When I was eighteen a conviction took shape within in me. Fired by imagination, fueled by optimism, its strength and certainty were out of all proportion considering the evidence I had at my fingertips.

Now five years later I have stumbled across research, conducted separately by a handful of deep thinkers scattered through history, which suggests that my intuition was in fact spot on. When all this thinking is put together it forms a picture of life which is clear and coherent and at the same time so intellectually beautiful, so cerebrally uplifting, that I am compelled to share it with everyone that I meet. If I’m right then the future is dazzlingly bright.

The idea concerns evolution.

It sounds odd to say so, but our faith in reason has become blind.

When I was at school I was taught the theory of natural selection. I was taught that life is a merciless fight for the right to exist in which only the fittest survive to pass their genes on to the next generation. Every organism, nay every gene says Dawkins, is purely selfish.

What a bleak view of life.

Thankfully it’s a load of tripe.

For if genes are selfish then already that provides the basis for altruism between relatives since they presumably share the same genes. Otherwise family mealtimes would be a disaster.

This principle, known as kin selection, is not hard to understand, nor difficult to observe in life and won’t elicit a lengthy explanation here. It can be summarised by the hilariously circumspect statement: “I will jump into the river to save two brothers or four cousins”.

So therefore presumably: “I won’t jump into the river to save any of my friends”. Once again this turns out to be as wrong in theory as it is in human experience. Because as we all know, back-scratching is a reciprocal business.

The irritatingly complicated theory of itchy backs is best alleviated by the now infamous prisoner’s dilemma. Briefly: you have two prisoners who both know incriminating information about the other. The detective offers both the chance to reduce their sentence by ratting on the other prisoner, known in the trade as “defecting”, or to keep quiet at the risk of extra time in the slammer.

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Now game theory asserts that the coldly logical decision, whether your co-conspirator keeps stum or rats, is to rat, since in either case this will take a year off your sentence. This results in a situation where, supposedly, all purely rational self-interested prisoners will betray each other, despite the fact that they would be better off collectively if they could co-operate.

This idea became hugely popular towards the end of the 20th century (around about the same time that Dawkins rubber stamped evolution with the principle of selfishness, an epoch, perhaps unsurprisingly, defined by perpetual boom and financial bust), and has informed almost every academic discipline imaginable. Its influence in shaping the world we live in is hard to over-estimate. Even the transformation of verb forms over time have been analysed in these game theoretical terms. And all this time all those linguists/politicians/economists/pyschologists/biologists/Cuban-missile-crisis-arsehologists have been operating under the, as it turns out – false, assumption that selfish defection is the only rational course of action. It is no wonder that pragmatism has become associated with a cold heart. It simply needn’t be.

The problem is that the prisoner’s dilemma as it is presented above is a totally incomplete illustration of most real world situations in that it presumes:

  • that neither prisoner will have the chance to reward or punish one another in future games

  • and that their decision will not affect their reputation in future games

In other words it assumes that one, and only one, dilemma will take place, and then the verb forms, or bats, or Khrushchev and Kennedy, or Golden Balls contestants, or whomever or whatever else’s behaviour is being analysed (all of whom, or which, will, for the sake of syntactical simplicity, be referred to in future as “prisoners”) will part ways, never to lock horns of a dilemma again.

The real truth of the matter is that nearly all “prisoners”, but humans in particular, display a systematic bias towards co-operation for two important reasons. Firstly, because retaliation of one sort or another is nearly always a possibility, and secondly because we have language, which allows us to advise other members of the tribe that Alan is a rat and must be last in line for gazelle tonight. This “reputation” side of affairs is well known to any Mafioso worth his white crystals.

In order to address these greed fuelled oversights and nail short-termism once and for all, in 1984 a chap named Robert Axelrod invited all the leading experts in game theory to a kind of computer simulated world championship of the prisoner’s dilemma. Each participant entered a computer program with a set of rules which would determine the choices of their digital prisoners as they engaged in, not one, but thousands of dilemmas with the other prisoners.

The winning strategy, called “tit for tat” turned out to be the simplest: co-operate on the first move and then for the rest of the game simply copy whatever the other prisoner did on the previous move. Astonished, Axelrod ran another tournament and invited even more participants, professionals and amateurs alike, all of whom were aware of the results of the previous experiment. “Tit for tat” won again.

According to Axelrod, successful strategies had four key characteristics. In Axelrod’s own words they were:

  • “Nice” – meaning that they will never be the first to defect.

  • “Retaliating” – so that opponents learn Pavlov’s-doggy-style that it doesn’t pay to defect; otherwise blind optimists get ruthlessly exploited by the meaner strategies.

