A whole new phase in the evolution of life on Earth has begun. And it will change everything. In this new phase evolution will be driven intentionally by humanity. The evolutionary worldview that emerges from understanding this role has the potential to transform the nature of human existence.
At present, humanity is lost. We do not 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 stand up to rational analysis.
But this difficult period is coming to an end. The emergence of the new evolutionary worldview is beginning to remove it from the abyss. This new worldview has a unique capacity to reveal who we are and what we should do with our lives. It relies solely on scientific knowledge and reason to identify our critical role in future evolution. The evolutionary worldview can 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: it is headed in a particular direction. However, evolution on Earth will not progress beyond a certain point unless it is consciously and intentionally driven. If this transition to intentional evolution does not occur, evolution on this planet will come to a standstill; and humanity will not contribute positively to the future evolution of life in the universe – we will be a failed evolutionary experiment.
It is as if evolution is a developmental process. Just as a human embryo is organised to develop through a certain 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 on its own. However, at a particular point evolution will continue to move forward only if certain conditions are met: organisms must emerge that become conscious that they are living in the midst of a developmental process; they must realise that the successive success of the process depends on them; and they must become actively engaged in moving the process forward.
THE EMERGENCE OF INTENTIONAL EVOLUTIONARIES
Across the planet in the early 21st century, individuals began to emerge who are choosing to dedicate their lives to consciously furthering 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. They are aware that they have an important role to play in their future evolution.
To redefine themselves within a broader evolutionary perspective is to give meaning and direction to their lives; they no longer see themselves as isolated, self-concerned individuals who live for a short period of time and then die irrelevantly in a meaningless universe. They know that if evolution is to continue to unfold its potential, it must now be intentionally driven, and it is their responsibility and destiny to contribute to it.
These individuals are awakening to the realisation that evolution is not an aimless and random process. It is headed in a particular direction. This is a very important insight: 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 they mean for us as individuals and collectively.
ARROW OF EVOLUTION
Where is evolution heading? Contrary to previous interpretations of evolution, one unequivocal trend is towards greater interdependence and cooperation between living processes. It follows that if humans are to advance the evolutionary process on this planet, an important task will be to find more cooperative ways of organising ourselves.
The trend towards greater cooperation is well illustrated by a brief history of the evolution of life on Earth. For billions of years the universe rapidly expanded in scale and diversified into a multitude of galaxies, stars, planets and other forms of non-living matter. The first life that eventually emerged on earth was infinitesimal – it was composed of a few molecular processes. But it did not remain on this small scale for long. In the first great development, cooperative groups of molecular processes formed the first simple cells. Then, in a significant breakthrough, communities of these simple cells formed more complex cells on a much larger scale.
A new and important evolutionary transition unfolded after many more millions of years. Evolution figured out how to organise cooperative groups of these complex cells into multi-cellular organisms such as insects, fish and eventually mammals. Once again, the scale of living processes had increased enormously. This trend continued with the emergence of cooperative societies of multicellular organisms, including bee hives, wolf packs and baboon troops. The pattern was repeated with humans – families joined to form bands, bands joined to form tribes, tribes joined to form farming communities, and so on. The largest-scale cooperative organisations of living processes on the planet are now human societies.
This unmistakable trend is the result of many repetitions of a process in which living entities come together to form larger scale cooperatives. Remarkably, the cooperative groups that emerge at each step in this sequence become the entities that then come together 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 all levels of the organisation, cooperative teams united by common goals will always have the potential to be more successful than isolated individuals. It will be the same wherever life arises in the universe. The details will be different, but the direction will be the same: towards unification and cooperation on ever-increasing scales.
Life has come a long way on this planet. When it began, individual life processes could do no more than influence events on the scale of molecular processes. But as a result of the successive formation of larger and larger cooperatives, coordinated living processes are now managing and controlling events on a continental scale. And 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 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 more than a million, billion-fold since life began.
If humanity is to realise its potential in the evolution of life in the universe, this expansion of the scale of the cooperative organisation will continue. The global organisation has the potential to expand into the solar system and beyond. By managing matter, energy and living processes on an ever-increasing scale, human organisation could eventually achieve the ability to influence events on the scale of the solar system and the galaxy. And the human organisation could repeat the great transitions of its evolutionary past by associating with any other living process society it encounters.
The great potential of the evolutionary process is to eventually produce a unified cooperative organisation of living processes that encompasses and manages the universe as a whole. The matter of the universe would be infused and organised by life. The universe itself would become a living organism pursuing its own goals and objectives, whatever they may be. In its long ascent from the scale of molecular processes, life will have unified the universe that was destroyed by the Big Bang.
INCREASING INTELLIGENCE AND EVOLVABILITY
As life increases in scale, a second important trend emerges: it evolves better. Organisms that are more evolutionary are better able to discover the adaptive behaviours that allow them to succeed in evolution. They are smarter at finding solutions to adaptive challenges and finding better ways to achieve their goals.
