THE EVOLUTIONARY MANIFESTO, Our role in the future evolution of life, PART 3 By John Stewart
PART 3: ADVANCING EVOLUTION BY ENHANCING EVOLVABILITY
The trend towards increasing evolvability in past evolution
The second major direction in the evolution of life is towards increasing evolvability. This trend is clearly evident in the past evolution of life on Earth. Life has gotten better at evolving. Evolution has become smarter and more creative at finding solutions to adaptive challenges.
Creativity, originality and other aspects of evolvability are of critical importance to living processes—the organism that is first to discover better adaptations or to exploit new possibilities will out-compete its rivals. At all times and in all places, the future belongs to the innovators. All aspects of living processes and their societies must be constantly remade if they are to continue to be relevant and to thrive.
Early in the evolution of life, living processes discovered better adaptations by trial and error. They found out which behaviors were most effective by trying them out in practice.
Initially this trial and error search occurred across the generations through genetic mutation—organisms tested new possibilities by producing some offspring that were different, and natural selection identified any that were better.
Sexual reproduction heralded a significant improvement in evolvability—it combines genes from different organisms, generating genetic experiments that are more likely to be successful than random mutations. Sex is smart. As with all significant improvements in evolvability, it was not long before most organisms had to reproduce sexually to survive—once a critical mass of species develops a capacity to evolve more rapidly, others needed a similar capacity just to keep up.
In a further major advance, gene-based evolution discovered how to produce organisms with the capacity to learn by trial and error during their lives. The testing of possible improvements was no longer restricted to the production of offspring—now it could go on within each individual organism, continually. Spirit entered flesh.
But initially this process had a significant limitation—the improvements discovered during the life of an individual died with it. There was no mechanism to pass innovations to subsequent generations, and each individual had to start experimenting and learning afresh as it began its life.
This limitation began to be overcome with the emergence of mechanisms such as imitation and parental instruction. Much more progress was made with the development of language and writing in humans. Now much of the adaptive knowledge discovered by individual humans is passed on to others and accumulated across the generations as culture.
In another major transition, organisms evolved the capacity to form mental models of their environment and of the impact of alternative behaviors. This enabled them to foresee how their environment would respond to possible actions. Rather than try out alternative behaviors in practice, they could now test and shape them mentally. They began to understand how their world works, and how it could be manipulated intentionally to achieve their adaptive goals. It is only with humanity that this capacity has developed to any extent. In part this is because complex mental modeling is only possible once the knowledge it requires can be accumulated across the generations. So language is almost essential.
The emergence of conscious thought further enhanced the capacity for complex modeling—a key function of thinking is to guide the construction of models. Only humans have developed an extensive capacity to use sequences of thought to put together complex mental models.
Evolvability was again boosted significantly when humans learnt to use their capacity for thought-based mental modeling to enhance thought-based modeling. Thinking about thought enabled humans to identify the particular kinds of thinking that produced conclusions that were correct. They could use this knowledge to ensure their thought processes were rational. This bootstrapping of thought enabled rational analysis and logic, and greatly enhanced the ability of thought to predict accurately how particular events would unfold.
Initially, this bootstrapping arose for short periods amongst small elites in Greece and a few other cultures. But it didn’t begin to spread widely until about 350 years ago with the emergence of the European Enlightenment. Important drivers included the advent of printed books and the beginning of the breakdown of hierarchical, authoritarian cultures. This rise of rational thought powered the scientific and industrial revolutions and the explosion of innovation embodied in modern technology.
In capitalist economies the capacity for abstract/rational thought has now reached a critical mass—effective participation in modern economies demands this ability. Like sexual reproduction and other advances in evolvability before it, its emergence has changed the environment of the entire population, and it is now impossible to function effectively in the new environment without it. This same evolutionary dynamic will drive the spread of future advances in evolvability, once they reach a critical mass.
Amongst the scientific advances it enabled, the rise of abstract/rational thought also led to the development of a theory of evolution. Humans acquired the knowledge to build mental models of the evolutionary processes that produced life on Earth, including themselves.
For the first time humans have a powerful, science-based story that explains where they have come from, and their place in the unfolding of the universe. As we have seen, our evolutionary models are revealing where evolution is headed, and what humans must do if we are to advance evolution on this planet. This is paving the way for the transition to intentional evolution. The development of a comprehensive theory of evolution is a significant milestone in the evolution of life on any planet.
