Re-designing Money for 21st Century Primates

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John Wood gave this talk on 15th March 2018
by invitation from Positive Money UK

ABSTRACT - Over the last fifty years, despite persistent criticism of the economics of growth, little has changed. This discussion paper calls for the design of currency systems that are responsive to the living world. And, in order to challenge the principles behind unit-based currencies it adopts an evolutionary perspective. Money has been highly effective in mobilising optimism, and in encouraging innovative technologies. On the other hand, its instrumental nature led to a worldview that imbues inanimate things with greater value than living things. Money was introduced around five thousand years ago, in order to enable empires to outgrow the limits of convivial teamwork. It subsequently catalysed other formative innovations, such as farming, alphabetical writing, categorical logic, bureaucracy, clocks, computers, etc. For example, whereas the logic of unit-based currencies is granular and autonomous, ecosystems act heuristically and interdependently. Certain cognitive skills needed to conceptualise money probably emerged around forty thousand years ago, although it is likely these were informed by our three million years of prior experience as miners and tool-crafters. This would explain the 'objectifying' properties of money, and why early mathematical thinking is incommensurate with living systems. When we try to separate, count, cost and distribute living systems we make them conform to the arithmetic of simple division and the economic ‘law of diminishing returns’. This analogy derives from mining, rather than from how living things flourish and evolve. However, it remains attractive to speculators and managers because it offers predictive generalisations that rely on a few parameters, such as price, scarcity, and resource allocation. What it overlooks is that relationships and opportunities are more abundant and valuable than things. Whereas (Western) number systems use immutable boundaries, the opportunities and synergies made possible through combination are borderless and countless. This reminds us that a creative economy invokes a more complex 'law of increasing returns'. By seeing networks (e.g. currency users) as sets of auspicious relations, rather than as discrete agents (e.g. players and products), it would be possible to create currency system based on (re)combinations and synergies, rather than resources and efficiencies. A useful starting point is Euler's Law (1751), which highlights 'natural' potential profits when shifting from a granular to a relational perspective. A relational approach promises more beneficiaries. However, it requires modes of creative (i.e. combinatorial) thinking that operate in parallel with one another. Using this insight, we need to ensure that money encourages its users to cultivate a diversity-of-diversities, from which to harvest an ultimate 'synergy-of-synergies'.

This was a talk:

In my presentation I outlined some terms of reference and offered a wish list for currency designers. I also asked why community services use cumbersome monetary systems that were designed for vast empires. I tried not to moralise about trends, ideologies, or human behaviour because, as Buckminster Fuller has argued, we should 'reform the environment' instead of trying to change human beings. I discussed the fallibility and potential of human beings in evolutionary terms, suggesting that a radical re-design of money should aim to bring out the best, rather than the worst, in us. I argued that the context of this task should be the role of money within the vulnerable web of life we are now calling the 'anthropocene'. Not least, it should also help us to reflect upon mankind's possible purpose, here.


Nasenaffe Semnopithecus Nasalis
square-50cm-spacer.jpg Proboscis monkey

The history of human civilisation is a story of scaling-up human activities beyond our comfort zones. In order to create cities, nations and empires, we traded in our freedom in exchange for technological dependency and alienation. In the last 10K years, human behaviour has been transformed by many revolutionary tools, ideas and technologies, such as ploughs, alphabetical writing, money, categorical logic, bureaucracy, clocks, cars, computers and robotics. Money stands out in this list, because it catalyses the others. By reforming money in a way that accommodates the cognitive limitations and spiritual needs of our species, we might save ourselves from imminent extinction. This might mean switching to a more 'relational' currency system that encourages useful acts of combination, rather than objectifying the world as 'things' to make a profit.

