Biocultural Evolution in the 21st Century

Biocultural Evolution in the 21st Century

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

 In a world which has become conscious of its own self
And provides its own motive force,
What is most vitally necessary to the thinking earth is a faith—
And a great faith– and ever more faith.
To know that we are not prisoners.
To know that there is a way out,
That there is air, and light, and love,
Somewhere, beyond the reach of all death.
To know this, to know that it is neither an illusion nor a fairy story. –
That, if we are not to perish smothered in the very stuff of our being,
That  is what we must at all costs secure.
And it is there that we find what I may well be so bold as to call the evolutionary role of religions.

 – Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Jesuit paleontologist, (1881-1955) (Chardin 1970, 9).



We live at an extraordinary moment in the natural history of the planet and the cultural evolution of our species.  From a geological or paleontological perspective, humanity’s brief sojourn on this planet is as dramatic and significant as the invention of photosynthesis some two billion years ago.  This is because human evolution bypasses genetics and allows for intentional culturally-acquired adaptations and their cultural transmission between generations in a Lamarckian evolutionary pattern.  As humans are about to embark upon large-scale genetic engineering of other species and ourselves, even as we have already engaged in large-scale environmental engineering, our biocultural evolution becomes literal and directed Lamarckism.   This new pattern of evolution now dominates all life on Earth and places the values and intentions of humans as the driving force in the future evolution of the planet.  Thus religion, broadly conceived of as the DNA of cultural replication, will take center stage in biocultural evolution in the 21st century.

My outline introduces the concept of biocultural evolution, particularly with reference to the 20th century and the prospects for the 21st century.  I then explore the concept of complex distributed systems to characterize all highly creative processes in both culture and nature.  Subsequently, I turn to the problem of complexity horizons and the challenge that these present for traditional moral reflections.  Humans are then characterized as a Lamarckian wild card in epic of evolution.  I close by discussing the evolutionary role of religion.


Biocultural Evolution

Humans exist and evolve in a dynamic relationship with the rest of nature.  In spite of our impressive cognitive and technological abilities, we remain after all fundamentally biological creatures.  As evolved mammals, we are dependent on biological processes to sustain our individual and collective lives.  To some extent all species both adapt into an environment as well as change that environment by their very presence, but with humans the capacity to change the environment increases dramatically.  We see this certainly in the history of agriculture over the last 10,000 years, which has re-sculpted ecologies and supported a growing human population.  Indeed, physical anthropologists discover, agriculture also changes our genetic make-up.  There is a dynamic relationship between our biology and our culture, encoded in our genetic and neural evolution, but increasingly also projected outwards onto the environment, which we harness and transform to our perceived benefit. 

In the twentieth century, there was a dramatic intensification of human editing of natural environments, which we see also in the realms of mining, construction, energy consumption, forestry, trade, travel, communications, and agriculture.  J.R. McNeill provides a non-polemical overview of these changes in his book, Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World, bringing together diverse data-sources to tell the history of the lithosphere, the pedosphere, the hydrosphere, the atmosphere, and the biosphere, all increasing and profoundly transformed by the spheres of human activity on the planet (McNeill 2000). 

It is worth reviewing some of these statistics, though they will be known to many already.  Most dramatically, human population has increased four fold between 1890 and 1990.  The total urban population of the world increased thirteen fold in the same time period.  Today, there are over six billion humans on the planet and while birth rates are declining in most regions, we can still expect growth over the next few decades (McNeill 2000, 360-361).

Sustenance for this growth in human population required increased food production and energy consumption, as well as new systems for distributing clean water, sanitation, and the containment and cure of diseases.   McNeill calculates that the world economy grew fourteen-fold in the period of 1890 to 1990, while industrial output grew forty-fold, all of this fueled by a sixteen-fold increase in energy use and a nine-fold increase in water consumption.  The domestic cattle population grew four-fold in this period.  The domestic pig population grew nine-fold.  Land under cultivation doubled in this time frame, while forest area decreased by twenty percent.  Marine fish catch increased thirty-five-fold in the last century and is now in radical decline save for a dramatic increase in “fish farming” (McNeill 2000, 360-361).

Demographers cited by McNeill estimate that about 80 billion hominids have lived in the past 4 million years for a total of 2.16 trillion years of human life lived on the planet.  So while the twentieth century represents only 100 out of the 4 million years, it has hosted 20 percent of all human-years lived. Certainly this was a prodigious century by any measure.(McNeill 2000, 9)

[I often tell my students that given some kind of time machine, Pharaoh or Caesar would gladly change places with them to enjoy the opportunities for education, health care, travel, entertainment, consumption, construction, business, and “empire-building” that they have today.  Of course, implied is also a plea to stop whining and try to leverage your good fortune through hard work.]

Many consider these dramatic changes with utopic hopes, others with apocalyptic fears.  I will return to these considerations later, but it seems more productive initially to reflect more philosophically upon the nature of these highly creative processes.   In order to do so I now introduce the concept of complex distributed systems.


