Friday, May 30, 2008

Context as a focus for evolutionary interventions

Peggy Holman and I have been exploring the idea that evolution is driven by the interactions of diverse entities in nurturing and challenging contexts. The focus on contexts opens an interesting inquiry: What are influence-able contexts which we can address in ways that may help catalyze positive social evolution? Here are some possible answers:
  • awareness of our roles in systems, inspiring system-conscious behavior
  • legislative / legal constraints and channels for behavior
  • conformity dynamics: social status / taboos / rewards / fashion systems
  • power dynamics
  • location, location, location
  • cultural practices and habits
  • aesthetic space, hospitable environment, beauty that speaks to the heart -- or lack of it
  • support / challenge programs; self-help, mutual-aid, and answerability systems
  • cultural narratives which shape and motivate what is possible, real, good
  • conversations through which the past, present, and/or future are co-created
  • journalism and non-fiction which increase our understanding of the real world and our relationship to it, and engage us (or not)
  • structures -- physical, process, institutional, bureaucracy, etc. -- i.e., what we have to work within and through in order to live, work, move, accomplish, etc.
  • economic factors -- incentives, availability, convenience, cost, pattern of needs met or not met, etc.
  • leadership -- visionary, participatory, wise, etc.
  • meaning -- language / metaphors / memes / perspectives / worldviews / assumptions that enable, shape, expand, contract, or impede our thinking about certain things
  • technologies -- telecom, digital, sustainable, social, etc.; the availability of certain tools
  • hearing, seeing, loving; respect, honoring, appreciation; permissional and dissonance-handling systems (using story, questions, reflection) which make it safe for people to be and to transform
  • locality and distance (localness often helps tighten up important feedback loops)
  • temporal contexts -- pace: slowness and speed, time or lack of time
  • questions and inquiries -- strategic questioning, curiosity, etc.
  • existence of and experience with alternatives to the status quo (e.g., Fran Peavey in India invited people from all castes and genders to her going-away party in a small space so they had to be close to each other, and told a story of MLK being inspired by Gandhi, contradicting cultural imperialism -- and they all sang We Shall Overcome)
  • community, companions, colleagues, friends, networks
  • organizational forms -- hierarchies, flat, networks, etc.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Systems Thinking and the Dalai Lama

Quotes from the Dalai Lama

I feel the individual, oneself, is of course, very important. So, taking care of oneself or looking out for oneself is very justified. But if you look deeper, then one individual no matter how able or strong a person, without society, he or she cannot manage, cannot survive. That’s clear. That’s a reality...In modern times, ...individual futures very much depend on unknown other people, other continents. That’s reality. So therefore, just for one’s own interests you have to take [into consideration] others’ welfare, others’ well-being... Change or events in the outside world eventually affect us.

I believe every human profession or human activity is actually meant for human beings, meant for humanity. Human actions are for human beings—particularly in today’s world. I think in the past, maybe, different sectors carried on work more or less independently. Now today...everything is interdependent, interrelated. That’s the reality. Under these circumstances, it falls on us to work together.

The Dalai Lama -- like many other Buddhists -- is very aware of interconnectedness, interdependence, even "inter-being" (as Joanna Macy puts it).

But that, as important as it is, is not systems thinking. Systems thinking involves the NATURE and STRUCTURE of that interdependence, that interactivity, those relationships -- especially the habitual forms that are used in the exercise of power, or in feedback dynamics, or experienced as reality -- "the way things are" -- and that are maintained by the system as part of its identity. And systems thinking involves more -- including examining widely held built-in assumptions, stories, worldviews and success criteria, and noting where the system is most open or resistant to change, etc.

I see only the most rudimentary understanding of and attention to all this in what I've read so far about or by the Dalai Lama. But I sense a hook or bridge in the fact that systems thinking and systems interventions can be framed as what compassion looks like in our era when human or human-distorted systems are what cause most suffering. There is definitely a hot opportunity for the emergence of systems-conscious Buddhism. And the meta-project of awakening systems. Not only is the next Buddha a collective, but the next enlightenment is collective IN ITS VERY ESSENCE (i.e., not just an accumulation of enlightened beings, but an enlightenment of collectiveness, itself).

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Bigger ways of seeing

I'm fascinated with the idea that society collectively "sees" through
* statistics (like Gore used in "An Inconvenient Truth"),
* stories (like the Story of Stuff,
* images (like earth from space),
* computer models (like climate change), etc.,
through which the larger phenomena of life -- especially of human
impacts -- can be drawn into the consciousness of a (hopefully large)
number of individuals.

