The concept of evolution should not be limited to the scientific assertions around Darwin’s theory of natural selection, but ought to include the more general idea that people and processes constantly evolve in response to the forces that surround them. 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.
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.
Such evolutionary processes are alive, dynamic, an unstoppable juggernaut pervading every aspect of reality. Against them, even the determination not to evolve has evolutionary effects, as we have seen in the bizarre presidential process of the past year. A Neanderthal candidate has helped awaken a generation of young women, and ideally young men also, to evolve beyond being victims of crude chauvinist stereotypes.
The whole cosmos has been evolving for 13.8 billion years, from energy to matter to, here on earth, life and self-conscious life. Evolution is the context of our reality, the story all humans share. This story 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. Every differentiation in that largest context, by race, tribe, religion, ethnicity, feels arbitrary and abstract.
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. For many believers, to generalize unfairly, religion provides behavioral rules that can be a source of security and comfort even as they are used as excuses to remain exclusive and resist evolving.
Within each world religion, there are minority enclaves (the Sufis in Islam, Zen practitioners of Buddhism, Catholic mystics like Teilhard de Chardin) who understand that their spiritual discipline is an opportunity to evolve toward inclusivity, toward looking within at fears and projections rather than looking outward for enemies, and toward expanding our identifications and responsibilities beyond the national to the planetary.
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.
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.
The threat of nuclear extinction provides a new context for the obsolete parochialism of the world’s major religions. If this threat isn’t enough to accelerate the ecumenical impulse, 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 nonviolent solutions to conflict. The world is in a race between fundamentalists and arms manufacturers on the one hand, and evolutionaries who see clearly both the futile dead-end of the arms race and the possibility of a security built upon the truth of interdependence, which 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. Whether they each understand this or not, this is the hidden-in-plain-sight background behind the Trump-Clinton mud-wrestle.
Will the arms manufacturers and the politicians in league with them evolve in the face of the nuclear threat in a way similar to our 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.”