Complex Distributed Systems

System theory emerged in late 20th century as a framework for studying the emergent properties of phenomena.  Science is typically committed to reductionistic analysis of phenomena, trying to figure out how the parts fit together to cause the whole phenomena.  System theory argues that the whole is more than the sum of its parts and that the emergent properties of the whole also need to be studied for their dynamic properties that only manifest themselves at this integrated level.   Thus, the distributed parts contribute to the holistic dynamics of a system (Bunge 2003), (Rihani 2002), (Barab·si 2002), (Bausch 2001), (Oyama 2000), (Sebeok and Danesi 2000), (Auyang 1998), (Bertalanffy 1973, 1968), (Director and Rohrer 1971, c1972).

Kevin Kelly, formerly the executive editor of both WIRED Magazine and the Whole Earth Review, wrote a survey of complex distributed systems in his book, Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems, and the Economic World .  Kelly seeks a metatheory of complex creativity in nature, technology, and culture.  In so doing, he examines phenomena as diverse as artificial ecologies, the telephone system, human consciousness, computer viruses, robotics, virtual reality, economic markets, computer animation, ecological restoration, evolution, and social insects.  The motto of the book is taken from his mentor, Stewart Brand, who notes “we are as gods and might as well get good at it” (Kelly 1994).

Kelly looks towards what he calls a “neo-biological civilization.”  He writes:

The realm of the born – all that is nature – and the realm of the made – all that is humanly constructed – are becoming one.  Machines are becoming biological and the biological is becoming engineered (Kelly 1994, 1).

 This raises profound theological questions for Kelly, who is himself a committed Christian:

This, then, is the dilemma all gods must accept: that they can no longer be completely sovereign over their finest creations.  The world of the made will soon be like the world of the born: autonomous, adaptable, and creative, but consequently out of our control.  I think that is a great bargain (Kelly 1994, 4).

 Kelly sees “life as the ultimate technology” and looks towards future technologies that will be modeled after the complex distributed creativity that characterizes life processes.  It is useful to explore some examples of this new paradigm.

Biologists, for instance, are coming to understand the genome as a complex distributed system.  Far from the popularized view of the genome as a series of programmable on-and-off switches, the genome turns out to be more like a bureaucracy in which genes, groups of genes, and regulatory genes are interlinked in multiple and dynamic interactive patterns.  Gene expression in the production of proteins is hardly a one-way street, as the cytoplasm and the environment can profoundly alter the outcomes.  Proteins, some 100,000 different varieties, fold and wrap around themselves in significant ways which are poorly understood, and thus present another level of complexity, which confounds the successes in genomic research in the last few decades.

Certainly, ecosystems also have a kind of distributed complexity, as species and environments interact, compete and cooperate in myriad of ways to create the emergent phenomena of an interactive ecosystem.  We might even think of the whole of evolution as a complex distributed system in which gene sequences and phenotypic traits are shared throughout the whole.  Dinosaurs may be extinct, but parts of their genes and phenotypic traits continue to be replicated in reptiles, birds, and mammals.  Something of the dinosaur survives in our “reptilian” brain stem and in the neocortex of five-year old boys who are obsessed with dinosaurs.

The brain is also an example of a complex distributed system. A single neuron may be beautiful to the discerning eye of a neurologist, but it does not do much by itself.  Wired together in a massively parallel system, however, the 100 billion neurons in your brain, each with upward to 1000 synaptic connections, may be the most complex entity in the known universe.  So the brain is an example of a complex distributed system. 

A brain, of course, also does not do much by itself.  To realize its potential, a brain also requires co-evolution with our oppositional thumb, our vocal cords, the rest of the central nervous system and the body, the stunning intricacies of nature, and dynamic relationships to other humans in culture.  When the paradigm shift takes hold, we begin to recognize that most of the highly creative processes in life are best understood as complex distributed systems.

One cannot understand a beehive by studying a single bee.  The hive is a kind of superorganism.  Similarly, one cannot understand the behavior of economic markets by studying a single Wall Street trader.  The stock markets of the world are truly a beehive of activity.  Individual traders are linked together with cellphones and computers to investors, corporations, and governments, engaged in a dynamic and highly creative exchange of symbolic values that profoundly reshapes material realities.  Economists discover behavioral patterns and mathematical equations that describe emergent dynamics of economic markets, though prediction of future trends remains forever elusive.  We will return to this image of the stock market at the end of the essay, when we consider the evolutionary role of religion.


Complexity Horizons

The problem with complex distributed systems is best illustrated by considering the difficulties that the U.S.government has had in designing a new computer system to manage air traffic control.  The computers currently used date back to the 1970s and are little more than enhanced radar systems managed by stressed out humans.  After many decades and many billions of dollars invested in attempting to create a successor air traffic control system, the effort is stymied.  There are simply too many variables involved that need to be recalculated on the fly, so to speak, in a computer program that cannot crash, if thousands of passengers at Chicago O’Hare are not also to crash.  The task is comparable to trying to design a computer program that drives your car across town, avoids collisions with other moving targets, and finds a parking space at the shopping mall.  There are levels of complexity that defy modeling through computer programs.  No amount of coding and processing power will solve the problem.

