Guest Blogs

One Step at a Time

By Carl Coon November 21, 2014 14 Comments

Evolution is a process that proceeds incrementally, one step at a time. One thing leads to another. This is true for all kinds of evolution. Living things evolve through natural selection, with small changes between generations leading to larger changes through many generations. Cultural artifacts, such as automobiles and telephones, evolve through many small, intentional changes based on experience, and spread through imitation. Societies evolve as the people who manage them adjust them to better serve their purposes and adapt to their environments.

Although all evolutionary change is ultimately composed of very small steps, this is not the way it appears to us. Subjectively, we see categories of changes, from the trivial to the critical, and from the very gradual to the abrupt. It’s like a very long flight of stairs where some steps are higher or steeper than others. We see developments like the evolution of the human eye, or the introduction of agriculture, as qualitatively different from relatively minor breakthroughs like, say, the introduction of bifocals, or the latest innovation in farm pesticides. But when you look more closely at such critically important leaps forward, you see that the all of them, the big and the trivial alike, are composed of a number of smaller, individual events.

Put the whole world on one map, and a map of a village next to it. When you look at the global map, you don’t see the detail you can find when you turn to the village level, but in the real world, that detail is there on the big map too, you just cannot see it. Likewise, with evolution, there are no big breakthroughs, just some events where enough little increments crowd together to give the appearance of a big step forward.

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If scale is one of the ways that affect how we see evolutionary change, another is time, which governs the speed of change. It’s like getting your shutter speed right when you take a picture. When you examine, for example, the introduction of agriculture, it is important to slow down, abandoning the tempos surrounding us in contemporary life, and look at change in terms of centuries if not millennia. It’s even more important to slow down when examining remote events in biological evolution.

If every change of an evolutionary nature can be broken down into smaller units, where does it all end up? Is the notion that some changes are more important than others, and have more lasting consequences, just a figment of human imagination? Perhaps, but if so, it is a very important figment. We need to be able to distinguish between change that is less important and that which is more so, if we are to understand evolution at all.

So what do we mean by important change? If we use our analogy of a flight of stairs, an important change is one that gets us a step or two higher. If we extend the analogy to an entire building, a critically important change is one that gets us up to a higher floor, with its own architecture and environmental restraints on further evolution. Very roughly, in biology this second category of change could correspond to evolution of one species to a different one. In cultural evolution, a useful way of defining this kind of change could be tied to the principles governing the maximum size for cooperating societies. When villages stopped competing with each other by coalescing into kingdoms, that was certainly an important change because it opened up new possibilities and directions for the whole evolutionary process.

With a big change like that, you get to the next floor and it’s a new scene; new rules, or algorithms if you will, determine what happens. You grope around for a few generations, sorting out the furniture and getting used to the new environment, and after a while you begin to bump against new limits, and a few of you begin to wonder whether there isn’t still another floor above. Then someone discovers a place where there is a step up, and someone else discovers a step beyond that, and so it goes.

How do you distinguish between the really big changes between floors, and the merely important ones, steps up? It’s a bit like pornography, hard to define but you know it when you see it. It’s what I refer to in my “Short History of Evolution” as levels which have ceilings. Evolution writ broad can be seen as a very long saga in which life evolves, bumps up against a ceiling, breaks through it, and evolves further, until it hits another ceiling, and so it has been from the remotest past to the unforeseeable future.

Humanity has met a lot of bumps in its evolution since the Neolithic and has proved singularly ingenious in solving most of them. We’ve harnessed enormous new sources of energy, and solved the food problem so successfully that global population has exploded into the billions. Our command over information—access, storage, and retrieval—has similarly exploded, and unlike population, there’s no end in sight. But despite all that, we have not gotten past much of the baggage that evolved shortly after we broke through that last ceiling ten thousand years ago. We still are comfortable only in groups small enough so we know each other, though we have ingeniously combined clusters of such cells to form a vast human coral reef which functions well enough at the national level but has yet to find firm footing on the planetary side. We’ve come a long way, but a look at the world around us, and the simmering discontent of people almost everywhere, suggests we still have a way to go…another ceiling?

It seems that one of the more annoying features of the whole evolutionary process, at least from our point of view, is that many of the workarounds and other changes we have used to help us adjust to one floor prove irrelevant or downright dysfunctional when we crack through the ceiling and confront a new set of conditions. This follows what seems to be a basic principle of evolution: when you (or any evolving entity) gets to the top of a flight of stairs, you discover that your troubles are just beginning.

