For Discussion: “Evolution at Odds” by Bart Everson

We are constantly forgetting trivial experiences. What did lunch taste like last Tuesday? Strangely enough, we can also forget important experiences. We can, in fact, forget the most experiences of all. We can and do lose touch with the most profound truths of existence.

How is this possible? Why does it happen? It seems tragic. It may be adaptive. This is pure speculation on my part, but it seems conceivable that our evolutionary survival is at odds with our spiritual development. Evolutionary fitness need not be congruent with spiritual fitness. That is, the strategies encoded in our genes through natural selection may promote behavior that increases the likelihood of those genes being passed on, but that’s no guarantee of happiness or enlightenment. If we are prone to forget profound truths, perhaps it’s because keeping mindful of such truths has little evolutionary value. However, it may have great value for individuals and communities. Passing on genes ain’t everything.

What do you think?  Is individual spirituality adaptive or maladaptive for the human species?  What makes you think that? And what does that mean for our individual spiritualities?  Share your thoughts in the comments below.

The Author

Bart Everson

In addition to writing the A Pedagogy of Gaia column here at HumanisticPaganism, Bart Everson is a writer, a photographer, a baker of bread, a husband and a father. An award-winning videographer, he is co-creator of ROX, the first TV show on the internet. As a media artist and an advocate for faculty development in higher education, he is interested in current and emerging trends in social media, blogging, podcasting, et cetera, as well as contemplative pedagogy and integrative learning. He is a founding member of the Green Party of Louisiana, past president of Friends of Lafitte Corridor, sometime contributor to Rising Tide, and a participant in New Orleans Lamplight Circle. See Bart Everson’s other posts.

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14 Comments on “For Discussion: “Evolution at Odds” by Bart Everson

  1. Interesting question, Bart. I suppose it depends on exactly what you mean by “spiritual development.” There are many ways to define this of course. One naturalistic way that I’ve been working with lately is: being concerned with the “spirit” or “essence” of life, and moving in the direction of living this one life meaningfully and not wastefully.

    It sounds like one of the aspects of individual spirituality you have in mind is profound experiences, which can be deeply meaningful for our individual spiritual growth but may not necessarily contribute to our evolutionary fitness in the gene pool (and indeed, forgetting about them might even help us free up attentional resources to focus on other more fitness-relevant aspects of life, like attracting mates).

    I’ve read enough in the evolutionary sciences to know that the fitness consequences of behaviors can be radically counterintuitive. It would be really difficult to predict the consequences of a profound experience.

    Nevertheless, I think it’s at least possible to say that spirituality does not necessarily lead in the opposite direction of fitness interests. In the mating game, females are not always attracted only to tallest, strongest, toughest mates they can find. Many are attracted to the kindest, most loyal mates they can find, which makes sense if you consider that their baby is going to benefit from the protection and support of a guy who actually sticks around after conception. From the male’s perspective, it’s a little different because he can just move on after conception and try to impregnate more females, but nevertheless he does want the potential mother of his child to be as supportive and caring as possible. So, the point I want to make is that any spirituality that enhances your kindness, compassion, and caring, whether you are male or female, can actually help attract mates and thus have evolutionary fitness value. If a profound experience leads you to any of these things, it can be congruent with evolutionary fitness. Of course, profound experiences can lead in many other directions than this, but this shows that there is at least the potential for spirituality and fitness to align.

  2. Yes, the ambiguity of the term “spiritual development” is a critical factor. Different definitions should derive different answers. I did indeed begin from a consideration of peak experiences, and staying true to profound insights, but I recognize there could be other ways to characterize spiritual development. Right now I’m thinking of the caricature of the bearded holy man (invariably male?) sitting atop a mountain contemplating existence. Such a person doesn’t seem likely to pass on his genes. It seems unlikely that mates would seek him out. Recognizing this image for the caricature it is, perhaps not the most helpful example!

    Thanks for your thoughtful reply.

  3. Like BT, I think this is a great question – one rarely considered, I think.

    Tough, as you point out – mostly due to the difficultly in defining what is meant by “spiritual development”, and also in considering the environment (say our hunter/gatherer Ancestors, vs. farmers vs. today).

    Different answers can be found for all the permutations of those definitions above. To take one example, how about considering a “warrior god” religion in an agricultural society. In that case, to be more connected to that god may provide little spiritual development for her, but may make her more likely to fall in love with a male who follows the same religion, of which there are many in the army – who may be more likely to stick around and care for children because their common religion helps bond them. So that would be selected for – even if, as they grow old, that religion gives little spiritual development.

