I sometimes find the idea of progress in human civilization deeply confusing. Aspects seem unquestionable: penicillin, microwaves, countless other scientific and technological inventions that make possible things our ancestors never imagined, from easy cures for once-fatal diseases to push-button world destruction to light-speed communication at a distance. Yet our basic physical and mental equipment as human beings hasn’t changed. It’s not just that our innate abilities to see and understand are much as they were when our forebears discovered the wheel; it’s that words written millennia ago have lost nothing of their capacity to stir our hearts and souls, to excite our thoughts and passions. When the incandescent minds of history speak, it is as if they whispered directly into our ears instead of calling out from graves dug centuries in the past.
One view, therefore, belongs to Ecclesiastes: “There is nothing new under the sun.” All our inventions and bright ideas are ornaments to human history, but what it means to be human will not change until human life ends. Because the heart and mind interest me much more than the objects and systems we create, I find this perspective powerfully appealing.
But I’m not drawn to the much more pessimistic version stated by philosopher John Gray, who in his book Straw Dogs dismisses the idea of progress in human life as an illusion:
Humanism can mean many things, but for us it means belief in progress. To believe in progress is to believe that, by using the new powers given us by growing scientific knowledge, humans can free themselves from the limits that frame the lives of other animals. This is the hope of nearly everybody nowadays, but it is groundless. For though human knowledge will very likely continue to grow and with it human power; the human animal will stay the same: a highly inventive species that is also one of the most predatory and destructive.
Gray prefers a stark Darwinism, in which humans are simply the most successful form bacteria have yet devised to sustain and transport themselves, a form likely to be decimated when its expansion exceeds the planet’s carrying capacity.
But more and more, I think the strict Darwinist view is wrong. Our appetite for destruction may be insatiable, but at the same time, the evidence for cultural evolution is so strong, it can’t be ignored. Our expanding ideas of individual freedom—leading however haltingly to the decline of slavery, the emancipation of women, a growing embrace of cultural diversity as a social and moral good—truly represent an evolutionary stage that incorporates our collective learning as a species. Our vast and growing knowledge of how things work, from sub-atomic particles to universes, demands a reconsideration of nearly everything: our place in the web of life, the connections we cannot always measure but now understand as pervasive and encompassing, the imperative that we heed the law of unintended consequences in relation to the planet and all its resident life forms.
These truths have differential effects on different individuals, communities and cultures. Some fear new knowledge, retreating to ancient verities as expressed in fundamentalism of many stripes. In the most extreme instances, they live out a narrowly proscribed orthodoxy that cuts them off from those who are different, performing the faithful repetition of prescribed customs and practices as an antidote to all that is terrifying about modernity. As Paulo Freire explained, every epoch has its “thematic universe” characterized by the dialectic interaction of opposites—strongly opposed beliefs, ideas, life ways contend. Fundamentalism and liberatory thinking interact, and from their interaction over time, something new is born.
There is much to fear about modernity as we experience it: the commercialization of absolutely everything, the centralization of money and influence that is globalization’s least appealing feature, the risk that what we value most will be crushed by the advance of capital. But I see something emerging from the dialectic that suggests what is needed to bring the next stage of cultural evolution into full being.
I am fond of quoting the philosopher Ken Wilber, who has pointed out that the leading wedge of cultural evolution will be characterized by “more depth, less span.” In other words, at first, a relatively small group of people will attain a deep understanding of the next stage, and as their influence and dawning realities persuade others to look deeper, their number will grow. Who am I to assert what the next stage of cultural evolution requires? Merely a person who has something to say. Call it hubris if you want, but here’s what I see.
I think three elements will be critical to our individual and cultural development.
A transcendent spirituality compatible with scientific knowledge. In growing numbers, we are reaching for a transcendent spirituality that is compatible with scientific and intellectual discovery. It cannot be grounded in blind faith in any top-down spiritual order, such as the infallibility of religious leaders. Nor, if we wish to survive, can it reject what science is teaching us about the nature of life. The increasingly pervasive influence of Buddhism and meditative practices from many traditions is permeating the practice of the West’s dominant religions, and those practices echo the lessons of advanced cosmology and physics: that our feeling of separateness is an illusion. No spiritual practice is intrinsically enlarging, at least to the extent that all can become merely rote, mechanical and therefore disconnected from Spirit. But any one can be undertaken with enlarging intentions, strengthening the practitioner for what lies ahead.
Knowing how our minds work and using that knowledge to expand choice. Having learned so much about how the human mind operates, we are challenged to retain and act on that knowledge. Philosophers and cognitive scientists have acquainted us with a plethora of cognitive biases that shape our ways of perceiving and thinking about reality, thus influencing our actions. Knowing that I am prey to the confirmation bias, that like most people I am inclined to sift information to find the bits that confirm my pre-existing ideas and dismiss the rest as irrelevant, I am challenged to keep questioning myself. I try to falsify my conclusions rather than affirm them, and only if I cannot make that work do I begin to suspect I may be onto something.
I don’t think we can stop being affected by these inbuilt biases, any more than we can entirely avoid the responses triggered in our bodies by the activation of brain chemicals, catecholamines such as epinephrine and dopamine that can make us feel excited or angry or sleepy. But in the next stage of cultural evolution, we have a tremendous opportunity afforded by awareness of our minds’ operation, and therefore the prospect of choice in the place of compulsion. A self-aware consciousness, as fully capable of questioning our own assumptions as of questioning imposed realities: this is essential to the next stage.
Breaking our dependency on things as they are to open the way for what they could be. I like to change the quotation on my email signature from time to time. This week, I installed a sentence from James Joyce Ulysses: “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” The third essential ingredient, I have come to believe, is a break with what some students of human behavior call “path dependence,” our tendency to stick with the trajectory we have already invested with past commitment. Our attachment to given reality is a tremendous obstacle to moving into the next stage of cultural evolution. I Iove the way Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said it: “The greatest hindrance to knowledge is our adjustment to conventional notions, to mental cliches. Wonder or radical amazement, the state of maladjustment to words and notions, is, therefore, a prerequisite for authentic awareness…”
I have been drawn for some time to those rare individuals who seem to embody the needed capacity to abandon paths that have led to dead ends. I keep turning over in mind a story I heard from Paul Polak. In April, I wrote about the way he has used ideas he characterized as “ridiculously simply and obvious” to help millions of people in the developing world lift themselves out of poverty:
Polak attributes his ability to perceive the obvious to his father, who escaped Hitler, abandoning his home in Czechoslovakia over the objections of friends and relatives who ignored his pleas to escape while there was still time. Here’s how Polak says these unfortunate friends replied: “But what would we do with the furniture?”
Only time will tell, but if we reach for a transcendent spirituality that coexists with what we learn from science, if we know our own minds and correct for them, and if we substitute for our dependence on old paths a deep willingness to let go of the furniture and move on, I believe we will be well-positioned to help the next stage of cultural evolution into being.
My friend Dudley Cocke says “I always make the proposition that we are the storytelling animal and that language and story has been our selective advantage” as a species. This is the story I want to tell now, how deep, thrilling progress in human civilization is possible, how it starts in individual hearts and minds.