Another example is observed in the current debate about Greenhouse Gases and Global Climate Change.  While we know that carbon dioxide, methane, and other emissions in the atmosphere are rising and increase the heat retention capacities of the Earth’s atmosphere, we really do not have a good understanding of the effects of these gases on climate or even the nature of long-term climate patterns.  Past and future climate models are all simulated on computers and involve assumptions about various feedback loops that might accentuate or diminish the effects of increased greenhouse gases.  For instance, assumptions need to be made about regional and global increases or decreases in precipitation levels, the regional and global effects of increases or decreases in the reflective albedo of cloud cover, and the circulation flows in the ocean currents and atmospheric jet streams.  Further assumptions need to be made about increases or decreases in ocean phylloplankton, the possible thawing of artic tundra (resulting in the release of huge quantities of methane into the atmosphere), and the possibility of increased carbon fixing by plant-life in response to increased levels of carbon in the atmosphere.  All of these processes create feedback loops that could dramatically accelerate or minimize the effects of increased greenhouse gases, that need to be modeled and plotted against poorly understood shorter and longer-term climate patterns, that may or may not hold for the future.  The complexity of the climate system, and computer simulations that try to model it, presents us with the proverbial “butterfly in China” problem.  Small variations in initial conditions can spiral into unpredictable consequences both in our clever models and in reality.  Any climatologists, who claim to know whether climate change is or is not a global crisis, commit what A.N. Whitehead referred to as “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness,” in which scientists mistake their models and maps of reality as reality itself.  We simply cannot predict the future of the Earth’s climate.  We are confronted with a horizon of complexity that we cannot see beyond.

Computers constitute the one Kuhnian scientific revolution that has impacted all sciences over the last twenty years.  The ability to collect and analyze large datasets today is extraordinary.  Scientists are also able to create complex models and simulations of natural processes.  The computer as a tool and metaphor has dramatically transformed every scientific discipline.  The problem is that we can now easily come to understand levels of complexity, which will thwart our abilities to causally model and comprehend.  Outside a small number of sophisticated and philosophically minded computer scientists, policy makers, the public, and even many scientists do not understand the known limits of computation and complexity (Harel 2000).

So while complex distributed systems are very creative, they are difficult to predict.  They are characterized by many feedback loops, such that slight variations in initial conditions can have dramatic effect or no effect.  Complex distributed systems can be extremely sensitive or robust.  They can collapse like a house of cards or they bounce back to equilibrium after disturbances.  Complex distributed systems have non-linear and emergent properties.  These highly creative systems also confound us with complexity horizons beyond which speculations about the intended and unintended consequences of their behavior are more statements of faith than reliable predictions.  As a result, there is a profound moral ambiguity about biocultural evolution in the 21st century.  We simply cannot see beyond the horizons of certain levels of complexity.  Should we fear or celebrate this “out of control” creativity?  In the 21st century, the only remaining “wilderness” is that of wild and unpredictable modes of human cultural and technological evolution.


Lamarckian Wild Cards

The pattern of evolution exhibited by humans is more Lamarckian than Darwinian.  Through culture, acquired characteristics are passed on to future generations.  My children did not have to reinvent the wheel or the microprocessor.  They did not have to reinvent the Bible or the Bhagavad-Gita.  They did not have to reinvent Shakespeare’s plays or discover differential calculus.  Nor are they directly related to any of the people responsible for these accomplishments.  These accomplishments are passed on as the commonweal of all humanity through a mode of linguistic replication called education.  In the rest of life processes, natural selection, the necessities of differential reproduction and survival, operates on a supposed background of random genetic drift.  In human cultural evolution, however, selection will operate on the background of intentional adaptation.  Of course, humans have been editing environments for a long time, more intensely so in recent history as we have discussed.  This environmental engineering also changes the background of natural selection for the rest of life, which is becoming increasingly domesticated within the new environments created by humans.  As we move towards large-scale genetic engineering of other species and ourselves, we end up with a literal form of Lamarckism, in which the phenotype directs the genotype.  Intentionality now enters the evolutionary epic and with it radically new and accelerating kind of creativity.  Humans are a Lamarckian wild card. 

Is this for the good or bad?  My benefactor, John Marks Templeton wrote a book entitled Is Progress Speeding Up? Our Multiplying, Multitude of Blessings.  Templeton notes that in the 20th century we live longer, eat better, have bigger homes, better education, more opportunities for travel and entertainment.  We are safer and have cleaner environments than our ancestors 100 or 1000 years ago.  There is impressive data to support this claim (Templeton 1997). 

The image of the Wright Brothers first airplane flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina 100 years ago can serve as an icon for this transformation.  Today, we fly around the world at 30,000 feet and complain about uncomfortable chairs and bad food.  How quickly we lose historical perspective on the amazing transformations in our lives.  One hundred years ago horses, trains, steam ships, and walking were the dominant modes of human transportation.  The automobile revolution had barely begun.

Human life expectancy in the developed and developing world has doubled in the last century.  New technologies on the horizon may even extend life span beyond the known limits of approximately 120 years.  By resetting the telomeres at the end of your chromosomes, you may be able to reverse cell senescence.  Need a new kidney or heart?   You may soon be able to grow your own replacement body parts with the use of multipotent stem cell technology… or is it biology.  The boundaries will blur in the 21st century. 

