12/11/2006 06:19 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Survival of the Wisest

There's a sense of crisis in the air over the notion that reason itself is in jeopardy. The attack on reason is coming primarily from religious extremists, but the whole ethos of fundamentalism is seen as irrational. So the alarm goes out to defend science and push back unreason. This urgent call is supposed to salvage future progress for humanity and defeat the wave of barbarity that travels under the name of terrorism.

But how can anyone seriously defend science as a panacea when it gave us the atomic bomb? Rationality is creating new methods of mechanized death every year. The future being planned by so-called rationalists includes robot armies and neutron bombs that can kill every enemy combatant--or civilian population--while leaving their buildings standing. How much less messy the clean-up will be. The bald fact is that science and reason have unleashed incredible fear and diabolical inventions, and this happened because we are divided creatures. We don't use reason alone--it is always mixed with anger, fear, dread, aggression, and all the other aspects of our hidden, unconscious nature.

Reason isn't the savior of the future. That role belongs to wisdom. With all the threats to human survival that we now face, I resort to a phrase coined by Jonas Salk: the survival of the wisest. Although a great researcher in medicine, Salk had the vision to look beyond materialism. He saw that evolution, as it applies to modern human beings, isn't Darwinian. We no longer live in a state of nature. Competition is more mental and technological today than physical. The survival of specific gene pools, which is the crux of animal survival and adaptation, is irrelevant for us.

For at least two thousand years, our evolution has shifted to the following:

--We assimilate new information and evolve mentally.
--We don't evolve physically (except to grow healthier and live longer) but instead use technology to extend our physical limitations and gain more power over Nature.
--We gain a higher vision of ourselves and evolve spiritually.

The progress made through the first two factors has reached a tipping point. Our technology and our challenge to Nature may destroy us. So where is evolution going to go? In an age of information, anyone can access knowledge for incredible destruction or incredible creation. The choice isn't left to governments, churches, or isolated geniuses. Putting technology in the hands of everyone is progress only if the third factor--our vision of ourselves--evolves at the same time.

Arch materialists like Richard Dawkins, despite an expertise in evolutionary biology, miss the whole point of human evolution, which is that it long ago broke out of the prison of physicality. True, modern athletes are stronger, bigger, faster, and more accomplished than those of the past, but this doesn't affect anyone's survival the way becoming a bigger, stronger, faster gazelle would.

Taking all factors together, humans evolve through the metabolism of experience. That is, we absorb everything going on in our environment, and in some rather mysterious ways, the next generation knows more and can do more than we can. I am not being mystical here. When Einstein published his General Theory of Relativity, Bertrand Russell famously said that he was one of three people in the world who understood it. Now a bright high school student can grasp Einstein's principles, if not his mathematics.

The same holds true for today's five-year-olds who can navigate through a computer better and faster than many adults of an older generation. We assimilate difficulties, solve them, and move on to a new future as more evolved humans. The evolution of the wisest holds that this cannot be a random process. No one is going to stop the diabolical creativity of weapons research except us. Nature is perfectly willing to let us destroy ourselves through ecological collapse. Are we to be regarded as one of Nature's most interesting failed experiments? And one of the most short-lived, it might be added.

When asked if he found the cathedrals of Europe inspiring, Mark Twain answered to the effect that the architects forgot to build inspiring people to go in them. We risk leaving the same legacy to the future. What will save us is self-awareness, the key to evolution of the wisest. Self-awareness and how it grows will be the subject of a follow-up post.