Let’s look more closely at that period beginning about ten thousand years ago when our ancestors crashed through the ceiling that largely limited group cooperation to the village level. When multiple villages began to coalesce into mini-kingdoms, new problems emerged, and a lot of the old furniture had to be discarded or replaced. You can get an idea of the confusion from the Old Testament. The newly minted larger groups were a scrappy lot, on the whole, constantly finding reasons to fight each other. Constant conflict was costly in the short run but over longer time frames it did replace a lot of the debris with new furniture that helped hold the supertribes together and help them develop. War, supported by religion, became a major enabler for what we describe as civilization. We’re still on that same floor but well-advanced in rearranging the furniture and getting ready for the next breakthrough.

By now, war has become dysfunctional because we are too good at it, and religion is being pushed into a lesser role by science. Yet their more primitive forms still remain as bothersome holdovers seriously impeding the further evolution of our species. (I describe all this in more detail in the concluding portions of my “Short History”.)

Can this approach help us better understand what is going on around us today? I believe so, if we begin with the idea with which we started this essay. One step at a time. Yes, we need a global sheriff, some duly constituted global authority able and authorized to step in and keep the peace when some neighborhoods get so unruly that they threaten to get completely out of hand. But no, we are not going to achieve this in my lifetime, or yours. As a former diplomat, I can see a myriad of small measures that need to be put in place before we can seriously contemplate the creation of an effective global peace force. As for climate change, our recent election shows how far we are even from agreeing on the concept, let alone on effective coordination of efforts on the global level.

But that doesn’t mean we don’t need to work as hard as we can at getting those intermediate measures in place, establishing the preconditions that must be in place before the next big push to get us to the top of the stairs we confront in the here and now. When we look closely at these intermediate measures, as we normally do, the obstacles are formidable. It can get pretty discouraging unless we step back and see them for what they are, not goals in themselves, but parts of a vast process that can only lead up, in the long run.

What is “up” in this context? Like everything else in the future, we’ll know it when we see it, and not before. But is getting there worth the effort, considering we don’t know what “there” consists of? Well, as I said in my “Short History,” when we look ahead, we may wonder if it’s worth the effort, but when we look back, we’ll know.

About the author: Carleton S. Coon, Jr., retired Foreign Service Officer, former Ambassador to Nepal, former Vice President of the American Humanist Association, author of several books, most recently “A Short History of Evolution”, and owner of the website Progressive Humanism.

Published On: November 21, 2014

Carl Coon

Carl Coon

Carl Coon (1927-2018) was a retired US diplomat living in Washington, Virginia, and Washington DC. He graduated from Harvard in 1949 (after serving briefly in the US Army at the end of World War II), and joined the US Foreign Service that same year. 37 years of government service saw him posted in a variety of countries stretching from Morocco to Nepal. From 1981-1984 he was US Ambassador to Nepal. He retired in 1985.

Carl wrote essays on the human condition and several books. After retirement, his interests increasingly focused on humanism and he became involved with the American Humanist Association. In 2004, he was elected to the AHA Board and shortly afterwards became AHA’s Vice President. He was the editor of the blog Progressive Humanism.


  • David says:

    Very interesting perspective. I like your idea that evolution consists of accumulating small steps. I have heard the metaphor about the upward spiral of evolution. My only question is, How do we know the future will necessarily be better? I think it’s important to question this assurance from time to time so we can make it that way.

  • Carl Coon says:

    ‘Better’ is pretty subjective in this context. In my “Short History of Evolution” I define all evolution as a process leading to greater complexity, and concentration of energy. This process has an identifiable direction, and I define progress as movement in that direction. If we substitute ‘progress’ for ‘better’ your question can be aswered more objectively.

    The general direction of evolution is subject to a lot of twists and turns when you examine it in detail, with many steps backward accompanied by a (hopefully) larger number of steps forward. When you see things around you falling apart, and civilization disintegrating, it helps to step back and see the larger picture portrayed on a larger canvas.

    • david ronfeldt says:

      What catches my eye is the proposition that evolution means increasing complexity — as you say, “a process leading to greater complexity”. Thus a system progresses from simplicity to complexity. The proposition has figured not only in theories of evolution but also of collapse (e.g., Tainter).

      The proposition has lots of merit. But its standard formulation remains awfully simple, too linear — as though there is only a singular system involved. The proposition would have greater merit if that system evolved sub-systems over time, each of which went through the simplicity-to-complexity process in its own way.

