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Chapter 3: Conscious Evolution and the Evolution of Consciousness

"The replicating and evolving processes
that have been confined to the natural world
are about to become realms of human endeavor."

Bill Joy
"Why the Future Doesn't Need Us"
Wired 8.04 (2000)

"If at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it."
Albert Einstein

     Have you ever considered the extraordinary speed at which we humans evolved from our initial state of self-awareness to where we now possess the ability to manipulate the genetic material of our own species? On a cosmic time scale, the swiftness of this progression of knowledge is unprecedented as far as we know. Along the way, an important milestone on the road of biological evolution has been passed, for no longer is organic life at the mercy of evolution's previously glacier-like speed. We have entered an era in which conscious awareness is taking over the machinery of evolution, striving to improve the very species in which this consciousness has taken root. No longer are changes in our biology primarily dependent upon random mutation.

     Almost daily, we hear of some new advance in the science of genetics. The concepts of gene splicing and cloning are entering mainstream awareness. Yet, as important as it is to improve the biology of our species, it is even more important that we accelerate the evolution of consciousness itself. As technologically advanced as we are, the human species has yet to attain a cohesive, global view of itself, let alone arrive at an understanding of how to manage the environment and resources required to sustain the biological life we all hold so dear.

     As Teilhard de Chardin tells it, the story of evolution is a story of the struggle between the unified multiple and the unorganized multitude. In other words, evolution pits organization against individualization, cell systems vs. large numbers of single cells, human organizations against the great mass of individual human beings. Chardin also postulated that self-aware consciousness evolves from animal intelligence only after some critical mass of complexity is reached in the brain/body organism supporting that intelligence. In a way, this concept brings to mind a nuclear explosion, which takes place when a critical mass of fissionable material is brought together. In the case of self-awareness, however, the energy released by a critical mass of complexity results in consciousness rather than in an explosion.

     As Chardin saw it, when an essential amount of complexity is restricted to a small enough space, the density of the information underlying that mass of complexity is what creates self-awareness on the part of the structure in which the complexity is contained. The only case in which we know that this has likely occurred is in the human species. As important as it may be to search for other self-aware beings, both off this planet and among other life forms found in our biosphere, it is equally important to discover ways in which human consciousness can evolve to a higher, more intensely self-aware level.

     At what rate do you suppose human biological evolution is taking place? My personal belief is that the tempo of our evolution as a species is actually accelerating. This is particularly evident if the rate at which our increase in knowledge about life's processes is taken into account. It took our species millions of years to evolve from lower life forms to the point of self-awareness. Yet it took only a few hundred years for these same self-reflective beings to move from the discovery of the microscope to our present age of gene splicing. Ever since that first moment of self-awareness, the consciousness of our species has been evolving at a stupendous rate when compared to other life forms on Earth of which we are now aware. The significant change in direction, or bifurcation, the course of biological evolution took when self-awareness entered the picture, also caused complexity to enter a new era-one in which complexity itself is now increasing exponentially. The Internet is an exemplary manifestation of this phenomenon.

An Evolutionary Bifurcation

     If Chardin is correct in his Law of Complexity and Consciousness (1) we may be approaching a bifurcation along the road of human evolution, a point at which complexity reaches yet another critical mass. It is at this point we can expect to see a new form of super-consciousness arise in the human species. As organisms become ever more complex, conditions may become favorable for consciousness to arise-that is, for one to know it knows. Chardin extrapolated this observation into his hypothesis that, eventually, the human species, en masse, will constitute, or merge into, a single, symbiotic organism. He further envisioned the noosphere itself becoming so incredibly complex that it ultimately will become self-aware in its own right. What is meant by the noosphere becoming self-aware is the question that interests me the most.