    Its so hard to say, with so many different situations and different religions/ paths that may or may not lead to spiritual development. Overall, that reminds me that your central point is right on the mark. That we should not automatically assume that over time we will (or have) gotten better at spiritual development.

    • In particular I’m intrigued by the question of whether, in our own personal development, we are fighting our genetic predispositions — or allowing their fullest expression.

  4. Your question raises many others. Like, what do you mean by “individual spirituality?” If you mean yet another instance of someone engaging in the cult of the self, then yes it’s maladaptive. But generally, spiritual societies (Native Americans, Tibetans, etc) lived in equilibrium with the natural world, which is beneficial from an adaptative point of view if only because it allows the ecosystem to continue. (But that’s hardly the only benefit.) Materialist societies (Western ones being chief among them) are working as hard as they can to destroy the ecosystem, even as its members are made more miserable in the process. It’s interesting to note that in the illustration above that the man appears to achieve enlightenment while the chimp doesn’t. I don’t know why that is. (Actually, I do–species-based prejudices.) In my experience, animals are much better at being in the present and being at peace than humans.

    • The phrase “individual spirituality” actually comes not from me but from our stalwart editor. I think he was correct in highlighting the implicitly individualistic orientation of my question. But I’d like to broaden it as much as possible, to include communal spiritualities. In that spirit, I question the idea about certain societies living in equilibrium with nature. It’s my understanding that extinctions follow humans wherever they go, throughout human history. We tend to exploit the environment to its limits. Western societies have augmented the process through powerful technology. Perhaps the spirituality of indigenous societies reflects more respect for the power of natural cycles, but I’m far from certain that this governs behavior in a strong way. I could be very wrong about all of this. of course.

      • You might want to compare how Native Americans treated certain species to the way in which white men did, species such as buffalo, wolves, whales, just to name a few. No, not all societies are created equal.

  5. An interesting issue related to this is whether or not Spirituality might be adaptive at some periods of life and not at others. For example, if spirituality were adaptive for younger individuals and lead them toward hope and confidence so that they were likely to have children and work hard for those children, their genes would be passed on. On the other hand, if spirituality became maladaptive for older individuals it wouldn’t matter, since they’ve already had their children.

    • This put me in mind of something I’ve heard about contemporary Japan: namely, that Shinto rituals are more popular in younger phases of life, while there’s a tendency to embrace Buddhism as people get older. I’m just repeating something I heard someone say at a party, so I don’t know if it’s accurate. But certainly the idea that religion may help people cope with impending mortality makes sense, and would seem to be outside the evolutionary loop.

      • This put me in mind of something I’ve heard about contemporary Japan: namely, that Shinto rituals are more popular in younger phases of life, while there’s a tendency to embrace Buddhism as people get older.

        That is accurate based on what I saw in the 5 years I lived in Japan. It’s the result of a millennia-long tradition of syncretism between Buddhism and Shinto, which were only really separated in the last two centuries. It also has to do with the different philosophies of the two religions: Shinto is about purity and death is a kind of impurity, so it has largely allowed Buddhism, which is all about rebirth, take care of the death ceremonies while it takes care of the birth and marriage ceremonies. Nowadays, Christianity has become most prevalent for weddings, due mainly to imitation of the West rather than for theological reasons, so that the current proverb is: “Japanase are born Shinto, married Christian, and die Buddhist.”

        • That’s fascinating. I do think the West stakes a lot on romantic love so perhaps that explains the Christian marriage phenomenon.

  6. Pingback: b.rox » Archive » A Question About Evolution

  7. So a little background. Once I was with my in-laws, and two of them got into a heated discussion over harmful mutations that cause birth defects. Did the mutation occur at conception, or did the mutation occur during the growth of the embryo?
    They went back and forth over this until, mercifully, they stopped. Since neither one of them were scientists or had any special knowledge (though both were highly intelligent) of birth defects, there was no way for either of them to build a strong objective case to convince each other or anyone else. They simply ruined a pleasant afternoon because they had two different opinions.
    This incident stayed with me, until one day I was perusing various internet articles and came across one that said, 50% of all birth defects occur at conception, and 50% happen during the gestation period.
    They both were right! Both are true, equally. And it made me realize that so many arguments end up like this.
    And so it is with the above question: it is both. It can be an evolutionary dead end and it is likely to be the only thing that can save the planet. “Spirituality” (or, as I prefer, attitude and personality, though obviously others have a different take on it) is both the thing that sinks us and saves us.
    Let us not forget that originally, in the Stone Age, the head of tribe went to the most physically powerful and aggressive male, yet one of the most powerful war lords of the 20th century was a man who couldn’t walk up a flight of stairs – FDR.
    The purposes of evolution evolve as well.
    I hope this helps.

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