Adaptability is of central importance to
the evolutionary process. It is through adaptation that organisms are
able to survive in changing environments, become better suited to their
existing environment, or expand into new environments. In general, organisms
that are more adaptable can be expected to be more successful in evolutionary
terms. A major improvement in adaptive ability is a major evolutionary
Humans are the most adaptable organism to
live on this planet. We use our rapidly improving science and technology
to survive and satisfy our adaptive goals in a wide range of environments.
Whatever adaptive problem we put our minds to, we can generally find a
solution. We have proven far more adaptable than organisms that evolve
by gene-based evolution. It took millions of years for genetic evolution
to discover how to produce reptiles that fly, while humans developed the
technology to achieve this in a few thousand years. The massive adaptive
improvements seen in human capacities over recent centuries are significantly
greater than could be achieved by genetic evolution over hundreds of millions
Whatever our wants, whatever our needs, we
are very effective at finding ways to manipulate our environment to achieve
them. But we are very poor at achieving things that we do not want. We
dont use our creativity to find better ways to achieve things we
are not motivated to achieve. In evolutionary terms, this turns out to
be the central limitation in human adaptability.
Typically we do not see this as a limitation.
It does not prevent us from doing anything that we want to do. It does
not stop us from living happy and fulfilled lives. We do not feel restricted
because we have no desire to do what we have no desire to do. If we evaluate
our adaptability by asking whether it enables us to satisfy our needs
and wants, we continue to see ourselves as being highly adaptable.
But if we measure our adaptive ability in
evolutionary terms, we reach a very different conclusion. What if our
continued evolutionary success demands that we adapt in ways that conflict
with the satisfaction of our existing needs and wants? What if our existing
motivations and needs do not produce the behaviours that are best in evolutionary
terms? These sorts of conflicts between our needs and evolutions
needs seem highly likely to emerge during our evolutionary future. It
is improbable that the needs and wants implanted in us by our evolutionary
past will produce the behaviour that is also optimal for our future. This
means that our adaptability is seriously limited in evolutionary terms.
There is an enormous range of behaviours,
life styles and technologies that we would not want given our current
needs and motivations. But these might be critically important for achieving
evolutionary success in the future. We have a very large evolutionary
blind spot. We are not motivated to explore an immense variety of adaptive
possibilities, no matter how useful they may be in evolutionary terms.
Until we overcome this limitation, we will continue to use genetic engineering,
artificial intelligence and other technological advances to satisfy our
past evolutionary needs and conditioning, rather than to achieve future
If we are to be successful in evolutionary
terms in the future, we will need to overcome this adaptive limitation.
We will have to be able to do whatever it takes for future success. Humanity
will need to free itself from the needs and wants installed in us by our
biological and cultural past. For this we will find that we will need
to develop in ways that have traditionally been classified as spiritual.
Humanity will need to widely adopt the practices currently associated
with spiritual development if we are to continue to be successful in evolutionary
To get a better understanding of how human
adaptability would need to change in the future, it is useful to see how
adaptability has improved during the past evolution of life on Earth.
This will enable us to locate the current level of human adaptability
within a long sequence of evolutionary improvements. We will see how our
current level surpassed previous abilities, but how it too is limited.
This will help identify the new capacities we would have to develop if
we are to overcome these limitations. It will point to the new psychological
skills and capacities we need if we are to overcome our current deficiencies.
The evolution of adaptability
There are a number of quite distinct mechanisms
that adapt organisms on our planet. One of the first to emerge was
gene-based natural selection. With this mechanism, organisms produce offspring
that differ genetically from each other and from their parents. The genetic
difference might produce a change within the organism that carries it.
This changed characteristic might in turn make the individual more successful
and have a greater number of surviving offspring. If so, the proportion
of individuals that carry the genetic difference will increase, and the
genetic difference will spread throughout the population. The population
will be better adapted, having acquired an improved characteristic. Gene-based
natural selection discovers adaptations by trying out changes amongst
But gene-based natural selection operates
only across generations. It does not adapt individual organisms during
their life. It is unable to discover new adaptations by trying out changes
within the individual while it lives. Obviously an adaptive mechanism
that could do so would have a significant advantage in evolutionary terms.
It could discover and implement improved adaptations continuously within
individuals, long before genetic evolution was able to do so.
Somewhat ironically, the adaptive arrangements
that operate within organisms during their life were discovered and established
by genetic evolution. Genetic evolution has developed the superior adaptive
mechanisms that have the potential to replace it, at least in humans.
