An Introduction to Conscious Evolution
How did we get here? Where are we going? How will we get there? As individuals and on the societal level, these questions are at the heart of the human condition. The answers can provide a road map for how we live our lives.
What is the origin of consciousness?
Consciousness is the awareness of ourselves and our surroundings. Where it resides is a mystery, long the subject of religion, philosophy, and psychology. Today, neuroscientific research on consciousness is focused on the correlation between the experiences reported by human subjects and neural activity in their brains.
One scientific theory holds that consciousness evolved over the past half billion years in vertebrates—reptiles, birds, and mammals—in order to help process the overwhelming volume of information that passes through our five senses. Eventually self-awareness developed, which later extended into an ability to consider the awareness of others. The development of language, which allows us to share our experience of consciousness with others, is considered the last big evolutionary leap of the human species. There is debate as to when that happened; it may have been as recently as 200,000 years ago or as long ago as 27 million years.
Are humans still evolving?
Genetic studies show that human evolution has not stopped and in fact may be speeding up. The process of natural selection over the past 11,000 years has enabled people to digest milk, and over the last 3,000 years, to live at higher altitudes. Today, in response to modern diets, there is evidence for selection favoring lower blood pressure. In addition, fast genetic evolution has been documented that cannot be explained by natural selection. Comparative DNA samples show that one particular gene that is important for brain development is evolving much faster in humans than it is in chimpanzees.
What does conscious evolution mean?
In the nineteenth century, Charles Darwin’s theories of biological evolution represented a major challenge to traditional religious beliefs. The teachings of the Bible seemed at odds with the concepts of genetics and natural selection. In Darwinism, evolution was considered a materialist rather than a spiritual process. Natural selection favored chance rather than will or purpose. Neither divine nor human agency had a place in this view of evolution.
In the twentieth century, in tandem with the ongoing development of science and technology, some began to view humanity not just as a product, but as a conscious guide, of evolution. In the 1950s, evolutionary biologist Julian Huxley coined the term ”transhumanism” to describe his belief that it was the destiny of our species to determine the future of evolution; and that it is our duty to know this and act upon it.
Huxley’s friend Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a paleontologist and Catholic priest, integrated this idea into a Christian context in which enlightened individual consciousness feeds into a global transcendental consciousness that culminates in a state of divinity. Barbara Marx Hubbard emerged as a popularizer of conscious evolution in the late twentieth century, suggesting that humanity was on the cusp of making an evolutionary leap from Homo sapiens to what she termed Homo universalis. As with Huxley’s and de Chardin’s conceptions, Homo universalis would not be bound by a body or time or space.
Theoretical nuclear physicist Amit Goswami has spent decades pursuing the implications of quantum physics for consciousness. He notes that brain imaging shows “that indeed our self operates in both a local mode (the ego) and a non-local mode (the quantum self, expanded consciousness).” Neurosurgeon Eben Alexander agrees that the next great evolutionary leap will involve such an expansion of consciousness. Quantum biology also stresses the universal nature of consciousness: “Our view is entirely naturalistic: the mind that underlies the world is a transpersonal mind behaving according to natural laws. It comprises but far transcends any individual psyche.”
Today, adherents of conscious evolution focus on intentional efforts to bend the trajectory of human society away from self- and civilizational destruction and toward a cooperative, more meaningful existence. “The question is not whether you will participate in the process of evolution,” says Neale Donald Walsch, “the question is how?” The group Conscious Evolution outlines approaches that we can undertake as individuals; these include:
- Take up a spiritual practice.
- Free yourself from maladaptive behavior such as eating unhealthy foods.
- Cooperate any way you can to break down societal divisions.
- Share truthful, helpful information.
- Be adaptable and openminded.
- Live sustainably.
Evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson combines evolutionary theory with religious elements to meet the challenges faced by human groups. He has created a movement called Prosocial World to help small groups achieve common goals that also are for the benefit of the whole earth system.
As we become increasingly entwined with our technologies and their power to shape human minds, being intentional is more critical than ever. As David Sloan Wilson notes: “Make no mistake—evolution, whether genetic or cultural, fast or slow, doesn’t make everything nice. It frequently results in outcomes that benefit me but not you, us but not them, or our short-term welfare at the expense of future generations. As we experiment with cultural catalysis, we need to make it fast and benign rather than fast and pathological for the common good.”