Human Creativity: Expanding Complexity and Evolutionary Discontinuities
In this paper I examine human creativity within the context of natural history and cultural evolution. In order to establish an evolutionary framework for examining the phenomena of Homo sapiens, I begin by reviewing different theories of evolution — Pre-Darwinism, Darwinism, Neo-Darwinism, and what some are calling Post-Darwinism. I favor the so-called Post-Darwinist paradigm for both scientific, moral, and metaphysical reasons. However, regardless of the processes involved in non-human evolution, I argue that human culture evolves in a Lamarckian manner, whereby acquired innovations are passed on more-or-less directly to the next generation. So while there are undeniable continuities with non-human nature, as well as myriad natural constraints upon human culture, I argue that there are also significant discontinuities in the evolutionary epic. In order to understand these processes, however, we need to examine human creativity as primarily expressed through the notion of distributed systems. I briefly examine brains, language, economics, technology, and morality as distributed systems. In discussing the expanding complexities of human creativity, I pose the question of whether these rapid changes are for better or worse. Finally, I examine religious and metaphysical issue. How might theological anthropology need to be revised in order to account for this prolific human creativity? What moral and pragmatic constraints might such a theological anthropology place upon our contemporary worldviews and world-doings. How would humans figure in a future in which we are superseded or perhaps extinguished by other creative and prolific entities, perhaps created by our own technoscientific ingenuity? Is there a transcendent telos expressing itself through natural history and cultural evolution?
How do humans fit into nature and the continuing evolution of life on this planet? The very word “nature” will frequently confuse us in this exploration, for it is notoriously multifaceted, begging careful definition. My dictionary lists ten differently nuanced definitions of the word. Nature, more than the Romantic poets ever dreamed, really also includes humans, part and parcel, whether we reside with William Wordsworth on the banks of the Wye River and compose verse above Tintern Abbey or whether wander thro’ the blackened and charter’d streets of London with William Blake. It would seem in an evolutionary context that even our poetry is part of nature, though we’re far from understanding human consciousness and language, let alone poetic invention. While sometimes the term “non-human nature” can be used for greater specificity to distinguish the human from the rest, this term has the unfortunate side effect of being somewhat derogatory and speciesist. We could use the term “more-than-human nature” to more salubrious effect, but that term imports other biases. In any case, by the end of this essay, I hope not to have clarified the philosophical nuances of the word “nature,” but rather to confuse our common sense understandings of what it means to be human.
In order to comprehend the greatly accelerated rate of human creativity on this planet, we will first have to begin by examining the non-human, more-than-human , and prior-to-human nature out of which we evolve. If we were to scale the evolutionary epic of our planet to a one-mile walk, with each foot scaled to about a million years, then it would only be in the last few feet that we would witness human emergence out of the savanna ofAfrica. Recorded human history would be a fraction of an inch on this one mile walk through time; the span of a human lifetime less than a thousandth of an inch. When we think of this chronological expanse, then the term “more-than-human” takes on a new poignancy.
Contrary to what many people think, Charles Darwin did not invent the notion of evolution of species from common descent. Already in the 18th century, European biologists noticed important evidence suggesting cross-species relationships of descent. These pre-Darwinian evolutionists notice that there were significant morphological similarities between species in bones and organ structures. There were also embryological similarities between species. With the beginning of the Great Migration of Homo sapiens across the Earth, at the time referred to as European colonialism, science learns about the geographical distribution of species in different continents. With the discovery of new and related species in remote corners of the world, the botanists and zoologists were presented with many new classification problems for taxonomy. Finally, there was the new science of geology, which included both fossil records of species extinctions and successions, as well as a greatly expanded time scale with massive geological changes over the course of eons.
This was the evidence that led French biologist Jean Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829) to formally postulate a theory of species evolving from common ancestry. Lamarck argued that the mechanism of change was through acquired characteristics, which would then be passed on to the next generation. For instance, oneurhorse might have decided to run and flee in the face of a predator, while its cousin decided to charge and ram. Over their respective life times, the runner got proficient with daily practice, as did the charger. In the Lamarckian model, the respective children of these two urhorses would inherit the proficiencies to run and flee or to charge and ram, including any physical traits conducive to this defense strategy from their parents. After a period of time, the one line evolves into modern horses, while the other line evolves into the modern buffalo.
It is only the last statement which is true in our contemporary understanding of how evolution happens. Acquired characteristics are not passed on to the next generation, so much so that this theory is enshrined as the “Central Dogma” of modern biology – the phenotype does not influence the genotype. Like all dogmas, the Central Dogma is only partly true. Genes do absolutely nothing by themselves; they require cytoplasm and an environment to provide chemical-energy for their thermodynamically disequilibrius activities. In the fabulously complex reiterations of seemingly all other natural processes, we would expect some kind of feedback loop between the phenotype and the genotype, between the individual expression and their genetic off-spring, but I am getting ahead of myself and beyond my technical expertise. I need only flag at this point that I will claim that human cultural evolution follows a Lamarckian pattern of development. Among Anglo-American evolutionary theorists, however, “Lamarckianism” is a term of derision.
Even before Charles Darwin, we note, the evolution of species from common descent was a plausible hypothesis. Indeed,Darwin’s grandfather was an evolutionist. Missing, however, was a convincing theory of how evolution could happen. There was no evidence for direct Lamarckian patterns of development across generations. WhatDarwindeserves credit for is coming up with a more plausible theory of how evolution of species from common ancestors might occur. The argument is simple and elegant .
