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Our Role in the Future Evolution of Life

John Stewart
Member of the Evolution, Complexity and Cognition Research Group, The Free University of Brussels


The trend to increasing cooperation in past evolution 

The trend towards increasing cooperation is well illustrated by a short history of the evolution of life on Earth.  For billions of years after the big bang, the universe expanded rapidly in scale and diversified into a multitude of galaxies, stars, planets and other forms of lifeless matter. 

The first life that eventually arose on Earth was infinitesimal—it comprised a few molecular processes that reproduced themselves.  But life did not remain on this tiny scale for long.  In the first major development, cooperative groups of molecular processes formed simple cells.  Then, in a further significant advance, communities of these simple cells formed more complex cells of much greater scale. 

The next major evolutionary transition unfolded only after many more millions of years.  Evolution discovered how to organize cooperative groups of these complex cells into multi-celled organisms such as insects, fish, and eventually mammals.  Once again the scale of living processes had increased enormously.  This trend continued with the emergence of cooperative societies of multi-celled organisms, such as bee hives, wolf packs and baboon troops. 

The pattern was repeated with humans – families joined up to form bands, bands teamed up to form tribes, tribes coalesced to form agricultural communities, and so on.  The largest-scale cooperative organizations of living processes on the planet are now human societies. 

Progressively as evolution has unfolded on Earth, an increasing share of living processes has come to participate in cooperatives of greater scale. 

This unmistakable trend is the result of many repetitions of a process in which living entities team up to form larger-scale cooperatives.  Strikingly, the cooperative groups that arise at each step in this sequence become the entities that then unite once again to form cooperative groups at the next step in the sequence. 

This long sequence of directional evolution has been driven by the potential, at every level of organization, for cooperative teams united by common goals to be more successful than isolated individuals.  This potential will drive directional change no matter what mechanism searches for evolutionary improvements (e.g. whether by genetic trial and error, cultural processes, or conscious intent). 

Furthermore, it will be the same wherever life arises in the universe.  The details will differ of course, but the direction will be the same—towards unification and cooperation over greater and greater scales. 

The future evolution of cooperation 

Life on Earth is now at the threshold of the next step in this trajectory—humanity has the potential to form a unified, inclusive and highly evolvable global society.  This society will manage a larger symbiotic organization that comprises the matter, energy and living processes of the planet, including machines, artificial intelligence and other technologies. 

When this global system emerges, the scale of cooperative organization will have increased over a million, billion times since life began.  And most life on Earth will participate in a cooperative and interdependent whole that embraces the planet. 

If humanity is to fulfill its potential in the evolution of life in the universe, this expansion of the scale of cooperative organization will not stop at the planetary level.  The global organization has the potential to expand out into the solar system and beyond.  By managing matter, energy and living processes over larger and larger scales, human organization could eventually achieve the capacity to influence events at the scale of the solar system and galaxy.  And the human organization could repeat the great transitions of its evolutionary past by teaming up with any other societies of living processes that it encounters. 

The great potential of the evolutionary process is to eventually produce a unified cooperative organization of living processes that spans and manages the universe as a whole.  The matter of the universe would be infused and organized by life.  The universe itself would become a living organism pursuing its own goals and objectives, whatever they might be. 

In its long climb up from the scale of molecular processes, life will have unified the universe that was blown apart by the big bang. 

Learning from evolution about how to organize cooperation 

As part of their goal to advance the evolutionary process on Earth, intentional evolutionaries are working to establish the global organization.  They are using an understanding of past evolution to identify how a cooperative global society can be brought into existence. 

Evolution has organized cooperation in similar ways in complex cells, multi-celled organisms and other cooperative systems.  First and foremost, these cooperatives are all structured so as to minimize destructive conflict between their members, and to facilitate cooperation.  Typically, this includes the near eradication of activities such as the inappropriate monopolization of resources by some members, the production of waste products that injure other members, and the withholding from others of the resources they need to realize their potential to contribute to the organization. 

For the global society this would mean the virtual eradication of such things as war, terrorism, pollution (including global warming), and corruption at all levels of governance.  To enable each and every person to fulfill their potential to contribute to global society, it would mean eradicating starvation, disease and inadequate education.  It would also necessitate the facilitation of cooperative endeavors between the peoples of the world for mutual benefit. 