The future evolution of evolvability
The focus of intentional evolutionaries is to identify the potential for further improvements in the evolvability of both individuals and collectives. They know that by promoting these enhancements in themselves, in others and in society they can advance the evolutionary process. They will help to build the capacity of humanity to pursue evolutionary goals successfully and creatively.
Part 2 of the Manifesto dealt broadly with the evolution of the evolvability of global society and its systems of governance. Here we will focus on potentials for the enhancement of individual evolvability.
An understanding of the past evolution of evolvability helps intentional evolutionaries to identify these future potentials. In particular, past evolution shows that any new process that significantly improves evolvability will eventually be used to revise and adapt all aspects of the organism. Evolution will exploit every potential for a superior process to improve adaptability.
This is relevant to our future evolution because the potential for conscious mental modeling to enhance human evolvability has not yet been exhausted. We do not yet use this powerful capacity to adapt two key areas of human functioning that impact significantly on our evolvability.
Human evolvability has already been enhanced enormously by the capacity for conscious mental modeling, particularly once we learnt to use rational thought to guide it. Through the development of science and technology, it has improved greatly our capacity to achieve our goals more effectively, whatever they might be.
But we have not yet used this capacity to any extent to free ourselves from the dictates of past evolution. What we do in the world, including our science and technology, is still shaped largely by our desires, motivations and emotions, which in turn have been shaped by our biological and cultural past.
Nor have we yet employed conscious mental modeling to bootstrap our capacity to model and understand complex systems. Our current mental modeling guided by rational thought is not so effective for dealing with systems that comprise many interacting components.
Humanity is now in a position to use the power of conscious mental modeling to understand these potentials and to identify how we might acquire the new psychological software needed to realize them.
Freeing ourselves from the dictates of our biological and cultural past
How our biological and cultural past affects our behavior
Currently our behavior is influenced significantly by our evolutionary past. We will examine briefly how this has come about.
Just as natural selection adapts the physical features of living organisms, it also shapes their behavior. The process by which natural selection does this is simple but powerful: individuals that are genetically predisposed to behave in ways that enable them to get more food or social status or mates will have more surviving offspring. As a consequence, these genes will spread throughout the population.
Through this process, natural selection predisposes organisms to behave in ways that lead to evolutionary success.
In simpler animals, evolution achieves this by hardwiring the behavior into the organism.
In more complex animals, it hardwires the organism with goals in the form of desires and motivations, but leaves the organism to find the best way to achieve these goals. Achievement of goals is rewarded internally by positive feelings. Natural selection tunes these arrangements so that behavior that leads to reproductive success is rewarded internally, and behavior that leads to evolutionary failure is punished.
For example, actions that result in sexual reproduction are rewarded with pleasurable feelings, and behavior that would destroy an individual’s reputation within its social group may be deterred by unpleasant feelings of shame.
Humans differ from other organisms in that we are far more intelligent at devising innovative ways to fulfill our desires and motivations. Instead of just using trial and error to get to our goals, we can call on our capacity for conscious mental modeling. We can envisage the future consequences of alternative actions, and choose ones that will lead to the satisfaction of our desires.
Our desires and feelings can be modified to an extent during our lives through normal learning processes. In particular, we can learn to associate positive and negative feelings with new outcomes. Through this process, parental punishment and reward can predispose us to adopt social norms that have evolved culturally. But we cannot choose to change these conditioned feelings at will.
Societies and families find it much more difficult to teach children to act contrary to their inherited desires, motivations and emotions. Strong emotional or physical sanctions can achieve this, but at great cost. Since children are unable to change their emotions and feelings at will, and do not have the insight or wisdom to devise more sophisticated responses, they are often forced to adopt maladaptive strategies to avoid these sanctions.
For example, they may learn to repress or deny their emotions, avoid circumstances that evoke them, or busy themselves with behaviors that mask their feelings. This often cuts them off from the useful adaptive information embodied in their emotions.
These maladaptive strategies are particularly prevalent in Western societies that demand high levels of self-control. These cultures strongly value the ability to pursue a goal single-mindedly over an extended period without being diverted by other desires or motivations. This can be an extremely adaptive capacity, but not if it is bought at the price of repressing emotions and feelings. In large part, our key desires and motivations are those fixed by our biological and social past. What we take to be important and valuable is an illusion produced by evolution to control our behavior. Our desires and motivations were evolution’s way of programming us to be adaptive and successful in past environments. We live in a virtual world created by past evolution.
