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As I’ve been developing in numerous posts (see, e.g., Adaptation & Social Systemic Fluidity, The Evolutionary Ecology of Social Institutions, The Fractal Geometry of Social Change, The Evolutionary Ecology of Human TechnologyThe Fractal Geometry of Law (and Government), Emotional Contagion, The Politics of Consciousness , Information and Energy: Past, Present, and Future, The Evolutionary Ecology of Audio-Visual Entertainment (& the nested & overlapping subsystems of Gaia), The Nature-Mind-Machine Matrix, Can Wisdom & Compassion Go Viral? Part I, and Can Wisdom & Compassion Go Viral? Part II), our social reality is comprised of intermingled, sometimes mutually reinforcing and sometimes competing, cognitions and the emotional content that accompanies them (“memes” and “emes”). In Can Wisdom & Compassion Go Viral? Part I, and Can Wisdom & Compassion Go Viral? Part II, I emphasized our potential to create new marvels of human existence, new social institutional technologies, new attitudes, a new attitude conducive to ever-growing consciousness.

Many of us have grown wary of such claims, having seen “the Age of Aquarius” dawn and disappear more rapidly than the Broadway musical in which it was sung. People who are grounded, who are realistic, who take stock of history and of economics and of human nature, are often, perhaps generally, swept into an ever deepening cynicism and pessimism as their years roll by. We look at most of those who still believe in the possibility of achieving new heights of consciousness, and see a flakiness, a superficiality, an eagerness to grasp at ethereal fantasies that history has proven so elusive as to be delusional, and we wisely disassociate ourselves from that form of thought and aspiration.

But there are other lessons of history as well, lessons that are written with what appears to be invisible ink, for we are blind to their ubiquity and significance. These lessons make clear the constancy of change, and even how profound it can sometimes be, when looked at in the context of the broad sweep of history.

Let’s start with the most obvious, even if routinely too rapidly dismissed as trivial. When we think of human history, we divide it into epochs according to changing technologies: The Stone Age, The Bronze Age, The Iron Age…, and now, The Computer Age. We all recognize that humanity has progressed technologically, and has  passed through a succession of technological thresholds, each ushering in what in many ways is a new age.

We bracket this off from the notion of changes in human consciousness primarily by considering “technology” something distinct from “consciousness,” a lesser cognitive animal, not reaching down deep enough into who and what we are to be considered a form of “consciousness.” Kindness and brutality, reason and irrationality, occupy separate spheres, deeper and more fundamental than the mere mechanisms by which we express them. These mechanisms are ripples on the surface of our shared reality, rather than its defining characteristics.

But how true is this? Technologies are implicated in our consciousness in ways deeper and more essential than we often realize. For one thing, they occupy a broader range than we generally acknowledge: Technologies are not merely programmings of natural (non-human) phenomena to human benefit, but also programmings of human behavioral and social phenomena. Contracts and Constitutions, money and markets and various legal and economic innovations by which they have developed, scientific methodology and legal procedure, our media of communications and information processing and the particular forms that they take, are all technological innovations.

Technologies are also made of the same stuff as the rest of human consciousness, and are inextricably intertwined with the rest of human consciousness. Through scientific methodology, for instance, we have produced instruments both in service to science itself, and in service to other production functions in which we are engaged. Relativity, Quantum Mechanics, and String Theory, to name a few, all owe a debt to the social technologies of scientific methodology and mathematics, and to the physical technologies that have become their tools. We are capable of understanding the subtleties of nature in ways never before imagined, and only very generally glimpsed by the most transcendent of historical philosophers and sages, now with a mathematical precision that occupies spheres few today have had the pleasure of visiting, but many fully realize exist.

But, surely, even these admittedly significant developments in our understanding and manipulation of nature do not penetrate into the realms imagined by those who believe that fundamental transformations of human consciousness are possible and attainable? After all, we use them in service to exploitation and dominance, not harmony and liberation, ever-more voraciously consuming the host body of the Earth upon which we are increasingly robust parasites, and seemingly advancing not at all toward a more compassionate and just state of collective being…. Or is it really that simple?

Never before in industrial society has there been such an extensive and deepening sense that we have to change our paradigms to align our collective existence better with the natural context in which it is found, and with the evolving sense of social justice that has blossomed rather dramatically in the developed world as a whole (America being a notable hold-out in many ways). True, many pre-industrial, tribalistic societies that lived “closer” to nature adhered to ideologies far more cognizant of the need for harmonious coexistence. But this went hand-in-hand with the actual limits on the capacity for exploitation; few such societies did not reach out for the products of more exploitative technologies when they came into view.

