The Role of Conversation in Evolution
Evolution and conversation are close cousins.
Both are "process" -- and they embody each other.
Evolution is the ongoing process of change.
If we want to consciously and intentionally change
our social systems, we need to talk together about it.
The more inclusive, wise and productive our
conversations are, the more powerful and positive
the changes will be. It is no accident that the
conversational dimension of our work is usually
called "process". Conversation is our way of
being in process and evolving together.
Given the many crises that are emerging today, high
quality conversation is an essential evolutionary force.
EVOLUTION IS HAPPENING NOW
Evolution is about change. Anyone doing social change work, anyone
trying to improve conditions, anyone trying to empower, succeed,
innovate, heal, strengthen, renew, transform, enlighten -- or even
conquer or destroy -- is engaged in evolutionary work.
Ultimately change is happening all the time -- and we're all involved
-- whether we notice it or not, whether we want it or not. Some
very stable-seeming things -- like mountains and stars -- are changing
in ways or at speeds we cannot easily see, or are made up of a dance
of smaller changes. Furthermore, evolution doesn't stop: Changes
over here in my world evoke changes over there in yours. We keep
striving to get to a place that is more comfortable, more enjoyable,
more successful, more whole -- changing things for everyone else
as we do. All the little changes in our personal lives add up to
bigger changes in our shared world -- just look at climate change
for a vivid example. Those big changes then influence our personal
lives, which shape our neighbors, the economy, and the future of
We are on a cusp of unprecedented crises caused by the appalling
obliviousness with which we use our awesome collective power. With
climate change, extreme economic imbalances, the degradation of
democracy, dangerous technological developments and many other dangers
and collective stupidities, we're rapidly moving into a 'change
or die' situation. These crises will bring changes we can barely
imagine. We have brought ourselves to a brink of both calamity and
transcendence at a global level. Business-as-usual -- the source
of our security -- is now becoming ever more clearly The Problem.
So we find ourselves blessed/cursed (both!) with a marriage of opportunity
and necessity: We can and we must transform ourselves and our social
systems into a truly wise force for conscious evolution -- a whole
new way of being a civilization.
That is why we are here. It is the next chapter of our evolutionary
The changes we need involve developing our collective intelligence,
consciousness and wisdom to transform our thinking and our social
systems. Dialogue, deliberation, and other powerful forms of conversation
have a tremendous role to play in that. Conversation is the primary
way we humans engage in conscious collective transformation -- replacing
the other primary way: violence and domination. That's the road
out. And the kinds of collective breakthroughs that are possible
through high quality conversation look an awful lot like the raw
materials for conscious evolutionary leaps.
THE CONVERSATIONAL NATURE OF EVOLUTION
So we need conversation for human evolution. But there's a bigger
picture. As science writer Connie Barlow says, "The best metaphor
I have found to describe evolution, is conversation. Evolution is
like a big conversation." In fact, all the complex interactions
of the natural universe are like a big conversation. In a sense,
the conversations we humans have are simply extensions of this far
vaster conversation that has been going on for billions of years.
A basic pattern we see over and over in the history of the universe
is that diverse entities -- living together in information-rich
environments filled with challenge and support -- tend to interact
in ways that generate new patterns over time. Often those interactions
lead these entities to form novel collective entities that interact
at entirely new levels. As the Great Story of evolution proceeds,
this coming together and interacting in new forms becomes more inclusive,
complex, and sophisticated.
This particular process started more than 10 billion years ago
as vast clouds of invisible hydrogen gas coalesced into starless
galaxies within which gravitational interactions gave sudden birth
to stars, which lit up the void. From that point, stars were home
to powerfully interactive forces that have continuously brought
forth the chemicals that are the building blocks of planets and
life. In the primal Earth's information-rich environments filled
with challenges and supports, some of those chemicals became cells,
which joined together into more complex cells (an evolutionary leap
triggered by Earth's first and worst pollution crisis -- the oxidation
of the atmosphere!), and soon those cells formed colonies that developed
into multi-cellular organisms -- and those evolved into swarming
ecosystems and wave after wave of new varieties of plants and animals.
