Mammalian life is social and relational. What defines the mammalian class, physiologically, is not dependence on the female mammary gland or egg-laying but the possession of a portion of the brain known as the limbic system, which allows us to do what other animals cannot: read the interior states of others of our kind. To survive, we need to know our own inner state and those of others, quickly, at a glance, deeply. This is the “something” we see in the eyes of another mammalian creature: the ability to look at the other and know that he or she has feelings, states, desires, that are different from our own; the ability to see the other creature looking back at us, both of us knowing we are separate beings who nonetheless communicate. This is what people mean when they say they communicate with their dogs or cats, horses or bunnies: mammals reading each other. We don’t go looking for this in ants or fish or reptiles; indeed, when we want to say that someone lacks that essential spark of life, we call him “reptilian.” What we mean by this is that he lacks emotions, the ability to relay and read the emotions of others; that he is, in short, robotic.
If sentience is a mammalian trait, and what distinguishes mammals is the capacity for social life, then sentience must have its root in the capacity for rich social and emotional interchange. That is, sentience begins with social life, with the ability of two creatures to transact their inner states—needs, desires, motivations, fears, threats, contentment, suffering, what we call “the emotions.” Moreover, the more avenues a creature has for understanding and expressing its emotional states, the more intelligent we say it is. Ants were not a good place to look for rich social interchange; the logical inference engines of early AI were a particularly poor choice of model; computer software running in the astringent purity of a machine won’t find it. To get at the heart of intelligence, we should have started by looking at the part of human life ordinarily considered “irrational,” the opposite of “logical,” that perennial problem for computers: emotions."Ellen Ullman, “Programming the post-human: Computer science redefines ‘life’”, Harper’s Magazine (found this mammalian summation in an older Harper’s article and can’t think of a better one)
My point is that lacking the terms of religion, essential things cannot be said. Jefferson’s words acknowledge an essential mystery in human nature and circumstance. He does this by evoking the old faith that God knows us in ways we cannot know ourselves, and that he values us in ways we cannot value ourselves or one another because our intuition of the sacred is so radically limited. It is not surprising that the leader of a revolution taking place on the edge of a little-known continent, a man clearly intent on helping to create a new order of things, would attempt an anthropology that could not preclude any good course history might take. Jefferson says that we are endowed with “certain” rights, and that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are “among these.” He does not claim to offer an exhaustive list. Indeed he draws attention to the possibility that other “unalienable” rights might be added to it. And he gives us that potent phrase “the pursuit of happiness.” We are to seek our well-being as we define our well-being and determine for ourselves the means by which it might be achieved.
This epochal sentence is a profound acknowledgment of the fact that we don’t know what we are. If Jefferson could see our world, he would surely feel confirmed in the intuition that led him to couch his anthropology in such open language. Granting the evils of our time, we must also grant the evils of his and the cultural constraints that so notoriously limited his vision. Yet, brilliantly, he factors this sense of historical and human limitation into a compressed, essential statement of human circumstance, making a strength and a principle of liberation of his and our radically imperfect understanding."Marilynne Robinson, “A Common Faith”, Guernica (one of the few writers whose every sentence resonates with me completely. I can’t wait for the new essay collection, from which this one is excerpted.)
People in societies without money don’t barter, not unless they’re dealing with a total stranger or an enemy. Instead they give things to each other, sometimes as a form of tribute, sometimes to get something later in return, and sometimes as an outright gift. Money, therefore, wasn’t created by traders trying to make it easier to barter, it was created by states like ancient Egypt or massive temple bureaucracies in Sumer so that people had a more efficient way of paying taxes, or simply to measure property holdings. In the process, they introduced the concept of price and of an impersonal market, and that ate away at all those organic webs of mutual support that had existed before.
That’s ancient history, literally. So why does it matter? Because money, Graeber argues, turns obligations and responsibilities, which are social things, into debt, which is purely financial. The sense we have that it’s important to repay debts corrupts the impulse to take care of each other: Debts are not sacred, human relationships are."Drake Bennett, “David Graeber, the Anti-Leader of Occupy Wall Street”, Bloomberg Businessweek(Graeber recommends a modern-day, Biblical-style “jubilee”, a forgiveness of all current debts - I couldn’t agree more: “Debts are not sacred, human relationships are.”)