“The future remains uncertain and so it should, for it is the canvas upon which we paint our desires. Thus always the human condition faces a beautifully empty canvas.”
Frank Herbert

Children of Dune

Debt: The First 5000 Years – Thoughts from chapter 2: The Myth of Barter


This is the first, in what may become a series of posts that come from reading Debt: The First 5000 Years.

Chapter 2 talks about the falseness of a core premise of almost all economic thinking that first there was barter (20 chickens for one cow), then came money (2 coin for a chicken, 40 coins for a cow) and then credit. The chapter takes this myth apart drawing on historical evidence and demonstrating that actual credit came first and only later money from which (with a slight mix of potential violence) barter usually emerged. This myth is traced back to Adam Smith who, it turns out, founded economic thought not on science but an imaginary story … a myth.

Beyond the economic argument I was fascinated by yet another example of how what we consider to be “science” is actually “myth” – a story we create to try to make sense of the world. To quote Robert Pirsig:

“The mythos is the social culture and the rhetoric which the culture must invent before philosophy becomes possible … it is the parent of our modern scientific talk.”

We tend, from our modern and relatively young view of “scientific thought” to look down at mythos, failing to appreciate that science is an evolution of myth. This lack of appreciation seems to be causing intellect and scientific thought to spin out of control.

I recently finished reading Teaming With Microbes which talks about the biological food web that makes healthy soils. One of the most destructive things we can do to disturb and diminish soil life also happens to be a pillar of modern agriculture and gardening: plowing (turning soils):

“The age-old agricultural practice of plowing the earth really picked up steam, so to speak, when lawyer Jethro Tull … noticed that vegetables did better in loosened soil and from this concluded that plant roots possessed little mouths and ate soil particles (how else could a plant ingest nutrients?). Believing that loose soil consisted of smaller particles that would more easily fit into root mouths, he developed a horse-drawn hoe to put his theory into practice. His writings later caught the attentionof gentleman farmers like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who encouraged their fellow Americans to break up soils. The end result is that most home gardeners still break up and turn over their soil at least annually, even though we know plant roots don’t eat soil”

It is easy to laught at this when you are 400 years wiser but in its time this was sound logical thinking based on empirical observation with reproducable conclusions that yielded noticeable results. Now we know better … at least we should.

(It may be interesting to note that Jethroy Tull and Adam Smith both operated around the end of the 17th century).

That makes me wonder how much of what is now considered scientifically true will be churned into dust by the unrelenting wheels of time?

It seems that we have a story of the world. Some tangents of that story may be pointing is in a right direction. Other tangents (many? most?) will turn out to be partially wrong if not complete dead ends.

Scientific thought seems to be in high fashion. Not only does it have potential to be (very) wrong but it also seems to be marginalizing other stories which do not fit or even the challenge its paradigm. Despite all that science has provided us, there is plenty of evidence that the story of science itself needs to re-assessed and carefully integrated into a more complete story of the world.


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