How Is It That We Are Evolving?

The Rev. Alison Cornish and Dr. John Andrews

(A sermon in celebration of Evolution Sunday, January 31, 2010)

Alison: For the third year in a row, John and I are honoring a national celebration of “Evolution Weekend.” We have used these services to explore the intersection of religion and science. In the first year, we looked at how science and religion seemed to become adversaries, particularly around the time that Charles Darwin published his On the Origin of Species. Last year we focused on how some of the dissention between these parties was continuing to play out in our current times. This year, we are taking yet another step down the path we have been walking. Though science and religion definitely have their discrete and unique areas, we feel we have well established that the two areas need not be in conflict, and, in fact, are each incomplete without the other. This year we want to look particularly at these important junctures in a reflection that we are calling “How is it that we are evolving? And, can any of that evolution be considered “spiritual?”

John: Before we take another step, Alison, I think it’s important to recognize that any use of a religious word like “spiritual” is likely to lead to misunderstanding. Many people, I think, use the word spiritual as a reference to some unseen ghostly substance that is totally different from ordinary matter and which is the basis of our conscious life.

I consider this theory to be terribly misguided, for reasons that would take too long to go into here. Nevertheless, I use the word “spiritual” without apology. I believe – for good philosophical reasons – that there are aspects of reality that are beyond the reach of scientific language and logic. It’s in the gap between the reach of scientific knowledge and the way things really are that I look for the spiritual. However, I also believe it’s a mistake to adopt an alternative set of equally technical – and equally inadequate – theological terms. The great theologian Paul Tillich has written persuasively of the need for symbols in religion as the only way out of this trap.

Alison: I would agree, John, we could spend all our time here trying to define this slippery term. I like your view very much – a scientist saying, essentially, there’s more “out there” than can be named by scientific language … I would add, from a religious perspective, that for me, spirituality has always involved something much larger than myself – God, the universe, mystery – and the feelings that arise in experiences of connection with that larger, even ultimate, reality.

We both know that passing around the microphone would bring many more thoughts on the subject, but for now, we beg your leave to talk of the spiritual without being shoehorned into the traditional theological mold.

John, we’ve talked together about a sort of tripartite view of evolution. There’s biological evolution, how species the world over, including Homo sapiens, have come to be. That’s the evolution that most of us were taught in school, and still read about in the newspapers as new discoveries are pondered over – such as the story this week that looks a possible missing link around feathers and flight. Then there’s the evolution that’s more specific to our species, cultural evolution, which considers how civilizations, societies, and other human-wrought institutions have developed over time. And finally, there’s the evolution and change that’s a part of each of own lifetimes, our own experiences of being the unique individuals that we are. And though we might see these three “evolutions” as distinct from one another, they intertwine and profoundly affect one another. Perhaps we could sketch them as different points on the shared circle of life – or, if we think of them actually evolving in a positive sense – even perhaps a spiral. Would you like to pick up on the first aspect of this spiral – the implications of biological evolution?

John: Sure, Alison. Biologically, our species evolved over several million years from a common ancestor we share with modern apes. That produced our underlying human nature – what is essentially hard-wired. It’s unlikely that this has changed much in the last 2,500 years. That’s why the Greek philosophers, the Hebrew prophets, and the Eastern sages are still relevant today in areas like ethics and the quest for meaning, even though their physics has long since been rendered obsolete.

There’s another aspect of biological evolution, though, that is proceeding all too rapidly. That is the alteration of the biosphere we see all around us, caused by human activity. Extinction of species caused by global climate change and mutations of pathogenic bacteria caused by overuse of antibiotics are just two examples. This, I think, is a key element in understanding our evolutionary situation now.

You mentioned another form of evolution, though, that is not caused by genetic change. Cultural evolution – which within a human lifetime – our lifetime! – has gone into warp speed. This is based on the competition of ways of thinking, speaking, and acting in social contexts, with a natural selection process winnowing out ideas that just can’t compete. Science itself evolved because it conferred power on those who used its results to further their own ends. In general, though, ideas propagate for many reasons, most of which have little to do with whether they make any sense.

Alison, I’m curious to hear what you would say about cultural evolution – the idea that humans have found different ways of living in relationship with one another, as well the ways we have found to express ourselves. I’d especially like to hear your take on a peculiar characteristic of cultural evolution, which is this. Even though culture evolves independently of genetic change, our ability to create a culture in the first place evolved in the usual way. It did so because it helped our ancestors survive. However, even if an adaptation has overall survival value, it may nevertheless have negative side effects. In the case of culture, genetic evolution has in a sense created a monster. Bits of culture, which mind scientists often refer to as “memes” by analogy with genes, can propagate from mind to mind even at the expense of the reproductive chances of the individuals who spread them. Think of the meme of martyrdom, for example. Closer to the bone, think of the possibility that our culture might cause us to destroy ourselves entirely.

