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Becoming Evolution's Conscious Weavers

by Tom Atlee


Humanity -- and Life, itself, perhaps -- are at an evolutionary crossroads. What we do in the next few decades may determine whether or not any of our grandchildren are around for the next century, or forever. If we can better understand how evolution works, perhaps we can become more conscious agents of our own positive transformation, and thereby weavers of our world's next evolutionary step. In fact, these times call us to BECOME evolution -- or, rather, to become that aspect of evolution that is conscious of itself -- for evolution is the Master Weaver, and we only do our weaving as part of that.

This essay introduces one of the most thought-provoking, mind-expanding practices of this Master Weaver -- the interweaving of cooperation and competition into ever-more remarkable forms.


First, it helps to realize that evolution, as a whole, has tended to produce increasingly complex forms of life that include previous life-forms within them. What we once thought of as mere "building blocks" of today's organisms, for example, we now know had lives of their own, deep in the past.

The cells in our bodies -- and in other multi-cellular organisms like sharks and maples -- contain parts (mitochondria) that are now believed to have started out as separate single-celled organisms that joined with other independent microbes to become the first nucleus-owning ancestors of our present cells. Other microbes came together aeons ago as cooperative colonies, large and small. Some of these cooperative arrangements evolved into systems that were so successful that the original cellular colonists ended up totally dependent on each other. They could no longer survive on their own -- just like us modern-day humans!

What started out as groups of cells became diverse tribes of cells which then evolved into virtual civilizations of cells -- which we see all around us and think of as "plants and animals." For as evolution progressed, cells and groups of cells became more specialized in their tasks. In the process, they became simultaneously more diverse and more interconnected -- forming, for example, hearts and kidneys -- bodily organs that are analogous to the fuel distribution and waste processing systems we call society's "infrastructure." Probably the most complex organic systems on the planet are our nervous systems -- not only our brains, but our whole web of nerves, including those nerve concentrations -- those quasi-brains -- that exist in our hearts and guts. The closer we look, the more we learn, the more miraculous it seems.


As suggested above, this increasing complexity of life didn't stop with biological evolution, but leapt into an entirely new realm of evolution: culture. With the advent of tool use, language, agriculture and writing, we humans created cultures and civilizations which, in their turn, have continually evolved. Family units combined into clans which combined into villages, which became tribes and then cities and then kingdoms, nations, empires, and now international institutions and networks, and meta-networks of networks like the World Wide Web. Our cultures and knowledge continue to evolve -- including and going beyond whatever came before, as Einstein's relativistic physics embraced and transcended Newton's mechanical physics.


In his book NONZERO: THE LOGIC OF HUMAN DESTINY, science writer Robert Wright adds a fascinating twist to all this. He looks at evolution through the lens of game theory which, it turns out, has something useful to say about an amazing variety of fields. Game theorists call a win-lose game (a game with a winner and loser) a "zero-sum" game: One winner plus one loser equals zero. On the other hand, they combine both win-win games (everybody wins) and lose-lose games (everybody loses) into a category called "non-zero-sum" games. For example, one winner plus one winner equals two winners (who are thus greater than zero). Likewise the two losers in a lose-lose game add up to "minus two", which is less than zero. So both win-win and lose-lose games are called non-zero-sum games by game theorists. This has interesting implications in evolution.

Non-zero-sum games usually look like collaboration, cooperation, mutuality, working together for the common good, etc., as well as shared suffering and shared destiny of all kinds. Zero-sum games look like competition, exploitation, destruction, etc., in which one organism or species benefits at the expense of others. Wright points out that these are not mutually exclusive dynamics, at least in the world of evolution. On closer examination, they are often complementary.

For example, although a predator-prey relationship seems like a win-lose game (the predator wins and the prey loses), there's actually more going on there. The fact that predators tend to take the weakest and sickest prey ends up strengthening a preyed-on herd or species, thus making the predator-prey relationship into a win-win (non-zero-sum) game at the level of the herd or species. Likewise, if the predator didn't exist, the prey species would overpopulate, consume its environment, and die off (a well-known dynamic that should set off some alarm bells in our collective mind). And, of course, the predator species needs the prey species to continue in order for the predator species to have something to eat, so dynamics that sustain the prey species sustain the predator species, as well -- and vice versa. So we find that the predator-prey relationship is, at the collective level, more win-win than it first seemed when viewed only at the individual level.

Furthermore, an evolutionary development is often triggered by some threat or challenge -- the prospect of losing one's life or position in life. The speed of the fox and the speed of the hare have evolved together, as the faster individuals in each species were more able to survive. This sort of "We become stronger through struggle" dynamic is often used to defend "free market capitalism" -- which may be a valid comparison unless the strongest are left free to destroy everyone else in the market. But here in the dog-eat-dog marketplace we find another interesting marriage of zero and non-zero-sum games: Competition BETWEEN corporations (and communities, too) has been one of the main drivers of increased cooperation WITHIN corporations (and communities). This cooperative impulse has been spreading outward such that "business ecosystems" are now springing up, involving clusters of companies in a given market -- producers, suppliers, consumers, investors, etc. -- all cooperating for collective benefit. "The more we work together as a team, the better we'll be able to beat the other teams."


