The Evolutionary Spiral

From darkness we advance toward the light

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. 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 of the structure itself—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, 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 of light.

To some this may sound saccharine or unrealistic, particularly in light of 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.

In his study of 26 societies, 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 the society to the bottom. Those that accomplished this feat of uplifting citizens at the lowest level survived the longest. On the other hand, collapsed civilizations had in common an “inflexibility under stress and the concentration of wealth into few hands.” He also observed that civilizations disintegrated when their leaders stopped responding creatively, and they “sank owing to nationalism, militarism, and the tyranny of a despotic minority.”

Addressing the challenge of moving in the more positive direction, 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 and growth.

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 spiral. The direction of change is either up or down. There’s light on the steps ahead, darkness on those below. Personally and socially we’re making the choice every day.

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



Photography Monographs (Click on the pages to turn them)


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