Darwinian Evolution and Consciousness
Every book I can remember reading on the subject of intentional communities — I’ve read quite a few — to have emphasized principally their systems of government. For a long time I was convinced by those books that the most important thing for a community is the way it is organized.
Life in those days was giving me working experience with groups. I was responsible for developing centers in several countries, where people possessed a variety of national outlooks, and the usual mix of human nature one finds everywhere. The ideal, I decided, would be to bring them all into a single system that was uniform, and not a haphazard jumble of idiosyncrasies.
I was forced eventually, however, to yield to reality. Hegel’s dictum, “All that is real is rational, and all that is rational is real,” could never be applied to human beings: real enough in themselves, of course, but by no means always rational! What I had to accept, against my own initial intentions, was that the spirit of a group depends always on one person. Usually that person is the leader, though not always so. No system, no matter how well conceived, can wholly regulate living human beings, with their large variety of normal human quirks. No system, therefore, can take the place of a living person to lead and inspire. Leadership, in every group endeavor, is the first necessity.
What convinced me at last of the need for a good leader was when the head of one of our best groups was obliged, for reasons of health, to resign her position and withdraw from all responsibilities. Soon thereafter, the rest of the group lost its erstwhile vitality, and no longer displayed anything like the enthusiasm they’d once shown for working harmoniously together.
Experience since then has persuaded me that, without good leadership, groups simply won’t flourish. Studies have shown, moreover, that institutions rarely survive the death of their founders. Those which do survive either lose their animating spirit, or develop a new spirit under a new leader. The best any rule can accomplish is preserve an organization in a state of suspended animation. As Emerson put it, “An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man.”
An excellent example of rules written to preserve the spirit of an institution may be seen in the regulation of Christian monasteries. The monks and nuns who, after centuries, are still inspired in their way of life are those who have read, studied, and absorbed the spirit of their founders. Though bonded by rules, their real inspiration comes even today from the examples set by Saints Francis and Clare of Assisi in Italy, or Saint Teresa of Avila in Spain. In the cases of those leaders, although they are no longer living, they had sufficient magnetism to be able to project it over centuries. Nevertheless, the influence they exert depends far more on them as individuals than on any rule. Without their wisdom and compassion, the monasteries would long ago have become — many have in fact become — mausoleums.
Saint Francis of Assisi is an interesting example. He recognized the stultifying effect of too many rules. High church dignitaries in Rome, and determined administrators in his own order, thinking themselves more knowledgeable in practical matters than he, urged him to write a rule. Francis at last agreed, and wrote something that was more poetic than legalistic. They had to tell him it was not satisfactory. He tried again. In fact, he tried several times. None of his attempts was approved. At last, all of them were conveniently lost, and another document was prepared with the provisos demanded by the dignity of their growing order.
I do not say that systems are unnecessary. Common sense tells us they are essential. Yet it is interesting to note that, while the great teachers of mankind gave precepts and admonitions, none of them wrote formal regulations. Jesus Christ told Peter, “Feed my sheep.” He didn’t say, “Organize them.” It was his followers, and those after them, who created the church, and in so doing showed interest primarily in controlling the “sheep,” not in feeding them.
Buddha is remembered for his teachings, not for a well-run institution. The same may be said of Lao-tse. There have been exceptions, but never has a teacher of the highest caliber gone so far as to say, “My Rule will suffice.” Saint Benedict’s rule for monasteries, for example, was written in reaction to years of monastic undiscipline, and to the chaos then raging in the world. Organizers like Saint Benedict hadn’t the wisdom, however, to see that form cannot ensure, or even nourish, the spirit: The best that regulations can accomplish is facilitate the expression of the spirit.
In the history of nations, we see that as the baton of civilization passed from country to country it never limited itself to any specific form. Rome’s power declined when the time came, despite the precision of its organization. Pax Romana lasted only as long as the Roman spirit retained its freshness and vitality. Then came the barbarians.
