“Evolution on Purpose”: The Way Forward

Dec 1, 2023 | Uncategorized

The sooner we can unplug mentally and spiritually from the extractive, exploitative world-view that built our toxic civilization – the mindset of the Machine – the sooner we can get busy creating a human-scale, community-focused, nature-based culture that can survive the collapse of the house of credit cards called the global economy. This doesn’t mean giving up our individuality; it means choosing a part to play in the vast and varied movement for evolutionary change that is uniquely ours.

Darwin’s theory of biological evolution has long been twisted into an ideology of human inequality, a justification for the greedy and selfish to declare themselves “the fittest to survive.” But humans evolved culturally as well, and as Darwin himself observed, our species could never have survived if human culture was ruled by unbridled individualism. A new study from the academic field of Cultural Evolution points the way forward by examining our distant past.

“We did not evolve as selfish primates,” says psychologist Steven C. Hayes in the August 2023 issue of the L.A. Progressive. “We evolved as social primates, we reined in selfishness, we fostered community, and we made sure that every voice matters.” Hayes is one of the authors of a report published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in April 2023. “Narcissists are not happy,” he says. “People who lie, cheat, and steal are not happy. There’s a deep-down yearning for love, connection, and belonging that is there at birth.”

This sort of scientific breakthrough is unlikely to yield new technologies to rival the dirty machinery that is powering our collective drive toward catastrophe. But it helps to counterbalance what Lewis Mumford called “the Megamachine” – the mental habit of behaving like a moving part in a social machine instead of a member of a community. “Thriving . . . almost always means collaborating with others,” Hayes goes on. “Why wouldn’t you want to scale that? Why wouldn’t you want a model for how to do that? . . . People with narrow interests have stepped forward and have sold humanity a bill of goods that is false.”

That bill of goods is marketed under the brand-name Individualism(TM), which exalts “me first” over “we’re all in this together,” pitting each of us against the rest in a competition only a few can win – approximately One Percent, it turns out. Lying, cheating, and stealing are against the rules, but the winners routinely win by ignoring the rules. The result is an entire civilization of losers who have lost not only the prize of social dominance but the trust and support of billions of other losers – the original “lose/lose” proposition.

“The Great Turning” Toward Nature & Community

Fortunately, the model Hayes envisions already exists: the tribal societies that co-evolved with the rest of life on Earth, only to be crushed under the wheels of the Machine. Many indigenous nations around the world have not only survived but have rebounded from colonization and near-decimation and are reclaiming their traditional ways, defending their sacred lands and waters, and infusing the environmental movement with a new / old Earth-centric spirituality. At Standing Rock, a Native-led coalition stood up for a sustainable future for us all, and was once again brutally suppressed – but not defeated. The fate of the Dakota Access Pipeline is still uncertain. But the path ahead is beginning to emerge from the mist.

The report’s conclusions boil down to a handy phrase: “evolution on purpose.” That could have been the unofficial motto of the 1960s counterculture, an explosion of social experiments whose unifying thread was a neo-tribal communalism, partly inspired by Native culture and part pure instinct. Despite the commercialization of “cool,” the viral spread of countercultural values has transformed the dominant culture to such an extent that a right-wing backlash against “woke” now threatens to uproot our democracy. Tellingly, one of the tenets of conservative extremism is an outcry against evolution itself.

The blossoming of the counterculture into a culture in its own right has helped to seed a worldwide movement for change that Joanna Macy calls “The Great Turning.” In her book Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re In with Unexpected Resilience & Creative Power, Macy identifies three different ways to contribute, all equally valid. Some people are naturally drawn to defend the Earth and other innocent victims. Some choose to focus on building the practical foundation and infrastructure of the new world we know is possible. And some are inspired to explore and map the new cultural paradigm to inspire us all. Wherever you feel drawn to pitch in, you are making a difference.

