One day in East Africa – deep in our primitive past – an exceptional innovator carved a palm-sized, pear-shaped and razor-sharp ax-head out of stone. This must have revolutionized the ability for their band of hunter-gatherers to hunt, to butcher food… and to wage war on their neighbors.
This was about eleven hundred thousand years ago, long before Homo sapiens had even appeared on Earth. Over time, others learned to copy this stone ax-head – and the innovation spread throughout the relatively small population of pre-humans, known as Homo erectus, or “upright man.”
The identical design of this ax-head has been commonly found at many different archaeological sites throughout different eras. And up to about 100,000 years ago, they were still being made, in exactly the same way, by our Homo sapiens ancestors.
For over a million years, as far as we can tell from the archeological record, this was the extent of human and pre-human innovation. That was it! Nothing new for a million years.
Then, something revolutionary happened… something that changed the nature of humanity and transformed our cultural growth as a species: The world’s first jewelry was invented.
One day, about 80,000 years ago, something new appeared in the heart of Africa. Beads. Made of the shells of a tiny marine snail called Nassarius gibbosulus, the beads were painted and had tiny holes drilled into them.
What was truly transformational, though, wasn’t the beads themselves – it was the mystery they presented. How did beads found at the seashore make their way hundreds of miles to the heart of Africa?
They were brought there. Not as some one-time haul from a murderous raiding party – which would have been the most likely way up to that point for one tribe to get something from another tribe.
No, these beads were part of something new, something that, from any evidence we currently have, had never been seen on the face of the Earth before. And it’s something we take completely for granted today…
This was the first evidence of humans trading with one another. These shells weren’t just jewelry; they were likely used as the first money as well.
Sure, lots of animals do reciprocal things, like picking the lice out of each other’s hair or helping each other with a hunt. But to trade different things or actions of different value was brand-new. I have some meat, you have some berries, and we figure out a mutually agreeable amount of each to barter so we’re both happy…
It’s a win-win.
But then to use something as a medium of exchange – the money we use today, or the painted Nassarius shells our distant ancestors used in Africa – that accelerated the benefits of trade exponentially.
Eventually, our ancestors developed intricate trade networks, inspiring innovation and cooperation that had never been possible before. In a very real sense, trade is what has made us human. It encourages the better angels of our nature – to borrow the title of a magnificent book by Steven Pinker on why violence has declined.
Trade, among other things, encourages curiosity about other people – and therefore empathy. When we trade, there’s a benefit to wondering what other people – who are not members of our immediate family or tribe – are interested in, how they communicate, what their habits and customs are, how to approach them in a peaceful and respectful manner, and what we might bring to them to exchange for something they have that we want. Trade encouraged a whole dimension of curiosity that would never have occurred to our ancestors otherwise.
Before trade, if people from one tribe encountered people from another tribe, the most common interaction would have been war, along with maiming, torture and slavery.
Trade had – and has today – the effect of expanding humanity’s moral circle to include in our circle of concern and empathy people outside of our own group and familiar culture. It’s one of the central reasons for our development of abstract thinking and reasoning and our continuing cultural growth toward greater peace, curiosity, and integration as a species.
Trade has also opened something else brand-new to the world: the practice of specialized creative, productive work.
What can I create today? What can I build today? What kind of service can I provide that other people aren’t yet providing? These are questions that have also transformed us and expanded our minds and abilities to a degree most of us take for granted today.
We can live almost anywhere, from the depths of the oceans to the frozen Arctic to the surface of the moon – even nowhere, in the vacuum of space itself.
Our average life span has grown in just the last century in the United States, from nearly 50 years old to almost 80.
Also in the last century our capacity for abstract reasoning – central to greater empathy – has grown by three IQ points every decade. This means that a person of average IQ today meeting a person of average IQ a hundred years ago would have an IQ – in terms of abstract reasoning ability – 30 points higher – near genius level in comparison.
Trade and the development of specialized creative, productive work have made all of this possible. They have made what were fantastic dreams (at best) just a handful of decades ago into the stuff of everyday life today.
The creation of value is what work is all about. Maybe it’s the value measured in an amount of money. But it can also be the excitement of making something work, solving a problem, pioneering something new or improving the lives of lots of people.
A good example of this is the handheld ultrasound device that can give doctors an instant look inside the body to diagnose a multitude of diseases. Chief Investment Strategist Alexander Green recently discovered the company behind this revolutionary medical technology.
Specialized creative, productive work within a system of trade allows us to spend most of our time getting very good at what we do. That’s because we get paid, so we can earn what we need to live by doing it. It’s also a means of earning success. And earned success is one of the great joys of life.
It’s great to have money, to be able to buy what we want, do what we want and create a sense of security in a volatile world. But money is much more than that.
Understanding what money is – and what a powerful, benevolent and humanizing force the trade that money facilitates has been – can help us to appreciate the meaning that our work has for us, the good that money can bring, and the value of skillfully building and shepherding our investments.