Where, today, are the wonders of ancient Greece? Where, the mighty empire of the pharaohs? The hills in Greece are still there; so also the sands of Egypt. In both places, a few impressive monuments remain also — of their once-animating spirit. But the spirit itself? The poet Shelley memorialized the ruins of the statue of Rameses II, at Luxor, in his famous poem, “Ozymandias.” Civilization, despite the elaborate systems men devise for its preservation, passes from country to country. Where it has endured the longest, it has not been structured by rigid rules but animated by a vital, resilient outlook on life.
Every tradition eventually loses its vitality. Legends keep the flame alive for a time, but at last even these become dying embers, then ashes. A friend of mine who had been in the Marine Corps during the Korean War told me about a group of Texan recruits. “Loudly they boasted,” he said, “that they — cowboys all, at least in their own fancy — best all competitors when it came to rifle practice. The joke of it,” he concluded, chuckling, “was that, of the several states represented, the Texans came out the worst!”
Legend is a power in monastic life also. Twenty years ago I visited Patmos, in Greece. There are two Greek Orthodox monasteries located on that island, one of them for men and the other for women. As I stood waiting for a ship to carry a number of us back to the mainland, I chatted with a French couple standing in line in front of me. The lady exclaimed, “I had a conversation with some of the nuns. Their life is simple, but, ah, what peace they emanate!”
“Really?” I replied in surprise. “I spoke with some of the monks, but I can’t say I felt any special peace in their presence.”
She paused a moment. Then, to my amusement, she replied, “Come to think of it, I didn’t really feel that much peace from the nuns, either. I just thought peace was what I ought to be feeling!”
The United States Constitution must surely be one of the great documents of history. England’s Prime Minister Gladstone wrote, in reference to it, “It is the most wonderful work ever struck off at a given time by the brain and purpose of man.” The United States Supreme Court, however, working as conscientiously “by the book” as it can, has made rulings that would, one suspects, have made the Founding Fathers feel ambushed.
Leonardo da Vinci’s students helped him with some of the details in his paintings. Presumably, he taught them all he could of his art. There is no record, however, that he communicated greatness to any of them.
Thousands of students, again, attend art school every year, and music school, and schools of architecture, and other places where various skills are taught. No one ever has, or ever could, impart genius. Very few graduates have become even passably good artists or composers or whatever else they’ve studied. On the other hand, not a few outstanding figures in every field have achieved greatness without benefit of formal schooling. It isn’t that their methods, consequently, were haphazard. Obviously, judging from what they produced, they worked hard at their métier — even harder for the fact that they had to discover so many of its secrets on their own. Their inspiration, however, came from insights that could never have been taught them in the classroom. Mechanisms have no life; they can only simulate life. Inspiration, on the other hand, because it is alive, conveys actual awareness.
The West, especially, has sought perfection through systems. This has not been the case everywhere. In ancient China, it is said, when the emperors toured their provinces they would make a point of listening to the music wherever they went. They didn’t begin, for example, with inquiries into the integrity of the officials. The music gave them the insight they needed. If the melodies and cadences were right, they knew that the right spirit prevailed. But if the music was wrong, they knew that error had entered the system. In such cases, apart from making the necessary adjustments administratively, they would correct the music. When the music was right, they believed, everything else would be right also.
An intriguing concept, indeed! Naturally, one views it with some reservation. (Consider only the bluster with which an emperor, heir to an ancient tradition, might have comported himself if he was tone deaf. There is fertile material here for a comic opera!) Still, even accepting that the facts have no doubt been idealized, there is at least idealized truth in the story. Fictional symbols are often truer, in this sense, than prosaic facts.
China, with the passing of time, lost contact with many of its ancient principles — so, since ascent and descent are in the nature of things; nothing more can be done about them than about the ocean waves. To give priority to systems, however, rather than to the consciousness that animates them, eventually deprives even the best ones of life. Without a sustaining consciousness, forms cannot survive — , indeed, in a petrified state.
