An Evolutionary Crisis on Earth — EFF 1.1
Our present civilisational cycle, which began with the scientific and industrial revolution in Europe, has come a long way passing through colonialism, the two world wars and a cold war that took us to the edge of a nuclear holocaust. We are now a global civilisation cast predominantly in the moulds shaped by science and its world view, a single marketplace, a single global village, with instant global access and awareness, a community of Nations competing for global resources to sustain an economic engine that seeks infinite growth on a finite planet.
While science doesn’t deal with the question of the purpose life on earth, the global notions of social development has come to mean physical and psychological welfare practically translated into a culture of unbridled consumerism in the name of happiness. In the process we are destroying the very foundations of the natural ecosystem in which we live. Global warming, pollution and destruction of the Natural environment, species extinction, refugees of war and climate change, a fragile and volatile economic system and the breakdown of traditional cultures and values are building up into a serious systemic crisis in the world. Besides, the exponentially accelerating technological innovations driving rapid social changes are now entirely out of human comprehension and control. We are, globally, accelerating towards a future that is way beyond our cognitive faculties to fathom.
Where are we heading as a species?
The sixth mass extinction
The fossil records say that in the long evolutionary cycles spanning huge spans of time the Nature has flushed out most of her life forms on earth five times in the past, retaining only those life forms fit to move on to the next stage of her evolutionary creation. According to a peer reviewed scientific study published in 2014, earth is entering the phase of sixth mass extinction of species since the loss of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.
There is a natural rate at which species go extinct on earth but at present the extinction rate has accelerated way beyond the normal and there is a growing body of studies knitting together the unfolding story of mass extinction in which we are actively playing a role. We, as a species, were not in the picture during the previous mass extinctions on earth but this time we are in it and actively engaging in wiping out other species and in the process heading towards our own demise.
Are we, the humans, destined to be buried in the body of earth, along with thousands of other species that are going extinct now, as an evolutionary debris only to be retained as fossil evidence to be excavated by the future species on this planet? Are we flightworthy of the upcoming future of evolution on earth? It is not a rhetoric question, nor a religious doomsday fear-stick to beat the sheep to behave. There is a reality of the evolutionary process of which we are an integral part, and it seems Nature is poised towards something way beyond the limits we are currently able to perceive.
Our blundering ego and its appetites
Nearly a hundred years ago Sri Aurobindo wrote in his philosophical magnum opus The Life Divine:
“At present mankind is undergoing an evolutionary crisis in which is concealed a choice of its destiny; for a stage has been reached in which the human mind has achieved in certain directions an enormous development while in others it stands arrested and bewildered and can no longer find its way.” 1
“Man has created a system of civilisation which has become too big for his limited mental capacity and understanding and his still more limited spiritual and moral capacity to utilise and manage, a too dangerous servant of his blundering ego and its appetites.”2
There is an increasing mastery over the forces of Nature and a capacity to put these forces into practical utility in our daily life but at the same time the increasing complexity of the mechanical systems we have developed to manage our global civilization and the long term cumulative results of our collective action are now way beyond the limited mental capacity to fathom and manage. Besides the complexity and accelerating change, the engines of global financial market forces and its merciless competition is bringing forth the worst territorial instincts and predatory nature in us. We have harvested the power of rational intelligence and its tremendous creativity but these powers are at the service of selfish drives of clashing group egos and its covert and overt wars causing tremendous destruction to the life on earth. Our power of action has been scaled up for global operations and yet fundamentally the human nature has not changed.
“But because the burden which is being laid on mankind is too great for the present littleness of the human personality and its petty mind and small life-instincts, because it cannot operate the needed change, because it is using this new apparatus and organisation to serve the old infraspiritual and infrarational life-self of humanity, the destiny of the race seems to be heading dangerously, as if impatiently and in spite of itself, under the drive of the vital ego seized by colossal forces which are on the same scale as the huge mechanical organisation of life and scientific knowledge which it has evolved, a scale too large for its reason and will to handle, into a prolonged confusion and perilous crisis and darkness of violent shifting incertitude.” 3
The troubling truth about the human nature is, in spite of all our science and technological wizardry we are capable of, beneath our modern costumes and glittering technologies, we are still pretty much driven by our animal drives and its territorial claims served by a mental intelligence that has no better light than its heap of sensory data increasingly handed over to the machine intelligence to process and decipher. Within us are the demons and djinns lurking as greed, lust, insecurity, fear, anger, hatred, fighting instinct and violence breeding widespread destruction and death on its way.
Our weapons of conquest and mass murder may become perfectly organic and eco friendly, remotely controlled and managed, invisibly deployed and precisely targeted, especially now with the convergence of nano-tech, bio-tech and info-tech unleashing immense powers that are sweeping across the world. But we have to face the fact that there is an animal nature in us lurking just beneath the surface. Our technological prows is bringing out and amplifying all our inherent capacities and along with it are our evolutionary animal past and its instincts empowered by a mental intelligence that cannot foresee and manage systemic consequences of its local and isolated solutions. This demands an urgent need to transform the human nature to access a greater cognitive range and action if we are to navigate through the emerging complexity.
