Impact of Human Consciousness on Evolution

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"if applied evolutionary science is possible, it means that evolution itself can indeed be deliberate, intentional, purposeful, calculated, planned, and volitional."

Steven C. Hayes:

* Impact of Human Consciousness on Evolution

Symbolic learning is another step forward in the evolution of consciousness because with this repertoire of relational responding we can respond to the past as the symbolically constructed future in the present. Only a rather small set of cognitive relations are needed to solve problems through symbolic reasoning: names of events and their features, if → then relations, and comparisons. Stated more simply, human verbal problem solving involves an "if/then/better" relational network that alters present action so as to coordinate with the verbally constructed future. Responding of this kind is not only conscious, it allows symbolically intentional behavior.

The two-way street of human cognition transforms the present based on cognitive networks about the future. The evolving future that is presented symbolically in present moments via human language can alter the impact of the environment. Nelson Mandela can treat a prison guard kindly, for example, because that action brings a just world a little bit closer, even if the guard is a source of deprivation.

Said in another way, human cognition can change the "selection criteria" for human behavioral and cultural evolution. Genetic evolution depends on life and death. Human behavioral evolution does not remove that truth but supplements it with cognitively available meaning and purpose.

When people consider their future and apply evolutionary scientific concepts to actions and policy choices to alter that future, the world is consciously evolving. I believe that is a factual statement, but it is also pragmatically and politically useful to say that evolution can be conscious in that way because it provides a use for evolutionary science that will alter the receptivity of the public to this entire area of science.

Only a minority of the US population believes that human beings are as they are due to natural processes of evolution. I can’t help but think that is in part because evolution has not yet been shown to matter to the average Joanne or Joe. For that to change, evolutionists themselves need to show that they can solve problems of human concern. But for applied evolutionary science to emerge as a field, it is necessary to step up to the idea that evolution can be conscious, and then to spend much more time on the role of human behavior in evolving the future. The culture at large will not attend to evolution in a major way, in my opinion, until it is clear that humanity has the capacity to evolve on purpose, culturally and within a lifetime.

Evolution begins with processes of blind variation and selective retention, but it does not stay there for the simple reason that evolvability itself evolves.14 The phrase "survival of the most evolvable" is far truer to the whole of evolutionary data than the hoary phrase "survival of the fittest." Symbolic learning is key to human consciousness, but human consciousness can comprehend and consciously apply multi-level and multi-dimensional evolutionary models to the accomplishment of human purposes.

Behavioral variation and selection within the lifetime of individuals is not merely an expression of genes and cultural practices. Learning is a legitimate evolutionary dimension that impacts on other evolutionary dimensions at other levels and time frames. Symbolic processes led to the principles of evolutionary science itself—variations within the relational networks of particular people were expressed and selected by accomplishment of their scientific purposes individually and culturally. If these principles then lead human beings to change their behavior in order to achieve better outcomes, and if the success of these actions maintain them—as would be the case with any successful application of evolutionary science that was sustained because of its utility —it seems impossible to avoid the conclusion that evolution can be conscious.

Applied evolutionary science is not just the passive beneficiary of scientific understanding—it is the very field in which an extended evolutionary synthesis will be fostered. We can think of applied evolutionary science as a type of fieldwork in the evolution of human behavior. No amount of laboratory knowledge is enough to be certain that the action of an organism is understood—but if this knowledge is applied in the actual environment in which the behavior occurs and predictable changes occur, the validity and utility of evolutionary science expands.

When we have created a robust field of applied evolutionary science, evolutionary science will be relevant to the world in a way that it is not now. And if applied evolutionary science is possible, it means that evolution itself can indeed be deliberate, intentional, purposeful, calculated, planned, and volitional. These are all merely terms for actions that are regulated by the "if / then / better" symbolic formations of human beings. Evolutionary principles can be applied to and contained by these formulations themselves.

We have evolutionary accounts of consciousness—now we need evolutionists to apply those accounts to their own assumptions, theories, and purposes. Understanding the evolution of consciousness provides the scaffolding for evolutionary science itself to consciously evolve, and to help human individuals and groups do so as well."