Evolution is Not About Survival of the Fittest But About Fitting In

Ursula Goodenough

Washington University

Our understanding of the natural world has undergone astonishing transformations in recent times, transformations that have enormous significance for our religious lives. We now understand the cosmos to have undergone a 13-billion-year evolutionary process, our planet to have undergone a 4.5-billion-year evolutionary process, and life on our planet to have undergone a 3.5-billion-year evolutionary process. We now understand that we humans share a common ancestor with all the other creatures on the planet – that we are all genetically related. We understand that humans appeared on the planet a mere 150,000 years ago. And we understand that the planet as a whole is an ecosystem composed of countless sub-ecosystems. Each sub-ecosystem is emergent from the relationships between its parts, where the parts – the organisms and their environmental contexts – are continuously in flux, continuously engaged in the evolutionary process of variation and natural selection.

Given these understandings, we have come to discard the simplistic notion that biological evolution entails survival of the fittest, since there is no such thing as the fittest. Rather, evolution involves a myriad ways of fitting in. Creative adaptive strategies emerge with each new element of change and complexity in the system. With every change in climate, or change in available energy resources, or change in the kinds and numbers of other creatures in the system, novel opportunities may be created and expected opportunities may fail to materialize. To fit in to an ecosystem is to be adapted to it, to anticipate its parameters, to live out a life in that context.

The obvious exception to these maxims is the human. We humans not only anticipate the parameters of natural systems; we also manipulate them. We inhabit not only the planetary ecosystem but also the human-made language-based system we call "civilization" allowing us access to information accumulated from generation to generation. Therefore, whereas novel genetic ideas require millennia to become established, language-based ideas can be transmitted and evaluated in increasingly rapid time-frames.

As a result, human activity is no longer directly shaped by the global ecosystem, although it must ultimately harmonize with it, and our abilities to anticipate and manipulate have grown to the point where the evolutionary mandate of adaptive fit is far less evident than our spectacular ability to adapt the environment to fit our purposes. It is indeed this state of affairs that generates our sense that the name of the game is who is the fittest. The fittest humans are often understood be those who best manipulate their contexts to suit their purposes, and we have extrapolated this perception to declare that evolution is all about such dynamics of power.

Now as all of you know, this disconnect between our perception of how things work and how things actually work is generating countless planetary and existential crises. We have specialized and elaborated our rapid framework and have achieved unprecedented mastery over our immediate circumstances, in the process detaching our responses from groundings in the slower processes of nature. We have become the fastest living creature on earth, producing more than the earth can absorb or sustain, changing entire ecosystems and environments faster than life-forms can adjust, and straining our own capacity to deal with our ever more dense, eventful, experience-packed lives in which the dominant feeling is that we never have enough time.

On the tree of life, we as a species are more a probing twig than an established branch, and civilization, let alone industrialization, is a radical experiment that depends on conditions civilization itself may systemically undermine. The feasibility of the experiment remains an open question, but if we can see that we are embarked on a mighty experiment, then we might scrutinize with more observant and questioning minds just how the experiment seems to be working and what we might do about it.

As the impending crises become increasingly obvious, I have become convinced that there are two paths by which things will definitively turn around. One is that disasters will occur of such magnitude and such epic tragedy that those who emerge on the other side will realize just how deeply maladaptive has been our course. The other is to adopt a religious orientation that is grounded in fitting in rather than in the doomed craving to be the fittest, an orientation that can guide us in our choices.

Such a religious orientation, which some of us are calling religious naturalism, has many conceptual parameters, but none is more important to the mandate of fitting in than the concept of belonging.

If we scan existing religious traditions using this lens, it becomes clear that belonging is in all cases a central concept, and indeed the etymological root for "religion" is to "bind together." Traditions claim that their adherents will belong to the kingdom of God or to the council of immortal ancestors or to those who pursue the path of enlightenment. Importantly, all such belongings are framed in a vertical dimension – that is, we perceive that we will somehow ascend, somehow move beyond earthly considerations, somehow belong to something larger than life itself where true Meaning and Purpose reside.

Religious naturalism instead lifts up belonging in the horizontal dimension, in the systemic, contingent, planetary context in which we came into being. Of the many persons who have written about this dimension, I am particularly drawn to Michael Kalton, originally a Jesuit monk and now a neo-Confucian scholar and Professor of Comparative Religions at the University of Washington. Here are some edited quotes from Kalton’s writings that I hope will give you a sense of the challenge and the appeal of what he calls horizontal transcendence.


Humans remain at the center of any world view premised on mind, but mind was neither the origin nor the purpose of the evolution of life, and mind has no inherent claim to superiority within the evolutionary framework.

