Selected Readings
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Book cover for A New Republic of the Heart

Chapter 4: The Evolutionary Perspective - Part 1

More than Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species”

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The new, more expansive meaning of evolution, built on the foundation of evolutionary theory, is itself rapidly evolving. What is our new awareness of evolutionary trends offering us?

Setting the Context

Many people associate the noun ‘evolution’ with Charles Darwin’s 1859 essay, “On the Origin of Species.” And the verb form is often associated with slowly shifting situations such as, “My thinking on that issue has evolved over the years.” But neither interpretation comes close to expressing the more expansive meaning of evolution Terry Patten imparts in Chapter 4, The Evolutionary Perspective, and throughout the remainder of his book, as well. 

Charles Dickens and Charles Darwin were contemporaries in mid 1800s Victorian England, where there was little perceptible change from generation to generation. Creationism, the belief that Earth and all its creatures were created in seven days, held sway. So, when Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” was circulated, it was seen as being radical, even heretical, while Dickens’ masterworks more subtly highlighted the backwardness and hypocrisy of this culture. 

As we know, over time, the Darwinian theory of natural selection was bolstered by the fossil record and life sciences findings, and soon gained universal scientific consensus. Public acceptance has been far slower: 163 years later, unanimity has not been reached. 

But evolution does not wait for public opinion polls. The new, more expansive meaning of evolution, built on the foundation of evolutionary theory, is itself rapidly evolving. 

What opportunity does our new awareness of these evolutionary trends open up for us?  How might we latch onto its implications and possibly influence outcomes? Give a listen to selections from Chapter 4 as Terry Patten takes on these vexing questions.

Selected Readings From A New Republic of the Heart

Recitations by Anneke Edson, David Chasteen, Sallie Justice, Phil Justice, and Ed Prell

Chapter 4: The Evolutionary Perspective – Part One

CHAPTER OVERVIEW

(Pg 11) Chapter Four views humans in the context of our sweeping evolutionary story and sees into this pivotal moment when we shift into a much accelerated evolutionary future.

(Pg 85) If one of the things that ails us is fragmentation of perspective and constriction of vision, one antidote is to step back, take a deep breath, and consider our situation from a wider, more integrated vantage point—an evolutionary perspective. This helps us frame our current circumstances within a much larger trajectory of time and life.

(Pg 86) Evolutionary theory, in strictly biological terms, is grounded in many specific observations about the fossil record, genetic mutations, and adaptations to changing environments.But the larger pattern of discoveries consistently paints an arc of development—over the longest spans of time—from simpler, less conscious and cooperative life forms to more conscious, complex, and cooperative ones.

(Pg 86) Thus far, we have only observed life on planet Earth. But we know that the planet itself displays its own evolutionary arc—from simpler to more complex combinations of matter and energy.

(Pg 86) When we consider the last 120,000 years (starting in the Stone Age and extending to our postmodern age), we notice the same evolutionary arc—from simpler to more complex and cooperative forms of organization.

(Pg 86) And when we discuss human civilization, we must consider not only biological adaptations, but also technological innovations, sociocultural change, and the emergence of higher consciousness. That higher consciousness has likewise evolved cognitively, morally, aesthetically, and spiritually.

(Pg 86 & 87) If we piece together these multiple evolutionary trajectories, it becomes clear that the process of evolution cannot be reduced to cosmic, biological, or cultural evolution—it is more fundamental than any particular scientific or humanistic discipline can capture. The story encompasses everything, from the birth of the cosmos, to the agricultural, scientific, and cultural revolutions of recent history, to our individual attempts to understand reality, or to awaken into higher awareness.

(Pg 87) The story of evolution is so vast and all-encompassing that it would be foolish to purport to explain it or claim to know what is supposed to happen next, except in the broadest terms. But while we can’t predict exactly where it is going, we can begin—for the first time in this great story—to consciously participate in it.

THE EVOLUTIONARY IMPULSE

(Pg 87) We are among the first generations of human beings who are able to contemplate the scientific story of our origins. And this story tells us something deeper than merely material scientific facts.

(Pg 87) We can now recognize and contemplate that complexity and consciousness and cooperation have been favored over thousands of millions of years by the “random” processes of biological evolution. At a minimum, they have been favored by natural selection.

(Pg 87) I join a great many other people who find it useful to speak of an “evolutionary impulse” that is active across every domain of existence—from matter to life to mind and spirit. It is significant that this impulse operates not only through natural selection (which includes “survival of the fittest” in the strictest neo-Darwinian terms), but also toward the seemingly miraculous emergence of new potentials—tending over time toward greater complexity, more sophisticated forms of intelligence, and more powerful forms of cooperation.

