Learning from Our Evolutionary Past Into Our Evolutionary Future
A hundred years ago, George Santayana suggested "Those who
cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Most
people interpret this to mean that we should remember history. But
Santayana didn't say history. He said "the past." That
applies to everything from yesterday's faux pax to the
13.7 billion year sweep of evolution.
I see evolution as the story and process of all developments in
the universe up until now. For us humans, evolution embraces the
cosmic story, the story of our solar system and our Earth, the story
of Life, and the story of Humankind and our many civilizations.
So what evolutionary events might Santayana want us to learn from,
were he alive today?
Perhaps the most important past experience we don't want to repeat
is that suffered by the vast majority of species that have ever
walked, swum, flown or crawled upon this earth -- Extinction.
It would also be wise to avoid that most typical fate of great civilizations
So what do we need to do to avoid these? From one evolutionary perspective,
the answer is "to wake up!"
The universe, life, and human history have been unfolding in a rough-and-tumble,
more or less unconscious fashion for quite a while.
Today we have a chance to change that. If we can learn what evolution
has been doing and do it more consciously -- with more wisdom, compassion,
and choice -- we may be able to avoid fatal disasters like collapse
After all, one of the main reasons evolution developed consciousness
in the first place was to enable organisms like us (and bacteria,
fish, and foxes) to anticipate dangers and opportunities and take
timely and useful action on our own behalf.
To the extent we, as a species, learn to wisely do what evolution
has done by trial and error, we will be practicing conscious evolution,
itself a radically new evolutionary phenomenon. We will be evolution,
So what can we say about what evolution has been doing that might
be useful to those of us who are trying to make a difference, here
Well, the most general understanding is that evolution happens through
the interactions of diverse entities
in particular contexts that are more or
less nurturing and more or less challenging. These interactions
generate the two great phenomena of evolution -- continuity and
novelty. One of the novelties that has emerged is our human consciousness,
which is now a major factor in what happens next.
Evolution responds to challenges with creative leaps -- which usually
wipe out something that seemed pretty solid before -- and then provides
ways to sustain its novel creations until they get challenged by
some new circumstance. Consciousness, too, goes through this same
process. It is called "learning."
Our efforts to be conscious about all this will involve initiatives
and questions like these, all of which overlap each other in useful
1. REGARDING ENTITIES: Being more aware of the diverse entities
we are dealing with -- ourselves, first of all, and then
other people, animals, plants, places, organizations, cultures,
countries, human systems, and natural systems. What do we know --
or need to know -- about who they are, what their story is, what
they need, what their unique gifts are? How can we be more wise
about who we welcome and who we exclude, and how? What can we learn
about diversity and its power to make a difference? How can we deepen
our understanding of the larger living systems and entities we are
part of, and our role in them and in their own evolution?
2. REGARDING INTERACTIONS: Being more consciously creative
about the interactions we engage in and co-create with and for others.
How are we communicating? Do we really need a war here? Are our
economies set up so that people and nature are well served -- individually,
locally, and globally -- by the production, exchange, and disposal
of goods and the provision of services? Are our cities, conferences,
and networks organized so participants can usefully and creatively
interact? Is what we are doing -- especially our activism -- serving
the emergence of greater understanding, relationship, and positive
possibility? What power dynamics are at work? How can we interact
creatively with whoever and whatever we find?
3. REGARDING CONTEXTS: Being more alert to the powerful
settings we are (and could be) living and working in. What
is the culture and history here? What dreams and inquiries do people
have, or might they have with the right engagement from us? What
powerful intention could guide us in this particular moment or event?
What is the impact of the spaces we occupy, such as the presence
or absence of walls and nature, rows and circles, food and smiles,
guns and flags? Can we all get the information we need and fairly
participate? How might we most creatively handle dissonance, disturbance,
and crisis? What can we learn about creating a fruitful balance
between nurturance and challenge?
4. REGARDING CONSCIOUSNESS: Being more aware of the role
of consciousness in shaping what's happening. To what extent
are we fully present to the Now -- and to its past and its future?