Counter to this progressivist optimism, it must also be noted that the potential for disasters has perhaps never been larger:

  • The weapons of war bear little resemblance to those of the past.  Nuclear, biological, chemical, and so-called conventional weapons have proliferated and will likely be used in the next century. Cities may disappear in the flash of a nuclear explosion; populations may perish in biochemical attacks. There is little historical basis for being optimistic about human depravity when it comes to recurrent outbreak of war.
  • We are confronted with significant and unpredictable changes to every bioregion on the planet and the atmosphere as a whole.  Anthropogenic changes in the environment have the potential of spinning out of control, whether it be through dramatic climate changes, voracious weed species, soil salination, depleted aquifers, barren oceans, and industrial pollution.
  • There is the growing resistance to antibiotics and the possibility of a major pandemic.  The last big pandemic was the 1918-1919 Influenza pandemic which killed perhaps as many as 40 million people.  Were some new disease to arise, it would travel quickly around our now crowded and highly mobile world.
  • Were there some major economic and environmental collapse in the coming decades, food riots and famine would quickly engulf the now highly urbanized population centers of the world.  Fifty-years ago 40 percent of the U.S. population was engaged in agricultural production.  Today it is less than 3 percent.  Who today has the foggiest idea how to actually produce their own food, were it suddenly to become necessary to do so?

Actually, I have grown weary of interpreting these tealeaves.  Both our hopes and our fears can be swindlers.  Like the Queen of Hearts in Lewis Carrol’s Alice in Wonderland, I consider at least a dozen inconceivable scenarios everyday before breakfast.   It is part of my Buddhist practice of mindfulness and non-attachment.  But after breakfast, we still have a life to live, decisions to make, a safer and healthier future we would like craft.  What interest me is not the predictions, but the patterns and properties of this new mode of evolution.  If we understood the dynamics of biocultural evolution better, maybe humanity would be more functionally adaptive to the challenges of the 21st century.

In trying to understand human uniqueness, physical anthropologists have plotted the ratio of brain mass to body mass for a variety of species.  It seems that compared to other animals, humans have very big heads.  Dinosaurs, however, also had big brains, in many cases much bigger than human brains, but in proportion to the size of their bodies, they were too small and too far away from the action.  So the yarn goes, dinosaurs are extinct and the little mammals came to dominate.  When you put a human into an automobile, however, the ratio of brain mass to body mass goes way down.  We end up more like the dinosaurs.

This whimsical story is really an invitation to see our technology as part of our new embodied humanity.  Our individual and species identity does not end with our epidermis.  When we drive a car, we are really extending our embodied natures. The point here is that technology, and everything that accompanies it, is not extrinsic to our identity.  Technology, a form of embodied culture, is profoundly intrinsic to our humanity, so much so that thoughtful observers think we should now speak of posthumanity, technosapiens, and cyborgs.

[Alternately, cars are a part of nature too.  Cars certainly reproduce, but they do so through a complicated sex life that harnesses humans in their replication.  Indeed, the internal combustion engine has been a far more prolific replicator in the 20th century than even its human symbiont.  As comedian George Carlin once quipped, “humans are evolution’s way of creating plastics.”]

On one level, humans have changed little over the millennia.  We are biologically and psychologically identical to our ancestors 100 or 10,000 years ago.  We are conceived in passion, born in pain, we have a long period of childhood dependency after which we are initiated into adulthood.  If we are lucky, we work, we love, we raise children, we grow old.  We still contemplate the stars above and what might lie beyond this life and this world.

As a superorganism, however, we are a whole new genus.  There is little in the collective patterns in human behavior that resemble the past.  Imagine, if you can, a time-lapse movie taken a mile or two above an urban area over the last fifty years.  Imagine the growth in roads, the construction of new buildings, the network of utilities, the corpuscular flow of people and material in this expanding city over the last fifty years.  Now play this time-lapse movie back in the Petri dish of a biologist in an afternoon and ask for her assessment.  The biologist might not know what it was, not without a powerful microscope that revealed the details of this miniscule city in motion, but she would conclude that this entity in her Petri dish was certainly some kind of living organism, a growing and evolving system.  Is it a marvelous new form of life or a deadly cancer?

Princeton University biologist and ethicist, Lee Silver, penned a book entitled Remaking Eden, in which he considers the prospects for reprogenetic technologies in the next century.  According to Silver, Aldous Huxley got it only partly right in his book Brave New World.  New medical technologies are going to revolutionize human reproduction.  The age of designer babies is fast approaching, witness the ads in the student papers at Ivy League schools for female egg donors with the going price upwards to $50,000 for the appropriately tall, attractive, athletic, and intelligent university co-ed egg donor.  What Huxley got wrong was his prediction that authoritarian government was going to control this reprogenetic technology.  Instead, it will be the free market that “regulates” new reprogenetic technologies.  Silver maintains that it is not really any different than wealthy parents wanting to send their kids to expensive private schools or to pay for their orthodontics.  If the technology exists to “engineer” a healthier, more attractive, and more intelligent baby, then parents who can afford to will certainly avail themselves of such technologies.  No nation-state can contain either the advance of science or the desires of parents to have the best children possible.  Indeed, Silver sees the technology and market forces as so powerful, that he predicts a speciation horizon for humanity in the next century, in which genetically-enriched humans will become a separate breeding population from natural humans, whom the “Gen-rich” will also dominate (Silver 1997).  Most bioethicists today believe that this free-market reprogenetic re-evolution is a realistic scenario.  Ideology becomes historical necessity.  To quote the Borg, the human-machine collectivity that terrorizes the galaxy in the popular Star Trek movies, “resistance is futile, prepare to be assimilated”.

