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A Complexity Perspective on Human Evolution from our Violent Past to a Compassionate Future
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The Evolve Holistic Development Trust
A Complexity Perspective of Human Identity, Spirituality and Ethics
This paper was written as a part of my MA Chaos, Complexity and Creativity through the university of Western Sydney
Ken Wilber (1996) describes the paradox of a finite universe within an infinite reality (somewhat simplistically as he himself acknowledges) through the metaphor of a ladder. While struggling and climbing the ladder of evolutionary consciousness, we generally fail to notice the ever present spirit; the wood out of which the ladder and all its levels is formed. The infinite reality is so ever present, we often fail to see it.
Our spiritual journey is one that takes us back to the wholeness that we have always been, are now, and will always be. The principles of Complexity have much to tell us about that journey and assist us to become what we truly are.
IN TIME AND SPACE
History is the story of human beings struggling to maintain our fitness in our environment. Increasingly complex solutions are required in response to an ever more complex world. One of the fundamental creations that assisted us in our evolving journey through history is identity.
Our earliest ancestors had no concept of identity. They were not aware of themselves as separate beings. They were immersed in their environment to the point where there was no differentiation between them and the world in which they lived (Wilber, 1983).
Instinct was the prime mover of their actions. Individual fish in a school or birds in a flock operate by simple instinctual rules, which nevertheless result in complex behaviour. This greatly enhances their ability to survive and propagate their species.
A new-born baby is unaware that it has a separate existence. It does not yet perceive its skin to be a boundary with the outside world. The baby still perceives its mother and the room it is in to be a part of itself. The world is especially confusing for the new-born because on the one hand, it has poor control over its own body and on the other, it does have an element of control over its environment (e.g. if it cries, it will generally be fed or have its nappy changed). The baby slowly learns to distinguish its physical boundaries through a multitude of trial and error experiments.
It slowly dawns upon the child, just as it dawned upon our earliest ancestors, that there are many implications of having boundaries and a separate being. We learned that we can be alone and abandoned. We learned that we cannot know everything nor can we control everything. Fear became conscious.
We also realised for the first time that we exist in a separate time. Previously, past and future did not exist. Pain only existed if it was being felt at the time. As soon as the pain stopped, it ceased to be. There was no fear of the past nor dread of the future, because there was no past nor future.
Once we became conscious of a separate existence, we had to find mechanisms to cope with the fear of the past, dread of the future and our eventual death as individual beings.
This also means that communication itself will cause conflict. Conflict, which can naturally be extremely destructive is totally necessary and integral to social interactions within the Human Experiential Space.
We use this map to navigate the events and situations encountered in the world, just as an explorer uses a map to find their way through a jungle they have never previously encountered.<
All the impressions, images, thoughts, events and situations the individual has experienced come together in that person’s mind. There they interact with each other to create an internally consistent, dynamic image of the world that provides the individual a means by which to cope with the environment. Even though the map will be generally internally consistent, it may or may not be consistent with the external world it is attempting to map.
Sometimes the map will be accurate and reliable, while at other times, the map will not provide the necessary accuracy and the underlying fears and distress that had been allayed will re-emerge.
Included in the ‘map’ of reality, must be a map of the individual themselves. Just as the whole map must form a coherent and consistent image, the map of themselves must be similarly coherent and consistent. I must be able to link who I was yesterday, who I am today, and will be tomorrow or my ability to interact collapses. Memory is thus an integral part of creating an identity that persists over time.
Whenever a situation is experienced, it must be compared to the map. There are four possible responses to any experience. Firstly, we can find it consistent with the existing map and absorb the experience into our being. Secondly, we can find it unacceptable and reject it, thereby relegating it to our ‘shadow’. Thirdly, we can distort or reinterpret the experience so it can remain congruent with the map and then absorb it into our being, or finally, find the experience so disturbing that the map breaks down, leaving us unable to relate to our world.
Our identity is therefore created from our past and how we interpret it.
At the same time, however, we have an ability to evaluate our experiences, reject external events, and form our own views. We are all at once the sculptor and the sculpted, the creator and the created.
