Seeing with Evolutionary Eyes


Every day, it seems, I read articles detailing new insights and breakthroughs that tell us more about human nature. Our knowledge is expanding and complexifying in extraordinary ways. It’s always a joy to see so much research and so much movement in our understanding of human psychology and motives. But so many of the reports also fall prey to a false assumption; that they are increasing our knowledge of this static fixed thing called “human nature.” And certainly there is a truth in that. But there is a fallacy as well.

The fallacy is that in our efforts to describe reality as it is, we are somehow capturing how it always has been and always will be. One of the characteristics of those individuals that I call “evolutionaries” is that they do not fall prey to this fallacy. Evolutionaries are beginning to think with an evolutionary frame around their cognition. They have embraced the fundamentally developmental nature of life. As Brian Swimme likes to say, part of the beauty of our latest cosmological discoveries is the realization that the universe is “not so much a place as a movement.”

We can say much the same thing about life and human culture. Our insights into all of these domains need to be re-contextualized in light of the profound recognition of temporality. Time adds a new element to our picture of knowledge. We cannot just examine the way things are in this moment. In an evolving world, it is not enough to understand how things are; we also must consider how they were and how they will be—how they are moving, changing, developing. Even an accurate picture of something, taken out of a developmental context, can radically delude. Indeed, even if we could somehow explore and understand every last nook and cranny of the human condition as it exists today, our knowledge would still be partial. We cannot truly understand the present without making the effort to understand how the past became the present and how the present is becoming the future. This was part of Darwin’s great breakthrough. You can classify species all you want and still miss what is perhaps the most essential insight about biology—that species are not fixed! And understanding more about how they exist today only gets you so far. More fundamental insights will always elude that blinkered approach.

Only when we break what I call “the spell of solidity”—the idea that life, nature, and human nature are more or less static, fixed, and unchanging—can we begin to appreciate the importance of seeing with evolutionary eyes. Michael Dowd, describing a similar insight, likes to call this view “deep time eyes.” I love that. A friend of mine, Will Rogers, recently called this “thinking with a long exposure.” The great pioneer of evolutionary thinking Henri Bergson once explained that we are not made to “think evolution.” It doesn’t come naturally to most of us. Our brains are not inclined to grasp temporality, to comprehend development.  But we can and we must make the effort. And it’s important to see that this insight also applies to human culture. Breaking the spell of solidity in relationship to culture is critical, so that we can start to appreciate the deeply fluid and developmental nature of the human condition and the social sphere of life.

So next time someone tells you about a new insight into the human condition, some new social science research, neuroscience breakthrough or psychological discovery, by all means appreciate the incredible advance of knowledge in our time. But also, keep a close watch on the tendency to universalize current data across time. Human nature is inevitably a moving target. Yes, there may be instincts that are biologically hardwired, which change only slowly if at all, over long periods of time. But human culture transcends biology, and culture is shifting and changing before our very eyes.  So as much as we may delve into the human condition, let’s be humble, let’s not fall captive to the spell of solidity and realize that often, we are describing only snapshots in time. And woe to those who over-extrapolate about “human nature” based on such snapshots. In the wrong hands, such thinking can cause all kinds of confusions about the possibilities or limitations inherent in the human condition. By giving too much weight to the “way things are” we can sometimes forget how things could be and how we got to where we are.

Granted, the slow moving nature of cultural evolutionary development can allow a snapshot to seem to approximate reality. But it cannot and does not. Evolutionaries are breaking the spell, throwing off the shackles of the present moment, embracing temporality and learning how to think in “evolutionary time.” It’s like opening your eyes to a new dimension. And once you see, the world will never look the same.

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