The Trajectory of Human History: Ever-Expanding Cooperation and Compassion

Evolution's Arrow

Human consciousness emerged within a world of powerful and mysterious forces beyond our comprehension and control. As modes of communication evolved—from gestures and oral speech to writing and mathematics, to print, to science, to computers—so has our understanding of what is real and what is important. An inspiring consequence of seeing the full sweep of history is discovering that human circles of care and compassion have expanded over time.

Early on, owing to genetic guidance honed in a pre-linguistic world, and then supplemented by knowledge that could be accumulated, retained, and shared only to the extent that spoken language would allow, our abilities to cooperate with one another were limited and localized. Anyone outside the tribe was suspect, and probably an enemy. As technologies of communication evolved, our ancestors entered interdependent relationships in ever-widening circles from villages, chiefdoms, and early nations to today’s global markets and international organizations. Finally, the emergence of the World Wide Web has made possible collaborations no longer stifled by geographic distances and political boundaries. Throughout this evolution of human communities and networks, an inner transformation has also been taking place. At each stage our circles of care, compassion, and commitment have grown and our lists of enemies have diminished. Our next step will be to learn to organize and govern ourselves both globally and bioregionally, and thereby co-create a mutually-enhancing relationship with the larger body of life of which we are part.

Aligning Self-Interest with the Well-being of the Whole

“Three thousand million years ago, cooperation extended only between molecular processes that were separated by about a millionth of a meter, the scale of early cells. Now, cooperation extends between human organisms that are separated by up to twelve million meters, the scale of the planet. The same evolutionary forces that drove the expansion of cooperative organization in the past can be expected to continue to do so in the future.” —JOHN STEWART

The evolution of human consciousness is driven by how information is stored and transmitted. A mutually reinforcing relationship tracks human social complexity with increasingly sophisticated “technologies of the word.” The human brain, as best we can tell, has not changed structurally in any significant way since Homo sapiens first evolved. Yet people do not think the same today as they did a hundred generations ago. Why? Because our brains are now immersed in a swirling world of information flows and interactions that span the globe.

With each advance in data representation and communication, worldviews shift and societies reorganize. For societies at each new level of complexity and size to thrive, they must find ways to align the natural self-interest of individuals and groups of individuals with the wellbeing of the social whole, and to keep cheaters in check. The impact of the parts, for good or ill, must be mirrored back to the parts in congruent and consequential ways. If a part benefits the whole, the part must benefit in some way; if a part harms the whole, it must be disadvantaged in some way. These kinds of social structures, incentives, and disincentives drive the synergistic alignment of interest between part and whole. It is in this way (and only in this way) that complexity can continue along, what I like to call, “the trajectory of emergent creativity.” A helpful overview of how this natural process of escalating complexity is thought to have unfolded, both in the pre-human world and throughout human history, is John Stewart’s Evolution’s Arrow: The Direction of Evolution and the Future of Humanity (also available as pdf on his website).

Summarized below is how this basic mechanism has driven complexity in the human realm.

Families and Clans

For hundreds of thousands and possibly even millions of years, families and clans were our most complex and interdependent social organizations. Prior to symbolic language—before humans could think and speak in words—cooperation was achieved at a scale of a few dozen individuals at most. Others were experienced as a threat, and they, of course, had their own isolated pods of extended relationship. Like our reptilian, mammalian, and primate ancestors before us, “eat, survive, reproduce” was, in effect, our religious creed. It wasn’t, however, a dog-eat-dog world. Our genetic heritage predisposed us to care about and form rewarding emotional bonds with genetic kin and sometimes beyond kin to include those with whom we engaged in reciprocal transactions (small-scale trade), including acquisition of mates.