      For example — and it’s the only example that I’ve got that interests me, so hang on — in my view a case can be made: That societies have evolved four cardinal forms of organization, namely tribes, (hierarchical) institutions, markets, and networks (hence, I call it TIMN). That these forms have arisen at different rates — tribes first, institutions next, then markets, now information-age networks lately. That societies progress according to their abilities to add and combine these forms (and their resulting sectors or sub-systems), evolving over the ages from T, to T+I, to T+I+M, and now potentially to T+I+M+N kinds of societies.

      And this leads to an apropos proposition about the evolution from simplicity to complexity:

      “Complexity increases with TIMN progress, but so does simplicity: TIMN treats the evolution of “complexity” as a cumulative, combinatorial process, in which a social system develops sub-systems that operate according to different forms of organization. Thus TIMN, like most theories about social evolution, emphasizes differentiation and specialization — but with a twist. In classical theory, evolution amounts to a movement from simplicity to complexity — with that complexity becoming evermore complex. But in TIMN, the successful addition of a new form spells a reconfiguration that amounts to a kind of simplification — a resolution of excessive complexity (or complicatedness) from trying to do too many new things with old forms. Thus a triform T+I+M society is more complex than a biform T+I society; but a T+I+M society is also more streamlined and efficient — in key ways, simpler, less complicated — than a T+I society that is trying to conduct and control complex economic affairs without adopting the +M form. The drive for differentiation cannot be unceasing; resynthesis eventually requires a simplifying kind of de-differentiation as well.”

      But perhaps I’m too late passing by here to post a comment. Onward anyway.

  • EALTurner says:

    //we need a global sheriff, some duly constituted global authority able and authorized to step in and keep the peace when some neighborhoods get so unruly that they threaten to get completely out of hand.// do we? would a global sheriff actually work? and who polices the sheriff – Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? and all that? ultimately, what we need is continued economic development and space travel.

    • Carl Coon says:

      Your global sheriff has to be part of a larger framework. Some form of global governance. That is the direction for cultural evolution, although the problems of getting there seem insuperable from here.

      • EALTurner says:

        we already have “some form of global governance.” for example global standardization bodies like UNECE and the ISO. no official sheriff told you to reduce the suction power of your vacuum cleaner and yet your law has already been changed.

        and, while making no comment whether a “global sheriff” is inevitable (not to mention the question how would this would in reality differ from a unipolar state system?), since when did evolution have a “direction”?

        whatever process you are referring to if you already know what’s going to happen evolutionary theory cannot be the most significant part of your model.

  • Ross David H says:

    When we look at religion, I think we can usefully divide the history of it into an earlier phase where it was “the religion of our village or tribe”, and “the religion of all peoples, who distant nations should be converted to”. The latter worked much better for nation-states, and so came to be more common.

    It is commonplace for academics today to assume that religion will disappear, or at any rate needs to in order for human civilization to advance, but that seems unlikely given what we know about human psychology. I think it more likely, given the precedents, that we would see new religions (or new interpretations of established religions) which work better for the “next level”, as you call it. Ones that have something useful to say about environmental or economic issues related to globalization, for example.

    Lastly, the precedents for a single global “sherrif”, when one looks at what happend in places like ancient Egypt when a central government arose to keep the peace among the villages, are not encouraging. A single global “sherrif” would be all too likely to become a single global pharoah.

  • Carl Coon says:

    I think that when we parse religion out, we should think in terms of constituent parts that emerged at different times, not a single entity that has evolved as such. Religion as something that encourages the individual to cooperate with the group may have taken hold a lot earlier than religion as an aphrodisiac that encourages young males to slaughter each other in war. The latter’s golden age may have been between the Bronze Age and World War II. It has become toxic and will be weeded out of the evolutionary picture a lot sooner than the former. At least we can hope so.
    I can’t predict whether the future evolutionary path leading to a global sheriff leads through a global pharaoh stage or whether we can get to some kind of global authority more to our taste. It could go either way.

    • EALTurner says:

      there is no reason, from a cultural evolution perspective to expect atheism to get further than the 2% (of generally men) who are particularly susceptible to atheist belief.

      neuroscience has shown religious experience is hard-wired into the human brain. surely that’s not something you can “parse.”

      there is also the question whether atheists can themselves be defined as religious.

      a study has shown that when asked “Why are we here? What happens after we die? Where are my car keys?” atheists and religious show up different activity on MRI returns but that difference could simply be the religious individuals employing more imagination in their answers.

      what we need to know is, when an atheist explains their evolutionary theory is their MRI the same as a religious person who is explaining their creation theory?

