Sunday, December 6, 2009

Evolution Changes Everything

Evolution is the scientific idea that will change everything within next several decades.

I recognize that this statement might seem improbable. If evolution is defined generally, simply as change over time, the above statement borders on meaningless. If regarded in the narrower, Darwinian sense, as descent with modification, any claim for evolution’s starring role also appears questionable, particularly given that 2009 is the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species. Surely Darwin’s “Dangerous Idea,” however conceived, has made its mark by now. Nevertheless, I base my claim on evolution’s probable impacts in two great spheres: human consciousness and science and technology.

Today, the commonly accepted conception of evolution is extremely narrow, confined largely to the realm of biology and a longstanding emphasis on mutation and natural selection. In recent decades, this limited perspective has become further entrenched by the dominance of molecular biology and its “promise” of human-engineered cells and lifeforms. Emphasis has been placed almost entirely on the generation of diversity—a process referred to as “complexification”—reflecting the reductionist worldview that has driven science for four centuries.

Yet science has also begun to explore another key element of evolution—unification—which transcends the biological to encompass evolution of physical matter. The numerous and dramatic increases in complexity, it turns out, have been achieved largely through a process of integration, with smaller wholes becoming parts of larger wholes. Again and again we see the progressive development of multi-part individuals from simpler forms. Thus, for example, atoms become integrated into molecules, molecules into cells, and cells into organisms. At each higher, emergent stage, older forms are enveloped and incorporated into newer forms, with the end result being a nested, multilevel hierarchy.

At first glance, the process of unification appears to contravene the second law of thermodynamics by increasing order over entropy. Again and again during the past 14 billion years, concentrations of energy have emerged and self-organized as islands of order amidst a sea of chaos, taking the guise of stars, galaxies, bacteria, gray whales, and, on at least one planet, a biosphere. Although the process of emergence remains somewhat of a mystery, we can now state with confidence that the epic of evolution has been guided by counterbalancing trends of complexification and unification. This journey has not been an inevitable, deterministic march, but a quixotic, creative unfolding in which the future could not be predicted.

How will a more comprehensive understanding of evolution affect science and technology? Already a nascent but fast-growing industry called “biomimicry” taps into nature’s wisdom, imitating sustainable, high performance designs and processes acquired during four billion years of evolutionary R&D. Water repellant lotus plants inspire non-toxic fabrics. Termite mounds inspire remarkable buildings that make use of passive cooling. Spider silk may provide inspiration for a new, strong, flexible, yet rigid material with innumerable possible uses. Ultimately, plant photosynthesis may reveal secrets to an unlimited energy supply with minimal waste products.

The current bout of biomimicry is just the beginning. I am increasingly convinced that ongoing research into such phenomena as complex adaptive systems will result in a new synthesis of evolution and energetics—let’s call it the “Unified Theory of Evolution”—that will trigger a cascade of novel research and designs. Science will relinquish its unifocal downward gaze on reductionist nuts and bolts, turning upward to explore the “pattern that connects.” An understanding of complex adaptive systems will yield transformative technologies we can only begin to imagine. Think about the potential for new generations of “smart” technologies, with the capacity to adapt, indeed to evolve and transform, in response to changing conditions.

And what of human consciousness? Reductionism has yielded stunning advances in science and technology. However, its dominant metaphor, life-as-machine, has left us with a gaping chasm between the human and non-human worlds. With “Nature” (the non-human world) reduced merely to resources, humanity’s ever-expanding activities have become too much for the biosphere to absorb. We have placed ourselves, and the biosphere, on the precipice of a devastating ecological crisis, without the consciousness for meaningful progress toward sustainability.

At present, Western culture lacks a generally accepted cosmology, a story that gives life meaning. One of the greatest contributions of the scientific enterprise is the epic of evolution, sometimes called the Universe Story. For the first time, thanks to the combined efforts of astronomers, biologists, and anthropologists (among many others), we have a realistic, time-developmental understanding of the 14 billion year history of us. Darwin’s tree of life has roots that extend back to the Big Bang, and fresh green shoots reach into an uncertain future. Far from leading to a view that the Universe is meaningless, this saga provides the foundation for seeing ourselves as fully embedded into the fabric of nature. To date, this story has had minimal exposure, and certainly has not been included (as it should be) in the core of our educational curricula.

