Survival, Success, and Significance: Part 12

In the previous entry in this series about survival, success, and significance, we discussed the transition humans made, from a world governed by limited survival resources, to a world of human made surplus. We saw that this not only changed our ability to survive, but also began to change the very way we thought about the world and ourselves.

In this entry, we will discuss the transition from a world of surplus, still based on survival resources, to an abstract world of success, that could only exist within the human mind.

From Surplus to Success

As we have seen, having a surplus of survival resources, is something that the biosphere has been doing for millions of years. The ability to gather a surplus of vital resources, and to store them within the physical body, has been core to life on this planet.

We now turn to a very different kind of surplus. The kind of surplus that is not dependent on gathering survival resources, and hoarding them inside the physical body, at one time. Since the beginning of our species, the human experience has always been about transcending the limitations imposed at lower levels. Humans can use higher level abstractions, to do with the mind, what could not be done with the body alone.

Here we ask what it means to have a surplus of survival resources, if we are no longer restricted to what we can gather and hoard inside our bodies, at one time.

Something that is very key to understand here, is that the human world is not only decoupled from the natural animal world, in terms of space, but is also decoupled in time. This becomes increasingly important and apparent, the more humans diverge from their animal origins.

Humans have taken the concept of having a surplus of survival resources, and raised it to a more abstract level. For humans, acquiring a surplus of survival resources, is not entirely bound, by the space and time constraints of the animal world.

What happens when a higher level of abstraction, reduces the constraints of space and time? What are the effects if humans are no longer limited by the space of what the body can store internally, or the precise time that nature makes resources available?

The result, is an explosion of new human behaviors, that now become compatible with survival. All of a sudden, many concepts emerge and come into play, that could not exist or be meaningful in the animal world of the past.

