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.
LIVING PARTS INTO LIVING WHOLES
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.
THE GAMES OF LIFE: WINNING AND SHARED DESTINY
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
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
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."
TECHNOLOGY AND COOPERATION
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
WHAT EVOLUTION IS DOING
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,
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 --
"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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