Rethinking Change and Evolution: Is Genesis Ongoing?

10 March 2021 in Resource Center.

There are many ways to approach the development of our comprehensivity, our ways of understanding the world and its peoples through broad and extensive considerations that are also deep and intensive with the aim of forming a more and more complete and integrated comprehension of our worlds. Previous resources engaged essays, papers, video lectures, books, surveys, syntheses, condensations, contextualizations, interpretations, investigations, and explorations. This resource curates a small sampling of ideas in the hopes of stimulating a broader, more comprehensive appreciation of the nature of change, evolution, and design in our conceptuality.

The idea for this resource came from the provocative, revolutionary, and controversial 2012 book “The Design Way: Intentional Change Change in an Unpredictable World” by Harold G. Nelson and Erik Stolterman. I no longer recommend the book because too many of my associates have been unable to appreciate its provocative style. I find the book to be a wellspring of intriguing ideas. Its revolutionary approach in considering design as Humanity’s first tradition of inquiry and action is an exemplar for my efforts to create a new tradition for comprehensivism, the practice of our comprehensivity. In addition, this resource will consider ideas from W. E. H. Stanner’s essay “The Dreaming” (see a July 2017 event on “The Dreaming and The Songlines” for more notes on Stanner’s essay), Dan Everett’s studies of the Pirahã people from the “New Yorker” profile by John Colapinto, and Richard Lewontin (see his three presentations for the 2003 Stanislaw Ulam Memorial Lectures at the Santa Fe Institute).

Three Exhibits on Change and Evolution

As we consider our comprehensivity, our interest to broadly and deeply understand our worlds and its peoples, we may wonder: What is the world like? How does it change and evolve?

Two answers to these questions come from the great Greek philosophers Hērákleitos and Parmenídēs who argued, respectively, that all there is is change and that change is impossible. As we look to our great traditions, we discover there are many ways to think about change and evolution.

Below I will curate some provocative exemplars to indicate ways in which our comprehensivity may expand our perspective on change. I have highlighted each example as an exhibit. It is the reader’s task (or the participant’s task in events that present these ideas for a group exploration) to integrate this curation into a meaningful reflection on change and evolution.

Exhibit A: The Everywhen of The Dreaming. To stretch our minds historically and culturally, let’s first consider Humanity’s longest surviving culture, the Aborigines of Australia with their 50,000 year history. W. E. H. Stanner and other anthropologists have managed to rescue from the devastation of colonialism and genocide some traces and hints of their great culture and its philosophy called the Dreaming. Here is Stanner’s introduction to the idea:

“A central meaning of The Dreaming is that of a sacred, heroic time long ago when man and nature came to be as they are; but neither ‘time’ nor ‘history’ as we understand them is involved in this meaning. I have never been able to discover any Aboriginal word for time as an abstract concept. And the sense of ‘history’ is wholly alien here…. The Dreaming conjures up the notion of a sacred, heroic time of the indefinitely remote past, such a time is also in a sense, still part of the present. One cannot ‘fix’ The Dreaming in time: it was, and is, everywhen…. If I am correct in saying so, it is much more complex philosophically than we have so far realised.

— W.E.H. Stanner, “The Dreaming”, 1953

I do not know enough about the Dreaming to assess its understanding of change and evolution. But it seems clear to me that any culture with a philosophy that features past and present fused in an everywhen provides important context to appreciate the range of possible ways to conceptualize change and evolution.

To understand change and evolution broadly, must we also understand the various approaches to time as well?

Exhibit B: Living In The Moment with the Pirahã. John Colapinto’s fascinating “New Yorker” profile of Dan Everett’s research on the Pirahã (pronounced pee-da-HAN) suggests that these are a people who live adeptly in the Amazon in a culture of “living in the moment”. They do not care about anything beyond the most recent past.

Everett is a linguist who learned their language to convert them to Christianity. In the process they converted him to atheism. When he attempted to explain the importance of Christ’s life to them, they were interested until he explained that, no, he had never met Jesus because he died a long time ago. From that point on, they had no interest in discussing the life or teaching of someone not of this moment. If the eternal now is the only thing that matters, why should we care about someone who died some 2000 years ago, even if they are our savior?

