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

What contribution could I make to the progressive evolution of humanity? Being aware of the cooperative direction of evolution, could I use this knowledge to do what I can to ensure humanity achieves future evolutionary success? Could I promote the formation of a cooperative and highly evolvable planetary organisation, and encourage the development in myself and others of a psychological capacity for evolutionary self-management? Or should I choose not to direct any of my time and energy to pursuing evolutionary objectives? Since I will not be affected personally by what happens in our distant evolutionary future, should I ignore it?

Questions like this will rise in any human who becomes aware of the nature of the evolutionary processes that have formed them and that will determine the evolutionary future of their species. The way each of us deals with these issues impacts on the ability of humanity to play a significant role in the future evolution of life in the universe. It also has the potential to change how each of us sees ourself, what we do with our life, and the meaning and purpose we see in our individual existence.

Evolutionary awareness has the potential to radically change the experience of being a human being. First, it loosens our attachment to our existing motivations, beliefs, values and objectives. It calls into question the appropriateness of our personal characteristics, and the behaviours they motivate. Second, evolutionary awareness can provide us with new values and objectives, and a new direction to our life. It points to how we can live a life that contributes to the successful evolution of living processes on Earth, a life that is therefore consistent with the forces that are responsible for our existence.

Evolutionary awareness calls into question our existing motivations, beliefs and objectives by showing us what formed them.

Our most fundamental characteristics have been organised and tailored by evolution for evolutionary ends. Largely, we are the puppets of the evolutionary processes that have produced us. But our attachment to our existing motivations, beliefs and values is shaken more strongly once we begin to see that they fail to do the job they are designed for.

Evolutionary awareness enables us to see the direction of evolution, and what we have to do to achieve future evolutionary success. We can use our mental models of future evolution to test whether we will be successful if we continue to be organised by our existing motivations and needs. But, it is not easy to escape the control exercised over us by our own self-identity. It is one thing to notice the patterns, and another thing entirely to change them. This is because any decision we make about changing our behaviour will be influenced strongly by our existing motivations, beliefs and values. We will tend to use our existing characteristics to decide what we want to do with our lives. And if we have little evolutionary awareness, the evolutionary needs of far-distant generations will not count for much against our more immediate needs for food, sex, money, power and social status.

But evolutionary awareness can change this. It tends to produce individuals who place more value on the evolutionary success of future generations, and less on the gratification of their own immediate urges and needs. Individuals can see that it is the on-going and evolving population of organisms that are important to evolution, not any particular individual.

The evolutionary relevance of individuals is determined by what they can contribute to the evolution of the species.

The means by which this contribution is made differs for different evolutionary mechanisms. If the population evolves genetically, individuals can contribute to future generations through their reproduction. If it evolves culturally, individuals can contribute to the on-going process by passing new ideas, discoveries, and other adaptive information to future generations.

Evolutionary awareness shows us that it is an illusion to see ourselves or other individuals as distinct and separate entities. Individuals are inextricably part of an on-going evolutionary process. They can have no existence without that process. They are born out of it, and can have on-going effects only through what they return to it. In our mental processes, we can separate individuals out from the on-going process and consider them as independent entities. But in reality they are never separate. Once we can mentally model the processes of life over time scales that are long enough, we cannot help but see that individual organisms such as ourselves are always parts of larger evolving processes.

Any human individual that develops evolutionary awareness will see that they could transcend their biological and cultural past if they are to be able to do what is necessary for future evolutionary success. They know that the organisms who will contribute most to the evolution of life in the universe are those that meet this challenge successfully. Evolutionary awareness also shows us that our struggle to develop the psychological skills needed to transcend our social and biological past is part of an evolutionary event of great significance on this planet. And it makes us aware that our growing evolutionary awareness is itself an important part of the unfolding of this evolutionary event.

Humans have already begun to develop the psychological skills to manage our collective adaptation consciously.

