fbpx

Download this article as a PDF version.

The idea that we can consciously evolve our own future is inspirational to many people. Like a religious cosmology, it captures the imagination and moves one to act on behalf of the common good, without needing to rely upon the cosmology of any particular religious tradition such as Buddhism, Judaism, or Christianity.  

One person who pioneered a narrative of conscious evolution was the French paleontologist and Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955). When he wrote the passage shown in this Internet meme, he was relying upon his authority as a scientist to provide inspirational uplift, not Catholic theology. Teilhard regarded knowledge of evolution, properly understood, as a metamorphosis of Christian thought. The same sentiment is conveyed by other authors with terms such as “Interspirituality,”1 “Second-tier Consciousness,”2 “The Evolutionary Epic,”3 “The Third Story,”4 and “Ethics for a Whole World.”5

In all cases, it is supposed that the wisdom of religious and spiritual traditions, which still have value and can be richly drawn upon, can also be justified by modern scientific knowledge.

I am in full agreement with this aspiration. Like Teilhard, I am trained as an evolutionary scientist and feel strongly that we can “consciously evolve a world that works for all,” to quote the mission statement of Prosocial World, the nonprofit organization that helped to create with many others. However, a science-based narrative of conscious evolution is still a work in progress and the obstacles in our path are formidable.

First, we need to clarify what we mean by “narrative”. This requires making a distinction between a body of scientific knowledge and a meaning system.

Second, we need to understand the role that scientific knowledge plays in the construction of a meaning system.

Third, we need to appreciate the provisional nature of scientific knowledge, calling for appropriate humility when we invoke its authority.

Confronting and overcoming these obstacles can result in something that does not yet exist but can be brought about: scientists and storytellers working together as “collaborators in creation”, to use Teilhard’s poetic language.

Three Criteria for Evaluating Narratives

To begin, it is important to distinguish between a body of scientific knowledge and a meaning system. A body of scientific knowledge attempts to describe what is. A meaning system attempts to make sense of the world in a way that leads to effective action. A meaning system is therefore value-laden and action-oriented in a way that a body of scientific knowledge is not.

When we use words such as “narrative” and “story”, we are almost always referring to the construction of a meaning system, not just the conveyance of factual information. As such, an effective narrative must be judged by three criteria.

1) Is the narrative psychologically and emotionally motivating? At its best, a narrative will cause a person to rise from bed every morning brimming with purpose.

2) What does the narrative cause people to do? At its best, a narrative will cause people to work effectively together for the common good.  

3) How well does the narrative comport with current scientific knowledge? At its best, a narrative can defend itself against claims that it departs from factual reality.

In the literature on religion, the first and second criteria are sometimes called the “vertical” and “horizontal” dimensions. The vertical dimension is the person’s relationship with the divine and sacred. The horizontal dimension concerns how the person acts on the basis of this relationship in association with other people. For example, the protestant reformer John Calvin refined a theology based upon God’s forgiveness of original sin, which highly motivated believers to avoid self-serving behaviors and act for the good of the religious community (the vertical dimension). Calvin also wrote a set of ecclesiastical ordinances that specified in minute detail how the governance of the community in the city of Geneva would take place (the horizontal dimension). In general, the most enduring religions are strong in both the vertical and horizontal dimensions.6

How well do narratives of conscious evolution succeed according to the first two criteria? Without attempting a comprehensive review, I offer the following assessment.

1) Many of them succeed along the vertical dimension, which is why they attract and maintain audiences. This Google Ngram, which charts word frequency use from Google’s vast electronic library of books, shows that Teilhard is mentioned much more frequently than the major evolutionary scientists of his day. This is despite the fact that Teilhard has been largely forgotten by evolutionary scientists. Teilhard is literally being “kept alive”, culturally, on the strength of the inspirational quality of his writing. 

2) Narratives of conscious evolution tend to succeed less well along the horizontal dimension. In particular, they often rely upon individuals to act upon their motivation without providing guidance or structure for social interactions. To my knowledge, Teilhard’s wide readership has not resulted in any counterpart to Calvin’s ecclesiastical ordinances governing the affairs of a community.

My assessment of narratives of conscious evolution also applies to other narratives that are designed to inspire compassionate action, such as varieties of Buddhism practiced in the west or psychotherapeutic mindfulness narratives. The largely unstated assumption is that inspiring the individual to act compassionately (the vertical dimension) is sufficient to result in compassionate action (the horizontal dimension).  

I will return to the need for a worldview to include both a vertical and horizontal dimension below. For now, let’s examine the third criterion for evaluating an effective narrative.

The Role of Scientific Knowledge

Strictly speaking, a narrative can score high on the first two criteria without needing to adhere to factual knowledge. In fact, it is important to appreciate how frequently we depart from factual knowledge about the world, in order to survive and reproduce in the world.

Let’s begin with our five senses—sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell—which evolved by genetic evolution. None of them sense the world as it really is. We see only a narrow band of the light spectrum, which we perceive as discrete colors rather than as a continuum. Our hearing is tuned to the range of the human voice. We are unable to sense gravitational fields and mild electrical currents, even though these forces objectively exist, can be sensed by instruments that we construct, and can be sensed by other species. A person who sensed the world as it really is would be overwhelmed with information and unable to survive in the world that she sensed so well.

It is sobering to contemplate that everything I just said about our genetically evolved senses also goes for our culturally constructed meaning systems. They often depart from a factual description of the world in order to help us survive and reproduce in that very same world. For example, it might be adaptive for most people to consider themselves above average, even though this is statistically impossible. It might be adaptive to regard your adversaries as inhuman monsters rather than people much like yourself. Once you get the idea, “adaptive fictions” like these can be listed almost without end.

Atheists sometimes accuse religious believers of departing from factual reality, as if this is a mental weakness to which they are immune. They are wrong on both counts. In the first place, it is not a weakness for a meaning system to be strong in its vertical and horizontal dimensions. The third criterion is not the only consideration! In the second place, secular meaning systems might disavow the Gods, but they can still depart from factual reality in a thousand other ways. An excellent book on this subject is The Invention of Tradition (1983), by the historians Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger. How a culture imagines its past is at least as consequential for motivating and coordinating action as how it imagines its gods. As a result, nearly every culture distorts its past and attributes more antiquity to its traditions than is actually the case, as any competent historian can show.

It follows that the importance of “sticking to the facts” is highly contextual. In some contexts, it is indeed important to know the world as it really is, such as the location of one’s prey for a hunter or what actually happened during a court trial. As individuals and groups, we can recognize these contexts and think and behave accordingly. In a court hearing, for example, we can swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth—with full understanding of the punishment that will follow if we fail.

In other contexts, we can fervently believe in the most blatant of falsehoods. No one should need reminding of this fact in today’s pandemic of “fake news”. Adaptive fictions are especially pernicious in their consequences when they are collectively adaptive, benefitting everyone in a group at the expense of other groups. It is important to remember that the goal of worldwide cooperation was unimaginable to humankind until a scant two or three centuries ago. Before then, cultural meaning systems were always parochial at one scale or another—for the good of us, not for the good of all. The greater the degree of conflict among groups, the greater the tendency to believe in adaptive fictions about the attributes of “us” compared to “them”.

