animal spirits

One of my favourite terms in finance is “animal spirits” — the Keynesian economics concept to describe the emotional and irrational decisions within the capital markets. As Keynes articulates: a spontaneous urge to action. Of course, this urge is subconscious and is usually seen in a negative light. I mean, just imagine if we had the ability to toggle our primal instincts at will, akin to something like Beast Boy from the DC Comics universe. I did some more digging and found scientific validation behind the social psychology: the animal spirit behind a market bull run is testosterone, and the animal spirit behind a bear run is cortisol. Bulls and bears are the cornerstone animals of corporate land, manifested in never-ending cycles of human hype and stress.

It's funny to roast securities investors for playing into these brutish stereotypes. But as clever creatures on this Earth ourselves, it's clear that our attachment to animalistic energy extends beyond the technical trading world.

To explore the role of animals in our lives, I propose an easy thought experiment with simple wordplay: what if we just invert the phrase? Animal Spirits >>> Spirit Animals. Okay, now we're suddenly in some abstract territory. I've always used the concept of spirit animals half-jokingly, half-metaphorically — my spirit animal is an alpaca — but I've never quite considered this more deeply. Why do we even use these types of comparisons? Outside of me just adoring the animal, what does it mean for me to connect with an alpaca? Do the spawns of Satan of the animal kingdom, aka Canadian geese, really have any redeeming qualities?

Down the rabbit hole we go. All lame animal puns aside, it's fascinating to me that the origin of “spirit animals” can be traced to Native American spirituality, embodied as totems. In this context, animals play the sacred roles of guides and protectors. That's probably why unique stories that involve an inconspicuous meeting with a seemingly random animal are held with such reverence. I'd love to think my 2017 fateful encounter with a wild zebra in the Serengeti, flushed with intimate eye contact, was some sort of divine blessing. A boy can dream!

Aside from the mythical connotations, it turns out we can learn so much more from animals. It also turns out that many technological advances have been as a direct example of observing and studying animals for eons: their forms, functions, features. How they move, how they mate, how they mature... all intricate combinations of genetic diversity, evolutionary biology, and cross-ecosystem interactivity. Sound familiar? Yup, the human experience has a similar tune. Some of my favourite animal fast facts: iridescent butterfly wings as the basis for anti-counterfeiting stamps, the albatross' non-flapping flight patterns for drone design, gecko eyes for multifocal camera and contact lenses.

I find literary explorations of animal life especially enthralling. One of my favourites: to live as we're meant to, to focus on our individual growth and goals, to never give up — Annie Dillard's raw piece Living Like Weasels depicts this:

"A weasel is wild. Who knows what he thinks? He sleeps in his underground den, his tail draped over his nose. Sometimes he lives in his den for two days without leaving. Outside, he stalks rabbits, mice, muskrats, and birds, killing more bodies than he can eat warm, and often dragging the carcasses home. Obedient to instinct, he bites his prey at the neck, either splitting the jugular vein at the throat or crunching the brain at the base of the skull, and he does not let go"

So the weasel's existence is coloured by a relentlessness: to stalk, kill, drag, bite, all in the name of survival. These visceral descriptions are compelling, but more powerful is Dillard's expansion of the weasel as a representative symbol: living in sharp necessity instead of suffering from paralyzing choice. The weasel reminds us to not let go of the necessities (needs) that truly matter to us:

"I don't think I can learn from a wild animal how to live in particular--shall I suck warm blood, hold my tail high, walk with my footprints precisely over the prints of my hands?--but I might learn something of mindlessness, something of the purity of living in the physical sense and the dignity of living without bias or motive. The weasel lives in necessity and we live in choice, hating necessity and dying at the last ignobly in its talons."

Again, this is just one fun example that showcases the mindful dignity animals hold in contrast to their human counterparts. As we close this discussion of animal spirits and spirit animals, my biggest takeaway is that thinking carefully about the animal influence unlocks new modes of thinking and grounds us to the whimsical wonders of our natural world. Moving away from the artificial.

Here's to living symbiotically with animals for the long haul, appreciating every single Turkish street cat I see and every other species I discover in between :)

PS. An ode to all the animal references in the crypto space, for good measure:


PPS. Yes, even demon creatures like mosquitoes and geese deserve a little bit of love. But only on weekends.

Published by Sam (samwong) 6 months ago on Saturday the 27th of November 2021.

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