Feature Article: Evolutionary Dynamics and Social Systems

Peggy Holman and Tom Atlee

Peggy Holman

Tom Atlee

 Peggy Holman and Tom Atlee

A small but rapidly-growing number of people are taking the viewpoint that humanity has the potential to become “conscious evolution”. They believe that we are evolution becoming conscious of itself. These people constitute a science-based spiritual movement which has so far focused on (a) reframing major religions through the eyes of evolution, (b) learning and teaching evolutionary science and its new spiritual significance, (c) celebrating the Great Story of evolution and humanity’s role in it, and (d) personal development in light of evolutionary dynamics. (See, for example, and

In 2005 it occurred to some of us involved with this movement that this perspective has an intrinsic social change or “activist” dimension, as well—an impulse to transform human social systems more consciously.

Human social systems in the form of civilization are a relatively recent evolutionary phenomenon, but they are in no way alien to the flow of evolution. In fact, they follow a fundamental evolutionary dynamic of simple entities cooperatively combining into more complex entities, a dynamic which gave rise, among other things, to multi-cellular creatures like ourselves.

For 200 years—and especially in recent decades—the evolution of human social systems has been accelerating rapidly. While many aspects of this evolution are intentional, the overall unfolding lacks whole-system reflective consciousness. That lack is becoming an increasing threat to the survival of civilization and of our species. Collectively we are inadequately aware of and responsive to the global impacts we are creating. Remedying this lack is vital for our survival and so radical that its achievement could constitute a collective evolutionary leap of unprecedented magnitude (Wright, 2000). Humanity and its civilizations would look radically different afterwards.

We suggest that conscious evolution includes making more conscious the evolution of culture, social systems, consciousness, and tools—and of the synergies among them.

In late 2006 two of us, Peggy Holman and Tom Atlee, began research into the following inquiry with initial funding from the Kellogg Foundation:

What can we understand about evolutionary dynamics that can guide the efforts of conscious evolutionary agents in catalyzing the conscious evolution of social systems?

Our Intentions

Given the vast terrain that is “evolution”, there is an infinite variety of maps and perspectives that could be used to make meaning from it. Guided by our inquiry, “What can evolution teach us about changing social systems?” we set out with several intentions:

  • That we articulate a model sufficiently general that it applies across the span of cosmic, geological, biological, and social evolution.
  • That it be well grounded in but not unduly constrained by mainstream scientific knowledge and perspectives.
  • That it be sufficiently simple to be broadly accessible to potential conscious evolutionary agents of change.
  • That it be provocative and compelling enough to stimulate inquiry and engagement by others.
  • That it provide insight for how individuals and groups can consciously evolve towards constituting increasingly conscious social organisms.

Most tellings of the evolutionary story focus on species A evolving into species B evolving into species C, etc. We chose to begin our research, not from this entity-oriented perspective, but by looking through the lens of interaction—the processes and progression of evolution from the primal electromagnetic, gravitational, weak and strong nuclear interactions through highly-evolved, complex social interactions. Ultimately, what proved most fruitful was a view that grasped the essential, and indeed, inseparable partnership between entities and interactions within a given context. This view, which embraces the survival of the fit, also includes the nurturing environment, the quality of our interactions, and other qualities absent from our traditional telling of the story.

With that preamble, we offer an emerging story, an emerging map, and some emerging guidance for conscious evolutionary agents.

Our Emerging Evolutionary Story

Many say that evolution is “survival of the fittest.” Yes, and…there is much more to it than that. Why does anything exist at all? How do things persist? Where does all the novelty we see around us come from—even in the supposedly nonliving physical world?

Initially, persistence involved a reduction of energy, a cooling down of Big Bang hyper-energies far enough to create an environment in which particles could form. But most of those primitive particles—like the quarks and anti-quarks—only lasted a few microseconds at first. By 10,000 years after the Big Bang, a lot of particles had evolved into protons and neutrons which had settled into atomic nuclei, and by 300,000 years things cooled down enough for the first atoms to form—mostly simple hydrogen atoms, most of which have persisted for 13.7 billion years, with some larger atoms (created later in stars) being as much as 10 billion years old.

In the presence of a universe of relatively stable atoms, gravity became visible as a major player in the world of interactions. Clusters of atoms began to gather into hazes and then rippling clouds that then swirled into galaxies and collapsed into stars. As gravity danced with powerful nuclear forces in the bellies of stars, hot interactions generated enough energy to build more complex atoms, with the really big ones being born by the billions as their stars exploded in hyper-energized supernova deaths, flinging their atomic children into space to begin cloud-coalescing at higher levels of complexity able to birth planeted star-systems like our solar system. (Intriguingly this means that most atoms have persisted longer than stars, and that we could not come into being before the death of the first stars.)

The formation of these basic entities—atoms, galaxies, and stars—was the first sign that congenial conditions (such as things being cool enough or having enough gravitational mass) are needed for entities to form and persist. This was true, as well, for the first proto-life on Earth. The early Earth was an inferno in which any complex organic molecules could not hold their form—not a very nurturing context for life. With the cooling of Earth’s surface and the torrential forming of oceans with dissolved complex atoms at closer-to-room-temperature, the environment was more conducive to the formation and persistence of replicating sets of organic molecules which then evolved into the first living cells. As those cells developed ways to respond to their environments—to take actions “grounded in reality”, actions that “made sense”—they became increasingly able to nurture their own persistence, sustaining themselves and their allies by appropriate interactions (i.e., fit) with their environments.

And with this, the first real “awareness” was born. The ability of mobile bacteria to move towards light or heat, or away from certain chemicals, is a sign of the kind of primal “awareness” that served the persistence of that kind of bacteria—a vague but effective “sensing” that later developed into “our five senses” (and the other complex senses developed by other organisms) which only became possible with the evolution of nervous systems. But perhaps there were even earlier sorts of proto-awareness: when the sun shines on a rock and the rock’s atoms start to vibrate (“the rock heats up”), that is a primitive progenitor of the chemical and energetic phenomena that occur in the bacteria that responds proto-consciously to being heated up.

