Evolution and its relevance to the way we live now

by Victor Anderson

We are in the midst of the biggest global crisis in the life of man; climate change, population growth, peak oil, financial crisis and major tensions between Christian and Moslem and Moslem and Jew. Green economist Victor Anderson reflects on what Darwin would have made of our predicament and what evolution implies for economics, policies and consciousness.

(From GreenSpirit, vol. 11.1, Spring 2009)


What would Darwin have made of our current predicament? He might have been disappointed with how our species is getting on, Victorian believer as he was in the superiority and continuing progress of human beings.
The optimism characteristic of his time has largely disappeared. The First World War gave it a jolt, then the Nazis, the Second World War, the atom bomb, and the ecology crisis. All that hope for progress has gone sour, or at least appears very problematic.

There has been progress of various sorts, of course. There has been economic growth, with more production and consumption almost every year than there was the year before. There have been amazing developments in technology, communications, science, and medicine. There are more human beings than ever before, and on average we live a lot longer than we used to. The picture is a mixed one, so mixed in fact that it looks paradoxical. How could we as a species have achieved so much, and yet have produced the terrible disasters of world wars and a whole set of different varieties of environmental devastation? How should we rate our chances now of coming through, in the long run, into some better day?

Natural history provides two different lessons. One is that the rise and fall of a species is nothing exceptional, but is the norm. Population dynamics is a standard part of ecology, and the standard pattern is that a species multiplies in numbers whilst it has the food and circumstances to sustain that, then overreaches itself, running out of food, taking up too much space, producing too many waste products, and as a consequence numbers then fall back, until food and circumstances once again enable population numbers to recover and the cycle begins anew.

The other lesson is an evolutionary one. Species reach points where they find it hard to cope with existing circumstances. Perhaps a river dries up, or a forest dies back, or an Ice Age arrives. There is then a sort of fork in the road. Either the new circumstances defeat the species in question, and it becomes extinct, or else adaptation and evolution take place, such that the species or its descendents become able to cope with the transformed circumstances. Again, reaching such a fork in the road is nothing unusual, it is a standard pattern in evolution.

Does any of this sound familiar for our own species? We are living inside both of these patterns, the population dynamics and the fork in the road. But because our species is different from other species in some crucially important ways, we are living through these patterns in an unusual way. The population dynamics, for us, are the dynamics not only of population, but also of living standards and technology. The planet is supporting not only more people, but also on average, continually rising material standards of living. The burden on environment and resources has been described as “the IPAT equation”, meaning environmental Impact equals Population multiplied by Affluence multiplied by Technology (meaning the efficiency with which the technology delivers the affluence) (1). It follows from this that the energy and resource efficiency of our technologies is a problem, and that the scale of population is also a problem.

Evolution drawing


For humans, reproduction is now to a large extent a matter of conscious choice. That is also a key aspect of the “fork in the road” which we face. We face it consciously, knowing the situation, or at least knowing that we can know about it if we choose to. In this respect, we are a very unusual species, and that consciousness gives us the possibility of deliberately choosing one path rather than another, without any inevitability. If we didn’t have consciousness and the ability to choose, I have no doubt that we would be heading now towards ecological disaster, with nothing able to stop us. And that is, of course, how it sometimes seems, surrounded by evidence that we are not actually using our consciousness and our ability to choose, but are instead in a state of denial and/or distraction.

Our future depends principally on two factors, both of them highlighted by the study of natural history and evolution. One is the IPAT equation, implying the need to restrain population growth and find ways to improve our lives without greater and greater impacts on environment and resources. The other is the need to make use of the consciousness that we have in order to face up to our current crisis, and get ourselves organised to do something different, a process which has been called “conscious evolution”  (2).

The evolutionary story, however, has another lesson to contribute. This is that the development of consciousness is itself part of the evolutionary process. The feature of our species which may save us is a product of the Evolution and its relevance to the way we live now.  Evolution is, amongst other things, the evolution of consciousness. Although some theories present the evolution of consciousness as some sort of inevitable progression through a series of stages (3), one after the other, in fact historically progress has been less smooth than that. And there is also the problem of seeing consciousness as the prime force moving evolution along, when a Darwinian (and more plausible) account sees consciousness as useful in the struggle to adapt and survive, and therefore as a product of evolution as well as a cause.

