Human civilization is at an evolutionary crossroads where unsustainable human behavior is precipitating the planet’s 6th Mass Extinction Event. Five times in Earth’s history, life was thriving when some event precipitated a wave of extinction, eliminating 70 to 90 percent of all plant and animal species. The last mass extinction event, 66 million years ago, noted for wiping out the dinosaurs, was apparently due to a massive asteroid impact in Mexico that upended the global web of life.
Today’s severe environmental imbalance is, in large part, attributable to the cultural consequences of Darwinian evolution theory. Since the 1900s, neo-Darwinian theory, with its emphasis on the “survival of the fittest in the struggle for life” and on genetic mechanisms as the metric determining species survival, has shaped the behavioral character of civilization by giving scientific legitimacy to the use of power, greed, and violence to “advance” civilization. However, new insights from epigenetic science and the results of the Human Genome Project have completely undermined basic tenets of Darwinian theory.
Epigenetics recognizes that the environment, and more importantly, our perception of the environment, controls genetic activity and behavior and thus shifts the focus of evolutionary theory to the role of the nervous system and consciousness. The Darwinian notion of the survival of the fittest is giving way to a more scientifically accurate, as well as, more positive theory of evolution, one that emphasizes the role of cooperation, interaction, and mutual dependence among all life forms. In the words of Lynn Margulis, “Life did not take over the globe by combat, but by networking.”
Today’s world crises are precipitating a major evolutionary upheaval that will profoundly alter the fate of human civilization. The chaos produced by global crises, which are symptoms of our unsustainability, is destabilizing the structure of civilization and its institutions. While the current system is collapsing, new insights, understanding, and visions offered by human “imaginal cells,” cultural creatives from every field of human endeavor, are pointing the ways to reorganize human civilization so we may thrive into the future. The theory of conscious evolution offered by Lamarck provides the blue print for a more enlightened future as does our new understanding of cell evolution.
Analysis of the development of the cell membrane, as the primal nervous system, has revealed a heretofore-unobserved repetitive pattern of evolution with two phases (see figure below): Phase 1, starts with the origin of a new organism and proceeds to create the most conscious version of that organism. This phase ends when physical limitations prevent further enhancement of the organism’s nervous system.
Phase 2 advances evolution by increasing consciousness through the assembly of individual organisms into cooperative information-sharing communities. Interestingly, a similar expression occurred when a single evolved Texas Instruments chip was subsequently interconnected within a “community” of chips, the result … a computer. The second phase of evolution ends when the most conscious version of communal organization transforms into a new organism. The presence of a new organism initiates a repeat of Phase 1, but this time expressing a higher level of consciousness (evolution).
This image above shows the former scheme of Darwinian evolution as a slow linear progression. This theory has been profoundly challenged by the new science of epigenetics and the results of the Human Genome Project. A 2-phase evolution flowchart, illustrated in the lower right corner of this figure, suggests a 3-step progression in a new evolution theory: prokaryote to eukaryote; eukaryote to human being, and cycle 3 which we are near completing, human being to humanity.
Civilization can get to that higher level of evolution but only if we change our rapacious ways. The potential positive future for our species is analogous to the metamorphosis of a butterfly. A caterpillar’s body is comprised of several billion cells. In the body of the growing caterpillar, the economy is booming and the cellular community is actively employed. The voracious appetite of this organism leads to their devouring the leaves of the plant on which they are living. Caterpillar growth slows and eventually comes to an end as the available resources are consumed.Within the pupa, the caterpillar cells are out of work and their highly structured community begins to fall apart. Specialized imaginal cells within the ensuing chaos provide organizing information and direction to create a different, more sustainable future. Metamorphosis is complete when the non sustainable caterpillar civilization transforms into the ecologically sensitive butterfly civilization.
The parallels are clear. In behaving as a caterpillar, human civilization’s voracious appetite to grow and consume has undermined the environment and precipitated the 6th mass extinction of life. The global crises we face today are Nature’s wake-up call for humans to realize that civilization needs to undergo a “metamorphosis,” — the current environmentally destructive “caterpillar” version of civilization must transform into a “new” sustainable organism, Humanity. The looming fall of civilization as we know it is a necessity; we simply cannot build a future for humans to thrive on the unsustainable foundation supporting today’s world. But it is also important to note that not all caterpillars survive the metamorphosis into butterflies.
Will human civilization survive its “metamorphosis?” At the moment, civilization is balanced on the knife-edge of extinction or conscious evolution. Our uncertain future is dependent on the actions we engage in today.