John Stewart is a member of the Evolution, Complexity and Cognition Research Group at The Free University of Brussels and the author of: The Evolutionary Manifesto.
Part 1 – INTENTIONAL EVOLUTION
Stewart begins by claiming that humans are adrift, they lack a cosmic vision to guide them and give their lives meaning. But there is good news.
The emergence of the new evolutionary worldview is beginning to lift us out of the abyss. The new worldview has a unique capacity to reveal who we are and what we should be doing with our lives. It relies solely on scientific knowledge and reason to identify our critical role in future evolution. The evolutionary worldview can unite us in a great common enterprise, and provide meaning and purpose for human existence.
Stewart argues that we will perish if we don’t intentionally direct evolution. However if we learn to properly steer evolution we can make a better world. We can create a “sustainable global society [and we must] free our behavior from the dictates of our biological and cultural past.” This will allow us to adequately deal with urgent problems like global climate change and nuclear obliteration. If we fail we will perish.
In the past biology and culture proceeded by trial and error. Genetic mutations and environmental selection made the species, while stochastic processes governed scientific and technological advances as well as social and political arrangements. Neither biology nor culture were designed to be successful from an evolutionary perspective but, with the emergence of intelligence, we have the chance to design imaginative and innovate solutions for our problems. We can shift to intentional evolution by becoming “intentional evolutionaries,” individuals who
dedicate their lives to advancing the evolutionary process … they no longer see themselves as isolated, self-concerned individuals who live for a short time, then die irrelevantly in a meaningless universe … They see that they are contributing to the success of processes much larger than themselves that will outlast them and potentially live forever. The allegiance of conscious evolutionaries is not to what is, but to what can be.
To understand how the past has shaped us and how the future is likely to unfold is the goal of intentional evolutionaries.
Stewart argues that “The trajectory of evolution is not produced by an external force, or by some impulse that is intrinsic to the universe, or by an ideal end-point that somehow attracts evolution towards it.” Thus there is no need to resort to mysticism; science will slowly identify the processes and forces responsible for evolution’s directionality.
Part 2 – ADVANCING EVOLUTION BY ORGANIZING A COOPERATIVE GLOBAL SOCIETY
There has been a trend to increasing cooperation in the cosmic past. The universe slowly diversified into galaxies, stars, planets, and lifeless matter, further organizing into molecules, cells, multi-cellular organisms, insects, fish, and mammals. Non-human animals cooperated in hives, troops, and packs; human animals cooperated in bands, tribes, communities, states, and nations. The trend is unmistakable—to survive and flourish we form larger cooperatives. The next step is a global cooperative.
The great potential of the evolutionary process is to eventually produce a unified cooperative organization of living processes that spans and manages the universe as a whole. The matter of the universe would be infused and organized by life. The universe itself would become a living organism pursuing its own goals and objectives, whatever they might be.
What can we learn from our evolutionary past about organized cooperatives?
First and foremost, these cooperatives are all structured so as to minimize destructive conflict between their members, and to facilitate cooperation. Typically, this includes the near eradication of activities such as the inappropriate monopolization of resources by some members, the production of waste products that injure other members, and the withholding from others of the resources they need to realize their potential to contribute to the organization.
This means that a global society needs to eradicate things like war, pollution global warming, starvation, disease, illiteracy and governmental corruption. Naive? Cells and insects overcame millions of years of competition by creating cooperative arrangements using nothing more than trial and error. Human tribes and nations did so by forming collectives like the United States or the European Union. Still there must be a means for dealing with cheaters, those who want the benefits of cooperation without the cost.
The role of governance in thus imperative in organizing cooperation. Traditionally governments have imposed constraints on individuals to deter cheating and thieving. These constraints ensure that the interests of the individual and the society align. “In order to be effective, these systems of constraint need to be more powerful than the members of the organization. If they are not, members will be able to escape their control, and act contrary to the interests of the organization …” Most importantly the social contract will be undermined if powerful minority groups advance their interests at the expense of the entire organization.
For these reasons, much of the history of evolution at all levels of organization has been about what humans describe as exploitation, the abuse of power and class struggle. But past evolution has dealt with these challenges by constraining the interests of the powerful so that they are aligned with the interests of the organization as a whole.
