THE BLOG

Civilization & Values

06/21/2015 05:06 am ET | Updated Jun 20, 2016

Evolution Has Outcomes Not Destinations.

One of the pleasures of having lived for several decades is that old friends drop by now and again. In an email sent to a few friends and colleagues, Stuart Kauffman passed along a piece he and his co-authors have written for the United Nations about the UN's Sustainable Development Goals. It is both level-headed and radical.

Building on Thomas Cahill's notion of The Hinges of History®, Kauffman insists that we are living at one of those hinge-like moments. The UN Sustainable Develop Goals seek to address how human civilizations may both survive and improve. Kauffman and his coauthors

...contend that it is impossible to design policies to implement fixed goals due to the inherent creativity of humanity and nature. ...(R)ather than creating a mold and seeking to fit the world within it, we argue that the mold should adapt to the unfixed world that we, often unknowingly, co-create.

Stuart Kauffman is a theoretical biologist. He has invested a lifetime in trying to take the next step beyond Darwin's Origin of Species to an understanding of the origins of life. Their article addresses life and how it is actually lived. It is predicated both on his deep understanding of biology and an abiding distrust of reductionist science.

As an almost trivial example (unless it's your home), I marvel at the inevitable discrepancies between what an architect designs and what the builders build. As Kauffman says

We can draw up blue prints to the smallest specification, but we cannot control the execution of our plans as they take on unanticipated new life within the adaptive networks that respond to them.

Meaning that everyone involved, however tangentially, has a different perspective and a different agenda. Those differences change the outcome. Not only is that inevitable, properly guided, it is a good thing. It is evolution working. It can also be a disaster. Most evolutionary adaptations are dead-ends. The trick is in how one approaches the process.

The late philosopher Frederick Ferré wrote three insightful volumes reviewing, evaluating and extending western philosophy. Their titles are telling: Being and Value (metaphysics), Knowing and Value (epistemology), Living and Value (ethics). Western thinking is steeped in values, all the way back to the beginning.

Some years ago we produced a substantial amount of work on diversity (differences) in the corporate workplace. At the time we could find almost no credible academic work addressing the subject. Happily we mentioned our frustration to teacher and civil rights lawyer Lani Guinier who pointed us to Karen Jehn (then at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania).

Despite the appalling amount of snake-oil (with apologies to the snakes) sold via "diversity training", diversity in any community remains a challenge and an opportunity. Ms. Jehn's research was fully congruent with what we had found benchmarking (emphatically NOT industrial tourism) the ±30 U.S. corporations deemed by Fortune magazine to be the best at managing a diverse workforce, though no one quite knew what that meant. What we had both found (though Ms. Jehn's articulation was clearer) was that:

In a diverse workplace in a dynamic environment, diversity is beneficial if people share similar values. If their values are diverse (different), the results are ... not good.

Is this relevant to Mr. Kauffman and the Sustainable Development Goals? We think so. Families are diverse, communities are diverse, nations are diverse, civilizations are diverse, individuals are diverse, even, I think, within our selves.

Diversity coupled with shared values are the principal operational elements on which Kauffman is focused.

We cannot predict or prestate how our intentions may come to fruition, but through the strength of intention, invention and compassion, we can bend the curve of the present.
 
What do intentions mean in the context of the UN goals for sustainability?  We argue that rather than specific targets to be achieved through designed policies, these goals should be seen as values to guide human innovation. (emphases added)

These values are readily subverted by what Ferré named Philistines (those who will not support and sustain our valued creations) and Vandals (those who actively subvert and destroy our valued creations). These two are always present, what the Abrahamic tradition calls "the snake (again with apologies to the snake) in the Garden". It is an ongoing and almighty struggle.

In a December post (Charles Darwin and the SunMine), we argued that Darwinian engagement is even more important that Newtonian analysis if we are to successfully negotiate (survive) the historical flex point, the hinge, that we now inhabit. Kauffman et al have put that idea into a global and actionable context.

It really is good to hear from old friends, even though I can't predict when they'll emerge or what they'll have to say or what they'll help me to do or where it will lead. My take this time is that the reframing Dr. Kauffman et al proposes offers each of us a perspective by which we may become the conscious co-creators of our futures.

Think I will.