When we focus on narratives of conscious evolution as a context, the need for the third criterion is very strong. In other words, it is crucial for the narrative to be based on the best of our current scientific knowledge. One reason for this need is because other forms of authority are attenuated. As H.H. Dalai Lama put it in his book Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World, there are nearly 8 billion people on earth and they will never come together under a single religion. The only common denominator is that we are all human beings living on the same planet that must serve as our common home. The values-based narrative must be centered on who we are as a species, how we came into being, how we evolved culturally during the course of our history, and how we can serve as wise stewards of cultural evolution in the present to ensure a world that works for all in the future. Science is the only body of knowledge that can provide material for the vertical and horizontal dimensions of this narrative. 

The Provisional Nature of Scientific Knowledge

Let’s take stock of our progress.

  • I have made a distinction between a body of scientific knowledge and a meaning system.
  • I have identified three criteria for evaluating a meaning system, concerning its vertical dimension, horizontal dimension, and how well it comports with scientific knowledge.
  • I have stressed the importance of the third criterion for narratives of conscious evolution.

Next, it is important to appreciate how much our scientific knowledge about the world is provisional. What counts as scientific fact has been revised in the past and undoubtedly will be revised again in the future. This requires a balancing act on the part of both scientists and storytellers. On one hand, we must emphasize the importance of factual knowledge as the solid ground that saves us from being cast into an abyss of self-serving and group-serving beliefs. As Voltaire wisely observed, “whoever can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities”.

On the other hand, as scientists, we must contest the very same ground that we are standing upon! And as storytellers, we must report on the drama and be prepared to change our narratives to keep pace with scientific change.  

Here are some examples of changes in scientific knowledge that bear upon narratives of conscious evolution.

The Great Constriction of evolutionary science. Darwin knew nothing about genes. His theory of natural selection was based on the three ingredients of variation, selection, and the replication of traits from parents to offspring by any mechanism. With the advent of genetics in the early 20th century, however, the entire study of evolution became gene-centric, as if the only way that offspring can resemble their parents is by sharing the same genes. This is patently false when stated outright, but it accurately describes the so-called Modern Synthesis of the 1940s, which was based on Mendelian genetics. Then the discovery of DNA as “the code of life” in the 1950s ushered in the era of molecular biology during the second half of the 20th century.

One conclusion that seemed to emerge from the Modern Synthesis was that evolution has no purpose or conscious component. Organisms just vary and only the immediate environment does the selecting. Needless to say, this is a severe handicap for anyone attempting to construct a narrative of conscious evolution!   

When the geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky wrote “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution” in 1973, he was correct for the study of genetic evolution. But this can also be called “The Great Constriction” for evolutionary processes that rely upon non-genetic inheritance mechanisms.  The study of cultural evolution in humans and other species was almost totally neglected or relegated to other academic disciplines such as cultural anthropology, sociology, and the humanities. These disciplines developed into sophisticated bodies of thought, but not in reference to evolutionary biology and sometimes in perceived opposition to it. They also did not become integrated with each other, lacking the conceptual unity that Dobzhansky was praising for the study of genetic evolution.

It wasn’t until the 1970s that evolutionary thinkers began to go back to basics by defining Darwinian evolution as any process that combines the triad of variation, selection, and replication–no matter what the underlying mechanisms. Landmark books include Culture and the Evolutionary Process (Boyd and Richerson 1985), The Symbolic Species (Deacon 1990), Hierarchy in the Forest (Boehm 1999), Evolution in Four Dimensions (Jablonka and Lamb 2004), Not By Genes Alone (Richerson and Boyd 2006), The Secret of Our Success (Heinrich 2014), and Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony (Laland 2015). Thanks to this expansion of evolutionary thought, we can begin to expand Dobzhansky’s statement “Nothing about biology makes sense except in the light of evolution” to include everything associated with the words “human”, “culture”, and “policy”. This is the main message of my own 2018 book This View of Life: Completing the Darwinian Revolution.

What does this mean for narratives of conscious evolution? These narratives are inherently focused on how human cultural evolution can be directed toward benign outcomes in the future. If the narratives include material on genetic evolution or the evolution of the universe prior to the origin of life, then this is primarily to set the stage for a discussion of human cultural evolution. Teilhard was a master at constructing such a narrative, but he wrote prior to the Modern Synthesis and was largely forgotten by evolutionary scientists during the Great Constriction. I have attempted to remedy this situation in an academic article titled “Reintroducing Pierre Teilhard de Chardin to Modern Evolutionary Science”, which will be published as a target article with commentaries in the journal Religion, Brain and Behavior.7

For others who are attempting to construct narratives of conscious evolution, the most important take-home message is that so-called “hard” evolutionary science had very little to say about human cultural evolution until the last few decades–but now it has a great deal to say. The more knowledgeable storytellers become about these recent developments, the more their stories will comport with the best of our current knowledge.

Individualism: The intellectual tradition of Individualism treats the individual person as a fundamental unit of analysis and seeks to reduce all things social to the thoughts, feelings, and actions of individuals. It has long historical roots but became dominant in western culture during the second half of the 20th century. Before, it was common to think about human society as an organism in its own right. After, UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s quip “There is no such thing as society; only individuals and families” became the new common sense.

In the previous section, I emphasized the isolation among academic disciplines such as evolutionary biology, the social sciences, and the humanities. Economics is famously isolated from the rest of the social sciences. Nevertheless, the tradition of Individualism was like a tide that lifted all boats. In economics, it manifested as the rational actor model, in which individuals maximize “utilities”, based on preferences that are not influenced by other individuals. In the social sciences, it manifested as “methodological individualism” (a term also used by economists), as if it can be justified on the basis of its practical utility, regardless of its philosophical underpinnings.  In evolutionary biology, it manifested “the theory of individual selection” which explains all adaptations as for the good of individuals and their selfish genes.

Why did the intellectual tradition of individualism become so dominant? This question demands a multi-factorial answer, but here I will emphasize just one. When we theorize in words, it is easy to emphasize the rich interconnectedness of life and human society. When we begin to theorize with the use of mathematical models, we must make simplifying assumptions–and lots of them. Hence, formal mathematical theorizing amounts to a de facto denial of complexity. A similar point can be made for empirical experimentation. In a well-constructed experiment, everything but one or at most a few factors is held constant. The possibility that many other factors might influence the results has been excluded or deferred to subsequent experiments.

A mathematical model or experiment tells us a lot about a tiny slice of reality—much more than verbal theorizing or just observing events in all their complexity. That’s the good news about individualism and more generally the reductionism associated with so much of science. The bad news is that the rich interconnectedness of life is neglected, not because many scientists would deny the fact of interconnectedness, but for lack of analytic tools for studying it. These tools required the advent of widespread computing technology, which did not begin until the 2nd half and mostly the final quarter of the 20th century. For example, the Santa Fe Institute, which put “the science of complexity” on the map, was founded in 1984.

What does this mean for narratives of conscious evolution? In his discussion of Interspirituality, Kurt Johnson observes that all religious and spiritual traditions converge upon an appreciation of rich inter-connectedness. Certain ethical conclusions follow from this appreciation; namely the futility of one part of the system attacking another part of the system. This provides a common ground, or “second-tier consciousness”, which allows people from very different religious and spiritual traditions to discourse with each other, while also drawing upon the wisdom of their respective traditions (“first-tier consciousness”). Scientists can also join this discourse when they appreciate the existence and ethical consequences of rich inter-connectedness in their own ways. This is exemplified, for example, when a Buddhist such as H.H. Dalai Lama becomes friends with a Christian leader such as Bishop Desmond Tutu and a quantum physicist such as David Bohm.