Invisible Hands

In a satirical publication of 1704, Gerard Mandeville joked that, by harnessing greed, money would soon 'trickle down' to the needy. It is now three hundred years since Adam Smith took his idea seriously and published the highly influential idea of the 'invisible hand' (1776). By now, the joke is wearing rather thin, especially when the richest one per cent now own fifty per cent of the planet's wealth. Defenders of the status quo might argue that poverty is cause by sociological, psychological, or circumstantial factors. Others, believe that, to a large extent, poverty is designed (Yunus). If so, we can re-design money to suit the needs of the moment.

square-50cm-spacer.jpg Chimpanzee Male White Background
square-50cm-spacer.jpg Monkey Joke:
square-50cm-spacer.jpg Q: what trickles up, instead of down?
square-50cm-spacer.jpg A: Money - because humans can't resist getting another zero on their bank balances.

Imagining Paradigm Change

Since the 1970s, the global economy has more than doubled in size and average life expectancy has significantly increased. Over the same period a major part of the Earth's biological carrying capacity has gone. We have lost half of our vertebrate species and are awaiting the sixth great extinction. The Invisible Hand of Money is behind virtually all of these changes. In the meantime, politicians continue to call for unremitting economic growth. It is time for a paradigm change. However, we may need more than expert guidance, as those who know most about the current paradigm may be ill equipped to imagine the next one. Until fairly recently, orthodox economics confined itself to discussions of price, scarcity, and resource allocation (Galbraith, 1975; Douthwaite, 1999; Graeber, 2012). We need heretics and dreamers, as they might lead us to the opportunities that the current paradigm is hiding from us. ''

Costing the Earth

Deepwater Drilling Systems 2

Early currencies used natural materials with a rarity value, such as salt, or gold. One advantage of using a finite commodity for money is that extracting more from the ground can increase its circulation. But this also reflects the peculiarly human tendency to collect symbolic, or abstract trophies. A problem with this system is that it may encourage competition from other collectors, which leads to speculation. The process inspired 17th century thinkers, such as Descartes, to postulate the ‘law of diminishing returns’, which remains an influential idea in the world of money. As Alfred Marshall, the influential 19th century economist explained it: “the more coal you dig, the more you are forced to exploit less favourable resources”. In this bleak scenario, prices get reduced to the average cost of production. The return for your effort is reduced and the gap between winners and losers increases. Although this idea may still seem hard to refute, we can no longer afford a monetary system that reflects the pessimistic logic of fossil fuels, such as coal, oil, or gas. A surprisingly primitive aspect of some cryptocurrencies is that they resemble commodity currencies by having an upper limit on the number of coins that can be issued. Unlike salt and gold, they have no use-value. Worse, the monstrous quantity of energy needed to 'mine' cryptocurrency numbers is attracting prospectors to countries that offer cheap electricity from coal.

Dead Systems v. Living Systems

The diagram below polarises different ideas in classical science. Although each originated from direct observations and measurements, they led to different conclusions, benefits and opportunities. In the diagram below, the physical sciences are represented on the left-hand side. The right-hand side represents the sciences of living organisms.

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The Science of Classical Physics
The Science of Living Organisms
Physics is appealing because it offers certainty and, therefore, provides some useful technological rules. Currently, it sees the universe as a fundamentally dissipative (i.e. entropic) system. This suggests that, like a mechanical clock, the world will wind down and stop. As such, it is very likely to obey the 'Law of Diminishing Returns'. However, quantifying the behaviour of dead things is a misleading starting point for the people at the centre of business, or politics, because our Sun is expected to provide free energy for the next few billion years. Although the life sciences have tried hard to emulate the more predictive nature of maths and physics, the behaviour of living systems is volatile and precocious. Nonetheless, currency designers might learn more useful lessons from living systems than from non-living ones. For example, although biological organisms have a limited lifespan, they evolve, work symbiotically with other species and adapt to their environment as it changes. Where mechanistic systems apply reductionist principles, living organisms thrive on complexity and diversities. They replenish themselves and exchange energy and information in exceedingly frugal and retentive ways.

Homo sapiens?

