If evolution is “change that sticks” what is “conscious evolution?”

Conscious Evolution in the simplest sense would seem to imply consciously, or deliberately, engaging in the process of evolution. In other words it means that human beings, who are aware of the process of evolution and have an understanding of the mechanisms through which it happens would engage in activities and make choices that support further evolution.

That definition has historically proven problematic because it easily encompasses the unsavory idea of “Social Darwinism.” Among other things Social Darwinists in the early decades after the publication of “On the Origin of Species” believed in purposely not doing anything that would help human beings who were weak, inferior, poor or in any way less evolutionarily advantaged to survive. Poverty or weakness of any kind seen as a sign of an inferior person and in the interest of “survival of the fittest” it was simply best to allow nature to run its course and for these individuals to exit the population. Social Darwinism also led to Eugenics or the selective breeding of human beings. In a particularly disastrous form of Eugenics, the German biologist Ernst Haekel actually advocated killing human beings with inferior characteristics. 

No one who is actively interested in conscious evolution has anything like this in mind. In fact the term conscious evolution the way it is generally used today does not involve natural selection. It refers to the conscious participation in the process of evolution, but it is specifically referring to evolution at the level of consciousness.

This evolution at the level of consciousness is not learning, because learning is not necessarily “change that sticks.” You can learn something and it might be with you during your whole life, but it will die with you unless you pass it on. Learning is the accumulation of ideas and understanding by an individual. The evolution of consciousness, as I understand it, is the evolution of the consciousness that we share. That cultural consciousness is held in the values and perspectives of society and passed on to every member of that society just by the fact of being born and raised in it.

The consciousness of cultures is not simply shared ideas in people’s heads. It is the state of consciousness that is held within the culture as a whole and is in embedded in the literature, art, science, behaviors, values, architecture, customs and every other aspect of what we call society. The state of consciousness of a culture builds a society and the society constantly reinforces the state of consciousness that built it. The evolution of consciousness and the evolution of culture are two ways of looking at the same thing.

The mechanisms of evolution, once understood could be used to elevate the consciousness of a culture so that each individual born and raised within that culture would have access to that consciousness. Once again the idea of continuity takes a primary place in this conception of conscious evolution. What I have described is remarkably similar to what John Dewey describes in much of his writing. A major theme in Dewey’s philosophy was the fact that the individual cannot be separated from the society or the society from the individual. Dewey’s writings on education and democracy are in many respects a representation of his understanding of how to promote conscious evolution within American society. Similarly, B. F. Skinner was also concerned with how to design a culture that would maximize its evolutionary potential.

Many argue the concept of conscious evolution is overused and ill-defined. I don’t entirely disagree with that assessment. My solution though would not be to dispose of the concept, but to apply more rigor and experimentation to its investigation so that we can create a deeper understanding of what it might be pointing us to.