(Pg 87 & 88) In its tendency toward complexity and consciousness, we can infer that the universe has been “heading somewhere,” in the words of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. All along it has, metaphorically, been wanting to do something. What is this something? What is the purpose of becoming more complex and conscious and fully articulated and interconnected and cooperative?

(Pg 88) It is as though evolution, all along, has been working to create a way of seeing and knowing itself—and now, in our lifetimes, the universe is seeing itself for the first time with a new, more granular clarity. It is as though you and I are the eyes of the universe as it suddenly glimpses its own image. In an awe-inspiring “coincidence,” we’re also just now, at the very same time, seeing that we must cooperate to change our behavior on a massive scale if we’re going to be able to keep evolving.

(Pg 88) Another implication of this story has to do with the way evolution has sped up more and more across these billions of years. From the perspective of a single human lifetime, evolution has always been imperceptible.

(Pg 88) We are the first generations of human beings who are seeing these changes unfolding before us in a time frame that we can directly experience. And there’s an inspiring and truly spiritual message in this evolutionary perspective.

(Pg 88) This shift to evolving consciously (instead of unconsciously) is momentous. How dramatic that we are just beginning to glimpse it at the very time when, for our survival, we have to see and understand and respond to its implications.

(Pg 88 & 89) This understanding of evolution, tracing the deepest patterns not just of adaptation but of emergence, points to ways in which we—collectively and as individuals—can actively and consciously participate in this deep movement of Great Unfolding. Rather than merely being pushed and pulled by the surface currents of the day, we have the capacity to intentionally influence the course of this emergence. If there was ever a time to develop, advance, and use that capacity, it surely is now.

THE EVOLUTION OF THE EVOLUTIONARY WORLDVIEW

(Pg 89) This process of awakening to and assimilating an evolutionary worldview has been rippling through every aspect of human culture in a series of revolutionary changes over the last two centuries of Western history. This process is now affecting—and often transforming—every field of human knowledge. But the widespread acceptance of evolution as our context, and the process of absorbing its wide-ranging implications in our lived experience, is still in its relative infancy. Not everyone sees or accepts this worldview; not everyone is an “evolutionary” (yet).

(Pg 89) Of course, the emergence of a truly evolutionary worldview would be as messy as the process of cultural evolution itself. It is partly through controversy that it evolves. Creative tension, differentiation, conflict, negotiation, cooperation, mutual influence, and synthesis advance and deepen the process. Similar patterns can be discerned in biological evolution.

(Pg 89) Historically significant worldviews are powerful, multigenerational, large-scale systems of agreement. Such systems, when we inhabit them, tend to dictate how we frame reality and our own identities.

(Pg 90) They occupy what integral philosopher Steve McIntosh has called the “agreement space” that exists in between individuals. And they too are always evolving.

(Pg 90) New cultural advances emerge in response to the inadequacies of whatever shared agreements have gone before. We push off against limitations, usually either differentiating something brand-new or reintegrating something we temporarily left behind that now needs to be reincluded. This powers evolutionary progress.

(Pg 90) After Darwin’s On the Origin of Species appeared in 1859, the theory of evolution quickly began morphing—even in popular perception— from a scandalous heresy into an incontrovertible (if still popularly controversial) scientific fact. A whole new world began to come into view. Instead of imagining ourselves created by God in his image, dwelling in a pre-given world of fixed forms, educated, rational people began emerging into an evolutionary view of reality.

(Pg 90) We could see and accept that we (and all living things) descended with tiny modifications, generation by generation, from the simplest life forms over billions of years.

(Pg 91) Across the decades that followed Darwin, discoveries in astrophysics and the social sciences also began to make clear that biology is not the only domain of evolution. These discoveries revealed that cosmic evolution gave rise to biological evolution, which in turn gave rise to cultural evolution.

(Pg 91) While all these implications have been assimilated to a certain degree in our culture, we are still early in the process of accepting other evolutionary implications: that the evolution of consciousness is as real and significant as biological evolution; that we can consciously participate in evolution; and that evolution can become aware of itself.

(Pg 91) In the current evolutionary worldview, many of us already understand that we are, in fact, constantly changing creative processes, participating in a vast drama of constantly changing patterns. But human beings have barely begun to fully absorb and internalize the implications of this “process view.”