The Origin of Species begins by examining the breeding of domestic plants and animals. The farmer controls breeding and selects desirable traits among off-spring to be reproduced. Over many decades or centuries, this results in the great variety of domestic plants and animals, for instance, in the over 3000 varieties of tubulars cultivated by the Incas inPeru. Darwin notes that without variation of traits among off-spring of the same parents, there would be no selection of desirable traits on Old McDonald’s barnyard or in Heinz’s 57 varieties.
Darwinthen observes the same kind of inherited variation among off-spring of the same parents exists in nature, though of course there is no farmer to guide the reproductive choices of plants and animals in nature. Following economist Malthus’ worries over human population growth inIreland,Darwinnotes that not just the Irish, but every species reproduces at a geometric ratio of increase. This exponential pattern of population growth is often quite extreme, as in the case of a single pair of aphids on your house plant, who left unchecked by death, would populate the entire surface area of the planet within twelve months. Even in the case of slow reproducing species, this exponential growth pattern is observed. Elephants, with their two-year gestation period, are still capable of producing far in excess of mere replacement numbers. Of course, in most circumstances, exponential population growth is not realized because lack of food, predation, disease, all leading to death, often in infancy. Darwindeduces that there must be a universal struggle for survival in light of these fertility rates. In that struggle, any inherited variations that tend to enhance the ability of a species to out-compete other like-kinds will tend to survive and reproduce. Over great periods of time with changing environments and geographical isolation, species tend to diverge from common ancestors and grow from distinct varieties into totally separated breeding populations with divergent characteristics and the extinction of less-improved forms. Thus, there is a kind of Natural Selection in nature, which achieves what the domestic breeder does “from the war of nature, from famine and death.” Darwinwrites:
Natural Selection acts exclusively by the preservation and accumulation of variations, which are beneficial under the organic and inorganic conditions to which each creature is exposed at all periods of life. The ultimate result is that each creature tends to become more and more improved in relation to its conditions. This improvement inevitably leads to the gradual advancement of the organisation of the greater number of living beings throughout the world.
Darwin, of course, knew nothing about modern genetics. He knew that there is a pattern of inheritance with variation among off-spring, but not how this happens. It is not until the work of the Austrian monk Gregor Mendel (1822-1884) is rediscovered at the turn of the 20th century and synthesized withDarwin’s theory that we get Neo-Darwinism, also known as the Modern Synthesis. Mendel discovered laws of inheritance based on dominant and recessive “genes”. Today, scientists have extended these insights to understanding complex macromolecules of life and the biochemical reactions and languages which structure protein synthesis, reproduction, and developmental patterns. Genetics adds a structure of inheritable traits and a rate of mutations or drift within species upon which Natural Selection operates through the necessities of survival and reproduction.
So-called Post-Darwinism is controversial, some would say trivial. It is beyond the scope of this essay and my expertise to go into great detail. I am an outsider looking in on a very heated debate among evolutionary theorists, one that makes the controversy with Creationists seem rather tame. First, paleontologists note that the fossil record of evolution of species is often abrupt with long periods of little change and relatively short periods of rapid change. When first presented by Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldridge, this theory of punctuated equilibrium was touted as a serious blow to the gradualism implied inDarwin’s theory, but such concern has largely evaporated. A more serious debate rages about the level upon which Natural Selection operates. Some have argued that Selection operates only at the level of the gene, noting for instance the capacity of outlaw genes to survive independently of the well-being of the host individual. Others argue that selection occurs at the level of groups of genes or with the individual as a whole, or how else would any gene be able to reproduce. Others argue that selection also occurs with groups, for instance in social species. Group selection theory provides a tentative answer to the riddle of altruism within a theory that would otherwise predict reproductively selfish maximizing behavior. Still others note that a kind of selection exists within ecosystems and between groups of species in symbiotic relations. Far from nature being at war, many species exhibit complex symbiosis. In the case of bacteria, which has the largest biomass on the planet and is still in some sense also the most foundational kind of biological entity, it may not even be appropriate to talk of clear lines of descent required byDarwin’s theory. Among bacteria, genetic information is shared not only by cell division, but also via viral vectors and direct membrane transfers throughout the gene pool of like and unlike bacteria. So it would seem that in addition to making room for symbiosis in our Post-Darwinist view of evolution, we are going to allow for some context specific confusion about the multiple levels at which selection occurs and the genetic boundaries between species.
Other Post-Darwinist theories deal with saltation or non-gradual jumps between forms observed, but poorly understood. One clue might lie in the bureaucratic nature of the genome itself, which far from being a linear system of causation is inter-linked in complex mutually determinative relations and feedback loops. Another Post-Darwinian frontier deals with indirect Lamarckianism, whereby rates of adaptation, for instance in the stress breeding of ecoli bacteria, exceed what would be expected from the background rate of genetic mutations. Again, contrary to the Central Dogma, we should actually expect to discover some kind of indirect feedback loop from the phenotype to the genotype, which will probably emerge in the field of developmental genetics and embryology.