Evolutionary science has much to contribute to a “second-tier” conversation on rich interconnectedness and its ethical consequences. In fact, I will go further and claim that evolutionary science has essential knowledge that is not provided by general complex systems science. In particular, the concept of society as an organism in its own right, which the tradition of Individualism seemed to replace, can now be fully revived thanks to Multilevel Selection (MLS) theory, which I will describe in more detail below.

To summarize, a sea change in received scientific wisdom is in progress. An era of reductionism and individualism is yielding to an era of complex systems thinking and multi-level functionalism. The new era provides far richer material for narratives of conscious evolution than the old era, but this requires the storytellers to be cognizant of the very recent paradigm shift that is in progress.   

Beyond WEIRD: In Teilhard’s narrative of conscious evolution, he wrote that in some respects we are just another great ape species, little different from our closest relatives. In other respects, however, we are a new evolutionary process—cultural evolution—which makes the origin of our own species as significant, in its own way, as the origin of life. He asked us to imagine one twig of the bushy tree of life proliferating and branching much faster than the other twigs until it begins to overtop the entire tree. Then he foresaw the different branches coalescing to form into a global consciousness that he called the Noosphere. Without commenting on whether it was good or bad, he predicted a time when humans and their domesticated plants and animals would crowd out much of the rest of life on earth.

Most of this can be translated into modern evolutionary terms. In particular, human cultural diversity can be regarded as an adaptive radiation, similar to the genetic adaptive radiations of major taxonomic groups such as reptiles, mammals, and birds. Received scientific wisdom of the past—and to a large extent the present—imagined cultural differences as a thin veneer covering a universal genetic human nature. Increasingly, what was imagined as genetically universal is proving to be culturally specific.

Much of this new thinking is encapsulated in the acronym WEIRD, which stands for “Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich, and Democratic”. The acronym was coined in a 2010 article8 authored by Joseph Henrich, Steven Heine, and Ara Norenzayan, and then elaborated in Henrich’s 2020 book The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous.

Henrich authoritatively shows that WEIRD cultures are a very tiny slice of worldwide cultural diversity in the past and present. Since the vast majority of science and scholarship takes place in WEIRD societies, a major reset is required for all aspects of our understanding of humanity. We cannot take it for granted that knowledge derived within WEIRD cultures also holds for other cultures. The only way to determine what is culturally universal and culturally specific is through the comparative study of human cultures from an evolutionary perspective. And the scientists and scholars who do this work should be drawn from the full diversity of cultures being studied.

In most respects, this is a wonderful development that aligns with the call for diversity, equity, and inclusion in all aspects of human life. However, it will also be challenging for WEIRD narratives of all sorts, including narratives of conscious evolution. For example, it is not uncommon to find narratives of conscious evolution that describe human history as progressing through a fixed series of stages from “primitive” to “advanced”, that compare hunter-gatherer societies to the early childhood stage of human development, and so on. These ideas aren’t stupid. Typically, they cite respected scientific authorities of past decades. But they do not comport with the best of our current scientific knowledge. Any narrative of conscious evolution that relies upon them will be vulnerable to legitimate criticism by those who are better informed.  And in the case of WEIRD narratives, they run the risk of alienating non-WEIRD audiences, despite the well-meaning intentions of the authors.

Constructing a Narrative of Conscious Evolution That Scores High on All Three Criteria

I began the previous section with the mundane observation that science is always a work in progress. As scientists, we must contest the very ground that we stand upon. As storytellers, we must report on the drama of scientific change and be prepared to change our own stories to keep pace with the science.

The three examples of changes in scientific knowledge that I provided might have surprised you in their magnitude. Expanding evolutionary science beyond genetic evolution, going beyond Individualism, and comprehending human cultural diversity for the first time are each foundational, with most of the developments taking place within the last 20 or 30 years.

It follows that if we are to create a narrative of conscious evolution that scores high on all three criteria, it must take the form of an active dialectic between scientific research on cultural evolution, the practice of consciously evolving a world that works for all, and the art of communicating through stories and other artistic media, in addition to scientific discourse.  

In this section, I will describe the efforts of myself and many others to construct such a narrative, with the help of Prosocial World and partnering organizations.

A microevolutionary narrative and the horizontal dimension. Evolutionary biologists make an important distinction between microevolution and macroevolution. Microevolution is the variation, selection, and replication that takes place over the short term, such as the evolution of dark coloration (melanism) in moths during the industrial revolution. Macroevolution is what takes place over the long term, stretching back to the origin of life or even to the origin of the universe in narratives of cosmic evolution.

Even though macroevolution is an accumulation of microevolutionary events, it is the nature of history that what takes place over the long term cannot be predicted on the basis of what is happening over the short term. This is why the weather cannot be predicted more than a few days in advance. If this is true for a complex physical system such as the weather, it is even more true for complex living systems evolving over hundreds of millions of years!

A key point is that narratives of conscious evolution are overwhelmingly macroevolutionary when they also need to be microevolutionary.

Why the reliance on macroevolution? Primarily for the inspirational uplift that it provides (the vertical dimension). It’s awesome to contemplate being part of something so ancient, interconnected, and larger than oneself. It’s also awesome to contemplate that one’s meaning system is capable of explaining e-ver-y-thing.9

Unfortunately, macroevolutionary accounts provide little guidance for what to do on the basis of the attitude that has been cultivated (the horizontal dimension). For more guidance on that front, a micro-evolutionary narrative is needed. Here is how it goes:

At every moment—past, present, and future—acting for the benefit of others or one’s group as a whole is vulnerable to exploitation by more self-centered behaviors. Special conditions are required for prosociality in all its forms to evolve in a Darwinian world. Unless these special conditions are met, it is unsafe to behave prosocially and unethical to counsel others to do so.

Or, as I put it in a 2007 article with Edward O. Wilson titled “Rethinking the Theoretical Foundation of Sociobiology”: Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary. This is our summary of Multilevel Selection (MLS theory)—the very theory that was rejected during evolutionary biology’s selfish gene era but now has been fully revived and provides a strong foundation for narratives of conscious evolution.

Here are some of the special conditions, or “core design principles”, that are required for prosocial behaviors to outcompete more self-centered behaviors, based upon an integration of MLS theory with the work of Elinor Ostrom, who was awarded the Nobel prize in economics in 2009.10 In a group that strongly implements these core design principles, inappropriate behaviors are detected and weeded out in the same way that our immune system detects and weeds out diseases. With these protections, it is safe to express one’s prosocial impulses to the hilt.

Notice that the work required to implement these principles is inherently social work. It cannot be accomplished by individuals on their own, no matter how compassionately minded. And it sometimes requires toughness in the enforcement of norms and conflict resolution, in addition to compassion. The larger the size of a social group (all the way up to national and global governance), the more these principles need to be implemented as formal laws and institutions. As I pointed out earlier, the need for this kind of social work–and guidance for how to go about it–is lacking not only for macro-evolutionary narratives of conscious evolution but for many other spiritual and psychological compassion-based narratives as well.11

In short, thanks to a microevolutionary account, narratives of conscious evolution can provide something similar to Calvin’s ecclesiastical ordinances governing the affairs of a community. The narratives can become strong in their horizontal dimension, in addition to their vertical dimension.

