An Evolutionary Transition Is Coming—Are You Ready? By Robert Cobbold - Essay
Updated: Apr 28, 2022
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“This is the greatest discovery of the scientific enterprise: You take hydrogen gas, and you leave it alone, and it turns into
rosebushes, giraffes, and humans.”
- Brian Swimme
The famous line from cosmologist Brian Swimme is striking because it transcends the frameworks and categories which we place over the continuum of life and reveals that, when all is said and done, the universe is not a noun, but a verb: a single miraculous process of becoming.
People find it hard to conceptualise cosmological, biological, and cultural evolution as one process. But when we take the tightly compartmentalised domains of scientific knowledge, bundle them together, roll them out like pastry, and take a big step back, a few patterns and trajectories, which are consistent throughout all those successive levels of evolution—from the Big Bang to the present moment—immediately become visible.
For one—the universe started in absolute simplicity and has evolved toward complexity. From hydrogen, atoms formed the heavier elements; from atoms emerged molecules; from simple prokaryote cells came more complex eukaryote cells; from eukaryote cells came multicellular organisms.
Another—as evolution has progressed, the scales of cooperative organisation have got larger. When life first emerged on this planet, it was at the scale of a millionth of a metre. But single-celled organisms cooperated to form multicellular organisms, and multicellular organisms cooperated to form groups of multicellular organisms such as shoals of fish, beehives, and packs of dogs. The trajectory was recapitulated in human evolution—bands cooperated to form tribes, tribes to form chieftainships, chieftainships to form city states, and city states to form modern nation states. In global economic trade, although not yet in politics, cooperation now spans the entire planet.
But it’s the third trajectory which is most interesting for those who study change: evolutionary change is not linear, but telescopic. Evolution is, itself, evolving, acquiring new creative capacities, and accelerating.
Put more simply, evolution is getting better at evolving.
The first major evolutionary transition was the emergence of life, kickstarting the process of biological evolution. Initially, all life was single-celled and reprodu