When asked “Can Evolution be Conscious?” reactions can occur aptly reflecting the “informal definition” (as stated in most dictionaries) of schizoid, that is, “having inconsistent or seemingly contradictory elements.”  I’ll use the term further below.

This results because the question immediately arises, is one referring to “simply” the basic mechanics of biological evolution or also what becomes involved when an intelligent species, of conscious agency and choice, is included “atop” that evolutionary process?  

There is a historic landscape of siloed thinking on this question across evolutionary biology and a more recent field — consciousness studies. Underlying assumptions and points of entry on the conversation differ greatly. These span the range from reductionist mechanics (and all that discipline has contributed to our knowledge of evolutionary process) to the implications of the role of a top tier species like Homo sapiens as a “natural selector-in-chief”. Global thinking across this landscape is rather like a mosaic, with the gaps between the pieces varying in width and, metaphorically, how much grout has been placed therein to create any bridges.  

First of all, we have to acknowledge a broad landscape encompassing humankind’s historically subjective and objective ways of knowing — whether reflecting the more conventional view of C. P. Snow’s “Two Cultures” (and a later suggested “Third Culture”), or the views of current “integral philosophies” recognizing various interactive domains or universes of discourse ranging from the more subjective (like arts and “spirituality”) to more objective (conventional science) in the endeavors of humankind. Moreover, in common parlance, depending on what “circles” one is in, some domains may be considered “in” (valid to discuss) and others “out” (considered invalid to discuss).

There are, at one extreme of this landscape (and far from the conventional) views that center everything, material and otherwise, on consciousness itself.  These must be mentioned and may be a wave of the future. This view, developed (among others) by Drs. Deepak Chopra, Stuart Hameroff, Rudolf Tanzi, Peter Russell, Frederico Faggin and colleagues through the annual “Science and Nonduality Conference”’s is well summarized in the popular literature by Chopra.

Within more conventional boundaries, a sizable mainstream literature exists on the complex feedback mechanisms by which the conscious activities of human agency affect the core mechanical elements of biological evolution itself.  Every time humans, in what Teilhard de Chardin referred to as the realm of consciousness [“noosphere”], do something affecting elements of the geosphere or biosphere humankind is part of influencing myriad aspects of the course of evolution. Today we are even aware that geosphere and biosphere are not clearly distinct, given the inherent interrelations of life-related gases and liquids in the process of Plate Tectonics.

An academic discipline, modern “Discursive Theory” (21 million entries at Google) examines how human narratives and resulting actions create undeniable effects.  Examples widely range from the obvious effect on human history of certain books (Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf or Thomas Paines’ Common Sense as only two examples) to consequences, intended and unintended, of the “greening” of various industries in the latter 20th Century when a more “green narrative” was required by “political correctness” and had unintended consequences on both corporate cultures and environment arenas like pollution, resource extraction, deforestation and biodiversity. The latter example embraces myriad aspects influencing fundamental elements of biological evolution in geosphere and biosphere.

Controversially, these interactions could be construed as reflecting Dr. Rupert Sheldrake’s contentious theories of “morphic fields”—the view that there are collective subjective effects on reality that influence the actual direction of development and events.  Indeed, conflating the more conventional examples above with those of Sheldrake reflects the sometimes “schizoid” nature of the current global discussion (in some circles, Discursive Theory as an “in” [valid to discuss]; Morphic Fields as an ‘out” [not valid to discuss]).  

An ambitious and extensive document by the Canadian Research Institute currently influential in the United Nations community reports in detail on the varieties of interaction between complex elements of human culture, feedback loops regarding human behavior, and resulting effects on the global environment both now and projected into the future. Interactions are highly nuanced, including innumerable interconnections of cultural narratives, religious beliefs, roles of science and technology in societies, changes and shifts in prevailing paradigms and worldviews (even social media), and the actual effects on multitudes of elements in the global environment itself and the relationship to biodiversity, environmental sustainability and so on. Across all these arenas, both the media (and fate) of humankind as well as the process of evolution are inextricably intertwined.

As David Sloan Wilson said at recent conferences “Steering Toward the Omega Point”:  [my paraphrase] “When it comes to evolution’s relation to humankind and its cultures, someone has to be at the wheel. If not, we may find, in hindsight, that evolution took us somewhere we didn’t want to go.”

Where to from here? There seems little doubt that this discussion worldwide is moving toward more integration and fewer silos. If we look at the “mosaic” of the discussion mentioned above, we can hope the gaps between the component conversations are naturally narrowing with time. However, this is a global conversation with all the foibles that come with that. Only time will tell.

Read the entire “Conscious Evolution” series:

  1. Can Evolution Be Conscious? Introducing a Collection of Commentaries Published on This View of Life by David Sloan Wilson, Mel Andrews, and Maximus Thaler
  2. Cultural Evolution, Insight, and Fundamental Theories of Consciousness by Liane Gabora
  3. Conscious Evolution is a Category Mistake by Massimo Pigliucci
  4. The Origins and Evolutionary Effects of Consciousness by Eva Jablonka and Simona Ginsburg
  5. The Evolution of Consciousness Enables Conscious Evolution by Steve Hayes
  6. Welcome to the Noösphere by Alice Andrews
  7. The Consciousness of Detachment and the Detachment of Consciousness by Lenny Moss
  8. Can Evolution Be Conscious of Itself? Yes, It Can! by Joe Brewer
  9. One Culture, Two Cultures? How Many Cultures, How Long? by Kurt Johnson
  10. Can Evolution be Understood as a Conscious Process? by Stanley N. Salthe
  11. Why Teleology is the Elephant in Evolutionary Theory’s Room by Felipe A. Veloso

Published On: January 30, 2019

Kurt Johnson

Kurt Johnson

Dr. Kurt Johnson brings an unusual pedigree to this discussion. With a PhD in evolution and ecology, hundreds of refereed scientific articles and two well known popular books in science (Nabokov’s Blues and Fine Lines) he is also a professor of comparative religion at New York’s Interfaith Seminary, a former monastic, and co-author of the influential book on world religions, The Coming Interspiritual Age. He is a prominent figure on international committees, particularly at the United Nations and, at Unity Earth, host of the VoiceAmerica series for thought leaders, The Convergence. His viewpoints are, consequently, varied and eclectic.

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