(Pg 91) The pervasive human tendency is still to reduce our dynamic evolutionary processes to a stick-figure narrative populated by solid, fixed, discrete, separate “things.” It is also much easier to grasp. And, practically speaking, this understanding of ourselves and life has been mostly adequate to how we have lived until now. But that thinking has helped bring about our predicament, and will greatly limit our ability to accurately comprehend and effectively address it.

(Pg 91 & 92) Internalizing all the implications of an evolutionary worldview will continue to be a complex cultural process. To define, refine, inhabit, and explore this worldview is a huge, ongoing collective project.

(Pg 92) The human imagination will be asked to make enormous, expansive jumps beyond our current habits of thinking. But it will serve us to do so; we are urged, even required to do so now, by evolution itself

EVOLUTION’S INHERENT OPTIMISM

(Pg 92) Philosopher of science Holmes Rolston24 points out that our “big history” includes “three Big Bangs.” The first Big Bang, the one we know by that name, took place—according to our current best science—13.8 billion years ago. It gave birth to space-time and to matter and energy and our universe of billions of galaxies—what we can call the physiosphere.

(Pg 92) The second Big Bang, through which life emerged from matter, is now dated at about 3.8 billion years ago, when the first one-celled prokaryotes emerged from the primordial soup, giving birth to what we call the biosphere.

(Pg 92) The third Big Bang took place somewhere between one million and 120,000 years ago, with the first emergence of human consciousness, language, and collective learning—what we call culture.

(Pg 93) Human beings began a process of collective learning, wherein we refined our ability to make tools and clothing, use fire, store food, create language and ritual—and eventually grow crops, domesticate animals, and live together in towns and cities. And this cultural evolution took place much more quickly than previous evolutionary advances, with big changes occurring in mere tens of thousands of years, and eventually in just a thousand years or so—and, in recent times, dramatically accelerating, with huge changes taking place in just hundreds of years and then decades.

(Pg 93) This has transformed our relationship to evolutionary changes. Until very recently all of them —cosmic, biological, and cultural—have proceeded so slowly that they have eluded direct human perception until long after the fact. But cultural evolution is moving quickly enough now to be directly perceptible during a human lifetime—even as it is happening. This is radical, and new.

(Pg 93) Meanwhile, human culture has begun to reshape the biosphere and the physiosphere. Today, the future of thousands of species of life will be determined by human behavior—by what happens in the evolution of human culture. At the same time, human consciousness and culture have continued to grow more complex and interconnected, and more conscious, cooperative, and fully articulated —now with breathtaking speed

 

Summary & Preview of What is Next

Evolution’s greatly redefined and extended reach beyond Darwin’s biosphere can be a challenging concept to grasp. Our fragmented society has conditioned us to focus on discrete entities, causing us to lose sight of their place in the whole system. Let’s observe evolution’s active role as it reaches across the universe in three spheres.

First, in the physiosphere, consider a lake or a pond near you. When its waters are cooled down to 32 degrees F (zero degrees C), it pauses there and transforms itself from the stuff we splash and swim in, to stuff so hard and rigid that we can skate on it. 

Then, consider the biosphere. When a caterpillar reaches a certain point in her life, she pauses, builds a cocoon in which to do her makeover, and soon emerges as a beautiful butterfly.

These truly miraculous transformations in the physiosphere and the biosphere have no logical explanation. Yet, we rarely give them a second thought after finishing our high school science courses.

Now consider the noosphere: the realm of consciousness such as thoughts, emotions and interpersonal relationships. Cultures, tribes, corporations, institutions and governments are creations of the noosphere. We note that a nation may be thought of as if it were a living creature, consisting of its body politic (its citizenry) and led by a head of state (its president or Prime Minister).

Like creatures of the biosphere, nations are born(founded)and ultimately cease to exist. How else do these creatures of the noosphere behave like their biospheric counterparts? Let’s take the case of the Soviet Union (1917-1991). It survived as a federation of nations for over 70 years amid one of the world’s most turbulent eras, followed by its abrupt collapse.

We cannot help but notice the parallel tracks that the natural and the manmade processes take. Like evolution in the “natural” spheres, the Soviet’s collapse proceeded swiftly, inexplicably, and left in its wake a drastically different entity for its environment to contend with.

Is the life cycle of these human entities a version of evolution which follows the same playbook that brings us ice and butterflies? Can we draw inferences from this knowledge? Can it help us understand and even guide the evolution of our noosphere? In the second half of Chapter 4, Terry takes a run at these critical questions.