The Next Transition: The Evolution of Humanity’s Role in the Universe


NASA, ESA, J. Hester and A. Loll (ASU)
The elements of our bodies, and of all life, emerged from stellar supernovas like the one that created the Crab Nebula, shown here.

As we see our present interconnected global challenges of widespread environmental degradation, climate change, crippling poverty, social inequities, and unrestrained militarism, we know that the obstacles to the flourishing of life’s ecosystems and to genuine sustainable development are considerable.

In the midst of these formidable challenges, in an era that Paul Crutzen has dubbed the Anthropocene,1 we are being called to the next stage of evolutionary history. This new era requires a change of consciousness and values—an expansion of our worldviews and ethics. The evolutionary life impulse moves us forward from viewing ourselves as isolated individuals and competing nation states to realizing our collective presence as a species with a common origin story and shared destiny. The human community has the capacity now to realize our intrinsic unity in the midst of enormous diversity. And, most especially, we have the opportunity to see this unity as arising from the dynamics of the evolutionary process itself. In the 150 years since Darwin’s On the Origin of Species we have been developing—for the first time—a scientific story of the evolution of the universe and earth.2,3 We are still discovering the larger meaning of the story, namely, our profound connectedness to this process.

With the first photograph of earth from space in 1966 came a new and emerging sense of belonging to the planet. In addition, our growing knowledge of evolution continues to give us an expanded sense of the whole. We are beginning to feel ourselves embraced by the evolutionary powers unfolding over time into forms of ever-greater complexity and consciousness. The elements of our bodies and of all life forms emerged from the explosions of supernovas. We are realizing, too, that evolution moves forward with transitions, such as the movement from inorganic matter to organic life and from single-celled organisms to plants and animals, that sweep through the evolutionary unfolding of the universe, the earth, and humanity. All such transitions come at times of crisis, they involve tremendous cost, and they result in new forms of creativity. The central reality of our times is that we are in such a transition moment.

Surrounding this moment is an awakening to a new consciousness that is challenging older paradigms of the human as an isolated being in a random, purposeless universe. Paul Raskin of the Tellus Institute has called this the Great Transition,4 while the deep ecologist and systems thinker Joanna Macy has named it the Great Turning.5 Many such thinkers are suggesting that our consciousness is gradually shifting from valuing hyperindividualism and independence to embracing interdependence and kinship on a vast scale. This will take time, but the ecological sciences are showing us the interconnectedness of life systems. The Enlightenment values of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are being reconfigured. Life now includes the larger life of the earth, individual freedom requires responsibility to community, and happiness is being defined as more than material goods.6 A sense of a larger common good is emerging: the future of the planet and its fragile biosphere.

In this spirit we are moving from an era dominated by competing nation states to one that is birthing a sustainable multicultural planetary civilization. Such a transition, while marked by struggle and conflict, is occurring within the context of our emerging understanding of the Journey of the Universe.7 The thousands of organizations dedicated to reconfiguring sustainability are an indicator of this shift. And these organizations are coming into being at every level, from the international and national to the bioregional and local, as Paul Hawken describes in his book Blessed Unrest.8

The Cosmological Context: Evolution and Extinction

Over the past century, the various branches of science have begun to weave together the story of a historical cosmos that emerged some 13.7 billion years ago. This has been called the Epic of Evolution by E. O. Wilson9 and Cosmic Evolution by Eric Chaisson.10 The magnitude of this universe story is beginning to dawn on humans as we awaken to a realization of the vastness and complexity of this unfolding process.

At the same time that this story is becoming available to the human community, we are becoming conscious of the multidimensional environmental crisis and of the rapid species and habitat destruction taking place around the planet.11 Just as we are realizing the vast expanse of time over which the universe has evolved, we are recognizing how late is our arrival in this stupendous process. Just as we are becoming conscious that earth took more than 4 billion years to bring forth this abundance of life, it is dawning on us how quickly we are foreshortening its future flourishing.

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AMNHD. Finnin
A single display inside the Hall of Biodiversity at the American Museum of Natural History in New York demonstrates the extraordinary range of life on earth.

We need, then, to step back to assimilate our cosmological context. If scientific cosmology gives us an understanding of the origins and unfolding of the universe, philosophical reflection on scientific cosmology gives us a sense of our place in the universe. And if we are so radically affecting the story by extinguishing other life forms and destroying our own nest, what does this imply about our ethical sensibilities or our sense of the sacred? As science is revealing to us the particular intricacy of the web of life, we realize we are unraveling it, although unwittingly in part. Until recently we have not been fully conscious of the deleterious consequences of our drive toward economic progress and rapid industrialization.