Donna Haraway, a biologist turned philosopher at UCSC, wrote a ponderous book Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium. FemaleMan©_Meets_OncoMouse™.  Conversant in microbiology, history and philosophy of science, feminist and socialist theory, continental philosophy, cultural criticism, and science fiction, Haraway popularizes and philosophically examines the notion of cyborgs, i.e., cybernetic organisms, of which humans are now but one example.  Haraway writes:

The cyborg is a cybernetic organism, a fusion of the organic and the technical forged in particular, historical, cultural practices.  Cyborgs are not about the Machine and the Human, as if such Things and Subjects universally existed.  Instead, cyborgs are about specific historical machines and people in interaction that often turns out to be painfully counterintuitive for the analyst of technoscience…  Cyborg anthropology attempts to refigure provocatively the border relations among specific humans, other organisms, and machines (Haraway 1996).

 Haraway’s provocative insights and ironic prose are meant to shock us into awareness.  There are no essential boundaries between inanimate and animate, between human and animal, between male and female, between nature and technology.  The nature of nature, reconceived by Haraway as an amalgam of material, biological, cultural, and technological “semiotic” relationships and “causal vectors” of interactions, are heterogeneous and variable.  Haraway calls for an epistemological modesty in pursuing truth and justice in the 21st century.  The very concept of the “Human”, however, no longer serves either pursuit.

The distinguished Harvard biologist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, E.O. Wilson, however, envisions humans primarily through the retrospective lens of our genetic and evolutionary pasts.  Wilson helped launch the field of sociobiology, now renamed evolutionary psychology, that seeks to understand human behavior as based on the evolved necessities of survival and reproduction.  Wilson introduces the metaphor of a dog’s leash, which restricts the ability of the pet from wandering too far away from its master.  Our human nature, encoded over millennia in our genes, is like a leash, which gives us some freedom in behavior, but keeps us from wandering too far away from our fundamental nature. 

Of course, in both trivial and profound ways, we are biological creatures.  We should expect to find in our genes and our behaviors patterns related to the necessities of survival and reproduction over the course of our long evolution.  What is curious about humanity today, if I am still permitted to use that term, is that the genetic leash can be long or short; it can also be elastic, irrelevant, or in the case of genetic engineering, reversed.  Genes certainly do not predict supercomputers, cell phones, and space stations, let alone symphonies and Superstring Theory.  How can we possibly predict our post-human future based on our evolutionary past?

Bill Joy, the founder of Sun Microsystem, wrote a cover story in WIRED Magazine entitled “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us.”  The cover art consisted of a crumpled scrap of paper from some future dictionary, defining humans as “the extinct species… characterized by carbon-based anatomy.”  Joy had been reading and talking with some of his fellow computer visionaries, people like Danny Hillis, Marvin Minsky, and Hans Moravec, who were looking at exponential increases in computational power, the emerging promise of nanotechnology, and the cybernetic hype of the genomic revolution.  Joy woke up to a potential nightmare in which a small group of scientists and industries were thoughtlessly creating an out of control leap forward which might well result in human extinction.  He writes:

As this enormous computing power is combined with the manipulative advances of the physical sciences and the new, deep understandings in genetics, enormous transformative power is being unleashed.  These combinations open up the opportunity to completely redesign the world, for better or worse: The replicating and evolving processes that have been confined to the natural world are about to become the realms of human endeavor (Joy 1999).

 Before a small group of scientists unleashes these powers, he recommends a broad public debate and suggests that these areas of research might better constitute forbidden knowledge.  Joy turns to the teachings of the Dalai Lama at the end, hopeful that Buddhist ethics might save humanity from an evolutionary crisis, in which we create new cybernetic beings that overwhelm humanity and other life forms.

Bill Joy’s manifesto created a lot of debate among the so-called “Digerati”.  Whether our self-induced extinction is imminent or not, it is certainly true that robotics, genetics, and nanotechnology are fields experiencing exponential growth.  One of the more insightful commentaries came from virtual reality expert Jaron Lanier, who wrote a piece entitled “Half a Manifesto:  Why stupid software will save the world from Neodarwinian machines.” Lanier debunks Bill Joy’s thesis, but does so by substituting alternate dystopias.  In one scenario, the constraints of the software complexity will consume the efforts of every living person to maintain exponentially growing computation on “a planet of help desks.”  In another scenario, the frictionless free-market empowered by computers exacerbates socio-economic disparities, which become increasingly genetic disparities, leading to the class- caste- speciation.  The “good news” lies in the problem of complex computation, which will stymie our attempts to engineer the future.  Lanier notes that while Moore’s Law predicts a linear growth in microprocessor power for another ten to fifteen years out, programs, data sets, storage, and transmission capacities grow at an exponential rate.  We are headed for a computational bottleneck in our quest for ever-more complex machines (Lanier 1999).

What disturbs Lanier is not the trajectory of the technology, but the ideology of what he calls “cybernetic totalism” that motivates so many of the high-tech enthusiasts.  Lanier concludes:

So, therefore, I’ll worry about the future of human culture more than I’ll worry about the gadgets.  And what worries me about the ‘Young Turk’ cultural temperament seen in cybernetic totalists is that they seem not to have been educated in the traditional scientific skepticism.  I understand why they are intoxicated…  There is a real chance that evolutionary psychology, artificial intelligence, Moore’s law fetishizing, and the rest of the package will catch on in a big way, as big as Freud or Marx did in their time.  Or bigger, since these ideas might end up essentially built into the software that runs our society and our lives.  If that happens, the ideology of cybernetic totalist intellectuals will be amplified from novelty into a force that could cause suffering for millions of people…  Cybernetic eschatology shares with some of history’s worst ideologies a doctrine of historical predestination… (Lanier 1999).