A macroevolutionary narrative and the vertical dimension. Returning to the vertical dimension, the uplifting feeling that one’s meaning system can explain e-ver-y-thing is especially authentic for evolutionary science. Darwin sensed it at the very beginning when he wrote “There is grandeur in this view of life…” in the concluding passage of On The Origin of Species. The declaration “Nothing about X makes sense except in the light of evolution” could be made for X=biology in the 1970s and is beginning to make sense for X=humans, culture, and policy, as I stated earlier and elaborate in my 2018 book This View of Life: Completing the Darwinian Revolution. This View of Life is also the name of the online magazine that is publishing this article. I invite you to peruse other articles in the magazine to experience the explanatory scope of evolutionary science for yourself.

In my experience, describing evolutionary science as both a practical toolkit and an all-embracing cosmology is especially effective in combination. It is truly possible to construct a narrative of conscious evolution that scores high on all three criteria.

A macroevolutionary narrative that begins with the origin of life and extends to our planetary future is beginning to come into focus, thanks to a concept called Major Evolutionary Transitions (MET), which follows from MLS theory. Most species are a mosaic of disruptive self-serving traits that evolved by lower-level selection and prosocial traits that evolved by higher-level selection. The balance between levels of selection is not static, however, but can itself evolve. When mechanisms evolve that suppress lower-level selection to a sufficient degree—just like the implementation of the CDPs in a human group– higher-level selection becomes the dominant evolutionary force. The higher-level unit becomes so cooperative that it qualifies as an organism in its own right. A MET has occurred.

In the 1970’s, the cell biologist Lynn Margulis was the first to establish the concept of a MET for nucleated cells as symbiotic communities of bacterial cells. Then the concept was generalized by the theoretical biologists John Maynard Smith and Eors Szathmary in the 1990s to include other METs, starting with the origin of life as groups of cooperating molecular reactions and proceeding to multicellular organisms and ultrasocial animal societies (including but not restricted to the eusocial insects; ants, bees, wasps, and termites). Increasingly, human genetic evolution is being studied as a MET and the expanding scale of human society as a series of cultural METs. Against this panoramic background, it becomes possible to envision worldwide cooperative governance and stewardship of the earth as the final MET that we need to consciously evolve, much as envisioned by Teilhard.

Thanks to a collaboration with a foundation called Human Energy, founded by Ben Kacyra and inspired by Teilhard’s concept of the Noosphere, I have conducted a series of 24 video conversations with top scientists, which traces the full arc of this panoramic story. Titled “The Science of the Noosphere,” the conversations are accessible but also authoritative and sometimes exceed two hours in length. The first biological transitions, such as the origin of life, the functional organization of a single cell, and the functional organization of a multi-cellular organism, are surprisingly informative for how human society can become more cooperative during the Internet Age. Did you know, for example, that electronic communication far preceded the evolution of nervous systems and organizes cooperative societies of bacteria?

“The Science of the Noosphere” provides a priceless resource for bringing narratives of conscious evolution up to date with current scientific knowledge. In the final section of this essay, I will outline plans for storytellers, scientists, and practitioners of conscious cultural evolution to view and discuss this material as a community, which will be far more enjoyable and impactful than individuals attempting to assimilate it on their own.

Narrative Pitfalls to Avoid

Given how fast the “solid ground” of scientific knowledge is changing beneath our feet, it should surprise no one that many narratives of conscious evolution will require updating. The importance of doing so cannot be overstated, since outdated narratives can easily be dismissed as New Age woo-woo. This section includes a brief list of pitfalls to avoid, to the best of our current knowledge.

Before proceeding, I want to stress that outdated narratives should not be regarded as stupid or silly. Nothing is stupid or silly all by itself—only in relation to a background of other ideas and beliefs. Most authors of narratives of conscious evolution are highly educated and have plenty of authorities to cite in support of their narratives. For this reason, I will not attribute pitfalls to specific authors and I welcome pushback from those who wish to defend them!   

Clarifying the concept of conscious evolution. I have already noted that the very concept of conscious evolution became taboo during the so-called Modern Synthesis. According to the understanding of Mendelian genetics at the time, how organisms vary by mutation and recombination is arbitrary with respect to what is selected–and only the immediate environment does the selecting. The architects of the Modern Synthesis worked hard to exorcize teleological thinking from evolutionary biology.

Looking back, we can see that this makes sense only in the narrowest of contexts. Even if genetic evolution is that blind, it still results in purposeful organisms and their choices alter the fitness consequences of their own traits. This is called the Baldwin effect and was celebrated as a great insight in the early 20th century– yet somehow became overshadowed by the Modern Synthesis. Humans consciously select the traits of their domesticated plants and animals, which does not prevent artificial selection from qualifying as a type of evolution. In non-human species, individuals select the traits of other individuals, including social traits in addition to sexual traits. The genetic evolution of docility in humans and other species is increasingly being described as a form of self-domestication. When human cultural evolution is taken seriously, it is impossible to deny that to a large extent, people consciously imagine their future arrangements and then work to bring them about. At the same time, it is important to appreciate that human cultural evolution also has a blind component and that conscious intentions often permute to arbitrary variation when they collide with each other and result in unintended consequences.

While “hard” evolutionary scientists need to become more open to the concept of conscious evolution, it is also true that “conscious” is one of the fuzziest words in the English language and that this is reflected in narratives of conscious evolution. If we are going to study it scientifically, then we must be precise about its meaning, which will require distinguishing among multiple meanings. I find it useful to demystify the word by listing its synonyms, which can be found in any dictionary, such as “deliberate”, “intentional”, “purposeful”, “calculated”, “planned” and “volitional”. This list is included in a special edition of TVOL titled “Can Evolution Be Conscious?”. The diversity of opinion among the authors of the special edition reveals how much intellectual work is required to agree upon the meaning(s) of this keyword.

Broad and narrow meanings of the word evolution. We must be similarly discerning about “evolution” as a keyword.  In everyday language, the word evolution is used broadly to refer to any kind of change.  Evolutionary theories existed before Darwin, associated with names such as Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and Herbert Spencer, but they lacked explanatory power because they did not identify the three ingredients of variation, selection, and replication as the main engine of evolutionary change. That was the central insight of Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace with their theory of natural selection, which remains the core of modern evolutionary science. Since Darwin knew nothing about genes, it is accurate to define any variation/selection/replication process as “Darwinian”.

It follows that when the word evolution is used in the broad sense today, it is not necessarily invoking a variation/selection/replication process and is no more likely to have explanatory power than during Darwin’s day. For example, according to the social scientist Geoffrey Hodgson,12 the school of thought known as evolutionary economics uses the word “evolution” in the broad sense, loosely sharing five basic themes: 1) It is a world of change; 2) The generation of novelty; 3) The complexity of economic systems; 4) Human agents have limited cognitive capacities; and 5) Complex phenomena can emerge through self-organization or piecemeal iteration rather than comprehensive overall design. None of these themes require a specific commitment to a variation/selection/replication process and evolutionary economists draw upon or distance themselves from Darwinian evolution to varying degrees. As a result, the field of evolutionary economics lacks a central core and has made little more progress than pre-Darwinian theories of evolution in the 19th Century. To make more progress, Hodgson has assembled a group of economists and social scientists called the Darwin Club, which is more rigorously based on modern evolutionary science.13 

An analysis of narratives of conscious evolution would almost certainly come to similar conclusions, showing that the word evolution is often used broadly, rather than specifically to variation/selection/replication processes. As a result, these narratives might provide inspirational uplift but have little explanatory power and cannot be said to comport with modern evolutionary science. In contrast, the narrative that I have outlined above is based specifically on Darwinian evolution, identifying the central problem that prosocial behaviors are selectively disadvantageous except under special conditions. 