When reading Teilhard de Chardin's description of the noosphere as "a stupendous thinking machine," I am reminded of the Internet/noosphere combination discussed in the previous chapter. In a 1947 paper, Chardin said:

Complexification due to the growth of consciousness, or consciousness the outcome of complexity: experimentally the two terms are inseparable. Like related quantities that vary simultaneously. Surely it is within this generalised cosmic process that the noosphere, a particular and extreme case, has its natural place and takes its shape. The maximum of complication, represented by phyletic infolding, and in consequence the maximum of consciousness emerging from the system of individual brains, coordinated and mutually supporting. (2) [Emphasis added]

     Chardin here implies that for human consciousness to evolve to its utmost limits requires a richer substrate than is to be found in an individual human brain. He sees this further evolution of consciousness arising from a "system of individual brains, coordinated and mutually supporting," which, by definition, is significantly more complex than any single human brain. Without knowing exactly how such a system would come into being, it seems clear that Chardin foresaw an interactive communications technology like the Internet as a precondition to the further evolution of human consciousness.

     Keep in mind that Chardin's work took place during the first half of the 20th century, when radio and television were new technologies. It was through these tools that he saw the promise of dynamic inter-human communications taking place. What he did not foresee was that democracy would pass these media by. How was he to know that by the end of the 20th century the vast majority of the world's television, radio, and print media would be controlled by a mere handful of global corporations? Of course, with hindsight it is now obvious that those in positions of power could not let any form of mass communications fall under the control of the public at large. As authoritarian governments the world over have shown us time and again, control of information must be absolute if they are to maintain control over any knowledge which, if widely disseminated, would lead to a restructuring of their power base. As early as 1990, Alvin Toffler pointed out that:

Knowledge itself, therefore, turns out to be not only the source of the highest-quality power, but also the most important ingredient of force and wealth. Put differently, knowledge has gone from being an adjunct of money power and muscle power, to being their very essence. It is, in fact, the ultimate amplifier. This is the key to the powershift that lies ahead, and it explains why the battle for control of knowledge and the means of communication is heating up all over the world. (3)

     If the growth of the noosphere requires an increase in interpersonal communications by which people can freely access and exchange information, the near-monopoly control of our current mainstream media forces us to look elsewhere for ways to bring an ever-increasing number of human minds into closer contact with each other.

     The Internet, of course, promises a different outcome than we have seen with other forms of mass media. Although, as it now may appear, corporate advertising has taken over the Web, control of the Internet by a small number of global companies is simply not possible as long as enough of the Net's citizens remain vigilant. (4) Consider the anarchical manner in which the infrastructure of the Internet is managed. (5) Because of the Net's lack of a single, central controlling body, it is going to be very difficult for a small group of corporations, or nations for that matter, to take over the communications network of networks we call the Internet. If the current egalitarian spirit of the Net continues to grow, I see a very bright future ahead for freedom of information, and the knowledge to which it leads. Of course, the freedom of speech we see on the Net today is not guaranteed to continue indefinitely. Our ability to continue to build an Internet that does not restrict communications between individuals might even depend on you. Like the butterfly of chaos theory, whose fluttering wings cause an almost imperceptible disturbance in the atmosphere, which in turn leads to a hurricane, the future of this great venture we call the Internet might well depend upon a single word, or act, or gesture from you. At this delicate point in the space/time continuum, everyone's actions become extremely important. This is certainly not the time for you to have a casual attitude about the future of human life on planet Earth.

     It is important to understand that by joining our minds together in pursuit of a common goal, there will be not just an accumulation of ideas, but rather a synthesis of ideas. Chardin makes it clear that this is not to be a synthesis that creates some new autonomous being, but rather one that will create a "domain of interwoven consciousness, the site, support, and instrument of super-vision and super-ideas." What is the Internet if not a domain of interwoven consciousness, a habitat in which the human species can nourish a unified, global vision of itself and for itself? I believe the Internet provides a perfect focal point for consciousness to continue its process of complexification, as Chardin calls it. Of all the technological advances made by the human species, the Internet provides the most fertile ground yet in which the noosphere, our species-consciousness, can take root and evolve to its next level of complexity.

A Working Definition of Consciousness

     What follows is not intended to be a universal definition of consciousness. It is only included to provide the reader with a sense of what I mean when I use the word "consciousness" in this book.

     Specifically, I am referring to the state of mind human beings find themselves in when they are self-aware. This strict use of the word consciousness does not include any forms of consciousness that may be experienced after the human body dies, unless I specifically make a statement to that effect. Thus, the type of consciousness is human in form. This does not, however, tell us what consciousness actually is. The short answer is that consciousness is a form of energy, but this is too brief to be a very satisfying answer.