Our identity is not based on who we are, but on who we perceive ourselves to be. If a very physically beautiful person perceives themselves to be ugly, their identity will be formed around their perception of their ugliness.
Intellectual and Spiritual Body
We use our bodies to dance and sing our identity. We express our identity by the way we adorn, clothe and perfume our body.
Beyond our physical body is our emotional body. Our many feelings of guilt, anger, sadness and grief all have their effect on our identity. At the intellectual level we find all our thoughts, concepts and ideas, which again have an enormous impact on our identity. We paint paintings, write poetry, and create web pages as extensions of our being.
The final level is the spiritual, where we look beyond the bounds of everyday life and explore our inner realities. If developed, the spiritual dimension can have an all pervasive effect on our identity and the way we construct our lives.
Metaphors are extremely important tools in understanding the world. We come to understand anything new by comparing it to things we already know and understand. Our identity also forms new linkages by comparing them to existing ones.
Metaphors can canalyse our perceptions. For example, the computer has been used as a metaphor for the brain. Indeed there are some similarities between the operation of a computer and the operation of a human brain, but there are also many fundamental differences. When we see the computer as a brain, we exclude qualities the brain may have that computers do not.
Links to the
Land and our Mythic Identity
My own interest in Maori culture has meant that even without any Maori ancestral links, many of the traditional values have been integrated into my identity. I feel uncomfortable when I see a hat on a table, or food consumed near a coffin. Such values are irrelevant according to the Western mode of living, but are offensive within a Maori context.
Around 600 years
ago a Maori tribe split in two, demonstrating some of the principles
of complexity and the process of the development of tribal identity.
Often the group will bifurcate to form two groups. These must then differentiate themselves so each group maintains coherence. The father of the brothers determined that Tahupotiki, the younger, should leave the East Coast of the North Island. Those who wished to follow Tahupotiki left to live in the South island. They soon developed a separate identity, differentiating themselves from those people who had been kinsfolk. Often groups which are the most similar generate more conflict than widely divergent groups because of the need to express difference.
The followers of Tahupotiki formed their own artistic style, rituals of encounter and distinct dialect. Some of the new identity was influenced by the colder climate of their new home. In northern tribes one finds visitors arriving at night can be sent away until the next day, while in the south, they are more generally welcomed into the tribal meeting house.
My ancestral origins lie on shores far distant from those on which I live. In spite of the depth of feeling for the land in which I live, my ancestral links to my identity are found in other lands. I have been fortunate to have travelled to the lands of my ancestors. Those distant hills stand high within my being, their winds caress my soul, the rivers flow in my blood and the clouds scud across the firmament of my mind.
I have seen the paintings of my ancestors, read their letters, tried to learn something of the languages they spoke because I recognise them within me. By seeking my ancestors in the outside world, I keep them alive and vibrant in my inner world and in my identity.
The region where I live has its own linguistic nuances and variations on the English language. I have an accent that tells of where I live. Words echo through the hills, flow down the rivers and through the people. As I speak, my land, my ancestors, my relations, my friends, and my enemies all have their voice.
Technology, which is central to the global culture, increasingly affects our identity. Television, the internet, cell phones, movies, vehicles, and so much more have become everyday objects. The more everyday they become, the more they invisibly blend into our identity.
While in Japan many years ago I remember how incongruent the sight of Japanese ‘punks’ appeared to me. It was all the more poignant to realise that in fact New Zealand ‘punks’ were virtually as incongruent, also being an alien imported sub-culture.
The more we live in a global economy, the more likely it is that we will live away from our cultural roots. The seamless flow between the living individual, the ancestors, and the land is broken and only restored with difficulty.
of my Daughter
Our physical body undergoes a bewildering level of changes over a lifetime. Our body grows to many times its own size, becomes strong and fecund, then grows weaker and weaker until it is finally unable to sustain life any more. Our body cells are said to be totally renewed every seven years.
During our lifetime we take on a number of roles, learn an enormous amount of new skills and information, experience losses and gains, live in different locations and conditions, meet a bewildering array of people, all of which require corresponding changes to our identity. Sometimes change is slow and sometimes it is very rapid.