Many of these, like Chris Jordan's consumer society art and now "water footprints"

help us sense our personal or group role in vast systems whose
complexity hides that role from our otherwise ancient cognitive
systems designed to directly perceive and respond to the here-and-now.

This is a hot point of intervention for waking up our social systems
into active consciousness and response-ability, and thus for
conscious evolution.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Beyond Competition and Cooperation - Winter CSA!


One of the most common phenomena in nature is the (co)evolution into
a new niche, a new micro-environment for a particular life form. In
any given instance, niche-creation may arise from competition (the
organism gets squeezed out of its familiar niche by a more successful
organism into a new microenvironment, into which it then evolves or
modifies to fit better) or cooperation (an organism forms a new
symbiotic relationship with another organism, such as birds which eat
food from the teeth of large mammals, whose mouths become a new
niche). But actual evolution into -- and functioning and persisting
in -- a new niche is intrinsically neither cooperative or
competitive. It is a unique form of organism/environment interaction
distinct from both. I have a feeling it is one of a broader spectrum
of interactions beyond competition and cooperation which have been
overshadowed by human obsessions with (and debate about) competition
vs cooperation in nature.

I was drawn into looking at this evolutionary dynamic by a conscious
application of it shared with me by my daughter Jennifer. Community
supported agriculture
(CSA) involves community members buying shares
of a farm's crops for a season and then being provided with their
portion of the harvest during that season. Jennifer is joining both
a summer CSA and a winter CSA -- in Vermont. Given that Vermont is
frozen pretty thoroughly in the winter, I asked her what a winter CSA
was. She said it was a farm that grew food in the summer and then
canned and otherwise preserved it and offered it to the community in
the winter. Members could participate in the canning and preserving.
Jennifer said that the woman who owned the farm and created this idea
did so because the farm next to her had a summer CSA and she didn't
want to compete with it, undermining it. She therefore created a
totally new niche, the winter CSA.

Jennifer also notes that this manifests in individual social life as
"finding your own place."

I see this as a manifestation of the evolutionary dynamic identified
by John Stewart and promoted by Michael Dowd, in which entities find
(or are given) ways to pursue their self-interest that support the
well-being of the larger whole they are part of. In Jennifer's
story, the conscious, value-based niche-creating farm supported its
own well-being not by competing with its neighbor farm but by
providing an additional local food source for the whole community
where none had existed before.

What is the name for this dynamic? Will "niche-creation" do?
Without a name for it, we are left with only the language of
competition and cooperation. With a name, we can consciously learn
about it, reflect on it, share it, and use it for the betterment of
society and life.

Clearly there is more going on in evolution than merely cooperation
and competition.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Personalities rampant in "species"

I always thought of a species as one kind of thing, pretty homogenous. David Sloan Wilson in Evolution for Everyone introduced me to a very different and provocative vision.
"The conventional idea of a single species as a relatively uniform entity occupying a single niche has yielded to a much richer notion of a single species as a community of individuals employing different strategies to survive and reproduce.... [manifesting] individual differences that we recognize with the vaguely defined term 'personality.'" pp 107-108.

He gives many examples, including a fascinating one on p. 104 where one species of fish in one lake occupied different niches and were adapted to their different environments -- to such an extent that their bodies looked and acted significantly differently. I didn't know that was possible, outside of us and other mammals, at least....

Saturday, August 4, 2007

"Getting out in nature" continues the illusion

Yesterday I missed doing my blog. I was moving a bit further "into nature" -- "out in the country," as they say -- for a few days. In this primitive setting I have only dial-up, not wireless. And the tap water tastes fabulous. "Out in nature." Such an interesting concept. Such an illusory distinction...

I decided to develop some thoughts I was toying with last week.

  • Play arises from and serves survival (as practice for adult behaviors), but we can and do use it for so much more.
  • Sex arises from and serves reproduction, but we can and do engage in it for so many other purposes.
  • Intelligence and imagination arise from and serve survival, but we can and do use them for so much more -- often for things that don't enhance our survival at all..
  • Intention arises from and serves survival, but we can and do use it for things that don't enhance our survival, or even endanger it.
  • This list could go on.

The fact that some capacity or tendency arose out of and serves the evolutionary dynamics of "survive and reproduce" does not mean that that capacity or tendency will only be used to serve such "positive" evolutionary dynamics. It can be used in ways that have little to do with evolution -- or that lead to degradation, death, or extinction -- "negative" phenomena that have their own evolutionary significance.

Free will arose progressively from and has served our survival, individually and collectively. But we are using it in ways that make us look more and more unnatural, as if we are separate from nature. This is an illusion. We never left the Garden, no matter how much we pave it over and lace it with chemicals. We are not separate from nature, no matter how we try to free ourselves from its balancing feedback loops -- with medicine, with shelter, with levies, with manipulative technologies -- stretching our human systems increasingly out of that natural balance -- a balance which WILL snap back.