Although the means for satisfying our desires has changed enormously, we continue to pursue much the same proxies for evolutionary success as our ancestors. We spend our lives chasing the positive feelings produced by experiences such as popularity, self-esteem, sex, friendship, romantic love, power, eating, and social status, and strive to avoid the negative feelings that go with experiences such as stress, guilt, depression, loneliness, hunger, and shame. Computers, the internet, airplanes, cars, buildings, books and phones all exist because they serve the desires and motivations implanted in us by past evolution. They have been called into existence by stone-age desires.
Although humans like to present themselves to the world and to themselves as rational beings, we do not choose our desires and emotions. No matter what our reason decides, we cannot turn the other cheek effortlessly or resist temptation, and we find it difficult to act lovingly towards enemies we hate.
Many of us cannot even implement a decision to restrict our food intake to a healthy level, or give up activities such as smoking that are highly likely to kill us eventually. It makes little difference whether our conscious mental modeling shows us that our desires are maladaptive or that the predispositions produced by some negative emotions will harm our interests. They continue to influence our behaviors strongly.
Our use of rationality is mainly limited to devising means to achieve ends that are beyond our conscious control. We use the enormous power of mental modelling to serve the desires and motivations established by our evolutionary past. Our reason is a slave to our passions.
How our evolutionary past limits our future evolvability
Our current inability to free ourselves from the dictates of our evolutionary past seriously limits our evolvability. By impeding our ability to do what is necessary to advance the evolutionary process, it stands in the way of the transition to intentional evolution. We are able to pursue evolutionary goals only where it happens to be consistent with our current desires, motivations and emotions.
The same applies to any other goals that we might value. We can decide to adopt particular long-term goals, but in practice our pursuit of them is besieged continually by the motivations, emotions, likes and dislikes that are evoked by each and every encounter and incident in our lives.
There are obvious disadvantages in continuing to have our actions dictated by inflexible goals established by past evolution. The desires and motivations that were favored during our evolutionary history are highly unlikely to continue to lead us to evolutionary success in the future.
We will need new goals, and will need to review them continually as evolution proceeds. If we do not, our technology will go on improving beyond our imagination, but its enormous potential will be wasted in the service of outdated goals. Continuing to be controlled by obsolete goals is as absurd as a wind-up toy soldier that has run into a wall and fallen onto its back, but continues to march on and on and on.
Freedom from our evolutionary past
Until humanity frees itself from maladaptive motivations and behaviors, it will be just like a family that endlessly repeats the same arguments until someone learns to stand outside the situation and stop their habitual reactions. Humanity will continue to be trapped in the endless and useless repetition of maladaptive behaviors until we can stand outside our current desires and motivations. To be able to intervene in the world to advance the evolutionary process, we need to be able to move at right angles to our evolutionary past. For this we will have to develop a degree of psychological distance from our desires and motivations.
It is worth underlining that this cannot be achieved simply by making an intellectual decision to do so. While ever our desires and motivations continue to dominate our behavior, any intellectual decision will be utterly ineffective.
To free ourselves from our biological past and social conditioning, we will need to develop an entirely new capacity. Without this, the transition to intentional evolution cannot proceed. Intentional evolutionaries know that until they develop such a capacity, they will know how they should live their life, but will be unable to do so.
Nor can this freedom be achieved by repressing or ignoring our feelings and emotions. We will continue to need to rely on skills and abilities that only our emotional system can provide. This is typical when evolution develops new capacities—it does not discard the older systems. Instead the new capacities continue to take advantage of the specialist talents and abilities of the old processes where they are useful.
When we free ourselves from the dictates of our evolutionary past, our emotional and motivational systems will continue to make essential contributions to our evolvability. But they will be managed and educated so that they are aligned with our evolutionary goals.
In particular our emotional systems will provide us with energy and motivation to advance the evolutionary process. Just as we are now able to voluntarily adopt a physical posture that helps us with a particular physical task, we will be able to adopt an emotional and motivational posture that assists us to achieve particular evolutionary tasks.
Our emotional systems will also make a significant contribution to our capacity to understand complex systems. This contribution will build on the ability of our emotional processes to swiftly and silently (without thought) recognize and appraise complex patterns, particularly in social situations. In an instant these processes recognize and evaluate patterns that cannot be understood by rational analysis. This ability will be built on and modified to become an essential component of our capacity to wisely manage complex social, psychological and evolutionary processes.
