by John Stewart
John Stewart is an Australian evolutionary thinker, and a member of the Evolution, Complexity and Cognition Research Group of the Free University of Brussels. His main interest is in the development of an evolutionary worldview that reveals to us who we are, and what we should be doing with our lives.
His website is available at www.evolutionarymanifesto.com.
A completely new phase in the evolution of life on Earth has begun. It will change everything.
In this new phase, evolution could be driven intentionally by humanity. At present humanity seems to be lost, we don’t know what we are doing here, we are without a worldview that can point to our place and purpose in the universe, and that can also withstand rational scrutiny. But this difficult period is coming to an end.
The emergence of the new evolutionary worldview is beginning to lift us out of the abyss. The evolutionary worldview has a unique capacity to reveal who we are and what we could do with our lives, to unite us in a great common enterprise, and provide meaning and purpose for human existence.
At the heart of the evolutionary worldview is the fact that evolution has a trajectory toward cooperation. However, this trajectory will not advance beyond a certain point unless it is driven consciously and intentionally. If the transition to intentional evolution does not occur, human evolution on Earth will stall, and humanity will not contribute positively to the future evolution of life in the universe. We will be a failed evolutionary experiment.
Just as a human embryo is organized to develop through a number of stages to produce an adult, evolution tends to produce a particular sequence of outcomes of increasing complexity. Initially, evolution moves in this direction of its own accord. However, at a particular point evolution will continue to advance only if certain conditions are met: organisms that awaken to the possibility that they are living in the midst of a developmental process; and realize that the continued success of the life process depends on them; and they must commit to actively moving the process forward.
The emergence of intentional evolutionaries
Across the planet, individuals are emerging who are choosing to dedicate their lives to consciously advancing the evolutionary process. They see that their lives are an important part of the great evolutionary process that has produced the universe and the life within it, and they realise that they have a significant role to play in its future evolution.
Redefining themselves within a wider evolutionary perspective is providing meaning and direction to their lives – they no longer see themselves as isolated, self-concerned individuals who live for a short time, then die irrelevantly in a meaningless universe. They know that if evolution is to continue to fulfil its potential, it must be driven intentionally, and it is their responsibility, their destiny to contribute to this.
These individuals are awakening to the understanding that evolution is not an aimless and random process. It is headed in a particular direction. This is very important knowledge – once we understand the direction of evolution, we can identify where we are located along the evolutionary trajectory, discover what the next steps are, and see what we can do to bring them about, individually and collectively.
Where is evolution headed?
An unmistakeable trend is towards greater interdependence and cooperation amongst living processes. If humans are to advance the evolutionary process on this planet, a major task is to find more cooperative ways of organising ourselves.
The trend towards increasing cooperation is well illustrated by a short history of the evolution of life on Earth. For billions of years after the big bang, the universe expanded rapidly in scale and diversified into a multitude of galaxies, stars, planets and other forms of lifeless matter. The first life that eventually arose on Earth was infinitesimal – it was comprised of a few molecular processes. But it did not remain on this tiny scale for long. In the first major development, cooperative groups of molecular processes formed the first simple cells. Then, in a further significant advance, communities of these simple cells formed more complex cells of much greater scale.
A further major evolutionary transition unfolded after many more millions of years. Evolution discovered how to organise cooperative groups of these complex cells into multi-celled organisms such as insects, fish, and eventually mammals. Again the scale of living processes had increased enormously. And this trend continued with the emergence of cooperative societies of multi-celled organisms, including bee hives, wolf packs and baboon troops. The pattern was repeated with humans – families joined up to form bands, bands teamed up to form tribes, tribes joined to form agricultural communities, and so on.
This unmistakable trend is the result of many repetitions of a process in which living entities team up to form larger-scale cooperatives. Strikingly, the cooperative groups that arise at each step in this sequence then team up to form the cooperative groups at the next step in the sequence.
