I am grateful to the commentators for their reflections on Does Altruism Exist? (DAE), and special thanks to Kurt Johnson for organizing the roundtable. I share the general sentiment that something historic is in progress at the intersection of science and spirituality. The scientific study of evolution is catching up with a spiritual vision of evolution that was perhaps first fully articulated by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) in The Phenomenon of Man.

The history of Teilhard and his work provides a lens through which to view current developments (I recommend an episode of the National Public Radio show On Being devoted to this topic). He was a Jesuit priest and world-renown paleontologist whose work was both permitted and suppressed by the Catholic Church. The Phenomenon of Man was published posthumously and was praised as scientifically authoritative by none other than Theodosius Dobzhansky, the geneticist known for his pronouncement “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution”. Dobzhansky was himself a big thinker about evolution in relation to human affairs, as book titles such as Mankind Evolving (1962) attests. Over the decades, The Phenomenon of Man was largely forgotten as a work of science but remained widely read for its spiritual quality. When I read it in 2009, I was amazed by its current scientific relevance. Teilhard had anticipated many of the developments in evolutionary thought that I summarize in DAE.

Some of the commentators (such as Hubbard and Stein) therefore have a point when they say, in essence, “What took you scientists so long?” They have been developing Teilhard’s concept of the noosphere and conscious evolution for a long time—but that’s not to say that they have everything right. Mainstream evolutionary science might be playing catch-up in some respects, but it also refines Teilhard’s vision in new ways in other respects. That’s why the current intersection of science and spirituality explored in this roundtable is so exciting and qualifies as a genuinely new synthesis.

Two motifs that are common in the evolutionary spirituality literature concern long-term progress and stages of development (Clugston, Hubbard and Stein, King and Morrell, Wilber). Teilhard portrayed human cultural evolution as having a direction toward a single global consciousness that he called the Omega Point. Many authors have outlined stages of development in which the higher stages are normatively preferable to the lower stages. As one example, Lawrence Kohlberg’s theory of moral development begins with an entirely egocentric stage and ends with a stage driven by universal ethical principles. It is easy to see why these motifs should loom large in spiritual narratives because they provide a cosmology of sorts and motivate people to travel a path toward more spiritually enlightened states. They are somewhat problematic from a scientific evolutionary perspective, however. The kind of progress most easily explained by evolutionary theory is adaptation to the immediate environment. It’s not obvious how this kind of progress, which is extremely local, results in macro-evolutionary trends such as increases in complexity, human-like consciousness, the scale of cooperation, or universal ethical principles replacing more egoistic principles.

Multilevel Selection (MLS) theory, which is the centerpiece of DAE, provides a spiritual narrative that is more compatible with modern evolutionary science (Korten, King and Morrell). In this narrative, the spiritually enlightened state can evolve by a Darwinian process, but only under special conditions. The challenge, or quest, is therefore to create the appropriate conditions for evolution to take us where we want to go. The only way to arrive at the Omega Point is to steer toward it. I personally find this more motivating, as well as more scientifically accurate, compared to narratives that invoke macro-evolutionary trends or stages of development that are supposed to take place over historical epochs. It provides a more immediate call to action, along with the tools for getting the job done.

Brabazon’s interesting commentary on wisdom and human cultural evolution is a case in point. He is right that gene-culture co-evolution casts old age in a new light. The elongated human life cycle evolved in part to accommodate the amount of learned information that must be transmitted across generations and elders arguably play an important role in cultural evolution long after their biological reproductive careers have come to an end. However, this does not mean that age inevitably results in wisdom, much less the sort of wisdom that embraces universal ethical principles. The annals of history are replete with elders who counseled destructive self-serving behaviors at various lower levels of a multi-tier social hierarchy. Unless spiritually enlightened actions can survive in a Darwinian world, counseling them counts for little.

Two other major concepts featured in DAE, equivalence (Chapter 3) and the distinction between proximate and ultimate causation (Chapter 5), also relate to evolutionary spirituality in important ways. Just as scientific theoretical frameworks can offer different perspectives on the same causal processes and different proximate mechanisms can lead to the same functional outcomes, different cultural traditions can lead people to a common awareness of interconnectedness and the ethical conclusions that follow. Indeed, this is the essence of the concept of Interspirituality (Johnson).