We humans can become subject to mental disorders which sever the links of the identity. We must ask what the identity is of a person with a disease such as Alzheimers, Biploar Disorder or Schizophrenia. Do they still have their ‘original’ identity if they have lost their memory or the ability to relate meaningfully in the world?
Lawrence LeShan (1976), cites four main human value systems: the sensory, clairvoyant, transpersonal, and mythic. He proposes that each system has an important contribution to how we see our world, but none are individually adequate to give the whole picture.
Spiral Dynamics take this concept even further by proposing a set of nested value systems, which are basically hierarchical, and yet still highly interactive between the levels. This structure is extremely reminiscent of a Complex Adaptive System. Spiral Dynamics proposes the survival, mythic, exploitative, absolute, achieving, relativistic, integrative and holistic levels. (Cowan 2001). As we move from one level to another we retain earlier levels. We do not lose our need for food and clothing, nor mythic identity because we have moved on. Dissociation at any level is reflected fractally through all levels.
HUMAN IDENTITY THROUGH COMPLEXITY
The butterfly effect can be positive or negative. If not countered, a small obsessive thought can dominate a person’s identity and cause havoc in their lives.
Power Law Distribution
While co-operation allows the efficient use of resources by a group, without an incentive for individuals to excel, co-operation can flounder. Co-operation, paradoxically requires strong leadership.
Competition, as Howard Bloom (2000) has written, engenders innovation. If there is a new development within a particular portion of a system that gives it a competitive advantage on the fitness landscape, it will gain prominence and its qualities will spread to more agents in the system.
Competition for the available energy in the bodies of our early ancestors led to the development of our brain at the expense of greater muscle strength. This development allowed us to dominate our environment and significantly increase the overall fitness landscape.
Those elements which can improve the fitness of our identity will tend to be selected before less adaptive elements.
Human Complex Adaptive Systems require a dynamic Edge of Chaos balance between competition and co-operation.
Edge of Chaos
It is not only individuals who form identities. While the physical boundary of an individual is generally obvious, the boundaries of a group are more difficult to define.
As we humans evolved, we often found existing social structures to be unable to meet our needs. Small family groups gradually grew in size until the group cohesion was threatened. A more complex tribal structure was needed to restore stability. Again, when too many tribal groups exist in close proximity, the level of conflict rises. Historically, one of the tribes has tended to conquer the others and the tribal leader has become instituted as a King or Queen of the empire. As education levels and individuals’ expectations increased, democratic forms of government formed nations as the most effective social structure. Each level has its own, appropriate corresponding identity. We each have an individual identity, a family identity, a community/tribal identity a national identity, and a planetary identity.
Identity form as nested levels, including the previous level as we progress to a new level (Wilber, 1996). The levels have a fractal relationship. Identity is formed in the same nested way as our brain. Our basic survival functions are controlled in the hindbrain (also called reptilian brain) at the centre of the brain. The paleomammalian midbrain wrapped around it controlling our emotions and the neomammalian neo-cortex is wrapped around all those formations controlling higher brain functions. (Eysenck, 1970: 84). Evolution does not do away with existing structures, but instead forms new structures to modify earlier ones. We do not do away with the need of a family level when we move to a tribal identity and so on. All the levels are interactive. Any level not fully functioning affects the whole organism.
Our body operates like a vortex. New cells are always being created, old cells are dying, but we continue to live. Even though a particular person is recognisable as the same person over their whole life, they are constantly changing.
Our sense of identity is formed as a vortex. All our memories, emotions, thoughts, desires and fears; all our social, cultural, religious and educational influences; all the words that we use, the television programmes we watch, the web pages we look at, and the magazines and books we read are all a part of the mass of swirling images and energies that interact with each other forming a vortex. An identity emerges that is stable enough to be recognised over time, but changes sufficiently to allow growth and development. Without this stability of identity, we could not know who we are from day to day or be able to make consistent decisions about how to act in the world. Our world would become deep chaos.