     Another way to conceptualize consciousness is to begin with its foundation, the living human brain. As we all know, our bodies, which include our brains, are kept alive by food. Although some of our food may include animal protein, the food which underlies all of animal life comes from plants. In turn, plants synthesize water and carbonic acid into edible organic matter. Basic chemistry teaches us that chemical synthesis requires an energy source. In the case of plants, this energy comes from the sun. Without the energy provided by our sun, life on this planet would not exist. I will let Albert Hofmann tell the rest of the story:

Light is the original cosmic energy source. All life, the life of plants, animals, and human beings, is formed and sustained by light. Even the thought process of the human brain is fed by this energy source. Therefore the human mind, our consciousness, represents the highest, most sublime energetic transformation of light. We are light beings; that is not only a mystical experience but scientific knowledge as well. (6)

     Light, of course, is a form of energy; thus consciousness (in my view) is energy that has taken human form; in other words, energy incarnate. (7) Energy itself, therefore, is the underlying substance of all that is, both material and spiritual. Whether or not this assumption is correct, it provides a working metaphor to explain such things as the contacts with other entities of which shamans speak. Perhaps the entities they encounter on their deep shamanic journeys are concentrated fields of energy composed of other than human consciousness. I have heard more than one shaman say of his work, "It is all about energy." Why energy seeks form is something that is not yet clear, but this has no bearing on the way in which I use the word "consciousness."

The Evolution of Consciousness

     Until now, I have been using the word "evolve" primarily in its general, non-biological sense, that is to develop. My use of the word in this chapter is also meant to carry with it the sense that, overall, the development, or growth, of consciousness has been in an upward, or more fulfilling direction. Using a biological metaphor to describe the evolution of consciousness is not necessarily inappropriate, since human consciousness is biologically grounded.

     If we were to say that consciousness itself fell under nature's processes of evolution, ideas would be analogous to genes. Just as our genes determine our biological makeup, our ideas shape our consciousness. Continuing with this metaphor, we can see how, from time to time, mutant ideas can alter the genetic makeup of our consciousness and cause the emergence of a completely new state of mind.

     I once witnessed a dramatic demonstration of the power a single mutant idea can have over an individual mind. You have most likely seen a similar demonstration. It involves hypnotism. (8) One evening I was in a nightclub that featured a hypnotist's act. Although he went through a full range of startling presentations of the power of hypnotism, what most captivated my attention was the transformation that took place in a young woman from the audience who responded to a post hypnotic suggestion she had received.

      Earlier, when this woman was seated on the stage with other volunteers from the audience, she was so unassuming as to be nearly invisible. In fact, I was not even sure she had been hypnotized when she was told that later, when the band began playing a particular tune, she would become the embodiment of a then famous popular singer. As we witnessed the other volunteers going through what seemed to be super-human feats, no one paid any attention to the young woman who had by then returned to her table. Eventually, the band struck up the prearranged tune, and this woman, quite literally, metamorphosed before our very eyes.

     It is difficult to convey the transformation of personality we witnessed that evening. This previously shy and unassuming person suddenly had a radiance about her that defied description. She not only came back on stage singing in a clear and beautiful voice, she took over the show. Until the hypnotist released that post hypnotic suggestion from her mind, she was the show. I witnessed this performance over 30 years ago, yet I can still recall everything about the moment that young woman, under the influence of a single mutant idea, actually became a different person. Everything about her changed, not only her self-assuredness, but even her physical appearance changed. Before our very eyes, this woman transformed herself into the gorgeous, vibrant, enchanting, and very talented being she had been hiding from us when she first volunteered to be hypnotized. Her consciousness encountered a mutated idea and out of it evolved a new person. I will never forget that evening, for it was the first time I actually understood the virtually unlimited power of mind.