The first adaptive mechanisms established by genetic evolution searched
for better adaptation by trying out changes within the organism, using
trial and error. But how could the organisms systems know whether
a particular change had improved the organisms adaptation? This
was a key challenge for genetic evolutionit had to install the organism
with some way of identifying the internal changes that were beneficial
in evolutionary terms.
This challenge was easier in the case of
changes that produced some immediate improvement in the functioning of
the organism. The efficacy of a change could be judged against its immediate
effects within the organism. For example, changes to the amount of oxygen
delivered to a tissue could be evaluated by their effect on the metabolic
rate in the tissue.
The challenge could not be met so easily
for changes that might produce longer-term evolutionary advantage, without
immediate beneficial effects on the organism. Behaviour that leads to
sexual reproduction provides a clear example. These behaviours have no
immediate pay-off for the organism. They do not improve its functioning,
and may even impede it. How could evolution fit out organisms so that
they implemented behavioural changes that led towards successful reproduction,
and rejected behaviour that did not?
The answer discovered by genetic evolution
was to install organisms with an internal reward system. This system rewards
individuals internally when they try out behaviours that are beneficial
in evolutionary terms, and punishes them when they do otherwise. We experience
these internal rewards as various kinds of attractive feelings, motivations
and emotions. The habits and behaviour patterns that an organism adopts
are those that are positively reinforced by its internal reward system.
Its behaviour and lifestyle is shaped by the goals that are established
by its motivations and emotions.
The internal rewards and punishments act
as proxies for evolutionary success. Genetic evolution tunes the system
of motivations and emotions so that when an organism pursues its internal
rewards, it acts in a way that leads to evolutionary success. An organisms
motivations and emotions guide it to discover and implement adaptations
that are beneficial in evolutionary terms. If circumstances change, and
a particular behaviour is no longer optimal in evolutionary terms, genetic
evolution will modify the internal reward system so that the behaviour
is no longer reinforced. Genetic evolution adapts the internal reward
system so that the organisms goals continue to be aligned with evolutionary
Other important developments in the evolution
of adaptive mechanisms within organisms were learning and imitation. Once
an organism discovered by trial-and-error that a particular change was
useful in particular circumstances, learning enabled it to implement that
adaptive change whenever those circumstances arose again. And imitation
enabled an organism to adopt an adaptive change discovered by another
individual, without having to discover it for itself. Both these improvements
reduced the amount of trial-and-error that organisms had to use to adapt.
But the most significant and far-reaching
advance in adaptability came with the development of a capacity for mental
modelling. This capacity is very familiar to usit is most fully
developed in humans. We use thinking and other mental representations
to model the effects of our behaviour on our environment. So instead of
having to try out alternative actions in practice, humans can use mental
models to predict their effects. We can try out possible adaptations mentally.
This significantly reduces the need for costly trial and error in the
search for adaptive behaviour, and enables us to take account of the (predicted)
future consequences of our actions.
Our ability to test alternative behaviours
mentally is the basis of our capacity to plan ahead, imagine alternatives,
invent and adapt technology, build structures such as houses and roads,
radically modify our external environment for our adaptive goals, establish
long-term objectives, imagine how we might change the world, develop strategic
plans, design projects and undertake activities that pay off only in the
future (such as plant crops and feed animals).
The acquisition of language was a critically
important step forward in our ability to construct mental models. Language
and associated forms of communication enabled humans to share the knowledge
used for building models. Communication enabled all members of a society
to acquire and use the knowledge discovered by any individual. It also
enabled knowledge to be accumulated across the generations. The progressive
accumulation of knowledge has enabled humans to model a greater range
of interactions with our environment, and to predict the consequences
of our actions over wider scales of space and time. This has enabled us
to discover more effective ways of achieving our adaptive goals and obtaining
positive reinforcement from our internal reward systems.
Our ability to construct and manipulate models
has also improved as we have learnt to augment our mental abilities with
external artefacts such as pen and paper, books, recording devices, computers
and other forms of artificial intelligence. Our mental adaptability can
be expected to continue to improve as humanity accumulates more knowledge
about how the external world responds to our interventions and as artificial
intelligence is developed.
The full evolutionary potential of mental
modelling is obvious. Once organisms have accumulated sufficient knowledge,
their modelling will often be superior to the internal reward system at
identifying the adaptations that are best in evolutionary terms. No longer
would the organisms have to be guided towards evolutionary success solely
by a system of motivations and emotions. Instead the organisms could use
mental modelling to identify and implement the actions that would enable
it to survive and flourish into the future.
