As mentioned in Part 1, if we were to go back in time and reset the course of evolution, it is highly unlikely that we would be here the second time around. On the other hand, according to some theorists, it is highly likely — perhaps inevitable — that some form of tool-using, self-conscious species would evolve. (For example, self-consciousness might be a form of convergent evolution.) While many biologists emphasize the directionlessness of evolutionary history, many physicists are now identifying a developmental trend in cosmic history, one moving toward localizations of increasing order and complexity which operate against the general entropic trend of the universe. If this is true on the cosmic scale, it is arguably true on a biological scale as well.
Philosopher Ken Wilber argues that, by portraying humankind as merely one strand in the web of life, deep ecology assumes a one-dimensional or “flatland” metaphysics. According to Wilber, a “deeper” ecology would perceive that the cosmos is hierarchically ordered in terms of complexity. Hierarchy does not imply dominion, though — it implies responsibility. This brings me to the third model of evolution, one which combines the insight that human beings are both special and not special. In this “Special/Not Special” model, the universe itself is evolving toward self-consciousness. One step in that evolution of the universe is the development of beings who are self-conscious. In other words, at some point in its evolution, the universe goes from being unconscious to having parts of itself — us — become aware of themselves as parts, as a stage in the process of the whole becoming aware of itself. In this sense, we are special. We as a species represent a point at which the universe has moved closer to self-consciousness. As a result, we have special responsibilities toward other species and the universe as a whole.
Alison Leigh Lilly has cogently criticized hierarchical models of evolution as being a form of “weak anthropocentrism”, in so far as they fail to challenge the supremacy of human culture and consciousness. Alison may be right, but there are few caveats that I think at least mitigate the latent anthropocentrism of this model of cosmic evolution:
First, it must be recognized that human beings are not the only beings that are self-conscious, much less the only beings that are conscious. As Barbara Ehrenreich writes in Living with a Wild God,
“The scientific notion that humans are the only conscious beings on the planet had been an error all along, an error rooted in arrogance and provincialism. … By the 1980s, science was beginning to move toward an acknowledgement of animal subjectivity and emotions, but for the most part educated humans were stuck with the Cartesian view of animals as automatons, driven entirely by instinct and reflex, which is a way of saying that they are in fact, for all practical purposes, already dead, just mechanisms responding to instinct and external stimuli. … When observed through a lens cleaned of human vanity, more and more types of animals, many birds included, are found to reason, cooperate, use tools, and plan ahead.”
In addition, there are other animals that are likely self-conscious, most notably other primates (chimpanzees and gorillas) and the cetaceans (dolphins and whales), but also elephants and magpies. And that’s not even counting lifeforms on other planets. So, while we may be in a special group, we humans are not unique. And, it should be mentioned that even the species that are not self-conscious, have the potential to evolve into species that are self-conscious. Every species is a manifestation of the universe’s drive toward self-consciousness, and as such, every species has inherent value.
Second, it must also be recognized that human beings are not the end of evolution. Homo sapiens sapiens will disappear one day. We may evolve into another species. Or we may go the way of the homo neanderthalensis, leaving the whales to take the next step in the evolution of cosmic self-consciousness. So, while there is a hierarchy of evolution (based on degrees of complexity), human beings are not really at the “top”. The “top” is reserved for the universe as a whole.
There is a common belief that we have “evolved out of evolution”, that through the development of tools, we no longer need to evolve biologically, because we can develop a technological solution to any challenge. But, I think it is becoming increasingly dubious whether we will be able to solve all of our problems technologically, since our technological paradigm seems to be at the root of many of our problems. In addition, I think it’s a mistake to see technology as somehow “outside” of the process of biological evolution. The notion that technology allows us to escape our biology perpetuates the nature-culture dichotomy, which again is at the root of our problems.
Third, and finally, I think maybe it is a mistake to focus on the evolution of individual species. We might say that we are not evolving, but that the universe is evolving, and we are only a part of the evolving universe. I cannot emphasize this point enough — because it encapsulates the sense in which we both are and are not special. We are special only to the degree to which we advance the evolution of the cosmos as a whole. What this means is that we evolve, not by increasing our technological control over nature, but by deepening our identification with the self-evolving cosmos. As we dissociate from our narrow ego-selves, and identify with the interconnected web of life, then the universe takes a step forward toward complete self-consciousness. One way or another, our sense of ourselves as beings existing separately from the rest of the universe has to be overcome. In a sense, we have to disappear in order to fulfill our destiny. And if we don’t, then we will disappear in another way, likely through self-destruction.
Cosmic evolution is not a new idea, of course, even for Neo-Paganism. For example, Tim (Oberon) Zell of the Church of All Worlds taught as early as 1971 that humans and cetaceans are part of the “nervous system” of a single planetary organism, Gaea, which is evolving toward an “emerging planetary consciousness” — a kind of biological apotheosis (an idea influenced by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin). But Zell also speculated whether human beings might better be compared to a cancer that is multiplying out of control within the body of Gaea.
I’ll admit that the idea that human beings are in any way “equal” to bacteria wounds my pride. I react instinctively against it, and it likely colors my opinions. “How can human beings be equal with bacteria? We have big brains and opposable thumbs. We make tools and we are self-conscious.” And, of course, these things are true. But why are these adaptations necessarily any better than the adaptations of bacteria? Or sharks, who seem to have done pretty well for themselves in the last half billion years? (This is a question that Jeff Lilly takes up in the comments to Alison’s post mentioned above.) It is possible, I have to admit, that tool making and self-consciousness are not real evolutionary advantages. In fact, our technology and our consciousness of ourselves as separate from the rest of nature both seem to be at the root our headlong drive to destroy our own environment and thus ourselves. It may be that these things which make us “special” are actually maladaptive. And it may be that the notion of a universe that is evolving consciousness is appealing because it flatters our egos and perpetuates the belief that self-consciousness makes us special. Perhaps it is just another way of creating God (i.e., the universe) in our own image.
I don’t have answers to these questions yet. But I am left with the feeling that I had when I walked out the movie Lucy: We are special, not in the sense that we have special privileges, but in the sense that we have special responsibilities. We have a responsibility to evolve toward what deep ecologists call “Self-realization”, a paradigmatic shift in our consciousness, from one of radical separateness to one of radical interconnectedness. And I also wonder if we might have a responsibility to help “shepherd” other species toward the same destiny (although I imagine this would be less like the genetic engineering which science fiction author David Brin describes in his Uplift books, and more like making space for other species to flourish).
We have a choice: Humanity will either commit itself to furthering the evolution of cosmic consciousness or we will continue our headlong rush to self-destruction (and probably take a good part of the biosphere with us in the process). If we are to take the former path, we must come to understand these truths, outlined by Michael Zimmerman:
- Humanity emerges from and is part of the rest of life.
- Life is a self-organizating web and we must cease trying to control mechanically.
- The earth community is itself sacred.
- Human morality must be attuned to the “languages” of the larger Earth community.
- We must encourage the flourishing of all life, human and other-than-human.
John Halstead is a former Mormon, now eclectic Neo-Pagan with an interest in ritual as an art form, ecopsychology, theopoetics, Jungian theory, and the idea of death as an act of creation. In addition to being the Managing Editor here at HP, he is the author of the blogs, The Allergic Pagan at Patheos and Dreaming the Myth Onward at Pagan Square. He is also the administrator of the website Neo-Paganism.org.