Friday, January 15, 2010

Integrative Spirituality - EVOLUTION'S ARROW, by John Stewart

I would like to think there is some positive directionality to evolution, and on my best days I can see that process at work - other days not so much.
EVOLUTION'S ARROW, by John Stewart

Spirit in Physical Sciences

Is there a direction imbedded in the very fabric of evolution? Are we moving toward something, or is reality as we know it just an infinite process of trial and error, with no overall wider evolutionary directive. What are some of the most current observations of the nature of our universe, and what deeper knowledge of our existence is this information communicating? Jonas Salk made the following statement of what he thought the process of directional evolution appears to be:

"The most meaningful activity in which a human being can be engaged is one that is directly related to human evolution. This is true because human beings now play an active and critical role not only in the process of their own evolution but in the survival and evolution of all living beings. Awareness of this places upon human beings a responsibility for their participation in and contribution to the process of evolution. If humankind would accept and acknowledge this responsibility and become creatively engaged in the process of metabiological evolution consciously, as well as unconsciously, a new reality would emerge, and a new age would be born." Jonas Salk


A major evolutionary transition is beginning to unfold on earth. Individuals are emerging who are choosing to dedicate their lives to consciously advancing the evolutionary process. They see that their lives are an important part of the great evolutionary process that has produced the universe and the life within it. They realise that they have a significant role to play in evolution. Redefining themselves within a wider evolutionary perspective is providing meaning and direction to their lives - they no longer see themselves as isolated, self-concerned individuals who live for a short time, then die irrelevantly in a meaningless universe. They know that if evolution is to continue to fulfill its potential, it now must be driven consciously, and it is their responsibility and destiny to contribute to this.

At the heart of this evolutionary awakening is the understanding that evolution is directional. Evolution is not an aimless and random process, it is headed somewhere. This is very important knowledge - once we understand the direction of evolution, we can identify where we are located along the evolutionary trajectory, discover what the next steps are, and see what they mean for us, as individuals and collectively.

Where is evolution headed? Contrary to earlier understandings of evolution, an unmistakeable trend is towards greater interdependence and cooperation amongst living processes. If humans are to advance the evolutionary process on this planet, a major task will be to find more cooperative ways of organising ourselves.

The trend towards increasing cooperation is well illustrated by a short history of the evolution of life on earth. For billions of years after the big bang, the universe expanded rapidly in scale and diversified into a multitude of galaxies, stars, planets and other forms of lifeless matter.

The first life that eventually arose on earth was infinitesimal – it was comprised of a few molecular processes. But it did
not remain on this tiny scale for long. In the first major development, cooperative groups of molecular processes formed the first simple cells. Then, in a further significant advance, communities of these simple cells formed more complex cells of much greater scale.

A further major evolutionary transition unfolded after many more millions of years. Evolution discovered how to organise cooperative groups of these complex cells into multi-celled organisms such as insects, fish, and eventually mammals. Again the scale of living processes had increased enormously. This trend continued with the emergence of cooperative societies of multi-celled organisms, including bee hives, wolf packs and baboon troops.

The pattern was repeated with humans – families joined up to form bands, bands teamed up to form tribes, tribes joined to form agricultural communities, and so on. The largest-scale cooperative organisations of living processes on the planet are now human societies.

This unmistakable trend is the result of many repetitions of a process in which living entities team up to form larger scale cooperatives. Strikingly, the cooperative groups that arise at each step in this sequence become the entities that then team up to form the cooperative groups at the next step in the sequence.

It is easy to see what has driven this long sequence of directional evolution – at every level of organization, cooperative teams united by common goals will always have the potential to be more successful than isolated individuals. It will be the same wherever life arises in the universe. The details will differ, but the direction will be the same – towards unification and cooperation over greater and greater scales.

Life has come a long way on this planet. When it began, individual living processes could do little more than influence events at the scale of molecular processes. But as a result of the successive formation of larger and larger cooperatives, coordinated living processes are now managing and controlling events on the scale of continents. And life appears to be on the threshold of another major evolutionary transition – humanity has the potential to form a unified and inclusive global society in symbiotic relationship with our technologies and with the planet as a whole. In the process, “we” (the whole) will come to manage matter, energy and living processes on a planetary scale. When this global organisation emerges, the scale of cooperative organisation will have increased over a million, billion times since life began.

