Money is a formal token of delayed reciprocal altruism

published Nov 14, 2018, last modified Apr 07, 2022

The cornerstone of civilization, in a sentence.

Money is a formal token of delayed reciprocal altruism; a famous statement by Richard Dawkins.

What does that mean?

  • Formal: more than just a handshake.
    Handshake deals are generally not transferable to others.
  • Token: represents value.
    Money allows you to store and account for value.
  • Delayed: the value moves with you over time.
    Money allows you to keep value over time.
  • Reciprocal: you receive or give value in exchange for value.
    Money is a common medium of exchange.
  • Altruism: it’s all favors, all the way down.
    Money is just a tool that allows you to account for them.

When you get paid, that's gratitude you are receiving.  When you pay, that's gratitude you're expressing.

Before money, people stored debts of gratitude in their heads, and used cumbersome barter to pay or collect those debts. After money, that inevitable fact of human life got greatly streamlined and sped up.

This conceptualization of money is the cornerstone of civilization.  If you don't understand money as the above, you are going to have a very, very difficult time being successful in the world today.

I'll now leave you with what, perhaps, is the greatest essay on money ever.