Harmony in nature. The Christian cosmology that provided the background for Darwin’s theory imagined the natural world as harmonious from top to bottom, from the smallest insect to the stars in heaven. One of the most disturbing implications of Darwin’s theory was that nature might be harmonious at a small scale, such as the exquisite design of a single organism, but then become discordant at larger scales, such as organisms battling each other to survive and reproduce.

Today, the idea that nature left to itself strikes some kind of harmonious balance is still common among the lay public but not among “hard” evolutionary scientists.14 Instead, the word “regime” is used to describe assemblages of species,15 a word that nicely invokes what we already know about human political regimes. A political regime has a degree of stability, or else we wouldn’t call it a regime, but its stability says nothing about whether it functions well for the common good of its citizens. There are despotic regimes in addition to enlightened regimes. Animal societies and multi-species communities are no different. Many primate societies are horribly despotic in human terms, as I discuss with the primatologist Joan Silk in a TVOL podcast titled “Evolution Doesn’t Make Everything Nice”. Beaver ecosystems are best understood as collateral effects of beavers maximizing their own fitness, as I discuss with the community ecologist Thomas Whitham in a TVOL podcast titled “Ecosystems are Probably Not What You Think”. In short, laissez-faire in nature is no more likely to benefit the common good than laissez-faire in human life!

Prosociality exists in nature but the same special conditions are required for its evolution as in human societies—the suppression of disruptive self-serving behaviors within groups so that the group becomes the unit of selection. As I have already discussed, most species are a mosaic of traits that evolve by within- and between-group selection. They might cooperate with others in some contexts and compete disruptively with the very same individuals in other contexts. Only with a MET do members of a group cooperate in nearly all respects, and even then disruptive competition is merely highly suppressed and not entirely eliminated.

To summarize, while a simplistic “balance of nature” narrative should be avoided, a strong narrative can be crafted around prosociality in nature requiring the same special conditions as prosociality in human life.  

The goodness of indigenous societies. Just as it is common among the lay public to imagine nature as harmonious, it is common to imagine indigenous human societies as inherently cooperative and living in balance with their environments. Indigenous societies often are highly cooperative, stretching all the way back to our origin as an ultrasocial primate species, but only at a relatively small scale and in ways that are often environmentally extractive rather than sustainable. Many indigenous societies could afford to be extractive because their numbers were small and they could easily move away from their degraded environments rather than practicing sustainability.

Here is how Tyson Yunkaporta, of Australian aboriginal descent, describes the essence of indigenous societies in his book Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World, drawing upon the folk tales of his culture (pp 26-27).

Emu is a troublemaker who brings into being the most destructive idea in existence: I am greater than you; you are less than me. This is the source of all human misery. Aboriginal society was designed over thousands of years to deal with this problem. Some people are just idiots—and everybody has a bit of idiot in them from time to time, coming from some deep place inside that whispers, “You are special. You are greater than other people and things. You are more important than everything and everything. All things and all people exist to serve you.” This behavior needs massive checks and balances to contain the damage that it can do.

There are a lot of stories that explain how all this began, and as a Brolga boy (traditional enemy of Emu), I know them all. My favorite one comes from Nyoongar Elder Noel Nannup in Perth, who tells the Dreaming story of a meeting in which all the species sat down for a yarn to decide which one would be the custodial species for all of creation. Emu made a hell of a mess, running around showing off his speed and claiming his superiority, demanding to be boss and shouting over everyone. You can see the dark shape of Emu in the Milky Way. Kangaroo (his head the Southern Cross) is holding him down, Echidna is grasping him from behind, and the great Serpent is coiled around his legs. Containing the excesses of malignant narcissists is a team effort.

This passage is in perfect accord with modern evolutionary science. It identifies the assertion of lower-level interests over the higher-level common good as the fundamental problem of social life. It is an ever-present danger in all human societies because it is an ever-present danger for all forms of cooperation in all species–including the cells of our own bodies, which engage in a team effort to contain the excesses of malignant cancer cells.16 

Because the original sin of “I am greater than you” is an evolutionary universal—not just a human universal—it will be both acknowledged and dealt with in every enduring human society. For example, it is acknowledged by the first and second Noble Truths of Buddhism (Life is suffering; Suffering is caused by craving) and dealt with by the second and fourth Noble Truths (Craving can be renounced; By following the eight-fold path).

Recognizing the universality of the fundamental problem of social life enables us to appreciate the wisdom of indigenous human societies, along with all enduring human societies, without needing to ascribe any kind of intrinsic nobility to them. The team effort of restraining Emu-like behaviors is successful most of the time, but not always. When it fails, then the pathological consequences in indigenous societies will be similar to the currently rampant narcissism of modern industrial societies. Also, that teamwork only takes place at a certain scale. Highly cooperative groups are likely to engage in emu-like behavior against other groups, all the more successfully after suppressing emu-like behavior within their own ranks. Why should indigenous societies differ from any other society in this regard? The history of Buddhism took place in the context of constant warfare at various scales and for the most part never questioned the axioms of the feudal society that it existed within.

Another implication is that when the mutual restraints of indigenous society are disrupted, for example by colonialism, then emu-like behavior can run rampant among the indigenous people. This kind of fragility is beautifully described in Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart, in which the mere touch of western society disrupts a vibrant indigenous society by changing its authority structure. As Yunkaporta wisely notes, we all have a bit of emu in us, and some more than others, waiting to emerge when the team effort of mutual restraint breaks down. This means that heeding the wisdom of indigenous knowledge requires restoring the checks and balances that have been disrupted—or, more likely, evolving new checks and balances adapted to a modern context. 

This approach to indigenous societies is vastly more interesting, scientifically justified, and helpful for conscious cultural evolution than ascribing some kind of intrinsic nobility to them.

The benefits of prosociality. It is extremely common to describe prosocial behaviors as good for the prosocial individual. This claim is often supported by scientific studies that show the psychological and health benefits of helping others for the helper. Bertrand Russell summed it up with the aphorism “Love is Wise. Hatred is Foolish.”

What’s stunning about this aphorism is its utter cluelessness about the importance of context. From a Darwinian perspective, nothing is wise or foolish independent of context.  The central message of Darwinian evolution is that love is inherently vulnerable and therefore unwise to express except under conditions that are protective of loving behavior.

A suitably broad review of the scientific literature shows that the benefits of helping for the helper are highly context-specific. Most people hate it when their efforts on behalf of others or their group as a whole go unrecognized or are actively exploited—and why shouldn’t they? Social recognition for helping without material support is properly viewed as hypocritical. Prolonged giving without being nurtured in return is unsustainable and results in burnout.

On the other hand, when the social environment is constructed to protect and nurture prosocial behaviors (the core design principles), then love tends to emerge spontaneously without needing to be coached. Thus, Russell’s aphorism needs to be amended to state “Creating protective environments for love is wise. Leaving love open to depredation is foolish”. It doesn’t roll off the tongue as easily, but it is far better advice! 

When I speak on this subject and point out the inherent vulnerability of love and all other forms of prosocial behavior, there is often an audible sigh of appreciation. Members of the audience are tired of being told, again and again, that they will be happier if they help others as if it were that simple. Acknowledging and addressing the risk of helping others is like a breath of fresh air.

