[This piece was written as a way to think through what I was going to present as a sermon to the Unitarian Church in Harrisonburg, VA, where I spoke on July 16, 2023]
Who are we human beings by nature? Why has our story been such a troubled one? What do we need to do to achieve the kind of world we want?
As a civilization, we have not had adequate answers to those questions. And an important part of the reason for that is this: We have not been seeing ourselves in the perspective that shows us some fundamental truths about the story of our species.
For millennia, humankind developed its answers without good knowledge of how we came to be, or of how we were related to the living world around us. It’s only for a handful of generations that people have known
- that time did not begin mere thousands of years ago,
- that we humans emerged out of the whole 3.5 billion year history of Life-on-Earth,
- that the great majority of the history of our species preceded the rise of civilization.
Such knowledge – such an Evolutionary Perspective — has come to us too recently, apparently, for our civilization to trace all the profound implications of that understanding for answering those basic questions about “The Human Story.”
Our present understanding suffers from both
- traditional belief systems that were developed when people had no idea of how the civilized world they saw around them related to the whole story of Life-on-Earth, and thus did not see the profound implications of the evolutionarily unprecedented step of a creature taking the step homo sapiens took onto the path of civilization;
- the incompleteness of the newer secular worldview that, while recognizing the basic insight of the Darwinian idea, has not drawn all the important conclusions that Evolutionary Perspective should lead us to.
The Evolutionary Perspective can correct some important inadequacies in both the pre-Darwinian traditional belief systems and in the recently developed secular worldview that includes at least the fact of biological evolution.
That Evolutionary Perspective can provide with a Better Human Story:
- “Better” in being more valid. And “
- Better” in making it more likely that we will be able to get our act together so that human civilization can survive for the long haul, rather than self-destructing.
(Which is the central challenge humankind faces.)
Here are a couple of Evolutionary Principles that can lead us to some of those important truths. Truths that could fortify the side of the human drama that could help us fashion a human civilization that can survive for the long haul.
Principle # 1:
Evolution, by consistently choosing Life over Death, creates Order. Order– from the cell to the organism to the ecosystem. (The way I like to put it: “The lion and the zebra and the grass work together to operate a perpetual motion machine, even as they devour each other.”)
From that principle, we can derive an important truth that can relieve us of some crippling burdens that have been imposed on us by traditional beliefs systems formed by people who had no idea how human civilization fit into the whole history of Life-on-Earth.
We can know that we are better creatures than we have thought us to be, and we can strengthen ourselves by unburdening ourselves of a self-image reflected in ideas like “original sin.”
Principle # 2:
For the most part, the components of a creature’s nature are there because they have proved life-serving. (Those ancestors who were this way were more successful in getting their DNA to survive into the future than those who were that way.)
And one dimension of what evolution crafts into the creature are the tendencies in its Experiential Realm. That’s because “the quality of Experience” is an important component of the strategies by which many creatures survive.
If the first principle could correct a misunderstanding in traditional religions, this second principle can enable us to correct some costly misconceptions that characterize major currents in the contemporary secular worldview.
In particular, among the implications of this second evolutionary Principle is this: both the Moral Dimension and the Spiritual Dimension are real are important, and are life-serving.
This, too, can fortify us in the battle over the human future: recognizing the rightful significance of the moral and spiritual dimensions in the human world can get us more deeply connected with the kinds of passions that make us more powerful in meeting the challenge was face as a species: to order our world to serve the cause of the survival and fulfillment of Life, and to overcome the forces that threaten to lead us to destruction.
Let’s look at each of these in turn—ways the Evolutionary Perspective gives us a BETTER HUMAN STORY:
I..Errors Left Over from Belief Systems Developed Before People Understood What Science Has Shown
Until relatively recently, people looked around at the human world without knowing much about how it had all come to be, or about the systemic forces operating.
When they saw that the human world contained a great deal of ugliness – cruelty and greed and the lust for power – they drew what seemed like obvious conclusions. Their way of understanding the “Evil” they saw makes it unsurprising that they’d perceive their own kind in terms like “original sin,” and “human depravity.”
But if we look at the implications of the Evolutionary Perspective – in which Life builds order because its survival requires Order – we see that the explanation for all that ugliness lies in a systemic force that was the inevitable result of our species taking the unprecedented step our ancestors took onto the path of civilization.
Civilization is best defined as “those societies created by a creature that has extricated itself from the niche in which it evolved biologically by inventing its own way of life.”
It’s clear that the first creature to “extricate itself from the niche in which it evolved biologically” was taking an unprecedented step with respect to Order. Unprecedented—in that no creature had ever invented it’s way of life, creating a new kind of life-form that is unprecedented in not having been fashioned over eons by natural selection.
Departing from the Natural Order would inevitably be dangerous. It would lead to an unprecedented kind of Disorder, as there would be nothing regulating how these new life-forms would interact. Neither biologically evolved order, nor — because the multiplicity of such societies is inevitably fragmented – by any order designed and constructed by the civilization-creating creature.
