EvolutionPoetry & ProseReligionScience

Two recent books on biological, cultural, and spiritual evolution

Over the past few years, I’ve become more and more con­vinced that the concept of evol­u­tion is not only a power­ful explan­a­tion of changes and pat­terns in the bio­lo­gical world, but also, by exten­sion, of changes and pat­terns in human cul­ture, or the world of ideas. If the sur­vival of (spe­cies of) organ­isms ulti­mately depends on their abil­ity to adapt to ever-chan­ging envir­on­ments, then the same might very well be true of ideas and con­cepts, and I believe it is a fruit­ful line of study to pur­sue this idea.

The Evolutionary World: How Adaptation Explains Everything from Seashells to Civilization
The Evol­u­tion­ary World

That adapt­a­tion is the key to pro­longed sur­vival is argued by many if not all evol­u­tion­ary sci­ent­ists, but a very con­vin­cing and clear explor­a­tion of this idea was made in The Evol­u­tion­ary World: How Adapt­a­tion Explains Everything from Sea­shells to Civil­iz­a­tion by Geerat J. Ver­meij, pub­lished in 2010. Besides a great many enlight­en­ing anec­dotes about evol­u­tion­ary pro­cesses in vari­ous organ­isms, from sea­shells to grasses to mam­mals, Ver­meij emphas­ises that evol­u­tion­ary pro­cesses can also explain cul­tural phe­nom­ena. A first example is an ana­lysis of the sur­vival of soci­et­ies or civil­isa­tions on the cul­tural level as com­pared to the sur­vival of spe­cies on the genetic level. Soci­et­ies, too, are con­fron­ted with chan­ging envir­on­ments and their abil­ity to adapt techon­o­lo­gic­ally and cul­tur­ally determ­ines their abil­ity to over­come con­flicts with nature and/or com­pet­ing soci­et­ies. Ver­meij makes many inter­est­ing points on prin­ciples that apply to both bio­lo­gical and cul­tural sur­vival. Redund­ancy is an import­ant strategy, for example:

Vital func­tions must be duplic­ated and dis­persed among sim­ilar parts, so that if a func­tion is dis­abled in one part or in one place, a soci­ety or a liv­ing body will not col­lapse com­pletely. (p. 76)

As Ver­meij stresses, this prin­ciple is not always util­ised in human soci­et­ies, where eco­nomic pro­duc­tion and centres of stra­tegic import­ance are often cent­ral­ised to max­im­ise effi­ciency, but at the cost of risk-redu­cing redudancy.

Another vital point is the evol­u­tion of social intel­li­gence in a selec­tion of spe­cies, and in par­tic­u­lar the evol­u­tion towards cul­ture in humans. Cul­ture, in par­tic­u­lar social adapt­a­tions that encour­age cooper­a­tion and the enforce­ment of social rules (reli­gions, group iden­tit­ies) have proven extremely valu­able in the his­tory of human­ity, allow groups of humans to work together for their com­munal sur­vival. Thank­fully, the evol­u­tion of intel­li­gence does not stop here, accord­ing to Ver­meij, and in a bril­liant chapter on com­plex­ity of life, he traces it from “mean­ing­less inter­ac­tions among chem­ical com­pounds” to

[…] the gradual appear­ance of aware­ness, pur­pose­full action, the per­cep­tion of mean­ing, and a desire for accom­plish­ment, the all-import­ant real­iz­a­tion that there is util­ity in exist­ence that tran­scends the ances­tral, pre­vi­ously suf­fi­cient goals of per­sist­ence and rep­lic­a­tion. (p. 130)

Spiritual Evolution: A Scientific Defense of Faith
Spir­itual Evol­u­tion

Another recent book deal­ing with cul­tural, but par­tic­u­larly emo­tional, evol­u­tion is George E. Vail­lant’s Spir­itual Evol­u­tion. It focuses mainly on the rela­tion­ship between a range of pos­it­ive emo­tions and dif­fer­ent areas of the brain. For each of these emo­tions (among oth­ers love, joy, and com­pas­sion) Vail­lant shows the ties to dif­fer­ent stages in evol­u­tion ran­ging from basic impulses we share with rep­tili­ans to more recent devel­op­ments in neo-cor­tex unique to humans and (some) other mam­mals. The style of the book is informal and anec­dotal, ulti­mately not geared towards a sci­entific proof of all the author’s asser­tions, but more towards an emo­tional and spir­itual res­on­ance in the reader, which makes it a stim­u­lat­ing read any­how, although a more rig­or­ous sci­entific treat­ment might make the book more con­vin­cing to some people.

Vail­lant’s main point is that a revalu­ation of the pos­it­ive emo­tions will enable us to lead spir­itual lives that bene­fit both ourselves and oth­ers around us. By examin­ing the basis of emo­tions in bio­lo­gical evol­u­tion, we award them also the sci­entific appre­ci­ation they are due, some­thing which has been sorely lack­ing in psy­cho­logy and other sci­ences until now, as the author points out. The dis­tinc­tion Vail­lant makes between spir­itu­al­ity (which he ties to the exper­i­en­cing of spe­cific pos­it­ive emo­tions, e.g. love, hope, joy, awe, and mys­tical illu­min­a­tion) and reli­gion (a more ration­al­istic social insti­tu­tion geared towards the propaga­tion of eth­ical val­ues, group iden­tity, and indeed spir­itu­al­ity) is a very valu­able one, and one which I have espoused myself for years. I, too, would argue that while reli­gion, in par­tic­u­lar the (pseudo-)rational and social aspects of it, may be respons­ible for great suf­fer­ing in the world (as are cer­tain non-reli­gious social move­ments), it does not mean we must denounce spir­itu­al­ity along with it.

While both books touch upon cul­tural evol­u­tion in their own way, in the end neither had as its main pur­pose to present some prin­ciples of how to under­stand cul­tural evol­u­tion in its own right. For that reason, I will attempt to present an essay regard­ing some of these prin­ciples here soon.