Although scientists know only around 12% of the species on Earth, they tell us that our actions are triggering a cascade of extinctions that will drastically reduce the Earth's capacity to sustain us. In short, Homo sapiens is not as wise as its name suggests. Money has had a huge impact on the re-shaping of Earth's ecosystem (i.e. the anthropocene). This is managed by massive currency systems that dissipate precious assets on a truly industrial scale. They are regulated unilaterally, by central banks, which make fiscal adjustments in order to get people behaving the way that governments and the corporations like. Instead, we can learn from ecosystems. The first living organisms emerged some 3.8 billion years ago. Since then, all life forms have been cellular in structure, with semi-permeable boundary walls between the 'inside' and the 'outside' worlds. This 'localist' design ensures that energy and information is conserved within an extraordinarily frugal economy. At the macro level, collective survival is sustained via interdependencies set up among a hugely diverse set of species and populations. What is notable about these systems is the emergence of many kinds of synergy.

Quantum Accountancy


We parted company with our Chimpanzee cousins around five million years ago then, at some point, acquired the powers of abstract reasoning that distanced us from other primates. It is possible that a major leap took place when our brain sizes increased, somewhere between 40,000–50,000 years ago. However, unit-based money has only been around for the last five thousand years, which means that we are unlikely to use it as competently as we do when shaping tools, preparing food, or telling stories. In terms of human capability, designing a more Positive Money will mean reconciling the dumbest and most enlightened ways of thinking. Our cognitive development was shaped, in part, by the experience of mining minerals, tool-shaping and moving weighty objects around. As a result, Homo sapiens is able to juggle small numbers better than monkeys, but not much better. On the other hand, today's physicists can now teleport atoms across vast distances and calculate using quantum logic. These insights gained from these will introduce radically new kinds of reasoning that defy the old logic of arithmetic and accountancy. I hope they will help us to design a more Positive Money.

Short-term Thinking

Another difference between human beings and other primates is the ability to imagine, and to plan for, long term futures. With a reasonably good schooling, we should also have a basis from which to make rational choices between short-term gratification and actions that will achieve greater benefits in the long-term. What Garret Hardin called the ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ (1968) was his theory that our brains evolved when the world was under-populated, and when nature would soon recover from anything we did to it. Using this old mathematical logic, removing just one more ancient forest can be viewed from two different perspectives. For the individual logger’s family it might represent a relatively significant contribution to the family food cupboard. By contrast, harm to all of us from the cutting down of the forest will seem negligible when divided by the number of people in the world (i.e. all) who will suffer from it. A problem with the current system of money is that it does not help its users to make these decisions. Hence, it does not reflect the possible damage, or benefit, that its spending may cause, whether for private gain, or for common wealth.

Our Monkey Minds

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Whereas monkeys (esp. Bonobo) use sex, or other intimate grooming practices, to manage cooperative processes, today's humans more often use money to achieve similar outcomes. Georg Simmel has described human beings as "indirect, purposive beings", which suggests that we prefer to use technology, rather than deal with political issues on a face-to-face basis. In this context, we might regard money as an instrument of power. As he said, it is "the purest example of the tool" (Simmel, 1900). We have been making things for three million years, and the part of the brain that manages language is also active when we extract stuff from the ground, fashion hand-size objects and, even, speak about what we did. This is reflected in the metaphors we use when we speak of 'projecting' figures, 'pitching' for 'investment' or 'making' money. Similarly, in order to 'exploit' a situation, or 'leverage' a deal, we 'fabricate' a 'pitch'. Some go so far as to 'stitch up' rivals and competitors. In effect, money is a superset of all the gadgets and implements that we would have to use if we couldn't pay others to carry out our wishes.

Unit-Based Money

Promiste To Pay Five Pounds

Around 10 thousand years ago (a very recent event, in evolutionary terms) Homo sapiens swapped hunting and gathering for the more sedentary practices of farming. This led to food surpluses that enabled small tribes to grow into large trading and warring empires. By this time, we were already accustomed to barter (100,000 and 35,000 years ago). According to David Graeber, unit-based money emerged from the quest for imperialist expansion, around five thousand years ago, when rulers needed to coordinate large groups across increasingly large territories. This meant that their soldiers had to travel far beyond their own locality, where they would have enjoyed a spirit of reciprocal trust. Graeber's idea of "I owe you one" became formalised into a generic promissory note, authorised and signed by the ruler. Even if a given soldier did not return to the place he had spent the money, the debt would, eventually, be covered.


