Sunday, December 28, 2008

evolution and society

This Christmas, my wife gave me "The Superorganism," a new book on the social insect societies by Bert Holldobler and Edward O. Wilson. In the midst of all my other reading activities -- which are, frankly, far too many -- it seemed necessary to pause and to get into this as well.

Superorganisms are a fascinating subject. The level of cooperation that takes place in insect societies (speaking here of ants, bees, and other highly social insects) is very nearly perfect. Altruism rules the society, and the individual serves for the sake of the preservation of the whole.

Ouspensky saw this as a horrific sacrifice of individuality, the sign of a degenerate society. He claimed that insects at one time had much greater possibilities, but that they fell from grace, and were reduced to their tiny size and their slave-like existence because of their failure to evolve further.

The authors of The Superorganism paint a radically different picture. Our emerging understanding of the characteristics and mechanics of evolution don't suggest anything of the kind. Rather, they show a supremely adapted mechanism, a magnificent example of how mechanical the universe is, and how beautifully it functions. They furthermore illustrate the property of emergence, which is one of the chief laws that run the engines of creation and the evolution of consciousness itself.

So, writing from a perspective limited by his time and circumstances, Ouspensky called it way wrong. There isn't anything "fallen" about insect societies at all. They are beautiful organizations, and, as I said before, very nearly perfect for the purpose they serve. As it happens, eusocial insect societies dominate in every climate where it's possible for them to survive. Not only that, the total biomass of ants on the surface of the planet is very roughly equivalent to the total biomass of humans. In other words, they are insanely successful at cooperating and conquering the challenges that they face.

Unlike human beings.

If humanity wants to survive the coming age -- an age where we have run out of money, and are rapidly destroying all of the ecosystems that support us -- we are going to need to learn to pool our resources and cooperate altruistically in a manner we have never done before. Failure to do so will almost certainly lead to collapse of the kind that Jared Diamond describes in his book of the same title. Will we be able to put aside our petty differences, our greed, our egos -- yes, that's the ultimate question, isn't it? -- in order to serve something higher?

It is terribly difficult for us to do this in our own spiritual work. It is equally difficult for us to translate this effort into ordinary life. And yet that is exactly what is needed from each of us if anything is to move forward in a positive way.

Speaking only for myself, I see the forces of involution are powerful. There is a constant temptation to go towards the lower. To avoid receiving energy, even when it is generously sent; to refuse to be open, even when the openness offers itself; to wish for revenge even when it is clear that compassion is the better choice.

Am I a bad person? No, I'm an ordinary person. This is the human condition. We all flatter ourselves that we are better than this, but we aren't.

I am reminded here of a phrase from the confession of sin in the Catholic and Episcopal catechism:

We have left undone those things which ought to be done,
And we have done those things which ought not to have been done,
And there is no health in us.

Where, if at all, do we discover a greater impulse towards consciousness and responsibility? If it doesn't begin within each one of us individually, it will never translate itself into society at large.

I'm sure that as I read "The Superorganism" more commentary will creep its way into the blog. The study of evolutionary biology and insect societies is rich territory for analogies to the spiritual quest. Of course, it's true that one can find these analogies almost anywhere. But right now, for me, biology is the soup du jour.

May our hearts be open, and our prayers be heard.

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