most of them were miserable, even the ones with digital watches. Many were increasingly of the opinion that they’d all made a big mistake in coming down from the trees in the first place. And some said that even the trees had been a bad move, and that no one should ever have left the oceans. – Douglas Adams

 Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.  A long, long time ago, or actually not that long, depending on which society we’re talking about… Okay let’s start with basic nomadic hunter-gatherer societies, some of which still exist today in some form.  Let’s just start again.

Our ancestors lived in small groups around 10 adults, they roamed around, found their food, crafted the tools they needed for the basics of survival: food and water, temperature control, entertainment and education.  They hunted and gathered; they did their best to protect themselves from predators and other dangerous scary things.  They carved and drew and told stories to their young so that the next generation would grow to learn to navigate the complex natural world around them, and they occasionally met up with other tribal groups, had massive festivals, partied hard, over-indulged and arranged marriages.  This is the way people lived for tens of thousands of years before they had cell phones or even digital watches, and while the last few thousand and, particularly, few hundred years has seen massive changes in our lifestyles, our biology is relatively similar at a basic level.

The major changes in human lifestyle happened as we developed farming techniques, got comfortable and settled down.  These marriages to locations created more complex societies.  We could feed more people, build fancy housing that stayed in one place and get more specialisation.  Dave could be the medicine expert and Julie could micro-manage the garden.  We could have a chief and even a few slaves won from a battle with a neighbouring tribe over who had a right to be on this land. So you see how this more complex society brought up issues of ownership and property that hadn’t been such a big deal before? Yeah. Sorry if you’re a historian, I realise this is overly simplistic and probably offensive.   Marriages became inseparable from property and any teenage Marxist will tell you that discrimination against women started right then and there, with the birth of property.  Your wife needed to be your property so that your sons could inherit your (other) property and you daughters could be exchanged for property if they were considered valuable, or if times were hard and Sally is just another mouth to feed you would have to throw in some livestock to sweeten the deal and get someone else to take on the burden.  This is covers about half the stories in the bible.

The more complex society got, the more property mattered and I’m not going to patronise your intelligence by telling you about how bartering used to be the main form of trade – like I’ll trade you three goats for one sheep – and then having money meant that we didn’t need the goats right then and there, (because I’m sure you already know that).   I seem to have missed out the ‘gift economy’ prevalent in some societies.  From what I know about traditional New Zealand Maori culture (from my bi-cultural background), back in the olden days people would get together, have a powhiri (a welcoming ceremony) and the visitors would give awesome and impressive gifts to the visitees.  Why would they want to hand over their hard-won Kumara? The better the gifts, the more they increase your mana (esteem, aura, social standing, respect, integrity, something like that).  I suppose that is a bit like an exchange of sorts, but it’s not really a trade.  There may have also been bartering around the same time, but pure gift economies do exist, even ask Wikipedia, there’s literature on them and stuff.

Now back to the story about trade, barter and money… So society got more and more complex, bartering for goods was gradually replaced by shiny non-perishables like sharks teeth, gold and jewels.  Because these things could be stolen the need arose for safe storage facilities (banks) which handed out receipts so that you could show evidence of your wealth and then some clever person realised it was a lot easier to trade in receipts than to actually go all the way to the bank.  Out of convenience, paper currency was born.  Of course it’s a bit more complicated than that and happened all over the world in different times.  China did it first in much the same way that they invented pasta before the Italians.  Now that society had become much more complex and had governments to make major decisions and give people something to complain about and blame, the governments standardised printed currency which made it easier to keep track of, more trustworthy and less easy to forge.  Up until the mid-20th century official currency was still largely based on the gold standard – so it still apparently had some value represented in a vault somewhere and everyone used printed currency.  Then, one night some guy called Frank went out to dinner and forgot his wallet, a pretty awkward situation to be in, so he left his driver’s licence behind as collateral and came back to pay the next day.  Possibly to compensate for the awkwardness, or potentially as a result of an epiphany that people could use a card to pay for dinner instead of having to carry cash around, Frank started the first credit card company: Diners Club. And so the era of modern finance was born.  True story.