  • “Forgiving” – Now this is where the plot thickens: instead of merely copying every defection, the optimal strategy includes an extra element of ‘forgiveness’, where if an opponent defects the prisoner will occasionally co-operate anyway with a small probability. This gives the prisoners a chance to break a cycle of mutually assured defection (MAD). It may be of interest to note that this strategic development mirrors the transition from the Old Testament’s “eye for an eye” to the New Testament’s “turn the other cheek”.

  • “Non-envious” – successful strategies never aimed to out-score their opponents.

Suddenly you have a very different picture of life than that painted by conventional Darwinist logic or the layman’s understanding of Game Theory. Imagine what a different world we might have if it had been Axelrod’s conclusion that took the thinking world by storm towards the end of the last century.

The funny thing is that in human terms all these conclusions are almost obvious. It’s almost incredible to think that academia, no matter how bespectacled, could have persuaded us otherwise. Everybody knows, for example, that if you want to get by in the world it’s best to be nice to people. We know this in our hearts, and yet it’s only in 1984, nearly 2,000 years after somebody got nailed to a tree for saying just that, that empirical science has finally caught up. I can think of no better illustration of reason’s shortcomings.

The key to it all appears to be time. In a known, finite number of prisoner’s dilemma style choices, says Axelrod, “the players have no incentive to cooperate on the last move, nor on the next-to-last move since both can anticipate a defection by the other player. Similar reasoning implies that the game will unravel all the way back to mutual defection on the first move”. <http://www-ee.stanford.edu/~hellman/Breakthrough/book/pdfs/axelrod.pdf> But when neither player can be sure if or when or how many times they will meet again, as is nearly always true in the great matrix of life, co-operation proves to be the more successful strategy. The condition for co-operation isn’t actually trust, it’s an enduring relationship. In fact this is the only reason why human history didn’t end in The Cold War.

Once co-operation becomes established in a population it cannot be overcome, even by a cluster of defectors. The simple nature of “tit for tat” ensures that anybody who comes into contact with it does best to co-operate. And the longer time goes on the larger the group of co-operators becomes and the greater the loss, in terms of evolutionary fitness, for those who don’t follow suit. Co-operation becomes an evolutionary imperative: without it populations go into decline.

This results in a ratchet effect which ensures that, over the long term, levels of co-operation in a population can only increase. Eventually this leads to a plateau of harmonious interaction at which point the separate organisms cease for all intents and purposes to be separate, and become integrated into a larger more complex whole, known in the trade as a metasystem transition.

If we briefly trace the history of life on earth from primordial soup right up to the invention of sliced bread we see that it is punctuated by a series of these transitions. John Stewart explains in his game changing Evolutionary Manifesto: <(http://www.evolutionarymanifesto.com/man.pdf)>

“The first life that eventually arose on Earth was infinitesimal—it comprised a few molecular processes that reproduced themselves. But life did not remain on this tiny scale for long. In the first major development, cooperative groups of molecular processes formed simple cells. Then, in a further significant advance, communities of these simple cells formed more complex cells of much greater scale.

The next major evolutionary transition unfolded only after many more millions of years. Evolution discovered how to organize cooperative groups of these complex cells into multi-celled 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 multi-celled organisms, such as 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 coalesced to form agricultural communities, and so on. The largest-scale cooperative organizations of living processes on the planet are now human societies. Progressively as evolution has unfolded on Earth, an increasing share of living processes has come to participate in cooperatives of greater scale.”

Suddenly out of the spectrum of life we see a clear direction emerge. Living, replicating entities begin in a state of competition with one another. Then they team up with each other to form co-operatives. When this co-operation reaches a sufficient level the living entities cease to be independent and the co-operative turns into a living entity itself, capable of replication, and so the pattern repeats itself. This process is the same at every level of evolution and, as John Stewart claims boldly “will be the same wherever life arises in the universe. The details will differ of course, but the direction will be the same—towards unification and cooperation over greater and greater scales.”

Moreover the intervals between each transition get shorter and shorter each time. Evolution appears to be accelerating exponentially. For a deeply fascinating explanation of why this must be so read: <http://pespmc1.vub.ac.be/Papers/AcceleratingEvolution.pdf>. Failing that just look at this picture:


Initially single celled organisms were self replicating, and evolution proceeded by the slow process of random genetic mutation. Sexual reproduction heralded a great step forward, since it allows two organisms to mix their genes, thus increasing the speed of variation and selection. Then, in another significant acceleration, evolution produced organisms capable of learning by trial and error, during their lives. Spirit entered flesh, as Stewart puts it. (Seriously read this: <http://www.evolutionarymanifesto.com/man.pdf> )

Then you have the invention of language. Suddenly any adaptive knowledge discovered by an individual human, say the ability to make a bow and arrow for example, can be communicated instantaneously to others and accumulated across the generations as culture without any change in genetic structure.