Also, in my efforts to create protective social environments through Prosocial World, I have witnessed many times the spontaneous emergence of prosocial behaviors. Like any sensible snail or turtle, group members come out of their shells once they recognize that it is safe to do so. They work hard, bask in the recognition, and describe each other as family. Here is a narrative of conscious cultural evolution that is psychologically motivating, leads to prosocial action, and comports with modern scientific knowledge.

Developmental narratives. Part of the simplistic “love is wise” narrative is to describe prosocial behavior as a kind of maturity, as if it is part of life to first do foolish (=egoistic) things and then learn on the basis of experience to do wiser (=prosocial) things. This narrative is problematic for the reasons outlined above. For people who actually grow up in unprotected social environments, wisdom is knowing when to turn off their prosociality for their own survival. Likewise, people who transition from an unprotected to a protected social environment can quickly begin expressing their prosociality, no matter what their age or prior experience.

While this particular developmental narrative needs to be avoided, there is still a need for a narrative of conscious evolution to say something about development. The words “evolution” and “development” are often used interchangeably in common language,17 but there’s an important distinction from a Darwinian perspective. An evolutionary process is open-ended, capable of resulting in new forms that never existed in the past. A developmental process replicates something that has previously evolved. An anatomical structure such as the eye, for example, develops through an orchestrated process that requires extensive environmental inputs. Even though eye development takes place in many different environments, natural selection has picked out regularities that exist in all environments, such as the presence of horizontal, vertical, and diagonal contours, to guide development so that the same structure is produced with amazingly high fidelity.

A corollary is that if the environment changes in a way that never existed in the past, then the process of development can be disrupted. This explains why so many of us need corrective lenses, based on the fact that we spend so much time indoors in low ambient lighting, an environmental condition that never existed in our ancestral past.18  

It is humbling to contemplate that all cultural adaptations must develop in the same sense as eye development—the high-fidelity replication of something that has evolved in the past. A fascinating example is provided by an academic article titled “Dugnad: A Fact and Narrative of Norwegian Prosocial Behavior” by Carsta Simon and Hilde Mobekk. Here is the abstract:

Evolved mechanisms of phenotypic plasticity, which are evolutionary processes in their own right, enable species to respond adaptively to their environments. The Scandinavian countries, and Norway in particular, have for many years scored exceptionally high on lists of life quality, economic indicators, and measures of happiness. We propose that learning prosocial and cooperative behavior, which is central in a particular Norwegian cultural practice, dugnad, plays a role in the country’s success story. Dugnad is a Norwegian term for a type of voluntary work carried out as a community or collective and traditionally involving a social gathering. Dugnad has a long history in Norway, and it is a well-established cultural practice that has led to and still maintains significant social benefits. Dugnad is arranged in virtually all communities such as kindergartens, neighborhoods, schools, and organizations. Participation in dugnad gatherings is generally expected. Children from a young age are involved in dugnad. Dugnad activities are based on cooperation and can include anything from arranging a spring cleaning in the local community to building a club house for your children’s sports club. This paper discusses dugnad as a cultural practice that creates an environment that nurtures prosocial and cooperative activities. From a behavior analytic, selectionist perspective, we propose a non-domain-specific learning mechanism for dugnad-typical prosocial and cooperative behavior analogous to the phylogenetic evolutionary mechanism of group selection. Contingencies can lead to and maintain dugnad activities when extended behavioral patterns are selected as wholes.

The authors are highly sophisticated and up-to-date evolutionary thinkers. They are writing for an academic audience and something much more accessible would need to be written for a general audience. Nevertheless, it illustrates how much goes into the perpetuation of a culture of cooperation over time—and how much can be disrupted by novel environments in the same way as the disruption of eye development. This is how the concept of development needs to be included in narratives of conscious evolution. More open-ended processes of personal improvement might better be called “personal evolution” then “personal development” to clarify the distinction between “evolution” and “development” as these terms are used within evolutionary science.

Stage narratives. Some narratives of conscious evolution describe the long stretch of human history as a series of stages, from tribal to global, primitive to enlightened. Sometimes these stages are compared to stages of maturity of an individual person.

These narratives have plenty of authorities to cite from past decades and centuries, stretching all the way back to the first encounters of Europeans with the indigenous people of the world. In cultural anthropology, for example, a major question has been to explain how states emerged from Chiefdoms, Big-man societies, and small-scale hunter-gatherer societies.

More generally, however, the study of human cultural evolution needs to explain cultural diversity in the same way that evolutionary biologists explain biological diversity. Like biological species, every enduring culture is adapted to its particular environment and can only be understood in relation to its particular environment. In his 2016 book The Secret of Our Success: How Culture is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter,  Joseph Henrich devotes an entire chapter to European explorers who become stranded in extreme environments such as the arctic or desert and are completely unable to survive on their own without the kindness and wisdom of the indigenous people who called those environments home. Their wisdom was based on cumulative cultural evolution, not individual intelligence. Even indigenous people can lose their wisdom when their numbers become too small to remember and transmit the requisite knowledge.

The view that hunter-gatherer societies were small in scale and only became large with the advent of agriculture is being upended by recent discoveries in archeology and paleoanthropology, as recounted by David Graeber and David Wengrow in their 2021 book The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity. It now appears that large-scale societies evolved before the advent of agriculture and at least some of the time remained highly egalitarian rather than becoming hierarchical and despotic. The situation back then was much like the situation today, where regimes span the range from highly despotic to highly inclusive19. It all depends on the balance between levels of selection—then, now, and in the future.

Based on the concept of METs, there is a sense in which both genetic evolution and cultural evolution operates like a rachet, so that once a given scale of cooperation has been achieved it is difficult or impossible to go backward. To choose a biological example, nucleated cells evolved as symbiotic communities of bacterial cells. Once the members of these communities became sufficiently dependent upon each other, there is no way that they could go back to a free-living existence. To choose a cultural example, the advent of writing allowed information that previously had to be memorized to be stored externally, a fact that was lamented by Socrates. Once this dependency was formed, however, it is impossible or at least extremely unlikely to go back to an oral society. Our dependence upon electronic communication is another turn of the rachet.

Just as a narrative on conscious evolution needs to include development, it also needs to include the concept of stages—but a lot of updating is required to keep pace with the advances in scientistic knowledge!

All Together Now

I hope that I have demonstrated the possibility of creating a narrative of conscious evolution that is psychologically motivating, leads to effective action, and fully comports with scientific knowledge. In this final section, I will suggest ways for storytellers, scientists, practitioners, and organizations to work together to further evolve and spread such a meaning system.

The essential role of storytellers. If a contest were to be held for words and phrases most in need of a public relations makeover, “Evolution” and “New Age” would top the list. Evolution typically invokes images of ruthless competition20 and a universe devoid of purpose. New Age typically invokes images of spiritual seekers prone to believe in anything.

We are in a position to combat both of these narratives, replacing them with a narrative of evolution as essential knowledge for positive change and New Age as the world that we can create for ourselves—”to proceed as if limits to our abilities do not exist”, as Teilhard put it. Regardless of whether or not we choose to employ the phrase “New Age”, we will be protected against the critique that we are prone to believe in anything. On the contrary, we can authentically claim to be informed by the best of current scientific knowledge.

To evolve this new narrative, those who write about conscious evolution will need to become familiar with the most recent advances in evolutionary science (if they haven’t already). They will also need to avoid the pitfalls that I have listed in this essay—or push back to defend them! There is plenty of room for debate, but those of us who tell stories about conscious evolution need to maintain the same high standards as scientists and science journalists.

