There’s a classic scene in the Raiders of the Lost Ark movie when Indiana Jones is faced with an expert swordsman in an Arab marketplace. Realizing he’s hopelessly outclassed, Jones simply pulls out his revolver and shoots the man. This has led to the axiom: “Never bring a knife to a gunfight,” and it aptly illustrates the classic dilemma faced by social progressives. Not to say the intention of Spielberg in this scene was to portray his hero as a psychopath, but it makes the point: some folks, to get what they want, are prepared to do anything, fair or not. These folks we now brand ‘psychopaths’ or sociopaths and they pop up repeatedly throughout history—Genghis Khan, Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, the list goes on and on. With the documentary The Corporation we saw how often a corporation’s behaviour can be classified as psychopathic: they act purely in their own interests without regard to the consequences to anyone or anything else, nor do they have any concept of the havoc they wreak upon society. For social progressives, it’s the most thorny conundrum of all. The minute you resort to the tactics of an opponent without conscience, you become them. Yet to refuse to do so leaves you open to the very likely prospect of losing.
Which leads me to a theory espoused by author Carter Phipps in his 2012 book Evolutionaries: Unlocking the Spiritual and Cultural Potential of Science’s Greatest Idea, the idea that if we take the long, long view of evolution, humanity is indeed progressing. Phipps, executive editor of EnlightenNext magazine, divides worldviews on the matter into two camps—those who believe we’re progressing and those who don’t. He calls this a “touchstone proposition,” similar to professor of linguistics George Lakoff’s concept of values “framing” that pre-conditions sociopolitical beliefs. Phipps quotes renowned spiritual progressive Teilhard de Chardin: “The conflict dates from the day when one man, flying in the face of appearance, perceived that the forces of nature are no more unalterably fixed in their orbits than the stars themselves, but that their serene arrangement around us depicts the flow of a tremendous tide—the day on which a first voice rang out, crying to Mankind peacefully slumbering on the raft of earth, “We are moving! We are going forward!” It is a pleasant and dramatic spectacle, that of Mankind divided to its very depths into two irrevocably opposed camps—one looking toward the horizon and proclaiming with all its newfound faith, “We are moving,” and the other, without shifting its position, obstinately maintaining, “Nothing changes. We are not moving at all.”” Lakoff would probably say that this fundamentally sums up the difference between progressive and conservative worldviews.
“Frames are mental structures that shape the way we see the world,” writes Lakoff in Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate. “As a result, they shape the goals we seek, the plans we make, the way we act, and what counts as a good or bad outcome of our actions. In politics our frames shape our social policies and the institutions we form to carry out policies. To change our frames is to change all of this. Reframing is social change.” Here again is where progressives like Lakoff and Phipps clash with their conservative counterparts: in all the hoopla about recent scientific reports of “neuroplasticity” it remains an open question how malleable these mental frames really are. As Phipps says, the “we’re moving” camp likely believes such massive structural and values-based change is entirely possible, while the “we’re not moving at all” camp would likely argue such fundamental alterations are impossible after a lifetime of conditioning. I see the reality as somewhere in the middle, utterly dependent on individual capacity, intelligence, education, basic psychological health and social environment. In other words, while for some a major U-turn in values and mental frames is entirely possible, for many others it’s unlikely given these many components affecting the capacity for neuroplasticity. So while not negating the possibilities for individual change, it’s clear that any such society-wide transformation is at best uncertain and at worst unlikely.
Phipps, like many spiritual progressives, likes to cite the discoveries of theoretical quantum physics to refute the old notion of neurological pathways as mostly fixed and difficult if not impossible to change. “The things we think are fixed, static, unchanging, and permanent are in fact moving. In so many areas of human knowledge, we are discovering that reality is part of a vast process of change and development. …Our bedrock assumptions… our most basic instincts about life and the universe are in error. The idea of evolution, the basic notion of process, change, and development over time, is affecting much more than biology. It is affecting everything, from our perception of politics, economics, psychology, and ecology to our understanding of the most basic constituents of reality. It is helping to give birth to new philosophies and I will argue is the source of a new kind of spiritual revelation.”
I have to wonder if Phipps and other progressives may suffer from a deficit of broad historical knowledge. Take just the past century: the Great War of 1914–1918 was such a horrific bloodbath it was called “The war to end all wars.” Yet within a single generation, a Second World War had erupted, causing millions more casualties. Both of these cataclysms were large-scale echoes of past world-rending conflicts. I highly recommend the mini-series 1066: The Battle for Middle Earth, detailing the cataclysmic effects of the Viking and Norman invasions in Britain at the turn of the previous millennium. (The script does an excellent job of not demonizing Vikings, Normans or the English and using drama to demonstrate the wrenching effect on devastated families and villages.) Though the scale of devastation in 1066 is vastly different to that of 1914–1918, the underlying motives are the same: the desire of those without conscience for more—more territory, more wealth, more political power. Whether it’s Kaiser Wilhelm or Duke William of Normandy, it illustrates how a deranged, powerful individual can motivate thousands or even millions of people to act against their own best interests, resulting in a disproportionate impact on an entire world.
Certainly it would be foolish to argue that no progress was made over that millennium. Great leaps of knowledge in science, medicine, public sanitation and education, and social mores can be credited to that period. Here’s where I concede one of Phipps’ points: “We must think in evolutionary time. … We are learning to perceive the vast epochs involved in the evolutionary dynamics that make up our bodies, and even our minds. … Teilhard compared our own emerging recognition of evolutionary time at this moment in history to a baby getting depth perception for the first time. We are just beginning to cognitively grasp the time context of our evolutionary emergence, just beginning to see a new dimension.” From that perspective, history is both linear and elliptical—it moves in fits and starts, three steps forward, two steps back. To most humans, change represents a potential threat even if its goal is improvement. This is why visionary artists often find themselves ostracized during their own lifetimes—society simply isn’t ready for them yet. And times of massive social upheaval can often be followed by periods of retrenchment, a retreat to the perceived comforts of old ways and worldviews. This is arguably what’s behind the fundamentalist Christian and Muslim movements of recent decades.