Many are more impressed with how inadequate these changes remain, with so few so shallowly committed to such minimal modifications in our existence, still generally driving individually owned fossil-fuel propelled vehicles, living in excessive houses and consuming excessive resources. This is true: We are on the first steps of a long road, one along which our journey will continue to accelerate as urgency continues to impress itself on us. It may be too late; we may destroy our host before we either temper our appetites sufficiently to save it or achieve the technical abilities necessary to abandon it and colonize new ones. (I am not commenting on the desirability or undesirability of the latter prospect, but only recognizing it as one imaginably plausible way for humans to survive indefinitely). But, while we exist, it is probably wise to continue to consider the possibility that we will continue to exist, and to contemplate how to navigate the possible paths into the future.

Some may acknowledge what I’ve written above, that we have undergone transformations in our understanding of and relationship with nature, and that we may even be beginning a process of institutionalizing checks on our own avarice in service to our sustainability, but still contend that none of it reaches into who and what we really are, into our own human nature, and that therefore none of this represents true changes in human consciousness, but merely changes in the clothing that consciousness wears.

In a sense I agree with this, though, on the margins of this discourse, I am going to push the envelope in ways which some will consider too fanciful for any practically grounded conversation. Yes, thus far and into the foreseeable future, it would be correct to say that there is some immutable defining nature to being human, one that we have never transformed, and, according to the most prevalent conventional wisdom, either will never be able to transform, or perhaps should never be tempted to transform.

Some radical thinkers dismiss the notion of “human nature,” rightly reacting adversely to the overly reductionist ways in which it has generally been conceptualized, but wrongly (and absurdly) missing the fact that, given that there is a category of species called “human,” and given that there is no real ambiguity about which creatures are and are not members of that category, it must therefore be the case that there are some defining characteristics which distinguish all members from all non-members and which describe all members without fail. Therefore, the question is not whether there is any such thing as “human nature,” but rather what its precise scope is.

(The notion that it is no more than a set of physical, biological parameters ignores the fact that there is no real divide between our physical/biological aspects and the rest of what we are, and that therefore to fabricate such a distinction is just another departure from reality. One interesting example is that certain facial expressions, such as a smile, are common to all cultures, and mean the same thing in all cultures. More profoundly, language itself is common to all cultures, a fact examined more closely  by Psycholinguist Steven Pinker in The Language Instinct.)

My marginal aside is that we may in fact soon be capable of transforming that fundamental, “immutable” human nature itself, through genetic engineering (I am only identifying the possibility, not commenting on its desirability). This of course raises all sorts of issues, such as how decisions would be made concerning this next level of manipulation of nature, and whether it could ever be wise to try to ride the Pegasus of our technical abilities to such Olympian heights, or whether it would dash us to our collective destruction in disgust at our hubris. That is a discussion I leave for another time.

My marginal aside is telling in a more fundamental way: Part of our nature includes the ability to transcend itself, as we currently know it, in multiple ways, whether for good or for bad, and to do so ever-more dramatically. We even have a deeply embedded meme reflecting this: Our cognitive divorce of “human” from “natural,” as if they are two distinct things, rather than one subset of a larger sphere of phenomena. We fundamentally believe that we have transcended nature, that we are distinct from nature, that we can be in conflict with nature. Personally, I consider this a delusion, even were we to genetically engineer new variations on the entity known as human: It’s all “natural,” because there is no exit from that which is “natural.” It is all-encompassing.

It is not the “unnaturalness” that is key here, but rather the accelerating ability to transform ourselves and our environment. And that may be an integral part of our “nature.” We transform our social institutional and technological landscape, both constantly, in a cumulative, gradual progression, and through thresholds of dramatic metamorphosis. We reduce, for those to whom our social institutions permit access, the ravages of disease, and do so through increasingly sophisticated means. One such emerging technology is particularly illustrative: Stem-cell research. Not only does it hold it great promise, but also meets with great resistance, some feeling that it tampers too much with life (destroying embryonic life) to warrant its service to life (saving mature and fully realized lives).