Nor does Natural Selection per se illuminate anything about the mathematical patterns often manifested by natural entities. The field of mathematical biology lies wholly outside of the orthodox Neo-Darwinism, like a Platonist idea among radical materialists. This leads to the clincher in Post-Darwinism, the related fields of systems theory and complexity theory as applied to life. Biologists have made a lot of progress on some levels by abstracting individuals from the webs of their relationships, even though the individual never really exists apart of these relational matrices. So whether we’re talking about a single gene or a single individual or even an entire species separate from its ecosystem, these are abstractions from reality and we risk committing what A.N. Whitehead referred to as “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness” in science. Systemic analyses of natural phenomena will reveal different patterns, complex patterns, often not easily accounted for by the Neo-Darwinian orthodoxy. Here we see the productive application of mathematical complexity theory to illuminating the workings of nature in nonlinear reiterations and fractal-like elegance.
Speaking of Neo-Darwinism, biologist Lynn Margulis says “It is totally wrong. It’s wrong like infectious medicine was wrong before Pasteur. It’s wrong like phrenology is wrong. Every major tenet of it is wrong.” Those are fighting words for most biologists, but Margulis has in mind the symbiosis she observes in bacteria and other species and the vectors of genetic information sharing that cross-lines of descent. A more carefully argued case for rejecting Neo-Darwinism in favor of some kind of Post-Darwinism is made by David Depew and Bruce Weber in their book Darwinism Evolving: Systems Dynamics and the Geneaology of Natural Selection (1997). They conclude:
Whatever else may happen, we are reasonably certain that evolutionary theory will remain incomplete as long as self-organizational and dissipative phenomena are kept at a distance. This still leaves open, of course, whether complex dynamical models and nonequilibrium thermodynamics will testify in favor of the developmentist or of the Darwinian tradition… Can self-organization and dissipative structures be brought into the present evolutionary synthesis or some expanded version of it? Alternately, will assimilation be so challenging that it will require a change of background assumptions in the Darwinian tradition comparable to that which produced the modern synthesis itself? Or, finally, are self-organization and dissipative structuring so foreign to Darwinism’s core concept, natural selection, that giving them an important place in evolutionary theory will put an end to the Darwinian tradition itself? By framing the history of the Darwinian tradition in the way we have, we have in effect been arguing for the second alternative. We concede that it is far too early to be entirely confident about this. Nonetheless… (Depew and Weber, 1997, 479-480).
Now in arguing for Post-Darwinism, we need only quote Darwinin our defense, who wrote in the Introduction to The Origin of Species: “I am fully convinced that species are not immutable; but that those belonging to what are called the same genera are lineal descendants of some other and generally extinct species…” Which is to say that the fact of evolution is incontrovertible, even more so in the ensuing years of scientific advance. Darwin continues, however, to note that the process by which evolution occurs is open to debate. “Furthermore,” writesDarwin, “I am convinced that Natural Selection has been the most important, but not the exclusive, means of modification.” As an outsider and non-expert, I need only note that there are serious and heated debates within contemporary biology about the qualifiers “most important” and “exclusive.” Perhaps we might formulate the problem as such, natural selection is necessary but insufficient explanation for the evolution of diversity of life forms. It does not help matters that evolutionists and their critics regularly equate evolution and Darwinism, the former being an observed pattern and the latter being a theory to account for the process which animates this pattern.
As a religious believer and morally engaged human, I also confess that I am not the least bit neutral about how the Post-Darwinist ruckus turns out. While I find the science persuasive on its own account, this debate is not without religious and moral significance. Having taught The Origins of Species and The Descent of Man over many years inTempleUniversity’s Intellectual Heritage Program, I have noted repeatedly that my students showed little concern for plants and animals and always leaped to applyDarwin’s Theory to humanity. To a large extent, they accepted or rejected Natural Selection based on how they see it applying to humans. For instance, in examining predator-pray dynamics, I would discuss owls, ourTempleUniversity mascot, in comparison to mice. No matter how I nuanced this dynamic predator-prey relationship, noting that the mouse by the criteria of reproductive success was more likely to survive future challenges than the owl, the students would envision themselves as neither mouse nor man, but owl, wishing to achieve Social Darwinist attributes of our totem mascot. Survival of the fittest, I would argue, is the survival of those who “fit-in” to a particular niche. Frankly I was a lot more sympathetic to those who rejected the theory of natural selection on moral and typically religious grounds, because they saw the horrific moral implications of a theory so singularly focused on survival and reproduction.
Of course, my students were committing the so-called Naturalistic Fallacy, whereby a description of nature is taken as a prescription for human behavior. We could call them ignorant and unsophisticated, except that I regularly witness scientists doing the same thing. For instance, in the study of chimpanzees, bonobos, baboons, gorillas, and other primates reveals nothing normative for human behavior among our hominid kin. Patterns of sexuality, cooperation, and competition between these primates are widely divergent, sometimes even widely divergent within different groups of the same species. The fact of these divergences does not prevent primatologists from regularly making normative comparisons to human behavior. How much more careful we should be before we quickly jump from the study of fruit flies to normative statements about human behavioral biology. Apparently, everyone commits the Naturalistic Fallacy, which we might better identify as a neurologically hard-wired characteristic of our species. Humans seek meaningful patterns and ordered relationships in phenomena, even when they don’t always exist. The question is not whether we are going to commit the Naturalistic Fallacy, but how. In this respect, I would prefer a theory of life, which did not single-mindedly reduce all phenomena to an expression of “mere” chance, survival, and reproduction. Not that chance, survival, and reproduction are insignificant in the life of our species and others, it is just that there is more going on. Sometimes life really is a Darwinian Jungle, while other times it is just a White Elephant Sale.