The need to achieve freedom from the dictates of past evolution is a challenge that is likely to be faced by all conscious life that emerges in the universe. If organisms that reach our stage in evolution are to continue to evolve successfully, transcendence of their biological and cultural past is essential. They will need to be able to use the enormous creativity of consciousness to establish goals that serve the needs of their future evolution.
The living processes that go on to make a significant contribution to the future evolution of life in the universe will not be those that continue to squat on the planet of their origin, masturbating stone-age desires forever.
Enhancement of our capacity to understand complex systems
The limitations of linear thought
The second area in which the potential for conscious mental modeling to enhance evolvability is yet to be realized fully is the modeling of complex systems.
Our limited ability to understand complex systems is reflected in our failure to solve the difficult environmental and social problems we face. These failures demonstrate that mental modeling guided by rational thought does not enable us to understand and manage complex systems. Overcoming this limitation is particularly important for intentional evolutionaries—understanding complex evolutionary processes is essential for identifying what needs to be done to advance evolution.
Somewhat paradoxically, if we humans are to improve our capacity to understand complex systems, we need to think less. This is despite the fact that the development of conscious rational thought was a great advance in human evolvability. As we have seen, it has remade the world in the few hundred years that it has become widespread. However, as humanity is increasingly called upon to manipulate and manage complex systems, the limitations of rational thought are becoming evident.
Rational analysis is very effective at modeling systems in which linear chains of cause and effect predominate. However, it is poor at modeling systems in which circular causality is common—i.e. systems in which each element impacts on other elements and they in turn impact back on it, directly or indirectly. Conscious rational analysis alone can rarely work out how such a complex system will unfold through time.
Modeling complex systems
But we already have some other capacities that enable us to deal with particular aspects of complex systems. For example, we are equipped with sophisticated pattern-recognition processors, including those mentioned earlier that are associated with the emotional system. They are able to recognize particular complex patterns quickly and silently, without thought. Our ability to recognize a familiar face in a crowd of strangers is an example. In addition to patterns in space, some of these specialist processors can also identify patterns that unfold over time.
These capacities can be built upon and adapted to develop a more general ability to model complex systems. Increasingly they will also be augmented by external aids such as computer simulations and artificial intelligence.
Despite its limitations, thought will continue to have a role in building more complex mental models. Thinking will be used to model aspects of systems that can be approximated by linear thought, to analyze systems into components where this is useful, and to put together different sub-systems (including specialist pattern-recognition processes). The role of thinking will be to scaffold models of complex systems.
However, once the scaffolding is done, the role of thinking largely ends. The models operate silently, with little involvement of thought. The working of the model does not enter consciousness, only the outputs do. This is experienced as intuition, wisdom, flashes of insight, and understanding ‘at a glance’.
The experience of individuals who are masters in a particular field reflects this. They can instantly assess a situation in their specialty, without thought or analysis. They can see solutions at a glance. While developing their skills, they used thought to scaffold the models that underpin their expertise, but now these can operate largely without thought. Top sportspeople report that when they operate ‘in the zone’ and are applying all the skills they have learnt previously, they are not consciously analyzing or thinking about their strategies or actions.
Thinking fills the limited capacity of consciousness, excluding other capacities
The key impediment to developing a comprehensive capacity for systemic modeling is that thinking prevents it from working effectively. We can’t do both at the one time—we cannot operate intuitively and wisely, silently drawing on our models of complex systems, and at the same time engage in concentrated thought.
This is because the capacity of consciousness to process information is very limited. The processing capacity of consciousness is easily filled, leaving no room for other functions. We are able to be conscious of only a very tiny part of the information detected by our senses at any moment. We can listen to and follow only one conversation at a time, and when we are engaged in deep thought, the rest of the world disappears.
As a result, sequences of conscious thought fully occupy consciousness, and prevent us from using other capacities. In particular, thought crowds out conscious access to the models and pattern recognition processes we need to understand complex systems. When we are embedded in thought, we have little access to skills, intuition, insight, wisdom and other forms of knowledge and intelligence that are not coded in thought. It is only when we are ‘in the present’ rather than absorbed in thought that we can act from the whole of our self, drawing on all the resources and skills we have built up over our lifetime.
This is a major impediment because our consciousness tends to be dominated by thought processes. Consciousness is continually loaded by our imagining, rehearsing, justifying, analyzing, commentating, fantasizing, worrying, etc. Our consciousness is rarely free to observe what is happening moment to moment. Its narrow bandwidth is continually filled with thinking, leaving us with little awareness of our environment.
