Human evolution has not stopped. And we may still have a long way to go, in evolutionary terms. Although we are still evolving physically, it is arguably more significant that we are evolving in others ways, particularly (i) as knowers, (ii) in consciousness, (iii) in intelligence, and (iv) in our capacity to do things without the aid of technology. In addition, we seem to have the ability to influence the pace and direction of our evolution. All this is significant, given the state of the world today.
A long way to go
If you start a discussion about human evolution, you are likely to end up talking about the past, about Darwin and the history of our evolution. You are unlikely to end up talking about the future of human evolution, no doubt because people assume, if they even think about it, that our evolution happened a long time ago and that we have stopped evolving. And if you start a discussion about the future in general, you are likely to end up talking about the future of technology or the future of society or the future of business, or something like that. You are unlikely to end up talking about the future of the human being as such.
This is possibly because we assume that human evolution has stopped, that we have evolved as far as we ever will. We are homo sapiens, the top of the evolutionary tree, and that is all there is to it. End of discussion! Yet, if this is true, then why do so many of us devote so much time and energy to “evolving” ourselves in one way or another? We educate and train ourselves in a huge range of knowledge and skills. This is what schools, colleges and universities do, not to mention all the other courses and forms of self-help now available to us. At the same time we have literally millions of initiatives, run by NGOs, governments and communities, to “evolve” humanity and try to make the world a better place. These range right across the whole spectrum of human activity – reducing poverty and inequality; eradicating corruption in business and government; promoting human rights and genuine democracy; improving levels of health and education; and trying to minimise the negative human impact on the planet. Of course, these initiatives sometimes involve attempts to change systems, such as healthcare or political systems, but they nearly always involve attempts to change our behaviour for the better, so that we act in ways that enhance people and the planet, rather than diminish them, as is so often the case these days. And what is evolution if it is not developing our behaviour in ways that improve our chances of our surviving and thriving on this planet? And it does not stop here, because many of us engage in some form of therapy or spiritual practice to nudge forward our own personal evolution. No doubt we do all these things because we believe we can improve ourselves, individually or collectively. Without actually using the word, we seem to believe that more human evolution is possible. Although we may not think of it as such, many of us are already influencing the pace and direction of our own individual evolution, as well as the evolution of humanity as a whole.
In fact, there is no a priori reason to suggest that we have stopped evolving. If our evolution has stopped, did it stop suddenly, in July 1956, for example? And how, in any event, would we know that it had stopped? What would the signs of completed human evolution be? If, as most of us seem to agree, we human beings have evolved by adapting successfully to changing circumstances over many millennia, then surely we are still evolving, as we continue to adapt to circumstances that seem to be changing more radically than ever. I have in mind here the fact that we live in times of unprecedented change – globalisation, the internet, communications technology, climate change, runaway population growth, a succession of serious crises, as well as the sense that change itself seems to be accelerating.
I suppose that most of us think of evolution as physical evolution, the evolution of the human body. Although I believe that this may not be the most important component of our future evolution, there is quite a lot to suggest that we are still evolving physically. For example, we are generally taller than we were three or four centuries ago. Comparing ourselves with images on old paintings, many of us seem to be more beautiful. And while it is true that many of us are very fat, the general trend seems to be towards better bodies, better health and longer lives. Although our physical evolution is clearly an important part of the picture, it is by no means the only part. In my opinion, we are evolving in four other significant ways too – as “knowers”, in consciousness, in intelligence, and in capacity. This needs some explanation.
Evolving as knowers
Compared to all other species, we human beings have acquired a vast amount of knowledge, and it is getting vaster by the hour. Anyone who has spent any time on the internet knows this to be true. We know a lot about ourselves, our home planet and the universe. We have come a long way since we were hunter-gatherers in central Africa. But a little humility is in order. If we think about how far we have come in knowledge and understanding in the last hundred years, for example, it should give us a sense of how far we can go in the next hundred, and the next thousand. It is clear that we still have a great deal to learn and understand about ourselves and the universe. When some people tell us that we already know nearly all the important things there are to know, or that we are getting close to the “mind of God”, we need to remind ourselves that the history of human knowledge is littered with the corpses of “hard facts” that have had to give way to newer “hard facts” as we make new discoveries. This is well illustrated by our understanding of the nature of matter.