As empires continued to expand, the bureaucratic task of recording tributes and taxes received from remote dependencies was replicated and extended into more and more areas of public and private life. Eventually, it became a significant source of alienation between people. Today, governments routinely seek to change our behaviour via fiscal targets, penalties, and inducements, These, however, are inefficient (Meadows, 1999) because they are secondary processes that make us distant from or, even, resentful of, their underlying purpose. Nonetheless, these methods have enabled corporations to size-up and use quasi-colonial methods. Automation has speeded up the process to the point where money can be transferred 'faster than the speed of thought'. With robotics and AI systems playing a greater part, we will see a rise in 'shadow work', whereby customers participate in indirect transactions in which the customer will never meet the service provider on a face-to-face basis (e.g. self-service petrol pumps and supermarket check-outs).

Marx's notion of alienation:
  1. Capitalism alienates the workers from the products they make (they could not afford to buy them)
  2. Capitalism alienates the workers from their freedom to create other products in a new, more spontaneous way
  3. Capitalism alienates the workers from their capacity to engage imaginatively with others (i.e. their 'species-essence' - German: 'Gattungswesen')
  4. Capitalism alienates the workers from their autonomy in society (when they are made to be tradable commodities).

After some developments in the 20th century (e.g. 'gaming', social media, robotics and AI systems) we could add these:

A Focus on Money:
  1. Money alienates individual consumers from the sources / manufacture / distribution of products
  2. Money alienates individual humans from other creatures in the food chain
  3. Money alienates local communities become alienated from themselves via social media
  4. Money alienates citizens become alienated from their responsibilities as ecological beings (e.g. via government legislation, subsidy, taxation).

Managerial Hierarchies

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What I described as the social 'alienation' intrinsic to money has even more important ramifications for what I call the 'organisational consciousness' of large groups. In almost all cases, organisations that grow above a certain size are forced to standardise roles and to assign managers. Adding additional links to a chain always incurs additional risk. Similarly, as you 'lengthens' a hierarchical chain of management, the ‘personal responsibility’ that was a vital element in small teams becomes replaced by ‘managerial accountability’. Thus, larger group sizes inevitably reduce the average quality of exchanges on a personal (peer-to-peer) level. Although clear messages may swiftly pass downward through the organisation, the upward flow of data is commonly filtered, or blocked by intermediaries. This is a serious problem for very large organisms (e.g. economies) in which decision-making is conducted by leaders who have very poor access to what is happening on the ground. This explains why large organisations may find it hard to adapt to new situations. Again, we can learn much from the way ecosystems manage themselves (Kauffman, 1995; Pimm, 1997).

Dunbar's Number

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Today, our ancestors, the chimpanzees, live in groups of up to thirty or so. Since our evolutionary paths separated, some five million years ago, humans now have a larger brain size that affords us an enhanced cognitive ability. According to anthropologist Robin Dunbar, this means that modern humans can sustain convivial relationships in group sizes that are bigger than any other animal. He estimates an upper limit of about 150 people. This is a useful benchmark for discussing alienation and 'organisational consciousness', as Dunbar's number is more than a personal knowledge of each individual in the group. It also includes a working knowledge of all the relations among all of the people in the group.

Fig. 1 - A mapping of selected agents - the lines depict their interrelations

The chart above depicts a group of 20 members, not all of of whom have effective relationships with all of their neighbours or colleagues.

The following equation can be used to calculate how many relations exist among n number of agents:

R = {(n-1) x n} /2

R = maximum number of relations among agents

n = number of agents

In Fig. 1, if each individual were to be linked with each of the others, there would be 190 relationships in all. In a group of thirty, this means being conversant with 435 relationships. Dunbar's number implies knowing about ten, or eleven thousand.

