Read the headlines or watch the news and you're sure to get depressed. The world is falling apart. Anger, violence, and mayhem seem the norm everywhere. And the abuse of our fragile home -- planet earth -- is clearly on an unrelenting path of self-destruction.
But is this a true picture of the state of the world or a reflection of the media's entrenched dictum for reporting: "If it bleeds it leads"?
A more hopeful landscape was portrayed by former Vice President Al Gore at the "Ecology, Economy, and Ethics" Conference at New York City's Union Theological Seminary on September 16th. In contrast to the gloom and doom scenarios, Gore and others reported on significant progress in addressing climate change by individuals, governments, and corporations. While we have a long way to go to slow the progress of impending climate-related disasters, a rising global consciousness suggests that we may ultimately meet the challenge.
In listening to, and in conversation with Al Gore, I was impressed by his passion for awakening the world to the threat of climate change. He continues to work tirelessly with world leaders, business executives, and policy makers. He also gives seminars in many countries for climate-change advocates and activists. No group of interested advocates (or deniers) is too small for Al Gore to show up.
Even more encouraging, at the recent Clinton Global Initiative held at the Sheraton Hotel in N.Y.C. (September 26-29), I heard presentation after presentation by individuals and groups from around the globe giving selflessly and enthusiastically to projects and businesses they have initiated to address poverty, disease, education, climate change, and more -- programs that are uplifting the lives of millions of people, often in some of the remotest and forgotten places.
But still, what about the other side of the coin? Has evolution failed us in favoring destructive tendencies, or not advancing fast enough to create a truly civilized species?
In his book Does Altruism Exist, evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson has good news. As with all aspects of evolution, time is crucial. And Wilson sees a positive trajectory of evolution that favors altruistic social groups over destructive ones. While natural selection favors survival of the fittest for individuals, on a group level natural selection favors processes that altruistically serve groups or the whole of society, according to Wilson. His insights give hope that societies, despite destructive manifestations, are moving decisively toward global harmony and oneness. At the same time he is not blind to the obstacles that stand in the way of meaningful progress.
A recent article embraced Wilson's optimism. The authors pointed to the principle of altruism evidenced in an action program for planetary harmony that transcends religious, ethnic, and ideological differences and embraces the sacred principle of oneness. They noted, as well, that the United Nations' millennium goals embrace similar principles of harmony.
The Sustainable Development Agenda adopted by the United Nations is in tune with Pope Francis' recent Encyclical Laudato Si'-- as is the Parliament of the World's Religions conference in Salt Lake City this week (Oct. 15-19), which will feature dozens of sessions on the role of world religions in addressing the issues of sustainability and our planet's fragile health.
I asked authors Rick Clugston, Herman Greene, and Kurt Johnson to elaborate on their thinking about the prospects for altruism and oneness ascending in global consciousness. Here is their thoughtful communication:
"We last wrote about David Sloan Wilson's argument in Does Altruism Exist? that at the group level evolution selects structures and processes that serve the well-being of the whole. He expands on the premise that "selfishness beats altruism within groups, but altruistic groups beat selfish groups." He gives attention to groups that functionally become higher level organisms. For example, bee colonies operate as super-organisms and have achieved biological success in this way.
Wilson observes that major evolutionary shifts, such as from bacterial (prokaryotic) cells to nucleated (eukaryotic) cells occur rarely. The emergence of human beings was one of those shifts, one in which values and culture became determining modes of behavior and evolutionary success. For example tribes that prized valor, courage and self-sacrifice triumphed over tribes with lower levels of social values. He changed the definition of altruism from a focus on other-oriented motives to a focus on functional group behaviors. Altruism understood this way is a key aspect of human group fitness.
For humans today survival or flourishing as individuals is dependent on group flourishing. Our individual fates depend on group fitness, and not simply group fitness in a tribal sense but group fitness on a global scale in interaction with all other life and life systems. Given this, it's not surprising that Wilson ends his book with a chapter on planetary altruism.