Fortunately, there is a wealth of material to draw upon to get “up to speed” on the current science, such as the books and articles referenced in this essay, online content in This View of Life, and the aforementioned  “Science of the Noosphere” series of conversations produced by Human Energy.  

The essential role of scientists. Scientists are most comfortable studying what is, not the construction of value-laden meaning systems. Also, the word “soft” is often applied to the scientific study of human psychology and culture, as if it somehow less rigorous than the “hard” scientific study of the material and biological world.

None of this makes sense from a modern evolutionary perspective. Once our symbolic meaning systems are seen as an inheritance system, which first evolved by genetic evolution and now operates alongside of it, then its study becomes just as scientific and rigorous as the study of genetic evolution, including its material (proximate causation) and functional (ultimate causation) bases.

With colleagues in the applied behavioral sciences, I have coined the word “symbotype” to stress the comparison of our meaning systems with our genetic systems.21 Every person is a collection of genes (their genotype), which influences just about anything that can be measured about them (their phenotype). Every person is also a collection of inter-related symbols (their symbotype), which also influences just about anything that can be measured about them—the very same phenotype. A person’s genotype and symbotype interact with each other. For example, a course of meditation up-regulates or down-regulates the expression of a substantial portion of your genes.22  Also, while each person has a degree of awareness and control over their own symbotype, to a large extent our symbotypes are acquired from our surrounding cultures by processes that lie beneath our conscious awareness.

Our symbotypes are winnowed by variation/selection/replication processes at various temporal and spatial scales, along with the winnowing of our genes. This winnowing process results in functional organization, adapting us to our environments, at least to a degree. Evolution doesn’t make everything nice, however, giving rise to the “I am greater than you” Emu problem and the need for mutual restraints. A conscious collective effort is required to implement the mutual restraints at a global scale.

This way of describing conscious evolution shows how much scientists can take part in the construction of a meaning system while still functioning in the capacity of scientists. Even the phenomenon of spirituality can be understood and studied in scientific terms as an evolved state of mind and body that strongly motivates a person to become part of something larger than themselves and open to transformative change.

In short, not only can narratives of conscious evolution comport with evolutionary science, but the storytellers can actively engage with the evolutionary scientists in its construction. 

The essential role of practitioners. One of the most important take-home messages of this essay is the need to construct a meaning system that is strong in both the vertical and horizontal dimensions. Cultivating a prosocial state of mind (the vertical dimension) is not good enough. People must form into groups to get things done (the horizontal dimension). These groups require appropriate structure to protect against Emu-like behavior and to effectively carry out their prosocial goals.

The groups need to be both polycentric and multilevel. Polycentric means that life consists of many spheres of activity and each sphere requires its own governance, along with appropriate coordination among the spheres. Multilevel means that life consists of groups within groups within groups, requiring coordination at multiple scales—including the scale of the entire earth.

If this agenda seems daunting, two key insights from evolutionary science can make it manageable. The first insight is that the small functionally organized group is a fundamental unit of human social organization and building block of larger-scale society.23 All of us participate in many such groups every day of our lives—our families, neighborhoods, schools, churches, businesses, nonprofits, recreational activities, and passion projects. All of these groupings vary in how well they currently function as collective units. Some perform spectacularly without needing to be coached, others experience total meltdowns, and the rest muddle along somewhere in between. All of them can benefit from becoming more mindful (another word for conscious) about their social organization and valued goals. Anyone can become engaged in conscious evolution at this scale and will receive a double benefit by doing so. First, they will indeed experience a personal benefit by helping others, because they will be operating within a protective social environment. Second, they will be far more effective agents acting at a larger scale (e.g., doing something about climate change) as a member of an efficacious group than they could be on their own.

The second key insight is that the core design principles are scale-independent. What’s needed to govern relations among groups in a multi-group cultural ecosystem is the same as what’s needed to govern relations among individuals within groups. This is a tremendous conceptual simplification. Even if the implementation of the design principles becomes progressively more challenging at larger scales, we have a clear blueprint for what to construct.24

In short, every person is in a position to start consciously evolving both the vertical and horizontal dimensions of their meaning systems for the groups in their own lives.

The essential role of organizations. In true multi-level fashion, conscious evolution will require working with organizations in addition to individuals. I often describe this with the phrase “bottom-up meets enlightened top-down.” Bottom-up means working as the “cellular” scale of small, functionally oriented groups engaged in meaningful work. “Enlightened top-down” means working with organizations capable of facilitating prosocial cultural evolution at lower scales and acting as agents of prosocial cultural evolution at higher scales. Prosocial World is attempting to function as a catalyst for this kind of multilevel effort. By working together, we can create a narrative of conscious evolution that scores high on all three criteria.

References:

[1] https://www.spiritualityandpractice.com/book-reviews/view/24657/the-coming-interspiritual-age?gclid=Cj0KCQjw0PWRBhDKARIsAPKHFGi5KnUZBqWqbA1U5opJ34I7b_g7-HqmLhFUIta3JgJ0RNX_3F8i-coaAkHnEALw_wcB

[2] https://thisviewoflife.com/evolution-and-the-coming-interspiritual-age-a-conversation-with-kurt-johnson/s

[3] https://www.amazon.com/Evolutionary-Epic-Sciences-Humanitys-Response/dp/0978844122

[4] https://humanenergy.io/the-three-stories-of-the-universe/

[5] https://www.amazon.com/dp/B005LVQZ3E/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1

[6] For more, see my book Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society.

[7] A manuscript version of the target article is available here.

[8] Henrich, J., Heine, S. J., & Norenzayan, A. (2010). The weirdest people in the world? The Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 33(2–3), 61–83; discussion 83-135. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0140525X0999152X

[9] My novel Atlas Hugged: The Autobiography of John Galt III is in part a reflection on how cults claim to explain e-ver-y-thing and evolutionary science really can.

[10] Ostrom was awarded the Nobel prize in economics for her achievements in 2009. I was privileged to work with her to generalize her core design principles: Wilson, D. S., Ostrom, E., & Cox, M. E. (2013). Generalizing the core design principles for the efficacy of groups. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 90, S21–S32. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jebo.2012.12.010

[11] This is one of the main points that I made in my conversation with H.H. Dalai Lama, organized by the Mind and Life Institute, and related in this video and this podcast.

[12] Hodgson, G. M. (2019). Evolutionary Economics: Its Nature and Future. Cambridge University Press.

[13] I am proud to be a member of the Darwin Club as well as the Evolutionary Leaders.

[14] Bodkin, B. B. (1990). Discordant Harmonies: A new ecology for the twenty-first century. USA, Oxford University Press USA.

[15] Andersen, T., Carstensen, J., Hernández-García, E., & Duarte, C. M. (2009). Ecological thresholds and regime shifts: Approaches to identification. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 24(1), 49–57. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tree.2008.07.014

[16] Aktipis, A. (2020). The Cheating Cell: How Evolution Helps Us Understand and Treat Cancer. Princeton University Press.

[17] The words “evolution” and “development” are etymologically similar and closest to what development means in a Darwinian context (an unrolling).

[18] I cover the example of eye development in Chapter 3 of my book This View of Life: Completing the Darwinian Revolution.

[19] The distinction between inclusive and extractive regimes is discussed in Acemoglu, D., & Robinson, J. (2012). Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty. In 2012. Crown.