In another twist, Wright explores how new technologies can stimulate the emergence of non-zero-sum (win-win) arrangements. He describes how Shoshone Indians in what is now Nevada gathered their food. "For months at a time Shoshone families would go it alone, roaming the desert with a bag and a digging stick, searching for roots and seeds." But when they encountered a lot of rabbits, out would come "a tool too large for one family to handle -- a net hundreds of feet long into which rabbits were herded before being clubbed to death. On such occasions ... a dozen normally autonomous families would come together briefly" to collaborate in the rabbit "harvest," followed by a feast and celebration.

In a more ominous example, nuclear weapons in the hands of superpowers ultimately created the non-zero-sum game called Mutually Assured Destruction -- the terrifying lose-lose prospect of global thermonuclear holocaust used for "deterrence" -- which engendered a surprising amount of cooperation between the superpowers after the close call of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, even as they competed and dominated in their spheres of influence.

Probably the most familiar current example of technology's birthing of win-win games is the way the Web, cell phones, and other telecommunications are creating whole new economies -- including new forms of intellectual property -- that are fundamentally based on cooperation rather than competition. Those who survive best in these new economies are those who cooperate best, and help others cooperate (such as Google and EBay).


Wright's key insight is that evolution has, for billions of years, been steadily weaving INCREASINGLY INCLUSIVE NON-ZERO-SUM GAMES -- especially cooperative arrangements among life forms, both biological and cultural. From the earliest little cellular patches and colonies, on up through the fabric of multicellular biological evolution into the increasingly complex and inclusive global garment of cooperation and competition woven into today's densely interconnected world, the evolutionary loom hums along.

But the evolutionary game is changing, because we don't have any higher-level ecosystem for competitive dynamics to play out in. The final level of inclusivity is everyone, the whole world. Everyone wins or everyone loses. The "other" is vanishing. We are all in this together. We all live downstream.

In other words, we now find ourselves faced with the ultimate lose-lose possibility -- the destruction of our biosphere, without which all human games -- if not all life -- will cease. Now that we are operating at this global level, more and more of our favorite win-lose games are turning into lose-lose games. In other words, previously useful zero-sum games are becoming deadly non-zero-sum games. War is becoming obsolete. Mindless exploitation is becoming self-defeating. Manipulative, biased news meda are blinding and endangering us all. Faced with the option of all of us losing together or all of us winning together, we now enter our "final exam" in human evolution -- and possibly biological evolution -- on earth. We get to pass, or fail, together.

Luckily, technologies of cooperation -- ways of facilitating win-win dynamics -- are rapidly developing. Furthermore, at the leading edge of these developments are technologies that embrace competition for its gifts even while enfolding it within the larger need for cooperation -- because we need competition in order to remain healthy and continue evolving.

The more competition is engaged in by willing partners who seek mutual benefit through that process -- as happens in the highest level of sport where "opponents" use their contest to bring out their "personal best" -- the more synergy will exist between competiton and cooperation. Likewise, the more competition serves to keep cooperation from getting lazy (as in conformity, groupthink, and old habits that resist needed change), the more synergy we will have between competition and cooperation. And the more the cooperative spirit keeps competition from being "cut-throat" -- and exploitation (as in the use of nature and people) from degrading Life -- the more synergy we will have between competition and cooperation.


In evolution, both competition and cooperation ultimately serve the well-being of the whole. We are called to do this consciously and wisely, to become the evolutionary vehicle that will carry us through the next century.

Our challenge is to get very good at this. From the perspective of billions of years of evolution -- arriving at this critical time of major breakdown or breakthrough -- that's the name of the game right now. Our task is to figure out how to weave every viewpoint, every interest, every species into a fully inclusive win-win game that we can all play forever, spiced with -- but not ruled by -- ongoing competition.

"We are all in this together." That statement has always represented our highest challenge. It has been spoken in various forms by most great religions. And recently it has been hailed as fact by systems thinkers, ecologists and quantum physicists. But "We are all in this together" is now more than an exhortation or a static fact. It is a dynamic evolutionary reality that we will all be living out, one way or another, as we pass this evolutionary crossroads. One road leads to the ultimate dead-end. The other leads through conscious, continuous transformation of ourselves and our societies into ever more wise manifestations of this truth. We are all in this together.

As more of us join in finding ways to be true to the fact of our shared destiny, we collectively BECOME the growing edge of evolution as it weaves its way into ever richer win-win games, hopefully for millennia to come.


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