Money is without a doubt a human invention. There are no recorded cases of any animal using an inanimate object to standardise the value of items and establish a non-bartering economy. Since childhood we learn of the value of money and how it can be used to purchase goods and services. In fact, money can be considered one of the fundamental pillars of human society that makes the world go round.
However, scientists have discovered that a currency system may not be such a novel system after all. In an experiment, a group of capuchin monkeys were given silver disks and were shown how they could use the disks as payment for a treat. Within a few months time, the monkeys realised that the disks had inherent value and began acting just like humans with money.
For example, they did not act in the standard way of operant conditioning (i.e. performing an action results in a reward), but responded to market forces in an accurate manner. If the “price” rose, their demand for treats would fall (i.e. buy less) and vice versa – following the law of demand that modern economics is based on. They even learnt to save the “money” to afford treats. In a similar experiment with chimpanzees, it was found that chimps were even quicker in learning the concept of money and even learnt how to use smaller denominations of currency.
Things started to get interesting when a certain monkey sneaked into the chamber storing the “coins” and threw it into the communal cage, quickly escaping before the researchers came back. This was the first recorded case of a monkey bank robbery. While this was happening, it was also observed that one male monkey was giving a female monkey a coin. The researchers wondered if this was an act of altruism or wooing, but soon discovered that the female monkey would receive the coin then have sex with the male, then later use the coin to buy food. The introduction of money immediately led to the invention of prostitution.
According to ancient Greek mythology, a person’s soul must cross five rivers to enter Hades’ underworld after death. Charon ferries souls across the first river, Acheron, also known as the river of pain. To use Charon’s services, one had to pay a silver coin (obolus). If one could not pay the fee, one could not cross the river and would circle the Earth for eternity. Thus, the ancient Greeks had a custom of putting a coin in the deceased’s mouth for their journey.
Even for something as unavoidable as death, Charon asks for money. This not only shows that the ancient Greeks had a good understanding of market economies, but also teaches us something important about capitalism.
Just as the reaper takes a fee, nothing in the world is free. A market is the most effective economy system that man has devised and no other system (especially communism) has overcome it. But we have a tendency to denounce corporations for only taking advantage of poor, helpless citizens. Although there is corruption in reality, corporations are still subject to the invisible hand and bound by the basic principle of capitalism, supply and demand.
We only see the negative sides of capitalism and decry Charon’s greed. “How could you ask a helpless soul for money? Is that not robbery?”, we cry. But such words can only be said by someone who has devised a better system than the market, or found a way to keep Charon well-fed. Instead of criticising the economy or policies, it is far more efficient to think of a way to improve the market system. Blindly criticising and trying to destroy capitalism like Karl Marx did will only result in splitting the world in two and cause everyone to starve to death.
The reason being, money is an invention as important as fire to mankind.