Now that we are getting used to being in the 21st Century, we can say with some certainty that the 20th Century got things wrong about human consciousness and social organisation. One way of getting it wrong was totalitarianism, the effort to organise our species top-down, through dictatorships such as those of Stalin and Hitler, making use of centralised power but not making use of the independent abilities and energies of the millions of people who were crushed underfoot by those systems. The other way of getting it wrong was selfish individualism, according to which “greed is good”, “there is no such thing as society”, and our responsibility is simply to look after ourselves. This mobilised the initiative of many more people than totalitarianism did, but it was initiative which did not aim to contribute to the common good or acknowledge social responsibility.

Neither of these forms of consciousness and social organisation stands much chance of getting us through our current crisis, which requires a combination of initiative and responsibility. That depends on not choosing between individuality and the common good, but on reconciling them, arranging society so that they go together. To make this particularly difficult, it is the key task at a time when each of the four main traditional means of achieving this reconciliation is in great difficulties: the market economy (with, at its best, the principle that it should only be possible to make a profit by serving other people’s needs); democracy (with the principle that it should only be possible to be elected if one serves other people’s needs); the sense of belonging created by membership of social units such as communities and nations; and religion (from the origin of the word, meaning “to bind together”).

Since, in order to get through our evolutionary crisis, we need to find ways to reconcile individuality and the common good, and we need to carry this through at a time when the market, democracy, community, and religion – in their traditional forms – are all failing, each one of these four will have to be transformed in basic ways if they are to going to be of use to our species in getting through our current evolutionary crisis.

Elisabet Sahtouris, an evolutionary biologist, has likened our time to the period when separate single-celled creatures first joined together to become multi-cellular, and therefore became able to cope with a much wider range of life’s problems. They achieved what we are finding difficult: an arrangement whereby they could combine, but also allow each component part the specific role it could perform best (4). What she sees as central to the current period of human evolution is the emergence of the global level of human organisation, beyond the nation- state, a unit of organisation which was at its peak in Darwin’s time.

This emergence of the global is not only about “global consciousness”, though that is important: it is also about getting ourselves better organised. One important part of this picture is the process of international discussion on climate change. So are the talks which have been taking place with the aim of getting the world economy on track, this time with India, China, and other developing countries as full participants, moving on from the days when the “G7”, the richest Western countries, could sort things out amongst themselves and impose their will on the rest. Now it’s “G20”, representing in a very approximate way a more democratic world. And another important aspect of all this is the discussions which are taking place about armaments and the settling of old disputes, such as those in the Middle East (5).

All this is described as “politics” and “economics”, but it is not separate from the evolution of consciousness or the evolutionary process in general. It is all essential to what evolution means for our species in our time. Darwin would probably have been surprised if he knew that the future progress of our species was to become so problematic. But it would have been no surprise to him to find that the development of our consciousness and our powers of social organisation have become the two keys to giving humans a chance of breaking out of difficulties of population and environment which have led millions of previous species to defeat and destruction.

1. The IPAT equation was part of Paul Ehrlich’s response to Barry Commoner, in debates in the early 70’s environmental movement. Ehrlich P & Holdren J: “Review of ‘The Closing Circle’” (Environment, April 1972, pp. 24-39).
2. “Conscious evolution” is a phrase associated particularly with Barbara Marx Hubbard. Hubbard, B.M.: Conscious Evolution (New World Library, 1998).
3. For example, the stages set out by Ken Wilber. See Wilber, K: A Theory of Everything (Shambhala, 2000).
4. Sahtouris, E. Gaia: the human journey from chaos to cosmos (Simon & Schuster, 1989). See also Swimme, B. & Berry, T. The Universe Story (Penguin, 1992).
5. The best website for tracking these and other developments in global politics is, in my opinion, www.iht.com (the online global edition of ‘The New York Times’).