The other reason to prefer Post-Darwinism to Neo-Darwinism is metaphysical. It is hard to maintain dogmatic philosophical materialism in light of the non-deterministic, non-linear, non-predictive patterns of complexity emphasized in the Post-Darwinian paradigms. Neo-Darwinism is more conducive to anti-religious dogmatics, while Post-Darwinism affirms a free indeterminacy and the possibility of telos-driven emergence. While none of this leads inexorably to the justification of traditional theism, it might just as well promote Neo-Platonism and Neo-Animism, it is certainly more conducive to a spiritual metaphysics. Post-Darwinism is going to tend to undermine radical determinism, both the materialist and theological kinds. Finally, pragmatically the scientific establishment would be well-advised to lighten up on the narrow Darwinian doctrines and more carefully distinguish the difference between observed patterns, in other words the facts of evolution, and the theorized processes by which evolution occurs. Theorectical pluralism is frankly much more becoming of science; Post-Darwinism achieves this and thus is also an important shift in all of the sciences of change over time.
Now Post-Darwinism is not going to prove the existence of God nor Geist, operative within the natural history of this planet, though such hypotheses are certainly more plausible within this new pluralistic and context-specific paradigm for evolutionary processes. Post-Darwinism also will not eliminate the traditional theological problem of theodicy, which seeks to understand the nature of God in light of evil and suffering. There is a tragic dimension of life, which will not be put aside with some theological or evolutionary feat of legerdemain. We are left with the poet’s pathos in the face of tragedy:
Behold, we know not anything;
I can but trust that good shall fall
At last- far off- at last, to all,
And every winter change to spring…
Are God and Nature then at strife,
That nature lends such evil dreams?
So careful of the type she seems,
So careless of the single life…
Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation’s final law –
Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek’d against his creed…
The poem, of course, is Alfred Tennyson’s In Memoriam. Tennyson wrote this poem in1836, twenty-three years before Darwin’s Origin of Species was published, though the phrase “Nature, red in tooth and claw,” is often mistakenly attributed toDarwin. The point is simply that one doesn’t need Darwinism to raise the problem of theodicy. One need only suffer with Job before the Whirlwind or pay attention to the daily headlines on CNN. Post-Darwinism will not sanitize this fundamental problem for theology and metaphysics.
This discussion of the theories of evolution is a necessary precursor to examining human creativity within the evolutionary context. My argument is that the appearance of humans within the evolution story has led to a dramatic increase in creativity and a significant discontinuity in previous evolutionary processes. This is not to say that humans have somehow broken free of the constraints of nature. Natural processes are significant and often determinative of our individual and cultural possibilities. All of this was self-evident to any thoughtful human prior to Darwinism and evolution. Here is a simple experiment guaranteed to prove this point: go without water for a few days and see how well you think. And not just our individual lives, but our collective lives can also be profoundly determined by biological factors. This is easiest to illustrate in the negative, though we should also think of biology as the positive precondition for all of our human “being-longing-ness.” Imagine, if you will, our civilization in the midst of a pandemic. In The History of the Pelopennesian Wars, Thucydides described the plague that rackedAthens during the long Spartan siege:
The catastrophe was so overwhelming that men, not knowing what would happen next to them, became indifferent to every rule of religion and law… Seeing how quick and abrupt were the changes of fortune which came to the rich who suddenly died and to those who had previously been penniless…, people began openly to venture on acts of self-indulgence which before they used to keep in the dark… No fear of god or law of man had a restraining influence. As of the gods, it seemed to be the same thing whether one worshipped them or not, when one saw the good and the bad dying indiscriminately.
Surely our own personal and collective well-being is dependent on the well-functioning of numerous biological processes. Our species is continuous with nature, often in profoundly determinative ways. That our civilization has recently had the luxury to think otherwise is perhaps a strange illusory byproduct of the Enlightenment or other-worldly religious beliefs or both. It is only within that determinative context that we can understand the evolutionary discontinuities presented by Homo sapiens and the intensively self-creative processes which characterized our species-specific modes of production and reproduction.
The difference is in our brains, a three-pound universe in which a hundred billion singularly“stupid” neurons are wired together in massively parallel network. Each neuron has synaptic connections with as many as a thousand other neurons making the possible connections within the human brain greater than the number of stars in the galaxy. Far from gray mushy matter, a colorized PET scan reveals a rainbow-like flow of blood and activity more fitting of the wonder and awe which our brains deserve. Biological anthropologist Terrance Deacon notes that “Biologically we are just another ape. Mentally we are a whole new phylum of organism.”
Of course, a disembodied brain is also an abstraction which can obscure our understanding. It is not the brain alone that allows our evolutionary discontinutities, but the coevolution of our brains with our oppositional thumbs, our vocal cords, the rest of our central nervous system, the stunning complexities of nature, and the dynamic relationship to other humans in culture. For instance, language, one of the most important tools of human culture, is not so much in our brains as between our brains. Certainly, we have a neural capacity to become linguistic as new born children, but there is no necessity of this. In those tragic cases of infants deprived of linguistic stimulation during the first few years of life, permanent mental retardation results. Language should better be thought of as a distributed system between our brains with a dynamic capacity to be structured-by and in turn to re-structure our neural capacities.