We have limited conscious control over our thinking
This is not something that can be fixed easily. We have little conscious control over our incessant mental activity. We don’t have thoughts, thoughts have us.
Individuals who think they are already masters of their thinking and can stop thought voluntarily whenever they want should undertake the following simple experiment. Look at a watch that has a second hand. Attempt to remain aware of the second hand as it moves around, keeping your mind clear of thought for as long as you can. Note how far the second hand moves before you find yourself involved in thought again.
Many think that their incessant thinking is essential to guide them through their day successfully. However, individuals who develop a capacity to stand outside their stream of thought and observe it soon learn that nearly all of it is unproductive, and much of it is also unpleasant and negative.
The reason why our consciousness is currently dominated by thinking is that its use is continually reinforced and rewarded throughout our lives. Humans are still in a phase of psychological evolution in which the potential for rational thought to enable us to understand our world is far from exhausted. In the history of the human mind, we live in the age of thought.
But if we are to take the next step in the evolution of human evolvability, we need to understand the limitations of thinking, and optimize its use consciously. Thinking needs to be something we have, not something that has us. It should be a tool, used only when we decide. We need to be able to consciously stand outside our thinking, and regulate its use. If we are to enhance our capacity for systemic modeling, we need to be able to disengage from conscious thought at will.
But it is important to remember that freeing our consciousness from its current domination by thought will not, by itself, enable us to understand any particular complex system. For this we will have to acquire the knowledge needed to model the system. We will also have to put in the mental work needed to build the model, using rational thought to scaffold it during periods intentionally set aside for contemplation. We will not attain wisdom in any area without this extensive groundwork.
The technology for improving our evolvability
This understanding of the trajectory of evolution tells us that the next great steps in human evolvability are to free our consciousness from domination by our desires and emotions and also from domination by thought processes. But simply knowing what needs to be achieved does not provide us with the skills to actually do it.
Fortunately the training and practices needed to develop these capacities already exist to a large extent. For many thousands of years humans have experimented with ways to alter their minds and consciousness. This diverse range of experimentation has provided the raw material from which intentional evolutionaries can select the techniques they need.
The world’s religious and contemplative traditions are the main repositories of knowledge about how to improve our evolvability. This is surprising given that spiritual traditions have not generally promoted their practices as methods to improve adaptability. Their priority has never been to enhance the effectiveness of individuals in this world. Rather they have typically promoted surrender to ‘the absolute’, acceptance of whatever happens in the world and even physical withdrawal from normal daily life. Their maxim has been ‘Thy will be done’ rather than ‘My will be done’.
However, this is not because their practices are unable to be used to enhance evolvability. A deeper understanding of spiritual practices shows that they can. The apparent preference of the traditions for passivity exists for other reasons.
First, it has enabled them to survive and transmit their teachings in a very dangerous world. Every place on Earth has been subjected to war and destruction many times during the past 20,000 years. All civilizations until now have proven temporary. Any spiritual tradition that used its practices to enhance the effectiveness of a particular group would be a threat to their opponents and would not survive fluctuating fortunes.
Passivity, withdrawal and the formation of isolated monasteries was an effective strategy for transmitting practices and knowledge across the generations in times when reciprocal destruction was ubiquitous. It is a strategy that would readily suggest itself to individuals who had developed capacities to understand how complex systems unfold. The Noah’s Ark story, a parable about how to survive times of war and chaos, suggests that it was in fact a conscious strategy.
Second, the practices of spiritual traditions make use of passivity and surrender as techniques for disengaging from desires and thinking. As a consequence the literature of the traditions is permeated with injunctions to surrender and to accept thoughts and feelings passively as they arise. But this does not mean that once disengagement has been achieved, inaction and withdrawal from society is necessary. As we have seen, disengagement from thoughts and feelings can greatly enhance agency, not diminish it.
The appropriation of spiritual practices to enhance evolvability will fundamentally change their use in modern societies and the kinds of individuals who utilize them. Until now, the emphasis on surrender and passive acceptance has made spiritual development less attractive to individuals who are orientated towards active engagement with the world. Those who strongly value the use of rationality to manage and manipulate their environment have often been repelled by spirituality. These ‘agency-orientated’ individuals include many of the scientists, technicians, engineers and other professionals who have built modern industrial society.
Until now, spiritual development has tended to attract personality types who are more interested in the experiences produced by the practices, rather than their capacity to enhance their effectiveness in the world. The effects of their actions on their feelings is often more important to them than the effects of their actions on the external world. For example, these ‘feeling-referenced’ people are often comfortable to adopt a particular belief about the world because it will make them happier (e.g. a belief that the universe will tend to look after them).