Tribes and Neolithic Villages

Symbolic language likely emerged within the last half million years (and possibly much more recently than that). This evolutionary innovation facilitated a new level of social complexity. For the first time, thanks to beliefs and moral codes made possible by speech, tribes came into existence: cooperative, interdependent organizations of several hundred human beings. Individuals, even today, are genetically and culturally predisposed to engage in reciprocal cooperation at this scale. We are also genetically and culturally predisposed to want to expel or punish those who transgress against established ways of our tribe—ways vital for social cohesion beyond the level of family and clan. Tribes in existence today evidence diverse ways of securing retributive justice (including the simplest of all: shunning) against individuals who cheat, free ride, or otherwise transgress norms perceived as important for the wellbeing of the whole. Tribes or ethnic groups other than one’s own may be feared and demonized. Norms and inculcated morals are taught and reinforced by shared magical beliefs and collective rituals that call on invisible external powers (spirits) to assist or punish tribal members and others. The advent of horticulture led to the flowering of Neolithic villages that operated similarly.

Chiefdoms and Kingdoms

Within the last seven to ten thousand years a new level of social complexity emerged: chiefdoms and kingdoms. Among the innovations that drove this scale of cooperation were the further domestication of plants and animals, and the adoption of tokens and clay impressions that enable debts and favors to be recorded and tracked. This emergent social level brought with it the beginnings of external governance. A chief, king, or warlord wielded the power to reward behavior that served the chiefdom (and typically the chief, too) and to punish behavior that did not. This external governance overlaid and built upon the family bonding, tribal reciprocal cooperation, and moralistic punishment of earlier manifestations of social organization. Notably, this is the earliest form of social organization that still powerfully affects the course of world events. My own country recently initiated two wars that it seemingly cannot win, owing in part to the hold that this scale of social organization still exerts in some regions of the Middle East.

Theocracies, Early Nations, and Empires

With the emergence of writing and mathematics (invented in several regions of the world), cooperation and complexity expanded yet again. External governance could now be more intelligently and flexibly applied. Such governance was supplemented and legitimized by myths and religious practices that predispose individuals to support their particular theocracy or nation. As with tribal and village levels of social organization, there is a stark difference between in-group and out-group moral practices and expectations. But in the case of theocracies, early nations, and empires, the in-group is vastly larger. New forms of communication and data processing enhance the spread and retention of these useful myths and the rise of national identity. The religions of nations and empires tend to be more inclusive than tribal religions because they must knit together far more diversity (in heritage, even languages) than required at simpler levels of social organization. Arguably, it is the emergence of a shared sacred story within each of the inclusive world religions—such as Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism—that enables disparate ethnic groups to peaceably interact in large-scale societies.

Democracies, Corporate States, and Global Markets

At this pivotal stage, ongoing in many parts of the world and commencing in the West during the 18th-century Enlightenment, myths and religions sourced solely in private revelation began to unravel. Their tenets taken literally are contradicted by empirical evidence birthed by science and worked upon by reason. External governance becomes more responsive and gains a new legitimacy through the introduction of democratic processes. The printing press, mechanistic science, and the industrial revolution (with its increasingly sophisticated communication and information technologies) make possible interdependent organizations of millions of people spanning vast geographic areas. Democratic groups benefit their members, in that they are governed by their members (self-governance). Notably, empathy moves to a new level—individuals gain the abstract cognitive capacity to “put themselves in the shoes” of individuals whom they may never have met. (Before this stage of development, empathy is concrete; it applies only in relation to peoples and individuals who are directly experienced, or well known.)

An expansion in the scope of empathy means that moral codes are internalized: individuals feel good when they help others, and they suffer remorse when they injure or fail to help others. The rise of this cognitive capacity (together with the discovery of coal as a source of power) led to the abolition of slavery, and the recognition of universal human rights. At this scale too, it would be difficult to overstate the importance of a unifying narrative to facilitate cooperation across ethnic, religious, and socioeconomic differences. Examples would include: creating holidays to celebrate glorious events in a nation’s history, reciting a pledge of allegiance, singing a national anthem.

