Thursday, March 22, 2012

Monkey Business

I can feel my frustration rising when I read genetic and evolutionary explanations of economic behaviour. Then when the debate around them quickly descends into a fight between left & right (or more specifically in this case between MMTers & Austrians) I despair. Look here for a recent example.


Here's the story we're told;

Homo Sapiens have been around for 200 000 years. For most of this time we were hunter-gatherers. Then about 10 000 years ago we started farming. Now we have the internet.

The earliest timings have been established by our understandings of DNA and maths. The Homo genus itself separated from Chimps 5 million years ago, Gorillas 10 million years ago, and Orangutans 14 million years ago. All of this happened by a process of random genetic mutations in combination with natural selection. And roughly speaking we share 99% of our genes with Chimps, 98% with Gorillas, and 97% with Orangutans.

Furthermore, about 50 000 years ago Homo Sapiens somehow become super-monkeys. The other types of Homo eventually disappeared and we were set on a course to micro-blogging modernity.


The debate is whether we became super-monkeys as a result of nature or nurture or some happy coincidence between them. So white-coated scientists prod monkeys and professors speculate on the musings of geologists and climatologists as a story is created about this gene predisposing us to that behaviour in a particular environment.

Don't get me wrong, it's much better to create this story than to just say God done it.

But it's still frustrating.

That's because even when a story of human development can be told that is very convincing and widely accepted - and you may well feel that such a story is told today - the explanation will be split asunder the instant it comes into contact with the social sciences. We may desire monism, but we experience dualism.

So back to where I started. Rather than bringing us together, the story of human development creates a chasm and upon each side a tower of knowledge is constructed. Those in the tower on the right believe that the story told confirms the idea that humans are basically self-interested, those in the tower on the left believe it confirms the idea that humans are basically altruistic. Each side has the strength of consistency, but neither can claim truth while the other exists separately from them. So they throw stones.

We like to look for things that make us different to Chimps and other animals. We think this 'difference' is what makes us Human. Perhaps it's this need for difference that underlies the dualism we experience. I think we'd be better to focus on how the things Chimps do - like fighting and fucking - resonate in the things we do.

I also think that which ever side of the theoretical chasm you're on, you should stop throwing stones and wake up to the idea of ambivalence. Wake up to the knowledge you have of yourself - that central to your nature is your Mind's ability to love and hate something at the same time. It might just be that we can be rational & self-interested AND irrational & altruistic. And if you find this level of self-realisation tricky, read Freud* !


I let someone else make the connection to Money.

"Loving and fighting are the oldest, most exciting (and usually separate) of man’s activities, so that it is perfectly natural to find that payments associated with both are among the earliest forms of money. "

Glyn Davies A History of Money (1994 : p25)



*Civilisation & Its Discontents would be a good starting point.

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