The networks of neurons within our brains and the linguistic networks with other humans and nature between our brains are perhaps best understood as distributed systems. Indeed, human creativity can best be understood as a distributed system. Our culture tends to identify creativity with individual genius. This individualism obscures our appreciation of and responsibility for the more important distributed processes of creativity. Whether we talk about art, music, literature, technology, architecture, science or religion, all human creativity is really creative plagiarism. Now you might not want to tell your undergraduate students this little secret, but compassion dictates that you ought to tell your graduate students, if they haven’t already figured this out. All originality in human life owes an enormous debt to those who labored before to create the intellectual, spiritual, and material tools and concepts, through which human creativity can continue. These tools are more or less passed on directly to the next generation, independent of genetic lines of descent, making human culture, broadly understood, a Lamarckian-evolutionary process. This is not to say that you will successfully pass-on your own values to your children, but that at least they won’t have to reinvent the wheel or the computer.
Lamarckian evolution within distributed systems is surely a killer-application. It could only be a matter of time before life would create such a powerful mode of adaptation, survival, and reproduction. And here we are today – continuous but discontinuous. We live in the midst of an accelerating creative drama of paleontological significance. Not since the mass extinction of the dinosaurs some 65 million years ago has the world seen anything like humans. Perhaps the better comparison is to the invention-discovery of photosynthesis some 2 billion years ago. We stand at a threshold. Humans are a Lamarckian wild-card in the epic of evolution.
If we look at complex biological, social and technological processes, we discover that they are not only distributed systems, but that they are non-linear, non-predictive, and out-of-control. You can not achieve complex creativity and be a control freak, a lesson that parents, spouses, and engineers all need to learn. True creativity requires letting-go. Kevin Kelly ponders the nature of complex creativity in his book Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems, and the Economic World. He writes:
Ours may always be a flashy type of creativity, but there is something to be said for a slow, wide creativity of many dim parts working ceaselessly.
Yet as we unleash living forces into our created machines, we lose control of them. They acquire wildness and some of the surprises that the wild entails. 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’s a great bargain.(Kelly, 1994, 4).
In developing his metatheory of creativity, Kelly examines artificial ecologies, the telephone system, human consciousness, computer viruses, robotics, virtual reality, economic markets, computer animation, biological restoration, Post-Darwinism, and social insects, among other phenomena, natural and technological. He talks about the “Hive Mind” of humanity, our group thinking and group doings, but doesn’t follow this line of thought to its anthropological conclusion. Humans are an out-of-control species, an exquisite creation with a mind of its own.
Imagine if you will the image of the trading floor at the stock exchange inNew York,Chicago,Tokyo, or any major commercial city. Hundreds of humans interacting in this crowded and enclosed space. Many thousands of distributed decisions will be made in the course of an hour. The trading floor is a beehive of activity. The computer power in that room, link to other offices near and far, makes the distributed computational power of the stock exchange greater than any supercomputer yet engineered or imagined. Information flows via computers, phones, faxes, numbers, and voices, all around the world, linked to real industries, real commodities, and “real” money in a globally instantaneous information-exchange network. The trading floor and its “webby” network is a model par-excellence of a distributed system. Curiously, the distributed rationalities and irrationalities of this network can be partially represented in mathematical equations. And of course, this distributed economic activity is extremely powerful.
Sir John Templeton, the blessed benefactor of these science and religion dialogues, has penned a book entitled: Is Progress Speeding Up? Our Multiplying Multitudes of Blessings. He argues with persuasive statistic and indefatigable optimism that life is getting better, that human creativity is accelerating, and that it is mostly for the good. Indeed, we live longer on average and not just in the wealthy developed countries. In many parts of the world, life expectancy has practically doubled in the last century and promises to perhaps double again in the next century through continuing advances in medical technology. We eat better food with greater variety than our ancestors, so much so that eating becomes an obstacle to greater health. We have bigger and more comfortable homes than our ancestors. We have better educational opportunities, more travel, and more entertainment than our ancestors. The list goes on. Contrary to popular belief, we also are safer and have cleaner environments than our ancestors. Templeton writes:
This is a wonderful time to be alive!… I am convinced that if people look for the good, they will find it, and that in countless ways this will have constructive consequences. Enthusiasm breeds effort and success. This book is a small attempt to encourage people to look for the good, for it is there in abundance to be seen and appreciated. (2-3)
Amen. I am convinced too. I often try to stun my students into historical consciousness, by noting that even Pharaoh or Caesar, given the choice, would probably trade places with these 21st century mere university students for the sake of all the luxuries and technologies that we take for granted today.
The only thing that we don’t have more of is wilderness, that is unless Kelly is right about our technology itself being wild and out of control. And as Templeton also notes in his book, we also may not be any happier. Indeed, rates of clinical depression and suicides have increased dramatically in the wealthiest and healthiest nations of the world. The key to happiness, it seems, is spiritual and not material, so here too I would agree with Templeton’s emphasis on the proper integration of the spiritual wisdom of the ages into our postmodern, global culture.
