A major evolutionary transition is beginning to unfold on earth. 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. They realise that they have a significant role to play in 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 now must be driven consciously, and it is their responsibility and destiny to contribute to this.
At the heart of this evolutionary awakening is the understanding that evolution is directional. Evolution is not an aimless and random process; it is headed somewhere. 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 they mean for us, as individuals and collectively.
Where is evolution headed? Contrary to earlier understandings of evolution, 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 will be 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. 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. 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 team up to form larger scale cooperatives. Strikingly, the cooperative groups that arise at each step in this sequence become the entities that 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 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 differ, but the direction will be the same – towards unification and cooperation over greater and greater scales.
Life has come a long way on this planet. When it began, individual living processes could do little more than influence events at 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 the scale of continents. 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 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, human organisation could eventually achieve the capacity to influence events at the scale of the solar system and galaxy. And the human organisation could repeat the great transitions of its evolutionary past by teaming up with any other societies of living processes that it encounters.
The great potential of the evolutionary process is to eventually produce a unified cooperative organisation of living processes that spans 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 that pursued its own goals and objectives, whatever they might be. In its long climb up from the scale of molecular processes, life will have unified the universe that was blown apart by the big bang.
As life increases in scale, a second major trend emerges - it gets better at evolving. Organisms that are more evolvable are better at discovering the adaptive behaviours that enable them to succeed in evolution. They are smarter at finding solutions to adaptive challenges and at finding better ways to achieve their goals.
Initially living processes discover better adaptations by trial and error. They find out which behaviours are most effective by trying them out in practice. Initially this trial and error search occurs across the generations through mutation at the genetic level. 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.
In a further major transition, organisms evolve the capacity to form mental representations of their environment and of the impact of alternative behaviours. This 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 that they use to build their mental representations. 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. For the first time they will have a powerful, science-based story that explains where they have come from, and their place in the unfolding of the universe.
On any planet where life emerges, the trend to increased evolvability is likely to eventually produce organisms who awaken to their evolutionary history and its future possibilities. They will begin to understand the wider-scale evolutionary processes that have produced them and that will govern the future of life on their planet. The organisms will begin to see themselves as having reached a particular stage in an on-going 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 which reaches this stage, some individuals will begin to undergo a critical shift in consciousness. Increasingly they will cease to experience themselves primarily as isolated and self-concerned individuals. Instead, they will begin to see and experience themselves as participants and actors in the great evolutionary process on their planet. 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. Their conscious participation in evolution will increasingly become the source of value and meaning in their lives. Key realisations that will contribute to this shift in consciousness are:
· a life dedicated to the pursuit of narrow desires and pleasures cannot be worthwhile. They will see that their desires are evolution’s way of programming them to be adaptive and successful in past environments. In many cases their desires and pleasures no longer serve evolution’s interests – 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 the actualisation of the next great steps in evolution;
· the successful future evolution of life on their planet depends on their conscious participation. Unlike past great evolutionary transformations, the steps to a unified and sustainable planetary society and beyond are too complex to be discovered by trial and error. They will be achieved only through the conscious efforts of organisms, and not otherwise. Conscious organisms will need to envision the planetary society and design strategies to get there. If it is left to chance, it will not happen – in the past, chance took millions of years and many false starts to produce cooperative organizations such as complex cells;
· their actions can have meaning and purpose insofar as they are relevant to the wider evolutionary process. To the extent that their actions can contribute positively to evolution, they are meaningful to a larger process outside themselves that has been unfolding long before they were born, and that will continue long after they die;
· the evolutionary perspective therefore provides them with an answer to the great existential question that confronts 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 their planet.
The emergence of individuals who undergo this shift in consciousness is the evolutionary process on the planet becoming aware of itself. Through these individuals, the evolutionary process develops capacities for self-reflection, self-knowledge, and foresight. It will use these abilities to continually redesign itself to accelerate its own advancement.
Individuals that embrace the evolutionary perspective will set out 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 stay on the planet on which they emerge, masturbating stone-age desires forever.
Freedom from pre-existing goals will not be achieved easily in the case of motivations and needs that have been deeply entrenched by their biological and cultural past. The individuals 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, they will attempt to develop the capacity to transcend their egos, grounding themselves increasingly in the realities and imperatives of evolution. Individuals who succeed in doing so will be able to direct 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 on the pursuit of self-centred desires and needs established by past evolution.
Individuals that develop the psychological capacity to transcend these 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 which enable them to transcend the constraints of their history and culture.
Individuals and groups that embrace the evolutionary perspective will also work to encourage all other groups within society to reframe their goals and mission statements to align them with evolutionary objectives. Social, political, governmental and economic organisations will begin to re-evaluate their activities and goals to ensure they are consistent with the advancement of the evolutionary process.
As more and more individuals and groups make this transition to an evolutionary perspective, a wave of evolutionary activism will emerge, directed at the unification of living processes on the planet to form a cooperative planetary society.
Humanity has reached this major evolutionary threshold. The next great 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 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 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 own interests or to fundamentally change their natures. Humans will not have to become saintlike - a cooperative global society can be achieved without people having to sacrifice or suppress their self-interest.
Evolution produces cooperation by instituting forms of social organisation that align the interests of individuals with the interests of the collective. 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 necessitate the emergence of global constraints/governance that reaches across the planet, supporting cooperation and supressing free-riding and destructive competition.
Entities at all levels will feel the impact of their actions on others and on the collective – they will benefit whenever they benefit the global society, and they will be harmed whenever they harm the collective. Pollution and war will no longer pay. Pursuit of self interest alone 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 any impact they have on the other will have a comparable impact on them.
In the past, the emergence of new cooperative organisations gave rise to an explosion of diversity and differentiation within the new organisations. This will be repeated at the global scale. The new forms of social organisation will also enhance the evolvability of our existing forms of government. Government will be replaced with far more intelligent and adaptable processes that utilise the dynamism, creativity and energy of properly managed markets. Like effective markets, the new governance processes will harness a diversity of perspectives to solve adaptive challenges.
When larger-scale cooperatives of living processes have emerged previously in evolution, they have undergone a process of individuation. 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 that other planetary societies could relate to and interact with. There will be an entity at the same level as other planetary societies. If earth is successful in reaching this level, a new universe of possibilities and experiences will open up to humankind.
“This is no place to stop – half way between ape and angel” Benjamin Disraeli
John Stewart is the author of Evolution’s Arrow: the direction of evolution and the future of humanity, and The Evolutionary Manifesto.