What’s at the Top of the Tree?

The idea of evolution is implicit in religion. If there were no progress, there would be no point. In the Judeo-Christian tradition this is expressed in terms of our personal and collective relationship with God. Spiritual progress is defined by our increasing proximity to God. Spiritual regress is of course the opposite. We made a deal with God, back in the mists of time, a covenant. If we obey God’s laws and listen to his prophets, if we do our best to be a godly people and live godly lives, then things will go well for us. If not, not.

Evolution is at the heart of contemporary New Age thinking. The Potential Movement, Transpersonal Psychology and Positive Psychology are all about fulfilling our human spiritual potential by evolving. Ken Wilber’s classic door stopper, Sex, Ecology, Spirituality was subtitled The Spirit of Evolution for a reason. My personal favourite in the meta-narrative genre is Andrew Smith’s The Dimensions of Experience, subtitled A Natural History of Consciousness. This is an explicitly panpychist thesis, painstakingly tracing the evolution of consciousness through the three great domains of matter, life and mind (and beyond).

Then there’s the soporific Conscious Evolution: Awakening the Power of Our Social Potential by Barbara Marx Hubbard and the worthy The New Cosmic Story: Inside Our Awakening Universe by John Haught. Haught is writing from a Christian perspective, though in a different vein to Teilhard de Chardin. However, it is Indian religion and philosophy which truly excels at evolutionary spirituality, most impressively in Sri Aurobindo’s classic, The Life Divine.

According to these religious narratives, it is the mystics who are sitting at the top of the evolutionary tree. You might call them Buddhas, Enlightened Ones, Saints, Ascended Masters. They’re basically mystics. They have realized the mystery of existence. But in the secular world, there are other things at the top of the tree.

Following Charles Darwin, who naturalized the idea of evolution with his theory of natural selection, secular humanists dreamed of other futures. The underlying concept, popularized as “the survival of the fittest”, appeared to justify the rule of the strong over the weak as “natural”. This led to Social Darwinism, the idea that societies could and should be organised along strictly Darwinian lines. The logical outcome of this was the Eugenics Movement, which believed that only the “fittest” human beings should reproduce, in order to ensure the healthy future evolution of the species.

George Bernard Shaw was famously a eugenics enthusiast, as was Adolf Hitler. The dream of a brighter, healthier future purged of cripples and dimwits cut across all party lines. The great German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche provided intellectual weight to the idea of a future Superman and Master Race. In his Genealogy of Morals he argued against the perverse Christian doctrine of looking after the poor and the infirm and for a return to the steely virility of the pre-Christian pagans, the Greeks, the Spartans, the Romans, and the Saxons and Teutons, the “blond beasts”. The Christians had turned the Western world into a smelly sanitorium, a culture enfeebled by the care of the feeble, when it should be a bracing battle field, strengthened by the death of the feeble and the survival of the fittest.

Nietzsche was a subtle and brilliant thinker. I feel bad caricaturing him like this. But he undeniably expressed this fascistic idea more forcefully than anyone. What is “the Will to Power” but exactly what it says on the tin? What is “Bad Faith” but a pathetic, pusillanimous, emasculated Christian response to the Will to Power?

There seems to be something of a revival of this way of thinking. The popularity of Ayn Rand, particularly in the United States is testament to the fact. Many self-proclaimed Objectivists or Libertarians are basically advocating for “the survival of the fittest”. Take away all the irritating and enervating restraints on individual freedoms imposed by an over-protective nanny state and let natural selection run its course. And let the devil take the hindmost.

This is why Libertarians are the enemies of Liberals. Liberals took a different path from Darwin. But before we get to the Liberals, let’s have a closer look at the Communists. Lenin and his acolytes were devotees of Karl Marx. Karl Marx was heavily influenced by Georg Hegel. Hegel’s great masterpiece, The Phenomenology of the Spirit, is basically an account of human history as the expression of deeper evolutionary currents, which he associated with Geist (Spirit).

New Age thinkers like Ken Wilber like this idea because it maps onto their conception of a spiritual undercurrent to history. This is also why Nietzsche remains so popular (apart from his eloquent Christian baiting). Zarathustra is an ambiguous figure who is both iconoclastic and mystical, and who can be equally appropriated by Nazis and hippies.