Initially living processes discover better adaptations by trial and error. They discover which behaviours are most effective by trying them out in practice. Initially this trial-and-error search occurs over generations through mutations at the genetic level. A major breakthrough occurs when this gene-based evolution discovers how to produce organisms with the ability to learn by trial and error during their lifetimes.
In an important new transition, organisms develop the ability to form mental representations of their environment and the impact of alternative behaviours. This allows them to foresee how their environment will respond to their actions. Instead of testing alternative behaviours in practice, they can now test them mentally. They begin to understand how their world works and how it can be consciously manipulated to achieve their adaptive goals. Evolutionariness receives another significant boost when organisms develop the ability to share the knowledge, they use to construct their mental representations. Imitation, language, writing and impression are important examples of processes that transmit adaptive knowledge. These processes allow the rapid accumulation of knowledge between generations and the construction of more complex mental models.
Eventually organisms with these capabilities 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. For the first time they will have a powerful science-based story that explains where they came from and their place in the development of the universe.
On any planet where life emerges, the trend towards greater evolution is likely to produce organisms that awaken to their evolutionary history and future possibilities. They will begin to understand the larger-scale evolutionary processes that have produced them and that will govern the future of life on their planet. Organisms will begin to see themselves as having reached a particular stage in a continuous and directional evolutionary process. They will know where evolution is headed, and what they must do if they are to advance evolution on their planet.
On any planet where life reaches this stage, some individuals will begin to experience a critical shift in consciousness. Increasingly they will cease to experience themselves primarily as isolated and preoccupied individuals. Instead, they will begin to see and experience themselves as participants and actors in the larger evolutionary process of their planet. The object of their self-reflection will change. When they think of themselves, they tend to see themselves as part of the evolutionary process. Their conscious participation in evolution will increasingly become the source of value and meaning in their lives. The key realisations that will contribute to this shift in consciousness are:
-a life devoted to the pursuit of narrow desires and pleasures cannot be worthwhile. You will see that your desires are evolution’s way of programming you to be adaptable and successful in past environments. In many cases your desires and pleasures no longer serve the interests of evolution – they often produce behaviour that is now maladaptive, and motivate actions that will undermine rather than advance the evolutionary process;
-They have the opportunity to be conscious participants in the evolutionary processes that will shape the future of life on their planet. They can play an important role in actualising the next major steps in evolution;
-The successful future evolution of life on your planet depends on your conscious participation. Unlike the great evolutionary transformations of the past, the steps towards a unified and sustainable planetary society and beyond are too complex to be discovered by trial and error. They will only be achieved through the conscious efforts of organisms, and not otherwise. Conscious organisms will need to visualise the planetary society and devise strategies to get there. If left to chance, it will not happen – in the past, chance took millions of years and many false starts to produce cooperative organisations such as complex cells;
-their actions can have meaning and purpose to the extent that they are relevant to the broader evolutionary process. To the extent that their actions can contribute positively to evolution, they are significant to a larger process outside themselves that has been unfolding long before they were born, and will continue long afterwards;
-the evolutionary perspective therefore provides them with a response to the great existential question facing all conscious individuals: What should I do with my life?
-Their awakening to the evolutionary perspective and the awakening of others like them is itself a critically important evolutionary event on your planet.
One way to experience the significance of such a shift in consciousness is to think and feel your way into the next scenario:
Imagine that you are part of a community of conscious cells among a larger population of unconscious cells. Initially you understand that your existence is 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 lead somewhere. This culminates in a sudden epiphany when you realise that you and the other cells are part of a developmental process aimed at producing a complex, multicellular organism.
But the peak of your evolutionary epiphany is yet to come. It occurs when you see that your realisation that you are part of a developmental process plays a key role in the successful unfolding of the process itself. You discover that the developmental process is organised in such a way that its successful completion depends on you and the other members of your community becoming aware of it – it depends on your community of cells becoming consciously aware of the nature of the developmental process and consciously acting in a way that advances the process. You understand that without the emergence of cells becoming aware of this process and using this consciousness to guide their actions, the developmental process will fail. Your realisation brings you to a fundamental choice: you can decide to intentionally dedicate your existence to the advancement of the developmental process, and assist in its successful completion; or you can continue to live your limited cellular existence as you did before, pursuing narrow cellular interests, but knowing now that your existence will amount to nothing in the larger scheme of things.
On any planet that reaches this stage, the emergence of individuals experiencing such a shift in consciousness can be understood as the evolutionary process on the planet becoming conscious of itself. Through these individuals, the evolutionary process develops capacities for self-reflection, self-awareness and foresight. It will use these abilities to continually redesign itself and to accelerate its own advancement.
TRANSCENDENCE OF OUR BIOLOGICAL AND CULTURAL PAST
Individuals who adopt the evolutionary perspective will be aiming to align their personal goals with evolutionary objectives. They will attempt to free themselves from pre-existing motivations and needs that conflict with evolutionary goals. They know that this will be essential if their species is to continue to contribute to the advancement of the evolutionary process – the organisms that play a significant role in the future evolution of life in the universe will not be those that continue to remain on the planet on which they emerge, pursuing stone-age desires forever.