Where does all this speculation about the future leave us?  Lanier has brought us back to the question of culture, ideology, and religion, which indirectly leads us back to the question of the evolutionary role of religion.  His hope for the future, truly only half a manifesto, is based on our being confounded by increasingly complex systems that cannot be easily manipulated.  Lee Silver may remake Eden and create his Brave New World, not because humans will have mastered reprogenetics, but because he has helped promote the ideology of the autonomous individual, mere utilitarianism, and technological salvation.  Similar to the eugenics movement in the early 20th century, which was also seen as good science in its time, Silver’s version of “reprogenetic totalism” may also contribute to future crimes against humanity, too horrendous to imagine.

Neil Postman, in his book, Technopoly, warns us that every tool also changes the way we think.  “Embedded in every tool,” writes Postman, “is an ideological bias, a predisposition to construct the world as one thing rather than another, to value one thing over another, to amplify one sense or skill or attitude more loudly than another” (Postman 1993).  Postman’s formulation, however, misses the ambivalence of technology, which has multiple uses and ambivalent applications.

We simply do not know what the future holds in store for good or for ill.  We do know that we have been through a period of dramatic change in culture and technology, and that this is likely to continue.  We can summarize our dilemma with two clichÈs.  In the first, taken from the National Rifle Association, “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people”.  In this formulation, we are told that technology is somehow neutral.  It is the intentions and actions of humans that matter.  The other piece of folk wisdom, however, suggests that “If all you have is a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail”.  Technology matters.

Humans are a Lamarckian wild card in the epic of evolution, but we are confronted with a horizon of complexity beyond which we cannot see.  Should we engage in large-scale genetic engineering or not?  Is this a recipe for disaster or an opportunity for ecological restoration?  We cannot predict the future.  The cup is both half full and half empty at the same time. 


The Evolutionary Role of Religion

Humans appear in the evolutionary epic rather belatedly.  Hominids have been in existence for some 4 million years.  Agriculture has its origins some 10,000 years ago.  Great civilizations appear on the scene only some 4000 years ago.  The last 100 years have seen an enormous growth in human population and consumption patterns.  Theologian John Haught provides us the following mnemonic to help us absorb the evolutionary timescale.  Imagine that the history of the universe was told in thirty volumes, each volume with 500 pages, each page lasting a million years.  On page one, volume one, we get the Big Bang, the expansion rate stabilizes, the four fundamental forces take on their particular identities.  We then go into a long process of galaxy and star formation.  Finally, around volume twenty-two, the Earth story emerges out of the remains of a second or third generation star.  Life begins in volume twenty-three and continues mostly in microscopic form until the end of volume twenty-nine when the Cambrian explosion occurs with its great fluorescence of new life forms.  Dinosaurs become extinct on page 435 of volume thirty.  All of recorded human history begins on the last page of volume thirty as a small footnote (Haught 2001).  How are we to understand the role of humans in this vast evolutionary story?

We turn now to the evolutionary role of religion, the main topic of this prolonged reflection.  Religion, it turns out, is a rather difficult concept to define.  The 20th century mathematician and philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead, notes that when we talk about religion:

We are dealing with a topic, complex and many-sided.  It comprises the deliverances of the understanding as it harmonises our deepest intuitions.  It comprises emotional responses to formulations of thought and to modes of behaviour.  It comprises the direction of purposes and the modifications of behaviour.  It cuts into every aspect of human existence.  So far as concerns religious problems, simple solutions are bogus solutions.  It is written, that he who runs, may read.  But it is not said, that he provides the writing (as quoted in Sharpe 1986, vii).

There will be no simple account of humanity’s spiritual inclinations.  Anthropologists and philosophers alike struggle to define this term that we use with a commonsense understanding based on our own particular cultural background.  The root of the word religion is from the Latin religare, which means to tie fast, to bind together.  While the concept of religion has traveled widely in the world, it is not a term that necessarily translates into other languages and cultures.

The anthropologist Clifford Geertz offers a powerful phenomenological definition of religion in his 1973 classic The Interpretation of Cultures.  Geertz conducted extensive fieldwork in Indonesia and Morocco.  He calls his anthropological method “thick description”.   Geertz  recognizes the great plurality of human beliefs and practices, consequently he seeks a definition that covers everything from animism to atheism and from Confuscianism to Christianity.  He defines religion as:

 (1) a system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in people by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic (Geertz 1973, 90).

While this is a very robust definition of religion, it ends up covering many beliefs and practices that are not normally understood to be religion.  For instance, there is an entire chapter in Geertz’s book devoted to analyzing Marxism in the Soviet Union as a kind of quasi-religion.  Indeed, even football, political parties, the environmental movement, the shopping mall, and my daughter’s Suzuki violin classes begin to look like religions based on Geertz’s definition.  If we are to truly grasp the significance of religion in human evolution, we must begin to understand what heterogeneous and all-encompassing phenomena religions really are.  In the name of opposing one religion or even religions in general, people inevitably substitute a different system of symbols with different moods and motivations formulated within a general order of existence.