Understanding the many-to-one relationship between proximate and ultimate causation can help to achieve a balancing act between tolerance for different worldviews and the need to act in concert to solve the problems of modern human existence. Imagine that someone owes you money and offers to pay by either cash or check. You might have a mild preference for payment method, but your main concern is to be paid. By the same token, in our social interactions with people, we shouldn’t (and typically don’t) care much about exactly what motivates them to behave in a responsible fashion, as long as they do behave in a responsible fashion. The concept of Interspirituality embraces the same many-to-one relationship for different cultural traditions. It doesn’t matter how you arrive at an awareness that everything is interconnected. You might be a Buddhist, a Christian, an eco-philosopher, or a scientist who doesn’t regard yourself as spiritual in any way at all. What’s important is for everyone to act in concert based on their common awareness. Tolerance of diversity on the plane of thoughts and feelings is combined with decisiveness on the plane of action.

This is what Wilber correctly infers when he says that evolution takes place on all four quadrants of the schematic that he calls the Kosmos in his worldview of Integral Spirituality. The left side of the Kosmos is the subjective sphere of the individual mind (top half) and its communal expression (the bottom half). The right side of the Kosmos is the objective sphere that exists apart from how we think and feel about it, which scientific knowledge attempts to apprehend. There are different truth criteria for the left and right halves of the Kosmos. Multiple truths can coexist on the left half more than the right half, but that doesn’t mean that anything goes on the left half. Every subjective worldview that exists on the left half results in a suite of actions that takes place on the right half. The right half is unforgiving, so subjective worldviews that lead to unsustainable actions go extinct. In other words, the subjective worldviews on the left half are selected based on their consequences on the right half. This is a very satisfying connection between an influential “New Age” spiritual worldview and modern evolutionary science, as Wilber appreciates in his commentary excerpted from his video address.

In my “cash vs. check” thought experiment, there is little reason to prefer one payment method over another. The same is not true for cultural traditions. People brought up within one tradition might be so attached that they can only function within that tradition and no other can substitute. This path dependency makes it especially important to be tolerant of diversity on the left side of the Kosmos, while working toward a decisive plan of action on the right side. Perhaps this is why the Interspiritual movement is so active in the arena of multi-national organizations such as the United Nations (Brabazon, Johnson, King and Morrell).

I was recently able to observe this combination of tolerance and decisiveness at a miniature scale in an Ecovillage named Dancing Rabbit located in rural Missouri. A condition for membership is to sign an “Ecological Covenant” that requires adherence to environmentally sustainable actions and social practices that do not harm others. For anyone who abides by the covenant, however, any spiritual belief (e.g., Paganism, Conventional Religion, Atheism), sexual orientation, or living arrangement is tolerated and intolerance of these forms of diversity would be strongly condemned. This combination of unity on the plane of action and tolerance of diversity on the plane of the worldviews that motivate action results in a high level of individual wellbeing (self care), a strong sense of community (group care), and commitment to an environmentally sustainable lifestyle (earth care) that individuals would find very difficult to achieve on their own (go here for more).

This example illustrates other fruitful intersections between evolutionary science and evolutionary spirituality: the concept of society as an organism (Korten, Legerton, Hubbard and Stein), small groups as a fundamental unit of human social organization (Legerton), and the need to scale up from small groups to large-scale society (Clugston, Korten, King and Morrell). These have always been central to religious and spiritual traditions, including Teilhard’s vision of evolutionary spirituality, but they have been marginalized by reductionistic worldviews in evolutionary biology, the social sciences, and economics during the last half-century (Johnson, Korten). It would be hard to overstate the significance of modern evolutionary science affirming, rather than appearing to deny, the holistic worldview that the commentators have been championing all along.

Looking forward, I hope that this roundtable and the two others that are being organized will lead to plans of action (Korten, Legerton). I am especially eager to facilitate the creation of small groups that function as healthy “cells” in a larger scale “multi-cellular” society. Anyone can become involved in this project, no matter where they live or their religious, spiritual, or scientific background. I have helped to develop PROSOCIAL, an internet platform for improving the efficacy of groups based on Elinor Ostrom’s core design principles, to coordinate an effort to “evolve the future” and “steer toward the Omega Point”. I expect the project to be scientifically and spiritually fulfilling in equal measure.