Collaboration and empathy as evolutionary success stories

We are life. We are nature. We are Universe. Self-reflexive consciousness allows us different perspectives on this ever-transforming and evolving whole we participate in — this all that we are reflections of. We bring forth a world together, as embodied manifestations of the universe co-creating the world through how we participate and what we pay attention to and care about.

“This world, in which we are born and take our being, is alive. It is not our supply house and sewer; it is our larger body. The intelligence that evolved us from stardust and interconnects us with all beings is sufficient for the healing of our Earth community, if we but align with that purpose. Our true nature is far more ancient and encompassing than the separate self defined by habit and society. We are as intrinsic to our living world as the rivers and trees, woven of the same intricate flows of matter/energy and mind. Having evolved us into self-reflexive consciousness, the world can now know itself through us, behold its own majesty, tell its own stories — and also respond to its own suffering.”-Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone (2012)

Spreading the story of why we care about life and the health of the whole and sharing the narrative of interbeing is culturally creative meta-design. By sharing the new and ancient story of interbeing we facilitate the emergence of diverse regenerative cultures scale-linked by empathy and cooperation.

As life, as nature, as Universe we can access the collective intelligence inherent in the whole. Collectively, we have the choice to cooperate with each other and with the community of life to nurture regenerative systems locally, regionally and globally. Living the questions together is about how we apply collective intelligence to cultural transformation, co-creating a new story of why humanity is worth sustaining and a powerfully infectious vision of a thriving future for all of life. The ‘why’ will guide the ‘what’ and the ‘how’.

Lychen are green algae and/or blue-green algae living within a symbiotic relationship amongst the structural filaments of a fungus (Image Source)

In a recent article in the journal BioSystems, John Stewart (2014) reviews evidence that throughout the evolution of life on Earth we can observe a general trend towards increasing complexity. He highlights two other general trends closely linked to this increase in complexity. Life seems to have a general tendency to diversify as it adapts to changing conditions and the uniqueness of place. Life’s way of accommodating this diversity in ways that optimize the whole system is a general tendency towards increasing integration, forming scale-linking networks of life-supporting relationships.

In general, life cooperates in creating conditions conducive to life through the creation of regenerative processes that benefit diverse locally adapted networks of life and thereby increase the health and resilience of the whole. “Integration has proceeded through a stepwise process in which living entities at one level are integrated into cooperative groups that become larger-scale entities at the next level, and so on, producing cooperative organizations of increasing scale” (ibid).

Cooperative advantage has driven major inventions throughout evolution: endosymbiosis — the evolutionary step towards nucleated cells (eukaryotic cells); multi- cellular organisms cooperatively integrate many such cells; and “cooperative groups of these organisms produce animal societies”. The trend towards increasing complexity of living networks through diversification and integration is a core pattern in the evolution of life, from the scale of molecules to cells, organs, organisms, communities and ecosystems, to biomes and the biosphere.

John Stewart argues that this “trend towards increasing integration has continued during human evolution with the progressive increase in the scale of human groups and societies”. He postulates that increasing diversification and integration “are likely to culminate in the emergence of a global entity. […] This entity would emerge from the integration of the living processes, matter, energy and technology of the planet into a global cooperative organization” (ibid).

Source John Stewart 2014

The word “entity” might be misleading here, as it invites us to think of a material superstructure or super-organism. I believe that Stewart is actually referring to a globally cooperative pattern of organization which integrates all of humanity’s diversity through predominantly collaborative relationships that steward and regenerate the global commons. From a pack of wolves or a pod of dolphins, to a human family, a local community, a city, region, nation or the United Nations, these ‘entities’ are better understood as processes defined by patterns of collaboration.

The multi-lateral negotiations and agreements facilitated by the UN — with all its shortcomings and successes — are expressions of humanity living the questions together with a commitment to global solidarity and cooperation. The recently ratified Sustainable Development Goals with their emphasis on ‘means of implementation’ are a clear sign that despite all our conflicts and disagreements humanity is evolving its capacity for global collaboration.

This emerging pattern of conscious collaboration can also be observed in a huge variety of civil society organizations and networks of cultural change agents involved in the transition to a more sustainable human presence on Earth. The only way to safeguard the privilege of abundance is to share it collaboratively with all of humanity and all of life. Evolutionary success for life as a whole has followed life’s diversifying and integrative tendencies. This process is now finding expression in the integration of human diversity into global awareness and solidarity. Our individual and collective success depends on this integration through collaboration and empathy.