What else do we need to be aware of in this situation? What unexamined
assumptions and values underlie what we and others are doing and
saying? What stories are we telling ourselves, or others -- or are
we being told? What other stories might serve Life better? Are our
social systems set up to support our collective awareness, intelligence,
wisdom, and choice? Are we humble in the face of uncertainty, and
wonder-full in the face of Mystery?
Another overlapping evolutionary dynamic lies at the heart of what
many scientists call "evolutionary directionality". It
provides perhaps the most fundamental guidance for our era, informing
all of the above inquiries. It has two dimensions:
A. Evolution proceeds largely by simple entities, interactions,
contexts, and modes of consciousness combining and differentiating
in novel ways to become more complex, nuanced and capable together
than they were separately.
B. In life, this coming-together-into-new-wholes succeeds when
the self-interested behavior of the previously independent entities
ends up furthering the well-being of the new whole they comprise.
As single cells found more ways to work together for mutual benefit,
multi-cellular organisms appeared. As humans found more ways to
work together for mutual benefit, societies formed.
As human civilizations have rapidly complexified, new entities,
interactions, contexts and modes of consciousness have emerged.
For better and worse, we now live in a world profoundly shaped by
our own co-created complexities, a human-made world embedded in,
but attempting to dominate and restrain, the evolved complexities
of the natural world.
As we have expanded, our needs and impacts have become globally
interwoven with all of humanity and the whole biosphere. Human and
non-human elements are becoming one vast integrated whole. As our
self-interested human technologies, populations, systems, and activities
increasingly impact the non-human parts of Earth -- air, water,
land, and life -- the well-being of the whole is increasingly challenged.
Santayana might step in here to remind us of the past: Evolution
tells us clearly that such a situation will not continue. Collapse
and extinction loom.
Many parts of the Whole Earth -- species, ecosystems, cultures (especially
primary peoples) -- are being driven to extinction. The more we
-- especially the privileged among us -- ignore our impacts and
use technology to ensure our welfare and development at the expense
of the Earth and Others, the more out-of-equilibrium our situation
will become, and the more violently nature and Others will ultimately
respond to bring the overall system back into balance.
Extreme climate change, resource depletion, new and expanding diseases,
social disturbances -- even our own self-destructive innovations
-- all are evolutionary challenges arising from our failure to consciously
nurture the entities and contexts that have been nurturing us.
The whole Earth giveth and the whole Earth taketh away. Environments
nurture and environments challenge. Evolution happens.
As a whole, humanity is now challenged to use our consciousness
(as in 1-4 above) to co-create new systems, interactions, contexts,
and modes of consciousness to meet the challenges we have created
for ourselves, in ways that nurture the well-being of the whole
we are part of.
Our most effective evolutionary creations will be initiatives that
serve this. Further research will be compiling and organizing examples
of this. But for now, here are some initial approaches, which involve
systemic awareness, systemic health, and systemic learning:
* SYSTEMIC AWARENESS: Resources and activities
that make us increasingly aware of the social, technological, and
natural systems we are part of, so that we can experience first-hand
those systems operating through us, and alter our beliefs and behaviors
as part of evolving those systems into more benign forms. In my
own case, I have been influenced in this way by these remarkable
resources, among others:
* SYSTEMIC HEALTH: New systems, technologies,
principles, and movements that create contexts within which our
self-interested everyday actions as individuals, groups, and organizations
naturally add up to a healthy world of healthy individuals and healthy
communities. Approaches I have found that may be useful for this
-- especially for evolving economics -- include:
* SYSTEMIC LEARNING: Approaches that support
the ability of public collectives -- communities, movements, and
societies -- to learn, to grow in wisdom and vision, to act coherently,
and to change themselves in response to new insights and conditions.
Some of the approaches that most appeal to me include:
There is much more to conscious evolution than this. But this can
introduce you to how the evolutionary perspective can influence
how we think about the work we do on behalf of the world and the
future generations of all species.
Conscious Evolutionary Agentry
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