I see a big difference between having a word to label something, and truly understanding it. I can call this object in front of me a table, but I leave much to be understood. One place that this schism is especially apparent to me is in describing scientific phenomena. Consider evolution- we have some very sophisticated theories of how it has played out down to the molecular level, but does that mean we truly understand it’s purpose? Or even truly how it works?
“When you don’t cover up the world with words and labels, a sense of the miraculous returns.” –Eckhart Tolle
We painted a picture of evolution in school, which for many of us felt like a breath of fresh air after Adam and Eve. However for me at least, it still seems to fall short in terms of explaining the over-arching question of why. Why are we here? Why are we evolving? Essentially we are taught that every species is on its own little journey to survive and pass on DNA. That’s it. You’re here to have sex before you die! I’m reminded of the old economic paradigm which tells us that our purpose is to make money in order to consume goods… It makes sense within the context of a narrow discipline, but not in the context of our lives. For all our complex academia, is it possible that we’re missing something much more fundamental?
First of all, it’s becoming more widely understood that our evolutionary journey includes far more than just the human species. We are completely dependent upon plants, animals, and fungi to feed us, upon bacteria to help us digest food, upon the Earth to provide water and shelter for us, and upon the Sun to keep us warm. In truth, one could go on forever listing species upon which our survival (let alone our growth) is entirely reliant.
From our current biological perspective, a species is only as advanced as its ability to survive and reproduce. Intuitively, many of us recognize this logic, but feel there is more to the story. Perhaps that’s because what separates our species from the others on our planet isn’t exclusively biological. Maybe evolution isn’t either. Humans are not unique in their ability to thrive when dropped naked into a forest. In fact, we’re pretty bad at that. One of the things that separates us is our collective network of technology; we can conceptualize and materialize things to assist us that are VAST beyond any other species. Many anthropologists such as Amber Case are now making a convincing argument that modern humans have been gradually turning into cyborgs for generations now. Think about it. You move around largely with a car- not your legs. You are kept warm by a furnace, not your body’s ability to maintain homeostasis. And your information recall comes from a computer at least as much as from your own memory.
As an interesting aside, this cyborg evolution has made us completely interdependent in a way that few other species are. As Leonard Read famously noted in his 1958 essay, “I, Pencil,” there is not one human on the face of the Earth that could construct a pencil from scratch. The person who designs pencils does not know how to process wood pulp or mine graphite, let alone build the equipment to do those things. When we consider products like cars and computers then, we see a need for inter-disciplinary cooperation that is truly mind blowing. We are utterly dependent upon the specialization of people all over the planet- few of whom we have even met- to maintain and advance our cyborg evolution. I am struck by the fact in this moment that much of what I consider “my intelligence,” was built in part by a man who knows how to operate logging equipment to cut the trees to provide the paper for the books I’ve read. In short, we are not simply evolving on an individual basis between generations. Our increasing ability to survive and pass on genetic information is enhanced every day by the work of people in literally every country on our planet.
As I look around at this cyber-like super-organism that our species has built I realize too that it is not simply our species that has built it. Far from it. Who provided the fuel to power the human brain? Not us, but plants, animals and fungi. So some credit is unquestionably belonging to them for the creation of- say- New York city. What’s more, credit is not simply due to the species that feed us, but also the species that inspire us. This includes beautiful plants, majestic animals, and without question, psychotropic metabolites.
Consider again the example of New York city. Can we pretend for a moment that coffee has not played an integral role in the construction of that empire? The person who invented elevators deserves some credit to be sure, but so does the plant that invented caffeine. What we think of as the “human empire,” is in reality a collaborative project by most every species on our planet. Our social dynamics are influenced largely by fermented grain- our artwork and philosophy by psychedelic fungi.
The fact of the matter is that evolution is not just an individual game. It is that, but at the same time it is just a much a team sport. As we exist today, some species are our allies, assisting us in pulling our chariot forward, while others seem to stand in our way. The conqueror mentality suggests that we simply barrel onward, and destroy whatever crosses our path. Today, with the threat of peak oil, “super bugs,” and dying oceans, just about every country is on the brink of revolution, and we are beginning to see that this approach simply doesn’t work. It can continue for a while, but it is a path leading to our own destruction as well as much of the life around us. The conservationist mentality says that we must slow down and go around when things get in our way. This is surely less destructive, but is it possible that there is an even better third option? Can we make friends of our foes? Can we, as an evolutionary movement, turn our relationship with our planet from parasitic to symbiotic?
To borrow our chariot analogy once more, would our journey not be much easier if we had more species pulling with us, rather than merely out of our way?
Finally, with all this talk regarding evolution and “forward progress,” we should take a moment and reconsider our initial question of what evolution really is. With each step forward we become more influential over our reality- due to the exponential growth in technology (or the law of attraction, whichever you prefer) the buffer time between us conceptualizing something, and our ability to manifest it before our eyes is getting shorter and shorter. People such as Ray Kurzweil see this trend and suggest that we are approaching a singularity where our ability to create whatever we can imagine is instantaneous. In a word, this is OMNIPOTENCE. At the same time that we are becoming more powerful, however, our understanding is also growing exponentially- each discovery building upon the last. Though this trend is more difficult to measure, its direction is clear. We are inching toward an ever-deepening understanding of everything. In a word, OMNISCIENCE. And finally, if the emotional undercurrent of our society is any indication, there is a very strong desire to treat life with more respect than we do. While those who disregard other species are more intense than ever, the desire to live harmoniously with our planet is not going away. In fact, I would suggest that its currently spreading like wildfire. If we dare to extrapolate this trend, we are forced to consider the possibility that this super-organism could very well be oscillating toward OMNI-BENEVOLENCE.
All-good, all-knowing, and all-powerful: conventionally, these are the three criteria comprising our definition of God.
For all our arrogance, there are few things which make humans more uncomfortable that accepting allegations of divinity. However all arrows seem to point toward that; the very force of evolution is an ascent from animal to deity- from thing to being. Humankind today could be deemed an awkward teenager somewhere between the two… but in my estimation, rapidly moving toward the latter.
Some might see this and feel alarm- that humanity is a force growing to rival God, an evil conglomerate attempting blasphemously to replace him. I don’t see it this way at all. I believe that omni-benevolence is a criteria of divinity not by chance. If you are not relating to everything around you symbiotically, then knowledge and power are ultimately a liability. In other words, if we don’t learn to play nice, we’re going to destroy ourselves. It’s a pretty self-limiting process. I suggest, therefore, that without equal growth in our ability to relate harmoniously, we will never reach full technical potential. Evolution is not a process of growing into rivalry with God. It is a process of merging with it.