Vortices are also fractal with vortices within vortices. A nation has its identity vortex and within it are regions, communities, families and individuals all with their own vortices. The non-linear dynamics of vortices emerge from the feedback loops in and between the vortices inside the overarching vortex .
The Heisenberg Uncertainty Hypothesis tells us we cannot simultaneously know the position and momentum of a sub atomic particle. The act of measuring one alters the other. This means the universe is ultimately unpredictable. Quantum Mechanics describes a universe where everything that is, is either a wave (boson) or particle (fermion), but the two are not exclusive. A boson can become a fermion and a fermion can become a boson. The boundary is fuzzy. Existing at the Edge of Chaos boundary between particles and waves is light. Mystic traditions around the world consistently have recognised the special properties of light.
Danah Zohar (1990) writes from a Quantum Mechanics perspective, but also links with Complexity principles. She describes Einstein-Bose condensates in which the polarities of the atoms all line up so the whole condensate acts as one unit, taking on emergent properties. Danah Zohar contends that, as well as being found at temperatures near Absolute Zero, Einstein-Bose condensates are found in all living tissue and form the basis of consciousness. She claims that consciousness is the action of quantum and complex dynamics at a macroscopic level.
Because the outcome of any action cannot be fully determined the boundary between good and evil must be fuzzy. What appears to be destructive to a system may in fact be the ‘butterfly wings’ of a perturbation that would lead to a new level of operation and what appears to sustain the vortex may in fact be hindering a whole new emergent level of development.
When any of the crucial factors that set the dynamics of human identity swirling are altered, there is a risk that the self organisation of the system may falter. There are always people who would use this fact to subvert the process of identity development for their own ends.
Complexity Theory tells us we do not need a ‘Devil’ or a similar external justification to explain catastrophes in life. Catastrophes are not external, but are implicit in the dynamics of life. Authenticity requires choice. If we cannot choose actions which are ‘evil’, we do not really have choice. ‘Evil’ too is implicit in the dynamics of life.
The ‘system’ is often blamed as the cause of our problems. While this is certainly true in many ways, we need to remain clear of the greater perspective. If we live in a seamless, fractal world then just as the ‘system’ creates us, we create the ‘system’. We are the system, the system is us. Whatever we think of the ‘system’, it’s existence is bound inextricably within our own identity. In fact, the more we see the ‘system’ as our enemy, the more we see ourselves as our own enemy.
Thich Nat Hanh (2001) is very clear about how we project the shadow parts of ourselves we are unable to accept out into the outside world. He tells us we will not find our peace until we recognise that we are the bombers of the twin towers, George Bush, Hiroshima bombers, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, baby kidnapper, rapists and murderers. We cannot hope to overcome violence until we fully acknowledge it within ourselves. The boundary between oppressor and oppressed becomes fuzzy.
It is only when we embrace the pain and suffering of life and sacrifice our small ego-bound selves to the truth of the wholeness that we are, that we can be transformed to a new level of being where we really can be effective at changing the outside world. We no longer fear it, no longer need to distort it. The world is simply what it is. We are what we are and we align ourselves to be in harmony with the Complex Adaptive processes of life. Martin Luther King Jnr, Te Whiti o Rongomai, Mohandas Ghandi and many others knew this truth. They were effective at bringing about changes in the world because they stayed at the still centre.
Our true identity is to be found at the still centre of the vortex of swirling influences. At the still centre we are not buffeted about by the winds of the periphery, where, caught in oppositonal dynamics, our best efforts merely perpetuate the storm. At the still centre we are not buffeted by fear of the past nor hopes of an uncertain future. We exist clearly in the still centre of now as time itself flows through our being. Indeed, love is the experience of our connectedness with one another through the dynamics of Complex Adaptive Systems within the Human Experiential Space.
There are people and influences that try to alter our experiences so the vortex of our identity moves away from its true centre to line up instead with their vortex. Sometimes that is done by subtle persuasion, sometimes by intimidation and outright violence.
The intimidation and violence must be continually reinforced to maintain the vortex of fear. All the old empires from the Babylonians to the British maintained power by terror. The terror could never end because if it did, so did the empire. More modern ‘empires’ have found they can be just as effective by manipulating information instead.