Out of all this—and the appearance of biological “death”—”survival” appears on the evolutionary scene—a more complex form of persistence, alive persistence. Inheritance—e.g., cell division, genes, sex, etc.—brings into being the “impulse to survive.” When an organism persists long enough to reproduce, it passes on whatever tendencies led to its persistence, leading to the persistence of its offspring and thus persistence of the persistence-enhancing characteristics. As these “persistence-enhancing qualities” accumulate, they begin to add up to impulses—automatic reactions that enhance survival. And as organisms develop greater ability to respond to their environments in more complex and creative ways, what was “proto-awareness” begins to look more and more like what we call “consciousness”.

Early cellular awareness of environmental conditions created the foundation for intelligence, choice, and purpose to arise. Intelligence was originally the processing of environmental cues into appropriate responses. As memory and processing capacity developed, so did learning. And as learning progressed, so did awareness of options, and with it the possibility of choice.

For the early bacteria, this may have involved simple choices such as “go forward” or “go backward”. As life progressed, it seems that choicefulness became embedded in DNA. Recent research suggests that DNA is not a command-and-control blueprint for the development of organisms, as previously thought, but rather a strategic map that says “Depending on environmental conditions when you reach this point in the development of this organism, do A, B, or C.” So different organism forms can manifest from the same DNA, depending on the context in which the organism developed (Wilson, 2007; Caruso, 2007).

Thus evolutionary learning of a species becomes embedded in its DNA, often in these remarkably flexible instructions. So some forms of choice are operating even at the sub-cellular level. And choice continued to expand with the increasing complexity of organisms from insects to reptiles to mammals to global cultures.

Nowadays in human society, the range of choices is embedded in social phenomena such as cultural roles (e.g., will you be a doctor, a mother, a soldier, etc.), political options (Republican or Democrat, pro-life or pro-choice, war or peace, etc.), forms of system (economic growth or sustainability, democracy or plutocracy, etc.) and so on, not limited to genes but manifesting in replicating, evolving idea-structures like memes, ideologies, and narratives.

And purpose arises naturally from the survival-derived and survival-serving dynamics of attraction (pleasure, desire) and repulsion (pain, fear), as those dynamics become increasingly conscious. The proto-conscious motion of the early bacteria towards light (a tiny, self-interested proto-purpose) evolves into the highly conscious motivation of Gandhi towards a nonviolently liberated India—which we see as a manifestation of purpose, vision, and mission which his followers have used to influence the behavior of millions of people.

So we begin to see where consciousness comes from: Biology and culture both contribute to the evolution of consciousness (and here we are talking about the emergent consciousness of life, rather than a pre-existing supreme consciousness that gave and gives rise to physical reality—a God or non-dual Beingness). The growth of this emergent consciousness is grounded in the fact that awareness of one’s environment increases one’s ability to survive.

Ironically, the first inklings of increased consciousness may seem to cause just the opposite effect. For example, in a radio interview, an US Army Chaplain spoke of how his growing awareness of his environment contributed to his growing dysfunctionality in the context of war. His dysfunctionality arose from realizing the war he was part of was dysfunctional, which challenged the validity of his role in it, creating psychic pressure to change, to choose, to act.

Greater awareness increases choice, which can be challenging. It can alter the meaning of our status quo contexts, activities, and views in uncomfortable ways, pushing us towards transformation. We feel a growing need to shift ourselves or our environment in order to create a new fit with less dissonance and dysfunction.

In the long run, such awareness may well shift the capacity of the system itself to survive. In fact, experiments, such as the United Nations, could be viewed as systemic responses that may well have emerged from impulses akin to the chaplain’s. It is possible that as we hear more stories of soldiers opting out—in Israel, in the US, and in other parts of the world—perhaps we are witnessing an increasingly conscious social system trending towards rejection of war as a solution, ultimately leading to a choice that today exists largely among those often labeled as naïve idealists: to eliminate war.

This dance between entities, awareness, and contexts has been going on for eons. Starting with increasingly sensitive biological senses, expanding into the pattern-seeking and information-processing capacities of biological intelligence, and then accelerating under the influence of cultural, moral, systemic, and tool-based extensions of those senses and intelligence into what some call “collective intelligence”, increased consciousness manifests in the form of libraries, journalism, research, religions, universities, databases, the Internet, statistics, art, market dynamics, social movements, and so much more.As consciousness expands, so does the range of choices available; the complexity of intelligence (and wisdom) that can be applied to making those choices; the purposes driving those choices; and the self-sense of coherent identity and/or one’s place in the larger whole.

Consciousness accelerates rapidly in cultural and social systems. Studies have demonstrated, for example, that higher forms of intelligence exist in social animals such as certain birds and mammals (Emery, 2007). There is a feedback loop here: Increasing complexity of social dynamics stimulates more complex strategizing by the members of the society—human or animal—leading to the evolution of more complex brains, as well as social extensions of perception and intelligence—all of which, in turn, stimulate the creation of more complex and novel social dynamics that need greater consciousness to deal with. Humanity seems to be in the midst of another such evolutionary leap.

Consciousness, being virtual, is also infinite, offering infinite opportunities for creativity and experimentation—often with few if any consequences or limits—thus vastly expanding the scope of novelty and choice and the speed of evolution. Individuals don’t have to fight or perish in order for evolution to find out what works. Ideas, narratives, and scenarios can be tested in minds and laboratories, greatly reducing risk and speeding success (de Rosnay, 2000).

And lately we have evolved COLLECTIVE virtual spaces—from Wikipedia and online gaming to sophisticated conversations and shared images of the future. These evolutionary developments have sent our evolutionary possibilities off the charts.

Among our evolutionary challenges today is to remember that consciousness originally developed to serve our ability to engage well with our real environments so that those environments can serve us well. Although our consciousness is now becoming rapidly free of virtually all constraints and “reality checks”—at least potentially—our use of it to serve its original purpose will make the difference in whether civilization makes the evolutionary leaps it needs in order to persist. Consciousness—in all its many forms—may now be the primary playing field of human evolution.

