An Inside View of Evolution's Acceleration
Evolution is typically a very slow and gradual process, where something like natural selection occurs over a great many generations, often taking millions of years for new traits to emerge. But every once in awhile we see sudden leaps in the evolutionary record — rare and rapid events of branching speciation known as “punctuated equilibrium”. These events are thought to result from accumulated evolutionary changes that create a series of “tipping points” within the surrounding ecosystem, which can then suddenly and dramatically transform that ecosystem. And when the ecosystem changes, new selection pressures emerge that either force new adaptations, or rewards prior adaptations that may not have been as useful in the previous ecosystem.
These sudden evolutionary leaps often come in two forms — it is either an explosion of span, as we see in something like the Cambrian explosion over 540 million years ago, which was marked a period of rapid diversification of life on Earth over a relatively short geological period. Or it can be an explosion of depth, where new kinds of complexity emerge that did not exist previously. Many consider human history itself to be an ongoing process of punctuated equilibrium, a sudden evolutionary acceleration that occurs over the span of thousands, rather than millions of years.
What’s more, this evolutionary acceleration seems itself to be accelerating. New methods of communication and production reshape the human animal from one era to the next, creating a series of feedback loops between perception, behavior, culture, and social organization that continue to drive our species toward new depths of complexity, consciousness, and care.
In our own evolutionary narrative, human beings have embarked on a remarkable journey in a very narrow swath of evolutionary time, from forming intricate social bonds and structures to the emergence of language and the corresponding growth of our brains, necessary for these ever-more-complex social interactions. This journey underscores our dual nature as ‘ultra-social primates’ — as Jonathan Haidt frames it, we exhibit a blend of individualistic traits reminiscent of chimpanzees, alongside cooperative, bee-like behaviors. These dual aspects have propelled us towards incredible feats, from agriculture to the Industrial Revolution to things like the James Webb space telescope and ChatGPT.
This episode of Witt and Wisdom looks deeply into the rapid evolution of human beings, accentuating the pivotal role that communication plays — namely our ability to imprint our own intelligence into artifacts that increase the range and duration of the influence each individual can have on each other. This accelerating evolutionary pace, however, brings to light a crucial concern: the expanding gap between our growing global awareness afforded by technologies like the internet and social media, versus the more slowly evolving capacity for empathy, care, and compassion, stretching our social fabric in unprecedented ways.
Looking forward, we stand on the cusp of yet another transformative leap, a new “Cambrian explosion” of artificial intelligence and digital ecosystems. These burgeoning AI landscapes, much like their biological predecessors, promise to usher in a new era of diversity and complexity, potentially reshaping our world with a speed and profundity that echo the most pivotal moments of our universe’s history. Evolution is never a strictly linear process, nonetheless we can recognize a certain kind of vector cutting through through time, from the birth of stars to the emergence of biological life, from the birth of civilization to the dawn of digital consciousness, each step an expression of the ever-evolving emergence of life, complexity, and consciousness.
All the more reason why it is so important to shift our understanding of evolution as some impersonal force that exists “before” us “outside” of us. We are not passive bystanders to evolution, but active expressions of evolution. It is not an external force — evolution happens through us, in every moment of our existence. The Big Bang is still banging, right here and right now, and we can hear its echo as our own heartbeat, a relentless march forward into greater love, deeper awareness, and more conscious participation with the underlying currents of creation.
Key Questions:Here are some questions you can contemplate while listening to this discussion. We suggest you take some time to use these as journaling prompts.
- Personal Role in Evolutionary Contribution: How do I see myself as an active participant in the evolutionary process, and in what ways can I contribute to the collective development of humanity?
- Moral Evolution in Personal Life: How have my own moral foundations evolved over time, and how does this reflect the broader evolutionary journey of human morality?
- Interpretation of Drives in Developmental Context: How do I understand and interpret my inherent drives to categorize and connect with people in the context of my personal developmental journey?
- Big History's Impact on Worldview: How does adopting a 'big history' perspective change my understanding of human interconnectedness and our shared destiny?
- Balancing Individualism and Collectivism: How do I balance my individualistic traits with my capacity for cooperation and collective action in my personal and professional life?
- Navigating Social Media's Influence: How can I effectively navigate the widening spheres of influence and slower-growing circles of care in the context of social media?
- AI's Influence on Society and Self: How do I foresee the impact of artificial intelligence on societal reorganization, and what role do I play in this new evolutionary landscape?
- Deepening Empathetic Bonds: How often do I genuinely engage in empathetic contact, such as maintaining eye contact, to truly connect with others?
- Embracing Conscious Evolution: Given the profound understanding that greater consciousness brings greater responsibility, how can I actively and intentionally evolve my consciousness to contribute positively to my relationships, communities, and the world at large?