Finally none of this requires a change of human nature.
Past evolution has repeatedly shown how to organize self-interested individuals into cooperatives through the institution of effective governance. A society with a high proportion of wise, compassionate and altruistic citizens would be much easier to govern, but evolution shows that the achievement of a cooperative and sustainable society does not depend upon it.
“The potential of a global society to produce immediate benefits to humanity will assist in driving its initial emergence. Cooperation on a global scale has the potential to increase economic performance, abolish war and famine, and achieve environmental sustainability.” However a global society will be opposed vehemently by those whose interests it does not serve—arms manufacturers, fossil fuel corporations, the monied elite and the like. They will try to buy the support of whoever will further their interests.
To overcome naked self-interest we must adopt an evolutionary worldview if we are to achieve a global society
The emerging evolutionary worldview has a unique capacity to overwhelm this conflict of interests. An understanding of evolution … will deliver the … support of the increasing numbers of people who are discovering meaning and purpose in advancing the evolutionary process. In accordance with their talents and opportunities they will work … to move humanity towards a unified global society … They know that human civilization cannot continue for long unless we are organized globally … In the absence of global organization, human civilization is likely to be ended eventually by global warming or other environmental problems, nuclear war, conflicts fueled by competition for diminishing resources, or some combination of these.
Part 3 – ADVANCING EVOLUTION BY ENHANCING EVOLVABILITY
“Life has gotten better at evolving. Evolution has become smarter and more creative at finding solutions to adaptive challenges.” In the past organisms produced different offspring and natural selection determined which would survive. Eventually organisms learned during their lifetimes. Yet what these organisms learned died with them. But then mechanisms like imitation and parental instruction overcame this problem, allowing what was learned to be passed on. With the development of language and writing, knowledge survived and accumulated. Mental models began to describe how the world worked, allowing us to see to see the consequences of our actions.
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.
Thus we need to ourselves from the dictates of our biological and cultural past. This can be done through great effort, by devising means of controlling our innate biological tendencies. “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.”
The dictates of our evolutionary past limit our ability to advance evolution forward, as we only tend to pursue goals consistent with desires and emotions. This is problematic. “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.” And this cannot be achieved by an intellectual decision, as our desires dominate our behavior. In the remainder of this section Stewart argues that as we become free of our biological and social past, we will evolve:
Once enough members of the global society are self-evolving, the society will become a self evolving being … 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.
PART 4: THE UNIQUE CAPACITY OF THE EVOLUTIONARY WORLDVIEW TO PROVIDE DIRECTION AND PURPOSE FOR HUMANITY
Still “merely freeing ourselves from our evolutionary past will not complete the shift to intentional evolution.” Individuals must commit to advancing the evolutionary process in order to find meaning. And unlike mythological and religious worldviews, the evolutionary worldview will supply meaning without being disconcerting to reason. “In the evolutionary worldview humanity finally has a belief system that provides meaning and purpose without having to invent supernatural entities and processes …”
Stewart acknowledges a philosophical threat to his position—the naturalistic fallacy. We cannot derive ought from is, facts from values, or so it claims. Just because evolution has a trajectory doesn’t imply that the trajectory is good or that we should further it. Stewart responds:
the evolutionary worldview … 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’ … The use of relevant factual information in this derivation of new values is also perfectly legitimate … Intentional evolutionaries do not fall into the naturalistic fallacy—they embrace evolutionary goals because the goals are consistent with their most fundamental values.
Stewart say the most fundamental value “is to favor life over death and oblivion.” And unless we intentionally direct evolution we will perish. The implications are profound.
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.
As we mature we should gradually see our lives in a larger context. Ultimately an evolutionary consciousness is the results, which can imagine being part of the universe or the multiverse. This provides hope that life is not meaningless for there is always a larger context that may make sense of the smaller context in which we live.
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.
Stewart also believes the evolutionary worldview, in addition to being scientific, can satisfy our emotional needs. This involves an immersion in the profundity of this worldview that fully recognizes that we are part of a cosmic process whose success depends on us driving evolution forward. Such
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 … 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.
Stewart concludes with a stirring exhortation:
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.
Of course we may not make it; we may destroy ourselves. But one thing is certain, the answer is not in the stars but in ourselves.