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Evolution - Lower and Higher Reprised

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by Sangharakshita

... before crossing that threshold, I want to go a little more deeply into the question of the nature of Evolution, in a more fundamental way. We talk about Evolution - it's a word that we know very well.

There are lots of words we know very well but only too often we use them glibly, we pronounce them glibly. We don't really stop to think what is meant by this word. So what do we mean by Evolution, what is Evolution? Or to put it rather differently, when the lower develops into a higher organism, what happens? You've got your lower organism, a certain time passes, you see it develop into something higher. It seems quite simple, straightforward, but what in fact has happened? Principally, there are two answers to this question: 1. The Mechanist answer3 2. The Vitalist answer.4 1. The mechanist account of evolution would say that all that has happened when a simpler evolves into a more complex organism, is that previously existing elements have simply arranged themselves into a more complex, more complicated pattern. But it would maintain that nothing really new has come into existence: the same old elements are rearranged but in a more complex, more complicated, more elaborate manner. And this explanation of what happens when things evolve would also add that elements arrange themselves in more and more complicated patterns quite fortuitously, just by chance, by accident. So we find that this particular explanation of evolution is sometimes called, in derision by its opponents, the monkey and typewriter theory of evolution. It is said that if you set a monkey (a chimpanzee preferably) banging away at a typewriter, and if you give him enough time, say a few million years or a few hundred million years, he would eventually produce, quite by accident, the collected works of Shakespeare. This is statistically possible, they say. And in the same way, they say that if you have enough atoms, electrons, neutrons and protons, banging around in infinite space and infinite time, they will eventually produce, entirely by chance, entirely by accident, the whole of the phenomena of existence as at present we know them. So this is the mechanist theory, the mechanist explanation or interpretation of evolution.

2. The vitalist answer speaks in terms of the life force. The vitalist explanation would say that the evolutionary process is not the product of chance and accident. It would say that it is guided and directed by an immanent5 principle, a life principle or life force. And according to vitalism this force is trying to attain all the time, through the evolutionary process, a definite goal. So this is the vitalist interpretation or explanation of evolution.

Now neither of these is in fact very satisfactory. The mechanist one is quite unsatisfactory because it entirely overlooks the fact that, at least on the human level, qualities come into existence that the universe did not contain before. With the higher life of man, the higher cultural and spiritual life of man, something new comes into existence, something which cannot possibly be explained in terms of any re-arrangement, however complicated, of previously existing elements.

Vitalism also is not entirely satisfactory as an explanation of evolution. In fact we may say that the life force is a description of what happens rather than an explanation of how it happens. And also we may say that if one accepts the vitalist view, the nature of the goal of the evolutionary process is not very clear. But nevertheless, despite its very definite drawbacks, vitalism as an explanation of the evolutionary process is capable of some enlargement. And this is what we are now going to try to do, to enlarge this vitalist conception until it comes a little nearer to the truth.

Now we have to begin to do this rather radically, not to say dramatically, by taking as it were a great leap. It's what the Shin Buddhists sometimes call the Great Sideways Leap. We have to begin by postulating6 an absolute reality above and beyond the evolutionary process. Which is not matter, not mind as we usually think of mind. We can call this reality absolute mind, universal mind, but it is a mind in which there is no distinction of subject and object, which is just one pure, non-dual, universal, if you like cosmic, awareness which is all-comprehending, transcendental, blissful; which in Buddhist language is void, devoid of separate individuality, etc.; and above and beyond the evolutionary process, transcending it, even at its highest, existing as it were in a different dimension. So we have to begin by positing7 the existence of this absolute reality. And I say positing, not proving, because here no proof is possible; one can't prove the existence of the absolute, you can't prove the existence of universal mind. What one has to go on, and this is very important, is the unanimous, one might even say the unassailable, testimony of the mystics, the inspired seers, the visionaries of all ages, all sects, one may say, even of all religions, who down the ages have testified to the existence, above and beyond the senses, above and beyond the ordinary mind, of this absolute reality, this universal mind, which transcends and also transfigures all that we ordinarily know. And this absolute mind, absolute reality, universal mind is, we may say, that which manifests through the whole evolutionary process. It cannot manifest all at once. If it manifested all at once, it wouldn't be a manifestation. It would be absolute reality itself. So manifestation, by its very definition, of absolute reality is partial manifestation. Absolute reality manifests through the evolutionary process by degrees.

The greater the complexity of the organism through which reality manifests, the more reality is able to manifest through it. At the same time, we may say, it is the presence of this absolute reality behind the evolutionary process which makes it possible for the organism to attain ever higher and higher levels of complexity. Looking at it more broadly, we may say that life in process of evolution is able to manifest new qualities which were not there before, which were unprecedented; because all the time, life is able to draw on the inexhaustible reservoir of absolute reality. Life or evolution is therefore essentially a self-transcending process. What was not there before comes into existence. When circumstances are favourable, the succeeding stage of development is able to transcend the preceding one. And this perpetual self-transcendence is possible because life, the evolutionary process, is itself eternally transcended by the absolute reality upon which it perpetually and everlastingly draws. And if one is asked what is the goal of the evolutionary process, then one can say that the goal is to manifest this absolute reality, this universal mind, more and more fully. Whether a complete manifestation is possible at all, in time, is a question into which we cannot enter now. Indeed it is time that we crossed the threshold, as it were, and came on to the second part of this evening's lecture.

---oOo--- 2. Evolution: Lower and Higher As you already know, we are concerned in this series of lectures with the Higher Evolution of Man.

And Higher, of course, suggests - indeed presupposes - Lower. If there is a higher evolution then there must be or have been a lower evolution. How are we to distinguish between the two? What is the difference ? How are we know this? Now we may say that any evolving phenomenon whatsoever, whether it's an egg or an empire, can be studied in two ways: - in terms of its past and also in terms of its future; - in terms of its origins, where it has come from, and in terms of its destination, where it is heading for; - in more technical or philosophical language, it can be studied either genetically or teleologically.8 Now suppose we take this phenomenon of Man, that is ourselves. Man, as we have already seen, is part and parcel of the evolutionary process, is developing. Suppose we take Man, ourselves, at the best that we generally know him. Sometimes we know Man, unfortunately, whether in ourselves or other people, not at all at his best, very far from his best. But this evening, let us let him off rather lightly, and take him at the best we normally know him: as a self conscious, an aware human being, intelligent, sensitive, balanced, harmoniously developed, responsible and so on. Let us take Man in this sense, or a man of this kind, at the best we normally or usually know him. If we take the phenomenon Man in this way, then we find that we can look at him, to try to understand him, in two ways. We can try to understand Man, that is ourselves: 1. in terms of what he has developed out of, 2. in terms of what he will develop into, in fact what he is already developing into.

It is the first of these that constitutes the Lower Evolution: what Man has developed out of. The second constitutes the Higher Evolution: what Man, we, can develop into. The lower evolution is dealt with by science, especially by the biological sciences; whereas the higher evolution is covered by the more advanced psychology, by the Arts, and by religion in the more spiritual sense of the term; also covered by what John Middleton Murry, for instance, calls the metabiological sciences, those sciences which go beyond the ordinary biological framework. This may sound a little complicated, not very clear. So let us start thinking diagrammatically. I was going to ask you to close your eyes and to imagine a right-angled triangle . But this might be rather difficult for some people to visualise. So I decided that instead of doing this I would get someone to draw a simple chart or diagram on the blackboard. So let's take a look at this. I hope this will make clear the nature of the difference between lower and higher evolution.

If we look at this triangle, ...

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