Upgrading the human beings
It is now a well established norm that the technologies will continue to evolve to become more and more efficient, invisible, intelligent and complex whether it is the mobile phones, self-driving cars, quantum computing, artificial intelligence, robotics, nano technologies or genetic engineering. However when it comes to upgrading the human beings our notions of education doesn’t go beyond few basic ideas of literacies and skills. Lifelong education is now increasingly recognised as a basic requirement but our capacity to continuously learn and adapt to a changing world remains a daunting task as our learning capacity decline with aging. While medical science is finding ways to extend the human lifespan, the psychological nature of human beings remains a pandora’s box which modern psychology is still in the process of mapping. Besides, it is not sufficient to have physical and psychological well being in a body with long life span, there is also a pressing need to review the very meaning and purpose of human existence in the context of rapidly evolving technologies that are surpassing human capacities.
In a short video called ‘Humans need Not Apply’ released in 2014 by C.G.P.Grey, the direction of emerging challenges from the Artificial Intelligence (AI) are well pointed out. In a world where the AI is rapidly taking over the intelligent thinking functions and the related jobs, both mundane and creative, the humans are quietly becoming obsolete as a work force.
It is expected that on the trails of exponential evolution of technology and self-learning machines, the power of Artificial Intelligence will exceed the intelligence of human beings. In January 2015, Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, and dozens of artificial intelligence experts signed an open letter on artificial intelligence calling for research on the societal impacts of AI, particularly its existential risk to humanity.
The debate on AI can be seen spread in between two extreme views, the extinction of humanity or its immortality. Ray Kurzweil , Google’s Director of Engineering, a well-known futurist with a credible track record for accurate predictions, is upbeat about AI and the technological future of humanity foreseeing immortality and singularity ahead for our species. It was the mathematician John von Neumann first used the term “singularity” (c. 1950s), in the context of technological progress causing accelerating change:
“The accelerating progress of technology and changes in the mode of human life, give the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue”. 4
At present we are exponentially accelerating towards such an unimaginable future. We are patching up the limitations of our cognitive and creative faculties by increasing augmentation with machine intelligence and the technology pioneers are dreaming of an increasing fusion with the machines to enhance human faculties. If it was the telescope that extended the range of vision for Galileo, modern man is dreaming of augmenting the mental capacity by linking the brain directly with a global brain of super intelligence in the cloud of Internet. It is as if we as a species is building a global brain through Internet that can potentially self-organise the entire species into a single global organism with individuals constituting its cells by linking the individual brain with the global brain. While this may sound like a wild science fiction fantasy there is a tremendous push to exceed the limits of our cognitive and creative faculties mediated by technology. Transhumanism and posthuman beings are part of the contemporary intellectual discourse.
However all these technological dreams are still based on the notion that the human being is ultimately an intelligent machine to be augmented and expanded by more intelligent machinery in a massively intelligent universe with some hacking of our biochemistry to experience an explosion of happiness. The biochemical pursuit for happiness is already well on its way along with the pursuit of immortality and the process of death is increasingly looked upon as a technical problem to be solved.
The genie is out of the bottle whether we like it or not and it cannot be rolled back, we can only go forward come what may.
More than a century ago Sri Aurobindo was grappling with this problem. Is humanity heading for self-destruction through its own technical wizardry like a child playing with fire burning down the house or is there a way forward, a greater wisdom and power that can avert the danger? He wrote:
“The evolutionary nisus is pushing towards a development of the cosmic Force in terrestrial life which needs a larger mental and vital being to support it, a wider Mind, a greater wider more conscious unanimised Life-Soul, Anima, and that again needs an unveiling of the supporting Soul and spiritual Self within to maintain it.”4
His life’s work was centred around this issue. The problems created by the power of thought and rational intelligence cannot be resolved at the same level of consciousness. Here in lies our fundamental difficulty. Nor does a spiritual liberation into otherworldly transcendence can have any impact on the evolutionary crisis unfolding on earth. That is why the mainstream traditional spirituality primarily dealing with individual liberation is of not much value to the future of the planet. It is here on earth the evolutionary process is accelerating and it must be here on earth and within the framework of matter the solution is to be established, not in any timeless existence beyond this material world.
“For the problem is fundamental and in putting it evolutionary Nature in man is confronting herself with a critical choice which must one day be solved in the true sense if the race is to arrive or even to survive.”5
This demands a clear vision of the process of evolution, its future course on earth and practical ways to engage with it. It is this factor that makes Sri Aurobindo a silent spiritual revolutionary whom the world is yet to discover.
“We do not belong to the past dawns, but to the noons of the future.” 6
1, 2, 3. Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, http://incarnateword.in/sabcl/19/the-divine-life
5. Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine, http://incarnateword.in/sabcl/19/the-divine-life
6. Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, http://incarnateword.in/sabcl/13/our-demand-and-need-from-the-gita