Evolutionaries, by Carter Phipps

Subtitle: "Unlocking the Spiritual and Cultural Potential of Science's Greatest Idea"

On reading “The Phenomenon of Man” when it first appeared I anticipated it dividing concern with evolution into two streams. One, to which I subscribe, would be about redefining human nature on the basis of discoveries about evolution. The other--with which I associate Phipps’ evolutionaries--would be about redefining evolution on the basis of pre-existing convictions about human nature. Where I'm interested in theories of biological evolution and what they tell us about the nature of the universe and ourselves, Phipp’s evolutionaries are interested in evolution in the sense of cultural and spiritual change and in how to participate in it.

At the heart of the "evolutionary" movement as Phipps describes it is a community of writers associated with the magazine EnlightenNext (formerly What is Enlightenment?) that Phipps served for over a decade as executive editor.

"In the spring of 2002, What is Enlightenment? published a landmark issue with the headline ‘The Future of God: Evolution and Enlightenment in the 21st Century,’ presenting the converging currents of what we were recognizing to be a coherent new movement, a dawning ‘evolutionary spirituality’..."

Of the magazine’s founder Andrew Cohen, Phipps writes, “Intuitively, he had always felt that spiritual awakening was somehow connected to the broader evolution of the human race…” Cohen, in a book published in 2011, wrote "I believe that those of us in the twenty-first century at the leading edge of consciousness and culture urgently need a mystical spirituality and a source of soul liberation that points us not beyond time but forward toward the future we need to create..."

Phipps defines the community’s quest as the convergence of the spiritual wisdom of Sri Aurobindo with the nature-mysticism of Catholic priest Teilhard de Chardin, particular his “Phenomenon of Man.” Aurobindo placed a new emphasis in spiritual matters on change, in place of a more traditional other-worldly stasis. Teilhard de Chardin identified in evolution a process intent since its inception in creating not only man as he now is but as an agent destined to take a further step in evolution to reach what he referred to as “The Omega Point” far in the future. Aurobindo defined the context for a new spiritual quest based on change and “becoming,” Teilhard de Chardin defined it as an evolutionary process and provided it with a holy grail towards which to measure progress.

How does this community inform itself about evolution? In the index to “Evolutionaries” there is no listing for either natural selection or Lamarck, and only 13 for Darwin and “The Origin of Species.” By contrast there are 31 for Aurobindo and his works and 34 for Teilhard de Chardin and his works.

Where did they get their inspiration from? Aurobindo spent the years from 1879 to 1892 in England. Teilhard de Chardin was in England from 1908 to 1912. Both therefore were in England at a time when Darwin’s aura had faded and “Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation,” published in 1844, was still very popular. Both were almost certainly exposed to “Vestiges…” account of evolution.

"It has pleased Providence to arrange that one species should give birth to another, until the second highest gave birth to man…. The whole train of animated beings, from the simplest and oldest up to the highest and most recent, are, then, to be regarded as a series of advances of the principle of development."

According to the author of “Vestiges…” God set evolution in motion by creating the first embryo, with the capacity to become in turn the progenitor of a fish, then an amphibian, a reptile, bird, mammal and finally man. Which one manifested in the adult form depended on environmental conditions. As geological conditions changed, first fish, then amphibians, then reptiles appeared, etc. And this took place not only as an accident on Earth but as a cosmic principle.

"I contemplate the whole phenomena as having been in the first place arranged in the counsels of Divine Wisdom, to take place, not only upon this sphere, but upon all the others in space."

Are we humans the intended end point of evolution throughout the cosmos? Maybe not.

"Are there yet to be species superior to us in organization, purer in feeling, more powerful in device and act, and who shall take a rule over us! There is in this nothing improbable on other grounds. The present race, rude and impulsive as it is, is perhaps the best adapted to the present state of things in the world; but the external world goes through slow and gradual changes, which may leave it in time a much serener field of existence. There may then be occasion for a nobler type of humanity, which shall complete the zoological circle on this planet, and realize some of the dreams of the purest spirits of the present race."

You don’t need to add much to this to arrive at the “Phenomenon of Man.” All of “Vestiges…” emphasizes the evolutionary principle, among galaxies, stars, planets, geological succession, living species, human races, up to human psychology, anthropology and sociology, surely enough to warn Aurobindo of the transience of any condition of existence. Of “Vestiges…” the author claimed “The book, as far as I am aware, is the first attempt to connect the natural sciences into a history of creation.” It could easily have been the model for the book “Journey of the Universe” by one of Phipp’s modern-day evolutionaries, Brian Swimme, and Mary Evelyn Tucker. Author of “Vestiges…” Robert Chambers, intent on familiarizing the British public with the latest thinking in science, would I’m sure be very surprised to see how he might have become inspiration for twenty-first century spirituality.

I believe with all my heart that we are several hundred years from understanding the mechanisms behind biological evolution as we understand electricity, say, today. I anticipate that we are short at least half a dozen fundamental concepts. A lifetime of dedication might have one of us coming up with one such concept, but to come up with half a dozen is a feat beyond imagining. How do the evolutionaries cope with this situation? They take evolution to mean any sort of thing changing, without reference to whether the cause has anything to do with biological evolution. Ideas, culture, human yearning, all are "evolving" because we experience them changing. As it has become common for leaders at the forefront of change in art and science to be admired, so the evolutionaries are presented as being admirable for being at the forefront of change of any sort to do with ideas, culture or human yearning. Phipps several times tries to rein in the limits of what may fairly be claimed as evolutionary, but there is little questioning in his book of goals his evolutionaries are pursuing. That it be declared spiritual and have to do with something thought of as evolving seems enough.

What can one set the evolutionaries against? Social Darwinism, certainly--their hearts are all in the right place. And evolutionary psychology--they are more in Rousseau's court. And Darwkin's selfish genes, though they like appealing to his memes. In general I identify them as being against anything that would might contradict current widely-held spiritual goals and assumptions. Those they do not seek to question. For the evolutionaries, evolution is OK as long as its your ox that's evolving, not theirs.

Note: there is a mention of natural selection in this book. "As Swimme points out, the force of natural selection has, in this era, in some sense been superseded by human choice." I think it was natural selection, not simply evolution, that Daniel Dennett was referring to when he used the phrase "the best idea anyone ever had," that I think Phipps is drawing on for his subtitle. Seems science's greatest idea is no match for human choice. That may be the nub of the evolutionary impulse.

Author website

Below, microdata:

Evolution for the Humanities
Evolutionaries evolution