From the department of Woo Woo & Weirdness, I bring you this theory I’ve been mulling over.
I theorize that humans have the ability to evolve consciously. This ability enables us to develop behaviors and skills that are more adapted to our environment, our community, and most interestingly, our selves.
Animals (and humans) evolve generation to generation, where each generation represents a unit of evolution. Normally, genes carry traits that produce a physical characteristic or a behavior. Of course there are environmental pressures that change behavior, too. But these changes typically occur on birth via mutation and are tested by the environment for adaptedness. The creatures with the most adapted traits or behaviors win more resources and mates, and ultimately pass on their genes. I’m simplifying, but you get the idea.
Humans have the capacity to observe and assess our own behaviors. We self identify, self reflect, and endeavor to self improve. Instead of changing behavior subtly from one generation to the next, we can dramatically shift many times within one life. This allows us to intentionally discover better adapted behaviors. Our highly social nature and rich communication skills allow us to pass those adaptations on both vertically to our offspring and horizontally to our community.
This sharing of adaptive strategies multiplies the speed of our evolution. Whereas an animal’s life may represent one unit of evolution, ours may contain many units. And whereas the outcome of a successful adaptation would normally be procreation and therefor propagation, we can share what works right away.
So behavior adaptation equates to evolution, and since humans can self evaluate to change behavior beyond the scope of genetic pressure, we are consciously evolving. Instead of genes being the medium of evolution, our minds become that medium. And we can do this evolutionary process much faster than other creatures.
But why would we evolve on purpose? What environmental pressures would we be responding to? Certainly to the physical environment, as creatures have always done. But we are responding to something else as well: our capacity to self reflect. This ability has introduced a new element to the evolutionary environment. Normally, adaptations respond to environmental pressures, which have always been external. But humans also are aware of an internal, perhaps meta, environment - what some would call the human condition. This environment comes with it’s own set of challenges and resources that must be addressed.
A few benefits of adapting better to this environment immediately come to mind. By looking inward, we can become aware of genetic tendencies that made sense in other contexts, and learn to move beyond them. We can master our emotions, free ourselves from the charge of craving and aversion. We can learn to take advantage of the mysterious grey matter in our brains. And we can directly observe that thing which animates us, which is observing this interior and exterior space: that which is conscious.
Where will this take us?
Millions of years ago, the globally connected society of humans would not have seemed impossible. Even the notion of humans seemed improbable in the time of single celled life. Yet here we are. Our species has adapted to a tremendous number of environmental conditionals to develop surprising and ingenious behaviors and traits. And as this connectedness increases, so too does our awareness that we can and must address the pressures of our internal environment. As life progressed across the evolutionary landscape of the physical in remarkable and unforeseeable ways, so too can life now progress and evolve across the landscape of the non-physical.
I suspect we will see a globally connected species with a flourishing and mastery of the human condition as unexpected and marvelous as life’s emergence as humans.