How hard it snaps will depend largely on how soon and in what ways we decide to attend to and align with the evolutionary dynamics of survival and the natural feedback loops of balance. It seems to me that our learning to do that very consciously -- as whole societies -- is at the heart of our next evolutionary leap. Through the creation of consciousness, cultures and institutions that align us with the realities of nature, we can begin a whole new evolutionary ballgame. Without that creation we will arrive at an evolutionary dead-end, and turn over the game to some new players.

Only with our departure as a species -- extinction -- would we actually be "outside of nature." May we wake up to that.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Notes on the evolution of responsiveness and free will

Obviously -- by definition -- organisms that can respond (to environmental conditions) in ways that enhance their survival and thrival will survive, reproduce, and be selected FOR through the process of natural selection. So, over the eons, we tend to see more entities that have increasingly sophisticated systems of response.

Responsiveness tends to include different forms of
  • awareness, perception, intelligence, etc. (including increasing diversity, clarity, and interconnectedness of various forms of information available to the entity)
  • will, intention, choicefulness, option-creation, initiative
  • agency, action, impact, technique/technology

So what I'm calling "responsiveness" is a whole line of evolutionary development that we could explore -- i.e., What manifestations of responsiveness show up in unicellular, multi-cellular, mammalian, human, and cultural entities and interactions (and so forth)?

Looking at this more closely, we see that the VARIABILITY of environmental conditions -- different weather, changing predators, loss of food or habitats, etc. -- selects FOR variability of responsiveness. The more flexible certain organisms or populations are in the face of changing conditions, the more likely they are to survive and thrive.

So we can hypothesize that the variability of environmental conditions stimulates a progressive development of choicefulness, freedom, and flexibility in organisms, populations and species, over time. To roughly outline this:
  • Some entities evolve single-option stimulus-response mechanisms that we associate with "instinct".
  • Some entities evolve a genetic "Plans A, B, and C" repertoire of "if-then" responses, depending on their current situation or the conditions of their early development (reptilian fight or flight, beetle aggressiveness or deviousness, rabbit long or short hair depending on temperature).
  • Some groups of entities evolve many variations within their species so that some of those variants will survive no matter what conditions develop (within limits!).
  • Some entities and groups evolve ways to evaluate their circumstances and actually create new options for response. We see in human society -- at least in the case of certain groups and organizations -- an evolution towards increasing capacity to understand, innovate and change ideas, attitudes, and behaviors in increasingly complex, novel situations.

Intriguingly (paradoxically?), all this is developing within a largely causal universe, constrained by the many physical laws that have led some philosophers to postulate a "deterministic" universe -- a universe in which everything is pre-ordained because it was caused by things that had causes, etc., so what happens is the only thing that could have.

Other philosophers, noting the sense of choicefulness I have described above, have postulated a universe in which "free will" exists. Naturally, the two sides argue over whose view is right or if the two views can co-exist (see for example, this wikipedia entry).

Not being an academic philosopher, I am not sure how this will affect the debate about free will and determinism in philosophy, but it seems to me that we could generalize that a largely deterministic universe has given rise to an increasing measure of free will AS AN EMERGENT PHENOMENON. In other words, thanks to the deterministic laws of Darwinian evolution noted above, Life is coming up with increasingly complex and intriguing ways that organisms and groups can exercise choice in their activities.

In short, might we say that the universe is determined to have free will?

As CONSCIOUS knowing, CONSCIOUS identity, CONSCIOUS choicefulness, CONSCIOUS agency, and CONSCIOUS interdependence (social interactivity) emerge and intertwine, we begin to develop that level of responsiveness that we call RESPONSIBILITY. Responsibility is conscious agency. Responsibility is knowing and owning that
  • we did / didn't / could have done things
  • we are / aren't / could be doing things
  • we will / won't / could do things

At early stages "responsibility" is mostly tied to social networks of expectation, often linked to guilt, shame, regret, punishment, etc., as well as pride, status, rewards, etc. As a person individuates (matures into a more whole human being), "responsibility" begins to mean something more like "ability to respond" and has an empowering "I do, can, and will make a difference" flavor to it. To "take responsibility" for a past act includes learning from mistakes, failures, and successes, in ways that enhance performance in the future.

To the extent this kind of responsibility is accompanied by highly developed forms of awareness and creativity -- all manifesting at individual and collective levels -- it is on the leading edge of the evolution of "responsiveness".

Thanks to John Abbe for the conversation from which all this emerged.