What can we learn from a people who actually “live in the moment” about the nature of change and evolution? How might change and evolution manifest to such a people? Could they even conceive of the idea? If not, how might that advantage them?

Exhibit C: “Genesis is Ongoing”. The first paragraph on page one of Harold G. Nelson and Erik Stolterman’s 2012 book “The Design Way” is provocative:

Genesis is ongoing. As human beings, we continuously create things that help reshape the reality and essence of the world as we know it. When we create new things — technologies, organizations, processes, environments, ways of thinking, or systems — we engage in design. To come up with an idea of what we think would be an ideal addition to the world, and to give real existence — form, structure, and shape — to that idea, is at the core of design as a human activity.

— “The Design Way” by Harold G. Nelson and Erik Stolterman

Is genesis ongoing? Is creation ongoing? Are human beings a big part of the ongoing creation in our world?

Should we think of ourselves in the eternal now as actors in the creative process of ongoing genesis? Is this how you think of yourself? Should you be thinking this way?

In general, “genesis” means coming into being. “Genesis” is also the title of the first book in the Hebrew and Christian Bible. But maybe the beginning highlighted in the Bible has distorted our understanding of reality: “in the beginning” might not be the change that matters most.

“In the beginning” is also a story-telling device. It is described by the great Roman poet Horace as “ab ovo” that’s Latin for “from the egg” which he denegrates in his “Ars Poetica” (c. 19 BCE) as an inferior way to start an epic. Instead Horace recommends starting in mediās rēs, into the middle of things. That is the approach used in Homer’s “Odyssey” and “Illiad”, in Virgil’s “Aeneid”, and in Dante’s great “Comedy” (which some of us are reading to celebrate his seventh centennial). Perhaps our great poets and “The Design Way” have it correct: in mediās rēs might be the right way to think of reality. So, is genesis ongoing?

As Heidegger saw it, we are thrown into a world already in progress. Life is presented to newborns and to each of us every day, in mediās rēs, into the middle of things. In mediās rēs is the nature of the reality that we are thrown into at birth and again each and every day after that!

Hērákleitos and Parmenídēs may have gotten it wrong: the spectator’s view of whether change exists or not may not be so important. Instead, it might be crucial how we are creating our ongoing reality, right now and into the future. It seems to me we should add “genesis is ongoing” to our ready collection of multiple working hypotheses.

Should we reimagine ourselves as creators and designers of our ongoing genesis? How might we begin to think of ourselves in this profoundly reorienting way?

As you consider these three exhibits from three traditions, what are you drawn to reconsider about the notions of change and evolution? What adjustments might you need to make in your thinking about change and evolution to accommodate the perspective of these exemplars: the everywhen of Aboriginal Dreaming, the Pirahã who live in the moment, and the idea that genesis is ongoing?

Two More Exhibits on Change and Evolution

Let’s continue our investigation into change and evolution by considering two more exhibits. First, we’ll examine a few ideas from a major contributor to evolutionary theory in the late 20th century.

Exhibit D: Richard Lewontin’s Evolutionary Thinking. In three penetrating 2003 Stanislaw Ulam Memorial Lectures, Richard Lewontin explains subtleties in evolutionary thinking to help us critique many of the just-so stories that we often hear touted as evolutionary truth.

Lewontin carefully distinguishes what he calls a variational theory of evolution like biological evolution from a transformational theory of evolution. He explains the three principles of variational evolution (Darwin’s great contribution): 1) there are differences in the traits of individuals (variability), 2) these differences tend to be passed on to future generations (heritability), 3) the rates of reproduction differ among the traits (selection). Any system where mortal individuals are subject to these three principles will evolve by “natural selection” just like the biologicals.

In order to emphasize that there are many types of evolution, Lewontin explains the transformational theory of evolution where each individual transforms along a prescribed path. He gives the examples of stellar evolution (developed by Kant and others long before Darwin) and the greying of a population of classmates from school.

When Lewontin examines cultural evolution in his third lecture he shows that it fails to meet the criteria for either the variational or the transformational models. So cultural evolution is different from either of these alternative models.

Does Lewontin’s taxonomy of evolution help us realize that there are many kinds of evolution and so we need to be judicious in applying the right model to the right situation?

