If evolution is “change that sticks” what is “conscious evolution?”

Jeff Carreira Blog Posts, Philosophical Inquiry 12 Comments

Conscious Evolution in the simplest sense would seem to imply consciously, or deliberately, engaging in the process of evolution. In other words it means that human beings, who are aware of the process of evolution and have an understanding of the mechanisms through which it happens would engage in activities and make choices that support further evolution.

That definition has historically proven problematic because it easily encompasses the unsavory idea of “Social Darwinism.” Among other things Social Darwinists in the early decades after the publication of “On the Origin of Species” believed in purposely not doing anything that would help human beings who were weak, inferior, poor or in any way less evolutionarily advantaged to survive. Poverty or weakness of any kind seen as a sign of an inferior person and in the interest of “survival of the fittest” it was simply best to allow nature to run its course and for these individuals to exit the population. Social Darwinism also led to Eugenics or the selective breeding of human beings. In a particularly disastrous form of Eugenics, the German biologist Ernst Haekel actually advocated killing human beings with inferior characteristics. 

No one who is actively interested in conscious evolution has anything like this in mind. In fact the term conscious evolution the way it is generally used today does not involve natural selection. It refers to the conscious participation in the process of evolution, but it is specifically referring to evolution at the level of consciousness.

This evolution at the level of consciousness is not learning, because learning is not necessarily “change that sticks.” You can learn something and it might be with you during your whole life, but it will die with you unless you pass it on. Learning is the accumulation of ideas and understanding by an individual. The evolution of consciousness, as I understand it, is the evolution of the consciousness that we share. That cultural consciousness is held in the values and perspectives of society and passed on to every member of that society just by the fact of being born and raised in it.

The consciousness of cultures is not simply shared ideas in people’s heads. It is the state of consciousness that is held within the culture as a whole and is in embedded in the literature, art, science, behaviors, values, architecture, customs and every other aspect of what we call society. The state of consciousness of a culture builds a society and the society constantly reinforces the state of consciousness that built it. The evolution of consciousness and the evolution of culture are two ways of looking at the same thing.

The mechanisms of evolution, once understood could be used to elevate the consciousness of a culture so that each individual born and raised within that culture would have access to that consciousness. Once again the idea of continuity takes a primary place in this conception of conscious evolution. What I have described is remarkably similar to what John Dewey describes in much of his writing. A major theme in Dewey’s philosophy was the fact that the individual cannot be separated from the society or the society from the individual. Dewey’s writings on education and democracy are in many respects a representation of his understanding of how to promote conscious evolution within American society. Similarly, B. F. Skinner was also concerned with how to design a culture that would maximize its evolutionary potential.

Many argue the concept of conscious evolution is overused and ill-defined. I don’t entirely disagree with that assessment. My solution though would not be to dispose of the concept, but to apply more rigor and experimentation to its investigation so that we can create a deeper understanding of what it might be pointing us to.

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Brian
Brian
12 years ago

Jeff,

Does conscious evolution = evolution of consciousness?

Brian

Carl
12 years ago

I think the distinction that you make between individual learning and cultural evolution (“cultural learning?”) is important, just as the distinction between those two things and biological evolution is important. But I would argue, along with Skinner, that they occur according to the same principles: variation and selection. More important, for those of us who see the “whole” systemically, is that it’s hard to imagine culture learning and evolving without individuals doing so. One might even say that individuals learn, pass on what they have learned to others, and if the learning is valuable enough and it reaches a critical… Read more »

Jeff Carreira
Jeff Carreira
12 years ago

In response to Brian, I don’t think that conscious evolution and the evolution of consciousness are the same. I think that the evolution of consciousness has been happening for a long time and we are now at a place where we can begin to guide the process though conscious evolution. I guess my point was that at this point, as far as I can see, conscious evoltuion is not being seriously considered except at the level of the evolution of consciuosness. To respond to Carl, I agree with what you say and I once read a great discription that illustrates… Read more »

Brian
Brian
12 years ago

Check. I’m hip to all this. The meaning of life is the meaning we make and the meaning I make is found in conscious cultural evolution as we are describing here.

Carl
12 years ago

Jeff, what a funny and at the same time telling story! It’s a great example of the interdependence of the individual and the group. Pragmatically, I tend to approach it with a sort of inside-out perspective, thinking that if we change individual behavior then the collective can follow. But at some point it becomes a kind of oscillation, I think, where the influences are in both directions and simultaneous. I was thinking about your post and it occurred to me that “permanent” can happen in different ways. We change aspects of our environments in ways that will more or less… Read more »

Mary
12 years ago

Good conversation. I think Kelly also describes an experiment where a lecture hall full of people each with simple binary switches learn to collectively land a jet airplane. It didn’t take them an inordinate number of tries to succeed, as I recall. (My library, forlornly, is not here; so I can’t look up the details.)

Brian
Brian
12 years ago

How many unsuccessful airplane landings is considered inordinate? Lets hope it was just simulations!

Mary
12 years ago

Yes, a mass simulation. As I remember, it was only a hand full or so of crashes before they suddenly managed to abort the crash landing and circle back around. And then some time to perfect the landing.

Frank Luke
11 years ago

Jeff’s story is collective consciousness and evolutionary consciousness at work, isn’t it? We are now involved in addressing the challenges of climate change, promoting more healthful habits, attempting to promote democracy in countries with repressive governments, and advancing the idea of greenness to end fossil fuel dependence and lighten our carbon footprints–just the top of a laundry list. To turn these challenges around amounts to global social changes, getting world populaces to adopt new mindsets, and in effect go through evolutionary consciousness for collective higher behaviors. The ultimate higher consciousness of course would be to realize that peaceable harmony with… Read more »

Frank Luke
11 years ago

Just some thoughts re: evolutionary consciousness: Could progressive thinking about changes with the objective of improving the lot of the majority of humanity, promoting good for the many, and then working to effect those changes–in fact effecting those changes qualify as being considered evolutionary consciousness? I.e.: If bringing about democratic governments which truly respected human rights, to institute Perennial Wisdom as an International Constitution, were to become realized, would that be evolutionary consciousness? OK, pie-in-the-sky dreaming, but who would have thought that human rights would become such a concern in times past? Who would have dreamed that America with our… Read more »

Frank Luke
11 years ago

Hi Brian, re: “Does conscious evolution = evolution of consciousness?” Mulling your query: (Evolution of consiousness) seems somewhat inactively passive, happening of it’s own steam. (Conscious evolution) seems more active, engaged in by those trying to shape a better future, however iffy that venture may be. There are those visionaries who are able to actualize their efforts to affect whole populations in a beneficial way so life becomes improved for those beneficiaries. Spiritually Awakened people I believe take and/or create opportunities to consciously make choices living lives that by example show the way to higher consciousness and more enlightened attitudes… Read more »

Frank Luke
Frank Luke
11 years ago

Evolutionary consciousness in my mind is directional and progresses less humanity-directed, happening as evolution does with the end result an adaptation for more efficacious survival. The query posted contains two terms which seem to me to both speak of change that sticks when that adaptation “takes”. Conscious evolution in my mind would be intentional with an objective. It would take a mind-shift of large sectors of humanity to effect that. I envision with fervent hopes that humanity will be able to effect the conscious evolution of changing humanity’s collective mindset and behavior resorting to violence to settle differences, on personal,… Read more »