Integral Tools: Understanding Evolution – Part 1

By: Ed Prell

March 6, 2020
Understanding Evolution - Part 1

About the Integral Tools Series

This is part of our series, “Introducing Integral Tools: A User-Friendly Survey of Integral Philosophy”. Its aim is to ease you into a comfortable fluency in a powerful way of understanding our perplexing Twenty-First Century. Go here for the full scoop.

Not only for the origin of Darwin’s new species

Inspired by Integral Philosophy, we see evolution with fresh eyes. We do not confine ourselves to Charles Darwin’s theory of the Origin of Species, nor do we expound on gradual changes, as in “My thinking has evolved on that topic”. We instead view the world in terms of a class of transformations that go on constantly, unappreciated, under our noses. They have been proceeding nonstop since the Universe began. Let’s exemplify.

You learned in general science and chemistry classes about atoms and molecules. How water, for example, is made up of two Hydrogen atoms and one Oxygen atom: H2O. You may have been puzzled: how can two airy gasses join up and turn into water? You accepted it as a fact (since you wanted to pass the exams), but you haven’t dwelled on that puzzlement lately – right? We invite you to revisit that sense of wonderment now. This sort of inexplicable transformation happens all the time – constantly, reliably – but beyond our ability to see or feel. Where else is nature performing her logic-defying feats beyond the reach of our sense organs? The short answer: everywhere you look – but cannot see.

All evolution acts by the same script

One point of particular fascination is that each of these behind-the-scenes transformations shares a common mode of action: the newly formed entity has transcended and included what it has evolved from. From the viewpoint of the configuration from whence it arose, there was no way to predict what was about to happen. It is truly a miracle. And that seems to be how the Universe operates. Incessantly.

There’s another Universe out there

The evolution miracle is not limited to the Universe of atoms, molecules, planets and galaxies. “WHAT??”, you ask, “What else is there?”. 

OK, let’s pause here. Integral Philosophy asserts that there is a Universe of thoughts, feelings, and meaning which is just as “real” as a lump of coal – but in a different sense. Love, envy, and fear can’t be weighed or measured. They don’t have mass, velocity or angular momentum; no color, odor or electrical charge (although at times they can seem to take on those properties). If we could fully understand it (which we can’t, because we are one of its concoctions), we would find that its laws are fully as repeatable and reliable as Newton’s laws. A dog’s wagging tail and a cat’s arched back are accurate measures of emotion. Integral philosophers are not alone here. The majority of scientists agree there is “something else out there”. Sincere churchgoers and “spiritual but not religious” people agree. Indigenous people agree passionately, as did virtually everyone 500 years ago. Can we seriously  attribute our successes and respect from others to a squirt of serotonin into our bloodstream or a few microamperes delivered to our cerebrum?? Let’s set aside that Materialism theory for now. It tends to muck up clear-sighted and expanded thinking. Now, where were we? 

It evolves too, from the same script

This parallel Universe of viable thoughts, feelings and meaning is also powered by evolution. It operates the same way as in the physical Universe. Let’s look at one example. There are a handful of letters in an alphabet, just as there are a few dozen elements in the periodic table. These letters can be arranged to become words. “S” is followed by two “e’s”, and we have “see”, which means to recognize something visually. We add “Spot” and “run” to create a sentence, with a yet deeper meaning. Progressively deeper meanings develop when we create paragraphs, chapters, and the Dick and Jane book. You can’t help but notice: books are created by transcending and including the ”elementary” alphabetic letters into progressively more meaningful entities. So, both the physical (objective) Universe and the metaphysical (subjective) Universe are alive with these evolutionary transformations.

“Not so fast”, you protest, “I haven’t heard any of this from Scientific American or the top Universities like Harvard, and I keep up with cutting-edge topics.” We love your skeptical approach. New paradigms (like the assertion that the Earth is not the center of the universe, for which Galileo served a life sentence) must meet a high bar before they are accepted by the “authorities” – in this case, academia, as detailed here.

These are mighty big concepts, and likely never before proffered to you this way. We trust that when you tracked us step by step, you found yourself  in agreement. It’s hard not to when concepts align with our actual shared experience and settled science. This conversation promises to organically transport us past timeworn and incomplete ways of thinking that we can no longer afford to run with. 

And it’s not that simple

Here comes the next step. Evolution doesn’t only apply to these simple examples we have illuminated. It operates on the largest and most complex entities we can imagine.  Nature, unlike sovereign Nations, does not erect border lines. (And she certainly wouldn’t fight a war to shove them around). So, with your permission, let’s venture into some territories where all sorts of entities (i.e. “things”) which seem to be secure in their own niche, can suddenly transform into incredibly, strangely different entities. If you weren’t sufficiently astonished by water’s creation story, here’s another one. Caterpillar crawls up a tree limb, builds a house, gets inside and seals the entrance, turns herself into a soupy glob, reassembles herself as a winged creature, breaks out of the house, and flies away. That’s not a wardrobe change, not a magic act. That’s one more happening in your backyard or a roadway median strip near you. But we’re often  too busy to notice. As we dig deeper into these more complex phenomena, their evolutionary leaps are no longer the simple, sharp, in-your-face transformations that can be demonstrated in a high school lab. They are more like avalanches and rockslides: sudden, precipitous, yet impossible (and irrelevant) to pinpoint what set them off.

