Evolution is a good deal more than Darwin’s natural selection. The whole cosmos has been evolving for 13.8 billion years, from energy to matter to, here on earth, life and self-conscious life. Evolutionary processes are alive, dynamic, an unstoppable juggernaut pervading every aspect of reality. Evolution is the context of our reality, the story all humans share. We evolve from childhood into adulthood, and, ideally, from self-centeredness toward the good of larger entities like our community or nation (and now, faced with climate change, the good of our planet). Political arrangements have evolved from the divine right of kings into still–evolving democratic systems.
The story of cosmic evolution is beginning to seep into collective consciousness in a way that may yet render obsolete divisions such as those between Shia and Sunni, let alone between “radical Islamic fundamentalism” and the “post-Enlightenment West.” We all evolved from the same mysterious source. The world is in a race between exclusivity and inclusivity. Inclusivity appears in similar form in all the religions as the Golden Rule. We will live together or die together. As we treat others, so we will be treated.
It is not surprising that fundamentalism in whatever form has often found the evolutionary paradigm threatening, because it implies a challenging dynamic of change that feels insecure. A Supreme Court justice’s orientation toward evolution in this basic sense determines whether he or she is a strict originalist (a nicer word for fundamentalist), or sees the Constitution as a living document that must be responsive to changing conditions. No founding father composing the second amendment could have foreseen the surfeit of guns decimating our country today.
Far from being a benign, feel-good process, evolution is often painful, one step forward, two back. Take the tortured but necessary demise of the American coal industry. No one wants to see the debilitating effects of unemployment on real people with real families, but so far the technology of coal burning hasn’t evolved a way not to accelerate global warming.
We humans are supposedly not built to respond effectively to long-term threats like changes in climate, but, late in the game as it is, we do seem to be collectively learning what is at stake and evolving locally and globally. Entrepreneurs are rapidly bringing to market solar, wind, and other cleaner and more sustainable energy sources.
Unfortunately, negative and harmful processes can also become subject to an evolutionary juggernaut. Since 1945 weapons systems have evolved (more accurately, we have evolved them) to a level of complexity and destructive power that we are already powerless to control. The Pentagon is reported to be spending its usual vast sums on research into computer-controlled robotic drones capable of making their own autonomous decisions about who is an enemy. The defense establishments of other great nations are presumably up to the same mischief, or soon will be, because the arms race never stops evolving. Or won’t until we embrace a new way of thinking: that we must evolve to survive.
The threat of nuclear extinction provides a new evolutionary pressure upon the obsolete parochialism of the world’s conflicts. Is not all war civil war, and does not all war have the potential of drawing in the nuclear powers? Our caution in the Syrian mess confirms this possibility.
We, we the nations, are hopelessly complacent in our present reliance upon deterrence as a workable security system. As the fellow falling from the hundredth floor said as he passed the sixtieth: so far so good. The system, an emperor with no clothes solemnly worshipped by legions of self-confident experts, is too complex not to be subject to breakdown at any moment, perhaps by accident, perhaps where NATO and Russia push up against each other in Eastern Europe, perhaps in Kashmir.
If this threat isn’t enough to accelerate an ecumenical impulse that wipes out obsolete distinctions between tribes and races and religions, what is? As people of diverse spiritual worldviews acknowledge that they have in common the possibility of annihilation, our shared anxiety can energize evolution toward inclusivity and non-violent solutions to conflict. Instead, our own nation’s attention has been distracted by the Trump-Clinton mud-wrestle.
Will we citizens, and our leaders, and even the arms manufacturers evolve in the face of the nuclear threat in a way similar to our growing positive responses to the challenge of climate instability? I live in Maine, where the state’s largest private employer is the Bath Iron Works. They are building three of a new kind of guided missile destroyer that is contoured to hide from radar. Each one costs 4 billion dollars. Recently I had a conversation with an Iron Works employee. I made the assumption that, given his job, he would be hawkishly supportive of a robust military. Not at all. His exact parting words were “I’d be much happier building solar panels.”