Perhaps we can take a more materialist approach to understanding religion, for instance as advocated by Karl Marx in his model of the base and superstructure.  The foundation of human culture is economics, what Marx refers to as the “modes of production”.  Economics is fundamental because these processes provide the necessities of survival.  The metaphor is of a house or building.  If the economic foundations of a society change, as in the change from feudalism to capitalism, then everything in the superstructure also changes.  The political system changed from feudal lords to bourgeois democracy and the religious system changed from Catholicism to Protestantism.  When the material foundations of history change, then religions also change.  Of course, we live at a time of dramatic changes in the economic base, so we should expect to see according to Marx also dramatic changes in religion.  It is important to note that other social scientific thinkers, for instance Darwin and Freud, also adopted this model of causation, though each defines the base somewhat differently.  Darwin understands the modes of survival and reproduction to be foundational to life.  Freud modifies this to place the psychic structures necessary to survival and reproduction to be foundational.

In The Communist Manifesto, Marx sounds more like a Biblical prophet, speaking more about the contemporary world than even his own:

[Our society] cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society… Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones.  All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify.  All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned… (Marx and Engels 1959, 1848).

 Another classical example of materially driven change in religion is that of Gutenberg’s invention of the moveable-type printing press in the 15th century.  Gutenberg appears to have been a devout Catholic and of course he set about printing copies of the Bible.  Little did he realize that his technology would make possible the Protestant Reformation in the next century and that this would lead to a century and a half of warfare and political upheaval in Europe.  The Protestant Reformation could not have occurred without widely available copies of the Bible.

This model of the base-superstructure turns out to be far too simplistic to deal with the complexities of human societies and historical change.  The directions of causation and change are many and dynamic.  Few social theorists today would accept such a simplistic model which privileges one causal factor independently of all of other social and historical factors.  Thus, a material approach to understanding religion, whether it be a Marxist or Darwinian understanding of the “base” is going to be of limited value.  This is not too say that religions are not also profoundly related to the material foundations of human life.  The modes of production and reproduction and how these are embodied in our economic, genomic, and cognitive systems are very significant in understanding religions.

I propose now what I playfully call “Grassie’s Law,” which states simply that approximately thirty percent of any theoretical problem is psycho-social-somatic.  The other seventy percent is materialist in origin.  Philosophy typically bifurcates.  One is either a philosophical materialist or, less commonly today, a philosophical idealist.  One chooses either nature or nurture in understanding the development of the human person.  One chooses matter or mind as the primary category.  Grassie’s Law suggests that it is both, but not equally so.  The causal ratio is taken from Placebo studies.  Studies suggest that on average thirty percent of any medical treatment is the result of the patient’s belief system.  Antibiotics and acupuncture both work independently of one’s belief system, including on animals, but they work better on humans if they believe in their efficacy.  Actually, it needs to be said that Placebos are encoded in a cultural context and do not simply reside in the minds of the patients.  Pill-popping is an effective Placebo in the United States, but not necessarily in Brazil, which does not have a culture of pill-popping (yet). Thus, we also need to talk about a social-somatic effect.

So beliefs really do matter both for individuals and societies.  Beliefs change reality in subtle and profound ways.  The problem with Grassie’s Law, however, is that the directions of causation and change are many and dynamic.  Materiality effects beliefs.  Beliefs effect materiality.  They interact in multiple vectors and feedback on each other.  Thus we have in human culture itself a fabulously complex distributed system with many causal vectors and feedback loops.

What is important to note here is that our different system of religious symbols, with their different moods and motivations, formulated within a general order of existence, also shape and guide our technologically empowered civilization.  So when we talk about biocultural evolution in the 21st century, my bet is that religion broadly understood will take center stage as the most important and unpredictable variable for better or worse.

Theologian Philip Hefner adopts the notion of “Created Co-Creator” in his book The Human Factor: Evolution, Culture, and Religion.  Created in the image of God the creator, our own creativity is an essential component of what it means theologically and anthropologically to be human (Hefner 1993).  There is, however, a deep ambivalence in Hefner’s reformulation of the doctrine of Imago Dei.  When does human creativity fulfill this divine mandate and when does it become a blasphemy or a sin?  We receive no clear guidance.

Traditional ethics would evoke the precautionary principle – do no harm.  If there is a chance that our technological and cultural evolution will cause harm, then we should desist.  Genetically modified food, for instance, might get out of control and cause irreparable damage to ecosystems, ergo we should not pursue such technologies.  We can also evoke the concept of opportunity costs.  Not pursuing biotechnology might make it impossible to feed the world, reduce cropland and restore ecosystems, solve the energy crisis, or cure the next pandemic.  We do not know.  We cannot see beyond the horizons of complexity.

What we should remember, however, is that religions are also part of complex distribute moral systems.  It is not just the free market s of evolution, economies, technologies, that should concern us.  Human values, beliefs, and practices are also part of the equation.  Religions can be thought of as the DNA of cultural evolution; the glue that binds us together in a functional and sometimes dysfunctional whole.  Religions represent the collective wisdom of the ages pieced together over centuries of empirical research about human universals and that which transcends us.

