If you stop and think about it for a moment, the human preoccupation with gold seems very odd.
We are so used to gold being, well, Gold, that we don’t stop to think about it. Since the dawn of history, gold has served as a universal trade good. Every human culture, from the simplest hunter-gathers to space-faring modern industrial, trades for gold. In the arts of every culture, gold symbolizes the best, the purest and the most desired. Lust for gold has driven exploration, technology, war and individual murder. An alien anthropologist studying human history might easily conclude that humans need gold for some critical function. The alien would reason that gold must be a vital nutrient, a medicine or serve a central role in our technology.
Yet the alien would be wrong. Gold serves next to no functional purpose. Prior to the electronic age, people made only sparing use of gold’s corrosion resistance to line drinking vessels and such. Many cultures used gold to make monetary tokens but that use evolved out of gold’s existing role as a universal trade good. Coins were merely standardized chunks of a universal trade good. People didn’t covet gold so they could make coins from it, they accepted gold coins in trade because they valued the gold in the coins. People murdered for gold long before anyone thought to make money out of it.
So the human lust for gold presents us with a riddle. Why do we so universally value gold? What function does gold serve that makes it so sought after?
The answer is simple:
But not just any kind of decoration. The natural world and human effort produce many patterns and configurations of many substances that we universally find asthetically pleasing yet we seldom conquer to obtain them. We don’t lust for gold because we find it irresistably beautiful. No, we use gold for a very serious but non-material purpose.
We use gold to communicate status.
People and groups seldom hide their golden decorations. Instead, they thrust them into the faces of others. The practical uselessness and rarity of gold makes it ideal for this purpose. Only someone with vast amounts of surplus resources can afford to squander large amounts of those resources on something so ultimately worthless.
The pharaohs of Egypt used to parade their golden funerary objects before burying them in the ground. Most of the gold looted by the conquistadors did not stay in Europe for long, but instead flowed eastward along the spice routes, until it eventually ended up decorating the imperial buildings of China. The most common trans-cultural use for gold is the making of jewelry. In all cases, people intend for others to see their gold. They desperately need to communicate to others a message of status and power.
Gold is not the only material to fulfill this need. Precious gems are even more rare, more useless and more coveted. Across history virtually every rare and useless thing served as a status indicator at one time or another. Throughout the first two thirds of the industrial age, manufactured items conveyed status. People shunned homespun cloth and other homemade items in favor of mass-produced ones. Only after WWII, when industrialism reached the point that it could provide high-quality manufactured goods to even the poorest people, did people begin to seek out handmade items as status markers. Even today, manufactured items such as cars and electronics convey status. (Perhaps ironically, as the material wealth of civilization increased, gold gradually lost its once-overriding import. Industrial mining makes gold too common. Machining makes working gold too easy and too many artificial substances can mimic its appearance. In the developed world, golden decorations now connote status only among the very poor.)
Why do humans need so desperately to convey status that they go to great lengths to obtain gold? What significance does this have for contemory political behavior? I will save my thoughts on those questions for other posts.