However, take away the religious overtones, and you are left with a stark choice: “Left Hegelianism” or “Right Hegelianism”. Marx was a Left Hegelian. For Marx, the underlying current of human history was leading inexorably to a classless society. His analysis of Dialectic Materialism suggested that through progressive struggles and revolutions and Class War (the perennial struggle over resources and means of production between the Haves and Have Nots), the workers, the Proletariat, would emerge victorious and usher in a Communist Utopia, where all private property would be abolished and all things shared in common in a great Brotherhood of Man.

In Marx’s reading, it wasn’t a Superman sitting at the top of the evolutionary tree, it was a Superstate. Instead of power being concentrated in the Powerful, power would be concentrated in one centralised, bureaucratic state, which would be “owned” by everyone. No-one would have any power at all, because the state would have a monopoly of power. Ergo, everyone would be equally free and happy (or rather, equally unfree and unhappy).

For the “Right Hegelians”, Darwinism implied the survival of the fittest in the Great Game, where power and resources were distributed naturally according to the laws of the jungle. For the “Left Hegelians”, it implied the ultimate concentration and therefore perfect distribution of power through the absorption of the individual into the collective. Surely this was the most highly evolved social organisation imaginable? For termites maybe.

Anyway, back to the Liberals. The absolute value for Liberals is tolerance. Everyone should be tolerated. Everyone should be free to do whatever they like. Without God, everything is permitted. In this, they are arm in arm with the Libertarians. However, as soon as people are free to do whatever they like, they can’t help stepping on each other’s toes. It doesn’t help much to say “you are free to do whatever you like as long as it doesn’t impinge on anyone else’s freedom” because it’s not just about the odd isolated thing. Over the long term, your freedom to live in a decent society will inevitably be compromised.

So Liberals are morally compelled to safeguard people’s rights through a kind of compulsory tolerance called Political Correctness. If you don’t like what other people get up to, you must keep it to yourself, for fear of social exclusion. This is of course implicit in any society. There are certain social norms and taboos which, if broken, lead to varying levels of moral censure and can be punished in extreme cases by exile, imprisonment or even death. The difference in Liberalism, is that there are no social norms. Any attempt to articulate social norms is indeed considered Illiberal.

The chaos and confusion surrounding the Transgender movement is perfectly illustrative of this problem. It is not difficult to imagine further, even more transgressive movements in the future, causing even more moral havoc, perhaps under the aegis of Transhumanism. Liberal will be committed to defending them all.

The popular historian Yuval Noah Harari describes the horrific events of the twentieth century as the Humanist Wars. He sees them as the humanist equivalent of the Religious Wars in Europe in the seventeenth century. The rivals for the humanist crown in this war are identified as “Liberal Humanism”, “Socialist Humanism” and “Evolutionary Humanism” (by “Evolutionary Humanism” he means Fascism and the Nazism, the “Right Hegelians”). According to Harari, the winner is Liberal Humanism. Socialist Humanism and Evolutionary Humanism are dead.

But all three humanisms are really evolutionary humanisms. They are all founded on a naturalistic neo-Darwinian conception of humanity as having evolved from apes some time in the distant past and currently evolving into an unknown future of infinite possibility. Perhaps Liberalism is the best of a bad bunch and deserved to win, but like it’s human ape cousins, it also seems to be foundering on the shoals of human vanity and ignorance. It seems to be leading us down some strange and frankly inhuman paths. Neo-liberalism is only the tip of the iceberg.

Humanists think they can forge humanity in the image of their own favourite idols and stick their own angel on top of the evolutionary tree. But the descendants of Abraham and Isaac (okay and Ishmael), the “chosen people”, whether Jew, Christian or Muslim, patiently remind us that we cannot mold reality according to our personal whims and ideologies. Whether we know it or not, we have made a pact with God. We are all of us people of God, made in the image of God. We are not the children of apes, we are children of God.

In reality, there is only ever one thing at the top of the tree, and whether it’s a star or an angel, it’s definitely not the work of human hands.