As we begin to glimpse how deeply embedded we are in complex ecosystems, and how dependent on other life forms, we see we are destroying the very basis of our continuity as a species. As biology demonstrates a fuller picture of the unfolding of diverse species in evolution and the distinctive niche of species in ecosystems, we are questioning our own niche in the evolutionary process. As the size and scale of the environmental crisis is more widely grasped, we are seeing our own connection to this destruction. We have become a planetary presence that is not always benign.

The American Museum of Natural History: Universe and Earth Evolution

This simultaneous bifocal recognition of our cosmological context and our environmental crisis is clearly demonstrated at the American Museum of Natural History in New York with two major permanent exhibits. One is the Rose Center that houses the Hall of the Universe and the Hall of the Earth. The other exhibit is the Hall of Biodiversity.

The Hall of the Universe is architecturally striking. It is housed in a monumental glass cube, in the center of which is a globe containing the planetarium. Suspended in space around the globe are the planets of our solar system. In a fascinating mingling of inner and outer worlds, our solar system is juxtaposed against the garden plaza and street scenes of New York visible through the soaring glass panels of the cube. After first passing through a simulation of the originating fireball, visitors move onto an elevated spiral pathway. The sweeping pathway ushers visitors into a descending walk through time that traces the 12 billion-year-old cosmic journey from the great flaring forth in the fireball, through the formation of galaxies, and finally to the emergence of our solar system and planet. It ends with the evolution of life in the Cenozoic period of the last 65 million years and concludes with one human hair under a circle of glass, with the hairsbreadth representing all of human history. The dramatic effect is stunning as we are called to reimage the human in the midst of such unfathomable immensities.

The Hall of Earth reveals the remarkable processes of the birth of earth; the evolution of the supercontinent, Pangaea; the formation of the individual continents; and the eventual emergence of life. It demonstrates the intricacy of plate tectonics, which was not widely accepted even 50 years ago, and it displays geothermal life forms around deep-sea vents, which were only discovered a decade ago. This exhibit, then, illustrates how new our knowledge of the evolution of the earth is and how much has been discovered within the last century.

In contrast to the vast scope of evolutionary processes evident in the Hall of the Universe and the Hall of the Earth, the Hall of Biodiversity displays the extraordinary range of life forms that the planet has birthed. A panoply of animals, fish, birds, reptiles, and insects engages the visitor. A plaque in the exhibit observes that we are now living in the midst of a sixth extinction period due to the current massive loss of species. It notes that, while the five earlier periods of extinction were caused by a variety of factors, including meteor collisions and climate change, humans are, in large part, the cause of this present extinction spasm.

With this realization, not only does our role as a species come into question, but our viability as a species remains in doubt. Along with those who recognized the enormity of the explosion of the atomic bombs in Japan, we are the first generations of humans to actually imagine our own destruction as a species.

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AMNHD. Finnin
Visitors look at a taxidermy Bengal tiger in the Hall of Biodiversity. By highlighting both destruction and global restoration efforts, the Hall suggests that visitors have a choice between a harmful and a healing presence on the planet.

The exhibition notes, however, that we can stem this tide of loss of species and habitat. The visitor walks through an arresting series of pictures and statistics that record the current destruction on one side and that highlight restoration processes on the other. The contrasting displays suggest that the choice is ours: to become a healing or a deleterious presence on the planet.

These powerful exhibits on cosmic evolution and on species extinction illustrate how science is helping us to enter into a macrophase understanding of the universe and of ourselves as a species among other species on a finite planet. The fact that the Rose Center is presenting the evolution of the universe and the earth as an unfolding story in which humans participate is striking in itself. Indeed, the introductory video to the Hall of the Universe observes that we are “citizens of the universe,” born out of stardust and the evolution of galaxies, and that we are now responsible for its continuity. In addition, the fact that the Hall of Biodiversity suggests that humans can assist in stemming the current extinction event is a bold step for an “objective” and “unbiased” science-based museum.