It is precisely because I sense a spiritually transcendent source of meaning and purpose in our lives and in the epic of evolution, a higher power by whatever name, that I want to take a hard look at a darker possibility for understanding the acceleration of human creativity. Let’s take some thought and time to also explore the dystopic dimensions of human creativity and our species’ discontinuities with nature. For while the indicators of material progress and expanded possibilities for human lives have never been greater, the potentials for disaster have also never been greater. The most glaring symbol of the dark-side of progress is in nuclear, biological, chemical, and so-called conventional weaponry. There is no indication of a growth in human morality and compassion to match the exponential growth in weapons of mass destruction. The world generates no fewer fanatics, singularly or in the distributed (ir)rationalities of groups, for whom these weapons are increasingly easier to acquire or manufacture. To this we should add that humans have significantly altered every bioregional ecosystem on the planet and the atmosphere as a whole with unpredictable and potentially dire consequences. We also face the dual prospects of the rapid spread of infectious diseases and a growing resistance of such diseases to antibiotics. So our global civilization may be in for a pandemic in the near term. And finally, given the dramatic shift in the labor force away from family farming over the last century, it is also clear that few regions of the world, let alone families, could survive a major economic or environmental disruption in global trade and production. Who knows how to grow or gather their own food anymore?
Since 1950, the human population of the world has more than doubled to over 6 billion. Indeed, notes demographer Lester Brown, “there has been more growth in population since1950 than during the 4 million preceding years since our early ancestors first stood upright.” In the same fifty-year time frame, the consumption of fossil fuels has more than quadrupled from the equivalent of1800 million tons-of-oil to 8000 million tons-of-oil. These kinds of growth rates speak to the intensified discontinuities between nature and culture.
In pursuing the nature of our cultural discontinuities with nature (remember that I said that “nature” is a tricky word), we should note that evolutionary biologists and anthropologists make a big deal of the ratio of brain weight to body weight. There is roughly a linear distribution of this ratio in mammals of all shapes and sizes. Humans don’t have the largest brains among the mammals, but the ratio of brain weight to body weight for our size mammal is way off the scale. That is until you put a human into an automobile and then the ratio goes way down. The point is that we need to rethink the ontological status of our technology and artifacts. Rather than seeing a radical disconnect, we might re-envision technology as either part of nature, part of us, or both. Cars-R-Us! Cars-R-Nature! They just have a more complicated sex life, which involves humans as symbionts in their reproduction. Seriously, if we were to run a time-lapse movie of the growth patterns of any major metropolitan region over the last 50 years, the web-like-growth pattern of roads, houses, industry, and utilities put in a biologist petri dish would be unmistakable as a life form.
For the time being, we may still be genetically “human,” but we are not mere humans anymore. Donna Haraway, who teaches curiously in a former department of religion at the Universityof Californiain Santa Cruz, argues that the essentialist categories of human, nature, and machine are better replaced with the notion of cyborg. Her book Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium. FemaleMan©_Meets_OncoMouse™ is a tour de force in interdisciplinary scholarship, critical analysis, and playful ironies. 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 199X, xyz).
At one point, Haraway discusses an artistic rendition of OncoMouse™, the first patented transgenetic creature created by DuPont for cancer research in the 1990s. The painting shows the universalizing eyes of science gazing into the box containing OncoMouse™. The mouse, being neither mouse nor man by virtue of transgenetic engineering, appears with human breasts, signifying its role in cancer research. The mouse wears a crown-of-thorns to link this sacrificial creature’s role to the secular salvation story of curing cancer. In Haraway’s reading, the image of OncoMouse™ is full of ambiguity. “If not in my own body,” writes Haraway, “then surely in those of my friends, I will someday owe to OncoMouse™ or her subsequently designed rodent kin a large debt.”
Along side of this artistic rendition of OncoMouse™ reproduced and discussed in Haraway’s book, I would also like to hold up a more monstrous image of another mouse circulated by Associated Press some years ago. In this photograph, a real laboratory mouse displays an ecotopic human ear grown on its back. From this kind of stem cell transplant technology, a new biomedical revolution is about to occur. Other species will soon be used to grow genetically compatible human body parts for transplants. If you need a new kidney or a new heart, biomedicine will soon be able to custom grow you one on the pigs in the barnyard turned laboratory. Haraway notes that these revolutions in “technoscience” are profoundly and reiteratively linked to culture, economics, politics, gender, race, and power. She writes: “I want to use the beady little eyes of a laboratory mouse to stare back at my fellow mammals, my hominid kin, as they incubate themselves and their human and nonhuman offspring in a technoscientific culture medium.”
A recent cover story in WIRED Magazine raised these issues with a different evolutionary spin. In an essay entitled “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us,” Bill Joy, the co-founder of Sun Microsystems, explores the dystopic dimensions of technoscientific progress. Joy argues that the trajectory of genetic engineering, robotics, and nanotechnology may well lead to the extinction of our species. Joy quotes George Dyson among others: “In the game of life and evolution, there are three players at the table: human beings, nature, and machines. I am firmly on the side of nature. But nature, I suspect, is on the side of the machines.” Joy argues in the same vein as Haraway that GNR (Genetics, Nanotechnology, and Robotics) is to the New World Order, what NBC (Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Weapons) were to the Cold War. Significantly, not many outside of laboratories and science fiction fans are even remotely aware of the scope of these new technologies and realistic projections for their short-term development. Joy 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, 2000, ).