It is easy to see what has driven this long sequence of directional evolution – at every level of organization, cooperative teams united by common goals have the potential to be more successful than isolated individuals. Probably it will be the same wherever life arises in the universe. The details will differ, but the direction will be the same – towards unification and cooperation over greater and greater scales.
And human life appears to be on the threshold of another major evolutionary transition: humanity has the potential to form a unified and inclusive global society in symbiotic relationship with our technologies and with the planet as a whole. In the process, “we” (the whole) will come to manage matter, energy and living processes on a planetary scale. When this global organisation emerges, the scale of cooperative organisation will have increased over a million, billion times since life began.
If humanity is to fulfil its potential in the evolution of life in the universe, this expansion of the scale of cooperative organisation will continue. The global organisation has the potential to expand out into the solar system and beyond, by managing matter, energy and living processes over larger and larger scales.
Increasing intelligence and evolvability
As life increases in scale, a second major trend emerges: it gets better at evolving. Organisms that are more evolvable are better at discovering adaptive behaviours that enable them to succeed in evolution. They are smarter at finding solutions to adaptive challenges and better at finding ways to achieve their goals.
Initially living processes discover better adaptations by trial and error. Organisms have to try out new adaptions in practice: if the trial is a success the organism reproduces, if not, they die. Initially this trial-and-error search occurs across many generations as successful genetic mutations are passed on, and unsuccessful mutations die out. But an important advance occurs when this gene-based evolution discovers how to produce organisms with the capacity to learn by trial and error during their lives, without making any changes to their genetic material.
In a further major transition, organisms evolve the capacity to form mental representations of their environment that enables them to foresee how their environment will respond to their actions. Rather than try out alternative behaviours in practice, they can now test them mentally. They begin to understand how their world works, and how it can be manipulated consciously to achieve their adaptive goals.
Evolvability gets another significant boost when organisms develop the capacity to share the knowledge. Imitation, language, writing and printing are important examples of processes that transmit adaptive knowledge. These processes enable the rapid accumulation of knowledge across generations and the building of more complex mental models. Eventually organisms with these capacities will develop a theory of evolution – they will acquire the knowledge to build mental models of the evolutionary processes that produced the living processes on their planet, including themselves. On Earth, for the first time in history, we have a powerful, science-based story that tries to explain where we have come from, and explore our place in the unfolding universe.
Perhaps on any planet where life reaches this stage, some individuals will begin to undergo a critical shift in consciousness. Increasingly they will cease to experience themselves primarily as isolated, self-concerned individuals. and experience themselves as participants in the unfolding of a majestic evolutionary story. The object of their self-reflection will change. When they think of themselves, they will tend to see themselves-as-part-of-the-evolutionary-process, and their conscious participation in evolution will increasingly become the source of value and meaning in their lives.
For human individuals on Earth, key realisations that will contribute to this shift in perspective could be:
- The insight that a life dedicated to the pursuit of narrow desires and pleasures is not worthwhile. Our basic instincts and desires programmed us to be adaptive and successful in past environments, but not in future environments.
- We have the opportunity to be conscious participants in the evolutionary processes that will shape the future of life on Earth. We can play an important role in the actualisation of the next great steps in evolution.
- The successful future evolution of life depends on our conscious participation. Unlike past great evolutionary transformations, the steps to a unified and sustainable planetary society are too complex to be discovered by trial and error, We need to envision the planetary society and design strategies to get there.
- Our actions can have meaning and purpose insofar as they are relevant to the wider evolutionary process. To the extent that our actions can contribute positively to evolution, they are meaningful in the context of a larger process. This larger process has been unfolding long before we were born, and will continue long after we die.
The evolutionary perspective therefore provides us with an answer to the great existential question that confronts all conscious organisms: What can I do with my life?
