Did Money Evolve? You Might (Not) Be Surprised

November 25th, 2015

You probably won’t be surprised to know that exchange, trade, reciprocity, tit for tat, and associated notions of “fairness” and “just deserts” have deep roots in humans’ evolutionary origins. We see expressions of these traits in capuchin monkeys and chimps (researchers created a “cash economy” where chimps were trained to exchange inedible tokens for food, then their trading behaviors were studied), in human children as young as two, in domestic dogs, and even in corvids — ravens and crows.

But humans are unique in this as in many other things. We use a socially-constructed mechanism to effect and mediate that trade — a thing we call “money.” What is this thing? What does it mean to say that it’s “socially constructed”? What are the specifics of that social construct? How does it work?

Money has lots of different meanings when you hear it in the vernacular. A physical one- or five-dollar bill is “money,” for instance (“Hands up and gimme all your money!”). But so is a person’s net worth, or wealth (“How much money do you have?”), even though dead presidents on paper or even checking-account balances are often insignificant or ignored in tallies of net worth (think: stocks, bonds, real estate, etc.).

You might think you could turn to economists for an understanding of the term. Not so. They don’t have an agreed-upon definition of “money.” The closest they come is a tripartite “it’s used as” description that completely begs the question of what money is: It’s used as a medium of account, as a medium of exchange, and as a medium of storage. I and many others have pointed out the myriad problems with this tripartite non-definition. Start by asking yourself: what in the heck do they mean by “medium” in each of those three? You’ll often hear economists speak of (undefined) “monetary assets,” “monetary commodities,” and similar, attempting to communicate in absence of a definition.

When economists speak of the “money supply” (a stock measure, not a flow measure as suggested by “supply”), they are gesturing toward a body of financial securities that are somewhat currency-like. Primarily: they’re used in exchanges for real-world goods and services, and have fixed values relative to the unit of account — e.g. “the dollar” (think: “the inch”). They assemble various “monetary aggregates” of these currency-like things — MB (the “monetary base”), M0, M1, M2, M3, and MZM (“money of zero maturity”). Here’s a handy chart on Wikipedia.

This conflation of “money” with currency-like financial securities reveals a basic misunderstanding of money that pervades the economics profession. That misunderstanding is based on a fairly tale.

In the golden days of yore, it is told, all exchange was barter. Think: Adam Smith’s imagined bucolic butcher and baker village. This worked fine, except that your milk wasn’t necessarily ready and to hand when my corn came ripe. And moving all those physical commodities around was arduous. This inserted large quantities of sand and mud into the gears and wheels of trade.

But then some innovator came up with a great invention — physical currency! Coins. “Money.” This invention launched humanity forward into its manifest destiny of friction-free exchange and the glories of market capitalism.

Except, that’s not how it happened. No known economy was ever based on barter. And coins were a very late arrival.

The best efforts at understanding the nature and origins of money have come from anthropologists, archaeologists, and historians who actually study early human commerce and trade, and from various associated (“heterodox”) fringes of economic thinking. David Graeber recounts much of this history (though unevenly) in Debt: The First 5,000 Years. Randall Wray, a leading proponent of the insurgent and increasingly influential Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) school of economics, has offered up some great explications. (Though even he is reduced, at times, to talking about “money things.”) If you’re after a gentle introduction, Planet Money has a great segment on money’s rather vexed history and odder incarnations.

The main finding from all this: the earliest uses of money in recorded civilization were not coins, or anything like them. They were tallies of credits and debits (gives and takes), assets and liabilities (rights and responsibilities, ownership and obligations), quantified in numbers. Accounting. (In technical terms: sign-value notation.) Tally sticks go back twenty-five or thirty thousand years. More sophisticated systems emerged six to seven thousand years ago (Sumerian clay tablets and their strings-of-beads predecessors). The first coins weren’t minted until circa 700 BCE — thousands or tens of thousands of years after the invention of “money.”

These tally systems give us our first clue to the nature of this elusive “social construct” called money: it’s an accounting construct. The earliest human recording systems we know of — proto-writing — were all used for accounting.* So the need for social accounting may even explain the invention of writing.

This “accounting” invention is a human manifestation of, and mechanism for, reciprocity instincts whose origins long predate humanity. It’s an invented technique to do the counting that is at least somewhat, at least implicitly, necessary to reciprocal, tit-for-tat social relationships. It’s even been suggested that the arduous work of social accounting — keeping track of all those social relationships with all those people — may have been the primary impetus for the rapid evolutionary expansion of the human brain. “Money” allowed humans to outsource some of that arduous mental recording onto tally sheets.

None of this is to suggest that explicit accounting is necessary for social relationships. That would be silly. Small tribal cultures are mostly dominated by “gift economies” based on unquantified exchanges. And even in modern societies, much or most of the “value” we exchange — among family, friends, and even business associates — is not accounted for explicitly or numerically. But money, by any useful definition, is so accounted for. Money simply doesn’t exist without accounting.

Coins and other pieces of physical currency are, in an important sense, an extra step removed from money itself. They’re conveniently exchangeable physical tokens of accounting relationships, allowing people to shift the tallies of rights and responsibilities without editing tally sheets. But the tally sheets, even if they are only implicit, are where the money resides.

This is of course contrary to everyday usage. A dollar bill is “money,” right? But that is often true of technical terms of art. This confusion of physical tokens and other currency-like things (viz, economists’ monetary aggregates, and Wray’s “money things”) with money itself make it difficult or impossible to discuss money coherently.

What may surprise you: all of this historical and anthropological information and understanding is esoteric, rare knowledge among economists. It’s pretty much absent from Econ 101 teaching, and beyond. Economists’ discomfort with the discipline’s status as a true “social science,” employing the methodologies and epistemological constructs of social science — their “physics envy” — ironically leaves them bereft of a definition for what is arguably the most fundamental construct in their discipline. Likewise for other crucial and constantly-employed economic terms: assets, capital, savings, wealth, and others.

Now to be fair: a definition of money will never be simple and straightforward. Physicists’ definition of “energy” certainly isn’t. But physicists don’t completely talk past each other when they use the word and its associated concepts. Economists do when they talk about money. Constantly.

Physicists’ definition of energy is useful because it’s part of a mutually coherent complex of other carefully defined terms and understandings — things like “work,” “force,” “inertia,” and “momentum.” Money, as a (necessarily “social”) accounting construct, requires a similar complex of carefully defined, associated accounting terms — all of which themselves are about social-accounting relationships.

At this point you’re probably drumming your fingers impatiently: “So give: what is money?” Here, a bloodless and technical term-of-art definition:

The value of assets, as designated in a unit of account.

Which raises the obvious questions: What do you mean by “assets” and “unit of account”? Those are the kind of associated definitions that are necessary to any useful definition of money. Hint: assets are pure accounting, balance-sheet entities, numeric representations of the value of goods (or of claims on goods, or claims on claims on…). That’s where I’ll go in my next post.

Sneak preview: we’ll start by thinking carefully about another (evolved?) human social construct without which assets don’t, can’t, exist — ownership.

* Some scholars believe repeated symbolic patterns going back much further, in cave paintings for instance, embodied early “writing,” but that is widely contested, and nobody knows what the symbols — if they are symbols — represented.

Cross-posted at Evonomics.

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