Of course, Joy can hardly be accused of being a Neo-Luddite, opposed to technological advance. The article in WIRED favorably mentions and reproduces into part an essay by Amory and Hunter Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute. They write of genetic engineering what might characterize much of the contemporary technoscientific ethos. “Its ambition is to replace nature’s wisdom with people’s cleverness;” write the Lovins, “to treat nature not as model and mentor but as a set of limits to be evaded when inconvenient; not to study nature but to restructure it.” Or in the words of Thomas Berry, the trajectory of our expanding human creativity is “to turn the whole world into Disney World.” I suppose for many of my contemporaries that would be quite a utopic vision of the future, as long as they didn’t have to stand in lines.
This digression into dystopic visions of human creativity and cyborg anthropology are exploratory and not conclusive. I am quite agnostic about the future, whether the cultural and evolutionary cup is half-full or half-empty, depends on where you stand in the story. To predicting the future, there will be no end. Personally, I am a hopeful pessimist and a spiritual cyborg.
The question which animates this essay is human creativity and its apparently expanding complexity and evolutionary discontinuities. Harvard sociobiologist E.O. Wilson presents the metaphor of a “leash” with which nature restricts the possibilities of culture. So human culture is like a dog on a leash, sometimes short and sometimes long, but always restricted in its range of motion by the genetic and biological “hand” which holds our leash. My argument is that human culture, or shall we say cyborg culture, is increasingly transgenetic. The biological leash is sometimes long or short, sometimes elastic or taut, but increasingly also reversed or simply irrelevant in many contexts. Further, some dogs are apt to wander and others are quite content to stay put. The emphasis on Natural Selection imported from evolutionary theory and applied to humans is more likely to obscure than reveal new insights about these dynamics. With psychologist Abraham Maslow, I want to argue that there is a “hierarchy of needs ”. Once basic needs for survival and reproduction are met in humans, and perhaps also in non-humans, then survival and reproduction can become quite irrelevant to further motivational and causative processes. More importantly, culture evolves in a Lamarckian pattern in which the acquired achievements of one generation are passed in distributed networks to the next generation. Because Lamarckian processes are so much more powerful than Darwinian processes, human creativity is accelerating. If we could quantify this creativity and chart it out like the Dow Jones or NASDAQ over this last century, it would look like a steep exponential growth curve. If we project this continuing creativity on into the next 100 years, we can imagine a future in which our descendants, human or otherwise, will scarcely be able to recognize us today as kin.
So what are the religious and cultural implications of this new understanding of human creativity in the evolutionary context. Nothing in this story precludes the existence of God, by whatever name, who acts as creator, sustainer, redeemer of the world. In the Hebrew Scriptures, for instance, we might re-read the Genesis account of humans in nature in dialectic with the Book of Job’s account of humans in nature. In the New Testament, we might tend to focus particularly on the Cosmic Christ in the Gospel of John or on Paul’s Letter to the Colossians. There is much that would both affirm and also temper expressions of anthropocentrism in the scriptural sources. The Koran says that humans are special, more so than even the Angels, but we may not be the pinnacle of this evolving story. Similar interpretations can be made in other religious traditions.
An evolutionary account of humans and nature, particularly one which is not strongly materialistically deterministic, presents no real theological problems for religion. All religions present an evolving relationship between God, by whatever name. While there is a special relationship between God and humans, all of nature is included in the caring embrace of God. All religions are also evolutionary in their cosmological vision, which is to say no religion presents a stagnant view of the Divine, the Creation, or the Human. Religions, of course, will disagree on the significance and meaning of this epic of evolution and human creativity; but there is nothing in change and process per se which is contrary to the religious vision.
The wide-spread phenomena of scriptural literalism needs to be understood as a bad case of science-envy which was contracted in the 19th and 20th centuries. To impose modern historicism on religious truths is to contort them into something that they were never intended to be. It is the curse of literalism that we think if only CNN had been present when Moses received the Torah at Sinai, when Jesus was resurrected, or when the Buddha was enlightened, then we would know the truth. In the modern world, all truths were reduced to mere facts and our spiritual lives thereby profoundly impoverished.
As I have already noted, nothing in what we have explored in Post-Darwinism or in Cultural Lamarckianism is going to eliminate the problem of theodicy. Evil and suffering also existed prior to modern science. If anything, the intensification of human creativity may make matters worse, as the powers and principalities of human evil are greatly increased. The sciences of natural history and cultural evolution, however, do not point to a strongly deterministic understanding of nature or humans; so I am compelled on both theological and scientific grounds to reject the notions of omnipotence and predestination. Without omnipotence, God, by whatever name, is not morally responsible for evil and suffering. Of course, this doesn’t render God powerless, just not all powerful. Kenosis theology expresses this understanding. God empties herself into the creation and the human, withdrawing power to enable freedom, and has lost something of himself incarnate in the creation. God desires and in some sense defines the good for both humans and nature; God provides a persuasive but not deterministic telos for evolution; God suffers with us and all things and renders our suffering and death meaningful and significant. This is a theological vision drawn from the process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead and Pierre Teilhard de Charden.