Managing Alpha Male Behaviour

Where groups are managed in an autocratic, hierarchical fashion, scaling up has additional implications. Each chimpanzee group is usually led by one alpha male, who manages unruly behaviour by punishing individuals. As these groups have a maximum size of only a few dozen, the negative impact of alpha male behaviour does not lead to a general social of ecological crisis. However, in human organisations, we commonly see corporations and nations consisting of tens of thousands or, even, hundreds of millions of members. Behavioural research has indicated that, although the average human being is peaceful and altruistic, a selfish minority of sociopaths may be drawn to senior positions within organisations. Here, money can play a role in attracting unscrupulous or, even, corrupt behaviour. This can become an addictive process, which may lead to acquired narcissistic behaviour (Monbiot, 2017). Where this happens in the political arena, this can become a significant threat to human, and to non-human, populations.

The Glow of Money

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As we can see from history books, the habit of issuing promissory banknotes, underwritten by monarchs, enabled tiny minorities to sustain vast, profligate empires. We now find it normal for commercial corporations to use similar methods within the global consumer economy. Just as emperors could snap their fingers and achieve their ambitions at a distance, so, today's consumers can click a mouse and have their chosen goods and services delivered to their front doors. For some, the act of spending is an addictive process. Here, the design of a complex and sophisticated transactional system also harnesses the power of money itself. Much of the ancient allure of money is because of its radical lack of quality. Indeed, as Georg Simmel noted, "the quality of money consists exclusively in its quantity”. In effect, this absence of quality or, rather, lack of specificity, encourages us to imagine many different possible ways to spend it. Hence, as he also said: "regardless of the amount, the liveliness of attached hopes gives money a ‘glow’" (Simmel, 1900, p. 259).


Grant Mechanical Calculating Machine 1877

Our long history of mining and shaping of discrete objects has inspired a set of assumptions and habits in which we organise the world by objectifying and quantifying everything. We are attracted to money. It harnesses our excitement, and impels us toward unknown futures. We discovered this anticipatory feature of money several thousand years ago, when we needed to defeat collective pessimism in times of famine and scarcity. The institutionalisation of credit (e.g. in the 'futures' markets) was a useful way to encourage more transactions. The first known futures market probably comes from the Code of Hammurabi (1750 BC) , which established a legal basis for delivering assets at a future date (Urch, 1929). But it has become a routine part of capitalism's repertoire that drives habits of waste that are as needless as they are reckless. Today, the drive for economic growth is so successful that we are killing untold numbers of creatures. Why did this not happen before? Our primate cousins dispose of unwanted things all the time, yet without pausing to think of the consequences. We are not much different, but we inhabit a world of artificial products that are often non-biodegradable, inedible, or even toxic to other species. This economic mind set blinds us to the fact that relations are more numerous (and valuable) than things.

Synergy Replaces Profit

Salt Synergy
Combination of 2 poisonous materials to make a foodstuff

In the future, provided we begin to value, and cultivate, a diversity-of-diversities, our most precious assets will be local synergies, rather than single products and cash crops. In order to obtain synergies we need to work at a relational level. This has not been obvious from orthodox economics, which still tends to regard commodities (e.g. sacks of X, barrels of Y, or 'n' number of slaves), as discrete units. However, in practical terms, no single material or product is of any use unless it synchronised nicely with something else. Inherent in this approach is a natural profit. For example, in a musical duet you can hear two voices, but you also hear an additional sound, which is the combination of the two. This is a synergy. Making new things by combining existing ones is likely to be cheaper than extracting new materials from the ground. Innovative combinations create new synergies, which can be seen as additional abundances. Although most of us are taught to see the world as a set of 'things' it is not too difficult to begin to innovate in terms of relations.

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In the above example, 2 ingredients create only 1 relation.

Euler's Intrinsic Profit

Moreover, we can get even more 'profit' by simultaneously combining clusters of things, rather than by working with two.

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The more ingredients we use, the more relations we can have.
3 ingredients give us the same number of relations (i.e. 3)

But 4 ingredients may give us 4, 5 or 6 relations depending on how it is mapped.

