Seeing with Evolutionary Eyes

Every day, it seems, I read articles detailing new insights and breakthroughs that tell us more about human nature. Our knowledge is expanding and complexifying in extraordinary ways. It’s always a joy to see so much research and so much movement in our understanding of human psychology and motives. But so many of the reports also fall prey to a false assumption; that they are increasing our knowledge of this static fixed thing called “human nature.” And certainly there is a truth in that. But there is a fallacy as well.

The fallacy is that in our efforts to describe reality as it is, we are somehow capturing how it always has been and always will be. One of the characteristics of those individuals that I call “evolutionaries” is that they do not fall prey to this fallacy. Evolutionaries are beginning to think with an evolutionary frame around their cognition. They have embraced the fundamentally developmental nature of life. As Brian Swimme likes to say, part of the beauty of our latest cosmological discoveries is the realization that the universe is “not so much a place as a movement.”

We can say much the same thing about life and human culture. Our insights into all of these domains need to be re-contextualized in light of the profound recognition of temporality. Time adds a new element to our picture of knowledge. We cannot just examine the way things are in this moment. In an evolving world, it is not enough to understand how things are; we also must consider how they were and how they will be—how they are moving, changing, developing. Even an accurate picture of something, taken out of a developmental context, can radically delude. Indeed, even if we could somehow explore and understand every last nook and cranny of the human condition as it exists today, our knowledge would still be partial. We cannot truly understand the present without making the effort to understand how the past became the present and how the present is becoming the future. This was part of Darwin’s great breakthrough. You can classify species all you want and still miss what is perhaps the most essential insight about biology—that species are not fixed! And understanding more about how they exist today only gets you so far. More fundamental insights will always elude that blinkered approach.

Only when we break what I call “the spell of solidity”—the idea that life, nature, and human nature are more or less static, fixed, and unchanging—can we begin to appreciate the importance of seeing with evolutionary eyes. Michael Dowd, describing a similar insight, likes to call this view “deep time eyes.” I love that. A friend of mine, Will Rogers, recently called this “thinking with a long exposure.” The great pioneer of evolutionary thinking Henri Bergson once explained that we are not made to “think evolution.” It doesn’t come naturally to most of us. Our brains are not inclined to grasp temporality, to comprehend development.  But we can and we must make the effort. And it’s important to see that this insight also applies to human culture. Breaking the spell of solidity in relationship to culture is critical, so that we can start to appreciate the deeply fluid and developmental nature of the human condition and the social sphere of life.

So next time someone tells you about a new insight into the human condition, some new social science research, neuroscience breakthrough or psychological discovery, by all means appreciate the incredible advance of knowledge in our time. But also, keep a close watch on the tendency to universalize current data across time. Human nature is inevitably a moving target. Yes, there may be instincts that are biologically hardwired, which change only slowly if at all, over long periods of time. But human culture transcends biology, and culture is shifting and changing before our very eyes.  So as much as we may delve into the human condition, let’s be humble, let’s not fall captive to the spell of solidity and realize that often, we are describing only snapshots in time. And woe to those who over-extrapolate about “human nature” based on such snapshots. In the wrong hands, such thinking can cause all kinds of confusions about the possibilities or limitations inherent in the human condition. By giving too much weight to the “way things are” we can sometimes forget how things could be and how we got to where we are.

Granted, the slow moving nature of cultural evolutionary development can allow a snapshot to seem to approximate reality. But it cannot and does not. Evolutionaries are breaking the spell, throwing off the shackles of the present moment, embracing temporality and learning how to think in “evolutionary time.” It’s like opening your eyes to a new dimension. And once you see, the world will never look the same.

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A Mythic Day

Last week, my wife Ellen and I made a pilgrimage up through the California heartland, over Mt Shasta and into Oregon to a little town of about 20,000 known as Ashland.  In addition to being a culturally vibrant hub of activity with a famous Shakespeare festival, a respected university, and many other attractions, Ashland is also the residence of human potential pioneer Jean Houston. So after driving for 6 ½ hours through the Northern California plains and mountains, we arrived at Houston’s Oregon home, intending to give her a copy of my new book Evolutionaries and talk with her about some other projects that touch upon her life’s work.

As it turns out, Houston’s house really should be one of the cultural attractions of this small town. After I’d greeted Houston, who I have known for many years, and introduced my wife, she immediately showed us in, introduced us to her two huge, furry, friendly dogs, and began to show us around the house (designed by Buckminster Fuller shortly before his death).

Over tea under a geodesic dome, we enjoyed a two-hour conversation about all kinds of things, including three or four fascinating stories about the incredible figures who have populated Houston’s life—Teilhard de Chardin, whom she knew as a young girl; Margaret Mead, who lived with her during the last years of her life; and Helen Keller, whom she met while in school. We didn’t even get to Katherine Hepburn, Fritz Perls, Joseph Campbell or the Clintons—all of whom she has known. Houston lives up to her reputation as a delightful, larger-than-life figure, whose three-quarters-of-a-century has contained a seemingly impossible number of storylines and is really a one-woman history of the human potential movement.

As we drove back down the hill into the main part of town, the sun was setting over the beautiful Oregon hills. In the wonderful Enoteca Edenvale, I read Teilhard’s  “Hymn to Matter” and contemplated evolutionary metamorphosis as well as grape metamorphosis, while I tasted an impressive flight of southern Oregon’s best vino. All in all, it was a beautiful day.


From Hymn to Matter:


Blessed be you, mighty matter, irresistible march of evolution, reality ever new-born; you who, by constantly shattering our mental categories, force us to go ever further and further in our pursuit of the truth.

Blessed be you, universal matter, immeasurable time, boundless ether, triple abyss of stars and atoms and generations: you who by overflowing and dissolving our narrow standards or measurement reveal to us the dimensions of God.