Stewart observes that “whatever the evolutionary challenges, living processes can respond to them more effectively if they are cooperative organizations and if their actions are coordinated”. Life as a scale-linking planetary process thrives through the integration of diversity into circular flows of energy, matter and information which facilitate the emergence of collaborative and regenerative processes at local, regional and global scale. This creates shared abundance at multiple scales as the basis for individual and collective evolutionary success. Integration through collaboration offers a number of advantages:

  • the opportunity to distribute key tasks in decentralized ecologies of collaboration
  • the opportunity to create abundance within planetary boundaries through the
  • sharing of common resource pools
  • an increased capacity for collective intelligence to inform our collective resilience, adaptive capacity and transformability
  • increased resource effectiveness as less energy and fewer resources are wasted on competitive interactions that damage systemic health
  • the opportunity to create networks of mutual support characterized by non-zero sum or win-win-win relationships

The biologist Peter Corning, former president of the International Society for Systems Science and director of the Institute for the Study of Complex Systems, suggests that in the evolution of our own species, cooperation has played a particularly important role.

Corning’s ‘synergism hypothesis’ argues “that it was the bioeconomic payoffs (the synergies) associated with various forms of social cooperation that produced — in combination — the ultimate directional trend over a period of several million years, from the earliest bipedal hominids to modern Homo sapiens. […] we invented ourselves (in effect) in response to various ecological pressures and opportunities” (Corning, 2005: 40). Corning explains: “one implication of this more complex view of evolution is that both competition and cooperation may coexist at different levels of organization, or in relation to different aspects of the survival enterprise. There may be a delicately balanced interplay between these supposedly polar relationships.” p.38). Evolving language and with it the ability to shape culture through narrative has allowed humans to develop complex patterns of collaboration.

Corning emphasizes: “If a society is viewed merely as an aggregate of individuals who have no common interests, and no stake in the social order, then why should they care? But if society is viewed […] as an interdependent ‘collective survival enterprise,’ then each of us has a vital, life-and-death stake in its viability and effective functioning, whether we recognize it or not” (p.392). Rather than getting lost in the disagreements and competitive episodes that are part of negotiating the integration of our human diversity, we are called to remember that “mutually beneficial cooperation is the fundamental organizing principle underlying all human societies” (p.393). Humanity’s future depends on mutually beneficial cooperation at a planetary scale.

The evolutionary biologist and futurist Elisabet Sathouris describes how in the evolution of complex communities of diverse organisms a ‘maturation point’ is reached when the system realizes that “it is cheaper to feed your ‘enemies’ than to kill them” (personal comment). Having successfully populated six continents and diversified into the mosaic of value systems, worldviews, identities (national, cultural, ethnic, professional, political, etc.) and ways of living that make up humanity, we are now challenged to integrate this precious diversity into a globally and locally collaborative civilization acting wisely to create conditions conducive to life.

“We have now reached a new tipping point where enmities are more expensive in all respects than friendly collaboration; where planetary limits of exploiting nature have been reached. It is high time for us to cross this new tipping point into our global communal maturity — an integration of the economy and ecology we have put into conflict with each other, to evolve an ecosophy.”- Elisabet Sathouris (2014)

If Homo sapiens sapiens wants to continue its fascinating yet so far relatively short evolutionary success story we have to evolve wise societies characterized by empathy, solidarity and collaboration. Wise cultures, societies and a wise civilization will ‘manage the household’ with wisdom (oikos + sophia) and a love for all life (biophilia). Humanity’s challenge in a constantly changing, complex world is to establish a set of guiding questions that focus our collective intelligence on responding wisely to often unpredictable and surprising change.

Such questions would guide our cultural activity to create regenerative and thriving communities and circular economies elegantly attuned to the unique conditions of local and regional eco-social systems. We need to respond to global challenges with effective local and regional actions enabled by global collaboration and exchange.

To do this effectively we need more than policy change and participatory democracy; we need a shift in our way of thinking, from rigid mindsets to valuing multiple perspectives and recognizing our interdependence and common humanity. The meta-narrative of interbeing informs a participatory whole-systems understanding of life and consciousness. It allows us to value a wide diversity of perspectives while unifying us with our larger identity as humanity and life.