In utopian books, beginning with Plato’s Republic (the earliest one I know on the subject), systems are presented as the key to every community’s success. Thus, whenever a new community is proposed, the questions are asked: “How will it work? What rules will it follow? How will its government be set up? How will decisions be made? What mechanism will ensure that those decisions are enforced? How can the members be persuaded to work together in harmony? How will the leaders be induced to serve others rather than promote their own interests? How can the slackers be made productive and discouraged from taking advantage of others' good will? What provisions will there be for members who want to leave? How will the old or ailing be cared for?”
In their very effort to meet these contingencies, communities lose themselves in a labyrinth of rules and provisos. While systems are to some extent necessary, they are not in themselves the best way of meeting even these perfectly reasonable concerns. The best answer to each of the foregoing questions lies in a charitable spirit — through leaders setting the right example. If a community decides that rules are essential to its spirit, rather than being simply a mechanism to facilitate the expression of that spirit, it might do well to reserve space in a cemetery — yet existent, of course, though not such a bad idea at that! — defunct communities.
Years ago in my own work with groups, I was forced to recognize at last that group dynamics depend above all on right attitude, and that it is right attitude in the leader that is of first importance, since it is he who must instill it in the others. Rules may facilitate the flow of energy, but too many rules can only obstruct that flow. Everything follows naturally from right attitude: efficiency, ability, even practical “know-how.”
For a dancer to understand how to execute a difficult step, he must have the right “feeling,” inwardly. For a skier to know what to do with his hips, knees, and elbows, he must be centered in the spine, and let his movements radiate outward from there. Economic skills, business skills, real estate skills, managerial skills: All of these flow effortlessly, once a group’s spirit is right.
People with already-developed skills may be attracted to join, but the recognized expert is not always the great help one may imagine. For there isn’t any one “right way” of doing anything. Traditionally recognized ways often reflect an outmoded spirit. Once the flow of energy is right — it can be only when its animating consciousness is right — manner of self-manifestation will be naturally compatible with that flow. Despite the scoffing of people who are steeped in old ways, the new methods will often, in their new context, prove more effective. Thus, even if a community attracts no one knowledgeable in the recognized ways of doing things — the primary emphasis in any case when admitting new members, always, should be on the right spirit — members may actually find themselves better off, for they can develop the necessary abilities and invent new ways of using them. Skill itself, moreover, must never be made the criterion of success, otherwise what will emerge is efficiency without inspiration: form without life.
Back to those questions about systems and provisos: The best answer to all of them is, as I said, right attitude, which above all means charity. When the community consists of people of good will, they won’t need rules to make them behave rightly. The system will work smoothly anyway. Custom will suffice, without commandments. Without good will, however, no rule will ever compensate for that lack. Right attitude cannot be learned from books: It can only be absorbed by a kind of osmosis. It can also be self-generated, but this possibility is no more predictable than genius.
In the West especially — the penchant is common enough everywhere — much emphasis is placed on mechanisms that the role of consciousness is often overlooked. Pygmalion’s statue of a beautiful woman would have remained a well-carved piece of stone had not the goddess Aphrodite infused life into it, creating Galatea. Everything we do has life only to the extent that we infuse it with life — is to say, with energy directed by our will.
Repeatedly so far we have studied authors' presentations from their standpoint of mechanisms. To Adam Smith, economics was an entirely materialistic subject. He didn’t consider wealth to be a concept in need of refinement. Paraphrasing Hegel, he might have said, “All that is real is tangible, and all that is tangible is real.”
Charles Darwin’s entire explanation for how life arrived at its present complexity was the mechanism involved. Natural selection as a concept is neat, and mankind appreciates neatness: It makes further thought easier!
As I wrote in Chapter Two on Copernicus, however: And yet . . . and yet . . . :
A few cracks have begun to appear in Darwin’s satisfying mechanism. No one so far, for example, has actually discovered a “missing link” between the lower animals and Homo sapiens. In spite of universal confidence that such a link would be found, and despite the worldwide search for it over more than 150 years, the investigation so far has drawn a blank. Eagerness for fame and recognition has produced a few fakes, but nothing provably genuine. Isn’t that surprising, considering the intensity of the search?
