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.



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