  • Carl Coon says:

    I suspect that when we discuss atheism vs religion we are looking at a contiuous spectrum rather than two discontinuous phenomena. If so, your questions can best be answered by deciding where we draw the line.

    • EALTurner says:

      in my own model, which I’m not claiming is well thought-out but I’ve not yet been convinced of anything better, atheist and religious beliefs are simply cultural elements that a brain can hold. there is nothing unique about atheist cultural elements compared to religious cultural elements. both belief-systems are structured in a similar way: idea-networks, that require an element of faith somewhere as the glue which holds it all together.

      so my argument is there is no reason to believe religion will fall away because atheism and religion are essentially the same things. atheists also have faith somewhere in their belief system.

      in my view it makes no more sense to have a spectrum between atheists and “the religious” than between, say, Christianity and Buddhism. atheists, of course, disagree strongly as they believe their ideas are an immaculate exception: they don’t believe in gods or in things on “blind faith.” they only believe things based on “logic and evidence.”

      this is the central mantra of atheism but atheists too have blind faith and their gods, they call them laws. to identify the gods atheists have blind faith in you just need to stretch out the timeframe from the “now” – the moment, the present – to across the centuries – because atheists always hide their faith in the unknowable fog of the future.

      David Hume, whom most atheists consider an influential father, built his belief system on the physical universe of Isaac Newton. at the time that looked a pretty solid rock. not many people could have imagined Newton’s self-evident theories would be shaken to their foundations 200 years in the future.

      along came the scientific breakthrough lead by Einstein and all of a sudden, a new floor with new rules. and now you can use those discoveries tug and pull apart the bonds in Hume’s belief system and lay the basis for a new… which eventually, can be pulled-apart.

      one topical candidate for an atheist blind faith fact is that selfish gene theory is the undisputed correct approach to evolutionary theory. maybe it isn’t? EO Wilson and a lot of other scientists don’t think so any more. It’s not looking such a good foundation to build an atheist belief system on any more.

      another candidate for atheist blind faith fact is the “singularity” – the idea humans are machines so that means we can be exactly replicated by robots, or be bound-with a conscious robot. for me that’s an alchemy-like dead end money-sink for gullible super-billionaires.

      while I cannot predict the future I will say the “singularity” is an atheists blind faith hiding behind the fog obscuring a future Kuhnian paradigm shift – an evolutionary ceiling before a human society in which advanced tools have been successfully set to work hoeing soil and cracking rocks while truly conscious and adaptable humans do ever more leisurely and creative stuff.

      you will always be able to get to the moon with Newton’s equations. advanced robotics will always be useful even if they never are conscious like humans. what we could call the “atheist approach” is not pointless.

      however, there are ways in which believing in a god is useful too. believing in a god may have broken evolutionary ceilings by increasing trust levels between different villages. take away the god you could find society crashing through the evolutionary floors at free-fall speed.

  • Carl Coon says:

    Lots of ideas here, Turner. Now that Thanksgiving is over, I’ll address one of the more central of them, atheism versus faith…of course atheists have faith, everybody has to start somewhere in answering the how and why questions, atheists just explicitly reject any traditional source to pin the answers to, relying on science and reason. As our competence at reason-based science increases, we generate new concepts which we use to upgrade our answers. Mendel helped us, post-Darwin, by opening a door to a new room, Dawkins rearranged some furniture, and now David Sloan Wilson and others are introducing further important modifications. The main justification for these changes has been/is getting rid of paraphernalia that we needed on lower floors
    but must get out of the way now if we are to keep on climbing.

    Who guards the guardians in a future global governance? Wish I knew. It’s the key question. If a sensible answer were already on the table we’d be well on our way up those stairs to the next floor.

  • Ross David H says:

    Having been an atheist for a couple decades (I am now Buddhist), I can say that it would not surprise me if MRI (and similarly less-subjective measures) of atheists find that they can usefully be divided into two kinds: those who have no religion, and those whose religion is atheism. So I could believe that the latter camp might employ the same part of their brain to explain evolutionary theory as creationists do when explaining creation.

    However, I seem to recall reading that when playing the Dictator game, atheists treat other atheists the way that members of religions treat members of OTHER religions, not the way that members of religions treat each other. So I think there are grounds for thinking that, at least in some respects, atheism is not just another religion (although in this case it involves less altruism than any religion studied).

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