We notice a pattern here. Throughout this story we find ENTITIES evolving to embrace and embody greater complexity—from particles and bacteria to nations and Gaia. We find INTERACTIONS evolving to embrace and embody greater complexity—from gravity and predation to conversations and global economies. We find CONTEXTS evolving to embrace and embody greater complexity—from empty space shaped by gravitational fields to cultural spaces shaped by profit, superhighways, legal systems, and story fields. We find CONSCIOUSNESS—perception, choice, intelligence, and purpose—evolving to embrace and embody greater complexity—from bacteria choosing to move (by immediate impulse) toward more light, to civilizations choosing to move (with profound debate, suffering, innovation, and inspirational epiphanies) towards greater sustainability and meaning.

Our Emerging Evolutionary Map

What does this telling of the evolutionary story provide that is of service to conscious evolutionary agents? What might yet another map offer to the unfolding of evolution that is not already well covered by existing maps – classics, such as the great chain of being and recent, such as spiral dynamics integral? The map that follows and the elements we have chosen to highlight began with an inquiry into the nature of interaction. Rather than it leading to a developmental model, we uncovered a pattern that included the dominant scientific story of survival of the fittest but also made sense of a relational perspective in which entrance, collaboration, and other intangible qualities are integral to the whole. For us, it shed light on aspects of evolution that broadened our understanding and appreciation of how we came to be here, now, and what it means for us in these times of accelerating complexity. We believe it provides an inclusive clarifying context for many diverse perspectives and models of evolutionary and developmental dynamics. Since this modeling exercise is primarily about inspiring meaning, we have used somewhat poetic “night language” in describing the dynamics we explore in this section.

We designed the model below to help us think about the evolution of and dynamics among four primary factors, discussed above, represented as overlapping circles or ovals:

  1. Contexts
  2. Entities
  3. Interactions and
  4. Consciousness

Our model depicts these known or knowable factors playing out within a greater realm of what we do not or cannot fully know, which we have labeled Mystery. Mystery was present before the Big Bang, is present at quantum levels from which the manifest world continues to emerge, and shows up all around us in the immeasurable complexity of the real living world and our experience of it.

Within each circle and within every overlap in the model below, we can place dozens, if not hundreds, of phenomena, for they are very broad categories. The item in small type within each circle or overlap is offered only as a significant example of the kinds of phenomena we include under that category, not as a comprehensive subtitle.

Evolutionary Dynamics

Figure 1: Evolutionary Dynamics

Before the beginning is Mystery, which is the ultimate source for everything.

Where did the Big Bang come from? And how do phenomena arise from the unmanifested probability fields of the quantum realm? Although many stories are proposed to answer these questions, we don’t actually know in ways all of us can share. In humility, we acknowledge there is always more – that wholeness itself is incomplete unless we recognize the existence of holes within it. Each part of the whole calls forth the other parts. Each incompleteness calls forth new manifestations of wholeness—of completeness—and incompleteness…forever. Some view this as sacred Mystery, the creative force called Universe, God, Kosmos. It can help us understand our place in the universe—who we are, and what we should be doing (Rue, 1999). At the very least, it can teach us the humility we need to survive amidst our increasing collective power. There is more to This than us…

In the beginning and forever is context, from which everything new appears, including a new context (which is a new beginning).

From the Great Radiance forward, whatever emerges becomes part of the environment for everything else. The myth of the rugged individual is visibly – perhaps even viscerally a fallacy from this perspective. There is nothing that exists outside the influence of what already is. For any system to form and persist, it requires its own particular nurturing environment. For any system to develop or shift, it requires its own particular challenging environment. Without the last ten thousand years of relatively stable climate, for example, there would be no civilization as we know it. And without periodic crises, there would be little reason to change, to become truly new. Evolution turns out to be a dance between survival of the fittest and the nuanced and less acknowledged embrace—and co-creation—of nurturing contexts.

Our stories (specifically our telling of history) …time and space (including the increasing speed of change) …our current situation (with the dangers and opportunities it presents) …all these are aspects of our context. Until recently, our context in industrial society was sufficiently stable to seem invisible. With our increasing capacities to sense more dimensions of it and our increasing impact on it, the changing nature of our context (environment)—and our dependence on it—is becoming ever more apparent. The miracle of seeing—and consciously engaging in—evolution is now possible – and pivotal—for the choices we are facing (de Rosnay, 2000). Where, for example, the Anasazi are presumed to have gone extinct because they were not able to see their effect on their environment before it collapsed (Diamond, 2004), perhaps we have developed the means to both sense and respond to the warning signs we face. As we develop the macroscopic tools to become more aware of our context and as our consciousness becomes embedded in that context (e.g., from sensor satellites feeding us data about the atmosphere to assumptions embedded in our community planning), our context itself begins to be manifest more consciousness. What do we do to shape that more consciously?

Context both nurtures what does fit and winnows out what doesn’t fit.

Darwin gave us the gift of a remarkable insight: what fits, survives. What is equally true is that without the nutrient embrace of the environment, nothing within it persists. It is a remarkable creative tension, which allows the dance of evolution to do its work. (We have noticed certain “masculine” assumptions embedded in evolutionary stories centered on the “judging” function of the environment—and that other, perhaps more feminine, stories could be told focusing of the “nurturing” role of the environment. The union of the two, of course, generates greater wholeness and health.)

Evolution in the interaction of diverse entities in nurturing and challenging contexts generating novelty and persistence—notably the emergent phenomena associated with new forms of elegantly simple complexity.

With the Great Radiance, context formed for the first time, separating itself from the womb of Mystery. With this interaction, difference appeared, bringing forth novel entities – quarks and anti-quarks, hydrogen nuclei, and helium atoms, among others. Ever since then, whenever differences rub up against each other, new entities and forms of interaction result, continuously.

Furthermore, virtually every organism is itself an interaction among diverse entities made up of what came before, including aspects of the context—from tailbones to memories to mitochondria (Margulis and Sagan, 2007). Each entity is unique, while many are similar, like snowflakes, grains of sand, and the human family.

Interactions take shape in the form of differentiation, association, energy, process, cooperation and competition, natural selection and symbiosis, power and heart expressed through many modes.

In the union of entities and interactions, systems are born, in an extraordinary array of differences: synergy, agency, dissonance, self-organization, feedback loops, tools and technologies, design, adaptation, boundaries and inclusivity, relationships and much of what we experience as life—all of which involve patterns of interaction.