Mental models have the potential to be far
superior than the internal reward system established by genetic evolution
in the organisms evolutionary past. The motivations and volitions
(moral or otherwise) that were favoured by Darwinian selection in their
evolutionary past are highly unlikely to be optimal for their successful
survival throughout the next million years. And as circumstances change
into the future, the values and motivations that are optimal are likely
to change repeatedly.
But mental modelling is not able to fulfil
its enormous adaptive potential when it first emerges. Initially, it does
not have the capability to take over the adaptation of the organism. It
has not accumulated the detailed knowledge and information needed to predict
the future consequences of a wide range of alternative actions. As a result,
modelling will be less effective than the pre-existing motivation and
reward systems at discovering the best adaptations.
However mental modelling will still provide
immediate advantages. It enables the organism to find better ways of achieving
its internal rewards and motivations. The organism can use mental models
to identify the behaviours that will achieve outcomes that produce desirable
internal states. Initially mental modelling will not establish or change
the adaptive goals of the organismit begins as a servant of the
pre-existing motivation and reward systems.
Limitations of human adaptability
It is easy to locate humanity within this
evolutionary sequence. Humans are not yet organisms that use mental
modelling to adapt in whatever ways are necessary for future evolutionary
success. We are still organisms that spend their lives pursuing proxies
for evolutionary success as ends in themselves. We use our mental modelling
to work out how to achieve the goals set by our internal reward and motivation
systemgoals that we have been fitted out with by natural selection
and that are modified to a limited extent by conditioning during our upbringing.
We use the enormous power of mental modelling to see how we can act on
the world to produce desirable psychological states and avoid unpleasant
ones. For most this means using modelling to pursue sex, wealth, popularity,
satisfying relationships, social status, power, feelings of uniqueness,
and so on. And we spend our lives trying to avoid undesirable psychological
states such as those associated with stress, guilt, depression, loneliness,
hunger, and shame.
But when our evolutionary interests clash
with these motivations and emotional responses, our evolutionary interests
lose out. We have not yet developed a comprehensive capacity to free ourselves
from the dictates of our biological and social past. We cannot adapt or
modify at will our likes and dislikes, our emotional reactions, our motivations,
what it is that gives us pleasure or displeasure, our habits, or our personality
traits (eg we cannot change from extrovert to introvert at will). Few
of us can effortlessly turn the other cheek even when we can
see mentally that it is in our interests to do so. This is the case whether
these predispositions are largely inherited, or the product of individual
experience during our upbringing.
As a result, the evolutionary adaptability
of humanity is seriously limited. We do not use the immense capacity of
mental modelling to pursue evolutionary ends. Adaptations exist that are
superior in evolutionary terms, we can see that they are superior, but
we do not implement them. Instead we spend our lives chasing positive
reinforcement from our internal reward system. If humanity is to realise
the full evolutionary potential of mental modelling, we will have to free
ourselves from our biological and cultural past.
Can humans develop such a psychological capacity?
Or will our ability to adapt be forever constrained by the predispositions
resulting from our evolutionary history? Will we be able to adapt only
in directions currently rewarded by our internal reward system, irrespective
of what is best for our evolutionary future? Or can we develop the capacity
to move at right angles to our history and conditioning, and to adapt
in whatever ways will produce future evolutionary success?
Modern scientific psychology has not yet
developed an understanding of how we can develop a psychological capacity
along these lines. To date it has concentrated on understanding how our
psychology currently operates, and how pathologies can be corrected. It
has little to say about our potential for future psychological development.
But humans have accumulated an extensive
body of knowledge and practice about how we can develop these new psychological
capacities. This knowledge is embodied in religious and spiritual systems.
Although some systems are more explicit about it than others, and some
have a number of other goals for spiritual development, the worlds
major religious systems all advocate the development of an ability to
free oneself from particular emotional responses, desires and motivations.
Furthermore, all systems contain methodologies and practices that can
assist the development of such a capacity.
Despite the fact that religious systems use
widely different terminology to describe their practices and beliefs,
it is possible to identify a broadly common approach to spiritual development.
Most practices are directed at promoting the emergence of a new self that
stands outside the individuals emotional states, thoughts, and sensations.
This new observing self is not bound up in the flow of thoughts and feelings
and sees them as objects of attention. The individual experiences herself
as the new observing self, as separate from her thoughts, feelings and
sensations, and able to treat them as objects that can be managed and
modified. What were once part of the subject are objects in relation
to the new self, and can be managed and controlled by it.