No order to regulate the interactions inevitably
- Means Anarchy, which inevitably means
- The system will devolve into “a war of all against all,” which inevitably means
- Of the diverse cultural options, only those who can prevail in a war of all against all will survive into the future, which inevitably means,
- A selective force generated by the dynamics of the system – regardless of the nature of the creature – will drive the evolution of the creature’s civilization in the direction of the ways of power, conferring on “the Spirit of the Gangster” a disproportionate role in shaping that creature’s civilized world.
Which means that what the people who formed traditional religious beliefs systems assumed was a picture of ugly human nature is an inevitable consequence of a creature’s taking the unprecedented step onto the path of civilization.
Because the breakthrough into Civilization inevitably emerges into a new kind of Disorder, it would be inevitable for any creature on any planet anywhere in the cosmos, that begins to invent its own way of life will be swept up in a social evolutionary force that gives to “the Spirit of the Gangster” a disproportionate role in shaping the world.
The Evolutionary Perspective can tell us with considerable certainty that
The ugliness we see in human history is not human nature writ large.
Knowing that would – just by itself — make for a Better Human Story, because we tend to live up – or down – to our expectations of ourselves.
II. How Our Secular Understanding Has Drawn Some Costly Wrong Conclusions By Inadequately Taking Account of what the Evolutionary Perspective Can Reveal
The secular worldview has absorbed the basic truth that Life has evolved. But while much of that worldview acknowledges that the process of “natural selection” has shaped the living world, it has given short shrift to those realities that natural selection grounded in the Experiential Realm.
Science is core to the secular worldview, and the secular culture that has developed thought itself realistic in following science by regarding as reality what can be found “objectively,” in the external world. By contrast, the realm of experience was demoted as being, by contrast, “merely subjective.”
That meant that about those dimensions that have their reality only in connection with the experiential realm – like Value, and Spiritual Truth – those ideas would not be regarded as being “true” or “false,” but only “a matter of opinion.”
But the Evolutionary Perspective calls attention to an important thing that way of understanding “reality” misses: Much of what a creature experiences is a projection of that external world in which its ancestors survived. They are not random. And those experiential tendencies will be there because they serve the perpetuation of Life. Which makes them real, and important, and life-serving.
Among the experiential tendencies that have been inscribed in our nature are these:
- An inherent system by which members of our species experience some things as better and some as worse, because those “experiential values” helped get our ancestors to do what survival required.
Contrary to much of the secular worldview, the realm of our subjective experience contains vital information about the human reality—vital messages about what has served to bring our form of life forward through time, and about what the human good consists of.
The secular worldview should be revised to understand that, while, there may be no Value in the “objective world,” but Evolution brings Value into existence. It does so by crafting creatures who experience some things as good, and to be sought, and other things as the opposite of good, and to be avoided.
The evolutionary emergence of creatures who experience things as mattering makes Value emergent reality.
Fulfillment really is better than Misery, because the creature has better and worse experience. And while – regarding the Experience of Value — there are inherent differences among individuals, and among cultures – there is enough of substance that’s inborn in our species that one can reasonably talk of an Inborn System of Human Values.
(Just as all our differences don’t prevent our talking about “Human Anatomy.”
And this inborn system of positive and negative experience provides a foundation on which some kind of valid – and life-serving — moral understanding can be developed. Valid, meaning not just “a matter of opinion.”
- A capability to have experiences of a special, powerful kind that are spiritually transformative. Meaning that a substantial proportion of humans — cross-culturally and through history — report having a special kind of experience that can deliver what people regard as important truths with an impact powerful enough to change the course of lives.
The widespread presence of this “spiritual” kind of experience suggests that – like our inborn Human System of Value — it is a part of the human genome.
(While we have in common with a great many species the motivational guidance of experiencing some things as better and some as worse, the capacity for spiritually transformative experience seems surely more rare, perhaps even present only in homo sapiens.)
It’s being apparently part of the genome means it must have played a life-serving function for our ancestors. The powerful messages that came from that dimension of experience must, on balance, have enhanced the chances for survival of those of our ancestors crafted to receive such messages and give them weight.
The secular world, on balance, does not have the appropriate respect for the Spiritual Dimension. Appropriate for anything that is such an important part of the human reality, that is so impactful, and that evidently has a history of helping serve the cause of Life against Death.
And that appropriate level of attending to the Spiritual Dimension seems of urgent importance, at a time when the very survival of the human experiment is in question. Because the evolutionary perspective discloses the evidence that this Experiential Dimension must have be a good source of guidance to our ancestors.
It is a BETTER HUMAN STORY that
- Tells us that we are better creatures than we have thought ourselves to be.
- Clarifies the nature of the challenge human civilization must meet if it is to survive for the long haul.
- And strengthens our connection to what evolution has put into our nature to guide us in directions that serve life.
All of those can be compellingly – and validly — derived from the Evolutionary Perspective.