Now we come to the reason for this long rambling, selective and very generalised version of history.  When Homo sapiens first evolved our brains were wired for survival: sustenance, sex and safety.  I hope you’re not reading this aloud with a lisp, if so you can opt to use food, procreation and protection or something like that.  I’ve inconveniently forgotten the most important thing: community.  We are largely primitive communal beings on an instinctive level.  We’re not hard-wired to deal with money or digital watches.  Perhaps that is at the root of why money has become such a difficult thing to deal with, but what is more complex than that is the way that those basic survival instincts manifest in this modern world, and how they are manipulated by advertising.

 

Facebook: just like the Sims

There have been a few times in my life where I have gotten addicted to games; growing up I went through phases of being hooked on particular games on our families old Mac computers and more recently I went through a bejeweled fad. The most serious addictions I’ve had were as a teenager to Diablo II and the Sims (1 and 2). I used to love making the houses and decorating them. Perhaps designing the barbie-like characters made up for my barbie-deprived childhood. I would sit at the screen and stare at my little people, taking good care of them.  They were always bathed and fed and well-rested whereas, after staring at the screen for so long, I could have done with some bathing and feeding myself.  I would get anxiety when they burnt down the kitchen but felt proud when they studied and up-skilled and no longer posed such a great fire-risk.  I gave up on the Sims because I realised that I was putting all of this energy into something that wasn’t really feeding me.  It was a hard sacrifice to make but ultimately more rewarding.

Dopamine is an interesting brain chemical. It motivates us and gives us that sense of accomplishment of attainment, how-ever brief.  It is the primary brain chemical involved in addictions to cocaine, shopping gaming and Facebook.  Every time that little red number appears at the top of the screen you get a little bump, every like on your hillarous re-posted meme, every comment on your wall just reinforces the pattern.  Validation. It’s a trap!

The Facebook trap is a lot like the Sims trap. We can become pre-occupied with virtual lives – with the lives of other people, with our own closed-circuit-insular-universe to the point where other things are less important.  When I’m tired and don’t have other exciting things I do I always check Facebook looking for connection, validation, that little bump. I have been through times where I was getting psychologically dependent on Facebook to the point where it started to bother me. Unlike blogging, where I have the room to be creative and expressive, where I am building something that lasts and sharing ideas with the public, Facebook is insular and offers less space for expression, it rewards conformity and encourages me to share other people’s creations (which is not a bad thing) rather than develop my own.  I’m not saying Facebook is absolutely evil, and it certainly offers more real-world agency in communication and networking than the Sims does, but I am saying that it’s ultimately less satisfying than actually doing real stuff.

Dopamine is very relevant, but we can’t just reduce everything down to a neurotransmitter. Reality tends towards the complex.  There are lots of weird things happening in our brains, but what is easily observable is that doing something that triggers the reward pathway in the brain without achieving any meaningful results is infinitely less satisfying than doing something that activates the same pathway but does not accomplish much. Gaming and Facebook are less satisfying (for me, anyway) than working on a novel or writing a blog post – even reading a novel or doing the dishes, and yet, they are easy ‘lazy’ habits to get into.

Recently I went through a period where no one was liking my Facebook posts. WTF? Usually a plethora of people care about what I have to say.  I started to feel strange.  Out of my hundreds of friends, no one was bothering to comment or validate me – or even argue with me. No one was reading my blog posts either. How rude. As a result my blogging got more prolific than it ever has been, and more personal too. If no one cared, I was even more motivated to carry on with my life.  Something did seem a bit fishy though and then I realised that I must have somehow accidentally changed my Facebook settings so I wasn’t sharing my posts with my friends.  Hmmm.

