Cooking the Books 2: Strictly for the birds

In his latest book on evolution, The Ancestor’s Tale, Richard Dawkins offers a “sociobiological” explanation for money. Apparently, it goes back to the time when our ancestors were still apes. He supposes an upright ape-man using his freed hands to carry back food to “trade favours” with other members of his troop, and comments:

“Chimpanzees are known to share meat for favours. In historic times, this kind of I.O.U. became tokenised in money” (p. 82).

In a new chapter added to the second edition in 1989 of The Selfish Gene he gave another example: birds needing to have another bird to pick nits off their head since they couldn’t do it themselves. The first bird to nit-pick another has no guarantee that the other bird will reciprocate, but, according to computer models, the ideal situation, which Dawkins says will therefore be brought about by natural selection, is one where all the birds will nit-pick each other in return for being later nit-picked themselves. He again opined “money is a formal token of delayed reciprocal altruism”.

What, you may ask, have meat-sharing chimps and nit-picking birds to do with money? Nothing in fact, but this is typical of how “sociobiologists” attempt to explain a human social practice in terms of biology.

If this sociobiological theory of money were true, this would mean that money would have originated within separate human societies when, supposedly, instead of people doing each other favours for free they started to ask for an IOU which they could later use to get someone else to do them a favour. The trouble is that this is not what anthropologists have discovered about how money began. In The Evolution of Culture, which came out as long ago as 1959, Leslie A. White, wrote: “commercial exchange originated in intersocietal relations”, i.e., between not within societies.

The earliest human societies were communistic; what was gathered and hunted was shared in accordance with customary rules which amounted to “from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs”. There was no barter or money.

Shells and stones found far from where they would normally be indicate that, even in these early days, there could have been some trading between different tribal communities. For millennia this would have been on the basis of barter, but this is not the same as “delayed reciprocal altruism”. Something that took a certain amount of time to produce would exchange for something that took more or less the same time, and immediately on the spot.

Nor did money originate as an IOU. At a later stage, when, after the break-up of tribal communism and the coming of private property, trading became more widespread and began to appear within societies, barter was found to be too cumbersome. What then emerged was something that could be exchanged for anything else a universal equivalent, or money. But the object filling this role had to have a value of its own by virtue of being a product of labour. Otherwise nobody would accept it.

According to White, all sorts of things have served as money in the past: cowrie shells, beads, dog’s teeth, bundles of unthreshed rice, sacks of beans, copper axe blades, cattle. In the end, following developments in the techniques of metallurgy, the precious metals silver and gold emerged as the money-commodity. First as weights, then as coins, then paper and metallic tokens for them. But this evolution had nothing to do with some biological urge in people to do each other favours which they expect to be returned. Money arose out of producing goods for sale instead of directly for use. It will disappear when socialism is established and production for use and distribution “from each according to abilities, to each according to needs” restored.

Dawkins should stick to studying birds (or devouring priests).

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