If you are anything like me, when the word evolution is used, it instantly makes you think of monkeys, apes, and how we were once the same species, but have since evolved from our common ancestor.
Next, you might think of Darwin’s famous theory of natural selection. From minute gene changes to differences between dolphins and spiders, Darwin’s theory of evolution proposes ideas that explain it all. The change of life over time, the origins of life itself, and consciousness – human or otherwise – are three conceptually vast and generally well-known ideas surrounding the topic of evolution. Once upon a time, two schools of thoughts stood as pillars to explain these three ideas: neo-Darwinism and creationism. Since then, in the scientific comunity, natural selection has been widely accepted as a fact, and creationism has been discounted as baseless biblical literalism. However, as our understanding continues to evolve, the theory of evolution has mutated (pun intended) into a wide spectrum of perspectives that offer more nuanced schools of thought – from hard scientific models to more spiritual ones.
One such perspective, which falls roughly in the middle of the two main models, is integralism, which offers a clear opposition to neo-Darwinism as an all-surpassing view of evolution. Integral theory is a general arena of thought that applies to many different fields – evolution being one of the core offshoots, and holistic consciousness being another core component of the idea.
Essentially, the argument behind the integralists’ beliefs of evolution begins with neo-Darwinism. Undeniably, the base biology is based on the natural selection of certain organisms, where gene mutation manifests itself in a different physical characteristic, one that could be advantageous or disadvantageous given the environment. This core mechanism, however definitive in a scientific sense, is a far cry away from providing an exhaustive paradigm to explain many fundamental questions. What is life? Why has life happened? Or, even, what is consciousness? Although this gene-centred view of evolution – also known as the selfish gene theory – is a core part of understanding, it is only a piece of a greater puzzle.
The integralists argue that the gene is not the only causal determining factor behind the explanation of how an organism expresses itself and experiences the world. Instead of boxing our varied understandings and paradigms into separate categories, integralists see evolution as a fundamental concept for the way in which we see not only biology and material change in the human race, but also what we know about human life and culture. To do this, they try to observe the process and find a deeper integration between science and spirit, so that understanding evolution can become a holistic, intrinsic experience that takes into account all different aspects of existing theories and fuses them into a coherent picture of the entirety of life.
One way of looking at it is to imagine looking at the forest and not a tree. Integralists claim that no one really knows with definitive knowledge what exactly evolution is. Indeed, our definition of evolution, as a concept, is entirely arbitrary. As it stands, the concept of evolution encompasses the way in which organisms are physically changed over time, other ideas such as those surrounding consciousness, altruism and kindness, and societies are sometimes forcibly inserted into this paradigm – although not always with success. Integralists argue that this does not need to be the case. By looking at the various components of our existing knowledge – ranging from the selfish gene to more spiritual models – they want to provide a larger context that allows us to see the relationships between these evolutionary perspectives.
Essentially, evolution is becoming more conscious of itself. As we try to understand more about evolution and the origins of life, we are also led to further questions that require answers. Our own consciousness is evolving in circular fashion of thought. A theorist by the name of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin saw evolution as a road of consciousness, and prophesized that the all the diverse streams of some 14 billion years of evolution will one day converge or coalesce, following his law of complexity-consciousness. As a Jesuit priest and palaeontologist, it is obvious that Teilhard’s beliefs are influenced by his faith. But, the important thing to take away from this is that, by opening minds to thoughts beyond the selfish gene theory, we can only be pushing the boundaries of our consciousness into a more conceptual understanding of our world. Rather than fixating on whatever our current beliefs may be, we may be able to reach a greater understanding of man and his identity as a biological organism but also as a conscious and sentient creature.