Horizontal transcendence finds its anchor in life rather than mind, thus displacing human consciousness from its privileged place. There is no cosmos posited apart from the historically ongoing one within which we find ourselves, nor is there life apart from ongoing living at whatever level it is considered. Instead of the typical vertical transcendence of the Greek inspired tradition, the movement of this kind of spiritual cultivation is horizontal, perfecting our relationship with the world of life about us, celebrating our status as members of the biosystem as a sort of homecoming, and sustaining us with a sense of awe and reverence for the mystery that encompasses us.

A biocentered life orientation locates its center of value, meaning, and purpose squarely within the realm of the contingent, the very kind of irredeemable contingency identified with meaninglessness and absurdity within vertical transcendent frameworks. Indeed, contingency itself is a central element of its salvific message. Until we grasp our radical contingency, we have small chance of really understanding the nature of what is at stake.

How, we may ask, are we to conduct ourselves in a manner appropriate to our place and role in the order of things? Such questions betray our anthropocentrism. In fact, we are now, and always will be, situated beings; we exist always and only enmeshed in the relational reality of surroundings and situation. There is no alternative to being here now, so the question of fitting is really not a matter of how we fit in some ideal scheme but rather a question of the appropriateness of our response to the situation in which we find ourselves.

In a horizontally framed spirituality the question of belonging acquires a new kind of centrality. Recovering a more sacral sense of the earth and universe starts us on the way. But coming from a background of traditions premised on a discontinuity between ourselves and the rest of the natural world, many of our ordinary ways of thinking and acting carry the imprint of that discontinuity. Belonging is an achievement as well as a statement of fact, and the path to such achievement leads through a reexamination of basic habits of mind.

For example, a reexamination of how we regard the "non-living" aims to transcend the boundary of biotic life. Once the boundary is down, an arena of immediate access to horizontal transcendence is created. What the poet Robinson Jeffers has referred to as "the massive mysticism of stone" surrounds us, inviting us to discover the patterning that lives in geologic time or even cosmic time, these being substrate to patterns manifest in the rapid complexity of life time. What is it from which we have emerged, and to which we return at death? It cannot be less than us, for we are formed of it, belong to it, manifest it.

Let me close with a few thoughts on the aesthetics of the religious life. Our quest for vertical transcendence includes a quest for an aesthetics that conveys purpose and meaning, and this quest is rewarded by Nature in countless contexts -- the soaring Alps, the magnificent sunset, the spectacular waterfall – where we encounter pattern, order, and outrageous beauty that suggest a higher order of things. We also arrange Nature such that she conforms to our vertical aesthetic sensibilities, creating flower gardens and bird sanctuaries and scenic ocean views. But if this were the aesthetic argument for Nature, then most of Nature would fail to make the vertical cut. Most of Nature is messy -- the rainforest is thick and impenetrable, the swamp is infested, the field is a tangle, the river floods and rages. We need to look elsewhere in our human nature to locate a horizontal aesthetics that resonates with Nature as she ordinarily manifests herself, since otherwise we are consigned, in the future, to experience her only in scenic preserves where she is rendered orderly, coherent, beautiful, and, hence, somehow purposeful, like our minds.

That we possess as part of our genetic heritage an aesthetic for the natural is readily affirmed by taking a young child for a walk in the woods or by the sea and witnessing her innate delight in all she beholds. The delight has little to do with sunsets or vistas, with order or pattern or purpose. The delight is with the particular: the ladybug crawling on the rock, the fuzzy moss, the tickly dunegrass, the mucky mud by the river. Children connect with the immediate and become a part of it. The mud isn’t messy, or rather, its messiness is what makes it wonderful. Children are inherently attuned to Nature.

The attunement of the child is the aesthetic of the mammal. For the mammal (and all creatures), experience is not expected to be orderly or coherent. It is expected to be about participation in, and relationship with, an environment that is ongoing, changing, and unpredictable. Whether a child’s pleasure in this participation feels the same as it does to other mammals is not easily assessed, but when I watch dogs and children running across a field, laughing and barking, it looks pretty much the same to me.

We can therefore say that the aesthetics of horizontal transcendence is about responding to the nature of nature with attunement and participation and delight. The child does this spontaneously. Why is it so hard for so many of the rest of us?

Central to the project of belonging is that our children be told of our scientific understandings of Nature at their parents’ knees, with wonder and gratitude and respect. A child who learns that the beautiful tree is genetically scripted, that his thoughts and feelings are generated by neurochemistry, and that the magnificent sun is a raging fireball of thermonuclear reactions – that child learns to experience Nature the way she is, becoming fluent in her language and grounded in the bracing contingency of it all. A horizontal orientation must be anchored both in deep attunement and deep knowledge, the exciting goal for us all.







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