There is no reason to necessarily privilege this moment in natural history and cultural evolution.  Strict environmental or cultural preservationism would freeze history in principal and in any case would not work in practice.  Evolution is not static.  Life is a thermodynamically disequilibrious process.  Equilibrium equals death, but then too much disequilibrium also results in death.

My hope is that humans will be more like gifted artists in our future evolution, taking the materials at hand, the more-than-human realms of nature, and transforming them with our technology and culture to create something more beautiful.  To do so, we will need to re-read the books of revelation and the new books of nature, creating a dialectic between our cultural and biological inheritance.  We may hope that there is an invisible hand working through the distributed systems of natural history and cultural evolution, but we will not know.

Recall the images the Wall Street trading floor and the beehive of economic activity that it represents in the exchange of capital, services, and commodities in similar markets around the world.  We forget that money is merely symbolic value.  You can’t literally eat money; you can’t build a house or a business with little pieces of colored paper and medal coins.  Money is part of a complex symbolic system of value.  It is not “real”.  In using money as a basis for exchange, however, humans dramatically reshape their material reality and thus the symbol system becomes a fundamental reality of their lives. 

Religions also function as a complex symbolic system of values.  Bracket for a moment the ontological truth claims that religions make, so that we might come to appreciate the symbolic religious exchange of beliefs and practices that also radically transform the material world.  Like economists, we too can worry about “irrational exuberance” in the markets of lived religion.  So too, cynical caution can depress an entire civilization.  We might wish that religions could exemplify considered optimism, or as I am more likely to promote, hopeful pessimism.  Whatever attitude towards life we adopt, individually and collectively, our beliefs become partially self-fulfilling prophecies.  There truly is a kind of transformative magic in the domains of religion. 

In conclusion, let me return to the opening poem from Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.  Humans are the world “become conscious of its own self”.  It is through our unique cognitive capabilities that the Earth can taste its own pathos, ethos, and logos.  We are “the thinking earth” in Teilhard’s view.  As I have tried to argue, humans now also provide the “motive force” for the future of the planet in this Lamarckian-stage in the epic of evolution.  What we need says Teilhard is “a great faith” that transcends all possible failures, because this faith will become a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.  Without this ontological optimism, we will not generate the motivation to struggle and adapt in the face of ontological uncertainty.  The alternative is to “perish smothered in the very stuff of our being.”  This faith, says Teilhard, is “the evolutionary role of religion,” which is why when we think about biocultural evolution in the 21st century, I argue that religion is where the real action will be.




 Auyang, Sunny Y. 1998. Foundations of Complex-System Theories: In Economics, Evolutionary Biology, and Statistical Physics.New York:CambridgeUniversity Press.

Barab·si, Albert-LaszlÛ. 2002. Linked: The New Science of Networks. Cambridge, MA: Perseus.

Bausch, Kenneth C. 2001. The Emerging Consensus in Social Systems Theory. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers.

Bertalanffy, Ludwig von. 1973, 1968. General System Theory: Foundations, Development, Applications. New York: G. Braziller.

Bunge, Mario Augusto. 2003. Emergence and Convergence: Qualitative Novelty and the Unity of Knowledge. Buffalo, NY: University of Toronto Press.

Chardin, Pierre Teilhard de. 1970. Activation of Energy.

Director, Stephen W., and Ronald A. Rohrer. 1971, c1972. Introduction to Systems Theory. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Geertz, Clifford. 1973. The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Harper.

Haraway, Donna. 1996. Modest witness @ Second Millennium.The FemaleMan© meets OncoMouse™. New York: Routledge.

Harel, David. 2000. Computers Ltd.: What They Really Can’t Do. New York: Oxford University Press.

Haught, John. 2001. Evolution and Divine Providence. Philadelphia: Metanexus Institute.

Hefner, Philip. 1993. The Human Factor: Evolution, Culture, and Religion. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

Joy, Bill. 1999. Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us. WIRED 8.04.

Kelly, Kevin. 1994. Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems, and the Economic World. New York: Addison-Wesley.

Lanier, Jaron. 1999. One-Half of a Manifesto: Why Stupid Software Will Save the Future from Neo-Darwinian Machines. WIRED 8.12.

Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. 1959. “The Communist Manifesto”. In Karl Mark and Friedrich Engels: Basic writings on politics and philosophy, edited by L. S. Feuer. New York: Doubleday. Original edition, 1848.

McNeill, J.R. 2000. Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Oyama, Susan. 2000. Evolution’s Eye: A Systems View of the Biology-Culture Divide. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Postman, Neil. 1993. Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. New York: Vintage.

Rihani, Samir. 2002. Complex Systems Theory and Development Practice: Understanding Non-Linear Realities. New York: Zed Books.

Sebeok, Thomas Albert, and Marcel Danesi. 2000. The Forms of Meaning: Modeling Systems Theory and Semiotic Analysis. New York: Mouton de Gruyter.

Sharpe, Eric J. 1986. Comparative Religion: A History. Fifth ed. Chicago: Open Court Publishing. Original edition, 1975.

Silver, Lee M. 1997. Remaking Eden: Cloning and Beyond in a Brave New World. First Edition ed. New York: Avon Books.

Templeton, John Marks. 1997. Is Progress Speeding Up? Our Multiplying Multitudes of Blessings.Radnor,PA: Templeton Foundation Press.