Transformative innovation and regenerative design are supporting the creation of thriving communities, shared natural abundance and systemic health by collaboratively nurturing regeneration everywhere. They are creative ways of giving form to the narrative of interbeing — ways that reinforce our experience of kinship and oneness with each other and with the ecosystems we inhabit. This collaboration is made possible by a new understanding of who and what we are.

“No longer need we be fragmented and boxed in; we have the option of seeing ourselves within a cosmic Oneness that eliminates all fragmentation; that joins our inner experience to our outer experience as it joins us to one another, to our planet and our Cosmos. Whatever the New Story is, however many versions of it we write and tell, it will reflect this new view of ourselves.”-Elisabet Sathouris (2014)

Jeremy Rifkin (2009) suggests that human nature is fundamentally empathic and cooperative rather than selfish and competitive. He reviews recent evidence from brain science and child development studies that shows how selfishness, competition and aggression are not innate aspects of human behaviour but learned and culturally conditioned responses.

Jeremy Rifkin on The Empathic Civilisation

Our very nature is far more caring, loving and empathic than we have been educated to believe. While being empathic may have initially extended primarily to our family and tribe, our ability to empathize has continued to expand to include the whole of humanity, other species and life as a whole. Rifkin suggests that we are witnessing the evolutionary emergence of Homo empathicus:

“We are at the cusp, I believe, of an epic shift into a climax global economy and a fundamental repositioning of human life on the planet. The ‘Age of Reason’ is being eclipsed by the ‘Age of Empathy’. The most important question facing humanity is this: Can we reach global empathy in time to avoid the collapse of civilization and save the Earth?”- Jeremy Rifkin (2009: 3)

The narrative of interbeing informs and promotes global empathy as it makes us aware of our interdependence as relational beings with life’s thriving on Earth and with the evolution of consciousness within the constantly transforming universe. The healthy evolution of consciousness is not a replacement of reason with empathy, but rather an integration of our capacity for reason with multiple ways of knowing and an increased capacity for empathy — what Albert Einstein referred to as “widening our circles of compassion”.

Evolutionary maps of consciousness like the Wilber-Combs lattice of levels and states of consciousness (Combs, 2009), Clare Graves’s ‘bio-psycho-social systems’ (Graves, 2004 & 2005) or Don Beck’s and Christopher Cowan’s ‘spiral dynamic’ map of worldviews and value systems (1996) all suggest that healthy development proceeds by a process of transcending and including (rather than opposing and dismissing) previous perspectives.

The evolutionary trend of increasing integration of diversity is not a path towards increasing homogeneity and one dominant monoculture but a path towards appropriate participation in complexity. Avoiding ‘monocultures of the mind’, valuing and nurturing diversity and cooperatively integrating this diversity by living the questions together will enable humanity to act wisely — informed by collective intelligence and multiple perspectives — in the face of unpredictable change.

Being fixed on finding silver-bullet solutions and universal or permanent answers predisposes us to frame progress as a replacement of one perspective or ‘paradigm’ with another. We tend to over-swing the pendulum from one extreme to another. We habitually move from thesis to anti-thesis, rather than searching for the fertile ground of synthesis that transcends and includes various perspectives in an attempt to inform wise action.

Cooperatively and empathically living the questions together — in humble recognition of the limits of our individual and collective knowledge and capacity — is a cultural guidance system capable of informing wise action in the face of change and unpredictability. Living the questions together creates regenerative cultures by nurturing resilience, adaptive capacity and transformability. By collectively exploring and valuing the perspectives that each of the three horizons has of the future potential of the present moment we facilitate the emergence of future consciousness that can help us to act with foresight in the face of unpredictable change.

On 12th September, 2001, the day after the traumatic events at the World Trade Centre in New York, the Catalan philosopher Jordi Pigem led a small group of students on the Masters in Holistic Science at Schumacher College in a collective exploration of the significance of this tragic yet catalytic blow to humanity’s collective consciousness. Jordi started the session by lighting a candle and reading two poems by the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh: Interbeing and Call me by my true name. During the subsequent dialogue we co-created an early version of the diagram [below], mapping the fundamental choice we have, both individually and collectively, to bring forth a world enabled by love or driven by fear.

The Love and Fear Cycles (page 245, Designing Regenerative Cultures, Wahl 2016)

[Excerpt from my book Designing Regenerative Cultures, Triarchy Press, 2016; pp.240–245]