Scientists are no longer standing completely apart from what they are studying. They are assisting us in witnessing the ineffable beauty and complexity of life and its emergence over billions of years. They are pointing toward a more integrative understanding of the role of the human in the midst of an extinction cycle. Some of this shift in the museum’s perspective arose in the late 1990s when the curators were searching for an ornithologist. Of the final six candidates, four of them had had their birds go extinct while they were studying them. This was alarming to the museum curators, who realized they could not simply stand by and witness extinction with disinterested objectivity.

It can be said, then, that this new macrophase dimension of science involves three intersecting phases: understanding the story of the universe with the best scientific methods, integrating the story as a whole (cosmic, earth, human), and reflecting on the story with a sense of our responsibility for its continuity.

Environmental ethicists and scholars of the world’s religions are also being called to contribute to this large-scale macrophase understanding of the universe story. The challenge for religion and ethics is both to re-vision our role as citizens of the universe and to reinvent our niche as members of the earth community. This requires reexamining such cosmological questions as where we have come from and where we are going. In other words, it necessitates rethinking our role as humans within the larger context of universe evolution as well as in the closer context of natural processes of life on earth. What is humankind in relation to 13.7 billion years of universe history? What is our place in the framework of 4.6 billion years of earth history? How can we foster the stability and integrity of life processes? These are critical questions underlying the new consciousness of the universe story. This is not simply a dynamic narrative of evolution; it is a transformative cosmological story that engages human energy for a future that is sustaining and sustainable.

Cosmological Stories

Since the earliest expressions of human culture, humans have struggled to understand and define our place in the universe. We have developed cosmologies, which are stories that describe where we have come from and where we are going. The religious and cultural traditions we have honored for millennia all bear witness to our deep desire to find meaning in what we see and feel around us.

Over the last two centuries, however, the scientific paradigm has taken root and, in many cases, has become the dominant worldview. Through the scientific method, science tends to objectivize what it describes. In recent years, scientific and religious cosmologies have therefore coexisted uneasily. Some scientists and philosophers have come to the conclusion that the universe, while appearing to follow certain natural laws, is largely a random and accidental accretion of objects, with little meaning and certainly no larger purpose. Scientific facts are separate from human values. One of the aims of the Journey of the Universe perspective is to counteract this view with a presentation of a dynamic and creative universe. Relying on the best of modern science, we discover how we are part of this ongoing journey and now are shaping its future form. This can be an important context for ecological, economic, and social transformation on behalf of our emerging planetary community.

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Asterio Tecson
Though distant from our immediate experience, objects like this meteorite on display in the Hall of the Universe are nonetheless integral to the human narrative. The authors argue that stirring our fundamental relationship to the cosmos will help us reengage with life and build toward a sustainable human presence on the planet.

The Goal: Providing an Integrating Story

The goal of the Journey of the Universe is to tell the story of cosmic and earth evolution, drawing on the latest scientific knowledge in a way that makes it both relevant and moving. What emerges is an intensely poetic story that evokes emotions of awe and excitement, fear and joy, belonging and responsibility.

This universe story is a dramatic one. Throughout billions of years of evolution, triumph and disaster have been only a hairsbreadth apart. Violence and creativity are pervasive. The ability of matter to organize and reorganize itself is remarkable—from the formation of the first atoms to the emergence of life. We are coming to realize that the energy released at the very beginning has finally, in the human, become capable of reflecting on and exploring its own journey of change. Simple hydrogen has become a vibrant living planet, with beings that now are able to investigate how this has happened and to imagine a life-sustaining future.

Waking up to our fundamental relationship with the cosmos will be a means of reengagement with life. The Journey of the Universe enables us to connect more deeply with the universe and the earth of which we are a part. In doing this, we will appreciate the need for a sustainable human presence on the planet.

Thus the integrated story of the origin and development of the universe, of earth, and of humans could become an inspiring vision for our time.12 This is because this story is giving us a sense of common evolutionary heritage and shared genetic lineage. This new understanding of the kinship we share with each other and with all life could establish the foundations for rediscovering our past and sustaining the future.

We can be inspired by this scientific view of nested interdependence—from galaxies and stars to planets and ecosystems—so that we sense how personally we are woven into the fabric of life. We are part of this ongoing journey. From this perspective we can see that our current destructive habits toward the environment are unsustainable. In an evolutionary framework the damage we are causing is immense—indeed, cataclysmic. We can thus recognize ecological, economic, and social change as not only necessary but inevitable. But this will require expanding our frame of reference and broadening our worldview. We are already in the process of doing this as we create the foundations for a sustainable future.