In contrast, agency-orientated people are likely to be more interested in whether a belief is true and can be relied upon when deciding how to achieve particular external goals. Feeling-referenced people are more likely to see enlightenment as an end in itself, rather than as a means to improved evolvability. Many of the Westerners who have been attracted to Eastern spiritual traditions in recent years have tended to be feeling-referenced rather than agency-orientated.
This will change rapidly as spiritual practices are used increasingly to improve evolvability. In the past, individuals who were attracted to the experiences associated with alternative forms of consciousness played a significant evolutionary role in preserving spiritual knowledge and transmitting it across the generations. But now we are entering a new evolutionary phase in which spiritual practices can be used openly and safely to enhance the ability to engage with the world.
Increasingly, agency-orientated individuals will use, modify and improve the practices originally developed by spiritual traditions. The practices will undergo the same explosive development as other technologies. In the process they will be shorn of all religious and mystical associations.
As with previous major advances in evolvability, when a critical mass of people have developed the new capacities, all will have to acquire them if they are to participate fully and effectively in economic and social life.
Intentional evolutionaries are primarily interested in the capacity of spiritual practices to improve their ability to intervene in the world to advance the evolutionary process. It is not important to them that spiritual practices can provide experiences of oneness with all that there is. They can see how these experiences are a consequence of the way human psychology is organized, not of the nature of reality. They are more interested in understanding how spiritual practices can re-organize our psychology and then using this understanding to improve the practices. For intentional evolutionaries, spiritual practices and experiences are a means to an end, not an end in themselves.
The capacity to be ‘in the present’
The capacity developed by spiritual practices that is of central interest to intentional evolutionaries is the ability to be ‘in the present’.
In this mode, thoughts and feelings may continue to arise, but the individual can let them pass by without acting on them or becoming involved in them consciously. They lose their power over behavior. For example, unfair and unjust treatment may evoke feelings of anger, but the individual is free to let the feelings go by and instead choose to respond calmly and wisely. Or an impending difficulty may cause worrying thoughts to arise, but the individual is free to let them go by, without getting involved in them.
Individuals in this mode are said to be in the present because they are not continually bound up in thoughts about the past or future. The freeing up of consciousness enables the individual to respond to challenges creatively and intelligently, rather than habitually. Thoughts and feelings continue to provide the individual with adaptive information, but they no longer dominate behavior. All the resources accumulated by the individual are free to contribute to the development of adaptive responses.
Because it leaves the limited capacity of consciousness as free as possible, being in the present enables individuals to be far more aware of what is going on around them and within their own mind from moment to moment. Consciousness is experienced as being more spacious and of wider scope. Experience is more vivid.
Being in the present also enables the acquisition of genuine self-knowledge. It is only when individuals are in the present that they can stand outside their thoughts and feelings and observe them objectively. Furthermore, because thoughts and feelings no longer jerk awareness around incessantly, being in the present is experienced as calm and peaceful—the peace that passes all understanding.
A fully developed capacity to be present in the midst of daily life fundamentally changes the experience of being conscious. A new kind of human being comes into existence.
Currently, of course, individuals rarely experience this mode of being. It generally arises only when their mind is stilled by intense concentration or by some ineffable experience—one which does not trigger its own sequence of thinking. Great art, awe inspiring natural landscapes, ‘magical’ moments in sport, the night sky, and mountain climbing all owe their attraction to this effect.
When consciousness is unloaded completely, even the sense of being a separate self is disengaged, and the individual experiences oneness with everything. However, unless an individual engages in the use of spiritual practices, such peak experiences may arise only once or twice during an entire lifetime and then only for a few moments. But they are never forgotten. They are remembered as instants of great clarity and certainty in which time no longer passes, the world is vivid and suffused with vitality, and all is one. The objective of many spiritual traditions is to extend these few moments indefinitely.
Training a capacity to be in the present
The practices used to train an ability to be in the present generally require repeated disengagement from habitual responses to thoughts, desires and emotions. Meditation is a widespread example. Disengagement is typically achieved by taking attention away from thoughts or feeling as they arise, and returning it to something that does not itself evoke any feelings or thoughts—an ‘inert’ stimulus.
So when meditators experience themselves becoming involved with a particular feeling or thought, they gently move attention back to the inert stimulus, and rest attention there. This needs to be done without conscious thought or judgment, otherwise the thought or judgment will be entrenched as a new habitual response.
