The Andromeda Galaxy. Courtesy of Robert Gendler
“We are part of a generation that, for the first time in history, is capable of destroying
itself as a species OR consciously participating in our own evolutionary transformation.”
— Barbara Marx Hubbard
The Hopeless Old Story
We learn in school that recorded history began with the invention of writing, when the first civilizations appeared some 5,000 years ago. People who lived before this are called “prehistoric” and thought of as animal-like cavemen with clubs or, worse yet, Neanderthals. History, as it’s traditionally taught, is a continuous parade of kings and emperors, wars and empires, with only the names, faces, and weapons changing. The Greek tragedies, written 2,500 years ago, illustrate that people struggled with the same dilemmas and character flaws then as now. It is human nature to be war-like, self-centered, envious of others, and for men to rule. The war in Ukraine proves once again that history repeats itself because … this is human nature. The future belongs to the strongest, and the weak will not survive. We are stuck in an endless cycle of domination and insatiable craving for more stuff, and more power, and more adoration. Life is hard and suffering is inevitable, so you better grab what you can, when you can before someone else does. This is the human condition.
Do you believe this story?
The Hopeful New Story
Science has now revealed a completely new story, one that was not possible to know until very recently. This is the evolutionary story that begins not 5,000 years ago, or with the beginning of life on Earth, but with the birth of the universe in the Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago. Can we even comprehend what 13.8 billion years is compared to 5,000 years? Maybe this helps:
If we represent the age of the universe (13.8 billion years) as being 3 days, then
the age of Earth (4.6 billion years) would be one day, and
the age of civilization (5,000 years) would be … one tenth of a second!
That’s what our much-vaunted recorded history amounts to compared to the full story of how we got here.
Scientists now have a good understanding of the evolutionary unfolding that followed the Big Bang and eventually led to our sun and our planet, and to you and me today. So, let’s start from the beginning. Just after the Big Bang, when the universe was one second old, hydrogen (protons) had formed – a very big deal because hydrogen is the building block for all matter we know today, including our bodies.
Closeup of a star, our sun. Public Domain/NASA
Because of gravity, clouds of hydrogen condensed into the first stars, and stars make almost everything else possible. In the early universe magnificent galaxies full of stars formed and provided the cocoons for future star formation. Although stars are obvious in the night sky, no one could explain what they were and what their prodigious source of energy was until the 1930s when the nuclear reaction was discovered. Now we understand stars far better than the human body. We know that our sun is a star and that stars are powered by nuclear fusion. We know how stars are born, live their lives, and die, and that they create all of the heavier elements that make up our planet and our bodies. Hence the saying, we are the children of stars.
The Sombrero Galaxy, where stars and planets are born, is 30 million light-years away, and moving away from us at 640 miles per second because of the expansion of the universe. Credit: Hubble Telescope/NASA
But our star, the sun, also has a beautiful system of planets, asteroids, and comets orbiting around it – the solar system. Is this unusual? It was long suspected that other stars had planets, but they were impossible to see, until the late 1980s when astronomers, using very clever techniques, observed the first planets orbiting other stars – exoplanets. Since then, they have cataloged some 5,000 exoplanets, and it is now certain that all stars have planetary systems of some kind. It is clear that planets form as part of a star, so every star is really a star system.
We might say that the main business of the universe is making star systems, and on some rare planets where conditions are just right – guess what? – life begins. That’s what happened here on Earth, but so far we have not detected life anywhere else. However, many scientists strongly suspect that life has arisen in many other places, and here’s why. We can estimate that the number of stars in the universe is about ten to the 22nd power. How big is that number with 22 zeros? It’s more than all the grains of sand on all the beaches on Earth – try to picture that! And since all of those stars have planets there must be some planets, perhaps millions (a tiny fraction of the total) that are rocky and just the right distance from their star for life to exist. But this remains speculative.
