Social Evolution Forum
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My Spiritual Journey: Part 4

See previous posts (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3) covering my participation in this past weekend’s conference at the Althea Center for Engaged Spirituality, “From Self-Care to Earth-Care” and the links between the Interspirituality movement and evolutionary theory.

 July 18 2015: Greetings from day 2 of the “From Self-Care to Earth-Care” event in Denver. In my introduction to Ken Wilber’s video last night, I commented on the irony that he had to become a college dropout to pursue his vision of an integral spirituality based on a history of everything (see part three). Then I observed that evolutionary theory explains the history of all living things—you don’t need to become a college dropout to make that statement—but the study of evolution in relation to human affairs lags far behind the study of evolution in relation to the rest of life. Terms such as “evolutionary psychology,” “evolutionary anthropology,” “evolutionary economics,” and “evolutionary religious studies” were not coined until the late 20th century, signifying an attempt to rethink these disciplines from an evolutionary perspective. Only now is it becoming possible for someone who remains inside the Ivory Tower to attempt something as expansive as what Ken Wilber is reaching for—and I’m fool enough to make that attempt.

Ken’s video was made especially for this event and included comments on my new book Does Altruism Exist? His schematic of the Kosmos as a box divided into four quadrants makes it possible to translate between our two frameworks. The right and left sides of the box are labeled “exterior” and “interior,” and the top and bottom are labeled “individual” and “collective.” The exterior half includes everything that can be measured by the tools of science, for which there can be a right and wrong. The earth is round, not flat. If you believe otherwise, you’re wrong. The interior half includes the world of subjective experience, for which there can be many truths that do not exclude each other in the way that rival scientific hypotheses do. All wisdom traditions can fit within the left half of the box, for example. Kurt and other people who use Ken’s framework get a lot of mileage out of this schematic. Some people are stuck in one quadrant but it is important to cultivate the ability to move between quadrants. It is this fluidity that enables someone like Kurt to fully indulge in spiritual practices (left half) while also functioning as a true blue scientist (right half).quadrant_levels

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One insight that Ken seemed to gain from my book is that evolution is not confined to the top right quadrant of the box (exterior, individual) but occurs in all four quadrants. In my language, the right and left sides of the box map roughly onto ultimate and proximate causation, and the top and bottom halves map roughly onto multilevel selection. It is not my purpose to translate between our frameworks, however. The main objective of my talk to this audience is to introduce my framework on its own terms. How can modern evolutionary science lead to a form of spirituality that results in positive action at all scales, from self-care to earth-care?

Here are some of the major points that I tried to convey.

  • Altruism and other traits associated with morality can evolve by a Darwinian process. This is a revelation to many people, who have been taught that evolution explains selfishness well and altruism poorly.
  • Special conditions are required for the traits associated with morality to evolve. When these conditions aren’t met, then evil triumphs over good.
  • Occasionally, the conditions for the evolution of traits associated with morality operate so strongly that the social group becomes a new higher-level organism. The concept of society as organism has a long history in philosophical, political, religious, and spiritual thought. It now stands on a stronger scientific foundation than ever before.
  • Human evolution represents a transition from groups of organisms to groups as organisms at the scale of small groups. This makes small groups a fundamental unit of human social organization.
  • Small human groups function as organisms, not because everyone is necessarily nice, but because they can hold each other in check. Suppressing the potential for group members to gain at the expense of each other turns succeeding as a group into the primary evolutionary pathway toward success. Teamwork at the scale of small groups is the signature adaptation of our species.
  • Human moral sentiments have a yin and yang, a coercive side that obligates people to behave morally and a genuinely other-oriented side that makes people want to behave morally. This makes perfect sense from an evolutionary perspective. The coercive side creates the social environment that makes it safe to be genuinely other-oriented.
  • Teamwork can include the coordination of mental in addition to physical activities. In fact, most of our mental capacities that are distinctively human, including symbolic thought and the transmission of large amounts of learned information across generations, are forms of mental teamwork.
  • Our ability to transmit large amounts of learned information through a system of symbols amounts to an evolutionary process in its own right. A capacity for rapid cultural evolution enabled our ancestors to inhabit the entire planet, adapting to all climatic zones and dozens of ecological niches.
  • Insofar as a symbolic system conveys information, it can be called a meaning system. A well-adapted meaning system receives information as input, which is processed to result in effective action as output. Our brains are also adapted to receive information as input, which is processed to receive effective action as output. Thus, a well-adapted meaning system truly qualifies as a group’s brain.
  • A well-adapted meaning system need not resemble the real world in any way whatsoever. Its only requirement is to motivate action that is adaptive in the real world. This begins to explain why so many meaning systems include beliefs that have no basis in factual reality. The way to evaluate such beliefs is not asking if they are true, but by asking what they cause people to do.
  • Just as there are many ways to skin a cat, many different meaning systems can lead to the same behavioral outcome. Human cultures that are isolated from each other are expected to evolve different meaning systems, even if they are confronted with the same environmental problems.
  • When the size of human groups began to increase with the invention of agriculture (and high concentrations of natural resources in some localities), genetically evolved adaptations for preventing disruptive, self-serving behaviors broke down and had to be supplemented by culturally-evolved adaptations. Recorded human history provides a fossil record of human cultural evolution, leading to the mega-societies of today.
  • At every rung of a multi-tier social hierarchy, adaptations at one level can become disruptive at higher levels. What’s good for me can be bad for my family. What’s good for my family can be bad for my clan. What’s good for my clan or political party can be bad for our nation. What’s good for our nation can be bad for the planet.
  • The need for social control mechanisms to hold members of a group in check is scale-independent. The idea that the unregulated pursuit of self-interest benefits the common good (a naïve but common rendering of Adam Smith’s invisible hand metaphor) is deeply and destructively wrong. Solving problems at the scale of the global village requires implementing social controls among nations and other corporate entities similar to the controls that exist among members of real villages. There is no other way.

Viewing Ken’s video last night was like trying to drink from a fire hydrant. I worry that my own talk has been the same way as I wrap it up. So little time, so much to say. For those who can keep up, there are strong points of connection between the two presentations. Much of what I said can be mapped onto the four quadrants of Wilber’s Kosmos: meaning systems onto the left half, behavioral outcomes onto the right half. Individuals on the top half, collectives on the bottom half. Evolution taking place in all four quadrants, as Ken perceptively observed.

There are also points of departure. Ken relies heavily on the concept of stages of spiritual development that can be ranked lower and higher, similar to Piaget’s stages of child development and Kohlberg’s stages of moral development. Ken interprets human history as a slow advance through stages of spiritual development, which with our help can go still higher (this is sometimes called spiral dynamics). I’m not happy with this formulation. Not only is it theoretically problematic, but it leaves vague exactly what needs to be done to achieve more enlightened forms of spirituality and action. In contrast, I can envision how my formulation can help the rubber of spirituality meet the road of sustainable action at all scales, from self-care to earth-care.

To be continued…


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