This contrasts with the individuals
experience before a new observing self is developed. Previously the individual
tended to be absorbed in and identified with emotional reactions and thoughts,
was not aware of herself as separate to them, and could not easily choose
whether to be influenced by them. The individual experienced herself as
her motivations and thoughts, and defined herself through them and through
the personality traits and behaviour patterns they entrenched.
The new self is given a wide variety of names
in various religious and philosophical systems, including the silent witness,
the true self, Buddha mind, the Lord, the observer, the soul, atman, the
master, Christ consciousness, the observing I, an emergent
metasystem transition, and the higher self.
Religious systems generally promote the emergence
of the new self through practices that separate the mind into an observing
part and an observed part. The observing part is the precursor to the
new self. These practices typically operate by turning attention and awareness
inwards, and directing it at mental contentsat sensations, emotions,
motivations, mental images and thoughts as they arise in the mind. For
example, many religious systems require adherents to struggle against
the dictates of their lower desires and impulses. Doing so
directs attention inwards, makes these mental states objects of attention
and begins the separation of the mind into an observing part and an observed
part. The waging of an internal war against desires and impulses will
assist the development a new self that stands outside them and is no longer
identified with them.
Other practices also enhance the separation
of the mind into an observing part and an observed part. Meditation typically
involves turning attention inwards and making thoughts and emotional states
objects of attention. Similarly the mindfulness practices of Buddhism
and the self-observation of Gurdjieff promote the development of the
new observing self during ordinary life. These practices focus attention
on the physical sensations, emotions, mental images and thought that arise
as the individual goes about daily activities and interactions. All these
techniques emphasise that self-observation it to be passive and non-judgemental.
This assists in ensuring that the new observing self does not identify
with or become absorbed in mental contents as they arise.
A number of practices help the observing
self to remain separate from mental contents. Some of these operate by
dampening mental activity and reducing the incidence of intense emotional
experiences. This makes it easier for the new self to stand outside the
flow of mental contents without becoming absorbed and identified with
them. Examples include practices that take individuals away from the pressures
of normal life such as retreats, monastic life, asceticism, and pilgrimages.
Many systems have also discovered that meditation is an effective method
of tranquillising mental activity, and that prayer and devotion can have
similar effects. Most systems emphasise that repeated effort and vigilance
is needed to maintain separationthe individual will tend to slip
back into identification with thoughts and emotional states, and will
find it very difficult to stand outside and observe them for extended
These practices also develop the ability
of the individual to dispose attention wilfully and to break the control
of attention by emotional states. Devotional practices also enhance this
abilitythey require the individual to continually bring attention
back to the object of devotion and away from distractions.
The new self that can be developed as a result
of these practices is relatively free of the adaptive goals of the internal
reward system. Once the emerging new self can remain functionally separate
from motivations and emotional impulses, it can decide whether or not
to be influenced by them. Instead of going with these impulses
as they arise, it can decide not to act on them. This functional separation
also enables the new self to control the disposition of attention. The
new self can direct attention and energy only at activities that serve
the aims of the self.
As the observing self accumulates knowledge
about the operation of the motivational and emotional system, it improves
its capacity to manage them. The individual learns how to modify the goals
of her internal reward system, and is then able to align them with goals
and objectives of her choosing. As a result, the individual can find motivation
and emotional satisfaction in whatever activities serve her goals and
objectives. For example, if an individual chooses to pursue evolutionary
success as her ultimate goal, she will be able to align her internal reward
system with evolutionary goals.
The metaphor of a carriage (or chariot) drawn
by horses has been used by a number of religious and philosophical systems
to represent the psychology of a person who has developed these capacities.
Generally the driver is the intellect, the horses the emotions, the carriage
the body, and the master in the carriage (or lord of the chariot) is the
new self. The master coordinates the actions of the various components
so that they cooperate together to serve the objectives and goals set
by the master. Importantly, this metaphor emphasises that the new self
does not repress, override, or take over the functions of the emotions
and the body. A competent higher self, like a competent manager of a modern
corporation, or like the conductor of an orchestra, works with and makes
best use of the special abilities of the elements it manages.
Why have religions developed this extensive
body of knowledge and practice about freeing humans from the requirements
of their motivational and emotional systems? A key reason is that religions
generally promote adherence to ethical systems that conflict with the
dictates of our internal reward system. Religions have learnt that it
takes much more than an intellectual commitment to an ethical system before
an individual is able to implement it. Reason does not control the passions
until the individual has developed a new psychological structure that
has the capacity to manage the individuals internal reward system.