Evolution generates increasingly complex entities to the extent the behavior of the constituent entities enables their collective organization to sustain itself and them.

This profoundly powerful notion lies at the heart of how new life – and new social systems—emerge. When many single celled organisms morph into a single, multi-celled organism, it is because the interaction among the context, the cells, and the newly evolved entity are all served (Sahtouris, 1989). This is also true when states band together to form countries, finding their fit for the citizenry, the states, the country, and its surrounding allies and foes. This process isn’t always pretty, though some believe, as suggested by Aldous Huxley, that with the adequate presence of consciousness, about two-thirds of suffering can be eliminated and the remaining third mitigated (Huxley, 1962).

A common way of thinking about this idea is that the generation of more complex entities usually requires aligning the self-interest of the individual (or other part) with the self-interest of the whole (Stewart, 2000). This framing invites the notion of working from the outside in, for example, creating laws and rules to shape behavior. For example, the transportation system runs smoother when we are all working with the same speed limits! However, this alignment can also come from the inside out. When this notion of well-being among self, system, and context is internalized, it can be a transformative experience, discovering we are part of a larger whole. What was once context, including other entities, become part of the same system. “Them” is now “us”, which for most of us, radically reorders our relationship with the Other (Bortoft, 1996). From “German” to “European” to “member of the human family” to “active participant in evolution becoming conscious”, identity shifts along with our sense of “fit”, our sense of where we draw the boundaries of the systems in which we are participants.

Like a cancer cell—or a material economy—when a part of a system individuates too far and grows out of control, it no longer acts as part of the system, but acts as a lone agent bringing about the (usually unconscious) destruction of the larger whole. As humans, how we identify ourselves has everything to do with the nature of how we interact with others and with our environment.

Whether for cells or for social systems, this is a powerful dynamic. As noted, we often attempt to institutionalize it through rules and laws. As we mature, this capacity to align well-being of the different systems with which we identify moves inward. More complex forms of life like us can have more options, guided by principles and patterns made visible. This map is, in fact, an effort to bring to consciousness the relationships among context (where we draw the boundary that defines what is “other” or separate from the systems with which we identify), entity (or system – multi-cellular organism, self, country, ecosystem, etc.), and interaction (chemical, biological, war, negotiation, dancing, etc.)—all within the understanding that they are all aspects of each other, usefully different ways of looking at the same thing.

We notice that the interactive dynamics of evolution itself continue to evolve into greater complexity. In cosmology and physics, four interactions are identified: electromagnetic, gravitational, weak and strong nuclear interactions. Chemistry adds the myriad interactions among atoms and molecules. Geology works with temperature, pressure, and their combination to form sedimentary, igneous, and metamorphic rock. Biology unfolds through the interactions among organs and organisms. Among humans, the diversity of interactions is extraordinary, from war, to conversation, to music, dance, and an infinitude of creative variants.

This increasing complexity is often referred to as the directionality of evolution.

There is much debate about whether evolution has a “direction”, but broad scientific agreement (and observable fact) that evolution produces increasingly complex entities (Dowd, 2007). Those who see evolutionary directionality most often define it in terms of increasing complexity. (Wright, 2000) This complexity shows up in many aspects of reality. To create a meaningful map for evolutionary agents, we focused on just a handful of the dimensions of complexity – entities and interactions, context and awareness – to understand what is happening and the implications for social systems.

Complexity is the density of diverse entities and interactions generating emergent phenomena (novelty).

Simpler entities, interactions, contexts and manifestations of consciousness become part of more complex entities, interactions, contexts, and manifestations of consciousness—the building blocks in, foundations of, or participants in a new whole. Each new whole then can enter into alliances with other wholes that make them all parts of a greater, more complex whole. These “wholes that are also parts” are referred to as holons.

As the layers of complexity they generate add up and evolve in their new forms, new opportunities for relationships among their parts appear, some of which evolve into new entities (e.g., organs in an organism) or new interactions (the presence of sight systems and salivation as a digestive mechanism allows for the possibility of dogs and humans salivating at the sight of food—or even at the sound of a bell announcing mealtime!). Such developments further increase the density of diverse entities and interactions.

At each level of complexity, holons (wholes) tend to have different characteristics than their constituent holons (parts) have, both individually and collectively. The wetness of water at room temperature is different than the gaseous nature of its component oxygen and hydrogen. A group can manifest levels of intelligence that are greater or less than the intelligence of its members (depending, among other things, on the nature of their interactions and their context) (Atlee, 2003).

But the member holons have their own contribution to make to the character of the whole they are part of. Each freshman class has a very different personality from earlier ones. And even as previously independent entities and interactions evolve together into larger wholes—themselves changing as they integrate—some or all of them retain some of their earlier characteristics. Like those of us who still own phonograph records and listen to the radio or go hiking and camping, and just as earlier pieces of code persist buried in the latest version of computer programs, so we see remnants of our ancestry (traditions, tailbones, Latin roots) embedded in us and all around us. And without bacteria, the longest existing so-called “primitive life”, we complex multi-cellular organisms couldn’t digest our food. In fact, some biologists justifiably argue that bacteria envisioned us into being to be a mobile colony to serve their well-being (Sahtouris, 1989)!

system is interactivity that persists and evolves as a coherent whole.

Perhaps the most fundamental impulse of evolution is persistence – the capacity to simply continue. Out of that impulse evolution has invented its way into ever more creative expressions. When we see a lion, it seems a coherent, stable whole. And yet, within, it is a seething ecosystem of interactions: Lungs take in the oxygen (a gift from the surrounding eco-system), and a heart carries that oxygen through the bloodstream to feed the brain and other parts. From the external world life energy flows in and is shared by the lion-system among all its parts, and ultimately what waste is left is eliminated in forms that the external context picks up and uses. What is the system? The lion alone? Its inner world, both the describable mechanics and the more subliminal responses we can observe but can’t explain? The lion and its prey? The savannah that gives it shelter and sustenance? What about the preserve set aside by humans to save lions from oblivion, and the networks of animal-lovers that support that preserve, and the poachers that violate it and the global economies of money and oxygen that circulate around it? Each and all of these can be seen as coherent systems, but every system is linked to every other one, with which it co-evolves.