     It is this type of transformation I envision when I speak of the evolution of consciousness. As important as the daily growth and development of our consciousness is, it is the mutations that I see as triggering an evolution in consciousness. Granted, I am putting a positive spin on the direction such mutations can cause. This does not mean to imply that mutant ideas come only in pleasing flavors. During the last century we certainly experienced many powerful mutations in consciousness, some of which led to world wars. It is my passionate hope that negative mutations such as these can be avoided in the future as our species-mind becomes better coordinated through the same self-organizing properties other complex systems exhibit. (9)

     Just as biological life has evolved through mutation, trial, and error, consciousness also seems to follow a similar trajectory. By now our species should be convinced that ideas of war, hate, and social injustice are negative mutant memes that should be studied in academic institutions, not unleashed on the planet at large. Let us take a new tack and see whether ideas that lead our collective consciousness in the direction of Gaian awareness can provide us a better chance of surviving.

     The destruction of our biosphere is not a new phenomenon. Our species has been pillaging the environment for at least 14,000 years. Why? Because the collective consciousness of our species has not yet evolved to the point where it can take precedence over individual wills. Until our species began to over-populate this planet, the biosphere was able to absorb the negative effects of our misconduct. Now that the only real threat of predators comes from within our own species, the time has arrived to evolve new strategies for survival. Each day more people come to the realization that all life is actually interconnected, deeply interconnected. With the aid of the Internet, it is now possible for our species to bring our collective unconscious to the surface and more closely examine what it means to be human and to share this planet with so many other incredible forms of life. Viewed from this perspective, it becomes even more imperative that we do all that we can to ensure that everyone has access to the Net. Internet access should be a basic human right, and it is up to those who are already connected to see that this right is extended to the rest of our species.

Conscious Evolution

     As we know, the processes of biological evolution appear to take place ever so slowly and behind the scenes, so to speak. At least that has been the case until our recent advances in the science of genetics. It was not until the 20th century that we saw large-scale efforts on the part of the human species to play an active role in evolution. Although gene splicing, gene therapy, cloning and other new technologies are still in their infancy, it seems clear that there is no longer any possibility of turning back and abandoning these new fields of research. Consciousness has now taken its place alongside nature and joined in the work of evolution.

     While it may not yet be fashionable to speak of genetic research in terms of consciously directing evolution, it seems clear that this is precisely what is taking place. The human species is now actively involved in the continuing process of evolving not just itself, but other animals and plants as well. Just as we breed farm animals with a certain genetic predisposition, we also modify our food. For example:

The USDA has already approved about 50 genetically engineered crops for unlimited release; US researchers have tested about 4,500 more. Over half the soybeans and a third of the corn [grown in the U.S.] now contain genes spliced in from other forms of life. (10)

     What concerns some people who have given serious thought to our headlong rush into the genetic manipulation of life is that many of our best scientists are focused more on the economic value of their work than on its meaning to all life on this planet. Scientists are now purposively creating life forms primarily because they are patentable, not because they may lead to an improvement of life on this planet. If for no other reason than to keep up with the exponential advances in the biological sciences, it seems imperative that we also evolve our species' consciousness to a much higher level. As respected computer scientist Bill Joy so clearly states, "We should have learned a lesson from the making of the first atomic bomb and the resulting arms race. We didn't do well then, and the parallels to our current situation are troubling." (11)

     From this moment in time forward, it is even more important that the pace of the evolution of human consciousness dramatically increase if we are to match the increased rate at which we have taken control of our biological evolution.

     We are talking apes who now have the tools required to do everything from exploring the atom to walking on the moon. Our skills in science and technology are growing at an ever-increasing rate; yet when it comes to inter-tribal relations among our species, we have not evolved much above the level of our prehistoric ancestors. The time has arrived for us to consciously direct the evolution of human consciousness itself, before our technology and innate selfishness drive our species to extinction. Fortunately, we now have a very powerful tool to assist us in the conscious evolution of human consciousness. We have the Internet.

     With few exceptions, people from all cultures share intimate bonds with their immediate families and close friends. Even in families where there are strong sibling rivalries, it is common for warring brothers to come together to repel a threat to their family. The best hope for us to survive as a species is to take the bond of family to its highest level. The time has arrived for us to clearly see that the entire human species is our family. But how, you ask, are we to accomplish such a task? In the final chapters, we will explore some of the possibilities evoked by this question. First, let us take a closer look at this strange cosmos in which human consciousness has come to evolve.

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