Exhibit E: A Four-Tier Hierarchy of Change. “The Design Way” by Harold G. Nelson and Erik Stolterman presents a very interesting hierarchy of change that I have adapted in the following image:

Hierarchy of Change adapted from “The Design Way”

There are many interesting and provocative inferences we can draw from this image. We start in the center of the image. The core and central notion of change comes from difference which evokes the idea of a distinction. As these distinctions themselves change, they form a process. A change in difference is therefore a process. Evolutionary change is a higher order change, namely, of change in processes. But even evolution is parochial change. The highest order, most significant changes come not from elementary distinctions and differences, not from processes, not from evolution, but from design.

Is design the most overarching form of change there is?

This essay was written to provide ideas in support of the 17 March 2021 session of “Comprehensivist Wednesdays” at 52 Living Ideas (crossposted at The Greater Philadelphia Thinking Society).

Addendum: 1h 5m video from the 17 March 2021 event:

The Curatorial Approach to Comprehensivity

To foster our comprehensivity, we can organize a broad and extensive consideration of a topic, or we can organize a deep and intensive analysis. In addition, we can organize a synthesis (putting many ideas together into an overview), a syntopical overview (a broad survey that deeply compares and contrasts the extant literature), or organize an integrity (an attempt to fully integrate it all). These summary or survey approaches are excellent ways to support our comprehensivity.

In this resource, however, we used a curatorial approach where we took a sampling of exemplars that help us consider aspects of a topic and left it to the reader to integrate them into a broader understanding of change and evolution. What are the benefits and shortcomings of this curatorial approach? Here are some thoughts:

Benefits of the curatorial approach:

  • It invites the participant to interpret the exhibits to form a unique and personal meaning. That is, it supports the active development of the skills of synthesis and integration by the participants instead of merely demonstrating them in a summary.
  • Neither the participant nor the presenter is required to master the enormity of the whole of a subject and its literature.
  • So, it is much less time-consuming and burdensome to curate a set of thoughtful exhibits. Thus, curations may allow more participants to organize more comprehensivist topics.
  • It invites participants to imagine their own list of additional exemplars to expand our exploration.
  • It can critique ideas indirectly without having to address them head-on in a summary. So, the impact may be greater because the exemplar may be more persuasive than omissions or dismissals in a survey.
  • Some ideas may be beyond our current ability to explain using words, symbols, images, dance, or music. The curatorial approach can sometimes gesture towards these ineffables when other approaches fall short.

Shortcomings of the curatorial approach:

  • Not everyone has the skills to turn examples into comprehensive comprehensions, so curations may fail to guide participants to broader, deeper, or more integrated considerations of the subject.
  • A curation can foster confirmation bias by presenting too many exemplars that are already established.
  • Effective curations may require the organizer to present some edgy exemplars that may prove to be so controversial that they distract from the goal of fostering comprehensivity.
  • Present-day discourse tends to favor grand summaries and broad surveys that present the God’s eye perspective and a silver bullet that can, allegedly, explain everything and guide us to a new promised land. So, the less ostentatious and less overtly ambitious curatorial approach may not attract interest given our contemporary bias for boldly assertive claims of profundity and significance.

What do you think of the curatorial approach?

Would you be more comfortable organizing a curation or one of the survey approaches?

Read Other Resource Center Essays

Posted by CJ Fearnley

Explorer in Universe.

1 comment

CJ, I do enjoy reading your thinking and Ideas.
Hierarchy of Change adapted from “The Design Way”. I’m not sure this is easy to follow for the masses. 4 circles no problem. The macro “OUT” circle is really defining the boundaries of the system being designed. (System) the second circle “IN” Micro is all about the movement inside defined boundaries. (Process) the third circle Inward is about Metaphysical Mind relationships and interrelationships (Between-ness) Micro and the fourth circle inward is the physical coming together of the designer’s outcomes.(aroundness) Finally knowing the 4 circles are inside the 1 Omni “Macro” Universe all in motion all inside a boundary of nothing-ness lagging to becoming meaningful somethingness.
[-{-in/out+between/around +time/timing+Sequence/Lag+} +] K

Leave a Reply