At one time, not so long ago, we were convinced that matter consisted of tiny solid things that we decided to call “atoms”, because we thought there could be nothing smaller (that is what the word “atom” implies). This belief eventually had to give way when we discovered that atoms consisted of even smaller things that we decided to call “protons”, “neutrons” and “electrons”. For some time this was the scientific “truth” until, perhaps inevitably, it was replaced by another “truth”, that protons and neutrons are themselves constructed of even smaller things, which may not actually be things at all, but “probabilities” or “tendencies to exist”. This process, of facts being replaced by newer facts, is unlikely to stop, and there is no reason to suppose that the facts of the early 21st Century are more sacrosanct than those of any other period. If they were sacrosanct, we would soon reach the point at which there is no more for us to discover and learn. Science would have done it all for us. That would be the ultimate stasis, the ultimate boredom. Quite apart from anything else, it just does not ring true, and it sits ill beside the daily diet of human affairs. If as a species we cannot even live in peace and harmony with each other and the planet, claims that we shall soon know nearly everything about almost everything sound hollow indeed. The likelihood is that what we currently know is greatly outweighed by what we do not yet know. We still have a great deal to discover and learn. Of one thing we can be sure, however much we think we know and understand today, our knowledge and understanding will be different in the future. This should help us to put our current knowledge into perspective.
All that said, we seem to be getting better at knowing. We have much to be proud of. Yet there is much we could do to improve our knowledge. If we were to widen and deepen the range of human faculties that we use in the pursuit of knowledge, by becoming much more conscious, for example, knowledge itself would widen and deepen accordingly. If this happened, our fundamental beliefs about the nature and history of the universe and humanity would be transformed. This is significant because it is our beliefs that largely determine our lives – our economics, our politics, our education, our science, our culture, our relationships, our lifestyles, and so much more. Change our fundamental beliefs, and our thinking and behaviour change accordingly. A new set of beliefs, grounded in better forms of knowing, would give us the means to fill the vacuum felt by so many these days, as well as the energy and inspiration to develop the human project as I believe it is meant to be developed. When I say the human project, I am thinking of a future where the emphasis is not so much on technology, useful as that is, but more on the development of the human being, and on wisdom and consciousness.
Evolving in consciousness
Our consciousness is evolving both collectively and individually. For example, at the collective level we have experienced three significant shifts in the last 100 years or so. I like to think of these as “human race consciousness”, “nature consciousness”, and “planet consciousness”. These are clumsy terms, I know, but please bear with me.
First, we gradually became aware of the idea of the human race as a whole, as a single entity. This awareness has manifested in many forms, such as the emergence of the United Nations, the concept of the human family, and in many other interesting ways. Second, we developed an awareness of nature as a whole. This has taken the form of our interest in wildlife, threatened species, the environment, ecology, and the fact that we are all part of the web of life. Third, and thanks to pictures of Earth taken from space and to writers such as James Lovelock, many of us now see the planet itself as a single, unified entity. Some of us even think of it as an intelligent, living being – Gaia. In my view, three things, above all, have accelerated this collective consciousness in the last 25 years or so – the internet, globalisation, and David Attenborough.
At the same time, there are now more people than ever who are, in one way or another attending to their “spiritual development”. Now, I am the first to admit that this is a vague term that can mean different things to different people. All I mean by it is that there are now tens of millions of people, in all parts of the world, who are engaged in some kind of practice that is designed to make them “better people” – better in the ethical/moral sense, but also better in the sense that they are more conscious than they were before, and therefore better able to understand what is happening in the world, and better able to act wisely and effectively in any given situation. As the numbers of these people increase, we may reach a “tipping point”, after which personal and spiritual development will be the norm, rather than, as it is now, the exception. When this happens, as I believe it will, it will signal a major shift in our evolutionary journey.
I am convinced that the evolution of our collective and individual consciousness is central to our future. Indeed, I cannot imagine a viable human future if we do not become much more conscious.
Evolving in intelligence
When I claim that an important part of our future evolution is about being more intelligent, I know I am inviting controversy. Although some of us continue to insist that we human beings are the most intelligent species on this planet, the uncomfortable fact is that we have become the most dangerous and destructive, and in this sense the most unintelligent. We kill, damage and exploit our own and other species with a ferocity that is unrivalled anywhere, and we are destroying the biosphere at an alarming rate. It may be true that we have the potential to be the most intelligent species, but we have a long way to go before this becomes a reality. The fact is that, at present, we are the only problem-creating species on this planet. All other species put us to shame by the ecological, intelligent ways they live their lives.