The tetrahedron is simply a way to illustrate the maximum number of relations (i.e. the tetrahedron's 6 edges) that we can obtain from combining 4 things (i.e. shown as its 4 nodes).

  • It is probably the most important (and underestimated) aspect of the tetrahedron.
  • It is special because of its ratio of edges and vertices (corners).
  • In our terms, this gives us 2 more relations than ingredients.

Fig. 2 - Other polygons - Buckminster Fuller's C60 carbon molecules

Euler (1707-83) explains this is a visual way by showing it in terms of polygons. Here, the vertices = 'things' and the lines = the relations between the things. Once you begin to combine more than three things at once, you get a natural 'profit' of at least 2 additional relations.

  • Euler's Law (1751) states that V + F = E + 2 where -
    • V represents the number of vertices
    • F represents the number of faces
    • E represents the number of edges

If these relations can be designed to operate as useful synergies, then there can be benefits for more stakeholders. Buckminster Fuller's identified this as a potential gift from Nature. He called it 'constant relative abundance'.

Relational Mathematics

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Relations are much more than ratios. When distributing a finite number of equal 'things', ratios (perhaps, in the form of fractions, or percentages) may be helpful. However, relations cannot be represented adequately without including a rich set of relevant intrinsic qualities, in addition to their context. Working with simple ratios invokes a 'Law of Decreasing Returns' because these relational qualities are missing. Instead, by focusing more on relations, rather than on the parts they comprise, it is possible to harness the 'Law of Increasing Returns'. As Paul Romer said, “...possibilities do not add up. They multiply.” (Romer, 1991). This suggests that money should be used to trade in synergies, rather than in quantities.

Relational Money

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Gregory Bateson noted that the board game 'Monopoly' invokes zero-sum rules in which one player can end up owning 100% of the assets in the game. He pointed out that such a concept would be ecologically impossible. This is partly because our (in the UK, our Norman) concept of ownership has been dissociated from active responsibility. In any case, we lack a suitable mathematics, or grammar, of relations. This is a problem for those who confine themselves to understanding remunerated, rather than altruistic, or voluntary deeds. This is partly because relationships are emergent, therefore a useful (i.e. predictive) mathematics of relations is likely to be virtually impossible. In other words, the numbers of potential synergies that are made possible when things combine together are countless.

Natural Profit From Innovation

Hidden in this realisation is a natural numerical 'profit', provided we learn how to think in multiple relations. For example, once you start to think beyond three (things), you will always create more relations than the number of things themselves. When we set up a relationship we might, therefore, expect to get more out than what we put in. In percentage terms this amounts to more than 100% of what we started with. When we analyse the mathematical ratios between the number and team members and the number of relationships among them, this anomaly begins to make sense. Hence,

  • In a team of 8, each team member is responsible for 25% of all relations
  • In a team of 4, each team member is responsible for 50% of all relations
  • In a team of 3, each team member is responsible for 66.6% of all relations
  • In a team of 2, each team member is responsible for 100% of all relations

Brief to Money Designers

  1. What would be the scale of the currency? - circulation restricted to <150 heterogeneous users.
  2. Who will issue the money? - any team (combination of members) of this autonomous community
  3. Where will it be created? - within a firewall-intranet that is impervious to outside purview
  4. Why would members use it? - to manage the production or exchange of food/shelter/mobility/clothing
  5. What would give the money its value? - multiple likely benefits to users
  6. How would it be created? - cryptocurrency value bonds that exist as promises to fulfil needs of the 150 users
  7. When would it be created? - whenever creative working relationships spring up
  8. How well would it work? - we don't know yet...needs testing.

Other Suggested Criteria_

  1. It must make sense to (monkey) minds.
    • (e.g. emotionally, metaphorically, metonymically and haptically)
  2. Qualities-currency, issued by peers
  3. Relational & moderated by peers
  4. Self-reflexive (responds + adapts to users)
  5. Focuses more on relations than things
  6. Coinage lifespan of one crop-year
  7. Links to other (e.g. larger) currencies
  8. Trades with other currencies
  9. Value reflects current biodiversity’s


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