Thinking Clearly About Conscious Evolution

Combine the words “conscious” and “evolution” and expect trouble.

In mainstream evolutionary biology, the trouble begins with the Modern Synthesis, which made the concept of conscious evolution taboo. Natural selection is blind. Organisms just vary and only the immediate environment does the selecting. Consciousness has nothing to do with it.

Among spiritual thinkers, the concept of humanity consciously evolving its future has tremendous appeal, exemplified by the paleontologist and Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who enigmatically wrote that human consciousness is evolution reflecting upon itself. The trouble is that current spiritual narratives of conscious evolution are largely divorced from modern evolutionary science.

Even the word conscious all by itself spells trouble. Often it is treated as one of philosophy’s hardest problems, upon which it is almost impossible to agree.

At Prosocial World, the nonprofit that I co-founded with Paul Atkins, we made trouble for ourselves by defining our mission as “Consciously evolving a world that works for all”. There was an important reason for doing so, however, and our pragmatic approach to conscious evolution can help make the concept less troublesome for everyone.

Before explaining our mission statement, I need to say more about the concept of conscious evolution in mainstream evolutionary biology. The idea that evolution is entirely blind makes sense only in the narrowest of contexts. Darwin relied upon the artificial selection of domesticated plants and animals to explain the concept of natural selection. Animal and plant breeders are conscious about the traits that they are selecting, but it is still an evolutionary process. At the turn of the 20th century, James Mark Baldwin and others proposed a Lamarckian form of inheritance that was consistent with Darwinian evolution. Very simply, learned behaviors influence genetic evolution by reconfiguring selection pressures. Insofar as learning is a conscious process, then it endows genetic evolution with a conscious component.

Sexual selection involves members of one sex selecting the behaviors of the other sex. Is that much different from what a human animal or plant breeder does? The term “social selection” goes further, recognizing that the evolution of many other social behaviors is influenced by the preferences of social partners. This is also called self-domestication and has become a hot topic in animal behavior research. In short, there is no warrant for dogmatically asserting that genetic evolution lacks a conscious component in nonhuman species, before we even get to human cultural evolution.

In human cultural evolution, it’s hard to know which is more impressive–its blind component or its conscious component. Without question, many cultural adaptations evolve on the basis of blind variation and selective retention (a phrase popularized by the social psychologist Donald T. Campbell). To a large extent, cultures work without anyone knowing how they work. At the same time, people throughout the ages have consciously attempted to bring about certain social arrangements and succeeded to a degree. An outstanding example is the cultural evolution of democratic governance in Greece, as I discuss with the Classics scholar and political scientist Josiah Ober. In Athens, entire social identities were created that were called tribes but had no prior existence and were designed explicitly to knit people into a cooperative unit at the scale of the city state.

Now for Prosocial World’s pragmatic interpretation of conscious evolution. First, let’s demystify the word “conscious” by listing some of its synonyms: intentional, deliberate, premediated, calculated, mindful. Consciousness might be a hard problem for philosophers in some respects, but these meanings are easy. If someone deliberately sets out to do something, they’re doing it consciously (go here for more).

Next, one of the greatest advances in evolutionary science is to define Darwinian evolution as any process that combines the three ingredients of variation, selection and replication–no matter what the mechanisms. This generalized definition enables the study of evolution to go beyond genetic evolution to include such things as epigenetics, cultural traditions in nonhuman species, cultural evolution in humans, and evolutionary algorithms on computers.

Against this background, here is how we go about “consciously evolving a world that works for all” at Prosocial World. We help groups identify prosocial targets of selection, orient variation around the targets, and replicate the better practices, realizing that they are likely to be sensitive to context (i.e., cookie-cutter solutions won’t work). We are intentional, deliberate, premediated, calculated, mindful—in a word, conscious about all three ingredients of a Darwinian process. It’s that simple and practical. It should go without saying that a Darwinian process remains a Darwinian process after becoming conscious about each component.

This means that our approach to conscious evolution is firmly anchored in modern evolutionary science. There is nothing wishy-washy or New Age-y about it. At the same time, it offers a “hard science” foundation for spiritual narratives of conscious evolution (go here for more). Spirituality should not be dismissed as inherently weak-minded. It is deeply embedded in human nature and can be understood as the state of mind of being part of something larger than oneself. Teilhard’s version of evolutionary spirituality is especially amenable to updating from a modern evolutionary perspective (go here for more).

One thing is for sure. If we’re not conscious about cultural evolution, there will be big trouble. Work is required to align selection pressures with prosocial goals at multiple levels and contexts. Conscious work.