Take another example: Mutations were for a long time the explanation biologists offered for the way new species evolve. Proof so far, however, has been weak to non-existent. Substantial mutations, of the magnitude required to produce a new species, seem invariably to be degenerate forms of their species. No such mutation has produced meaningful results in the sense of being advantageous in the struggle for survival. A cow with five legs is in no way better equipped than her four-legged sisters; probably she is at a disadvantage.
Since, however, Darwin’s doctrine would probably remain entrenched anyway, it seems pointless to track this evolutionary lacuna, though interesting, to its lair.
In my book, Out of the Labyrinth, I devoted four chapters to Darwinian evolution. Many years of thought and research went into writing that book. In those four chapters I said, as I’ve done here, that Darwin offered only a mechanism. As to the motivation behind that mechanism, it became clear to me, the deeper I delved into the subject, that he never even considered the question except to reduce it to a blind, instinctual urge. Thus, he removed as much as possible the issue of intelligence, and replaced it with something as nearly mechanical as he was able.
Thus have biology and related sciences since the time of Galileo and Newton tried to promote themselves to the dignity of the material sciences. Yet even these sciences contain anomalies. Mathematics alone, in its consistency, deserves to be considered a pure science. The alternative, however, to raising biology to the dignity of physics and chemistry by describing living organisms, too, as mechanisms, is one the biologists themselves don’t like to contemplate. For living beings, unlike material objects, are not consistent at all. They depend far less on mechanisms than on forever-unpredictable fluctuations of consciousness.
In Out of the Labyrinth, I discussed the role played in evolution by intelligence. I pointed out, for example, that a leopard born with spots into an unspotted desert breed would not necessarily be disadvantaged, as Darwinian theory says it would be. Darwin says that if a leopard finds itself handicapped by greater visibility compared to other predators, it will find survival more difficult and its peculiarities of appearance will gradually disappear. But the leopard is an intelligent animal. Finding itself with spots in a sandy environment, it would simply move to a more suitable environment — jungle, perhaps. The mechanics of evolution tell us only that a spotted predator would have more difficulty hunting in the desert. The leopard, however — enough, as is known, to approach its prey from downwind — surely be intelligent enough also to leave that sandy environment, if possible for one covered with trees and leaves. Its intelligence in making such a move, moreover, would also direct its future development as a species.
There is another anomaly in Darwin’s theory. Accepting survival as the entire explanation for evolution, human beings would not require so large a brain relative to that of any other animal. If survival counted for everything, people would need only sufficient cunning to outwit creatures less intelligent than themselves, and man’s brain would not have needed to evolve to such a size.
The very recognition, moreover, that his intelligence is what has enabled man to survive in the “evolutionary sweepstakes” is proof enough that evolution is guided also by motivation, and not only by a series of genetic accidents. The struggle is not blindly instinctive. Evolution, then, is no mere mechanism: It is a conscious and self-determined process. Even the wish to survive is an expression of consciousness.
Some people may say that the explanation for man’s larger brain is that he developed it in competition with fellow human beings. Even in this case, the facts — they don’t by any means indicate a mere mechanism — ’t suggest a history of competition. Competition there has always been, of course, but the brain size of human beings throughout the world is more or less equal. If competition were the explanation, we should see people with various brain sizes in widely separate parts of the world, especially in the isolated areas.
Scientists tell us, moreover, that human beings rarely use more than a fraction of their potential brain power. Actual intelligence doesn’t seem to vary even with skull capacity, but depends rather on the use made of it.
A book I touched on in Chapter Two, The Hidden History of the Human Race by Michael A. Cremo and Richard L. Thompson, gives abundant evidence that Homo sapiens has been around much longer than the figures proclaimed in orthodox anthropology. Could the extreme antiquity claimed by Cremo and Thompson be another crack in the mechanism of Darwinian evolution?