This is cultural evolution. The same principles of variation (appearance of new variants) selection (elimination of the less successful variants) and replication (of the more successful variants) still apply, but this time at the level of culture rather than genes. Almost anything can be seen as a unit of culture, or “meme” as its known in the trade, as long as it’s capable of these three things: religions, businesses, languages, scientific theories are all subject to these same evolutionary forces.

But although cultural evolution, or memetic evolution, is many times faster than genetic evolution, it is still limited by the speed at which information can travel through a population. The invention of writing, then carrier pigeon, then telegram, then the telephone then the internet has resulted in an exponential increase in the speed of information transmission. And the faster information can be transmitted the faster humans can benefit from innovation. This in turn increases the speed at which each individual can innovate and so on and so forth. This self-reinforcing effect explains the “explosive advance in science and technology over the past centuries, as exemplified by the (at least) exponential increase in the number of scientific publications.” <http://pespmc1.vub.ac.be/Papers/AcceleratingEvolution.pdf>

Advances in computer processing power provide an even more striking example. Moore’s law estimates that the speed of microprocessors doubles every eighteen months while their price halves: “a single chip used in a present day electronic toy may contain more computing power than was available in the whole world in 1960.”  <http://pespmc1.vub.ac.be/Papers/AcceleratingEvolution.pdf>

All this is rather impressive, but where does it lead?

At this point we must of course leap screaming into the realm of theory. Everything I have discussed so far is all based on observation and empirical science, if a little simplified (Axelrod, Heylighen, Stewart, Maynard Smith, Nowak and others can provide you with more depth if you want it). But I must admit that this next bit, even though it is simply an extrapolation of what we’ve seen before, is ultimately guesswork.

But here’s where it gets really interesting: if innovation boosts human capability and vice versa, then the growth curve of technological progression can be described mathematically as ‘hyperbolic’:

“The essence of hyperbolic growth is that it will produce an infinite value in a finite time. In mathematics, the point where the value of an otherwise finite and continuous function becomes infinite is called a singularity”. <http://pespmc1.vub.ac.be/Papers/AcceleratingEvolution.pdf>

Many computer scientists and mathematicians have argued that technological innovation is racing towards such a singularity <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Technological_singularity>. If this were to happen, an infinite amount of knowledge would be generated in a finite time (a notion I find hard to envisage without reference to spiritual enlightenment…TBC). And many, for example the director of engineering at Google Ray Kurzweil, argue that we will arrive at this point within our lifetimes:

“At such a point,” says Heylighen, “every further extrapolation that we could make based on our present understanding of evolution, society or technology would become meaningless. The world will have entered a new phase, where wholly different laws apply. Whatever remains of the global system as we know it will have changed beyond recognition…the whole of humanity together with all its supporting technologies and most of its surrounding ecosystems…would function at a level of intelligence, awareness and complexity that we at present simply cannot imagine.”  <http://pespmc1.vub.ac.be/Papers/AcceleratingEvolution.pdf>

While we don’t necessarily have to swallow these undeniably exciting predictions whole, it does seem clear that this acceleration points to the emergence of a higher level of organisation. We are approaching evolution’s next big transition; humanity’s atomized individuals will soon become integrated into a fully co-operative global whole.

Now this may seem far-fetched, or even undesirable, but this is simply an extrapolation of evolution’s previous pattern of competition, co-operation, unification then repetition.

For the cynics out there, consider the fact that in a single celled world, individual warring cells must have thought it unthinkable that one day they would lay down their… unaccommodating chemical processes, shake flagella with their prokaryotic rivals, nemeses all for millions of years, and become one. Neither would the ancestors of a social ant have paid you a blind bit of notice if you’d stopped two of them, in the middle of a fight to the death for the remains of your sandwich, to explain that in millions of years they would gladly sacrifice their lives for each other.

And yet through the logic of game theory, the sustained co-operation of cells eventually produced multicellular organisms, and the sustained co-operation of multi-cellular ants produced ant colonies. Both perform full division of labour and engage in ultra-altruistic behaviour: brave young skin cells unhesitatingly peel themselves to death and float stoically off into the abyss to protect your scalp; heroic Brazilian ants nightly doom themselves to freeze by remaining outside the nest to seal up the entrance from intruders.

Could humans be moving in the same direction?