God, by whatever name, is a distributed system expressed in, through, between, and beyond. God is not a mere thing to be ontologized or a mere name to be idolatrized. God is the relational precondition of all other relational processes, the integration of the whole, the telos expressed in evolution. This universal can only be perceived through the particularism of cultures and individuals within cultures, though it is the distributed whole to which we all belong. There is no Esperanto for God-talk, though translation projects are possible. All of this, of course, is experienced and conjectured through my own finitude. None of this is ipso facto excluded from plausibility by modern science. Indeed, in some sense the material universe and our symbolic languages about the material universe always point beyond themselves to something transcendent. All of this also picks up threads of traditional religious beliefs and can be grounded in scriptural interpretations and theological traditions.
The universe, and humans within it, are crafted in the trialectic of necessity, contingency, and choice. Through the human, in this corner of the universe at least, there has been a great intensification of choice. It is not so much the self-creative choice of individuals about which I speak, but the species-creative distributed choices of cultures. Through us, and perhaps through other creative intelligences elsewhere, the universe has not only become conscious of itself, it has also become moral. In his book, The Human Factor: Evolution, Culture, and Religion, Phil Hefner develops a theological anthropology of humans as “the created co-creator.” It works for me both theologically and anthropologically, but I wonder about the created co-creator cyborg. The greatest challenge of our age is the moral exercise of distributed human creative power, recognizing our finite foresight and the unintended consequences of our worldviews and world-doings. In the words of Stewart Brand of The Whole Earth Review, “we are as gods and might as well get good at it.”
Here we must have faith, hoping that there is a greater power which integrates and struggles with us to uphold goods and values in history and evolution in ways we don’t even understand. Nothing in Hefner’s theological anthropology, nothing in the process metaphysics of Whitehead, and nothing in the evolutionary vision of Teilhard is going to give us specific criteria for public policy and creative license as we discern our distributed paths through the evolutionary thresholds ahead. There is a fideistic element of all creative acts and moral responsibilities. Perhaps a more humble appreciation of our individual and collective finitude would be salubrious for the planet and ourselves, as we muddle our way into something very different in the evolutionary epic.
I can’t help but think that we have models and mentors for the journey ahead, to be found in the glorious legacies which we have inherited from our elders, both the human and the more-than-human. In this respect it is perhaps helpful to revisit the question of what is science anyway. I sometimes follow Donna Haraway’s lead in using the term “technoscience,” which is more accurate in describing the contemporary conflation of scientific discovery, technological capabilities, and economic applications. Many scientists bristle at this term, holding out for a romantic vision of science as a privileged epistemology, clearly distinguishable from other human activities, and somehow above the fracas of politics, power, and prejudice. I have studied Schlick, Popper, Putnam, Quine, Kuhn, and Lakatos. I have struggled to understand what science might be, something beyond the Scylla of naÔve realism and the Charybdis of relativistic constructionism. In the end, I’m left with this. Science is simply altruistic fidelity to the phenomenon. I like this definition again because it undermines a certain orthodoxy in sociobiology and evolutionary psychology. But more importantly, it also affirms the romance and realism with which every scientist begins his career. Good scientists always go native, in the sense that they learn to speak in other languages and adopt the perspectives of the phenomena. A cosmologist dreams the mathematics of the universe; a chemist sees within the three-dimensional bonding spaces of molecules; a biologist has a feel for the organism. If there are intelligences and desires within the more-than-human, more-than-individual domains of evolution, models and mentors which might guide us, then we desperately need scientists to renew their vows of altruistic fidelity and give human voice to processes and desires which cannot advocate their own wisdom.
The dialogue between the sciences and the world religions is not only intrinsically one of the most interesting conversations on the planet, it is also about finding models and mentors for the future unfolding of this epic adventure to the benefit of all beings, distributed as they are throughout the past, the present, and the future unfoldings of change-over-time. In writing the story of the next century and beyond, we may hope to better discern and attune ourselves with the Invisible Hands upholding and desiring for the good within our distributed economic systems, within our distributed cultural systems, and within our distributed evolutionary-ecological systems. Such a hope can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. In a moment of doubt about the inevitability of evolutionary progress, Teilhard wrote:
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, 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 (Teilhard, 1970, 238).
“In this paper I examine human creativity within the context of natural history and cultural evolution. In order to establish an evolutionary framework for examining the phenomena of Homo sapiens, I begin by reviewing different theories of evolution — Pre-Darwinism, Darwinism, Neo-Darwinism, and what some are calling Post-Darwinism. I favor the so-called Post-Darwinist paradigm for both scientific, moral, and metaphysical reasons. However, regardless of the processes involved in non-human evolution, I argue that human culture evolves in a Lamarckian manner, whereby acquired innovations are passed on more-or-less directly to the next generation. So while there are undeniable continuities with non-human nature, as well as myriad natural constraints upon human culture, I argue that there are also significant discontinuities in the evolutionary epic. In order to understand these processes, however, we need to examine human creativity as primarily expressed through the notion of distributed systems. I briefly examine brains, language, economics, technology, and morality as distributed systems. In discussing the expanding complexities of human creativity, I pose the question of whether these rapid changes are for better or worse. Finally, I examine religious and metaphysical issue. How might theological anthropology need to be revised in order to account for this prolific human creativity? What moral and pragmatic constraints might such a theological anthropology place upon our contemporary worldviews and world-doings. How would humans figure in a future in which we are superseded or perhaps extinguished by other creative and prolific entities, perhaps created by our own technoscientific ingenuity? Is there a transcendent telos expressing itself through natural history and cultural evolution?” For more information about William Grassie visit www.grassie.net. 5/11/2000 03/21/2007