That said, it is our potential to be intelligent that interests me. There is no doubt in my mind that we have it. It’s just that we do not use our potential as we could! I believe that all of us could, if we made the effort, become much more intelligent. But we allow all kinds of things – such as fear, prejudice, ignorance, pride, and laziness – to impede our intelligence and keep it lower than it could be. If we could overcome these impediments and find ways to realise our potential to be intelligent, it would change our lives out of all recognition, and the world would be a very different place. We can do it, of this I am sure, but we have to decide to do it. If we did, I am in no doubt that it would represent a quantum leap in our evolution. Meanwhile, perhaps I should say a few words about what I mean by “intelligent”.
Intelligence is notoriously difficult to define, so I prefer to think of it in terms of the qualities of the intelligent people that I know personally. When I meet these people, I am always impressed. There is something compelling about the way they look, the way they speak, and even the way they move. They tend to be economical in their use of words and their use of energy. They seem to be able to get things done without really trying. And it is reassuring to have them around, because they always know what to do when something goes wrong. I feel good when I am in their company, because they are cheerful and friendly, but also because they seem to understand me at least as much as I understand myself. If we were able to look inside these people, we would see that they are acutely sensitive to the world around them. They notice a lot and miss very little. And we would see that they are masters of their feelings, and are able to tune into, and empathise with, the feelings of others. They have exceptionally good minds, which enable them to think clearly, communicate simply and effectively, and see, at a deeper level, why things are the way they are and how they are likely to be in the future. They have also learned to trust their intuition. And they have learned to transcend many of the conventions and beliefs that restrict human development and creativity. They are very obviously mentally and emotionally intelligent, but it goes far beyond that. Everything about them is intelligent. We have a sense that everything they do and say makes the world a better place. And, in a curious way, they seem to have ascended to a higher order childhood.
As you can see, I understand intelligence to cover the whole range of human behaviour – the way we are, the way we move, the way we speak, the way we feel, the way we think, and so much more. For me, a truly intelligent person is good, in every sense of the word – honest, kind, creative, courageous, and so much more. It goes without saying that there is much that all of us could do to become better, in every sense of the word. When I think of the evolution of our intelligence, it is this that I have in mind. We clearly have the potential to become “better” in the senses I am talking about. And there can be no doubt at all that the planet is crying out for us to be intelligent. The question is: do we have the desire?
Evolving in capacity
When I say “evolving in capacity”, I mean that we are able to do things today, without the aid of technology, which we could not do before. Admittedly, some of these changes are simply quantitative. For example, our top athletes can run faster and throw farther and jump higher and longer than their predecessors could. Of course, part of this can be attributed to better health and better training techniques. But I don’t think these explain everything. I think there is also an “evolutionary” component difficult to define and measure, but there all the same. Similarly, it is surely significant that very young children these days can operate mobile phones and video games better than most adults. In this case, there seems to be a “generational” component. Each succeeding generation benefits from the learning experiences of the previous generation, and can therefore learn faster and, at the same time, be more adept, more skilled than the previous generation. I see these improvements in our ability to learn and in our skill levels as central parts of our evolution. There is much more I could say here, but I leave it to you to think of other examples of the evolution of our capacity, and to speculate on possible future human capacities.
An enabling worldview
It should be clear by now that I believe that we have the potential to shape the pace and direction of our future evolution, particularly in the areas of knowing, consciousness, intelligence, and capacity. However, if we hope to be able to do this, two things have to be in place – the belief that we can do it, and the desire to do it. In my view, one of main reasons why we are not evolving as we could and living up to our potential to be the most intelligent species on this planet is because we have a limited view of who we are and what the world is. In other words, we have a limiting worldview. I am speaking here about our core beliefs.
Do we believe, for example, that we are basically higher animals, probably alone in the universe? Do we believe we are here only because life evolved by chance on this planet? Do we believe that we cease to exist after death? Do we believe that the physical reality is the only possible reality? And do we believe that the universe has no intrinsic meaning? If we believe these things, then we are likely to give high value to material things and temporary pleasures. And if we believe these things, then any attempt at “progress” will invariably end up being some variant of materialism. It could “fair materialism” (to include social justice, equality, human rights etc.) It could be “ecological materialism” (economic growth as usual, but with a weather eye on the environment). Or it could be the latest fashion, “happy materialism”, where we are all cheerful on the surface, but not much is changing at a deeper level.
