The Evolutionary Spiral

Oil Tank Stairway #1


The metal stairway in this image evokes in me considerations of the evolutionary spiral, the universe’s operating system, which we know to “favor” increased novelty, diversity, adaptation, complexity and higher levels of organization and awareness. Along the bottom steps of the oil tank, I see the significant ordering that has already occurred. In the steps above and combined with the railing, the lighted way indicates that the direction is onward and upward. Finally, conveying purpose to this ascending pathway is the mass and structure of the tank—the universe.

Extending the metaphor, I would place the current generation of humanity in the area of transition, where light and order are emerging from the darkness (wherein dwells ignorance, short-sightedness, intolerance and the illusion of separation). I imagine the transition toward the light being fueled physically by health and well-being, safety and security, strong economies, innovations in every domain and the pursuit of excellence and what works for everyone. And because consciousness gives rise to form, I imagine that love, compassion, tolerance, collaboration, empowerment, ethical behavior and the like are the energies of the leading edge.

To some this may sound saccharine or unrealistic, particularly in light of recent political divisions and how we’re portraying ourselves in the mass media and entertainment venues. But evolution is a universal, unbounded and dynamic process that has operated, and will continue to do so, with or without human beings. What’s different in our time is that we understand this and we’ve gained some knowledge about the patterns that support living systems. Historian, Arnold Toynbee, found that a civilization’s  prospects for survival were greatly enhanced by the movement of information and resources from the top of a society to the bottom. Those that accomplished this feat of uplifting citizens at the bottom, survived the longest.

Addressing the challenge of accomplishing this, systems scientist Dr. Janis Roze, advises “We must now give equal time and focus, equal or even greater energy to those human qualities that are constructive, growth enhancing, confidence and trust inspiring, so that the power of these qualities can be consciously developed and applied both to individual lives and to the directing of societal and world affairs.”

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi connected the dots, tying the individual to evolutionary process by observing “What evolves is not the self trapped in our physical body, which will dissolve after death. Rather, what will survive and grow is the pattern of information that we have shaped through our existence: the acts of love, the beliefs, the knowledge, the skills, the insights that we have had and that have affected the course of events around us. No matter how smart, wise, or altruistic a person might be, he or she is not going to contribute to evolution except by leaving traces of complexity in the culture, by serving as an example to others, by changing customs, belief or knowledge in such a way that they can be passed down to future generations.”

As far back as we’ve been able to see, human evolution favors the passing on—physically, mentally and socially—of characteristics, qualities and thinking that promote survival. In the image of the oil tank, light isn’t emerging from the darkness. It dispels and gives form to it, creating well-ordered shadows. I observe further that the light shines from a particular direction. The direction toward a better life, individually and collectively, is in alignment with the patterns in the evolutionary process—novelty, diversity, adaptation, complexity and higher levels of organization and awareness. Knowing what we know, it makes no sense to just stand on the steps or climb down.

We live on a different planet now, where not biology but symbolic consciousness is the determining factor for evolution. Cultural selection has overwhelmed natural selection. That is, the survival of species and of entire ecosystems now depends primarily on human activities.

              Brian Swimme


About This Image

Oil Tank Stairway

Theme: The Evolutionary Spiral

Negative #: 801-B4

River Road, Cincinnati, Ohio

Photographing around industrial sites can be complicated—getting close enough, obtaining permission and dealing with security guards. As sometimes happens, the light in this situation was so exquisite I had to act quickly. There wasn’t time to ask for permission. Besides, it was a  Sunday and the place was deserted.

Prepared with identification in case someone should come to inquire, I went ahead and set up my tripod on a weed-covered bank. There was a fence and railroad cars between me and the oil tank, so I was fortunate that the telephoto lens on my 2 1/4 camera was long enough to fill the frame with the tank and eliminate the distracting elements.

After shooting several frames I went looking for someone to notify in case they had a video camera trained on me. I couldn’t find anyone, but at least I made the attempt. Usually, when I set up a tripod on or even near commercial properties, guards or police will come out. This is why, in addition to my ID, I also keep a copy of one of my publications in the car—to prove that my intent is creative rather than commercial.

Because of the distance (about forty yards) I used a spot-meter to determine the exposure. Using the Zone System, I metered the scene and processed the film to maximize the full scale of shadows and highlights and extend the range of the graded tones.

(Originally posted March, 2014)

I invite you to visit my Portfolio Site: David L Smith Photography







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