Consciousness—evolved/emergent consciousness, not primordial cosmic consciousness – arises from, enables, and accelerates the ability of interactions, entities, and systems to fit their context.

This kind of consciousness, itself, is an emergent phenomenon, perhaps latent in the first interactions among diverse entities. We can trace the evolution of the senses as a lens for interacting, a means for life and ultimately evolution to experience itself. Communication, in all its myriad forms, within and between species, with the environment, within our cells and ourselves, is a result of thousands of years of increasingly complex adaptations into eyes, ears, and noses, awareness of ourselves, others and our environment, and no doubt many other subtle means that elude our conscious awareness. We are only beginning to become conscious of the many dimensions of our consciousness.

What we experience as volition, agency, choice, all are highly evolved expressions of whatever proto-impulse first caused a cell to move towards or away from light or certain chemicals. In homo sapiens, the gifts of self-awareness, the capacity to form an intention and activate it through our will bring consciousness into a ripe and formative place.

Evolutionary cosmologist Brian Swimme calls the evolution of consciousness the most important development since the oxygen crisis—that ancient watershed era when Life, which had created enough oxygen via photosynthesis to destroy itself through oxidation, somehow found a way (respiration) to use that oxygen to produce energy, thus turning the threat of annihilation into an opportunity for an entirely new evolutionary adventure, in which we oxygen-breathing humans are among the adventurers (Swimme and Berry, 1992). The byproducts of consciousness now challenge us—like the byproducts of photosynthesis challenged bacteria—to take our next evolutionary leap.

Our human ability to experience our context more fully by creating “macroscopes” – telescopes, microscopes, statistics, computer simulations, poetry, artwork, videos, and other means to see ourselves in the context of our systems – is emerging, exciting, and daunting terrain. It is waking us up to both the dangers and the opportunities facing that precious system, the Earth, that we call home (de Rosnay, 2000).

At the intersection of it all, where diverse entities consciously interact—at the very center of our diagram—live choice, collective intelligence and wisdom; awareness of ourselves and our systems; our capacities for emotional expression, conscious relationships, intentional designs, and our best hope for a sustainable future in which social systems themselves awaken to their potential and their role in whether and how we continue our evolutionary adventure.

Entities, interactions, and consciousness iteratively all shape, are shaped by, and become context.

These words you are reading are part of your context right now, and the fact that you will be reading them is part of our context as we write them. This interaction between us is part of the context within which the rest of the world and future generations will live their lives. And what we are writing—and why you are reading it—are shaped by our consciousness of what is happening in our world and our desire to play a more effective, life-affirming role in that.

The creation of context happens all the time in nature. For example, when a forest forms, the collectivity of trees protects each tree from the wind and generates a more rainy micro-climate, a new context emerging from the forest system that serves the forest system. Likewise, the relative successes of predator and prey create contexts for the survival and evolution of each one of them.

Throughout evolution we find examples of context becoming absorbed into entities and interactions. The local weather each year is embedded in the rings of a growing tree. Evolution, itself—that vast 13.7 billion year old trial-and-error learning process—has for millions of years been being internalized into organisms like ourselves in the form of intelligence and imagination, with which we safely try out scenarios within our minds, scenarios that would otherwise have to be played out externally in the world at great risk.

And sometimes something new transcends and changes the dominant context so totally that it redefines all that we thought we knew. When, with a little help from Copernicus, the sun moved from its place circling the Earth to the center of the solar system, a new context for who we, as humans, were and what gave life meaning formed with it. A similar shift in worldview—in the overall consciousness of our times—may emerge from the vast integral perspective offered by evolution—integrating science, spirituality, and social change.

One of the most important dynamics, for our purposes here, is that consciousness shapes culture, social systems, and technologies—and culture, social systems and technologies all shape consciousness. The structures and processes of our evolving physical, biological, and social worlds teach us to believe that certain things are possible and real and good—and we shape our world according to those evolving beliefs, which then give new shape to our consciousness. This gigantic feedback loop between consciousness and social systems is central to our understanding of how we can participate more consciously in the evolution of our social systems and cultures.

Our Emerging Understanding of Guidance for the Action of Evolutionary Agents
Seeking to Further the Conscious Evolution of Social Systems

All the principles of evolutionary guidance offered below interpenetrate each other.

A Deep and Vital Pattern in Human Evolution

The overarching guidance for evolutionary agents working on social systems is to

Replace force with consciousness.

Force, in this context, refers to the use of coercion or overwhelming strength or power to dominate, control, or otherwise get one’s way, often against resistance. The power used can be physical, economic, social, intellectual, emotional, military, psychological, technological, etc. The more force used, the less the Other’s needs or nature are taken into account.

Consciousness, the capacity to be aware, in this context, includes all the interior dimensions and capacities of life that can—among other things—help us deal successfully with our changing world by sensing, understanding and creatively, collaboratively relating to the entities, interactions, and conditions in and around us.

We are now challenged to bring the power of consciousness to bear on the process of self-reflective evolution, itself, to replace the creative violence of supernovas, life-and-death struggles, and wars with highly aware intelligence, wisdom, and care.

So: replace force everywhere—in every

entity (individual, group and system).
interaction (conversation, exchange, conflict, engagement with nature),
context (culture, gathering, community and urban design), and
manifestation of consciousness (sensing, learning, morality).

Note that many of our technologies, tools, cultures, infrastructures, and systems are extensions or manifestations of our consciousness at collective levels, and so these are of particular interest to evolutionary agents seeking to transform social systems.

There is, of course, evolutionary logic to this mandate to replace force with consciousness. The more we expand use our awareness, understanding, care, intelligence, and other forms of consciousness—especially wisdom—the less we need—or want—to force things. We learn how to work with the entities and circumstances we’ve come to understand, thus saving ourselves a lot of energy. Efficient use of energy is a major selective factor in evolution. (Kreuzer, 2007)

This evolutionary dynamic unfolds in a progression. It starts when we learn—with experience, science, or technology—how to control and manipulate the physical world and life more efficiently, elegantly, and effectively to get what we want through understanding the “laws” or patterns of nature, of engineering, of psychology, etc. With our understanding of thermodynamics, we create engines. With our understanding of the psychology of target markets we get citizens to vote for our candidate.