In each wave, some new, remarkable way of being together showed
Any careful review of the evolutionary story reveals this direction
-- towards increasingly inclusive and complex cooperative arrangements
in which the participating life forms live or die, succeed or fail,
together. That process has continued right into the evolution of
human culture, with cooperation happening first at family and clan
levels, then tribes and local empires, and then countries and global
corporations, organizations, and networks. We face the challenge
today of crafting increasingly inclusive, sophisticated and wise
worldwide cooperative systems, because it is becoming increasingly
clear that we are all going to make it or crash together as a planet.
So evolution is a form of conversation -- and conversation is a
form of evolution. I mentioned the pattern of diverse entities changing
because they interact in an information-rich environment filled
with challenges and supports. That describes us, walking/talking
our way towards becoming a branch of evolution that is -- newly
and powerfully -- conscious of itself.
E-volve comes from "to roll out". Con-verse
comes from "to turn together." We can rightly say that
-- as we turn together in conversation, we become the evolution
we've been waiting for.
RESPONSIVENESS, FITNESS, AND INTELLIGENCE
Underlying both evolution and conversation is intelligence -- responsiveness
to circumstances -- the ability to observe what's going on, sort
it out usefully and, based on that, behave appropriately for the
circumstances. Organisms evolve because their environment has changed:
Those that don't adapt get selected out, leaving behind whoever
managed to succeed in the new environment. This is a rough but extremely
workable form of intelligence, of finding out what works -- at least
at the collective level (it is often pretty harsh on individuals!).
Conversational evolution is more subtle and less dire: In high
quality conversation, our ideas, our relationships, our feelings,
our sense of possibility can all shift because we see things differently
after talking with people who are different from us. If our differences
reflect the diversity involved in the system or situation we are
talking about, then the shifts we make reflect the complex realities
This enables us to create new understandings and options that actually
make deeper, broader sense. Together we are able to respond to the
crises we face with greater comprehension, wisdom, and shared resourcefulness.
This is exactly what is needed to address the evolutionary challenges
we face as a civilization.
So conscious evolution is a conscious search for -- and adaptation
of -- wiser forms of fitness in a changing environment. What is
going on in that search for fitness?
SOME DYNAMICS IN THE SEARCH FOR FITNESS
There are three modes of interacting with our environment that
add up to fitness, each of which makes sense in different circumstances.
These are novelty, maintenance, and incremental improvement. I will
explore them below -- and also the role of intelligence as a guide
for the search, and the role of community and awareness as two vital
supports for all three modes in human systems. For all six of these
factors, I will offer a few processes and practices that exemplify
or further them.
- Many people think this is what evolution is all about. This mode
of engagement involves newness and the bringing forth of newness.
It includes innovation, originality, breakthrough, emergence, and
exciting stimulation of all kinds. However, it may also be associated
with uncertainty, risk, unfamiliarity, disturbance, chaos, and dissonance.
In extreme cases, it involves the discontinuities of crisis, catastrophe,
and breakdown caused by the appearance of a challenge for which
we are unprepared and thus clears the way (often painfully) for
a new order.
Novel, creative dynamics are especially appropriate when the environment
(including our internal environment!) changes rapidly and requires
rapid changes in our own life patterns to maintain our "fit".
Creative chaos laps at the shores of all systems, tossing novel
developments and challenges into life whether or not it fits the
needs of the systems involved. As long as a system is healthy and
adaptable, it can successfully ignore these challenges -- at least
for a while. But when the system starts to malfunction, the more
it resists change, the more insistent and successful the creative
Some of the processes and practices that evoke deeply creative
responses to life include transformational mediation, choice creating
(associated with Dynamic Facilitation), brainstorming, Presencing
(pioneered by Otto Scharmer, and its companion practice of "listening
into the middle"), and Appreciative Inquiry. Also processes
that work with "edges" (like Arnold Mindell's Process
Worldwork) or that explicitly engage "The Other" (like
diversity dialogues) or "welcome the stranger" (like Open
Space) present a level of challenge that invites the emergence of
new understandings, relationships, and possibilities.
