12/29/2006 01:22 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Survival of the Wisest (Part 2)

To say that our future survival depends on wisdom can sound vague and vaporous--isn't every politician promising a new vision for tomorrow without meaning anything? But there's a serious point here. The state of the planet today is a direct result of human vision. The way we pursue happiness--by exploiting natural resources, ignoring environmental degradation, and largely giving up on overpopulation--represents our current stage of evolution. We have created a world that pictures outwardly an inner vision.

What went into this vision? The key ingredients are both obvious and subtle:

--A model for happiness based on consumption.
--A shift from centuries of religious idealism to pragmatic materialism.
--A desire to conquer Nature and thus be free from natural disasters and threats.
--A belief in science and progress as separate from spirituality.
--Loss of community, replaced with stark individualism and competition. Beneath this lies a deep fear of lack and deprivation.
--Feeling isolated and unsupported except on the physical level. The existence of a transcendent power is denied.

Changing these factors will take time, and there is no guarantee that we will succeed in finding a vision that will promote survival. But there's no doubt that mere political effort is woefully insufficient. Nor will technology alone save us, although no doubt the joint efforts of government and massive corporations will eventually deliver efficient cars, reversal of smokestack pollution, and alternative fuels, at least to developed countries. It's just as likely that we will suffer through many dangers and near disasters before the turning point is reached.

Survival of the wisest means a shift in consciousness that happens today. On the material plane it may seem as if this is a futile, even pointless effort. (As Jesus would have seemed futile to the Romans and Buddha to the emperor of China. Neither could have any idea that the fate of empires was being altered.) But humanity evolves through consciousness first and foremost. Current attempts to find a Darwinian benefit to social behavior feel rather ridiculous. To read Richard Dawkins and other committed materialists, one would think that Paleolithic man tested out behavior patterns at random, and only those that benefited survival won out. Thus jealousy, for example, might serve to protect a male's gene pool from invasion by other males desiring to mate with the same female. This may be an adequate model for sparrows in mating season. It's grossly misguided when applied to human beings.

The evolution of the mind happens on its own terms. There is nothing about physical survival at stake, at least not for the past few thousand years after populations discovered farming and were settled in safe communities. A bad painter in Florence who married, had three children, and got paid handsomely looks better as a Darwinian specimen than Michelangelo or Leonardo, neither of whom got married or passed on their genes. Yet in terms of human evolution, it's the latter two who represent progress.

This is because consciousness develops through self-awareness. The exact mechanism will never be understood using a physical model. In the field known as sociobiology, which Darwinians fashionably apply to human society, survival is achieved through naturally favored behaviors because a specie's genes benefit, even when survival isn't achieved for individuals. The most famous example is altruism. Why did honeybees develop a sting that once used kills the bee itself? There's no chance of passing on such a trait from a dead animal.

The answer supposedly is that the whole bee colony benefits, and this knowledge is preserved in their genes. Thus honeybee genes "know" that a fatal sting is evolutionary and helps them to survive. Unfortunately, this argument implodes on itself. Not only is it absurd to talk about genes knowing anything when you deny consciousness itself, but whatever the bee is doing exhibits consciousness on the face of it. There's no need for a mindless insect who happens to have brilliant genes.

Survival is a conscious act. When animals behave to survive, they are making a decision. Primal acts like hunting for food, mating, and rearing one's young show the existence of awareness. (It seems true that the bee's fatal sting was developed to benefit the whole colony, but that represents a decision and a creative solution to a problem, not the random blind action of genes.) It seems absurd to deny this, yet Darwinians must, because of their religious devotion to their founder and the credo of materialism. The irony is how much consciousness it takes to convince yourself that consciousness doesn't exist.

The survival of the wisest is therefore not vague or vaporous. It represents another step in the same evolutionary direction that life has been on forever. As in every past crisis, the environment has changed, new stresses threaten us; adaptation is the only way out. Like ancient man deciding whether to use fire or run away from its dangers, modern people face both good and bad choices. The outcome won't be based on Darwinian principles. We're already advanced enough to heal the sick instead of abandoning them and protecting the weak and helpless. Those decisions, made centuries ago, are absolutely non-Darwinian. Luckily, despite all the self-destructive threats from our innate hostility and aggression, our tendency to defend the tribe and hate outsiders, human consciousness displays a huge amount of good and an infinite amount of potential. We should try to survive on the basis of wisdom. If we succeed, this dark phase that we are passing through will dissolve, as the dark ages that went before it have.

P.S. --
Responders have criticized my example of honey bees that die when they sting. I am well aware that there are drones, workers, and a queen in each hive. But the fact that the workers are sterile doesn't refute the example but only strengthens it. How can a queen bee, who is responsible for laying all the eggs, possibly know whether some hatch with stingers that are fatal or not? How can her genes know? That they know is part of the credo of sociobiology.

Let's say, however, that some hives survive with workers that die after they sting while others don't survive with workers that can sting multiple times (as bumblebess can)? There is no way to attribute the survival to this adaptation, and in addition, it's only common sense that workers that can sting multiple times are far better defenders than those which die immediately. This is an evolutionary conundrum and remains one despite Darwinian efforts to explain it.