The Future of Evolution

The full title of Carter Phipps’ 2012 book is Evolutionaries: Unlocking the Spiritual and Cultural Potential of Science’s Greatest Idea. Drawing on the work of many writers and current thinkers, Phipps describes applications of the concept of evolution beyond biological science to economics, psychology, ecology and even spirituality and theology. The book is upbeat, future-oriented, and full of expressions like potentials, possibilities, creative capacities, and faith in the future. “Evolutionaries” are the revolutionaries who are peering ahead into this evolution-based future.

I was drawn to the book by the linking of evolution with spirituality. By the end, I was put off by its insistent optimism, disappointed by all the speculation, but interested enough to reread sections of it.

The book is organized into reinterpretations of evolution, science, culture, and spirit. Among the ideas expounded very clearly by Phipps: Biological evolution bears witness to the importance in all living things of cooperation as a means of survival. Collaborative governance and organization can be found in everything from DNA up through modern globalization. Stresses such as disease and war that threaten such cooperation ultimately lead to creativity and change. In this way, evolution takes one step back and two steps forward and keeps moving ahead. The concept of evolution as having a direction, an “arrow,” has been blasphemous in the past but is a truth that more thinkers today are willing to talk about.

Carter Phipps is the current executive editor of EnlightenNext magazine.  (blog.enlightennext.org)

Carter Phipps is the current executive editor of EnlightenNext magazine.
(blog.enlightennext.org)

The second half of the book moves the discussion out of the physical and social realms and into those of consciousness and spirituality. Our individual and collective consciousness—the bits and pieces that fill our heads and the thoughts that come together—has changed in the last few thousand years. Each stage of consciousness builds upon and transcends the one that preceded it. This process will continue towards an “integral consciousness” in which concern for the wellbeing of the whole is paramount. In this process, human creativity and freedom will grow, giving people options but also responsibilities for the directions that they take. In the process of such “emergence” one can talk about spirit and God.

The book’s closing sentences illustrate its theme and tone:

Evolutionaries are not lone torches, shining brightly in an otherwise pitch-black night. They are part of a larger movement—a fledgling, unstructured, diverse movement, but one with great cultural promise and significance. I hope this book helps galvanize and unify those already shaping this field and inspire a new generation of Evolutionaries to see just how compelling, fulfilling, and culturally relevant the ideas at the heart of this emerging world view are. In the past century as [Pierre Teilhard de Chardin] predicted, we have taken up the tiller of the world. May nature’s exuberant creativity guide our hands. In pursuing our passion for the possible we will find the future of evolution.

I was let down by this turn in the second half of the book towards the mission of steering the world into the future. I suppose it is because as I look to answer questions about my own life, death, and purpose, speculation isn’t good enough. History is better. If you want to understand something—a mind, a problem, a nation—you are better off studying its history than guessing its future.

Evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne, in reviewing a related book, makes a similar point in critiquing the thinly veiled religiosity of the New Age mind-set of which Evolutionaries is an example. “[T]here are some for whom the true evolutionary tale of human life is not sufficiently inspiring or flattering. After all, the tale seems to hold no moral other than this: like all species, we are the result of a purely natural and material process. While many religious people have been persuaded by Darwin’s overwhelming evidence, there still remains a need to find greater meaning behind it all–to see our world as part of an unfolding and divinely scripted plan.”

Imagining an evolving spirituality seems tempting for many people. (hermes-press.com:future)

Imagining an evolving spirituality
(hermes-press.com:future)

Phipps does indeed seem to feel “a need to find greater meaning behind it all,” especially meaning in the form of human achievement. He writes that humans are “the progressive edge of evolution as far as we know, the creative dynamics of the Earth come alive in human form.” The first half of this statement I can swallow; the second half absurdly turns us into semi-divine incarnations of mother earth. Don’t all species embody the “creative dynamics” of life?

Has there been moral progress over the course of civilization? Yes. The spread of representative government and of legal process based on human rights has reduced levels of on-going violence and some types of suffering such as famine. But humanity has also achieved new heights of environmental destruction, the extinguishing of species, spasms of mass killing, and labor exploitation. As for the future, let’s wait and see how our morality holds up in the coming decades as we cope with climate change, the needs of a couple of billion more people, the relentless spread of guns, and the hardening division between the wealthy and the poor.

Finally, the idea—or the implication–that evolution is moving towards a destination makes no sense to me. Evolution may indeed have a “direction” of sorts as new and brainier species appear and species themselves change, humans included. But direction does not require a destination. Plenty of things move in a direction without having a destination: day and night, the seasons, time, clocks. Evolution is one of these, moving in the directions offered by variations among individuals that increase the odds of survival. It is possible, I suppose, that evolution may have a destination, some state of near-perfection that we don’t know about, millions or billions of years in the future. If so, that is not of much use to me. I’ll work with the 3.8 billion years of life behind me to help me make sense of myself and how I got here.

Reverence for (Some) Life

reverence for the world

Celebrating life
(flickr.com)

Here is a tug-of-war.

