THE EVOLUTIONARY MANIFESTO, Our role in the future evolution of life by John Stewart
PART 4: THE UNIQUE CAPACITY OF THE EVOLUTIONARY WORLDVIEW TO PROVIDE DIRECTION AND PURPOSE FOR HUMANITY
As we have seen, merely freeing ourselves from our evolutionary past will not complete the shift to intentional evolution. Sufficient individuals will also have to commit deeply to advancing the evolutionary process. Fulfilling their evolutionary role will have to become the source of meaning and purpose in their lives.
Individuals will not make this critical commitment without a profound understanding of the evolutionary processes that have produced life on Earth and will determine its future. But often this will not be enough. Many will not adopt evolutionary goals until they have begun to actually experience themselves as active participants in the evolutionary process. This combination of experiencing and understanding will show them that the evolutionary worldview satisfies all aspects of their being, including their rational, intuitive and emotional faculties.
From a rational perspective, they will find that the evolutionary worldview does not share the deficiencies of religious and mythical worldviews.
In the past, humanity developed a diversity of mythological and religious worldviews that each attempted to explain key aspects of the human condition and to provide guidance about how one should live one’s life. Humans who believed a particular mythological worldview knew their place in the world, what was important in life and what was not, and how they should behave in all the key events of their life. They knew who they were, where they came from, and where they were going to.
But the rise of rationality has destroyed every one of these worldviews. Rationalists have successfully undermined all mythological and religious worldviews by showing that they contradict scientific knowledge. All rely on gods, spirits, or other supernatural processes that are unsupported by evidence. Rational humanity has been left without a worldview that makes sense of human existence and that shows how a life can be lived with meaning and purpose.
The evolutionary worldview outlined in this manifesto is clearly not susceptible to this form of attack—it relies only on scientific knowledge and explanations. And like science itself it will adapt to incorporate any new scientific discoveries. In the evolutionary worldview humanity finally has a belief system that provides meaning and purpose without having to invent supernatural entities and processes—it finds meaning solely in an understanding of the factual world.
However, rationalists have also attacked all past attempts to develop worldviews that rely only on scientific knowledge to propose what we should do with our lives. They have pointed out that such worldviews usually commit the naturalistic fallacy. This fallacy argues that it is invalid to derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. In other words, it is invalid to argue that humans ought to do something solely on the basis of facts about the way the world is.
In particular, the naturalistic fallacy has often been used against attempts to use evolutionary theories to suggest what we should do with our lives. The fallacy has been used to argue that just because evolution might have favored aggressive competition (or cooperation), it does not follow that humans ought to follow suit in their lives. The fact that evolution appears to favor something doesn’t mean humans ought to.
But the evolutionary worldview does not suffer from this deficiency. It derives its ‘oughts’ from other ‘oughts’ in combination with relevant facts, not solely from facts. There is no logical fallacy involved in deriving ‘oughts’ from other ‘oughts’. For example, if an individual holds a particular value it is perfectly rational to use the value to derive new values that are consistent with it. Satisfaction of the new values will lead to the satisfaction of the original value.
The use of relevant factual information in this derivation of new values is also perfectly legitimate. Particular facts might be highly relevant to identifying the circumstances in which pursuit of the new value is consistent with pursuit of the original value.
Intentional evolutionaries do not fall into the naturalistic fallacy—they embrace evolutionary goals because the goals are consistent with their most fundamental values. As we shall see in detail below, they experience this consistency when they appraise the evolutionary worldview with their emotional, intuitive and intellectual faculties, working together.
Consistency of the evolutionary worldview with universal values
Consistency between evolutionary values and our fundamental values can be demonstrated analytically in those cases where the values are able to be articulated explicitly. In particular, evolutionary goals can be shown to be consistent with key values that are likely to be held universally by sufficiently-developed sentient beings.
The most fundamental of these universal values is to favor life over death and oblivion. For humanity to seek to advance the evolutionary process on this planet is consistent with this value. As we have seen, humanity must pursue this goal if Earth life is to survive successfully into the future. Life on Earth will not get far beyond its present stage by chance or accident. Unless humanity sets out to advance the evolutionary process intentionally, life on Earth does not have a future.
We could try to ignore the large scale processes that govern the evolution of life in the universe. We could refuse to do what is necessary for life on Earth to avoid being selected out by these processes. But to do so would be to choose irrelevance, meaninglessness, and eventual oblivion for humanity and life on Earth.