Another reason for religions deep interest
in this area is the intuition that only a self that has transcended emotional
impulses could conceivably live beyond the body. A self that is bound
up in bodily desires and emotional responses will surely die when the
body that gave rise to them dies. A number of religious traditions that
take this position also believe that the end point of spiritual development
is the fusion of this transcendent self with the absolute (eg God).
Of course, the great majority of the members
of religions do not develop a higher self. Most do not adopt in full the
practices prescribed by their religion, and few understand the practices
and beliefs in the terms described here. Very few Christians develop the
capacity to effortlessly turn the other cheek in the full sense of that
metaphor. If the practices of spiritual development are to succeed in
transforming the psychology of humanity in general, they will need to
be enhanced and developed. This is most likely to be achieved if the practices
are investigated by modern scientific psychology, and eventually integrated
into it. If spiritual practices are subjected to the sceptical scrutiny
and rigorous testing of modern science, the practices and beliefs that
are grounded in fact could be separated from those that are embedded in
supposition and baseless mysticism. And the powerful techniques and extensive
resources of modern science could be used to discover new and better practices.
This process would continue the progressive expansion of science into
new domains that has taken place throughout its relatively young history.
Science has grown by incorporating and developing bodies of knowledge
that were initially unsystematic and riddled with contradictions and folk
Until we humans develop the capacity to free
ourselves from our biological and cultural past, our evolutionary adaptability
will be seriously constrained. We will not use the enormous potential
of mental modelling to identify and implement the actions that will contribute
most to the evolutionary success of humanity. Instead of using our technological
advances and economic resources for evolutionary goals, we will continue
to use them only to serve the needs and wants established by our evolutionary
past and conditioning. Humanity will continue to spend its time on this
planet masturbating stone age desires, going nowhere in evolutionary terms.
Alternatively we could massively enhance
our evolutionary adaptability by freeing ourselves from the dictates of
our biological and cultural past. We could develop the ability to align
our internal reward and motivation system with evolutionary goals. This
would enable us to find satisfaction and motivation in whatever adaptations
serve these goals. With this capacity we could choose to implement whatever
actions would advance the evolutionary success of humanity, and would
find satisfaction and motivation in doing so. This would enable us to
use the immense power of mental modelling to pursue evolutionary goals,
rather than continue to blindly pursue outdated and inaccurate proxies
for evolutionary success as ends in themselves.
If we make this transition, humans would
become self-evolving beings, able to adapt in whatever directions are
necessary for future evolutionary success, relatively unfettered by our
biological past or by our previous life experiences. As we move out into
the solar system, the galaxy and the universe, we would be able to change
our adaptive goals and behaviour in whatever ways were demanded by the
challenges we meet. We would be able to continually recreate ourselves,
to change human nature at will, to repeatedly sacrifice what we are for
what we can become, to continually die and be born again.
 For a more detailed discussion of the
evolution of these mechanisms see Dennett, D. C. (1995), Darwins
Dangerous Idea (New York: Simon and Schuster).
 The evolutionary significance of mental
modelling was first clearly recognised by Popper, K. R. (1972), Objective
knowledge - an evolutionary approach (Oxford: Clarendon).
 For a fuller discussion see Stewart,
J. E. (2000), Evolutions Arrow (Rivett: Chapman Press) [online at
 For more on the relationship between
the new self and mental contents, see Nicol, M. (1980b), The Four
Bodies of man, in Psychological Commentaries on the Teachings of
Gurdjieff and Ouspensky (London: Watkins) 1, pp. 218-35.
 This point is made very well by Keegan,
R. (1994), In over our heads the mental demands of modern life
(Cambridge: Harvard University Press).
 See Heylighen, F. (1991), Cognitive
Levels of Evolution: from pre-rational to meta-rational, in The
Cybernetics of Complex Systems Self-organisation, Evolution and
Social Change, F. Geyer Ed., (Salinas, California: Intersystems) pp.75-91.
 For example, see Goleman, D. (1988),
The meditative mind the varieties of meditative experience (New
York: G. P. Putnams Sons).
 For more on self-observation see Nicol,
M. (1980c), Commentary on Self-Observation and Is,
in Psychological Commentaries on the Teachings of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky
(London: Watkins) 1, pp. 302-17.
 This notion is developed in greater detail
in Stewart, J. E. (2001), Future psychological evolution,
Dynamical Psychology [online at http://www.goertzel.org/dynapsyc/ ].
 For example, see the Katha Upanishad,
Platos Phaedrus, and Gurdjieffs Beelzebubs tales to