Evolutionary Spirituality

Expert consensus document

Panel - Michael Dowd, Connie Barlow, Tom Atlee


Evolutionary perspective


History of the scientific use of the term, "evolution"

Long before Charles Darwin wrote his "On the Origin of Species," which was published in 1859, natural philosophers (the 'scientists' of the day) used the term "evolution" to refer to developmental unfolding of natural phenomena. In fact, Darwin resisted using the term "evolution" in his great book because his view of the role of "natural selection" in fostering change through time in the living world was far more spontaneous and decidedly not preordained.

Since then, biologists have comfortably adopted the term as their own, and its definitional use in that field has come to imply not only spontaneous but, indeed, random change through time. Since the death of Stephen Jay Gould, esteemed voices within biology have begun to alter the professional and popular understanding of "evolution" to include, once again, a kind of developmental trajectory. Richard Dawkins, Edward O. Wilson, John Maynard Smith, Simon Conway Morris, and Mark McMenamin are among the biologists who track on convergent evolution — that is, the compelling evidence in the living and fossil record that an array of very distinct structural, functional, physiological, sensory, and behavioral characteristics have occurred not once but twice, or even many times. The classic example of convergent evolution are the striking similarities between marsupial "mice", carnivores, and other mammals in Australia and the look-alike placental mammals found elsewhere in the world. Among plants, the classic example of convergence are the succulent cactuses and yuccas of the New World compared with the succulent euphorbs and aloes of the Old World.

Is there a direction to evolution?

Considering not only evolutionary convergence but also the history of the rise in diversity and complexity in the living world, Edward O. Wilson, Richard Dawkins, and Peter Corning have all written of "progressive" evolution as a well-grounded, indeed compelling, interpretation of the empirical evidence. Three recent, widely respected popularizations of a progressive view of evolution are John Stewart's Evolution's Arrow: The Direction of Evolution and the Future of Humanity, Robert Wright's Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, and Eric Chaisson's Epic of Evolution: Seven Ages of the Cosmos.

The term "evolution" on this wiki thus draws from wide-ranging and inclusive roots of mainstream science — a heritage that regards evolution as proceeding very often in spontaneous and unpredictable ways, and very often in pathways that have been walked before and might indeed be expected. It also is grounded in the awareness that evolutionary change in the living, cultural, and cosmic realms is often gradual, and yet often abrupt. Finally, it is grounded in the vast evidence collected that living and non-living systems may change in "progressive" ways — that is, building complexity and cohesiveness at ever greater levels, such as the role of symbiosis, or merger, in the evolution of eukaryotic cells or the role of "stellar nucleosynthesis" in the formation of complex atoms. It is also grounded in the recognition that "devolutionary" forces are also at work — entropy in the physical world and organ and sensory diminution in the living world when organisms adopt a parasitic lifeway.

Nonetheless, there is no dispute that the rudiments of a trajectory through time can be discerned in cosmic, biological, and cultural evolution — a trajectory of greater complexity through time and the enhanced degree of co-operativity at wider scales that undergirds the rise in complexity. Indeed, the devolutionary forces of explosive star deaths, extinctions of life, and geological break-up of massive continents provide the very conditions for novelty and emergent complexity to ensue.

Diverse interpretations draw from the same scientific facts

Thus from the perspective of The Great Story of evolution at all levels of reality, the evolutionary narrative offers a history of change and the opportunity to read from that history basic principles worthy of study and mindful application by those whose pyschological resonance with the wider world (spirituality) honors and embraces this understanding. Those who embrace "evolutionary spirituality" may hold vast differences as to whether and how "spirit" and "soul" play out within the human, living, and cosmic realms. They hold great differences in their views about questions not yet (or perhaps never) answerable or falsifiable by science. But those who include "evolutionary spirituality" as an important part of their worldview share a regard for the gleanings of science and for how those understandings can be intentionally, collectively, and pragmatically applied to offer hope, inspiration, and gentle guidance for individuals and groups to be of service to their communities, to their cultures, to their species, and to the wider world.

Another facet of a mainstream evolutionary worldview that is subject to different interpretations pertains to divergent beliefs as to whether a spiritual force gave birth to matter and energy or vice versa. That is, some philosophical interpretations posit that "the lesser derives from the greater" (spirit first), while others that "the greater derives from the lesser" (commonly known as "evolutionary emergentism".) Both are legitimate interpretations of the same agreed-upon scientific facts.

More on the evolutionary perspective

Evolution, in this sense, is viewed as multi-faceted -- even fractal. That is, it happens at all levels of scale and dimensions of reality simultaneously, in highly interconnected ways. Each microcosmic developmental or change process is part of a macrocosmic developmental or change process, and vice versa. Personal changes impact collectives that the individuals are part of, and social changes impact individuals. Human activity changes the biosphere, and changes in the biosphere alter human activity.

The evolutionary perspective in this wiki honors and is grounded in current theories of cosmic, biological, and other forms of evolution. Being motivated by a desire for civilization to develop in more sustainable, wise, self-aware, and life-affirming directions, and for humanity to avoid self-extinction, we seek to use current theories of evolution (scientific, biological, spiritual, etc.) to deepen our understanding of conscious change at all levels. We want to apply that understanding to our individual, group, community, national and global lives, thereby becoming a conscious force for evolution.


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