The evolution of our use of consciousness then moves on to true collaboration, where we—you and I, us and our adversaries, humankind and nature—help each other get what we each need and want—in cooperatives, in deliberation, in Nonviolent Communication, in permaculture.

Now the role of consciousness further evolves into increasing recognition of our essential communion, within which our differences can be used creatively, forming a greater wholeness. Here our consciousness serves the co-creation of previously unimagined shared enterprises and civilizations. Emerging examples include the Earth Charter, or the global grassroots upsurge of catastrophe relief after recent hurricanes and tsunamis.

Conscious evolutionary agentry seeks to make this last use of consciousness a central characteristic of our emerging global culture. It seeks to extend and accelerate the shift from force to consciousness by sparking a movement towards increasingly conscious social systems.

This shift is the fulcrum of human evolution at this critical time—at individual, collective, and systemic scales.

As we reach our planetary limits, the downsides of force, violence, and control become increasingly obvious. Our technological and social capacities to generate harm through our efforts to force, impact, and control people and life—no matter how well intended—threaten our extinction.

Step by step, in more and more areas of life, we are discovering that the use of force—and, in fact, the use of any imposed energy—is intimately tied to our failure to adequately understand the whole picture of what we are dealing with.

The more fully we understand, the less force or energy we need or want to use. The less energy we use to serve any given need, the more efficient and elegant our systems and behaviors become, making them favored by natural selection and the general directionality of evolution. Furthermore, the height of efficiency is elegance, which tends, as well, to be inspiring, enjoyable, attractive, and/or beautiful, in its own right, thereby engaging people in spreading and sustaining it.

This guidance serves at every level—individual and collective. Given our focus here on transforming social systems, we are concentrating on its application to social systems.

Guidance Concerning Evolutionary Means

Force is the option we use when we don’t talk and listen to each other, when we can’t handle diversity, when we can’t deal with dissonance, and when we don’t want to include what repels us in our biased, oversimplified views about life.

So the guidelines in A-D below are means for evolutionary agents to live the guidance about replacing force with consciousness in their evolutionary work.

Evolutionary means used by evolutionary agents to evoke enhanced consciousness notably include the following:

A. Cultivate Generative Conversation

Support a culture of dialogue, deliberation, and all other forms of generative conversation. Generative conversation is the means through which we expand and apply our consciousness together. It is the primary medium of human co-creative interaction from which needed evolutionary change can emerge, especially when we wish to minimize force, violence, and control. Our sustained collective conscious evolution will be possible to the exact extent we develop, use, and spread the art and culture of generative conversation. (Atlee, 2003; Holman et al, 2007

B. Cultivate Differentiated Wholeness

Creatively engage diversity and uniqueness to support greater wholeness. Evolution happens through the iterative interaction of diverse entities. Diversity is always part of every problem and every solution, for it is part of every whole. The uniqueness of people and circumstances, adequately appreciated, is an almost endless resource. Diversity is vital for resilience, covering all bases in times of uncertainty. Every unique entity, idea, passion, solution, perspective, way of knowing, mode of expression or interaction—all of them have gifts and limitations and are part of the big picture we need to understand. Paradoxically, heartfelt expression of difference—if well heard—can connect unique individuals into a lived experience of the whole, replacing cultural tendencies towards conformity, isolation, and groupthink. When disturbances appear, it is the cry of a voice that has not yet found its place in the whole. It prompts asking who else or what else should be included here? Help bring them—with all their differences and conflicts—into new forms of wholeness which include and transcend their unique gifts and limitations. This obviously involves diverse people, perspectives, and information. Often overlooked is our need to include and integrate diverse forms of intelligence and expression, e.g., linear and nonlinear, analytic and aesthetic, head, heart and body (Gardner, 1983).

C. Cultivate Opportunities for Emergence

Engage with dissonance—disturbance, problems, conflicts, crises, etc.—as opportunities for breakthrough. Evolution happens most readily in challenging, dissonant contexts. “Dissonance” here includes disagreement, strangeness, edgy fringes, discomfort, suffering, problems, crisis, challenges, visions, passions, destruction, confusion, failure, loss, threat, death, and anything else that pulls us out of business-as-usual, shaking up existing structures and patterns and provoking us to actively engage with what is emergent or suppressed. Dissonance marks the rough leading edge of evolution. Therefore, design and stimulate iterative creative interactions which welcome and catalyze dissonance into evolutionary leaps. Paradoxically, this includes creating environments that provide the kind of safety that enables challenges to be more consciously met. Developing knowledge and capacity in this dance of safety and challenge is an urgent calling for evolutionary agentry. (See Action guidance 2 below.)

D. Cultivate the Journey topward Inclusive Simplicity

Seek the elegant simplicity on the other side of messy complexity. Prejudice, presumption, arrogance, ideology and narrow-mindedness achieve their simplicity through rejection of whole realms of reality or understanding, often necessitating the use of force to control the realms we do not understand. In contrast, the kind of simplicity that human evolution now requires is that which integrates many different entities, interactions, contexts, states of consciousness and/or other factors with tremendous integrity and functionality. More often than not, the path to such elegant wholeness takes us through the messiness of all the relevant factors that don’t seem to fit together at first. Our task—which calls us to greater courage, curiosity, and humility—is to seek, through open inquiry, the more inclusive insights available at the unpredictable end of that journey. Then “the simplicity on the other side of complexity” usually manifests as an aesthetic awakening—an ah-ha! or a wow!—where what was previously messy and fragmented settles into a more powerful, appealing, and wholesome picture of who we are and what is possible. A notable developmental manifestation of this is the transcendence of otherness, in which a person, group, system, or situation we see (and often neglect or reject) as separate from us or other than us, suddenly appears as a facet of a larger whole with which we identify. The enemy or underprivileged person becomes part of humanity. Climate change becomes a matter of our children’s survival and our behavior today. We suddenly find ourselves embedded in realities with which we had no relationship before, and they become embedded in us. We awaken to our intimate kinship with the Other, our embodiment of the systems in which we live, and an expansion of our sense of self to embrace what was once background context.

