On the Moral Phenomenology of Participating in the Evolution of the Cosmos

A contribution for the roundtable discussion of David Sloan Wilson’s, Does Altruism Exist. Summer, 2015.

Zak Stein, Marc Gafni, Barbara Marx Hubbard

The Center for Integral Wisdom & The Foundation for Conscious Evolution


The New Paradigm Is Old Hat

Heterodox evolutionary discourse has long entertained the emergence of what Wilson calls superorganisms. These are emergent phenomena that functionally integrate lower-order organisms as parts, lessening within group selection pressure, making the many into one, and thus fostering the evolution of a new organismic totality. Over the years this idea led many to suggest the (inevitable?) emergence of some kind of new evolutionary event—a superorganism of humans. Wilson is interested to argue that, now, with new evidence, we finally really know that, for example, cooperation can have an impact on evolution via group selection, even as it seems counter intuitive to cooperate at the level of individual selection. Moreover, the dynamic systems and evo-devo researchers have been on to something: emergence often works via symbioses and “cooperation,” especially at the cellular and ecosystem levels. This provides a new and better platform for understanding human ethical and moral action in evolutionary terms.

We strongly support these directions and expansions in mainstream evolutionary science. We would only like to note here that heterodox evolutionists have already spilled a lot of ink about the role of morality, self-consciousness, and group-consciousness as a factor in evolution. This tradition has spent more time looking into the implications of evolutionary thinking for the self-understanding of the species, and less time working with models of mechanisms and exteriorities. So the question of whether altruism exists has not been as important as questions about the many forms of selfless behavior, as well as the higher levels of moral development individuals can attain while “becoming a part of something larger than themselves.”

In particular, the focus has been on this question: What would it really mean for our humanity if we become swept up into a superorganism, as if becoming cells organized for the benefit of some larger organelle?  This is a profoundly important ethical question, and it tends to evoke, when asked, a religious or spiritual state of mind.

Some us who have been actively asking such questions have also sought to refine the phenomenology of moral consciousness associated with evolutionary emergence in human groups. The key focus is how to strike a balance between what Wilson calls (unfortunately) “selfishness” and “altruism.” We call them autonomy and communion. Too much of either and any group is pathological. Too much communion and you get a kind of totalitarianism or coercive fascism. Too much autonomy and you get narcissists and rouges, lawlessness and violence (like the wolves of Wall Street Wilson laments). These are the kind of phenomena studied in the field of conscious evolution, where the evolution of human consciousness itself is taken as both object and subject.

The First Age of Conscious Evolution

Everything we know about evolution suggests that it is basically inevitable that evolution on Earth will again shift to a higher level (that is, if it continues at all, which is a big “if”). This shift will not only be of physical systems, exteriors, but also of interiors, of consciousness. And this evolutionary leap will take the form of a crisis. It is this crisis that we are in the midst of right now. This crisis is not only to do with the geohistory of technology and the limits of the biosphere; it is also a crisis of self-understanding. Consciousness and self-understanding are not epiphenomenal—they are not merely supervening or reacting to a more basic bio-technological base—human consciousness and self-understanding are driving the global crisis at all levels.

Wilson’s book is one that says, in so many words: it is conscious evolution from here on out: we are able to know and do too much to pretend otherwise: we must consciously orchestrate the future of the planet and the biosphere (OK, we may be putting words in his mouth a bit). We agree whole heartily! Our generation is in an unprecedented position to take responsibility for participating in profoundly generative and destructive evolutionary crises. The question is: can we understand our crises in cosmic context, as opportunities for the emergence of the unprecedented, and as invitations into a higher form of life? Can we merge and unify as fundamentally just and ethical unity or federation of all humanity in a time of crisis?

To make a long story short: heterodox evolutionists and evolutionary phenomenologists have long been concerned with the role of self-consciousness in as a factor in evolution. They have have found that the key concept needed to foster ethical group synergy and emergence is that of uniqueness. It is one of the few keystone concepts that can bridge the gap between interiors and exteriors, science and ethics, matter and sprit, autonomy and communion. A sense of the inviolability and value of each individual’s Unique Self is the feeling of a healthy group. When a group comes together in such a way where no one’s unique self is diminished, but all are, in fact, leveraged, there emerges a Unique Self Symphony. This requires all the members to hold the group in mind, to envision their part in the self-organizing and self-orchestrating social reality to which they consent to participate. This a just form of emergent super organisms because it requires that we care about everyone’s story. It has the perspective of social justice—the omni-considerate view from everywhere—at its core and leverages the benefits of justice to promote further harmoniums evolutionary emergence.

A self-conscious Unique Self Symphony is the feeling of being ethically integrated into a larger totality; having a sense of social justice is having a sense (very literally) for the presence or absence of harmonious social integration. The felt integrity of one’s unique self is the core of an evolutionary phenomenology of moral consciousness, especially when a group is in the midst of dynamic autocatalytic closure. To fit into the evolutionary puzzle or story (why is it always a struggle?), the shape required by each individual is unique. Other forms of superorganic closure require violence and will ultimately be undone, unseated not because they are physically unsustainable (although they likely would be), but because they are unbearable for human identity formation and moral development.

This is a great wake up call for humanity. While we have been morally guided by all great traditions to love one another, now we find that pragmatically, if we do not learn to join together in collaboration and concretion—in Unique Self Symphonies—we will become one of the many extinct species.

>>> Read the full paper HERE <<<

A contribution for the roundtable discussion of David Sloan Wilson’s Does Altruism Exist, Zak Stein, Marc Gafni, Barbara Marx Hubbard, The Center for Integral Wisdom, The Foundation for Conscious Evolution