This experience mirrors my experience lately of feeling like I’m walking in the dark.  Everyone seems very distant, and very few people seem to understand anything that is going on inside my head.  I suppose I’m not understanding most other people either. It’s kind of like temporarily regressing to teenage-insular-fog-brain, everything is a bit distorted. So if this blog post makes no sense, that will make absolute sense to what I’m going through.

The end.

The feminism of submission: food, sex and blogging

A friend recently told me that she has been taking a submissive role in her relationship with a man, not just sexually, but in-general. Normally she would want to be in-charge of everything, but lately she has chosen to concentrate on certain things, which happen to be ‘traditionally’ feminine things – cooking etc. On a camping trip she was able to let go of a lot of the decision making. She let him decide where to put the tent and focused instead on what foods they were going to eat on the trip. She sometimes liked to kneel next to him as he sat in a chair and felt comfortable and safe.  She said she felt good but was worried that what she was doing was anti-feminist or that other people might think she was in some kind of abusive relationship. I wasn’t worried. I wouldn’t be phased if the gender roles were reversed in this situation either, although that might be far less common.  Cooking isn’t necessarily submissive, but there is a feeling among some women that we always have to be in control, that we have to do everything and that we have to be responsible: we must be dominant in order to accommodate for the oppression of our gender.  In my friend’s case, letting go was possible because she felt safe and empowered enough to do so.

Perhaps submission is the wrong word here, but I want to acknowledge the power of giving up responsibility in the same way that Hegel’s master-slave dialectic argues that the slave has power because without the slave the master would not be a master. Although, I’m also not talking about slavery, just the power-dynamic of dominance and submission. This Penny Red post is an interesting read, exploring gender sexuality and submission. She makes some good points:

At no point, however, has anyone implied that men who want to be sexually dominated by women also want to be dominated by them socially and economically. Quite the opposite, if the long history of powerful men paying poor women to beat them up in backrooms is anything to go by. Apparently, though, a few smutty books about naughty professors wielding handcuffs are meant to prove that modern ‘working women’ (sic.) aren’t really as into all this liberation schtick as we make out.

She is talking, of course, about the media frenzy around the popularity of Shades of Grey and Twilight – books that have dominant, controlling male characters and female characters who are insatiably, irrevocably in-love with them.  Penny scorns the notion that these books are a reflection of modern woman’s secret desire to surrender the burden of their responsibilities. I’m unconvinced. But then again, I would believe that men with sub kinks are also escaping into a fantasy land where they don’t need to be responsible all the time. Being responsible is hard work.  They don’t really want women to control their lives (and neither do psychologically-healthy women really want a Christian Grey or Edward Cullen to decide what they’re going to wear) but a fantasy is a fantasy. Escape is escape.

Another friend of mine who is into BDSM type stuff argued that kink is something that can and should be relegated to the bedroom. She is particularly freaked out by dom-sub relationships that extend past sex games and into day-to-day relationships, particularly by her ex boyfriend who is in his thirties and has an eighteen year old sub with a learning disability who has to ask permission to leave the house. Ick!

To me the difference seems obvious between healthy relationships with secure attachments where submission in particular areas (from either party) is an active choice, and push-pull manipulative relationships where one partner is clearly in control of the other one.  For the record, I’m not especially kinky (hence having to ask other people about it) but I think woman and men can both healthily express their submission and dominance in various areas of life, taking into account the feelings of the other people they’re affecting and communicating effectively. Maybe I’m naive. I think it’s possible, I believe in a feminism of submission as well as one of dominance because I need to let go sometimes.  Letting go is a luxury and maybe it’s a privilege reserved for those who are already empowered in their lives.

A couple of years ago I was doing my Masters looking at the Weston A. Price Foundation and food blogs. The research sparked interesting discussions on my research blog and Sandra’s blog Letters from Wetville surrounding the gendered politics of food blogging. Almost all food blogs are run by women and there are also countless other craft blogs etc focused on ‘traditionally’ feminine past-times. The question was raised: are we food-blogging because of some underlying socialisation or is it a coincidence that the things we happen to be interested in are girly-type things? It’s a question that we never really could answer but it did raise a whole lot of other questions around social pressures, femininity and blogging.

