We humans have entered an age of rapid cultural and technological evolution that has surpassed the slow pace of biological evolution and has completely transformed our societies. We are embarking on a new paradigm in which, through our advanced technologies, we will be directing the evolution of life on our planet, including our own. Genetic engineering and artificial intelligence have the potential to promote health and longevity, enhance mental and physical abilities, and advance human cooperation and fulfillment. At the same time, our technology has become so powerful that it has the potential to destroy life on our planet. We now have an awesome responsibility. We can leave behind the ruthlessness, the callousness, and the suffering of natural selection and survival of the fittest, and act with purpose to shape the future course of life on our planet.Life, which has had no goal beyond survival and reproduction throughout all its long history, may have finally found a purpose in us. As Juan Enriquez and Steve Gullans conclude in their recent book Evolving Ourselves:
. . . we embark upon the greatest of all human adventures: the creation of our own successors. For better and worse, we are increasingly in charge. We are the primary drivers of change. We will directly and indirectly determine what lives, what dies, where, and when. We are in a different phase of evolution; the future of life is now in our hands.
We are indeed in the next phase of our evolution. Our success in meeting the challenges we face will depend not just on our vision and our efforts, but on the ability of independent societies and independent nations to work together to solve our global problems. Peter Corning in his insightful book Synergistic Selection: How Cooperation Has Shaped Evolution and the Rise of Humankind describes how the evolution of life on our planet has been characterized by greater and greater levels of synergistic cooperation and growing complexity. At the microscopic level, bacteria cooperated in large numbers with quorum sensing to simultaneously release toxins to overwhelm a host. Individual cells joined together and differentiated to perform specialized tasks in creating complex multicellular organisms with enormous adaptive advantages. Homo sapiensformed large complex societies with division of labor and synergistic cooperation to create advanced civilizations that dominate the planet. We are now on the precipice of the next stage of our evolution — the potential transition to a global society created by cooperation between nations and directed by global governance. Only through global cooperation we will we be able to manage and control our rapidly advancing technology and address the global existential problems of climate change, nuclear holocaust, and more.
The outcome of this transition is far from certain. Many advanced civilizations in faraway galaxies may not have been successful in navigating this change. But there is hope we can come together. Despite the recent wave of populist, isolationist and xenophobic trends in national and international politics, trends over the last few centuries, and over the last millennia, have generally moved in the direction of globalization and international cooperation. But we have a long way to go. Our human nature, which evolved from our Pleistocene ancestors, is a mix of selfish and tribal instincts, of hierarchal and egalitarian traits. Our tribal instincts have provided us with empathy and cooperation for those within our group, but at the same time have made us hostile and xenophobic toward those outside our group. We will need to overcome this hostility toward those who are different from us and expand our tribal boundaries if we are to address our global existential problems. Globalization is not a bad word. Global cooperation is required if we are to safeguard the future for ourselves and the rest of life on our planet. A groundswell of support and strong leadership must emerge to bring all this together. Let’s hope we can reach a “tipping point” where we can all come together in a global society with global governance to solve our existential problems and steer us toward a better future. Let’s hope the better angels of our nature will prevail.
This blog is excerpted and adapted from Bruce Brodie’s recently published book Why Are We Here? The Story of the Origin, Evolution, and Future of Life on Our Planet.