A wide range of internal and external phenomenon can serve as the inert stimulus. One of the most common recommendations is to focus attention on sensations of the breath. Other recommendations made by various spiritual traditions are to rest attention on an external object, a visualized object, internal or external sounds (including chanting or a mantra), other physical or mental sensations (including resting attention on awareness itself or on the sensations associated with an emotion), repetitious cognitive tasks such as counting or prayer, and goalless emotional states such as reverence, devotion, love or feelings of surrender. In mindfulness meditation, thoughts and feelings themselves serve as inert stimuli when they are observed passively as objects arising in awareness.
Repetitions of this type of practice diminish the capacity of thoughts and feelings to dominate consciousness. Eventually the practice extinguishes the habitual responses to feelings and emotions, including habitual thought processes. As a result, thoughts and feelings can be disengaged from at any time, and disengagement can be maintained.
Initially, habitual thought processes and reactions to feelings can make it very difficult to apply the practice. Individuals find themselves continually involved in thoughts and feelings. However, these distractions can be reduced somewhat if the practice is performed in circumstances that do not evoke strong emotions and desires.
In recognition of this difficulty, many traditions promote approaches that reduce the likelihood that the practice will be disrupted by strong reactions. For example, they may teach practitioners to perform meditation with a particular posture in a quiet place, encourage practitioners to develop an attitude of acceptance and love towards others, or have practitioners engage in monastic living, pilgrimages or other forms of withdrawal from the challenges of daily life.
However, the practice will tend to produce disengagement only in the particular circumstances in which it is trained. If disengagement is practiced only in restricted situations, the individual will not be able to be in the present in the midst of ordinary life. This is a major limitation for intentional evolutionaries and others whose objective is to enhance agency. It can be overcome by progressively extending the practice to all the activities of daily life.
But special trainings may be necessary to extinguish some particular types of habitual responses. As discussed earlier, the practice achieves its effects by having the individual experience particular feelings and emotions without engaging in the habitual responses they would otherwise evoke. However, this can deal only with emotions that are experienced during the practice. It will not affect emotions and feelings that the individual avoids, represses or denies. These will not be experienced either in formal meditation or in the course of ordinary life, and therefore will be untouched by the practice.
This is a particular problem for individuals in Western societies, where repression and avoidance are extremely common. Repressed and avoided emotions are major determinants of behavior in these societies, and must be dealt with if individuals are to free themselves from the dictates of these emotions. For this, the individual must experience the avoided, repressed or denied emotions, and then practice disengagement in the face of the habitual responses.
For example, individuals can intentionally put themselves in circumstances they would otherwise avoid, or use visualization techniques to achieve similar effects. When the emotion arises, they can practice non-attachment by, for example, resting attention on the feelings associated with the emotion, fully experiencing the sensations without reacting to them.
Continued use of the practice reduces attachment to thoughts, desires and emotions. Once we are no longer attached to such an aspect of our being, it can be an object of consciousness. We are then able to observe it passively because it ceases to trigger a habitual response that loads consciousness and therefore takes attention away from it. And because it does not produce a habitual response, it does not control our behavior. We are free to act from the whole of ourselves, from a broader and wiser perspective.
For example, once particular emotions are objects of consciousness, they are just like other sensations that we experience. We continue to fully experience them, but they cease to compel us to act. We are not identified with them, and they are not part of who we are, something that is given that cannot be changed at will.
As individuals free themselves progressively from their biological past and social conditioning, more and more aspects of their psychology become objects of consciousness. Eventually they will be able to adapt consciously every aspect of themselves, and will be a self-evolving being. No matter what circumstances arise, their consciousness will be free and poised, able to call on any of the knowledge, skills and other resources they have acquired to that point, unbiased by any habitual response. They will identify with their awareness rather than with any particular content of awareness.
But it is not easy or straightforward to develop a capacity to be present and fully conscious in the midst of ordinary life. It entails disengaging from habitual responses that have been reinforced and trained repeatedly throughout the individual’s life up to that point. Responses that have been trained over many years cannot be extinguished overnight.
This capacity can only be developed and exploited consciously. It is made, not born, and has to be self-made, consciously. Before the capacity reaches a critical mass in a culture, and before the culture develops processes and structures that nurture and motivate the work needed to train it, the development of the capacity requires an extensive period of conscious labor and intentional suffering.
