My friend Roberto pans for gold. Others just speculate in it. In the Vegas airport another friend learned that the illuminati are storing gold on the moon. Lil’ Weezy just seems to like its shine. Even though our money is no longer backed by gold, gold remains the most enduring measure of value. Which begs the question:
Ernest Becker reasons that gold looks like solidified sunlight. But, I find that too ephemeral an answer.
Planet Money, an excellent podcast, consulted a chemical engineer for the answer.
I’ll only paraphrase, since you can hear it here. The gist is that gold was inevitable.
Gases wouldn’t work too well as money. Neither would all those elements prone to burst into flames or kill you. Sorry einsteinium and helium, we like you, we really do.
Any of the 30 elements left would work, but for something to be valuable we want it to be rare. But not too rare; elements that come from meteorites would be cool but not very practical.
This leaves: rhodium, palladium, silver, platinum and gold. While all valuable, silver tarnishes and rhodium and palladium weren’t discovered until the 1800s. I love a platinum chain as much as the next guy, but that would’ve been hard to swing in ancient times: platinum’s melting point is 3,000 degrees.
This leaves gold.
If we reran history, we would again arrive at gold as money. It is next to impossible to imagine a world where helium could’ve ended up as money.
Beyond being the most interesting chemistry lesson I’ve had, this story also smacks of natural selection. In the game of surviving as value, every other element was selected against. Gold had all the essential characteristics demanded of money: Stable, safe, rare but not too rare.
Could we frame evolution in the same way? If so, what are the essential characteristics of a successful species?
Kevin Kelly talks about these characteristics as: Ubiquity, Complexity, Diversity and Socialization. These aren’t necessary for survival; they are just the trends that evolution seems to favor.
I’m going to push the analogy.
The characteristics that we want for money are determined by the purpose of money. If we didn’t want something capable of exchange and holding value then it wouldn’t matter how rare or stable the material was.
Could it be that the characteristics favored by evolution are also purposeful?
If so, the only purpose I can find is the increase of consciousness. Ubiquity, complexity, diversity and socialization are all integral to creating and maintaining consciousness.
Most biologists are uncomfortable with this teleological thinking. It seems to imply a special creator, backwards causation and other scary concepts. Ultimately though, the qualm is that purpose challenges a mechanistic view of the universe. A debate between paradigms can never be resolved by logic alone. Instead one must appeal to intuition, experience and pragmatism.
In light of these other ways of knowing, I find teleology fills voids left by the mechanical paradigm. Intuitively, the movement from matter to life to thought begins to make sense. Pragmatically, the atrocities in the wake of evolving civilizations are balanced by their result.
Perhaps most importantly, our role in the process is experientially imbued with meaning. We are not only products of evolution but also carriers. I have a deep desire for purpose. Teleology not only explains this desire but also gives that desire direction. As a carrier of evolution it becomes my duty to grow.
Perhaps my attraction to teleology is just a modern way of satiating my god gene. But I’ve yet to find a mechanistic explanation for our curious ability to give meaning to one rock over another.