Guidance Concerning Evolutionary Actions

To the extent human systems try to survive and succeed through the use of force and the domination and self-interested manipulation of people, communities, and nature, they will perish, by the logic described at the beginning of this guide.

The guidance below embraces the kinds of change through which evolutionary agents seek to call forth healthier and more conscious human systems, while making force increasingly unnecessary and unattractive. Guidance 1 deals with the health of the systems, themselves. Guidance 2 deals with their consciousness of, and nurturance of, contexts. And Guidance 3 deals with the capacities systems need in order to relate appropriately to what happens in and around them—to wake up sufficiently to respond, adapt, and initiate successfully and sustainably.

Actions evolutionary agents take to cataluze systemic evolution—notably include the following:

1. Cultivate healthy self-organization (elegant systemic wholeness)

Create conditions in which the system’s complex interactions cohere in ways that sustain its health with minimal investment of energy and attention. (Alexander, 1977; Ecotrust, 2000) Among the actions that contribute to healthy self-organization are:

  • Cultivate healthy behavior: Evolution generates increasingly complex sustainable entities to the extent the behavior of the constituent entities enables their collective organization to sustain itself and them. Therefore, influence constituents (individuals, corporations, countries) so they readily behave in ways that promote the well being of the whole (community, society, earth). This includes everything from laws and incentives that restrain unwanted behaviors to full cost accounting in our economic systems to educat5ion and epiphanies through which people experience their place in the Larger Aliveness within and around them.
  • Cultivate healthy power: The evolution and sustainability of complex systems requires a high level of cooperation among the constituent entities. Nurture a culture of power-with (cooperation, synergy) and power-from-within (authenticity, integrity, presence). Wherever power-over (influence, control) is natural or necessary, balance or distribute it to prevent or cure accretions of unanswerable power that foster parasitism (distorting the behavior of the whole to benefit the part). This includes everything from meditation and mediation to campaign finance reform and constraints on corporate power, as well as collaborative approaches to nature like permaculture (Mollison, 1990) and biomimicry (Benyus, 2002).
  • Cultivate healthy flow: Evolution favors efficiency in the use of energy, materials, and information, and the more readily these can flow in a complex system, the better constituent entities and systems can coordinate. Support the open, elegant flow of energy, materials, and information (including knowledge and wisdom) to wherever it best serves the well-being and evolvability of the system and its components. This embraces everything from the free Internet and media, to sunshine and privacy laws, to recycling and emission controls, to green local economics (Henderson 1991; Hawken et al, 2000; Korten, 2006), systems of mutual benefit, and more evolutionary forms of philanthropy.

2. Cultivate healthy systemic contexts (conscious environments that embrace the dynamic tension between nurturance and challenge).

Evolution is a developmental process of diverse entities producing novelty by interacting within contexts that shape, test, and nurture them. Context is as important as who we are and what we do, because it powerfully shapes who we are and what we do. It behooves us to be aware of the contexts around us and the role they are playing in what’s happening. Together, we can consciously shape the systems, stories, and other contexts that have traditionally shaped us so profoundly and unconsciously. We need to remember that contexts can be nurturing and/or challenging—in ways that serve or undermine life—for the present and/or for the future. With all this in mind, we want to be more conscious of whatever contexts are shaping us, others, and events now—and to support contexts in which nurturance and challenge co-exist in ways that serve the well-being and development of current and future generations (which is what we mean here by “healthy”). How can we nurture the ability of societies to be aware of their existing contexts and to wisely co-create new healthier contexts for themselves, as needed? Here are some areas for work with contexts:

  • Healthy social contexts—Be aware of social conditions—and nurture healthy relationships, community, gatherings, home life, culture, processes, power relationships, institutions, social constraints and incentives; disparities or equity of wealth, power, privilege, access, etc.; justice, respect, safety (in the form of shared vulnerability), peace, support systems, cooperative and/or competitive situations
  • Healthy contexts that govern meaning—Be aware of factors that shape collective meaning—and nurture healthy history and stories (especially the evolutionary story! (Dowd, 2007); intention, purpose, and vision; inquiry and questions; worldviews and paradigms, assumptions, spiritual beliefs and experiences, criteria for success and truth
  • Healthy physical contexts – Be aware of physical environments—and nurture healthy settings, living and work spaces, resources and resource availability (abundance or scarcity), architecture, community design, locality or distance, infrastructure, timing and pacing, comfort, physical danger or safety
  • Healthy natural contexts – Be aware of the presence and condition of nonhuman beings and systems—and nurture healthy natural environments, ecosystems, bioregions, natural processes and cycles (air, water, carbon, etc.), topsoil, and the presence (or absence) of nature, animals, plants and bacteria in our lives, homes, gathering places, towns and cities.

3. Cultivate healthy systemic responsiveness (collective evolvability)

Evolution naturally favors living systems that can coherently interact with their changing environments, and can change themselves when necessary. This has been (and now needs to be once more) a primary function of consciousness, in most of its forms. Set things up so that whole human systems—organizations, communities, networks, economic and political systems, and whole societies, countries and regions—even humanity as a whole—can take initiatives and respond in ways that sustain a healthy relationship (fit) with their context (environment, circumstances). (Atlee, 2003) Among the actions that contribute to collective evolvability and responsiveness are the following:

  • Cultivate collective intelligence, learning, and memory – from Open Space (Owen, 1997) and World Café (Brown, 2005) conferences and media reform to Wikipedia and cooperative education
  • Cultivate collective self-awareness, integrity, and humility – from the Precautionary Principle and annual Wisdom Councils (Rough, 2002), to legal protections for whistle blowers and reading foreign news commentaries about our own country
  • Cultivate the collective capacity to generate and pursue shared intentions – from scenario planning and community vision programs, to social networking sites and Future Search Conferences (Weisbord and Janoff, 2000)
  • Cultivate systems that embody collective compassion and mutuality – from universal health care and truth and reconciliation commissions, to community supported agriculture and local currencies
  • Cultivate the collective ability to make wise, creative decisions – from citizen deliberative councils and the Earth Charter process, to the Genuine Progress Indicator and electoral reform (Atlee, 2003; Crosby, 2003; Gastil, 2000)
  • Cultivate collective co-creativity and evolutionary sensibilities – from shared novel-writing and Story Field Conferences, to co-creating evolutionary spirituality and movies about evolutionary activists