  • The concept of “owning” land became meaningful
    • Up to this point, humans mainly settled in hospitable areas, or followed herds around as they grazed.
    • Humans had certainly built shelters, and even villages of shelters for their communities.
    • This pre-existing notion of having land for shelter, changed dramatically when land could be cultivated for agriculture.
    • Suddenly, there is a real sense of actively directing and controlling the land, in a way that would not happen without human intervention.
  • The concept of “investing” became meaningful
    • Once you have this concept of humans directing and intervening, to shape the land in beneficial ways, there starts to be a meaningful concept of investing.
    • Obviously, we are not talking about your index fund or 401k.
    • In this case, the concept of investing, just means expending valuable resources upfront, to gain more value later in time, as a result.
      • That said, this is still the basic underpinning of what we mean by “investing” in the modern world, if you strip away all the particulars of the human economy.
    • Again, there has always been at least some notion of investing, at least in the primitive sense.
    • The natural world provides us with limited resources, so any animal must “invest” time and energy to maximize survival, else they will not be long for this world.
    • The big difference with humans and the advent of farming, is that the concept of investing grows beyond merely a matter of allotting internal resources, and becomes an art unto itself.
    • We would not see it this way in modern times, but building a farm, was like crypto mining for early humans. It was new, it was risky, nobody could really know if it would work long term, or at scale. Yet, the human drives of curiosity and necessity spurred us on, and eventually, our ancestors figured out how to make the “number go up” in terms of crops and other resources.
    • They figured out how to invest human capital in terms of planning, organizing, and deploying human labor.
    • They figured out how to invest material resources in terms of tools, animal labor, and water.
    • Human civilization was able to grow and flourish because our ancestors made some big investments that paid off, well beyond imagination.
    • I’m uncertain if our decedents will give us quite so much credit for leaving them a world full of cryptocurrencies and NFT’s, but it's still early days for Web3.
    • Who is to say what game changer is brewing that we haven’t even recognized.
  • The concept of accumulating and possessing “abundance” i.e., “surplus”, became meaningful
    • There is a pattern that you should be picking up by now, which is that many things exist in some form, long before they are amplified and turned into game changers.
    • Human’s and other animals before us, have always dealt with some basic notions of abundance.
    • Occasionally, a hunt will be very fruitful for a pack of lions, and they may get more than they need to survive.
    • Sporadically, a human tribe may have gathered plants and vegetables, in a particularly rainy season, and they may have gotten more than they expected.
    • When we talk about abundance in this conversation, we are not merely talking about having more than you thought you would get.
    • The game changer is that humans were now able to plan to create abundance, ahead of time, in non-random ways. The importance of this development, cannot be overstated.
    • They had to do this, in numerous instances because it is not possible to grow food all year round, in many places.
    • This means that humans began to view abundance as more than a mere turn of good luck, but rather abundance became a foundation that humans used to build civilization on top of.
    • This was only possible because humans began to have abstract notions about survival, that allowed them to plan to create an “abundance of survival” by changing the land through farming.
  • The concept of trading and bartering became meaningful
    • Trading is not something we see in the animal world, to any degree of complexity.
    • There may be bonobos who will take turns grooming each other, but this is generally as much trading as there is in the animal world.
    • What happened with humans is that decoupling our survival from the natural world, allowed us to engage in behaviors that created an abundance of survival.
    • Having an abundance of survival, in the form of crops, hand made goods, or animal offspring, allowed humans to start “trading” their surplus of survival with others.
    • Abundant supply from one place, could be traded in another place where supply was low and demand was higher.
    • This began to make the concept of “value” meaningful.
    • Again this involves another abstraction because it means that humans could take one kind of resource, like crops, and trade it for another kind of resources, like animal skins etc.
    • It doesn’t seem advanced to us now, but this is actually a radical advance.
    • This forced us to see one kind of resource, not only for its own use, but as a means to acquire other resources, via trading.
    • Again, this is not something that we see in the animal world.
  • Tokens representing value, became meaningful
    • The concept of abstracting and decoupling occurred once again.
    • This time there was a decoupling from directly trading goods, to trading in “tokens”.
    • These “tokens” represented “value”, as an abstraction.
    • This meant that value, in the form of survival resources, could be distant in space and time, from the transaction mediating an exchange of value.
    • This is yet a further abstraction from the natural world.
    • It is another example of how decoupling from the lower level, can allow for a massive expansion of possibilities.
    • This is the origin of money.
  • The concept of “wealth” became meaningful
    • There is really no sense in which animals can be “wealthy”.
    • In order for any concept of wealth to make sense, there needs to be an abstraction above survival, that can be accumulated.
    • This only starts to happen as humans separated from being tightly coupled to the natural world.
  • The concept of “success” in terms of tokenized wealth, became meaningful, i.e., money
    • There is another level of abstraction even on top of having a surplus of survival resources.
    • This higher level abstraction is the concept of stored value, represented in the form of “tokens”.
    • This ability to have a surplus of survival resources, and to trade them for other goods and services, is the precursor to an economy.
    • The element that really catalyzes the development of an economy, is the ability to store and represent value, at a higher level of abstraction above the goods and services, themselves.
    • Here we can notice a familiar pattern repeating itself.
    • Humans decoupled from the natural ebb and flow of the environment, by controlling the production of survival resources via farming.
    • This higher level abstraction, allows humans to dramatically expand the range of behaviors that are compatible with survival.
    • This means that not everyday needs to be spent farming because surpluses, harvested at one time, can be used at another time.
    • The existence of a surplus of survival resources, also means that if the surplus is large enough, not everyone who survives because of the farm, must be working on the farm.
    • With enough of a surplus, some people can branch out and start exploring new activities and behaviors, while still being able to survive because of the surplus generated by farming.
    • The next step is to create a higher level of abstraction to represent the surplus survival resources.
    • These higher level abstractions, can then facilitate trade between people, without needing to have the actual goods and services, present to exchange at that time.
    • Now there is another decoupling from the lower level, only this decoupling is not from the natural world, but a decoupling from lower levels of the human world.
    • This is where the invention of money, becomes crucial.
    • Having a lot of money meant having access to tokens, that represent the ability to acquire a surplus, of survival resources.
    • Going back down the other way, we can see that money represents, surplus survival resources, and surplus survival resources, represent the ability of the animal body to survive.
    • In this way, we can start to see the levels of abstraction that connect abstract financial success, with concrete bodily survival.

Closing Thoughts

In this entry, we discussed the human transition from a world of surplus resources, to an abstract world of success. A world where humans can trade symbolic tokens, to represent any kind of resources, they might want to obtain in the future. Crucially, this world of abstract value, represented in tokens called “money”, could only exist within the narratives of the human mind. It has no relationship to the natural world, and this is a purely human invention.

In the next entry, we will look at this increasing decoupling of humans from the natural world. We will ask how all of these abstract ideas about money and success, came to be tethered, to underlying survival instincts, from our animal bodies. We will discover something surprising about evolution, and its seemingly magical ability, to chain the abstract world, to concrete survival in the natural world.