Updated: Jul 20, 2019
One of the things that makes humans unique amongst life on earth is our need for meaning and purpose.
These top-of-the-Maslow pyramid-type needs used to be met squarely by religion. But with the historical enlightenment and the age of reason, people began to see that in their less sophisticated forms, the mythic religions don’t stand up to rational scrutiny.
And so religion, which claimed that our purpose was to serve God, began to be replaced by materialism, which said that the best way to find meaning was collecting more and nicer things.
When an entire generation is going through a mental health crisis you know our value systems are crumbling.
It would be naive to say that this has been a complete failure – but when an entire generation is going through a mental health crisis you know our value systems are crumbling. As Victor Frankl said: “Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose.”
What we need is a new way of working out what is good and what is worth aiming for; a value system which stands up to rational scrutiny, and yet speaks to this deep yearning we all have.
All of us are different and so all of us will find meaning and purpose in different things. My claim, and it’s a big one, is that there is a common thread which ties all of these different purposes together and explains why they are meaningful.
It is simply this: find your own unique way of contributing to the evolutionary process, and your life will be filled with meaning and purpose.
I’m not just referring to biological evolution. Cross-disciplinary theorists are starting to see that cosmological, biological and cultural evolution are analogous processes, systems built upon systems, each emerging out of the last, and that through all of them there appears to be a direction.
Firstly, there appears to be a trend towards cooperation over ever-larger scales, spanning the history of life on earth from single-celled organisms to globalised human society. This trend has been driven by game theory, as organisms band together to compete against ‘out groups’. As John Stewart says: “cooperative teams united by common goals will always have the potential to be more successful than isolated individuals.”
Now that human activity envelopes the planet there is no ‘out group’ for us to compete against, no external pressure to drive the emergence of global cooperation.
Secondly, life has got better at evolving. Through a series of evolutionary transitions, life has become more adaptable, faster at generating novelty. As Steven Hayes wrote, “The phrase ‘survival of the most evolvable’ is far truer to the whole of evolutionary data than the hoary phrase ‘survival of the fittest.’”
Replicating life emerged from primordial soup. Then came the transition from asexual reproduction with its plodding predictability to sexual reproduction and a flourishing of diversity. Now we have language and cultural evolution: adaptive behaviours can now proliferate and cross-pollinate in the blink of an eye, spreading horizontally from person to person rather than merely vertically over generations. Likewise human culture and consciousness has evolved through a series of stages or worldviews, each less rigid and more inclusive than the last.
So far all of that accelerating transformation has been the result of random trial and error. It’s like driving with a blindfold on: life only changes direction when it encounters a problem.
We are currently in the midst of the next great evolutionary transition: the transition to Conscious Evolution. The ability to look forward and evolve consciously comes at the exact moment it becomes necessary for our survival.
Because now that human activity envelopes the planet there is no ‘out group’ for us to compete against, no external pressure to drive the emergence of global cooperation. And yet we are faced with existential problems like climate change and nuclear war which can only be resolved at the planetary level. Thus, global cooperation can only be achieved if we override our instinct for tribalism with our conscious intention.
We need to intentionally cultivate a range of behaviours and values which make us more adaptable as individuals, and therefore more likely to survive as a species.
The same goes for our unsustainable urges to accumulate possessions, reproduce freely, and eat meat to name a few. These are behaviours which evolved to serve a purpose in a certain evolutionary context but are now maladaptive – actively detrimental to our species’ survival chances.
In their place we need to intentionally cultivate a range of behaviours and values which make us more adaptable as individuals, and therefore more likely to survive as a species. These include creativity, openness, and being okay with uncertainty. Sometimes you have to let go of one branch to be able to reach another.
In this context I would like to make an evolutionary case for spiritual practice. At its heart spirituality is about making ourselves adaptable. Rather than being unconscious slaves to maladaptive drives, spirituality creates an awareness around our choices. It fosters the compassion needed to move beyond tribalism. And it makes us less attached to our beliefs: we feel less rattled when they are challenged and are better able to learn from others.
This is about more than just surviving, it’s about thriving.
The blindfold is off. For the first time we can take in the whole sweep of evolution from mere matter, to simple replicating life, through to vastly complex and beautiful creatures and finally to the creation of minds capable of apprehending the entire process. This is a story which has been unfolding since the universe began 13.7bn years ago, which you and I are at the cutting edge of right now.
Through our conscious choices right now we have the power to help evolution on its way towards wider cooperation, deepening consciousness and emergent creativity. There is something deeply beautiful about that, divine even.
That is the evolutionary case for making the transition to Conscious Evolution, but there is also a psychological case. This is about more than just surviving, it’s about thriving. It’s about telling a story that can provide meaning and purpose for human existence, which can lift us out of the present darkness and unite us in a great common enterprise.
Conscious Evolution is that story.
Written by Robert Cobbold - June 2019