Why am I confident that these transformations will occur in the near future? In large part because necessity is the mother of invention. We are the first generation of humans to face the prospect that humanity may have a severely truncated future. In addition to new technologies, we need a new consciousness, a new worldview, and new metaphors that establish a more harmonious relationship between the human and the non-human. Of course, the concept of “changing everything” makes no up-front value judgments, and I can envision evolution’s net contribution as being either positive or negative, depending on whether the shift in human consciousness keeps pace with the radical expansion of new (and potentially even more exploitative) technologies. In sum, our future R&D efforts need to address human consciousness in at least equal measure to science and technology.

(This piece first appeared on, and will soon be published in: J. Brockman [ed.], This Will Change Everything, Harper Perennial)


  1. I know it could largely be a chance overlap, but it's always astounded me how many aspects of Buddhism especially interlink themselves substantially to what we're learning of the universe at large. The idea of emptyness and interconnectivity throughout the components of reality.

    Great blog. Your approach towards science and science communication is one that resonates quite well own thoughts behind paleontology (or science in general), culture, and the wonder I hold for all of them.


  2. I also think there's a lot of room for understanding ourselves as beneficiaries of evolution. Many traits of human civilization that we believe "separate man from the animals" may have biological origins. For example, religion as an institution increases trust in larger societies. Marriage commits two parents to raising offspring, which is necessary because humans take an extraordinarily long time to mature. For more on this, I'd recommend Nicholas Wade's "Before the Dawn."

    P.S. - There is actually a fairly copious literature on Buddhist environmental ethics. Theologically, it's fascinating, although empirically unfortunately there is no evidence that Buddhism actually promotes conservationist practices among its adherents.

  3. Another great post, Scott!

    You're probably already familiar with them, but, in case not, four colleagues already rapidly moving the larger field for evolution in precisely the direction you're pointing to are Eric Chaisson, David Christian, Joel Primack, and Nancy Ellen Abrams. Especially see David Christian's widely acclaimed Teaching Company Big History course: and also Joel Primack and Nancy Ellen Abrams' recent Yale University Terry Lectures:

    2009 Dwight H. Terry Lectureship, Yale University
    "Cosmic Society: The New Universe and the Human Future"
    Joel R. Primack and Nancy Ellen Abrams

    Lecture 1: "The New Universe" (50 min.)

    Lecture 2: "Stardust Plus Time Equals Us" (57 min.)

    Lecture 3: "This Cosmically Pivotal Moment" (57 min.)

    Lecture 4: "Cosmic Society" (1 hr)

    "The View From the Center of the Universe"
    by Joel R. Primack and Nancy Ellen Abrams


    My wife, Connie Barlow's, favorite quotes from their book:

    On a pure fun note, see these additions to Connie's YouTube Channel:

    Neil deGrassse Tyson Best Sermon Ever (8 min.)

    Cosmic Society (Connie's 3 min. intro to Nancy Abrams):

  4. Hi Michael,

    Thanks very much for the comment. Nice to know that you're out there reading this blog! I am certainly familiar with Connie's work, including her website, and have read Primack and Abrams "The View from the Center of the Universe," which I greatly enjoyed. I had not heard about their recent Yale lectures, however, and will check these out. I will also delve deeper into the work or Eric Chaisson and David Christian. You might have also mentioned your own book, "Thank God for Evolution," which is another on my book shelf. In particular, I applaud your efforts to seek common ground between science and religion.

    Of course, the lineage of people who have made similar kinds of large scale arguments about evolution goes back at least to Tielhard de Chardin. For me, perhaps the most articulate and important voice has been that of Thomas Berry, through both his own books and "The Universe Story," written with Brian Swimme.

    Thanks again. I sincerely hope that to have a chance to chat with both you and Connie about these issues face-to-face one day. Meanwhile, take care and best wishes, Scott

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  6. Such Bold Predictions, yet so controversial. I take that to be the point of such a thoughtful post.

    I can say one thing for certain, though, is that "The Unified Theory of Evolution" is just one "piece" to the Greatest "Puzzle" of the Universe which is "explained" by the long sought after "Unified Theory of Everything." Anything else, requires time to know for certain.....or will it?

  7. For me is strange that the missing link is yet to be found, I think we originated not from evolution but from a genetic experiment, I mean it is odd that all of the sudden we were able to built pyramids, or other great edifications back in those days, it is odd that from cavemen we suddenly were technologically advance.

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