Tom Atlee: A Brand New Thing Under the Sun

Tom Atlee

I recently sent an email to a few close friends and colleagues mentioning that I'm feeling led of late to focus attention, in my public presentations and interviews, on A) how the lack of an evolutionary worldview led to the current global integrity crisis, and B) how an evolutionary wordlview can help us move forward in healthy ways. Specifically, I asked, "If you were able to speak your own heart and mind to the world on this subject, what would you say?  What would be the main points you'd make (or would like me to make)?  What soundbytes or talking points would you suggest I include in my presentations and interviews?"

The following is what my dear friend, Tom Atlee, one of the world's leading voices in the field of collective intelligence, emailed me this morning.


As a civilization we face challenges to our usual ways of doing things, our social, economic, and political systems -- all our systems, and even our cultural stories and technologies.  50, 100, 250 years from now, there is no way that we will look anything like we do today.  No way.  We are going to be radically different, one way or another. Some of those possibilities are truly thrilling, such as creating a truly sustainable, just, wise, enjoyable civilization for the first time on earth.  Other possibilities are downright terrifying.  For example, by continuing on our current path we could push climate change so far, we could make the climate so hot, cold, and/or wildly variable that Earth became unlivable for most complex life forms, including ourselves.Whatever else we believe or know or do or don't do to address the crises of our times, there are three overarching fundamental realities that will shape what happens for us humans in the next 50-250 years -- and ALL of them have to do with evolution.  Here are the fundamental realities of our times, which are fundamental realities of life: 

  1. Those living beings, communities, and species that do not fit do not survive.
  2. Those that change to fit the realities of their situation, do survive.  And finally
  3. CONSCIOUS living entities thrive and sustain themselves into the deep future to the exact extent that they continue to craft their fit with elegance and wisdom.

In short, the only way we'll make it, folks, is to get real about evolution -- to get really real about our role in the evolutionary process.  To get real about the role of evolution in our world, our lives, our destiny.  The only way we'll make it is to wake up into the evolutionary perspective and start acting in ways that make evolutionary sense.

Because our ignoring evolution does not make us any less subject to evolution's laws and creative potentials than the still-evolving finches seen by Darwin in the Galápagos Islands 173 years ago, or the long-gone dinosaurs our children love to worship, or the rapidly changing viruses and bacteria medical science works so hard to stay ahead of. We're all subject to evolution.  We humans are part of this evolving world, and we will survive and flourish to the extent we find new ways to fit well with that world and partner well with the emergent possibilities that are always gestating within it.  The consciousness with which we find our fit, the wisdom and choicefulness with which we make our way into the future, will determine our survival and who we become as our journey unfolds.

And another thing:  This consciousness, this wisdom, this choicefulness are no accident.  They, too, emerged out of the creative dynamic interactivity of our world -- that miraculous process we now call evolution.  Our ability to observe, to think, to know, and to envision and choose -- the very capacities we call consciousness and intelligence -- these are emergent properties of evolution.  They came out of the intensely interactive past, the 13.7 billion year great star story and life story of evolution.  Most important of all, they are in the process of evolving right now, right here in this room, in this community, in this country, on this planet.  And they will continue to evolve through us all in whatever happens after we leave this room.  As long as we exist, we will evolve.

Everything we notice, think, feel, do, create -- individually and together -- our consciousness, our knowledge, our cultures and social systems, our technologies, our stories -- all these unique realities of our humanness are now evolving at an unprecedented rate.  And well they should.  Because their evolution is the key to our survival.  How we shape them, how they shape us, and how we use them to shape our world will determine if and how we flourish or vanish as communities and as a civilization.

Our 21st century predicament did not just happen to us.  We have created the conditions in our world that now challenge us so thoroughly.  We have done and are doing things out of our perceived self-interest that are degrading or destroying the life-support systems upon which we depend.  We will only make it to the extent we wake up to this great evolutionary karmic fact:  We reap what we sow.  Our capacities have evolved from shaping hand tools, vehicles, communities and landscapes to shaping nanotubes, spaceships, global economies and climates.  We have evolved to shape the evolution of our world.  The question now isn't whether we will evolve -- we WILL and are doing that. The question is how consciously and wisely we will go about it.  Because all our individual and collective evolution will only SERVE US to the extent it helps us engage with our world and each other in harmonious, mutual, co-creative ways.

If we fail to harmonize our individual and corporate self-interest with the well-being of the whole of life, we will soon be gone.  We have become too powerful for it to be otherwise.  This is not a fate to which we are doomed.  It is a challenging opportunity to which the evolutionary process has brought us.  And rising to that challenge will constitute a heroic evolutionary leap -- one we can only take consciously.  The more consciously we leap, the more likely we'll succeed with the least unnecessary suffering and the most powerful learning and thrill.

That is why an evolutionary worldview is absolutely essential for humanity in this century.  Because we are not separate from evolution.  All the changes we make and live through are evolution happening now, right here, through us.  To the extent we make those changes consciously -- aware of the big picture of who we are, the Great Story we are part of, and what we are doing in it -- we not only vastly increase our chances for success, but we become a piece of evolution, itself, waking up into consciousness of itself, taking responsibility for itself.  And THAT is a brand new thing under the sun.

There is something important going on there, something that seems to have escaped the notice of most of humanity, but which has been going on for almost 14 billion years.   We humans -- and all our non-human brothers and sisters -- are living manifestations of a Story that has been around, in one form or another, a long, long time.  And now we get one chance to wake up and become the Story conscious of itself.  Our challenge is to wake up fully enough, and in time, to become what evolution is obviously trying to make us:  A conscious, wise version of vibrant Evolution.

It would be sad to waste this opportunity by clinging to business as usual just because it is familiar.  That would mean evolution would have to try waking up through robots or raccoons with intelligence, opposable thumbs, and a lot of complex garbage left behind by a nearly wise species that almost made it.  It is much more thrilling to awaken and tackle the job of conscious evolution with everything we've got and pull off one of the greatest miracles in the history of the universe.

To pull it off we need to focus on three interrelated evolutionary dynamics which, if we apply them wisely at all nested levels of our existence -- to our lives, to the cultures and systems we live in, and to our knowledge and technologies -- we will generate the world we want and transform ourselves into who we most want to be.  The three key evolutionary insights are these:

  • 1.  Interacting diversity generates change.
  • 2.  Alignment with reality as it really is generates survival. 
  • 3.  Harmonizing the self-interest of the parts with the well-being of the whole sustains vibrantly evolving complexity.

 Underlying all of these is the reality that the dramatic bustle of evolution is actually wholeness transforming itself.  I believe that as we apply these three key evolutionary dynamics to ourselves and our world, we will become increasingly aware of this.  We will come to notice that every moment, thought, and response is exactly this.  And then, as we gradually and thoroughly awaken to ourselves and our world as Wholeness transforming Itself, we will simply become evolution, seamlessly and joyously unfolding.