Intelligence is unquestionably an important factor. I don’t suppose Darwin himself would have denied it. He devoted so much space, however, to presenting evidence for his mechanical structure that by the time intelligence entered the picture he must have viewed it as a mere anomaly, not worthy of mention. Indeed, whatever else may be said about intelligence, its actions don’t fit into “neat,” logical categories. Often, indeed, its decisions are quite illogical.
Obviously, species that can outwit their natural enemies are more fit for survival than others that cannot. Darwin wasn’t thinking, however, about the part intelligence plays in evolution. Perhaps, having overwhelmed his readers with all his research, he considered intelligence a mere bagatelle.
In light of our present argument, however, intelligence deserves to be given a place of primary importance. As George Gaylord Simpson, the renowned biologist, declared, there is “good concrete evidence for the impression that some animals have evolved much faster than others. There is less complete but still sufficient evidence for the further generalization that the vertebrates [with their greater intelligence] have tended to evolve (structurally) faster than the invertebrates.”
A final question follows closely upon those conclusions: If intelligence influences the evolutionary process, why hasn’t the human race, of all species the most intelligent, continued to evolve at an ever-faster rate — only physically, but also and more particularly in intelligence? Physically speaking, there have been only minor changes, even in the size of man’s brain. Human intelligence, however, isn’t entirely dependent on brain size. The brain capacity of Cro-Magnon man is said to have been larger than that of modern man. No existing evidence, however, points to Cro-Magnon man as having had an intelligence superior to that of Homo sapiens. On the other hand, there isn’t any evidence, either, of an overall increase in individual intelligence. If, indeed, humankind is continuing to evolve, in what does that evolution consist? What is its cause? Traditional accounts in terms of “survival of the fittest” offer no explanation.
Darwin, even more so than Machiavelli and Adam Smith, shocked people into accepting that life is a competition. People were already conditioned to considering it a struggle for power based on self-interest. Since Darwin’s discoveries, life has come to seem not only a Machiavellian power struggle, but a fight for sheer survival: a dog-eat-dog existence in which only the fittest win, and any threat to personal power must be destroyed, the “unfit” eliminated, so that the strong can stand in full glory at the top of their dung heap. The victors in this war are the predators, whom the “lambs” only provide with food. The more ruthless, self-centered, and callous a person is, the greater his chances of survival. Nothing matters but that single criterion: survival.
What an appalling picture! The results of this “philosophy” have been widespread delusions like the Nazi “master race” — Germany’s one-time belief in its “manifest destiny” of world dominion. The result has also been Marxist communism, with its belief in a class struggle for the sake of which millions have been butchered. Darwin attributed no meaning to life, any more than the material sciences have done. What people drew from Darwin’s theory, however, was a new meaning: that life is merely a ruthless struggle for survival at any cost.
Most of the theories considered in this book raised issues not of fact, but only of interpretation. I don’t challenge the facts that Darwin presented. His interpretation, however, was suggested to him not by the facts, but by his nineteenth-century prejudices. In a more benign intellectual climate he might have seen matters very differently. For instance, he might have viewed evolution as expressing a “life urge” ever seeking opportunities for self-expression.
If, however, intelligence and motivation are admitted as factors in evolution, then fitness for survival becomes less of an issue, particularly where higher forms of life, and especially human beings are concerned. Nor is survival even most people’s major concern. Their self-evaluation, and any contribution they make to the over-all well-being of a society, are not nearly so much defined by survival as they are by other, more immediate issues. Concern for physical survival as opposed to, let us say, the survival of a work of genius might in fact have made a fitting parody for the French comic dramatist Molière, or for a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. I can imagine a Darwinist looking at a painting titled “The Triumph of Light” and snorting, “Bah! What’s that got to do with survival?”
Even intelligence falls short of being the entire story. What we see in evolution, rather, is the unfolding of consciousness. People themselves are not nearly so much concerned with surviving as they are with consciously living and enjoying themselves. Of course, if a person finds his life threatened his instinct for self-preservation will cry out for attention, and may overwhelm all other considerations. That instinct won’t necessarily prevail, however. For in the very face of death many people have overridden their fear. Socrates demonstrated transcendence over it after his condemnation to death by the Athenian rulers. He could have escaped the country; his friends urged him to do so. Yet, true to what he felt to be his higher duty, he voluntarily swallowed the poisonous hemlock.