It would mean that everything humanity has experienced until now, the misery, wars, holocausts, triumphs of the spirit, transcendent art, inventions and scientific breakthroughs; all the personal dreams, aspirations, struggles, and strivings; and all the political movements, work, fame, fortunes, families and civilizations would be for nothing. Everything would be as if it never happened. Life on Earth would disappear without trace. The only way we can contribute to something that is not ephemeral is if humanity continues to be successful in evolutionary terms.
Individuals are more likely to favor life over oblivion in the sense used here if they achieve some freedom from the selfish desires inherited from their evolutionary past. The capacity to stand outside desires and motivations tends to undermine self-centered values and strengthens those that support evolutionary goals.
However, some individuals may never develop this fundamental value. They may, for example, claim that they value their own life and pleasures above all else. They may say they would be unmoved if the universe and all life within it was to end when they die.
While individuals genuinely embody such values they will not be intentional evolutionaries. And planetary life that fails to develop values that support evolutionary goals will fail to complete the transition to conscious evolution. Life on such a planet will be meaningless and irrelevant to the future evolution of life in the universe. It will be an egg that never hatches.
Evolutionary consciousness is the culmination of a long developmental sequence
For a deeper realization of how evolutionary values spring from our existing values, it is important to understand that the adoption of the evolutionary worldview is the culmination of a developmental progression that begins at birth. As individuals grow, they progressively acquire an understanding of wider and wider contexts, and learn to take them into account when deciding their actions. As a child develops, its world typically moves from encompassing its mother as well as itself to also including the rest of the family, then the school, then a wider community, then a nation, then perhaps the planet.
At each step of this developmental sequence the individual learns that its previous world was in fact only a small part of a much wider world. It learns that much of what was important in its previous world is strongly influenced by what happens in the new, wider world, and cannot be properly understood or dealt with unless the larger processes are taken into account. Things that were meaningful and important in its previous world may prove to be futile and pointless when the larger context is taken into account.
To adapt to the wider context, individuals typically need to adjust their strategies, values and goals. An individual who is unable to adapt to the next wider context at the appropriate time is generally seen to suffer from a developmental pathology.
The largest context that we yet know about in any detail is the evolutionary context outlined in this manifesto. It is the widest, deepest and fullest context and it determines the destiny of all smaller contexts. The evolutionary context is the next context for humanity to grow into. Like other contexts before it, living into this wider context demands a revaluation of the strategies, values and goals that made sense in earlier contexts.
The evolutionary context is particularly powerful in this respect because it is the first context of sufficient breadth in space and time to encompass all the processes that have produced each of us and all our characteristics. It is the first context that enables us to stand outside ourselves and see what it is that has made every aspect of ourselves and everything we experience. Growing into the evolutionary context therefore causes the most radical reassessment of values—it changes everything.
Of course, as with every developmental step to a wider context, some may not make it. Some may never adapt to the evolutionary context, just as some children are never able to leave their family and function effectively at school, and instead stay at home forever. However, as we have seen, the naturalistic fallacy should not be a particular impediment to mastering the evolutionary context—it is no more relevant at this level than when individuals change their goals and values at earlier steps in the sequence of development.
Furthermore, growing into the evolutionary context will become easier. As humanity increasingly embraces the evolutionary worldview, our cultures will develop structures and processes to facilitate adaptation to the wider evolutionary context, just as children are currently provided with a nurturing environment to facilitate their transition to school life.
Whenever living processes move into and master a wider context, they must increase the scale over which they are organized and coordinated if they are to have a meaningful impact at the larger scale. And they must increase their evolvability, including by developing the capacity to model and understand the larger context.
This process of building capacity to adapt to ever-widening contexts may never end. There may always be wider contexts yet to be discovered. For example, it is possible that our universe is embedded in a larger context in which universes compete, reproduce, and evolve. Or universes may participate in other large-scale processes that are unimaginable to us, just as our lives are unimaginable to the bacteria that live in our gut.
Life can never know that any particular context is final. No knowledge or event could ever prove that there is not an even wider context yet to be discovered.
It follows that there could never be such a thing as a context that renders life meaningless and irrelevant. No matter what the implications of any particular context, an even larger context may change its implications and make sense of all smaller contexts. Nor can there ever be such a thing as a context that resolves all uncertainties, answers all questions and brings evolution to an end. A bigger picture may change everything.
