07/02/2012 01:18 pm ET Updated Sep 01, 2012

Are You An Evolutionary?

"Do you believe the Bible, or do you believe in evolution?" The question came in an urgent whisper, passed around my eighth-grade science class with the guilty subterfuge of a dirty joke. I was thirteen years old and already I understood that there were two kinds of people in my small town on the edge of the Bible Belt: those who believed and those who didn't.

I'm not talking about God -- everyone believed in God. I'm talking about evolution.

Little did I realize, at that tender age, that I was confronting one of the most profound and enduring existential dilemmas of my time and culture. A few decades later, in the brave new world of the twenty-first century, that whispered question, far from being an out-dated relic, is emblazoned across the covers of the most mainstream magazines: "God vs. Darwin," "Science vs. Spirit," "The Plot to Kill Evolution." Indeed, evolution, these days, instead of just being a scientific term denoting a biological explanation for the origin of life, has become almost a pseudonym for the endemic culture wars that simmer under the surface of American society and occasionally flare up into full-fledged showdowns that temporarily consume the consciousness of our mass media. The debate over evolution, we are told, is a war between irrevocably opposed camps -- between those who look at the world and see the handiwork of a divine intelligence and those who look at the world and see only meaningless manifestations of matter. In fact, judging from the headlines alone, one would have to conclude that we live in a world where God and evolution are mutually exclusive.

But like my Oklahoma hometown, America is not that simple. If the pollsters are to be trusted, 91 percent of Americans believe in God. And a shocking less-than-50-percent accept the scientific theory of evolution. You just have to do the math to see that the black-and-white image of a polarized nation that makes books and magazines fly off the shelves is concealing at least a few shades of gray. In fact, as I've found out in my extensive research over the last decade, it conceals a whole spectrum of colors. I have learned that evolution is not only a line in the sand between science and faith. It is also, I have been surprised to find, a bridge that connects them.

Before I go any further, let me state unequivocally that evolution is a fact. I would say that I believe in evolution, only I don't think belief has anything to do with it. We don't say we believe the world is round -- we know it is. Evolution is not a matter of faith; it is a matter of evidence, painstaking work, and breakthrough science. Any other conclusion stretches the bounds of credibility and retards the advance of knowledge. Evolution is simply true.

Now that I have stated my position clearly and unequivocally, let me confuse the matter. I also think that the discovery of evolution is the greatest cultural, philosophical, and spiritual event in the last few hundred years. I think its overall influence is destined, in the long run, to be seen alongside some of our culture's most significant inflection points -- the birth of monotheism, the European Enlightenment, the industrial revolution.

Are you surprised that I used the word "spiritual"? Many, no doubt, will be. Hasn't the theory of evolution long been the number-one enemy of spirit in most religious circles? Isn't evolution the atheist's answer to religious faith, the "blind watchmaker" who has slowly fashioned life out of inanimate matter without any divine help? Didn't Darwin's paradigm-shattering revolution of natural selection and random mutation explain away God with one momentous insight into the workings of Mother Nature?

Yes, that is certainly the story as it is often told -- the story that causes consternation in the classrooms of Kansas, inflames the passions of Christians from the rust belt to the Bible Belt, and riles up Muslims from Baghdad to Birmingham. But consider this: evolution was never merely a scientific idea. For that matter, it wasn't even Darwin's idea. Indeed, long before Darwin ever became fascinated by Galapagos finches, the notion of evolution was already at work in the culture of the nineteenth century, quietly subverting established categories of thought and changing religion, philosophy, and science, in unexpected and remarkable ways.

Today, the idea of evolution, the basic notion of process, change, and development over time, is affecting much more than biology. It is affecting everything, from our perceptions of politics, economics, psychology, and ecology to our understanding of the most basic constituents of reality. It is helping to give birth to new philosophies and, I will argue, is the source of a new kind of spiritual revelation. Evolution is the cornerstone of a rich, novel way of understanding the development of everything from the complex corridors of the human psyche to the outer reaches of the universe. Evolution is certainly about the birds and the bees, but it's also about culture, consciousness, and the cosmos.

I believe that our emerging understanding of evolution in all its many shapes and sizes and dimensions is so fundamental that it would be hard to overstate its significance. Taken as a whole, it will constitute the organizing principle of a new worldview, uniquely suited for the twenty-first century and beyond. The outlines of this worldview are still being formed -- spurred on by new insights and breakthroughs in the development of science, psychology, sociology, technology, philosophy, and theology. The pioneering individuals who are forging it are working across vastly different contexts and disciplines, united not by creed or belief system but by a broadly shared evolutionary vision and a care for our collective future. They are scientists and futurists, sociologists and psychologists, priests and politicians, philosophers and theologians. They share no common title. I call them Evolutionaries.

Evolutionary is a play on the word revolutionary, and I mean it to convey something of the revolutionary nature of evolution as an idea. Evolutionaries are revolutionaries, with all the personal and philosophical commitment that word implies. They are not merely curious bystanders to the evolutionary process, passive believers in the established sciences of evolution. They are committed activists and advocates -- often passionate ones -- for the importance of evolution at a cultural level. They are positive agents of change, who subscribe to an underappreciated truth: that evolution, comprehensively understood, implicates the individual. Indeed, an Evolutionary is someone who has internalized evolution, who appreciates it not only intellectually but also viscerally. Evolutionaries recognize the vast process we are embedded within but also the urgent need for our own culture to evolve and for each of us to play a positive role in that outcome.

Are you an evolutionary? Do you suspect that there may be hints of meaning to be found in the process that turned a seething lithosphere into a thriving biosphere and eventually into a surging noosphere? Do you think there may be a relationship, however subtle, between the vast processes that have governed cosmic evolution, the biological forces of terrestrial evolution and the cultural processes that have taken us from totems and taboos to terabytes and human rights in less then 10,000 years? And if so, what does all of that mean about the problems and issues -- political, social, philosophical and metaphysical -- facing us today? What does the world look like through the eyes of an evolutionary? Let's not raise our fists as revolutionaries; let's elevate our minds as evolutionaries and invest ourselves in the great challenge of our time -- embracing the deep-time past and the creative possibilities of the future, and bringing them both into the conversations of the present.

CARTER PHIPPS is author of Evolutionaries: Unlocking the Spiritual and Cultural Potential of Science's Greatest Idea (Harper Perennial 2012).