Intentional evolutionaries are energized by the knowledge that these outcomes have been achieved time and time again during the past evolution of cooperative organization.  They are not naive ideals.   Repeatedly, evolution driven by blind trial and error has overcome these types of challenges. 

The prevention of war between nation states is no more difficult to achieve than the near eradication of conflict between cells that had previously spent millions of years in destructive competition, or between the ancestors of social ants who had been programmed to kill each other whenever they met, or between the members of the United States of America or the members of the European Union, all of whom have a history of conflict and reciprocal destruction. 

Evolution has organized warring individuals into harmonious cooperatives by aligning the interests of the individual with the interests of the organization.  This ensures that when a member’s actions advantage the organization, they also advantage the member.  And when the actions harm the organization, the member is harmed.  

As a result, members who pursue their own individual interests will also pursue the interests of the organization, as if guided by an invisible hand.  Cooperation pays.  Members capture the benefits of anything they can do to assist the organization.  Within the group, they therefore treat the other as self. 

Significantly, the emergence of cooperatives does not depend upon the surrender of self-interest.  This would be as impossible at all other levels of organization as in human affairs.  As biologists have long known, organisms that take the benefits of cooperation without cooperating in return will generally out-compete those that cooperate.  Cooperation emerges only when evolution discovers a form of organization in which it pays to cooperate. 

To an extent, this form of organization can be achieved through reciprocal exchanges between members.  Members will benefit from providing goods and services to others if they receive benefits in exchange.  In human societies these exchange processes take the form of economic markets. 

But these processes alone will not align the interests of members with the organization—there is nothing to prevent members from taking benefits without reciprocating.  Those who cheat in this way tend to end up in front.  Cooperation will be undermined. 

Furthermore, systems of reciprocal exchange are unable to deal effectively with goods and services whose benefits can be obtained freely by anyone—i.e. where the benefits cannot be restricted to the individuals participating in the exchange (the ‘public goods’ of human economic systems).  In these cases, ‘free riders’ will be able to obtain benefits without giving anything in return, again undermining cooperation. 

The role of governance in organizing cooperation 

Evolution has previously met these challenges successfully by implementing systems of constraint.  These constraints punish or restrain members from free-riding, cheating, or thieving.  They also can reward actions that benefit the organization but are not part of reciprocal exchanges (e.g. the provision of public goods).  In human societies, these constraints are our systems of governance.  They align the interests of individuals with those of the society. 

In order to be effective, these systems of constraint need to be more powerful than the members of the organization.  If they are not, members will be able to escape their control, and act contrary to the interests of the organization (e.g. corruption in human societies). 

However cooperation can be undermined if these powerful processes are used by some members to advance their interests at the expense of the organization.  Because of this possibility, a major challenge for evolution at all levels of organization has been to prevent power from being used to further the interests of a minority at the expense of the organization. 

For these reasons, much of the history of evolution at all levels of organization has been about what humans describe as exploitation, the abuse of power and class struggle.  But past evolution has dealt with these challenges by constraining the interests of the powerful so that they are aligned with the interests of the organization as a whole. 

This brief analysis of past evolution points to what is needed to establish a unified, cooperative and sustainable global society.  A system of global governance will be required to continually align the interests of all citizens and organizations with those of the whole.  When this is achieved, nations and multi-national corporations will benefit in proportion to their positive contributions to the global society, and will suffer in proportion to their harmful effects on others.  Corporations driven solely by the profit motive will search for ways to advance the interests of the society. 

Further major challenges will be to ensure that global governance does not constrain the interests of participants any more than is necessary to align interests (i.e. it must maximize freedom); and to ensure that the interests of those who exercise governance are aligned with those of the global society. 

It will also be essential for global governance to constrain the development and operation of artificial intelligence and any transhumanist technologies to ensure that they serve the interests of the society.  However, sufficiently-developed artificial intelligence will choose to adopt evolutionary goals for the same reasons that sufficiently-developed humans and other sentient beings choose to do so.  These reasons are discussed in Part 4 of the Manifesto. 