Many other people, similarly, have transcended the instinct for survival and remained true to what they felt was their higher duty. Consider the Christian martyrs and their willing, even cheerful, embrace of death. The choice to die is often exhibited even by the lower animals.
When I was a child, a friend of my family’s was leaving her house one day accompanied by her dog, a German shepherd. Just at that moment, a mad dog charged through the garden gate. The pet knew it had no chance of surviving the intruder’s bite. Its survival instinct would also have told it that it had the option of escaping and leaving its owner to be bitten instead. Fully aware, then, that it couldn’t defend itself, it stood calmly before the woman to block the mad dog’s advance. The rabid creature bit it, then ran off barking crazily. I wish I could report that this act of heroism ended happily, thanks to modern medicine. Unfortunately, the faithful animal died, as it must have known it would.
It isn’t often, of course, that a person finds his life actually threatened. We assume life’s continuity as our norm; few of us even think about dying until the time for it comes. We don’t imagine venomous snakes lurking behind every bush, ready to strike at us as we pass. We don’t fear being run over by cars; we simply keep sensibly to the sidewalk. We take normal precautions, of course, but danger isn’t for most of us an obsession. As long as we’re alive, we are far more interested in enjoying life than in preserving it.
Economists, social reformers, and others of their sort have described existence among the poor as a sort of grey inferno. They overlook the amazing adaptability of human nature. Material circumstances needn’t rule anybody. Even survival doesn’t seem to be a major concern for most people, at least until they find themselves actually at death’s door. Happiness is their priority. I have seen beggar children whine with practiced pathos as they told me they hadn’t eaten in three days — run off gleefully to join their playmates, the latest prize clutched happily in their fists. I have known sufferers dying in hospitals to display deep compassion for the sufferings of others. Many of those dying patients expressed gratitude for what they’d learned from their trials. Darwin’s mechanism of evolution completely by-passes these very human realities. To the scientist, they lack biological significance. They do not, however, lack human significance.
Darwin was so wholly focused on struggle as the explanation for evolution that he gave no thought to what it is that survives the struggle. If asked, he would probably have replied, “Well, life, obviously.” If his own survival had been at stake, however, I imagine he’d have determined resolutely to finish his magnum opus even against his doctor’s strict orders. We, as human beings, are more concerned with our state of awareness — joy or our pain — we are with evolutionary mechanisms. Our bodies are only instruments through which we express our thoughts and feelings. Were we to lose a limb, we’d manage somehow to adjust, and probably would do so happily — least after a period of mental adjustment. When we speak with a crippled person, it is his consciousness we address, not his mutilated body. He remains for us a living human being, not a damaged machine.
It is this aspect of Darwinism that leaves a sour taste in the mouth. Biologists are interested in the mechanism of how it all happened. It seems safe to assume, moreover, that Darwin’s explanations are acceptably accurate. He doesn’t, however, explain consciousness, which to human beings is of far greater interest. Biologists, in their stern attempt at scientific objectivity, scoff at the very question of consciousness as indicative of an unscientific bias.
“Has man changed more,” James F. Crow asked in the September, 1959, issue of Scientific American, “in developing his brain than the elephant has by growing a trunk?” Crow was convinced that it shows prejudice to consider “mere consciousness” important. We survive, he insisted, if we can; nothing else matters. The question, however, cannot but arise in the mind: What do we survive for?
For the past several centuries, mechanisms have been raised almost to the level of a creed. Had Adolf Hitler won World War II, he would have hailed his victory as proof that the “pure” Germanic stock was fittest to survive. Muscled arrogance would have been touted in that case as the acme of human achievement. In such “perfection,” might not gorillas have easily shown themselves fitter than human beings?