Making use of the capacity to be in the present
The development of a capacity to be fully present in the midst of ordinary life is only the first step. It is an enabling capacity, not an end in itself.
As we have seen, it assists individuals to build and use mental models of complex systems. But it does not ensure that they will actually build the models. Nor does it prevent them from developing models only for some limited area of expertise. This is reflected in the phenomenon of the ‘silly saint’—individuals who can be in the present at will, but who show little wisdom, because they have not developed the requisite mental models.
As we have also seen, the capacity enables individuals to move at right angles to their heredity and the influences of their up-bringing. No longer will they be bound to react habitually and conventionally in social situations. They will be able to set about reviewing, revising and replacing the predispositions, traits and tendencies acquired during their upbringing.
But again these are potentials only. Having this enabling capacity does not ensure that it will actually be used to improve adaptability. In particular, individuals might not go on to acquire the knowledge or wisdom needed to replace habitual responses with more effective behaviors. They may not acquire the understanding needed to identify evolutionary goals, and may not even commit to advancing the evolutionary process. Nor might they acquire the know-how and knowledge to educate and manage their emotional system so as to align it with their longer-term goals, whatever they might be. They might just enjoy the experience of being in the present.
It is worth emphasizing again that for intentional evolutionaries, the development of a capacity to be fully present and conscious in the midst of ordinary life is a means to an end, not an end in itself.
The drivers of improvements in human evolvability
It is possible that the capacity to be fully present and conscious in daily life will emerge in humanity to some extent before any general shift to intentional evolution. This is because it provides immediate benefits to individuals and to organizations whose members develop the capacities. It enhances their ability to achieve their goals creatively and intelligently within a complex environment, no matter what those goals are.
However, the strongest driver of the acquisition of this capacity will be the spread of evolutionary consciousness. Awareness of the wider evolutionary significance of the capacity will energize and motivate intentional evolutionaries in their efforts to develop it in themselves. Irrespective of whether the capacity delivers them any economic or social benefits, they will work to develop it as part of their efforts to advance the evolutionary process.
They will also encourage the development of the capacity in others. Whenever issues relating to these capacities and practices are discussed, intentional evolutionaries will draw attention to the evolutionary context. They will point out and bring to the front that the acquisition of the capacity is part of the unfolding of a great evolutionary dynamic on Earth. It is the next step in a long sequence of improvements in the evolvability of life. As always, evolutionary activists will take every available opportunity to promote the awakening of evolutionary consciousness across the face of the planet.
The significance of self-evolving beings
The emergence of self-evolving beings who embrace evolutionary goals is a very significant step in the evolution of life on Earth. Intentional evolutionaries with this capacity will be able to remake themselves in any way that is necessary to advance the evolutionary process, unfettered by their biological or cultural past.
As we have seen, organisms are programmed to do evolution’s bidding—they are fitted out with desires and motivation that are proxies for evolutionary success in past environments. But this programming was undertaken by highly unintelligent processes—it was put in place and tuned by the blind trial and error of natural selection and by unconscious learning processes during their upbringing.
In contrast, self-evolving beings can use far more intelligent processes to identify the goals that will best advance the evolutionary process. They can use foresight to take into account the longer-term evolutionary consequences of their actions.
Reliance on blind trial and error to program organisms to pursue evolutionary success was clearly an inferior arrangement that was always going to be temporary. It will be rendered obsolete by organisms who consciously work out what will achieve evolutionary success, and use this knowledge to guide their actions. A new and superior kind of being will enter history and evolution.
Once enough members of the global society are self-evolving, the society will become a self-evolving being in its own right. Through the global organization, life on Earth will transcend it evolutionary past. It will be able to adapt in whatever ways are necessary for life on Earth to make a significant contribution to the successful evolution of life in the universe.
No longer will the global organization waste the enormous creativity of consciousness on the pursuit of self-centered desires that were established by past evolution. As Earth life moves out into the solar system, the galaxy and the universe, it will be able to change its adaptive goals and behavior in whatever ways are demanded by the challenges it meets. It will be able to continually recreate itself, to change its nature at will, to repeatedly sacrifice what it is for what it can become, to continually die and be born again.
To go to the next and final part of the Evolutionary Manifesto click the following, PART 4: THE UNIQUE CAPACITY OF THE EVOLUTIONARY WORLDVIEW TO PROVIDE DIRECTION AND PURPOSE FOR HUMANITY
More About John Stewart:
John Stewart is a member of the Evolution, Complexity and Cognition Research Group, The Free University of Brussels. For more about John click here.