- The evolutionary heart of this mode of engagement is survival.
This mode focuses on conserving, adjusting, maintaining order or
health, staying the course or getting back on course, and maintaining
a level of predictability. This is the essence of sustainability,
being able to maintain some kind of continuity. While at first,
many people interested in change may see stability as anathema,
it is crucial to a healthy, sane existence. However challenging
the circumstances, knowing the sun will rise in the morning and
set in the evening, for example, allows for some predictability!
Maintenance provides the order that balances -- and resists -- the
chaos of creativity. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it!"
Here we also find the dynamics of balance: If a factor shifts a
bit too much in one direction, shift it back. Maintenance factors
are intrinsic to any system's ability to sustain its identity and
structure. If it didn't resist change it would dissolve. This dynamic
tension between order and chaos is a constant factor in life. Their
dance moves this way and that way, depending on circumstances, with
the balancing dynamics attempting to keep the dance from going too
far toward either extreme.
Conservative efforts to maintain order are especially appropriate
when things are going well. "Don't change anything." What's
going well, however, may look different to different people, or
at different timescales. Often the effort to maintain order involves
making things look better than they are, or ignoring or denying
unsettling energies that are bubbling under the surface. The broader
and deeper the state of wellness, the more appropriate are the stabilizing
Some of the healthy processes and practices that help sustain what's
working are shared purpose, trust-building, agreed-upon values,
validation, training, discussion, negotiation, mediation, and deliberation.
Suppression may also work, but only temporarily, and with some nasty
side-effects that tend to lead to systemic breakdown if carried
on too long.
- Between maintaining stability and all-out breakthrough is the
progressive journey of slow change, little enhancements and reforms,
adding a few bells and whistles, building-on just enough improvement
to keep stability fresh and the revolutionaries at bay. We all do
this in our lives, and markets specialize in arguably progressive
versions of it. Each slight improvement stands on the shoulders
of the last.
Much of evolution actually happens through incremental change,
punctuated by the extreme evolutionary leaps characterized by creative
novelty. In today's society, an incredible amount of change happens
-- largely initiated by novel technologies -- without constituting
a revolution in the basic assumptions of the culture. However, biological
and cultural evolution tells us that incremental changes in an isolated
population can add up to total shift (e.g., the emergence of a new
species or language) over time. As certain populations lag or surge
ahead in financial wealth, in adopting new means of communication,
or in recognizing emerging trends and technologies, they can become
essentially isolated from each other, vastly speeding up major shifts
and discontinuities in society.
Some of the processes that support incremental improvement are
Quality Circles, performance rewards, deliberation, evaluation reviews,
and the full range of problem-solving techniques.
which of these three modes is appropriate at any given time. In
groups, organizations, and societies, collective intelligence decides
when and where creativity, problem-solving, and maintenance actions
will most serve survival and success. The core of intelligence --
both individual and collective -- is the ability to respond, to
learn, to do what's appropriate. After all, what we want is a productive
fit with our environment; we want to respond in ways that make sense.
When we respond in ways that don't make sense, we call it a mistake.
If we continue to make mistakes, we call that stupidity. On the
other hand, intelligence that is very broad, deep, far-seeing, nuanced,
and appropriate for both current and long-term needs is called "wise".
As noted above, intelligence -- responsiveness to circumstances
-- is common to both evolution and conversation. It is present in
all of the above three dynamics whenever they are applied appropriately.
To a certain extent, they can be applied from above and outside
the situation at hand. But the more complex a situation or system
is, the more advisable it becomes to access the intelligence that
is intrinsic in the situation or system itself.