Manipulating other people’s vortex of identity destroys the dynamics of self organisation. Violence cannot work forever. Violence always engenders the desire of the victim to reassert their authority.
Brainwashing can be seen as disturbing the swirling energies that form the vortex and setting up a new attractor as desired by the brainwasher. The flow can be disturbed by slowing it down or speeding it up. We slow the flow by isolating a person and reducing the stimuli that comprise the flow. We increase the flow by bombarding a person with too much information. Once the system collapses, the brainwasher forms a new vortex of their own making to be used to their own ends.
Violence and oppression springs from an attempt to bring unity into our lives. Rather than creating unity by co-operating and adapting to the outside world, violence seeks to force the world to the existing world view, so that the perpetrator’s world becomes the whole world.
In opposing oppression and violence, we must be very careful to avoid falling into the trap of just becoming another influence in the swirling mass, buffeted about by the winds of the vortex, rather than moving to the still centre where we are in fact the most effective. If we oppose violence and oppression the wrong way, we merely exacerbate and prolong it. Anthony Judge (2002) warns of moving from one trap to another. If we have not addressed the key issues that generate our trap or ‘project’, we merely form a new one.
If too many resources are given to agents existing at less than optimal positions on the phase space, the overall fitness of the system falls. Resources will then naturally shift towards those agents who prove themselves to be more effective at maintaining coherence and fitness. In natural systems this expresses itself as natural selection, where the resources tend to be food and water required for survival. Once a particular species or group has come to dominate, its position tends to become canalysed by virtue of their privileged access to the best resources. The fittest dominate the physical environment, whether they are bacteria, baboons or humans.
The very same mechanisms operate in the Human Experiential Space. The fight for natural selection can be the fight for money or information. Those with money and information can similarly dominate human societies and use their resources to maintain their optimal position on the phase space.
This also suggests, as is borne out by history, that an equal sharing of resources is not actually an optimal strategy. The optimal strategy sits an yet another Edge of Chaos.
The same laws of natural selection are operating in regard to identity. Rather than seeking physical resources, the ‘battle’ is to disseminate ideas, concepts, values, beliefs and company products, into the mental world, influencing people to incorporate them into their being.
Having made such generalisations about traditional religious beliefs, we must recognise the fuzzy reality, that there are exceptions. Black and white judgements on traditional religions would miss the tremendous contributions of people like Meister Eckhart, Mother Teresa, St Francis of Assisi and Martin Luther-King Jnr.
In order for people to link to the spiritual essence within, a whole new world view is necessary that encompasses the fuzziness of modern life. Today people are no longer prepared to blindly follow authorities, but need to find their own spiritual values and live their own authority.
AND THE PRINCIPLES OF COMPLEXITY
The dynamics of self organisation in the Human Experiential Space have two components. First is the agents. Agents must be free to act under their own authority. If individuals are unduly influenced, and start to act as one block according to the dictates of an external influence, the dynamics of self organisation breakdown. The attractor shifts from being a strange attractor to a point attractor.
The second component is the connections between the agents. There must be an open flow of information between the agents. Each agent must be willing and able to co-operate with the agents around it. If some of the agents are cut off from others, the dynamics again break down.
By interacting through their connections, the agents influence each other. We have already said that agents must not unduly influence each other. A dynamic balance at the critical Edge of Chaos between the agents and the connections enables the self organising dynamics.
For these dynamics to be effective in the Human Experiential Space each agent requires the skills to act to maintain their authority and work for their own good and the good of the whole. Next the agent requires the resources to act. These resources might be food and water, shelter, transport, emotional support, finance or information.
Education is an important element in developing skills and knowledge. The more information and the better we know how to use that information, the better we can question and restructure information. We then become more effective at expressing our autonomy, which in turn supports the autopoietic process.
The actions and qualities which support the self organisation and optimisation of the Complex Adaptive System of life, support and develop our human identity, our spirituality and define the ethics. These then stand as a framework to allow the full expression of spirit through our being.