Meanwhile, an example of how perceptions are beginning to change is in evolutionary theory itself. Although Charles Darwin himself never came down firmly on competition as the prime mover in nature, 19th century capitalists found it a convenient doctrine to espouse and promote. This led to the abuses now well known of early capitalism: the workhouse system for the poor, debtor’s prisons, and exporting poor children to the dominions as slave labour. All conveniently—and quasi-scientifically—justified by a one-dimensional view of evolution. Now evolutionary scientists are just beginning to catch up to Darwin’s protégé Peter Kropotkin, whose century-old work Mutual Aid provided plenty of evidence for cooperation in nature. The daily uploads of YouTube videos showing cross-species animal cooperation and friendship is gradually changing our view, forcing us to question the “nature red in tooth and claw” model.
“An evolutionary worldview embraces the findings of science, but it also gives human agency and free will its due,” writes Phipps. “If evolutionary biology tells me that my nature, biologically speaking, is warlike and competitive, I can accept that truth and let it appropriately inform my thinking without in any way taking that to be the final word in the complex story of our human character. And when science evolves, as it must inevitably do, and lo and behold, it turns out that my nature, biologically speaking, is full of cooperation and altruism, I can let that, in turn, inform my thinking without letting it absolutely determine my worldview. In other words, science is an open-ended story, and any conclusions we draw based on it had better be tentative, temporary, and open-ended as well. …This new wave of science looks at the evolutionary process from stem to stern and sees marvelous example after marvelous example of cooperation and sociality in the service of evolution. Their mission is to free evolution from the taint of the selfish gene metaphor and the resulting confusion about what it means to be human. …Evolution is evolving, and so is the story we tell ourselves about life and what makes us human.” (italics mine)
Here the ever-optimistic Phipps sounds a cautionary note: “As British paleobiologist Simon Conway Morris writes, “That biology can be co-opted for agendas, if not ideologies, that promise an ever-more perfect future, albeit across piles of corpses, is evident from the lunacies adopted by totalitarian states.”” Wasn’t it Mark Twain who said: “I wouldn’t want to be part of any club I was a member of”? Utopias have a nasty habit of imploding on themselves as peoples’ shadow sides get the better of them. That’s not to say we shouldn’t be striving for a better, more just and equal society for everyone. Where would be, for example, if the Suffragettes had decided after the First World War that voting rights for women was an impossible dream? Or if Black freedom activists in the US had decided after being water-cannoned that the cause was just too dangerous? Though even there, the police killings of Blacks in America over the past few years have many asking whether we’ve really come so far after all. And the late great comedian George Carlin would argue that voting hasn’t really helped women much when you consider that the system is largely rigged by the One Percent anyway. Maybe the greatest insight we can derive from quantum physics is that the scene changes depending on the angle it’s viewed from.
Where I take greatest exception to Phipps’ book is in the chapter on ‘transhumanism,’ where he cites the worldviews of people like Ray Kurzweil and Michael Murphy, author of The Future of the Body. Kurzweil, while brilliant, believes part of evolution is the eventual replacement of our biological organism with a cybernetic matrix, thus surpassing the limitations of flesh and of mortality itself. What’s scary is that he has the wealth to help make that happen. Forgetting that we’re currently in the midst of what can only be described as a global cancer epidemic, due in large part to our technologies, Phipps regurgitates the media mantra that we’ve “added thirty years to our life expectancy in the course of the last century,” a dubious claim that I have yet to see supported. It would be more accurate to say that the lifespan of the poor and working class has been expanded in the past century. The rich have always had the means to live into their 80s if their health permitted it and they were smart enough to avoid medical crackpots. Meanwhile, I’m watching more and more people of my generation dying before they crack 70.
But the real point here is that we need to beware of what I call ‘technological triumphalism,’ that post-World War II doctrine that posited “better living through chemicals,” the dangerous view that technology is inherently benign. Again, historical amnesia plays a part here. How quickly we forget the disasters of technology: Hiroshima, Chernobyl, Fukushima, Exxon Valdez, Deepwater Horizon, Thalidomide, Vioxx, etc. etc. We simply lack either the knowledge or the wisdom to predict the consequences of a cybernetic matrix on a human being. It’s not for no reason that our artists often craft warning tales, from the dystopias of Orwell, Huxley and Zamyatin to the Terminator movies, where cyborgs have decided that humans are an inferior species and therefore must be wiped out. ‘Transhumanists’ like Kurzweil seem to forget that flesh and mortality is what makes us human in the first place. Clearly we are not meant to live forever, and why should we want to? As the refrain goes in the ABC Studios TV series Once Upon a Time: “All magic (read: technology) comes with a price.”
See Part Two: The Evolutionary’s Manifesto: The Way Forward or Pie in the Sky?
 Carter Phipps, Evolutionaries, Harper Perennial, 2012, pp. 24, 25.
 George Lakoff, Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, Preface, Chelsea Green Publishing, Vermont, 2004, p. xv.
 Carter Phipps, Evolutionaries, Harper Perennial, 2012, pp. 9, 24, 25.
 Carter Phipps, Evolutionaries, Harper Perennial, 2012, pp. 60, 63.
 Carter Phipps, Evolutionaries, Harper Perennial, 2012, p. 74.