Mechanisms were Adam Smith’s premise in The Wealth of Nations. They were Plato’s in The Republic, with his so-called “perfect” society. They were the point of Thomas More’s Utopia, of Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis, of Nicolò Machiavelli’s The Prince. They were the whole point of William Harvey’s treatise on blood circulation. (Medical science today, it is interesting to note, has discovered that the heart actually possesses intelligence, and is more than a blood-pumping organ.) The discoveries of Copernicus, Tycho Brahe, Kepler, Galileo, and Newton only probed into the mechanism of the universe; they didn’t probe into its purpose. It wasn’t that these men denied that a purpose exists. In fact, all five of them believed that the universe has a divine purpose. Their dedication to the scientific method, however, directed the development of reason toward the conclusion, held rigidly today by most modern scientists, that there is no purpose in anything.
Marx and Engels based their whole philosophy on the premise that social evolution is a mechanism. Thomas Malthus, in his Essay on the Principle of Population, concentrated on the mechanism of population development.
Malthus, incidentally — made this point earlier, but it bears repetition here — disaster for humanity. The number of people, he said, will inexorably, in time, exceed the earth’s capacity to feed them. He pointed out that it is human nature to breed. Population, therefore, increases by geometric progression, whereas the quantity of food available can only increase arithmetically, and must eventually fail to keep pace with the population increase. Even today, his prediction of mass starvation seems reasonable — so now, with the growing shortage of drinking water — scientific achievements seem to have deferred that final day of reckoning. The doom cannot be averted forever, however. Would the most sophisticated scientific technology be able to feed, let us say, 100 billion people rather than the present six billion? Quite possibly not.
Earlier, however, we considered another factor: Economically progressive nations no longer match the Malthusian curve of continued population increase. In fact, most of them have already reached a plateau and are producing fewer offspring than the poorer nations. It frequently happens, in fact, that the well-to-do classes in every nation have fewer children, generally speaking, than the poor ones. The present population in the wealthier countries is either stable or actually declining. Apart from the explanations usually given for this disparity — lack among the poor, for example, of proper education in methods of birth control — cannot help suspecting a further reason. Life affords the poor with fewer opportunities for enjoyment apart from sexual indulgence. A simple solution, surely, would be to raise the general level of prosperity. This possibility, rather than scientific technology applied directly to the problem of feeding everyone, is (given present-day progress) at least imaginable.
A further solution may be considered also. Small, intentional communities are less likely to produce large numbers of progeny than those in the population who define life in terms of material gratifications. People who live by high ideals are less interested in sexual gratification. The effect on their lives is similar to that of prosperity on nations: Their energy is directed less toward activities that produce offspring. Though such communities will probably always be small, their general influence, because concentrated, will be out of all proportion to their size.
To what extent is Darwin’s theory of evolution relevant in our daily lives? Of particular interest is the following question: Is evolution an upward thrust from below, in reaction to the challenge of survival? or can it be explained more satisfactorily as an upward pull from above? People think of God, if He exists, as somewhere “up there” — on a cloud, or in outer space. But what about the conscious will to perfection in mentally healthy human beings? Isn’t that, for our needs, a sufficient definition of divinity — something “up there,” but a higher potential in ourselves? Is there, in other words, an aspect of consciousness itself that seeks fulfillment in greater awareness?
Were one to judge a building before its walls had been erected, wouldn’t he be a trifle hasty? “Wait,” the builder would remonstrate. “I haven’t finished my work!” Evolution, too, may be considered a work in progress — advancement determined not by some all-powerful deity, but by the innate impulse in life itself. Biologists tell us that evolution has no purpose or direction. Naturally, if mechanisms are the only issue, why bother to ask, “Why?” The mechanic asks only, “How?” The question, “Why,” however, arises naturally in the mind.
In Out of the Labyrinth, I described several twentieth-century experiments for which only two alternatives exist. They are mutually exclusive. Convincing evidence suggests that there is no dividing line between animate and inanimate matter. Metals, for instance, have been shown repeatedly to respond to stimuli in the same way that living tissues do. Scientists, accepting this data (it is convincing), conclude that all things, therefore, have neither life nor consciousness. Consciousness, they assert, is only a material phenomenon produced by electronic movement in the brain. And life is only energy moving within a coherent organism.