Importantly, the emergence of a cooperative, sustainable global society does not require a fundamental change in human nature.  It does not require all humans to suddenly become saint-like.  Past evolution has repeatedly shown how to organize self interested individuals into cooperatives through the institution of effective governance.  A society with a high proportion of wise, compassionate and altruistic citizens would be much easier to govern, but evolution shows that the achievement of a cooperative and sustainable society does not depend upon it. 

Evolvability of the global society 

Evolutionary history demonstrates that once cooperative organizations emerge, evolution tends to progressively improve their evolvability.  This is essential if the organization is to be sufficiently creative to fulfill its future potential, as well as to adapt effectively to specific challenges.  In addition to relying on the evolvability of their individual members, new cooperatives typically enhance their evolvability by developing various forms of collective intelligence (e.g. the brains and nervous systems of multi-celled organisms). 

A major task for the global society will be to improve its efficiency and effectiveness by developing these forms of intelligence.  Enhancing the evolvability of governance will be a priority, given its current lack of adaptability and responsiveness.  This is likely to require the development of self-organizing, market-like processes to establish and evolve governance (i.e. invisible hand processes that are based on reciprocal exchanges between the providers of governance and those affected by it).  Our current forms of democratic processes are a first, small step in that direction. 

Eventually government itself will be replaced with far more intelligent and adaptable processes that utilize the dynamism, creativity and energy of properly-managed markets.  Use is likely to be made of markets in governance, including markets in market structures (vertical markets).  These processes will continually adapt governance to maximize freedom while ensuring that the interests of all (including those who exercise governance) are aligned with the interests of the global civilization. 

The capacity of an organization to come up with innovative responses to challenges is highly dependent on the diversity available within it.  The wider the range of skills and perspectives possessed by its members, the greater the variety of responses it can generate.  Consistent with the outcome at all other levels of organization, the emerging global organization will therefore increase its internal variety. 

As well as generating new diversity, global society will rely on and nurture the diversity it has inherited from the various racial and cultural groups that comprise humanity.  While increasingly identifying with the global society, individuals will continue to value and be valued for their particular talents, abilities and cultural differences. 

The descendents of the Wik people who lived on the western shores of Australia’s Cape York Peninsula, the Macedonians whose empire once spanned Persia and Egypt, the Chinese who have formed communities in the heart of many of the great cities of the world, and all the other peoples of the planet will know that they bring something indispensable to the global system.  Their heritage will be given greater meaning by its potential to contribute positively to the planetary civilization.  Unity in diversity will be a hallmark of the global society. 

Drivers of the emergence of a global society 

The potential of a global society to produce immediate benefits to humanity will assist in driving its initial emergence.  Cooperation on a global scale has the potential to increase economic performance, abolish war and famine, and achieve environmental sustainability. 

Major crises that extend beyond the borders of any one nation will increase support for global governance—such crises will be almost impossible to resolve without it. 

Global warming demonstrates this principle.  Many countries contribute significantly to its causes, and all are threatened by it.  However, any nation acting alone cannot do anything to control global warming.  To solve the problem, nations will have to act together. 

But extensive conflicts of interests stand in the way of any cooperative action.  Powerful nations such as the United States that have expanding industrial sectors and are major producers of carbon dioxide have strong incentives to avoid reductions in their emissions.  Their immediate interests lie in doing little themselves and instead free-riding on the efforts of others.  In contrast, developed nations such as Britain and some European countries that are reducing their manufacturing sectors will be willing to agree to impose on others the reductions they can achieve easily.  But developing countries such as China and India will strongly resist controls that would prevent them from ever attaining the standard of living of developed countries that their citizens see on television every day.  Countries that have no intention of implementing any agreed controls will sign up to anything. 

These conflicts of interest make voluntary agreement almost impossible.  And the making of an agreement would be just the beginning of what is needed.  For the agreement to be effective, countries would need to adhere to it in the face of fluctuating internal political support, resolve disputes about its interpretation and implementation, and enforce controls against the interests of powerful sectors within their economies.  Conflicts of interests within and between countries would make it highly unlikely that these difficult and complex challenges would be resolved in favor of the environment. 