I think it is no exaggeration to say that the beliefs I have just outlined are the beliefs that prevail in the world today. One thing is very clear to me – if we do hold these beliefs, we are very unlikely to live up to our potential to be the most intelligent species on this planet, and we are very likely to continue causing unsustainable problems. And if this is indeed what large numbers of people actually believe, it is little wonder that there is so much existential anxiety in the world today and that so many people are drawn to beliefs and practices that promise more meaning and a richer life.
Alternatively, do we believe that we are much more than higher animals, and that we are not alone in the universe? Do we believe that we are here for reasons that have nothing to do with chance? Do we believe that we continue to exist in some form after death? Do we believe that the physical reality is just part of a much greater reality that we have yet to experience? And do we believe that the universe is packed with intrinsic meaning? If we believe all, or most, of these things, then our values and behaviour will reflect this. We would cease to be the main cause of problems on this planet, and we will be more likely to care for each other and the planet. We will also be more likely to be engaged in some kind of conscious evolution.
Having a set of beliefs that supports and facilitates our future evolution would be a great step forward, but it might not be sufficient to guarantee that we would evolve as we wished to. For this, we need to add another component – the desire to do it. We would need to put the work of shaping our evolution right at the heart of our lives. It would become, if you like, our new central purpose.
A new central purpose
Adopting a new central purpose is no small matter. The central purpose of anything – a society, a company, a health service, a tree or a galaxy – determines everything about that thing, because all its aspects have to serve the central purpose. Indeed, the most effective way to change anything is to change its central purpose. If, for example, the main purpose of a business is to make as much money as possible, then everything about the business will be in service to money. Its people, its ethics and its behaviour will all reflect this. But if the main purpose is to provide excellent services to its customers, then it will be a very different business and attract very different people to it.
There is no doubt in my mind that the central purpose of humanity today is material growth. For nations, this manifests as perpetual economic growth. For businesses, it manifests as ever increasing profits. And for large numbers of individuals, it manifests as having more money and things. Although economic growth as a purpose has been useful in some respects – it has raised the living standards of billions of people – it is well past its sell-by date, because it now brings more problems than benefits. As Clive Hamilton points out in his book Growth Fetish: “Growth not only fails to make people contented; it destroys many of the things that do. Growth fosters empty consumerism, degrades the natural environment, weakens social cohesion and corrodes character.” It is clear that we urgently need a new central purpose. Imagine how different things would be if our central purpose was to shape our future evolution by developing people to their highest potential and by caring for this planet as if it really mattered. If this was our central purpose, our lives would change completely, as would the way we work, the way we govern ourselves, and the way we relate with each other. It would be a very different world. So there is important work to be done here, in developing and promoting a new central purpose. Speaking personally, I can think of no better central purpose than the one I described four sentences ago.
Clearly, I believe that we are still evolving, in the ways described in this article. However, I also believe that we still have a long way to go, in evolutionary terms. I believe this for two reasons. First, as a species our behaviour is atrocious. We are the only problem-causing species on this planet, as we damage each other and the natural world. We might like to think of ourselves as evolved, because we have knowledge and technology, but we have a long way to go before we behave as a truly evolved species would behave. The second reason is that, as I mentioned earlier, our knowledge of ourselves and the world is still very incomplete, and possibly wrong in some respects. Just to repeat, there is nothing sacrosanct about the facts of the early 21st Century. Many of the “facts” that we believe to be true and accurate today will change, as we discover new things about the world and ourselves. I strongly suspect that this process, of learning and understanding more, will continue for many millennia. That growth in knowledge and understanding is an important part of our evolution.
Meanwhile, it seems very clear that we have the ability to shape the direction and pace of our future evolution. We can decide to become more conscious, more intelligent, and better knowers, and take whatever steps are necessary to do this. Or we can decide to carry on as we are, lurching from crisis to crisis, while society and the planet continue to deteriorate, and while many of us seem to be dumbing down. While it is true that some of us have taken the decision to do the former, and wise up, there are still not enough of us doing this. The time has come to raise the game, and take our future evolution seriously. Only by doing this will we overcome our problems and survive and thrive as the intelligent species we are capable of being.