Small talk is OK, but if you find yourself wanting to get the party going this holiday season ask your fellow guests which came first matter or mattering, physics or consciousness, chemicals or information, just the physical stuff or a God or higher power with a master plan.
Until recently everyone said mattering came first. The physical universe is a manifestation of a higher power’s master plan. Creation was top-down with a master-builder creating it from nothing because it mattered to Him.
This approach originates with Plato and the ideas that flowed from him into our Christian culture. Perfection was eternally present, the ideal to be matched through life’s strivings. Improvement was a matter of approximating preexisting perfection, like matching your behavior to an existing model. Life was like a crossword puzzle. You may not know the answer yet, but it already exists perfectly filled out at the back of the magazine waiting for you to discover it. Life was arrayed in a great chain of being. At the top was The Right Answer, in the form of the Ideal, a higher power or God. Arrayed at successive distances from this perfection were angels, humans, and the lowly animals, further from God and perfection, incomplete and incorrect answers to the crossword puzzle. If the master plan already exists people could claim to already know what it is and gloat or go on crusades and jihads to let others know how far short they fall of perfection.
Evolutionary theory flips the story. We find ourselves in a universe 14 billion years old, the first 10 billion of which had no behavior we’ve found that requires an explanation from intelligence. Mattering emerged from matter. Apparently consciousness had to bootstrap out of physics. Darwin gave us a partial answer to how, and scientists continue to fill out the story.
With Evolution, not only do the answers not pre-exist at the back of the magazine but the questions keep changing. We build the road as we travel it. We aren’t matching a pre-existing perfection template, or even heading toward a predetermined destination, we’re guessing what will work now, and our guesses change our circumstances so what works today may not work tomorrow. We grope in the dark for a moving target. Life, it turns out evolves by trial and error. At many scales from our individual gestures to our whole lives, our cultures, and our nations, we are trials in trial and error processes, competitors in competitions. We are competitors for limited resources. We’re not test-takers to some universally standardized test. We didn’t fall from grace, we rose from slime and the qualities that win in the competition we face are different from those that won in our slimy origins. There is no supreme universal moral standard other than whatever works, whatever keeps your trials in play.
Though the vast majority of people you meet at holiday parties will be Platonic not Darwinian in their outlook, the US, our proudly free market democracy recognizes and embraces the evolutionary competition. We aspire to be an egalitarian meritocracy: May all have a place and the starting line, and then may the best win! May the greatest talent win! May the best political party! In the global competition, may the best system of government win! May the better nations win!
Still, it’s no fun losing. Central to the modern human condition is a tension between embracing the whole competition and wanting personally to win. We say, “Let the best win” and “let it be me.” The trial and error process makes sense. It got us this far therefore we honor it. But as a trial in the trial and error process we strive to be the trial that prevails in the competition. We have split allegiances—to the game and to our team.
There’s a bit of the sore loser in each of us. These days, we hear among the hyper-hardline patriots an insistence that our nation and culture has already won the competition and the competition was really Platonic—meeting God’s ideal. America is entitled to the spoils of victory now and forever more. In the great chain of being we are higher than the others. And if for any reason the spoils of victory aren’t forthcoming, someone else is cheating. Sore losers often cry “unfair!” when they feel threatened with loss.
And yet at the heart of our holidays is the idea of good will to all men and women. Embrace the competition. Resist our universal and natural double standard. Don’t be a sore loser.