That humanity’s notions of the nature of reality and of the proper ways of behaving with one another have evolved over time is, I think, obvious. What is less clear is whether our thoughts in these areas have, on the whole, improved. Even if one thinks the answer to that question is “Yes,” is there any reason to think that this is due to anything other than chance? Are we evolving on that front?

Alison: That great cultural age you referred to – that millennium or so that some have called the “Axial Age” – includes the establishment of Buddhism, Confucianism, Christianity and Islam, and the lives of some of the prophets of Judaism. As you say, the teachings from this age are still informing our present, for they established much in the way of ethics and meaning-making. But, take a closer look: the writings these traditions left to us most often emphasize a way of life characterized by love and compassion over fear and dominance – an enormous development, as far as we can understand, over the tribal and indigenous traditions that proceeded them. Have we managed to universally manifest their ideals? Not at all. And in some areas of life, particularly when we have admitted the inbreaking of human reason, we have moved past them. But as for positive cultural development take, for example, the institution of slavery, which was an accepted practice in both the time of the birth of these great religions and the time of the Enlightenment. It was a cultural norm until very recent history – we are less than 150 years after the Emancipation proclamation in our own country. The vast majority of the world’s cultures now condemn slavery, and though it has not been completely erased – nor have the conditions which allow it continue in bleak corners of our world – most country’s laws, peoples and practices are firmly united against slavery on moral grounds. And, quite honestly, I don’t think we’ll ever go back on that. That argument is won and done, and I don’t think that its ultimate success was about survival. It was an evolutionary “turning,” of being able to see our fellow sisters and brothers in the faces of those formerly viewed simply as “property.” Did reason play a role? Perhaps. But ultimately I think empathy played a larger one.

Teilhard de Chardin wrote “man is nothing else than evolution become conscious of itself.” It seems to me that his words move past what is science, or spirituality, or reason, or emotion, which is a good thing. Because, with all aspects working together – reason, spiritual values, the power of connecting with one another – we, our species, might even “feedback” into the biological cycle. For example, once we understand (scientifically) the dynamics of extinction, and our hearts are moved by understanding our kinship to fellow species, we might be able to come together and act to change the biological trajectory. John, how about the individual – you, me, everyone here this morning – how do each of us have our own “experience” of evolution?

John: We as Individuals do, of course, evolve over our lifetimes. Much of the most profound thought in psychology and religion has to do with both creative and destructive ways in which we change in response to experience. Within the constricted time frame represented by even the longest human lifespan, each of us has opportunities to make choices whose consequences may ripple though deep time. A key idea, here, I think, is the fact that these choices can alter the forces that drive our own evolution. We are the only species that has this power. Even though human nature doesn’t change, we can through the exercise of reason set up conditions under which “the better angels of our nature” will win out more often than they would if things were left to chance. We can do this individually and in small groups through spiritual practice. We can do it in the larger society by working to improve our institutions. The tragedy, of course, is that too often we neglect these opportunities.

Alison, you proposed earlier that all three of these “evolutions,” biological, cultural and individual are interconnected. That sounds pretty interesting, and complicated. Would you like to say more about that?

Alison: That’s the really exciting news these days, John. First, through science, we’re learning more about the human brain, or mind (which in itself a fascinating quest – are they the same, or different entities?) all the time. In short, we are learning more about that “hard wiring” you spoke of earlier. There are four major areas of the brain, and many smaller ones we are still learning about – what is sometimes too simplistically referred to as our “reptile brain,” where our reactions related to self-preservation and survival seem to originate; our mammalian brain, where feeling, and connections between ourselves and to others seems to “live;” our neo cortex, the seat of logic, language, images and intuition; and finally, the frontal lobe, from where we seem to generate self-awareness. As new imaging technology is developed, we are learning so much more about what parts of the brain are activated – what “lights up” – by different kinds of experiences. As we learn more about that, we can connect it to our individual and collective experiences, and see patterns that develop. Some of these help us to explain evolution that’s already happened through history, and some, we hope, will also help us to better manage the future. Casting back, author George Vaillant writes:

For selfish reptiles to evolve into loving mammals took genetic evolution that led to the development… of the brain region underlying our positive emotions. For loving, playful, passionate mammals to become creative scientists and intellectual theologians took genetic evolution that led to the development… of the brain region underlying both our science and our religious dogma…. [But] for human beings to have evolved into Samaritans who often place compassion, forgiveness, and unselfish love above a mentality of might-makes-right has required cultural evolution [which is] more rapid and more flexible than genetic evolution… with each passing century, cultural awareness… gains ground and contributes to community survival.

