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The Evolutionary Relevance of Spiritual Development

Updated: Jul 12, 2019

Does spiritual development have a significant role to play in the future evolution of life in the material world? Do the capacities produced by spiritual practices have important functions to perform in advancing the evolutionary process on this planet?

To address these questions we need to look at how past evolution has shaped human behaviour, identify any shortcoming in what it has achieved, and assess whether spiritual capacities can overcome these failings.

According to mainstream science, natural selection has shaped the behaviour of living organisms (including humans) so that they are adapted to their environment. The mechanism is simple but powerful: individuals that are genetically predisposed to behave in ways that enable them to get more food or social status or mates will have more surviving offspring. As a consequence, their genes will eventually take over the population.

In effect, evolution has organised the behaviour of organisms so that they act in ways that succeed in evolutionary terms. How does it program organisms to achieve this?

In simpler animals, evolution hardwires the behaviour into the organism. In more complex animals, it hardwires the organism with goals in the form of desires and motivations, but leaves the organism to find the best way to achieve these goals. Successful achievement of goals is rewarded internally by positive feelings. Natural selection tunes these arrangements so that behaviour that leads to evolutionary success is rewarded, and behaviour that leads to evolutionary failure is punished internally. For example, actions that result in sexual reproduction are rewarded with pleasurable feelings, and behaviour that would destroy an individual’s reputation within its social group is deterred by unpleasant feelings of guilt.

Humans differ from other organisms in that we are far more intelligent at devising innovative ways to fulfil our desires and motivations. Instead of just using trial and error to get to our goals, we can call on our highly developed mental capacities. These enable us to envisage the future consequences of alternative actions, and choose ones that will lead to the satisfaction of our desires.

We are surrounded by evidence of our ability to creatively find better ways to obtain internal rewards. Computers, the internet, airplanes, cars, buildings, books and phones all exist because they serve the desires and motivations implanted in us by past evolution.

But humans are like other organisms in that we cannot change at will our desires, motivations and emotions—even when we see that they are against our longer-term interests. We do not use our intelligence to choose our likes and our dislikes or what it is that gives us pleasure or pain. Our behaviour is very flexible and adaptable, but our desires and motivations are not. In large part, our key desires and motivations are those fixed by our evolutionary past. Although the means for satisfying our desires has changed enormously, we continue to pursue much the same proxies for evolutionary success as our ancestors 20,000 years ago. We spend our lives chasing the positive feelings produced by experiences such as popularity, self-esteem, sex, feelings of uniqueness, power, feasting, and social status, and strive to avoid the negative feelings that go with experiences such as stress, guilt, depression, loneliness, hunger, and shame.

In effect, we live in a virtual world created by past evolution. What we take to be important and valuable is an illusion created by evolution to control our behaviour.

There are obvious disadvantages in continuing to have our actions dictated by inflexible goals established by past evolution. The desires and motivations that were favoured during our evolutionary history are highly unlikely to continue to lead us to evolutionary success going forward. In fact, it is becoming increasingly likely that they will lead us to environmental destruction in the next 100 years. We will need new goals, and will need to continually review them as evolution proceeds. If we do not, our technology will continue to improve beyond our imagination, but its enormous potential will be wasted in the service of outdated goals. Continuing to be controlled by obsolete goals is as absurd as a wind-up toy soldier that has run into a wall and fallen onto its back, but continues to march on and on and on.

Humanity is currently like a family that endlessly repeats the same arguments until someone develops the capacity to stand outside the situation and cease reacting in habitual ways, humanity will continue to be trapped in endless and useless repetition until we can stand outside our current desires and motivations.

To be able to intervene effectively in the world to advance the evolutionary process, we need to be able to move at right angles to our evolutionary past.

Achieving freedom from the dictates of past evolution is a challenge that is likely to be faced by all conscious life that emerges in the universe. If organisms that reach our stage in evolution are to continue to evolve successfully, transcendence of their biological and cultural past will be essential. They will need to be able to use the enormous creativity of consciousness to establish goals that serve the needs of future evolution. The living processes that go on to make a significant contribution to the future evolution of life in the universe will not be those that continue to squat on the planet of their origin, masturbating stone-age desires forever.

But how can we free ourselves from the dictates of our current desires and motivations?

This is where the practices and capacities developed by religious and contemplative traditions will prove indispensable. Nearly all traditions promote the acquisition of capacities that provide a degree of freedom from our biological and cultural past. Examples include abilities to ‘resist temptation’ and ‘turn the other cheek’ (Christianity), free oneself from all desires (Buddhism), and experience equanimity in the face of pleasure or pain (Hinduism).

Most traditions have technologies for developing these capacities. Many seem to use variants of a simple but powerful practice. This practice trains an ability to disengage desires and feelings from the habitual responses that we make to them. The practice involves giving attention to ‘inert’ stimuli that do not evoke responses such as feelings or thoughts, and bringing attention back to the inert stimulus whenever it is realised that attention is occupied with thoughts or feelings. This is, of course, the core training process embodied in various forms of meditation, prayer, ‘remembering oneself’ and many other spiritual practices.

Importantly, this capacity does not entail the repression or denial of feelings and emotions. They continue to arise and continue to provide information which might be relevant to deciding what we should do. But they no longer dictate what we do and what our goals are. They are still experienced, but they have no more command over our actions than do other sensations.

Of course, this is not the only capacity produced by spiritual practices, nor is it the only one that is significant for our future evolution. But discussion of these other capacities will have to await a future column.

Spiritual practices that free us from our desires and motivations have a central role to play in the future evolution of life in the manifest world. They can equip us with new psychological software that will enable us to become self-evolving organisms - beings that are able to adapt in whatever ways are necessary for future evolutionary success, largely unfettered by our biological and social past. The enormous creativity of consciousness will no longer be wasted on the pursuit of self-centred desires and needs established by past evolution. As we move out into the solar system, the galaxy and the universe, we will be able to change our adaptive goals and behaviour in whatever ways are demanded by the challenges we meet. We will be able to continually recreate ourselves, to change human nature at will, to repeatedly sacrifice what we are for what we can become, to continually die and be born again.

Written by John Stewart 2019

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