Processes and practices that are good for accessing the intelligence
of the system -- and therefore can be used to stimulate creativity,
conservation, or incremental progress, as appropriate to the system
-- include whole-system approaches like Open Space, Future Search,
and World Café, as well as deep interpersonal methods like
Nonviolent Communication.To support the search for fitness in groups,
organizations, and societies -- that is, to support collective intelligence
-- we need awareness and community. At any given moment in any given
situation both are present to some extent. With luck -- and facilitation
or outside wisdom -- there will be enough collective intelligence
to notice where more awareness and community are needed.
consciousness, knowledge, understanding, insight, self-awareness,
systems thinking, wisdom and more. Generically, it means simply
the ability to notice and be present with what is. More specifically,
it can mean awareness of particular dynamics, facts, or
Evolutionarily, awareness can be said to have started with the
first cells that were sensitive to light, sound and chemicals in
their environments. Awareness has expanded to include very sophisticated
senses, instruments that extend those senses (e.g., telescopes and
computers), and minds that can process it all into meaning. In spiritual
terms, awareness reaches beyond our usual senses deep into the subtle
dynamics that generate thoughts, feelings, and realities. Although
over evolutionary time, more diverse modes of awareness have shown
up, the most important evolutionary truth about awareness is that
it needs to be appropriate to our needs, helping us respond. Yet
sometimes awareness can overwhelm our ability to respond. Part of
our evolutionary challenge is to expand both our awareness and
our ability to respond -- including greater tolerance of chaos,
uncertainty, dissonance, etc., to enable us to just be
with what is, so that appropriate responses can surface at the appropriate
Some of the processes and practices that can enhance different
kinds of awareness include Bohm Dialogue, T-Groups, meditation,
therapeutic dialogue, diversity dialogues, journaling, knowledge
systems (often online), ritual, market research, and education.
COMMUNITY is the
invisible web that binds us together. As our current social system
has caused us to fragment into many disparate, self-interested subcultures,
this web of connection has largely dissolved. Through conversation,
we are beginning to consciously re-weave the web, bringing it radiantly
to light. We are doing this through mindful, inclusive conversations
such that the actual and perceived coherence and connectivity of
human collectives consciously come together without loss of precious
individuality and diversity. Community is the human form of what
Peggy Holman calls "differentiated wholeness." To have
conscious collective intelligence we need to both be uniquely ourselves
and aware of ourselves as a collective, sustaining our
collective being through the aliveness of our shared bonds and purposes.
Community involves the vulnerability that opens us to each other,
and the safety to translate that vulnerability into trust. It also
involves various forms of common ground -- shared language, culture,
experience, tolerance, intentions, decision-making processes --
even as it leaves enough space for dissonance to allow for our differences
and for the emergence of challenges and novelty when needed.
Among the processes and practices that serve community-building
are story-sharing, diversity dialogues, council circle, ritual,
Now that it is obvious to many of us that today's trajectory of
unconscious evolution is taking us straight towards a precipice
of catastrophe and possible extinction, we might with good reason
orient ourselves towards conscious evolution. That evolution will
involve (and is involving) the transformation of our consciousness
and our social systems -- each of which profoundly affects the other,
making both good starting points for change.
Wherever we begin, conversation is an essential strategic resource,
given its powerful role as a catalyst for conscious co-evolution.
This fact is especially important because crises set the stage for
rapid evolution -- and we will soon have an abundance of crises.
Since we need a healthy dose of rapid evolution soon, our immediate
future seems rich with opportunities to apply our collective consciousness
and intelligence to transforming our world in high quality conversation.
We know that we need processes that help us sustain ourselves and
succeed as we work to preserve and reform our lives and institutions.
But in times like these, we most urgently need processes which draw
out the creative initiative, collective intelligence and wisdom
latent in our groups, organizations, communities, and whole societies
-- to say nothing of worldwide networks and beyond. We have such
processes, and are rapidly creating more.
Who needs to talk to whom about what, in what way, for breakthroughs
to occur? This is a question we can use to convene strategic evolutionary
conversations. Our answers to this question can guide us in making
a gentle, powerful difference at every level, in every sector.
Ultimately, if we make a good habit of all this, as a worldwide
culture, we can become the first consciously evolving civilization
Not bad for a species that looked like it was on the way out with
a bang, fire and ice.
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