Influences on the Authors

This research started from our combined foundation in a number of prior fields of study and practice:

Whole systems change, organizational development, business administration, and process methodologies – including Open Space Technology, World Café, Future Search, Dynamic Facilitation, Appreciative Inquiry, the Art of Hosting, Process Worldwork, Citizen Deliberative Councils, scenario work, Nonviolent Communication, and Strategic Questioning

Spiritual and psycho-spiritual traditions – particularly Buddhism, Yoga, Taoism, Judaism, the perennial philosophy, Quakerism, transpersonal psychology, Scientology, earth spirituality, and various meditative practices and spiritual experiences

Social change activism – including progressive politics and organizing, nonviolence, anarchism, community organizing, socialism, economic analysis, social power analysis, democracy theory, conflict resolution, peace-making, green and sustainability politics, intentional community and co-ops, and consensus decision-making

“The New Sciences” – basic courses and popular science reading in systems thinking, chaos and complexity theory, evolution, ecology and living systems science, holistic studies, cosmology, permaculture, quantum and field physics, cognitive and brain science, and morphogenic field theory

Peggy Holman’s experiences in software development, organization and management consulting and Tom Atlee’s experience in social change and deliberative democracy circles and his Co-Intelligence Institute networks.


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* Dowd, Michael: Thank God for Evolution! (Council Oak Books, 2007).

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* Ferguson, Marilyn: The Aquarian Conspiracy: Personal and Social Transformation in the 1980s (Tarcher, 1980).

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Our Evolutionary Research Approach

Our research work took the form of independent reading and thinking, combined with frequent phone calls, emails, and messaging conversations, punctuated every month or two by several-day research retreats together. During these five retreats we made most of our breakthroughs to new perspectives. At a final retreat in December 2007, we made our biggest leap towards coherence, which produced the evolutionary dynamics model above and our initial draft of evolutionary advice.

We began our work in earnest at a retreat in December 2006. Even as we recalled prior relevant readings and undertook new ones (see Influences on the Authors), we decided to begin our focused inquiry starting from the foundation of our existing knowledge and experience. Motivated partly to tap and test that body of knowledge and partly to record it and set it aside so as to open ourselves to other perspectives, we spent several days brainstorming what we already knew and exploring its significance for our research inquiry.

Having the scope of our current understandings in mind, we then followed our intuition for next steps. We discovered a rich vein of insight by focusing at first on the role of interaction and emergence, two phenomena central to our ongoing work with processes that assist whole human systems (organizations and communities) to self-organize and adapt. We discovered that, although many theorists had looked at the role of interaction (e.g., cooperation and competition) in evolution, few had investigated how interaction, itself, had evolved towards more complex and fruitful forms through cosmic, terrestrial, biological, and cultural evolution. Over the months we developed this perspective in depth in one of our retreats, several phone calls, and separate reflections.

We expanded those inquiries, exploring how entities, intelligence, purpose, awareness, interaction, context, and choice all (a) played an active role in evolution and (b) evolved, themselves, from early prototypes to their current complex forms in human beings and human systems. (For example, in exploring choice, we discovered current research suggesting that DNA is not actually a controlling blueprint, but is more like a directory of important choice-points, a guidebook that says “If the context is like A at this stage, then do X; if it is like B, then do Y; and if it is like C, then do Z.” This suggested that a rudimentary form of choice exists even at the organic molecular level.) We also looked at how these factors—entities, intelligence, purpose, awareness, interaction, context, and choice—relate to each other.

As we read the literature, we encountered various evolutionary models and dynamics. We brought these into our central inquiry to see how they fit—and to see what that fit or lack of fit told us about our inquiry. In our efforts to combine our insights with those of diverse experts, we tried out numerous models of our own—both of evolutionary dynamics and evolutionary guidance—that proved either too simple, too complex and dispersed, or too incomplete or incoherent to be useful. Nothing we or those we consulted had come up with covered the ground we felt we needed to cover. We knew we were journeying towards something we couldn’t quite see.

A breakthrough happened in our work during the retreat early in December when we came up with the model in this paper, which we then filled out in some detail. Given that we are trying to initiate a field of inquiry—What evolutionary dynamics can inform our work to change social systems?”—rather than establish a particular ideology—we are actually delighted to come up with competing or overlapping models, each of which has its own strengths and weaknesses. Building on the excellent foundation enabled by this Kellogg grant, we expect to continue research intensively during 2008 and to deepen and perhaps integrate other models, as well as realizing new ones. We are guided by a desire to find the integral simplicity on the other side of each complexity we encounter.

Peggy Holman convenes and hosts conversations that matter, inviting people and systems to gather around the issues most important to them. By growing their capacity to step into mystery using generative processes that call forth the best of who they are and can be, Peggy has been honored to witness organizations and communities unleash the energy and wisdom to move dreams to action. The vastly expanded second edition of her book, The Change Handbook (Berrett-Koehler, 2007), co-edited with Tom Devane and Steven Cady, has been warmly received as an aid to people wishing to increase resilience, agility, collaboration, and aliveness in their organizations and communities. Over the last seven years, Peggy has worked with journalists in redefining journalism for the 21st century. Her current inquiry is into how, as an evolutionary act, we take to scale the gifts that the art and practice of process bring to shifting our collective capacity for living well together.

Tom Atlee is Founder and President of The Co-Intelligence Institute. Awed by the evolutionary challenges and opportunities we face as a civilization, Tom researches and promotes dialogue, deliberation, and other resources for collective intelligence and conscious evolution. After 12+ years exploring what processes and institutions could create a wise democracy, he is now investigating with Peggy Homan how to apply evolutionary understandings to social transformation, and convening strategic conversations of evolutionary agents. He founded The Co-Intelligence Institute in 1996 and wrote The Tao of Democracy in 2003. He lives in Eugene, OR, in a consensus-based co-op household with his partner Karen Mercer and eight other very interesting people.