As to the individual, each person in this room has, I am sure, “grown.” One way we’ve spoken about this here in our Unitarian Universalist tradition is to name “used to thinks.” As each of us grows and ages, we have the opportunity to examine those ideas we “caught” as much as we were taught – from our parents, teachers, the world around us – and see if they still serve us, and our vision of a just and loving world. I remember several moments in last year’s “Welcoming Congregation” process when individuals spoke movingly of the biases and prejudices about sexual orientation that they had intentionally, mindfully, and sometimes painfully “shed” over the years.

I see these three areas of evolution – genetic, cultural and individual – as continuously “selecting” for more cooperation, more breadth of tolerance, and more reason. I don’t think it’s any accident that we’re at this point just as the world is more interconnected than it has ever been before, because these are all the attributes that we will need as our population continues to grow, and our problems of survival are less about avoiding being eaten on the savannah, and more about working together across differences to find common solutions – for example, to global warming.

John, I suspect you have more to add, or perhaps to challenge, on this subject of “interconnected evolution?”

John: Alison, I would agree with some of that and question some.

The part that rings true to me is that these different forms of evolution are interconnected. Genetic evolution made culture possible. Culture makes individual evolution possible. Individual evolution affects the ways we engage with and even – in the case of heroic individuals – change our culture. And culture affects the way we treat the biosphere, thereby affecting its genetic evolution. There are causal arrows all over the place, each process feeding back into the others.

The part I’m less sure about is the idea that these evolutionary processes are necessarily selecting “for more cooperation, more breadth of tolerance, and more reason.” Within the time frame of recorded history, genetic evolution hasn’t been selecting for much of anything except extinction. In the realm of culture, we Westerners have been fortunate that the Enlightenment happened on our turf, but I don’t see anything inevitable about that. If one looked at the Mediterranean world a thousand years ago, one would have seen a glorious civilization in Islam and a cultural backwater in Christian Europe.

As for individual evolution, were Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela any more “selected for” than Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot? Perhaps, but if so it’s not obvious, at least to me.

Where there is room for optimism, I think, is in something we touched on earlier. Humans are the only species on this planet that can make conscious choices that affect the direction of its own evolution. Even though we are morally flawed – in religious terms, sinners – we can through the use of reason arrange things so that in the future we will be more likely to follow the right path. Twelve-step programs are based on this principle. What our culture needs is the moral equivalent of a twelve-step program, so that our future collective actions will lead in the direction of happiness and peace rather than bloodshed and despair. This requires choices – many small choices and a few great ones – with the outcome hanging in the balance. President Obama referred to this contingency in his State of the Union speech when he cited the many occasions in American history when the future was very much in doubt.

At least that gives us a chance. It makes living in the spirit of justice and love a rational option and not merely an act of defiance. This is where faith comes in. Faith is not the opposite of doubt. As Paul Tillich has said, true faith takes doubt into itself and makes possible the courage to be.

Alison: John, we would perhaps agree that in these past few weeks, the news has presented plenty of evidence for both hope and despair about the prospects of collective spiritual evolution. For example, in the great sadness in the country of Haiti following the earthquake we have seen humans at their best, helping one another in the most dire of circumstances, resilient and generous, hopeful and creative. But the most responsible of our media have also reminded us that the circumstances of the Haitian people are the product of not just natural disasters, but more than 200 years of intentional, international “shunning,” as well as locally-grown corruption, violence, incompetence and oppression – that is “cultural evolution” gone very bad, with plenty of individuals, like Baby Doc, who were abusive with their power. Here perhaps we see all three of our “evolutions” at work, and John, I would agree, at times at cross purposes. As individuals, we carry within us an enormously strong will to survive – we are seeing this in people who have unbelievably been pulled from the rubble alive after being buried for more than two weeks. We have heard stories of benevolent collective action, and also of violence, though the former seems to outweigh the latter. And we have witnessed the work of extraordinary individuals, such as Dr. Paul Farmer, dedicated to the well-being of the Haitian people not just today and tomorrow, but over decades past and still to come. So many have asked if there is a “silver lining” to this disaster. I cannot think of an event so cataclysmic in such Pollyanna-ish terms. But I also cannot think that there a person who is not somehow moved, in some profound way, by both the plight of the Haitian people and also by the lengths which strangers have chosen to be of help – whether those be doctors from the world over traveling to treat victims, or a child sending his allowance to fund assistance.

This should leave us hopeful, John, and I suppose also watchful. Watchful for the opportunities presented to each of us, every day, to engage our “better angels,” in the smallest of choices we make, thousands of times, over and over, each and every day. And yes, I agree with you wholeheartedly, this gives us a chance to live in justice and love, not simply in defiance. For that is the faith that I hold – that love, in the end, will save us. Every great religion has held this as the ultimate truth, and, evidence to the contrary, it is still where I place my faith. May our “spiritual evolution” speed its way in that direction!!

George Vaillant, Spiritual Evolution (NY: Broadway Books, 2008).

This entry was posted in Sermons and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.