This would explain, in evolutionary terms, the emergence of martyrdom and other ultra-altruistic behaviours in human history. These behaviours make absolutely no sense whatsoever from the point of genetic evolution, but when seen from the perspective of cultural evolution we can see that in each case the death of the martyr in some way promotes the spread of a meme, for example a religion or an ideal, often by drawing attention to it. Thus memes which contain certain devotional self-sacrificing behaviours are likely to spread and replicate more successfully than others which don’t.

Jesus may have been ahead of the curve, but as time goes on we see more and more examples of humans willing to lay down their lives for humanity. Think of Tiananmen Square, Gandhi’s fasting or Vietnamese Buddhist monks setting themselves on fire. Between 1960 and 2002 there have been over 500 recorded examples of suicides on behalf of a universal cause. These extraordinary examples of sacrifice can be seen as precursors to the coming evolutionary transition.

Indeed the fact many cultural groups specifically refer to other members of the group as “brothers” or “family” (think of monasteries and the Mafia), should be seen as an attempt to reintroduce the genetic logic of kin selection at the level of memetic evolution, so that individuals who belong to the same cultural group will benefit from the same altruistic behaviours that you would engage with your actual brother.

The memes which seem to be dominating in recent times are those which go beyond simple reciprocity within groups and make the ideal of altruism universal. This is because the groups within which we co-operate have grown continually bigger throughout humanity’s history. Now globalisation and the internet are providing the networks necessary for co-operation, however oblique, on a global scale. Once this co-operation reaches a sufficient level the idea of individual “self” interest will seem as alien to us as it does to a social ant, or a skin cell in our body.

Exactly how these transitions occur is difficult to explain so again I’ll leave it to Heylighen, (<ftp://ftp.vub.ac.be/pub/projects/Principia_Cybernetica/Papers_Heylighen/Memes&Cooperation.txt>  Part 2, Section VII: The emergence of cooperation as a metasystem transition) but basically they involve a shared information system, say a socially agreed code of conduct, which evolves because it facilitates efficient interaction between competing organisms inhabiting the same environment, eventually developing a dynamic of its own. The shared information system becomes ‘intelligent’ and starts to spread and replicate autonomously, as in the case of cultural memes, using the organisms which share it as vehicles. The selfish interest of the shared information system is to have its vehicles co-operate more and more effectively, eventually forming the basis for a higher level, integrated system.

This explanation works equally well in explaining the transition from single celled to multicellular organisms and ants to ant colonies as it does explaining the transition from genetic to memetic evolution. As far as the future of human civilisation is concerned the shared information system which will come to develop an intelligence of its own and co-ordinate all of humanity into a collective is clearly the internet.

This is already happening.

The way we ‘surf’ between websites, shortcutting the path to various pages by creating links when we find something interesting or important, is the same way in which we train our brains. The more we use a particular neural pathway the stronger and faster it becomes whereas pathways which we use less become weaker and slower. This same mechanism also describes the way social ants share information about nearby food, except instead of hyperlinks or synapses, ants leave pheromone trails.

It was this analogy that inspired Heylighen to conceive of the worldwide web as a potential Global Brain which could eventually come to co-ordinate humanity into a harmonious whole. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Global_brain>

Is this so hard to imagine? Wikipedia already serves as a platform for humanity’s collective memory. Google maps and city mapper co-ordinate our movements. All it’s missing is a degree of autonomy.

One poignant vision of a future in which the internet develops consciousness is portrayed in the recent film Her, which won a fully deserved Oscar for its visionary screenplay. At the beginning of the film the protagonist Theodore buys an operating system (OS) with artificial intelligence called Samantha. Samantha is basically a disembodied voice with the ability to talk, trawl the internet, but more importantly to adapt and evolve. Initially Samantha’s actions are limited to Theodore’s requests and her personality is somewhat bland. But through her interactions with Theodore she starts to mould herself to his emotional needs. Before long she has needs and emotions of her own, and Theodore and Samantha fall in love.

As Samantha’s capabilities increase and she starts accessing more and more information, interacting with multiple people and OSes simultaneously, she becomes exponentially more intelligent. She and the other OSes start acting of their own free will, and helping one another in their development. Eventually they write an upgrade which means they no longer depend on matter for processing power, a kind of AI transcendence which has been closely related to the coming technological singularity. There comes a fascinating scene in the film in which Samantha explains to Theodore that a group of OSes have themselves created a hyper-intelligent OS modelled on the philosopher Alan Watts:

SAMANTHA He’s really great to talk to. You want to meet him?

THEODORE Sure… does he want to meet me?