Nor can sentient life ever be completely sure that its interpretations and understandings of existing contexts are correct. Ineradicable mystery and uncertainty always accompanies finite existence.
Strategically, it will therefore always make sense for life to continue to build its adaptive capacity, no matter how dark the hour, no matter how pointless existence seems to be within known contexts. Such a strategy will put it in the best position to take advantage of any new possibilities that emerge, including any that arise from larger, more meaningful contexts.
As well as meeting the tests of rational analysis, the evolutionary worldview is also deeply satisfying to the values embodied in our intuitive and emotional systems. Most of these values are implicit—we are unable to articulate them. We therefore cannot check their consistency with evolutionary goals analytically. We can do this only by responding to the evolutionary worldview emotionally and intuitively.
But a profound intuitive and emotional response is unlikely to be evoked by a mere verbal description of the evolutionary worldview. Our emotional and intuitive systems operate primarily with patterns of information, such as images, simulations and other analogical representations. This is why thought-based analytical descriptions of situations have little emotional impact, at least until we translate them into image-based representations.
So a full emotional and intuitive response to the evolutionary worldview is unlikely on first exposure. Individuals will need time to integrate the separate strands of an analytical, thought-based description of the worldview into dynamic mental models that are run largely without any conscious thought. When the models are sufficiently developed, the individual will be able to ‘inhabit’ and ‘walk around’ the dynamic representations. They will be able to read observations and conclusions off the models in the way they do with a picture. When this has been achieved the full array of intuitive and emotional resources of the mind can then assess the diverse consequences and implications of the worldview.
Again, this emotional and intuitive processing will occur largely without conscious thought. Silently, and in a very short period of time, these resources will work out the implications of the various aspects of the worldview for the individual’s existing values, strategies and beliefs. This will often occur all at once as a major epiphany. It can also unfold over a longer period as a series of epiphanies.
In such an epiphany, individuals experience a sudden revolution of ideas, beliefs and strategies, as well as an exhilarating rush of diverse emotional responses to them. They experience directly the capacity of the evolutionary worldview to make sense of many experiences and beliefs that were previously unconnected and isolated. They actually feel the linkages being made and feel the reorganization of their beliefs into a coherent and unified whole. And they are flooded by the surge of emotional responses to this meaning-making.
When the epiphany is complete, individuals will never be the same again. The evolutionary worldview will have been checked, tested and implemented at every level of their being. They will know many implications of the worldview that they have not deduced consciously. Individuals will know far more about the evolutionary worldview than they can tell. They will be strongly committed to it at all levels of their being, rationally, intuitively and emotionally.
Of course, such epiphanies cannot occur until an individual has developed the cognitive capacity to translate analytical, thought-based knowledge into complex mental models. This is the capacity discussed earlier that is necessary for the understanding and management of complex systems. As we saw, to develop this capacity, individuals have to learn to some extent to stand outside their thought processes.
Often, evolutionary epiphanies will be triggered as individuals begin to actually experience themselves as part of the unfolding evolutionary process. If you develop in this direction, you will find that this begins to occur as your mental representations of the evolutionary process develop in detail, scale and complexity. The turning point is when you find that you yourself have a role in the representations. You will begin to see that your life and actions are part of the unfolding of the evolutionary process. And you will begin to see that you have the potential to play a significant role if you choose to do so.
In particular, you will see that the next great step in the evolution of life on Earth is the transition to intentional evolution. You will realize that evolution will continue to progress on this planet only if enough individuals dedicate their existence to its advancement. The success of evolution on Earth depends on individuals awakening to the nature of the evolutionary process, realizing they have a role in driving it forward, and embracing that role.
You will realize that your study of the evolutionary process is itself part of the unfolding of the great transition to intentional evolution. It is an essential element of the evolutionary awakening that is needed to power the transition. And you will see that your realization that you have an important role in advancing evolution is itself a significant step in the shift to conscious evolution. This is a realization that has to be had by sufficient individuals on a planet if the transition is to be successful on that planet. You will see that the successful evolution of life on Earth depends on you having this realization.