Social Democracies and the United Nations

With the emergence of this level, external governance becomes even more important, and democracy and responsiveness spread. Now there is a capacity for global empathy, thanks to electronic communications and advanced ways of accessing and spreading information and ideas. International governance is pursued mainly by consensus and negotiation, though it is not yet particularly effective at aligning powerful corporate and national interests with the needs of the whole planet. Such limitation should not be surprising, as this level lacks a unifying sacred story, sacred songs, and shared rituals. Fortunately, thanks to Bill Gates' and David Christian's Big History Project, the world's youth will soon have a unifying sacred narrative: big history, the epic of evolution, humanity's common creation story.

The Emerging Global Civilization and Planetary Governance

At this level, which is only now entering the realm of possibility within the hopes and imaginings of a tiny segment of humanity, all the nested levels of inner predispositions and external supports would be overlain by a system of global and bioregional governance. This global system would be entrusted with the task of ensuring that the interests and actions of lower levels of social organization (e.g., nations and international corporations) are aligned with the interests of the global society. It would be in the self-interest of the parts to pursue only just and ecologically beneficial actions. The wise application of the principle of subsidiarity would be crucial at this scale. Tasks would be assigned to and executed by the lowest level of governance or social organization capable of doing the job. The fall of the Soviet Union provides a superb morality tale of what happens when the principle of subsidiarity is ignored. Recent acclaim (including the award of the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize to Muhammad Yunus and Grameen Bank) for the microcredit, microfinance movement is a fine example not only of the benefits of subsidiarity but also of the value of incorporating traditional ways (peer pressure) to enlist our status-consciousness in service of institutional success.

A global scale of social organization might eventually organize or perhaps catalyze the matter, energy, and living processes of the planet (including machines and artificial life) into a mutually enhancing, symbiotic, synergistic whole (see Joel deRosnay's internationally acclaimed book, The Symbiotic Man). Attuned to the dynamics of self-organization (including the benefits of subsidiarity), governance at all levels would become more intelligent, more responsive, and less restrictive of freedom. The constraints applied by governance would be flexibly responsive, working in tandem with the perceived self-interests and internal dynamics of individuals and collectives. Most effective would be constraints, inducements, and accountability at the minimum scale required to effectively align component interests with the planetary system. Governance systems at all levels would evolve more rapidly, along with new means to innovate and select forms of governance, including both competitive market mechanisms and cooperative open-source sharing of new approaches and tools.

For this level of complexity and cooperation to emerge, nothing is more important than the widespread, enthusiastic adoption of a shared sacred story grounded in science as public revelation: big history. This sacred story must validate the heart of earlier creation stories while helping all of us see that we’re part of the same adventure, moving into the future together—or not at all. I agree with David Sloan Wilson, who writes, “I look forward to the day when evolutionary theory becomes part of the basic training for all people who study and run our governments and economics. This evolutionary understanding will increase our collective social intelligence so that we can manage our affairs more successfully in the future than we have done in the past.” I would add, “I look forward to the day when evolutionary theory becomes part of the basic training for all people who study for the ministry and who speak from the pulpit or in any religious setting.”


Tom Atlee: "Making competition co-operative, self-interest nontoxic, and society wise"

John Stewart: The Evolutionary Manifesto and "Is This the Meaning of Life?"

John Stewart: Evolution’s Arrow: The Direction of Evolution and the Future of Humanity 

Robert Wright: Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny

Matt Ridley: The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves

Jeremy Rifkin: The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis

Connie Barlow: Evolution Extended: Biological Debates on the Meaning of Life

Connie Barlow: Green Space Green Time: The Way of Science

Robert K. Logan: The Extended Mind: The Emergence of Language, the Human Mind, and Culture

Peter Corning: Nature's Magic: Synergy in Evolution and the Fate of Humankind

Joel deRosnay: The Symbiotic Man: A New Understanding of the Organization of Life and a Vision of the Future