Yes! magazine is a great resource for identifying solutions rather than dwelling in perpetual crisis. Another is Kylie Flanagan’s book Climate Resilience: How We Keep Each Other Safe, Care for Our Communities & Fight Back Against Climate Change, a compendium of interviews with 39 climate activists across the U.S. who are organizing their communities in 39 very different ways. Flanagan is a fluent, graceful writer, but the book’s great virtue is that after introducing each activist, she lets them speak for themselves, editing her interviews into pithy monologues in which they describe their backgrounds, motives, and projects they are engaged in. It doesn’t even matter that Flanagan politely excludes straight white males, though presumably at least a few of us are contributing something worthwhile.

Several of the projects she profiles fall into Macy’s first category, resisting the death-spiral: seed-keeping, river restoration, building soil health, blocking fossil fuel development. The majority focus on the second category, building alternatives: community composting, co-ops, local energy systems, urban farming, traditional Native controlled burns, community gathering-spaces, participatory municipal budgeting, cross-movement mobilizing. A few take on Macy’s third category, envisioning the new paradigm: the First Nations “Land Back” movement, establishing legal rights for nature. By the end of the book, I was charged with an exciting sense of how large, diverse, and powerful the movement for change really is.

Working, Eating, and Celebrating in Community

If you’re not sure where to begin, consider starting a book group to read and discuss books like Macy’s and Flanagan’s. But beware: trying to discuss all of them is an effective way to indefinitely procrastinate taking some kind of action. Cultural change does not spring from bound stacks of words, or even the most stimulating discussion; building community requires a level of connection beyond just swapping words. Working together is one way to reach that level, and much urgent work waits to be done, from joining a protest to mobilizing voters to organizing a community garden.

Another often-overlooked ingredient in cooking up community is eating together. A potluck dinner is a nourishing way to start a book discussion or planning meeting. Crowding into someone’s kitchen to cook a meal together is even better, and best of all is to cook with ingredients you grew together in your community garden. A brief interval of silence between cooking and eating – holding hands, if actual physical contact doesn’t freak anyone out – can help build a sense of group unity while respecting divergent beliefs.

A third way to build community is celebrating together. I’m not talking about a party; that usually involves alcohol, which in our addictive culture tends to loosen inhibitions while inhibiting real community. I mean a pause in your progress toward the goal to step back and acknowledge that something deeper is going on than accomplishing a goal. Community is not just a network of relationships between individuals, but a deeper kind of relationship among individuals that weaves a fabric of friends more resilient than any single friendship. It “takes a village” to change the world.

Macy’s book Coming Back to Life: The Updated Guide to ‘The Work that Reconnects’ offers a wealth of helpful suggestions. In keeping with our secular and multipolar society, she calls them “group exercises,” but psychologically they function as rituals. In traditional societies, where everyone shares the same cultural identity, ritual reinforces the unity of the tribe and initiates the next generation into its traditions. For a diverse contemporary group, precisely the opposite applies: a ritual can take almost any form that does not embody a specific spiritual or cultural tradition, inclusive of all while favoring none.

The key here is creativity. All our modern art forms evolved from ancient ritual practices, whose original function was to invoke something called “the sacred.” If that word triggers allergies to organized religion, it’s only a name for the nameless mystery that spawned us eons ago and still sustains us and our children today. What could be more sacred than the Earth and our age-old genetic coding for community? A celebration that unleashes the creative powers of each individual in service to the Whole reminds us that despite all our amazing diversity, this world we share connects us all.

If the difference you are making is too small to see, take a Buddhist approach, detached from expectations and results. No one knows if it is possible to turn humanity back from the brink. All we know is that it’s impossible unless we try. But regardless of what happens to humanity as a whole, by working together in our little corner of the world we are building a human-scale microcosm of the cooperative society we envision. If fossil-fueled transportation grinds or screeches to a halt, that microcosm will become a lifeboat for survival. And if anything can survive economic and ecological collapse, it’s a conscious return to the eternal tribal values of community and Mutual Aid: “evolution on purpose.”

Please add your comment below, and forward this article to anyone who might appreciate it. Thanks & blessings, Wing





Wing’s original stickers, available at

























































































Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *