Evolution of Spiritual Capacity
Letís assume that we are spiritual creatures; that is, at our deepest level, under all the material and biological and mental superstructure that we have accumulated in our eons of evolution, lies only Spirit. Some of us sense this fact. Others occasionally intuit "something" beyond the visible that we are somehow related to. Many have no clue. But whether we are aware of it or not, it is there, the essence of each of us. Letís assume for the moment that all of that is true.
Charles Darwin postulated the process of natural selection as being the means by which the creatures of the earth evolve, from the simplest organisms to what we think of as the culmination of the processóhumanity. Others have isolated the mechanism: the gene. The replicator. Organisms that are successful in life, that compete successfully for resources, tend to propagate more, and crowd out the less capable. The Darwinian imperative: the fittest survive.
Psychologist James Baldwin, back in 1896, described what he called a new factor in evolution. The "Baldwin Effect" is the pressure of intelligent behavior, imitation and learning on the selection process of the genes. (Notice that this is not same as the disputed Lamarkian concept of "inheritance of acquired characteristics.") Any of these three behaviors can enhance the chances of an organism to succeed. The specific behavior is not encoded in the DNA, only the ability. And those individuals who figure out or learn or even imitate the behavior tend to succeed betteróand select similarly-able mates. The Baldwin Effect raises the bar of competition and exerts pressure on the gene pool.
Furthermore, says psychologist Susan Blackmore, specific behavior can be spread among a population almost like a genetic trait. Those that are spread by imitation are called "memes." Memes are themselves replicators, like genes, but they exist in the cultural milieu, not in the gene pool. Language is a meme, as are religions and the words and tune of "happy birthday to you . . ." and the expression "whatever . . ." Each of these memes exerts pressure to replicate itself, independent of the "vehicle" (the person imitating and passing it on). Memes spread like viruses. We donít have to help them; they do it themselves.
Memetics cannot be reduced to genetics. Memes are (or were) made possible by some kind of genetic variation, but have taken the bit in their mouth, so to speak, and are galloping off on an adventure of their own. Those that are successfully propagated live on; others die out like hula-hooping. The new field of memetics helps us understand many things that have puzzled biologists and sociologists and psychologists for a long time.
The philosopher Ken Wilber describes evolution as "Spirit manifesting itself," the process by which the Ground of all Being realizes itself (makes itself real), from the Big Bang to Pure Spirit. Building step-by-step, from the stars and the rocks to lichen to reptiles to mammals to mankind, a blooming consciousness that ultimately finds God, becomes One (once more) with Spirit. Wilber points out that evolution is a process of increasing complexity, each stage moving "upward" to a place of greater integration and depth. As traditionally viewed, evolution by natural selection shows discontinuities, leaps of "progress" out of all proportion to mere survival of the fittest.
As Blackmore describes, for example, the size of the human brain has increased in the past couple of million years far faster than one could explain from genetic pressures for survival. Something else is going on. Memetics. If, in the beginning, the gene owned the meme, allowing it to come into existence, it is now in some ways the servant of the meme. The horse has taken the bit in its mouth.
Wilber says that the mental-rational mind, often thought of as the pinnacle of evolutionary development, is in fact closer to the middle of a continuum. There are levels of consciousness beyond the rational mind, and a relatively few people have accessed those levels even though we all, presumably, have the capability. Itís what the Eastern traditions call "enlightenment." All the major religious traditions describe mystical experiences that come from long, solitary practices of contemplation or meditation, and they all use similar expressions: nirvana, knowing God, becoming one with God, awakening to what is. That these experiences "cannot be described in mere words," that they lie beyond the reach of language itself, suggests that language and the symbolate mind fall as short of the ability to grasp the Ultimate as the mind of a puppy in trying to understand her masterís words.
If, as Wilber insists, the only reliable path to knowing Spirit is some kind of meditation/contemplation practice, then the further evolution of the human race depends upon the growth of such practice (or, perhaps, the discovery of alternatives). Meditation, then, is a meme that furthers development. If it catches on, it may exhibit the Baldwin Effect, exerting pressure on the gene pool itself to increase the prevalence of people able to sit in silent meditation for hours at a time, and those able to let go of the out-of-control thinking, thinking, thinking that goes on in our heads and interferes with meditation.
Meanwhile, we do what we canówhat we mustóto push past the limitations systematized by our culture. What we do can be taught to others; why we do it is more difficult to teach. The meme has the bit in its mouth, and will seek its own way. Itís a good response to the temptation to proselytize. Itís not fatalism, but patience. A good trait in itself.
A meme has hold of meóIím hearing the words of a song I learned (by imitation) at least 65 years ago:
Donald Skiff, June 14, 2000