What we do know is that here on Earth, once life began some 3.8 billion years ago, it evolved continuously into more and more complex forms – the fossil record details this clearly. But the story of life gets really interesting about 3 million years ago – very recently – when one particular animal in Africa that walked upright on two legs and had dexterous hands with opposable thumbs began doing something that no other life form on Earth had ever done before. This animal began manufacturing and using stone tools. But it didn’t stop there. They taught the skills and techniques to each other, and the complex craft of toolmaking spread far and wide, all over Africa and Central Asia and beyond.
This transmission of knowledge over many generations was the birth of culture, and the beginning of our lineage, the Homo lineage. The story of our lineage is the story of cultural evolution, a path that leads directly to our awesome technology today, from the internet and mobile phones to spacecraft, gene-editing, AI, and nuclear weapons.
The evidence of cultural evolution is physical – for the first few million years we find increasingly sophisticated stone tools, then cave paintings, pyramids and palaces, tablets and scrolls, and now symphonies, paintings, novels, movies, spacecraft, podcasts, and Twitter. But beneath this physical exterior, giving rise to culture, is the non-physical landscape of inner space: consciousness.
The Final Frontier
The inner space of consciousness is the final frontier, with no disrespect for Captain Kirk. Few scientists have dared to explore consciousness because it can’t be measured or touched or modeled mathematically, and it can’t even be clearly defined. Yet we all experience it at every waking moment. Quantum physicists like Roger Penrose, Henry Stapp, and John Hagelin have wrestled with it, while neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists have attempted to correlate it with brain activity, but it remains the greatest mystery of all.
Whatever it is, the most important and relevant thing about consciousness for us today is that it is evolving, perhaps beginning with the first neural networks in animals hundreds of millions of years ago. In addition, the evolution of consciousness sky-rocketed in our own lineage beginning about 3 million years ago – indeed the brain volume tripled during this time until reaching its current size in the first Homo sapiens about 300,000 years ago.
The evolution of consciousness has been described by Eastern teachers like Sri Aurobindo (1872-1950), and in the West, the Swiss cultural philosopher Jean Gebser (1905-1973) provided the first framework for the stages and structures of consciousness which he named the Archaic, Magical, Mythical, Mental, and Integral. These are not only evolutionary stages, but also structures that we retain and build upon. Gebser recognized the growing signs of dysfunction in the twentieth century rooted in the Mental structure of consciousness and envisioned the Integral consciousness as a new type of consciousness that was emerging in humans.
One of the rare modern-day scientists who has explored the evolution of consciousness is cognitive psychologist and neuro-anthropologist Merlin Donald. In his book, A Mind So Rare: The Evolution of Human Consciousness (2001), he proposes stages very similar to Gebser’s although he had no knowledge of Gebser’s work. The work of Gebser and Donald is synthesized in the book Emerging World (2021) by Planet Project co-founder Roger Briggs, and summarized below.
We Are the Ones
The evolution of consciousness is the final chapter in our epic story that began with the Big Bang, and we are the first generation of humans who can know this story and understand that we are made from stardust. We are a piece of the universe that can recognize itself, and it took 13.8 billion years to get to this point. And now we see the very real possibility that we ourselves could end our own story. But herein lies the hope for us today: we are not stuck with endless war and exploitation – “human nature” – because we are still evolving! It is the evolution of consciousness that offers a positive future for us on this planet, and it’s already happening. But will it happen fast enough and soon enough?
Much of the world’s population today is struggling to survive, to have food and clean water and safety. But if you are reading this, you are probably among the fortunate ones who can think and operate above and beyond the survival level. We are alive at this most important moment, and we can be the ones to consciously steer our own evolution towards a planetary culture and consciousness that honors all people, all life, and our living planet.
A few of us started the Planet Project for this very reason and we have discovered that there are many other people and organizations around the world working on the same thing. We aim to be part of pulling all this together globally into a historic movement, the Planet Movement, that will change the course we are now on and steer us towards a long and prosperous future. We are the ones. Please join us as we grow the Planet Project and co-create a global planetary alliance of all those ready for the next chapter of our story.