On one end of the rope is the common conviction that life—our life, other lives, life in general and as a whole—is a good thing. For some this conviction is passionate and spiritual, for others it is only a cliché. But in either case we lean towards life and away from the inanimate state of dust and stones. Death for us is essentially sad and rarely wished for; most people assess misery as the failure of life’s promise, not as the nature of life itself. We ally ourselves with being alive and, in the abstract, with all things that are alive.

But pulling hard at the other end of the rope are the distinctions that we make every day between lives that we value and those we value less or not at all. We favor people who are similar to us, we belittle others, and we are indifferent, sometimes fatally so, to many others. We oppose abortion but accept capital punishment, or vice-versa. We cuddle some animals, save others from extinction, eat a few, exterminate many. We value plants only when they provide us with food or a desirable environment; the life of a plant in and of itself has no status for us. When it comes to actual lives, we have favorites and losers, with life and death consequences.

bugs

Despised pests.
(grilloservices.com)

In this tug-of-war between reverence for all life and differentiation among lives, it’s differentiation that usually wins. This isn’t surprising: we must draw distinctions each day in order to stay alive, deciding who to align with and who to oppose, what to eat and what to cut down, spray or ignore. Most people go through most days with no interest in revering life universally. We toast our health and long life and then eat our chicken dinner. We wake up in the morning feeling glad to be alive, we write an email opposing abortion, we call the exterminator, and we pull dandelions. None of that seems contradictory.

Perhaps tug-of-war is not the best metaphor. Compartmentalization might be a better label. We seem to keep reverence and preference in separate compartments. The compartment for reverence for all living things can be, if taken strictly, impossibly demanding. If we took it literally, we would starve from trying to survive on fallen fruit and dead animals.

marraige equality

Better lives. Marriage equality, June 2013. (oakland.com)

What we do instead is to take such reverence out of its compartment every so often when the time seems right and to try to move society a step in its direction. We join forces to extend a better life to those of other races or ethnicities, or genders, or sexual orientation—as well as to some animals, to fetuses, to endangered plants. Reverence for all life may be an attitude usually beyond our reach, but we put it to powerful use when we are able. We may draw grim, unfair distinctions among other lives too easily, but as long as we remain a little uneasy that we do so, reverence for all life remains a cause that can be advanced.

The Brain’s Offspring

A theme of this blog has been that the purpose of life—our sense of a direction, or our craving for one—is rooted in our biological drive to survive and thrive. I’ve felt confident in that belief, but I’ve also been dancing around the complications.  The term rooted is hazy, thrive covers a great deal of ground, and sometimes I’ve added the goal reproduce for good measure.

But most of all, I’ve made one big mistake. Survival is not the ultimate goal, the strongest drive, of organisms. The ultimate goal is offspring and the strongest drive is reproduction. From the evolutionary point of view, whether an organism survives to live a long life is irrelevant; what counts is that it survive long enough to reproduce. As Richard Dawkins wrote of selfish genes, “They are the replicators and we are their survival machines. When we have served our purpose we are cast aside.” It is no coincidence that before the era of modern medicine, most human parents began to suffer and die from illness in their 40s and 50s, soon after their years of bearing and raising children into physical maturity.

The survivor (ninetyninepercentscientist.files.wordpress.com)

The replicators survive.
(ninetyninepercentscientist.files.wordpress.com)

And yet, although reproduction is the ultimate goal, survival is hardly a distant runner-up. They are closely linked. Survival is, to say the least, indispensable if reproduction is going to happen. And both survival and reproduction are future oriented—survival in its role as a prerequisite for having offspring and offspring as the physical continuation of the species. I think survival and reproduction blur together as two aspects of the single, miraculous process of the continuity of life. Both are laden with direction and purpose.

But back to people. What are we talking about here? Clearly our lives are not solely about surviving in order to have and raise kids, important and universal as that goal is.

It is human intelligence that complicates and enriches the picture. The brain adds power, variability, and vulnerability to the two biological tasks of surviving and reproducing. By using our brains, we build houses, wear clothes, and store food and water that make us less vulnerable to the environment. A brain with thoughts of hope and dignity can help the failing body of a castaway or a prisoner of war to survive.

(www.thecareermuse.co.in)

The survival machines create. (www.thecareermuse.co.in)

But more relevant here is that brains also create offspring of their own. The desire to do or make something that will come from us, be a part of us, and live on after us takes countless forms: works of art, worldly success, social contribution. To say that the brain’s creative visions are, like babies,  conceived, developed, and eventually born is barely a metaphor.

So, for now, I’m seeing human survival and reproduction as life’s twin purposes, both of them forward-directed, both building on drives inherited from other species, and, thanks to our brains, both of them opportunities for variation and inventiveness. I like it that this view builds on the biology of other species; high sounding statements of human purpose that are disconnected from the rest of life—our purpose is to seek peace, love one another, etc.—narrow us. And I like the fact that, while genes may be selfish, these processes of surviving and reproducing are fundamentally life-affirming.