Let’s consider human beings. First, as individuals; then, as social animals.

Your incredible evolution feats

Back when you were an embryo, you performed some astonishing transformations. Your very first cell, which (or who?) your parents lovingly pitched in to construct, cloned itself and kept on cloning until some of its “daughter cells” became building blocks for eyes and kidneys and more. They took their assigned locations and made the necessary hookups. Then, before you knew it, you popped out of your mother into the great wide world and you instantly converted your life support system over to air breathing – without the aid of an instruction manual. The arterial blood supply tube was removed from your navel, and you were good to go – with the aid of a lot of TLC. The big evolutionary changes were mostly over – until about 14 years later, at which point you were equipped to set that whole process in motion again when the time came. So that’s your personal evolution story in the physical Universe. 

Mental mentality

Meanwhile, in the Parallel Universe of thoughts, feelings and meaning, you lurched through the terrible twos and the turbulent teens as you learned to understand and cope with our world. Psychologists generally agree that we go through at least four major cognitive phases along the way:

  1. Sensorimotor. Birth to age 2. We become coordinated and learn to walk.
  2. Preoperational. Age 2-7. We learn to speak, but can’t yet reason.
  3. Concrete Operational. Age 7-11. We can think logically but can’t really utilize it well. (Except to avoid doing chores).
  4. Formal Operational. Age 11-16 and onward. We become able to reason abstractly. We are now mentally equipped to succeed in most roles and tasks in our society.

Our mental self transcended and included itself at least three times since your birth in its transition from one phase to the next. When you learned to think logically, you continued to walk and speak (except in Stephen Hawking’s case, but that’s another story).

These phase transitions are as sharply defined as the freezing of swimmable water into skate-able ice. Ken Wilber, in his 1996 book A Brief History of Everything, describes a typical example from a child development lab: 

“We tend to seal these earthquakes of awareness. There are a lot of very funny stories about this. If you take children in the preoperational stage and – right in front of their very eyes – pour the water from a short glass into a tall glass, and ask them which glass has more water, they will always say the tall glass has more, even though they saw you pour the same amount from one glass to the other. They cannot “conserve volume.” Certain “obvious” things that we see, they do not and cannot see – they live in a different worldspace. No matter how many times you pour the same amount of water back and forth between the two glasses, they will insist the tall glass has more. So much for the pure and undistorted perception of children.

“If a few years later, after concrete operational awareness has emerged, you repeat this experiment, the kids will always say that both glasses have the same amount of water. They can hold volume in their mind and not be confused by displacement. They have an internal rule that always does this.(a concrete operational rule). And if you show them a videotape from the earlier period, where they were saying that the tall glass has more water, they will deny it’s them! They think you’ve doctored the videotape. They simply can’t imagine somebody being so stupid as to think the tall glass has more water.”

Herd mentality

You also surveyed your surrounding culture: your family, community and nation, trying to make sense of it all and fit in. As you meandered further out from your crib, the enlarged vista prompted you to re-assess. Major re-assessments happened suddenly. (You know: transcend and include, yada-yada). If the transitions were “healthy”, the lessons learned from your nuclear family and neighborhood stay intact when your Worldview reaches its outer extents. (“He remembers where he came from”). Complex evolutionary leaps can and do go awry, however. They can be reversed, as in amnesia or spinal cord injuries. Or initiation into a cult.

The cues and hints were “in the air”: the collective Worldview of those around you. Although you developed the cognitive power to draw your own conclusions, they were strongly influenced by this ambient Worldview. You didn’t want to seem “odd” or “contrary”. So, you became who you are: a blend of an independent thinker and a “regular guy” or “regular gal” who went along with the prevailing perspective.  This blend can work out to the benefit of you and your “tribe”: a coherent group that can think on its feet.

So, here you are, transcended and included all those many times, from that first “unionized” embryonic cell to the socialized human being reading and understanding these thoughts we are conveying via a highly evolved string of “characters”.

With such miraculous evolutionary power guiding us, how could anything possibly go wrong?

Author: Ed Prell

Ed is a prolific writer and one of the original team of Co-Creators of the NRTH Voices blog.

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1 Comment

  1. david chasteen

    This is an interesting start and written at a good level. For the next set of steps it might be useful to look at the Reinventing Education podcast where they break down the different worldviews applied to education with an evolutionary perspective.


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