Despite the first friend I mentioned taking on the ‘traditional’ task of cooking, food isn’t exclusively a feminine domain.  In the higher echelons it’s almost entirely male-dominated. Watching NZ Masterchef last night (my yoga teacher’s husband is in the top two) I noticed that the ten top New Zealand Chefs invited to lunch were all men, as are the three judges of the show, although many contestants are women. There’s an example of vertical gender occupational segregation if ever I saw one – food bloggers are generally unpaid, although some manage to etch out a living through ads or score a cook book deal like our locally raised Emma Galloway of My Darling Lemon Thyme.  It is worse than unfortunate that the kinds of food-work that women do are largely unpaid and it is a clear demonstration of why we still need feminism.

I don’t mean to get Utopian but it would be nice to live in a world where healthy submission was always possible because everyone is equal enough and empowered enough to feel safe in letting go of responsibilities sometimes. It would be nice if we didn’t even have to talk about whether cooking and food-blogging is undermining feminism.  It would be nice to see female sexuality portrayed as belonging to women and not represented almost entirely in relation to men.  To quote Penny again (because she’s so quotable):

Female sexual autonomy itself is what’s really unorthodox today. Agency and self-determination, the right to own our own desire – those are the kind of forbidden fantasies women across the world still pant over in private, unable to pronounce for fear of being slut-shamed. As Rousseau might put it : “Whether the woman shares the man’s desires or not, whether or not she is willing to satisfy them…the appearance of correct behavior must be among women’s duties.”

Avoiding the romance narrative trap

Are you wondering why your love life isn’t quite what it’s supposed to be? Why doesn’t your partner bring you roses, arrange surprise weekends away and find all your flaws lovable? Why doesn’t that hot guy or girl you have a crush on accidentally find your phone/wallet/umbrella, track you down then ask you out for a coffee at that cute cafe you’ve been wanting to go to? Why doesn’t the person you’re seeing reply to your texts straight away and always know the exact right thing to say to make you feel good about yourself? Well, my dear, it seems you are stuck in a romance narrative trap.

A what? 

Well, narratives are the stories we tell ourselves about our lives: our values, our pasts, our future ambitions, our identities.  Romance narratives are those that get all gooey and, well, romantic, like when you start to turn that girl/guy you’ve been hooking up with into a possible modern-day-fairy tale before you’ve even discussed politics with them.  Before you get all slushy and defend romance, just realise I’m not attacking all romance, just the romance narratives that are traps…

Whether you’ve been in a long term relationship that doesn’t quite measure up to rom/com standards or you meet someone who gives you butterflies, your brain chemistry goes out of control and all of a sudden you’re a love-zombie, checking your phone every other minute and day-dreaming about your shared future together, you’re in trouble.  Does this sound familiar?  Some people don’t seem to fall into the trap and some fall into the trap so well because it suits them so much that it isn’t even a trap, but I have been falling in and out of this trap for a long time and in the past few years I have been trying to figure out how to avoid it.  Part of the problem with avoiding it is that all those brain chemicals are highly addictive and neptunian-delusional. The other part of the problem is that the romance narrative is just so fucking pervasive.

They read ya Cinderella…

…you hoped it would come true, and one day your prince charming would come rescue you… Anyone remember that song from the 90s? It’s what I think of when I think of romance narrative examples – and IT’S A TRAP! Well, maybe not always, or maybe some traps are quite nice, but we’ve all grown up with unrealistic and unhealthy, bland and thoroughly hetero-normative narratives around romance – Disney is the easiest to blame, but really, it’s everywhere. Hey look, it’s a…

What’s wrong with Aladdin? 

