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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 -- Collapse.

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 and extinction.

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, come awake.

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 and now?

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 ways:

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.

See also

Conscious Evolution

Conscious Evolutionary Agentry


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