If humanity is to fulfill its potential in the evolution of life in the universe, this expansion of the scale of cooperative organisation will continue. The global organisation has the potential to expand out into the solar system and beyond. By managing matter, energy and living processes over larger and larger scales, human organisation could eventually achieve the capacity to influence events at the scale of the solar system and galaxy. And the human organisation could repeat the great transitions of its evolutionary past by teaming up with any other societies of living processes that it encounters.

“We are the product of 4.5 billion years of fortuitous, slow biological evolution. There is no reason to think that the evolutionary process has stopped. Man is a transitional animal. He is not the climax of creation.” …“We are set irrevocably, I believe, on a path that will take us to the stars--unless in some monstrous capitulation to stupidity and greed we destroy ourselves first.” Carl Sagan

The great potential of the evolutionary process is to eventually produce a unified cooperative organisation of living processes that spans and manages the universe as a whole. The matter of the universe would be infused and organised by life. The universe itself would become a living organism that pursued its own goals and objectives, whatever they might be. In its long climb up from the scale of molecular processes, life will have unified the universe that was blown apart by the big bang.

As life increases in scale, a second major trend emerges - it gets better at evolving. Organisms that are more evolvable are better at discovering the adaptive behaviours that enable them to succeed in evolution. They are smarter at finding solutions to adaptive challenges and at finding better ways to achieve their goals.

Initially living processes discover better adaptations by trial and error. They find out which behaviours are most effective by trying them out in practice. Initially this trial and error search occurs across the generations through mutation at the genetic level. An important advance occurs when this gene-based evolution discovers how to produce organisms with the capacity to learn by trial and error during their lives.

In a further major transition, organisms evolve the capacity to form mental representations of their environment and of the impact of alternative behaviours. This enables them to foresee how their environment will respond to their actions. Rather than try out alternative behaviours in practice, they can now test them mentally. They begin to understand how their world works, and how it can be manipulated consciously to achieve their adaptive goals.

Evolvability gets another significant boost when organisms develop the capacity to share the knowledge that they use to build their mental representations. Imitation, language, writing and printing are important examples of processes that transmit adaptive knowledge. These processes enable the rapid accumulation of knowledge across generations and the building of more complex mental models.

Eventually organisms with these capacities will develop a theory of evolution - they will acquire the knowledge to build mental models of the evolutionary processes that produced the living processes on their planet, including themselves. For the first time they will have a powerful, science-based story that explains where they have come from, and their place in the unfolding of the universe.

"Only after we had absorbed Darwin and recalculated the age of the universe, after the vision of static forms of life had been replaced by a vision of fluid processes flexing across vast tracts of time, only then could we dare to guess the immensity of the symphony we are part of." Christopher Bache

"None of the scientists of the seventeenth, eighteenth, or nineteenth centuries knew the larger implications of what they were doing or the discoveries they were making. Yet each of the major figures was contributing something essential to a pattern of interpretation that would only become clear in the mid-twentieth century. Only now can we see with clarity that we live not so much in a cosmos as in a cosmogenesis, a cosmogenesis best presented in narrative; scientific in its data, mythic in its form.” Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry

On any planet where life emerges, the trend to increased evolvability is likely to eventually produce organisms who awaken to their evolutionary history and its future possibilities. They will begin to understand the wider-scale evolutionary processes that have produced them and that will govern the future of life on their planet. The organisms will begin to see themselves as having reached a particular stage in an on-going and directional evolutionary process. They will know where evolution is headed, and what they must do if they are to advance evolution on their planet.

“The stories a culture tells itself -- and which are told to it -- have the capacity to shift mass consciousness profoundly and rapidly. We see this phenomenon in politics, PR and mass media every day. This fact inspires some of us to work with the framework of the sacred Great Story of Evolution, to make it into a mainstream cultural narrative. It is, by its nature, a story that almost everyone can share and find meaning and inspiration in. We dream of a movement that spreads this story AND supports it in having its transformational impact by waking up millions of people on the edge of evolution, and helping them live into their own 14 billion year evolutionary story and grow into their evolutionary role with others in ways which have actual impact on the fate of humanity and the Earth.” Tom Atlee

Read the whole article.

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