As well as undergoing constant change, there is a part of us that does not change. This is our higher self, and what some people will call the still centre. A vortex also has a still centre, right in the middle unaffected by the swirling mass of energy around it. In a cyclone we call it the eye of the storm. If a cyclone passes directly overhead, first the wind increases to a peak blowing in one direction. Then follows the eye of the storm, where all is quiet and calm. Following that the winds begin in the other direction reach a peak and then gradually passing away as the cyclone leaves.To be autonomous means being able to make choices. This means dividing off the phase space and excluding those possibilities that are not chosen. At first glance, this would appear to restrict the possible choices available, but choices available on the phase space were only potential possibilities which only become realisable once they are chosen. The act of choosing also opens new possibilities that were not in existence before the choice. We can see the similarities with the concepts of Quantum Mechanics and the dilemma of Schrödinger’s cat.
A NEW WORLD
Traditional religions have distorted many ethical principles to their own ends. A re-interpretation of those principles reveals that they can be compatible with Complexity dynamics and form a cohesive ethical framework appropriate to the needs of people in this twenty-first century.
Forgiveness (Pettitt, 1993)
Whole of Reality
At the crucifixion, the cloak of Jesus was not a collection of pieces of fabric sewn together, but was a seamless whole. This seamless cloak reflects the truth that through the process of sacrifice, resurrection and transformation we can come to know and be the seamless fabric of the universe.
Living in the
Everything that has happened in our past is certain and cannot be changed. If we place our identity in the past, we live for what was and the present can have no meaning or power.
Similarly, if we place our identity in the future, we live for what will be, for our future achievements, for what people around us will be; then again, the present has no meaning or power.
The present moment is balanced on the Edge of Chaos between the certain past and the uncertain future, not restricted by the past and free to create the future. If we place our consciousness in the past or the future, we place it in the turbulent swirling winds of the vortex, where we are tossed about and have little control over our lives. If, instead, we place ourselves at the still centre of the present moment, there is a calmness we find within ourselves. It doesn’t mean we avoid the difficulties of the world or ignore the past and future, but it does mean we see them from the still point and remain calm. We are actually then at the only place where true change can be made.
the Edge of Chaos
Aspects of Identity
That is not to say that approaches such as cognitive psychological theories, which focuses more on the internal world, or standard System Theory, which focuses more on the external, are without value. We need to embrace what they have of value and integrate that within the wider view.
Similarly, if an approach is centred in only one world view, it will not explain human nature as well as one which is more all embracing.
The nature of the finite world must be linked to the nature of the infinite world since the finite springs from the infinite. For Complexity dynamics to be an integral part of the structure of our finite world, there must an appropriate reflection in the infinite reality. If ‘man’ is the image of God, then God’s qualities must be related to man’s qualities.
Openness and Authority (POA)
Openness allows us to accept other people being different. With openness we embrace and nurture novelty. It requires honesty which builds the trust. An open person is tolerant, patient and sympathetic. Free and unhindered energy flows are possible with openness.
If we are feeling under threat, we are less likely to be open and more likely to maintain a fixed position rather than consider alternatives. Redfield, (1999), suggests that our prime objective should be to act in such a way that we provide any person to whom we relate with the best opportunity to act in the best, most open way. Whatever we can do to allay other people’s fears, build trust, and engender openness, supports the Complex Adaptive processes.
Authority means we retain our personal individuality and creativity. We are not influenced unduly by others and we are able to make our full contribution to the whole. As previously mentioned, being authentic requires skills, knowledge, and resources. Anything that promotes any of these qualities promotes Complex Adaptive development.
Wisdom and Authority
The greatest threat to human evolution, I believe, is our unwillingness to acknowledge our own violence. Until we each acknowledge our vilence, we perpetuate it from generation to generation. We need to transcend the need for violence in our lives, while embracing the realities of the conflict inherent in the very fabric of our universe.
To do this we require the qualities of politeness, openness, compassion, courage, honesty, humility and trust. These will allow us to make the sacrifices and undertake the forgiveness that open us to a new level of being.
We can use the
understandings of Complexity to develop our identity and express our
spirituality in a way that leads us on our great journey to become that
which we already are.
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