Once organisms evolve a capacity for mental modelling, it is inevitable that they will begin to learn these skills. Because mental modelling has superior foresight, it will often discover better adaptations than those established by the pre-existing adaptive processes. As the modelling capacity improves, it increasingly discovers circumstances in which existing motivations and emotional urges produce behaviour that are against the longer-term interests of the organism. To take advantage of this superior foresight, organisms begin to learn how to ensure that their behaviour is guided by their mental models, not by their pre-existing adaptive processes.

So we begin to learn to manage our sexual urges, anger and other emotional impulses when we see that it is in our longer-term interests to do so. For example, many of us learn to forgo the immediate gratification of some of our needs in order to achieve longer-term career goals. We learn to organise our thoughts, motivations and our environment to find satisfaction in study and other behaviours that serve these career goals. The logical extension of this capacity would be the ability to manage our pre-existing adaptive processes to make them consistent with our interests over all time scales, including over evolutionary scales.

The result would be an organism that is able to recreate and reinvent itself through conscious choice as often as is necessary to meet evolutionary demands. The development of this new psychological “software” would free individuals from their biological and cultural past. It would produce individuals who are self-evolving and who therefore have a completely new evolutionary status.

The acquisition of evolutionary awareness would show that if humanity is to achieve future evolutionary success, we must not only transform ourselves, we must also transform our societies.

Nowadays, the current economic systems and forms of governance are not capable of organising a planetary society that can fully exploit the benefits of cooperation in the interests of its members. Our governance and our economic systems do not always ensure that individuals capture the effects of their actions on others. And the evolvability of these systems can be substantially improved.

Evolutionary awareness tells us that we could transform our current economic systems and forms of governance if we are to achieve future evolutionary success, and shows us how to build cooperative and evolvable organisations out of self-interested components.

The result would be a highly evolvable planetary society that efficiently and adaptively manages the matter, energy and living processes of the planet to serve the objectives of the members of the society. But these changes will not produce a society that pursues future evolutionary success until most of its members also embrace this objective. If its members continue to be motivated by pre-existing biological and cultural needs, the society and all its resources will be harnessed to serve those needs. The society will serve needs that are inconsistent with the continued evolutionary success of life on Earth. If life on this planet does not progress beyond this point, it will be a failed evolutionary experiment.

What human individuals could do to contribute to the future evolutionary success of life on this planet?

First, we could work on ourselves to improve our adaptability and evolvability. Our objective could be to develop the self-knowledge and psychological skills needed to transcend our biological and cultural past. We could develop a psychology that is no longer controlled by the needs and motivations we inherit biologically and culturally. This psychology will enable us to be self-evolving. It will equip us with the capacity to find motivation and satisfaction in whatever we need to do to contribute to evolutionary objectives.

Second, we will promote in others a deeper understanding of the evolutionary process, and will encourage and assist them to develop the psychological capacity to use this understanding to guide and manage their own behaviour. Humanity cannot make significant progress in evolutionary terms until the majority of us embrace evolutionary objectives. Future evolutionary success can only be achieved collectively and cooperatively. And if human society as a whole is to be an evolutionary warrior that transcends its biological and cultural past, its members could first become evolutionary warriors.

Finally, we could support the formation of a unified and self-actualised planetary society. We could do what we can to develop a society that uses its understanding of the direction of evolution to guide its own evolution. Critical steps along the way to achieving such a society will be the establishment of a system of global governance, and the implementation of new forms of governance and economic systems that are more evolvable and better at organising cooperation.

It would over-dramatise the situation to say that the future evolutionary success of humanity depends on how well we pursue these developmental projects. We can hope that others who come after us will have the opportunity to repair any damage we cause, and make up for any short fall in what we achieve. But how successful we are at advancing these projects will determine the significance of our individual life.

This text is adapted from Evolution’s Arrow : the direction of evolution and the future of humanity“, published by Chapman Press.