Let’s not go into the insidious racism and sexism, let’s stick to the romance issue here.  So there’s this princess right, and she’s been sheltered and protected all her life and dresses like the genie in I Dream of Genie – and she’s just waiting for her hero, who is this nice, poor kid, with cool monkey who is very fit from running away from the police but, overall, a character with a good alignment (chaotic). You know how the story goes, even if you haven’t seen the movie, because it’s how all these stories go – there’s a bad guy, the hero saves the day with the princess helping out as his sidekick and they sail off into the sunset on their magic carpet: happily ever after.

This is what is supposed to happen, right? 

You’re supposed to meet someone, go through a few trials and tribulations, and then after the plot climax everything’s peachy. I was raised not to believe in happily-ever-afters but my cynicism hasn’t saved me – if anything, it’s only made things worse, putting me at cross-purposes with my brain chemistry addiction.

So what brain chemicals are involved? 

Dopamine: the reward pathway also associated with substances like cocaine and heroin. Dopamine is also known to affect your serotonin levels which can bring on low moods and further the motivation for more dopamine.  So when you don’t get the response you want, or you haven’t had any positive attention for a while the withdrawals kick in… love zombie attack! Yuck. If you’re wondering if he/she is your soul-mate, watching rom/coms imagining yourself and x as the leading characters, altering your appearance in accordance with what x might like… you’re in serious trouble.  Brain chemistry isn’t the only way of looking at this thing… there is all that aforementioned unhealthy-social-programming to deconstruct, “bad” habits to break out of and psychological issues to consider like insecure attachment.

Is it always a trap?

Yes and no. I have come to realise everything is a trap. Some traps are nice, some traps are comfortable, some traps help you feel like you’ve achieved something… saying everything is a trap detracts from the meaningfulness of the word ‘trap’, so we’ll just say it’s a trap when it’s dysfunctional. How does that sound? Is your romance narrative causing you grievous emotional harm? Are you wasting energy waiting for a text of continuously hassling your partner to be more romantic? Are you moping because there’s no one who loves you in ‘that’ way? Well, there you go… TRAP!

But what if x is my soulmate?

If you believe in soul-mates and that reincarnation shiz then take into consideration that a soulmate isn’t someone to give you happily-ever-afters, it’s someone who is here to give you major karmic lessons: lots and lots of pain and suffering, until you figure out how to learn from it and get out of the trap. The more you worry about whether it’s ‘meant to be’, the worse you are making it.  Focus on learning your lessons rather than controlling uncontrollable variables. If something is meant to be it’s not worth worrying about, anyway, is it? It will just happen, whether you like it or not. Don’t get your free-will tied up in your determinism, it’s not sexy.

Okay, I’m in the trap, what can I do?

I don’t have all the answers, but I have read too many self-help books, so here’s some helpful advice:

1. Get some perspective
Step back from the drama of the romance, to stop sinking my energy into crazy fantasies. Don’t turn into a psi-vamp, you’re too good for that, and after a while your friends will stop wanting to hear about x and how awesome or horrible they are. Maybe x is your soulmate, but that’s neither here nor there. In your present life you have other more important shit you could be doing. Do it.

2. Bring it back.
Bring your focus and your energy back to you.  You have been leaching it all over the place and it’s making a mess on the carpet.  I have this mantra which also resembles this 90s song, which ironically has extremely love zombie lyrics if you read the rest of it. Play this song and try to dance like in the music video. Go on.

3. Balance. 
Balance everything – food, sleep, exercise, entertainment, meditation… be calm.

4. Get fulfilling creative interests. 
There’s nothing better than fulfilling creative interests. Do something, make something, build on something. This will get your dopamine pathway functioning more healthily because you are being awesome and getting rewarded for it.

5. Meet ownemotional needs.
Easier said than done, but you really are the most qualified person for the job. Be sensitive to your own feelings and figure out what needs aren’t being met – then find more awesome ways to meet those needs.

6. Stop talking about x all the time, 
Just stop it. stop thinking about it so much, think about cats, cats are nice.