Evolving a Multi-Cellular Society

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“One interesting thing to say is that the idea of ‘conscious evolution’ and evolution leading to something like the Omega Point or global consciousness has been totally outside orthodox evolutionary biology, and kept alive by folks like you, and dating all the way back to Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and his book The Phenomenon of Man. I describe my book as ‘updating The Phenomenon of Man’. So I see this in some ways as mainstream evolutionary biology catching up to the vision of spiritually-oriented people such as yourself.”David Sloan Wilson

avid Sloan Wilson is SUNY Distinguished Professor of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University. He is widely known for his fundamental contributions to evolutionary science and for explaining evolution to the general public. Listen as David talks to Ken Wilber about his recent book, This View of Life: Completing the Darwinian Revolution, in this fascinating discussion of conscious, cultural, and biological evolution — and how we can use the fundamental patterns running through all three in order to create a more adaptable and sustainable future.

We as human beings have millions of years of evolution behind us, all of which has optimized our ability to work, compete, and thrive together as small groups. The problem is, we no longer exist solely in small groups as we did for the vast majority of our time on this planet. We exist in a nested hierarchy of increasingly crowded communities, from cities, states, and nations to entire global networks of culture, finance, and values.

And our poor little monkey brains are completely freaking out because of it.

Most of us are literally unable to wrap our minds around so many different people and perspectives and conflicting truths that form the background noise of our modern lives. The sheer volume of several billion voices shouting through our electronic nervous system overwhelms and triggers a primitive agoraphobia, causing us to recoil and retreat back into our small group identities. The perspectival sprawl of the internet causes our default evolutionary programming to work against us, fragmenting our sense of shared reality by offering a platform for outmoded and sometimes dangerous ideas to foment, feign legitimacy, and infect our collective psyche — resulting in the rise of cynicism, conspiracy theories, and internet trolls, as well as the return of ethnocentrism, nationalism, and political tribalism.

It’s not hard to see how we got here. We currently lack any real political and cultural cutting edge, as the green postmodern altitude has hit its natural limitations and has begun regressing toward an ethnocentric enactment of its own values. Decades of cultural neoliberalism have caused us in the West to largely overemphasize individual values and selection pressures, at the expense of group values and selection pressures. What’s more, our technological, economic, and governing systems have become too arcane, too removed from ordinary citizens and small-group constituents, and too dependent upon top-down enforcement rather than bottom-up involvement. It’s a dystopian jungle out there, no wonder we are falling back on our deepest evolutionary instincts.

But here’s the good news: the same evolutionary adaptations that currently appear to be short-circuiting can also be used to get ourselves out of this mess.

The behaviors we describe as “evil’ are somewhat easy to explain with the mainstream evolutionary perspective that emphasizes the individual as the primary selector of the evolutionary process. But this same evolutionary perspective has a much more difficult time explaining things like goodness, altruism, and empathy, which only makes sense when we recognize that the group is also exerting its own selection pressures — and in fact, one of the most significant drivers of evolution is this churning back-and-forth tension between individual selection (e.g. selfishness) and group selection (e.g. selflessness) at every level.

In addition to these dual individual and group selection pressures, Ken makes yet another distinction between exterior and interior pressures, within both individuals (e.g. “conscious evolution”, or the primal interior drives of an individual, vs. exterior genetic factors of an organism) and groups (e.g “cultural evolution”, or the pressures within our shared interiors, vs. environmental pressures in our shared exteriors).

Taken all together, this otters a far more comprehensive view of human evolution, one that truly leaves nothing out or tries to minimize and reduce one set of evolutionary pressures to another. And it’s a view that you can push all the way down the evolutionary ladder if you like, even to the very first particles following the Big Bang. Most importantly, it’s a view that suggests an evolutionary roadmap that can lead us out of this era of discord and disruption and toward a far more sane and sustainable future — especially if we can return to the same small-group strategies that have been so successful for our own species’ rise to prominence:

1. Become more mindful of your own values and goals

2. Become a member of worthwhile groups

3. Make your group strong by implementing the core and appropriate auxiliary design principles

4. Make your group a healthy cell in a multi-cellular society

It is often said that humanity represents the process of evolution becoming self-aware. We are a universe awakening to itself — and part of that awakening is a capacity to reflect upon the various core design principles and strategies that have been guiding our evolutionary emergence ever since the Big Bang, and to then consciously employ these same strategies in order to create a genuinely multi-cellular society for the human superorganism.

In other words, all of these truly wicked problems are arriving right on schedule, offering precisely the leverage we need in order to push the integral vanguard forward and bring new solutions to the fore. Our own evolutionary heritage offers us exactly the toolkit we need to overcome these challenges and to scale a far more integrated society that can successfully navigate the anthropocene.

Written by Corey deVos

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This View of Life

It is widely understood that Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution completely revolutionized the study of biology. Yet, according to David Sloan Wilson, the Darwinian revolution won’t be truly complete until it is applied more broadly—to everything associated with the words “human,” “culture,” and “policy.”

In a series of engaging and insightful examples—from the breeding of hens to the timing of cataract surgeries to the organization of an automobile plant—Wilson shows how an evolutionary worldview provides a practical tool kit for understanding not only genetic evolution but also the fast-paced changes that are having an impact on our world and ourselves. What emerges is an incredibly empowering argument: If we can become wise managers of evolutionary processes, we can solve the problems of our age at all scales—from the efficacy of our groups to our well-being as individuals to our stewardship of the planet Earth.

Purchase This View of Life on Amazon or iBooks.

David Sloan Wilson

About David Sloan Wilson

David Sloan Wilson is SUNY Distinguished Professor of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University. He applies evolutionary theory to all aspects of humanity in addition to the rest of life, both in his own research and as director of EvoS, a unique campus-wide evolutionary studies program that recently received NSF funding to expand into a nationwide consortium. His books include Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society; Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin’s Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives; The Neighborhood Project: Using Evolution to Improve My City, One Block at a Time; and Does Altruism Exist? Culture, Genes, and the Welfare of Others.

Ken Wilber

About Ken Wilber

Ken Wilber is a preeminent scholar of the Integral stage of human development. He is an internationally acknowledged leader, founder of Integral Institute, and co-founder of Integral Life. Ken is the originator of arguably the first truly comprehensive or integrative world philosophy, aptly named “Integral Theory”.