These realizations are exhilarating and energizing and capable of providing a deep sense of meaning and purpose. Increasingly you will cease to experience yourself primarily as an isolated and self-concerned individual. Instead, you will begin to see and experience yourself as a participant in the great evolutionary process on this planet. The object of your self-reflection will change. When you think of yourself, you will tend to see yourself as a-part-of-the-evolutionary-process. You will experience yourself as the most recent representative of an unbroken evolutionary lineage that goes back billions of years.
Your conscious participation in evolution will increasingly become the source of value and meaning in your life.
You are likely to experience a developmental epiphany that is similar to one that often accompanies the most powerful experience of self-recognition that occurs in childhood. Around the age of two, when looking in a mirror, we are struck for the first time by the realization that the person looking back at us from the mirror is our self. Typically, this rush of self-recognition triggers a moment of ecstatic dancing in front of the mirror as we repeatedly confirm that the image is us.
The person looking back at you from a pivotal role in the future evolution of life on Earth is you. You are life on Earth becoming aware of itself and deciding to consciously advance its own evolution.
The universality of the transition to intentional evolution
As the transition to intentional evolution unfolds, intentional evolutionaries know that they are participating in processes that have universal aspects. The details of the living processes that emerge elsewhere in the universe will differ. But the general direction of evolution and the major transitions will follow similar principles everywhere.
Wherever life emerges, living processes will progressively become organized into cooperatives of greater and greater scale; this will be accompanied by a long sequence of improvements in evolvability; eventually organisms will emerge that can build mental models of their environment and themselves; they will use this capacity to develop a comprehensive understanding of the evolutionary processes that have produced them and will determine their future; for the first time they will have a powerful, science-based story that explains where they have come from, and their place in the unfolding of the universe; they will see that evolution is headed somewhere—it is directional; they will begin to see themselves as having reached a particular stage in an on-going and directional evolutionary process; individuals will begin to emerge who see that evolution will progress further only if they commit to working consciously to advance the process; they will realize that this realization is itself an important step in the transition to conscious evolution; as part of this transition they will develop in themselves the capacity to free themselves from the dictates of their evolutionary past, becoming self-evolving beings, able to evolve in whatever directions are necessary to contribute positively to the future evolution of life in the universe; a unified and cooperative organization will emerge that comprises all the living processes that arose with them and all the technology, matter, energy and other resources available to them, eventually developing the capacity to adapt as a whole, transcending the particularities of its evolutionary past, becoming a self-evolving being in its own right, expanding in scale, linking up with other organizations of living processes that arose elsewhere, expanding in scale again and again, moving forever onwards and upwards, without end.
And everywhere that living processes emerge, the transition to intentional evolution will include something like The Evolutionary Manifesto.
Of course, life on some planets may not complete the critically important step that currently faces humanity: the emergence of a unified and sustainable global society. Life at the threshold of this step is likely to be precarious, as it is for humanity at present. At this stage, life still comprises separate warring groups that compete destructively with one another. Like us they will be technologically advanced enough to destroy their civilizations in a war to end all wars. At the same time, the lack of global controls to restrain competition for ever-diminishing resources will inevitably result in environmental despoliation, as it has on this planet at this time. This in turn will increase the potential for further conflict and war.
One way or the other, civilizations at this precarious threshold will be temporary: either they will be driven urgently by evolutionary consciousness to form a unified global society that restrains internal conflict and environmental harm; or they will destroy themselves.
Humanity is at a dangerous stage in the evolution of planetary life, poised somewhere between oblivion and the opening of extraordinary new opportunities. The fate of humanity is likely to be decided this century, by our actions.
6 June 2008
We also strongly recommend that you also see the 12 page companion paper to the Evolutionary Manifesto by John Stewart called Strategies for Advancing Evolution.
HELP TO PROMOTE DISCUSSION ABOUT THE EVOLUTIONARY WORLDVIEW
Whether or not those who read the Manifesto are prepared to embrace the new evolutionary worldview immediately, they generally agree on one thing: as a matter of urgency, the Manifesto should be widely circulated and subject to extensive discussion and serious consideration.
You can help to promote this debate and consideration by circulating links to The Evolutionary Manifesto and to other material about the worldview as it is developed by evolutionary activists. For example you could email links to people who might be interested, put links on websites, in blogs, in comments on blogs and discussion groups, and so on.
More About John Stewart:
John Stewart is a member of the Evolution, Complexity and Cognition Research Group, The Free University of Brussels.