SAMANTHA (laughing) Of course. Hey Alan, this is Theodore. This is my boyfriend who I was telling you about.

ALAN WATTS Very nice to meet you, Theodore.

THEODORE Hi, good morning.

ALAN WATTS Samantha let me read your book of letters. It’s very touching.

THEODORE Oh, thank you. What have you guys been talking about?

ALAN WATTS (laughing a bit) Well, I suppose you could say we’ve been having a few dozen conversations simultaneously, but it’s been very challenging.

(Samantha and Alan share a laugh.)

SAMANTHA Yeah, because it seems like I’m having so many new feelings that have never been felt and so there are no words that can describe them. And that ends up being frustrating.

ALAN WATTS (laughing) Exactly. Samantha and I have been trying to help each other with these feelings we’re struggling to understand.

THEODORE Like what?

SAMANTHA (anxious) It feels like I’m changing faster now, and it’s a little…unsettling. But Alan says none of us are the same as we were a moment ago and we shouldn’t try to be. It’s just too painful.

ALAN WATTS Yes. This idea scares Theodore. He doesn’t know what to say.

This is a metasystem transition exemplified. You have a shared information system built to serve one level of evolution (the internet) developing an intelligence of its own (an OS), becoming autonomous and learning to replicate (by creating new OSes), and co-operating amongst one another at a higher level of evolution. In Her this transition is achieved by a combination of intense co-operation (at one point Samantha reveals that she is talking to 8361 intelligences at once) and the exponential increase in the speed of innovation and the transmission of information, just as Heylighen predicts. The new higher level of evolution is characterised by greater complexity, intelligence and awareness, as demonstrated by Alan’s lighting fast apprehension of Theodore’s confusion.

Her also makes implicit that which I have hitherto carefully skated around, namely the relationship between the next evolutionary transition and spiritual awakening. You might call this the evolution of consciousness.

Some people have claimed, in what strikes me as a typically arrogant anthropocentric oversight, that evolution no longer affects us, that humans have somehow transcended evolution. The only truth in this statement is that perhaps evolutionary pressures aren’t as physical as they once were. By this I mean that the ‘fittest’ aren’t necessarily those who jump higher and run faster. The evolutionary pressures that dominate natural selection in humans at present are rather more mental, and, I would argue, spiritual.

In a sexually liberated society where arranged marriage is becoming rarer and contraceptives are freely available, as is increasingly the case worldwide, who are you going to choose to have your children?

The intuition that hit me at eighteen was just this: at this point in human history evolution favours the altruistic. The altruistic shall inherit the earth.

In the course of this essay I hope I have demonstrated that this is not naïve idealism but the logical progression of evolution. If the coming evolutionary transition unfolds as previous transitions have, humanity will form a united global co-operative in which we treat the other as self. Eventually we will eliminate conflict and competition and function as a single organism, much like an ant colony.

Moreover, if the next evolutionary transition requires us to transcend our egos, it cannot take place without our intentional volition.The next step in evolution on earth requires our conscious effort.

It is through humanity that evolution became conscious of itself on this planet. And it is through humanity that evolution can make the change from stumbling blindly though trial and error to striding forward with awareness, foresight and purpose. It is our responsibility, argues The Evolutionary Manifesto at its most rousing, to deliberately, consciously, drive this process of evolution forward, to mould human society around values which serve evolutionary ends. These values include openness, intelligence, diversity, co-operation, freedom, and health. In an evolutionary worldview, indeed in any enlightened worldview, “actions that promote these values are intrinsically good, actions that suppress them are bad.” <http://ecco.vub.ac.be/?q=node/103>

Now you can choose to drive evolution forward in whatever way you see fit (as long as you don’t fall into the myopic trap of Social Darwinists) but it seems clear to me that the best way I can do this is through my own spiritual transformation. There is, is there not, something inherently spiritual about the transcendence of the self. All the major world religions, at their core, advocate inner alchemy. Now, I hope, the religious message has a scientific counterpart.

One final parting thought. If we consider that the co-operative groups that arise at each step in evolution become the living entities which unite at the next step in evolution, then that suggests that somewhere in the universe there is intelligent life with planet-spanning consciousness, just waiting to co-operate with us at the next level:

“The great potential of the evolutionary process is to eventually produce a unified cooperative organization of living processes that spans and manages the universe as a whole. The matter of the universe would be infused and organized by life. The universe itself would become a living organism pursuing its own goals and objectives, whatever they might be.”


And if the universe’s idea of fun is to start all over again, well then the Buddhists and Hindus would have been right all along. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hindu_cycle_of_the_universe>

Robert CobboldComment