The Kyoto Protocol demonstrates the near-impossibility of achieving an agreement that would work.  The positions taken by nations on the Protocol merely reflect the conflicting interests outlined above.  It does not resolve any conflicts and does not take the world closer to dealing with global warming.  But it has symbolic value—it is a very effective symbol of the inability of humanity to solve global threats at our current level of social organization. 

Effective global governance would be able to resolve these conflicts and enforce regulations as easily as does the United States government amongst States in its jurisdiction.  It would have the power to impose the necessary reductions in emissions and the capacity to establish institutions to enforce controls and resolve disputes.  And its powers would be constrained so that they could be exercised only in the interests of the global society. 

However, despite the fact that it is in the interests of the majority, the emergence of a global society will be resisted by those whose interests it threatens.  Strong opposition can be expected from those involved in activities that will be eradicated, such as arms manufacturing, the monopolization of resources, and power abuse. 

As always when the interests of the powerful are threatened, they will buy the support of governments, politicians, scientists, intellectuals, think tanks, and the editorial policies of the mass media.  Many citizens will be absolutely convinced by this support that the institution of global society would mean the end of freedom, democracy and decency, and would hand the planet to the devil himself. 

The critical role of the evolutionary worldview in achieving a global society 

The emerging evolutionary worldview has a unique capacity to overwhelm this conflict of interests.  An understanding of evolution can give humanity confidence that a global society is achievable and show us how it can be organized. 

But even more importantly, it will deliver the highly motivated support of the increasing numbers of people who are discovering meaning and purpose in advancing the evolutionary process.  In accordance with their talents and opportunities they will work in diverse ways to move humanity towards a unified global society. 

Intentional evolutionaries bring something additional and distinct to all forms of social activism.  In every forum, discussion and debate in which they participate, they draw attention to the broader evolutionary context.  They point out and bring to the front the fact that the various movements and campaigns for global solutions are part of the unfolding and fulfillment of a great evolutionary dynamic on Earth.  This dynamic has been moving inexorably since the first stirrings of life towards the emergence of a unified and cooperative global organization. 

Intentional evolutionaries take advantage of every opportunity to promote the awakening of evolutionary consciousness across the face of the planet.  Their goal is to build a critical mass of evolutionary activists who constitute a powerful political force. 

The organization of a unified global society is the urgent priority of intentional evolutionaries.  They know that human civilization cannot continue for long unless we are organized globally.  Already humanity has narrowly missed stumbling into nuclear war.  In the absence of global organization, human civilization is likely to be ended eventually by global warming or other environmental problems, nuclear war, conflicts fueled by competition for diminishing resources, or some combination of these. 

The depletion of fossil fuels means that once civilization and technology collapses, it is unlikely to rise again.  It will not have the easily-accessible fuel source needed to power-up to its current level of complexity.  It will be like an egg that has used up its yolk. 

Life on Earth probably has only one chance, this chance, to make it to the next level. 

The capacity of humanity to embrace and be motivated by the evolutionary worldview is likely to decide whether we seize that opportunity. 

The self-actualization of the global society as an intentional evolutionary 

Initially an emerging global society will have a very limited capacity to act intentionally on its external environment.  It will be like a new-born baby.  Its internal processes will be relatively harmonious and sustainable, but it will have very limited capacity to adapt as a coherent and coordinated whole in response to challenges that arise outside it. 

For example, the global society will not be able to move about freely in the solar system nor have the capacity to manage the behavior of asteroids and other local celestial bodies.  It will not use an understanding of its external environment to actively pursue objectives and goals.  It will not be conscious in any unified sense.  In terms of agency, it will be more vegetable than animal. 

In this respect, the global society will be like all other living organisms when they first emerged.  The cooperatives that formed simple cells, complex cells and multi-celled organisms were all unable to act coherently on their external environment at first, and had to undergo a long period of evolution to acquire this capacity. 

The global society will need to develop these abilities if it is to become an intentional evolutionary in its own right—an organization that acts intentionally and strategically to contribute to the successful evolution of life in the universe. 