One way of experiencing the significance of such a shift in consciousness is to think and feel your way into the following scenario: Imagine that you are one of a community of conscious cells amongst a larger population of unconscious cells. Initially you understand your existence as being about doing the things that cells do, interacting with other cells and pursuing typical cellular goals and interests. But then you begin to discover that the moment to moment activities and interactions that occupy your time are part of much larger processes and patterns. As you accumulate more knowledge, you begin to realise that these larger processes are directional and are leading somewhere. This culminates in a sudden epiphany when you realise that you and your fellow cells are part of a developmental process that is directed at producing a complex, multi-cellular organism, based on mutual cooperation.
Perhaps on any planet that reaches this stage, the emergence of individuals who undergo such a shift in perspective can be understood as the evolutionary process on the planet becoming aware of itself.
Transcendence of our biological and cultural past
The human individuals that embrace the evolutionary perspective could align their personal goals with evolutionary objectives, and attempt to free themselves from needs that conflict with evolutionary goals. This is essential if our species is to continue to contribute to the advancement of the evolutionary process.
Freedom from pre-existing goals will not be achieved easily in the case of motivations and needs that have been deeply entrenched by our biological and cultural past. Individuals that adopt the evolutionary worldview will seek techniques and practices – and join together in groups – that enable them to go beyond these pre-existing goals. From our current human perspective, we need to develop the capacity to transcend our egos, grounding ourselves increasingly in the realities and imperatives of collective evolution. Individuals who succeed in doing so will be able to direct their knowledge to wherever it can be most effective for supporting the evolutionary process.
Human individuals that develop the psychological capacity to transcend these basic motivations and needs will actualise a further major transition in evolvability: they will be self-evolving beings, organisms that have the ability to adapt in whatever directions are necessary to advance the evolutionary process, unrestricted by their biological and social past. Groups, organizations, communities and societies will undergo similar transformations that enable them to transcend the constraints of their history and culture. We are already on this path, many social, political, governmental and economic organisations have begun to re-evaluate their activities and goals to ensure they are consistent with the advancement of the collective evolutionary process.
Working towards a unified and evolvable global society
As more and more individuals and groups make the transition to an evolutionary perspective, a wave of evolutionary activism could emerge, directed at forming a cooperative planetary society. Humanity has reached a major evolutionary threshold. The next great step in social evolution on Earth is the formation of a unified, sustainable and evolvable global society. On Earth, individuals and groups are beginning to emerge who have decided to consciously contribute to the evolutionary process by doing what they can to actualise such a global society. They are energised by the realisation that their evolutionary awakening and activism is part of a significant evolutionary transition on Earth.
Humanity could draw on its evolutionary history to see how to build a cooperative and unified global society. Evolution has repeatedly organised self-interested entities into new cooperative wholes, and evolution shows us how cooperation can be organised without individuals having to submerge their own interests or to fundamentally change their natures.
Still, we would not have to remove the care for our own individuality, as a cooperative global society can be achieved without people having to sacrifice or entirely suppress their self-interest. Evolution produces cooperation by instituting forms of social organisation that align both, the interests of individuals and the interests of the collective.
These arrangements involve systems of constraints (e.g. governance at the human level) that align interests by rewarding cooperation and suppressing cheating, theft and other forms of free-riding. Drawing on these evolutionary examples, humanity can institute forms of organisation at the global scale that will align the interests of citizens, corporations, and nations with the interests of the global society.
This will lead all participants in the global society to act cooperatively and in the interests of the global society. All participants will treat the other as self because appropriate governance will ensure that any impact they have on the other will have a reciprocal impact on them.
Very likely, government will be replaced with far more intelligent and adaptable processes that utilise the dynamism, creativity and energy of human groups. Like effective markets, the new governance processes will harness a diversity of perspectives to solve adaptive challenges. The unified global society can be expected to progressively develop internal processes that enable it to act, adapt and relate as a coherent whole – eventually the planet will be able to speak with one voice. For the first time, there will be an entity that other planetary societies could relate to and interact with.
If Earth is successful in reaching this level, a new universe of possibilities will open up to humankind.
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