Freedom from pre-existing goals will not be easily achieved in the case of motivations and needs that have been deeply ingrained by their biological and cultural past. Individuals will seek techniques and practices – and join together in groups – that will enable them to move beyond these pre-existing goals. From our current human perspective, they will seek to develop the capacity to transcend their egos, becoming increasingly rooted in the realities and imperatives of evolution. Individuals who succeed in doing so will be able to direct the consciousness to wherever it can be most effective in contributing to the advancement of the evolutionary process. The enormous creativity of consciousness will no longer be wasted in the pursuit of self-centred wants and needs established by past evolution.
Individuals who develop the psychological capacity to transcend these motivations and needs will actualise a greater transition in evolution. They will be self-evolving beings-organisms that have the ability to adapt in whatever direction is necessary to advance the evolutionary process, unconstrained by their biological and social past. Groups, organisations, communities and societies will undergo similar transformations that will enable them to transcend the limitations of their history and culture.
Individuals and groups that embrace the evolutionary perspective will also work to encourage all other groups within society to reformulate their goals and mission statements to align with evolutionary objectives. Social, political, governmental and economic organisations will begin to re-evaluate their activities and goals to ensure that they are consistent with the evolutionary process moving forward.
WORKING TOWARDS A UNIFIED, EVOLUTIONARY GLOBAL SOCIETY
As more and more individuals and groups make this transition to an evolutionary perspective, a wave of evolutionary activism will emerge, aimed at unifying the living processes on the planet to form a cooperative planetary society.
Humanity has reached this important evolutionary threshold. The next major step in social evolution on earth is the formation of a unified, sustainable and creative 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 this global society. They are energised by the realisation that their evolutionary awakening and activism is part of a significant evolutionary transition on earth.
Humanity will draw on its evolutionary history to see how to build a cooperative and unified global society. As we have noted, evolution has repeatedly organised self-interested entities into new cooperative wholes. Evolution shows us how cooperation can be organised without individuals having to submerge their self-interest or fundamentally change their nature. Human beings will not have to become saints – a cooperative global society can be achieved without people having to sacrifice or repress their own interests.
Evolution produces cooperation by instituting forms of social organisation that align the interests of individuals with the interests of the collective. Based on these evolutionary examples, humanity can institute forms of organisation on a global scale that will align the interests of citizens, corporations and nations with the interests of the global society.
Entities at all levels will feel the impact of their actions on each other and on the collective: they will benefit whenever they benefit global society, and they will be harmed whenever they harm the collective. Pollution and war will no longer be profitable. The pursuit of self-interest alone will lead all participants in the global society to act cooperatively and in the interest of the global society. All participants will treat each other as themselves because whatever impact they have on each other will have a comparable impact on them.
In the past, the emergence of new co-operative organisations led to an explosion of diversity and differentiation within the new organisations. This will be repeated on a global scale. New forms of social organisation will also enhance the evolvability of our existing forms of governance. Governance will be replaced by much smarter and more adaptive processes that harness the dynamism, creativity and energy of well-managed markets. Like efficient markets, new governance processes will draw on a diversity of perspectives to solve adaptive problems.
Where larger-scale cooperatives have previously emerged in evolution, they have gone through a process of individuation. Each cooperative becomes more integrated, coordinated and able to act as a cohesive individual. The unified global society can be expected to follow a similar evolutionary path. It will 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 with which other planetary societies can relate and interact. There will be an entity on the same level as other planetary societies. If Earth can reach this level, a new universe of possibilities and experiences will open up for humanity.
For further technical justification for the existence of an evolutionary trend towards greater cooperation (including references to relevant scientific publications) see my book Evolution’s Arrow: the direction of evolution and the future of humanity. It is online at http://users.tpg.com.au/users/jes999/EvArrow.htm
For more technical details on the future evolution of consciousness (including comprehensive references) see Stewart, J. E. (2007) The future evolution of consciousness, Journal of Consciousness Studies, Vol. 14, No. 8, Pp. 58-92. See also ECCO Working Paper No. 10 of 2006, which is an earlier version of this publication. It is online at http://cogprints.org/5270/1/Consciousness-Evolution.pdf
For a less technical article on the evolutionary role of spiritual development, see The Evolutionary Significance of Spiritual Development. It was originally published in the September 2003 issue of the online journal Metanexus. The article is online at http://users.tpg.com.au/users/jes999/HumNat.htm
John Stewart is a senior member of the Evolution, Complexity and Cognition Research Group (ECCO), Free University of Brussels, Belgium. His work on the directionality of evolution and its implications for humanity has been published in a number of key papers in international scientific journals. He is the author of Evolution’s Arrow: The Direction of Evolution and the Future of Humanity (2000) and The Evolutionary Manifesto.
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