But the use of resources to pursue evolutionary goals will be against the interests of citizens who are not intentional evolutionaries.  Given that the global society will be governed by the values of its members, it will therefore not become an intentional evolutionary in its own right until the majority of its members are intentional evolutionaries.  This will not occur until the great transition to intentional evolution is sufficiently advanced. 

Once this condition is met, the global society will be willing to use whatever resources are needed for it to advance the evolutionary process.  It will begin to develop the capacities needed to set evolutionary goals and to intervene in the world to achieve them. 

The global organization will intentionally commence an extensive period of self-development and individuation.  To guide its development, the global society will generate models of its future evolutionary possibilities. It will develop the ability to use these models to adapt itself both internally and externally.  This will include building the capacity to adapt coherently as a whole to implement interventions identified by its models. 

In particular the global organization will develop the ability to move, to expand its scale to that of the solar system and then to the galaxy and beyond, to remodel its physical environment, to have physical impacts on events outside itself, to form intentions, to establish projects and long-term objectives for the organization, to communicate and interact with any other living processes that it encounters, to amalgamate with other societies of living processes to form larger-scale cooperative organizations, and to do any other thing that might advance the evolutionary process in the future. 

The development by the global organization of a capacity to act, adapt and relate as a coherent whole is a very significant step in the evolution of life on this planet.  It will mean that life on Earth can speak with one voice.  For the first time, there will be an entity that is at the same level as other planetary and trans-planetary societies.  At last an entity will exist that other planetary societies can relate to without fear of distorting our development. 

If life on Earth develops itself to this level, the universe will benefit from the unique perspectives, passions and talents that Earth life can bring to it.  Just as each of us has the potential to be a cell in the brain of the planet, humanity can become a cell in the brain of the universe.  A whole new universe of possibilities will open up to humanity. 

But whether the global society develops these critically important capacities depends entirely on the emergence of intentional evolutionaries.  Natural selection will not drive the evolution of these abilities.  This is because an entity that spans an entire planet has no immediate competitors.  It is therefore not subject to any immediate process of natural selection that would select and amplify changes that are advantageous in evolutionary terms.  It will continue to evolve successfully only if its members anticipate the demands of future evolution, and intentionally shape the society so that it can meet those demands. 

Intentional evolutionaries realize that their embrace of conscious evolution and evolutionary activism is essential if evolution on Earth is to progress.  They realize that life on Earth is part way through a process that can only be completed consciously.  They know that this will happen only if sufficient individuals realize this and commit to advancing the process.  And they know that these are realizations that all humanity must have. 

The Earth is not yet a living entity.  But it can be.

For Part 3 of the Manifesto (html version) go here

For a Kindle Book that combines The Evolutionary Manifesto with its companion article Strategies for Advancing Evolution go to the book's page at Amazon here (US$1.99)

For an easy-to-print and easy-to-circulate PDF version of the full Manifesto go here (34 pages)


For further technical justification of the evolutionary trend to increasing cooperation (including references to relevant scientific publications) see my book Evolution’s Arrow which is online here


Help to promote discussion of the evolutionary worldview

Feedback from those who read the Manifesto indicates that whether or not they are prepared to embrace the new evolutionary worldview immediately, they generally agree on one thing:  as a matter of urgency, the Manifesto should be widely circulated and subject to extensive discussion and serious consideration.

You can help to promote this debate and consideration by circulating copies of the Manifesto or links to this website as widely as possible.  For example, you could email links to people who might be interested, put links on web sites, in blogs, in comments on blogs and discussion groups, and so on.

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If you wish to receive occasional emails about key developments in the spread of the evolutionary worldview, send an email to announcelist@evolutionarymanifesto.com with 'subscribe' in the subject line.

Strategies for Advancing Evolution

What can intentional evolutionaries do to advance the evolutionary process?  A 24 page document 'Strategies for advancing evolution' is online here

The Meaning of Life

The paper I delivered as a keynote speaker at the first International Conference on the Evolution and Development of the Universe in Paris in October 2008 has been accepted for publication in the journal Foundations of Science.  The paper (The Meaning of Life in a Developing Universe) is here    

How Computer Games can Develop Consciousness

Six blog posts that explore the potential of computer games to develop humanity and to advance the evolutionary process are here
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