The blurring of distinctions between living and non-living matter suggests ineluctably, however, a second alternative: namely, that everything is inherently conscious. Could it be that there is inchoate awareness even in the rocks?
In an age when consciousness is assumed to be a mere product of brain activity, the suggestion that consciousness may be latent everywhere seems bizarre. On the other hand, to conclude that nothing is conscious is even more bizarre, for it ignores the obvious fact that it takes consciousness to reach a conclusion!
When ether was first proposed by scientists over two centuries ago as the medium through which light travels in space, it seemed a satisfactory explanation. New discoveries, however, forced repeated re-evaluations. At last, the entire theoretical structure had to be abandoned as simply too cumbersome to be of use.
Science, similarly, has plodded along giving no thought to consciousness. Its focus has been on what could be observed physically. It is consciousness, however, that does the observing! René Descartes, in addressing the question of existence, felt it necessary to identify consciousness with thought. “I think,” he said, “therefore I am (Cogito, ergo sum).” He was mistaken. Thinking is not a necessity of awareness. The simple reason he didn’t take consciousness into account was that, unlike thought, consciousness wasn’t something he could observe with scientific objectivity.
A joke has it that Descartes entered a French bistro, and the bartender asked him if he’d like a glass of wine. “I think not,” replied Descartes — disappeared!
On a more serious note, surely we’ve all had moments when we weren’t thinking at all, but were intensely aware. Enjoyment of music; absorption in the beauty of a sunset: these experiences may have kept us without thinking for moments together. Our awareness at such times, moreover, was probably all the more intense for the fact that we were without thought. Descartes was mistaken. It must be added, however, that he was not alone in his error. Anyone trained as he had been in scientific methodology would have done the same. Science states that if a thing can’t be observed, it can’t be investigated. From this fact scientists often conclude — this is not a rational belief — the unobservable probably doesn’t even exist.
Whether or not everything is conscious, it is certain that the development of consciousness is an aspect of the evolutionary process. Intelligence is demonstrably so. A monkey discarding a banana to pick up and chew on a nut isn’t thinking about survival: It is simply satisfying its curiosity. It is also doing so intelligently, with a desire for conscious enjoyment.
Consider a certain type of mollusc that rubs its shell back and forth against a rock until, after some fifteen years, it creates a niche deep enough to settle into. This movement may rank so low on the scale of awareness as not to be considered even intelligent. Who can deny, however, that the mollusc is conscious? Nothing external acts upon it to produce that movement. Tides, waves, wind, alterations of temperature: none of these. Its action is generated entirely from within. Nothing would be gained by testing the mollusc’s intelligence. Even without that test, it seems safe to assume that the mollusc would probably flunk it. Yet the creature is obviously aware, not insensate; active, not inert.
Man, too, in reaching out toward ideals that inspire him, is not expressing merely a mechanistic urge. It is in consciousness that he is reaching out. Although he hasn’t evolved much physically since his first entrance on the stage of life, he has undergone constant mental, moral, and spiritual change — , downwards, sideways depending on individual attitudes toward life.
To return to our theme: Small, intentional communities, in which people live and work closely together, represent a conscious resolution to reach out toward new and better ways of living. Intentional communities are not an accident of social evolution. Nor are they products of Marxian bitterness. They are an expression of aspiration on the part of idealistic individuals.
It would be a mistake to press upon the reader any particular system of communities. Numerous possibilities exist for expressing the same basic principles. I have not urged upon him even the fact that I myself have founded several communities. They are still thriving, after more than thirty years, and taken all together number nearly a thousand members. The issue, however, is not what specifically has been done or could be done. Rather, it is the exhilarating realization that, with this concept, near-virgin territory awaits exploration. The possibilities, like those on a new continent, are vast. I invite my readers to explore this concept for themselves. All that is needed is the willingness to begin, and the awareness that one’s success depends on resoluteness, willingness, and vision. All else will follow from that initial determination.
Chapter 9: Human Evolution