[20] TVOL managing editor Eric Michael Johnson has compiled a collection of video clips from television shows that portray evolution almost entirely as ruthless and disruptive competition.

[21] Wilson, D. S., Hayes, S. C., Biglan, A., & Embry, D. (2014). Evolving the Future: Toward a Science of Intentional Change. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 37, 395–460.

[22] Two reviews are: Black, D. S., Christodoulou, G., & Cole, S. (2019). Mindfulness meditation and gene expression: A hypothesis-generating framework. Current Opinion in Psychology, 28, 302–306. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.copsyc.2019.06.004, and Venditti, S., Verdone, L., Reale, A., Vetriani, V., Caserta, M., & Zampieri, M. (2020). Molecules of Silence: Effects of Meditation on Gene Expression and Epigenetics. Frontiers in Psychology, 11, 1767. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.01767.

[23] For more on small functionally oriented groups as a fundamental unit of human society, see Wilson, D. S., & Coan, J. A. (2021). Groups as Organisms: Implications for Therapy and Training. Clinical Psychology Review, 85, 101987–101987.

[24] This TVOL article titled Blueprint for the Global Village shows how the core design principles operate at the national and trans-national scale.

Published On: April 4, 2022

David Sloan Wilson

David Sloan Wilson

David Sloan Wilson is president of Prosocial World and SUNY Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University. He applies evolutionary theory to all aspects of humanity in addition to the rest of life, through Prosocial World and in his own research and writing.  A complete archive of his work is available at www.David SloanWilson.world. His most recent books include his first novel, Atlas Hugged: The Autobiography of John Galt III, and a memoir, A Life Informed by Evolution.

2 Comments

  • Kurt Johnson says:

    This is an important article about which more will be said. I am making sure it is posted in the Newsletter of the Evolutionary Leaders (www.evolutionaryleaders.net) of which Dr. David Sloan Wilson (and also Dr. Paul Atkins and Jeffrey Genung, of Prosocial.world) are members. I want to mention that so many people are saying the same thing, but sometimes don’t recognize it. DSW’s three criteria actually comport with Ken Wilber (and Integral Theory’s) three ‘arenas’ of human experience (1st, 2nd, and 3rd person Experience). “How does it inspire people?” is how it lands in lst Person experience (I – I); ” What does it cause people to do?” is how it lands in 2nd Person experience (I – You); “How does it comport with science?” is how it lands in 3rd Person experience (I – It). The rub often comes in the latter with the question “who’s science?”. Sometimes the physicists say it all needs to be grounded in the physics; the cosmologists (the story from the physics etc.) say it all needs to be grounded in the cosmology; the evolutionary scientists say it all needs to be grounded in the biological sciences/ evolution’s reality view, etc. Additionally to point out– a number of DSW’s insights parallel generalities in Ken Wilber’s (Integral theory) work. DSW’s comments about the knowledge archipelago are Wilber’s “Myth of the Given” (that you come from one silo of information and are limited to, or judge from, that) and that people judge their “vertical” experiences from their horizontal perspective (the “Wilber-Combs Lattice”). DSW’s comments about indigenous peoples parallel Wilber’s “Pre/Post Fallacy” (that you mistake the pre- for the post-, romanticize the “pre-” (the past) and assume it was something it actually wasn’t). There are numerous other examples, only showing the generality of many of these things (not “who has them right” or “thought of them first” etc.) since I myself am not banging the drum for Integral Theory per se. Also underpinning this entire discussion is the reality that across global cultures, and 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Person experience, are assumptions about cosmology that range from “consciousness comes from material” (naturalism) to “material comes from consciousness” (Vedic cosmology). Living in the West we often don’t realize the commonness of the latter. Across all the world’s religions, Eastern and Western, mystical (contemplative) traditions underpin what is practiced by the masses simply (and sociologically) as “religion”. The “great personages” acknowledged across all these traditions (including Teilhard de Chardin) personally embraced the latter “cosmology” (sometimes along with the former) and also recognized “the lesser Siddhi’s” and “the greater Siddhi’s” (supernatural gifts) [and the Catholic Church still defines robustly what a “miracle” is, etc.]. I am not banging that drum either but we often forget in the West the commonness of these arenas of human experience. It explains to some degree also the often unwise popularity of “soft” or “New Age” science. Scholars write journal articles read by few; popular science (or even New Age) writers have 10’s of millions of Soclal Media followers etc. But this does not make the latter “right” either. Again, the misuse of that (DSW’s 3d criteria) is what Ken Wilber calls “the Magic-Mythic pathology” that sneaks into religion, and religious experience, sometimes making it counterfactual or even delusional. So, there is a lot to discuss!

  • Bob Atkinson says:

    As Kurt Johnson notes above, this is a very important article that deserves further discussion, as it is very timely and much-needed. It is true that many people are saying similar things from different perspectives, and have been for quite awhile. Dr. Wilson’s 3 criteria for evaluating narratives of conscious evolution might be considered in relation to a perspective from mythology in which Joseph Campbell, over 50 years ago, addressed the necessary functions of a future guiding myth, one that would be “living, complete, and relevant to this fresh world of now and here,” what we are calling a new story, a unitive narrative, or a narrative of conscious evolution. Campbell said such a guiding narrative would serve the four functions of bringing us more into accord with ourselves, others, the mystery of life, and the universe around us. He called these four functions the “psychological” (the “most vital” function, which guides the individual through the course of a useful, integrity-filled, regenerative life); the “social” (which validates, supports, and maintains the existing, yet evolving, moral norms of society); the “cosmological” (which offers an image of the universe in accord with the knowledge of the time); and, the “mystical” (which awakens and maintains in the individual a sense of awe, humility, respect, and gratitude in recognition of that ultimate mystery). Further discussion might help determine how similar or different these 3 criteria are to the 4 functions of a guiding narrative.

    Other topics addressed here that could benefit from further discussion as well might include:
    a) Is it possible to separate the mind of a scientist from the spirit of a theologian when they happen to be in the same person (i.e., Teilhard de Chardin)?
    b) Are developmental narratives, or stage narratives, those that address the maturation of an organism as occurring from infancy to adulthood any more “problematic” than those that address the maturation of another organism as occurring from seed to sampling to tree? (If not, if seems important to make this distinction; if so, could more be said about why “maturity” as such is “problematic”?) Similarly, wouldn’t human cultural evolution follow the same pattern, of evolving from smaller circles of unity to larger circles of unity, except that when new levels of complexity and diversity arise to create differences and conflicts, more prosocial action is needed to get beyond each new level of complexity and diversity, but the process and pattern of evolution remains the same and continues nevertheless. The need for such a stage narrative of human cultural evolution seems to have been acknowledged by Darwin in The Descent of Man (p.147), when he said, “As man advances in civilization, and small tribes are united into larger communities… each individual ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all members of the same nation… This point being once reached, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent his sympathies extending to the men of all nations and races.” This is where Darwin replaces the natural law of the survival of the fittest with the crowning spiritual law of the Golden Rule writ large.
    c) Therefore, in seeking knowledge of reality, as well as criteria for evaluating narratives of conscious evolution, can any one way of knowing be privileged over any other? It seems that in arriving at a set of universally acceptable criteria for evaluating narratives of conscious evolution, science and spirituality would have to be equal partners in arriving at such criteria, using, of course, all the current knowledge of this time.

    I look forward to further discussion!

Leave a Reply to Kurt Johnson Cancel Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.