Embryonic stem-cell research is also telling because it illustrates how comfortable rational people can become with such dramatic manipulations of nature. Most rational people recognize, implicitly, that our prohibition against killing human beings is based on a protection of conscious beings (or beings who have been and will again be conscious), not a mere moral abstraction. A cluster of cells is, to such minds (at least to mine), less deserving of such protection than a fully conscious large non-human mammal that would actually experience terror and pain and lose a life that the being had some cognizance of, because it is consciousness rather than membership in the human in-group, that is worthy of such respect and compassion, the degree of deference being a function of the degree of consciousness rather than the particular category of membership.

But if we can become comfortable with cultivating embryos to treat diseases, can we also become comfortable with (hopefully cautious and restrained) manipulations of our genetic architecture, reducing aggression, increasing cooperation, and, in general, making humans less the haphazard product of the logic of reproductive competition and more the product of our dreams and aspirations as conscious beings? Would it really be so horrible? (The caveat here is not that it would be inherently wrong to do so, but rather that it is too easy to inadvertantly wreak havok on the sensitively balanced natural systems which we are, and of which we are a part, by doing so. Our degree of caution and restraint would have to be commensurate with the heat of the fire we are playing with, which, in practice, is rarely the case.)

Whether through such (legitimately scary) dramatic manipulation of nature’s building blocks, or through more subtle and less intrusive means, humans are clearly capable of, and even defined by, our ability to transform ourselves. We have successfully transferred a great deal of our violence into social institutions that maintain some checks on it, that make it more reflective and less reflexive, even if woefully imperfectly so. We have systems of justice within our nations (some better than others), and systems of diplomacy and rationalized warfare among them (still mostly in a barbarian stage of development, but, though in a historical lull and belied by the brutality of its failures, long developing toward increasing institutionalization and pacification). The glass may seem well more than half empty to those who are rightly aware of how brutal and animalistic we remain, but it clearly contains some significant drops to those who examine the greater attitudinal brutality so ubiquitous throughout human history, and the growing yearning as the centuries pass for something more conducive to human welfare.

It’s true, as one aspect of The Variable Malleability of Reality, that we change our most superficial aspects most frequently and easily (e.g., the technologies we employ, and the arrangements by which we coexist), and, the deeper into our essence you delve, the more beyond our reach our nature becomes. But changes on the surface can and do ripple outward and downward, incidentally affecting our deeper natures by changing the context of our lives, and providing us with ever-more sophisticated tools with which to change ourselves more dramatically, both superficially and ever-more profoundly. We are, in fact, for good or for ill, on the threshold of having come full circle, the echo of natural history (human history) acquiring the capacity to manipulate that biological evolution itself at the genetic level (we have long affected it through agriculture and animal husbandry).

Human consciousness does not, and should not, change with the snap of a finger. Lofty aspirations with short time horizons are quickly dashed, and their adherents justly (if perhaps unkindly) ridiculed. But it does change, and dramatically so. And we are participants in it.

However, it does not always change for the better, particularly in the short run. America, or at least one prominent and consequential current within America, is currently deeply embedded in a period of regression, entrenching its bigotries, rejecting reason and imagination and compassion, embracing extreme individualism and a shallow and brutal political economic ideology. This, too, is real, and has enormous significance to our collective welfare. I will address it in an upcoming essay, “The Mutating Memes (and ‘Emes’) of Organized Ignorance.”

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The title of this essay may seem naive or idealistic, particularly when written by someone who not only answers in the affirmative, but insists that it’s only a question of how contagious we choose to make them. Wisdom and compassion (or the various instances of them) have been viral throughout human history, as have been their opposites. Our challenge, as conscious beings participating in our history, has always been to facilitate the spread of those memes and “emes” (i.e., cognitions and emotions) in service to wisdom and compassion, and to curtail the spread of those that serve their opposites.

The real question is: Are we capable of altering the balance in a fundamentally transformative way? The confluence of memes and emes in fundamentally transformative ways isn’t some pie-in-the-sky notion, but rather a norm of human history. To take just modern European (and European off-shoot) history, we see a sequence of cumulative thresholds: The Renaissance, The Reformation, The Scientific Revolution, The Enlightenment, The Enlightenment-informed political revolutions, the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions, followed by a flow of accelerating consequences of the Industrial Revolution (telegraph, electrification, telephone, pharmaceuticals and chemicals, plastics, cars, planes, nuclear energy and weapons, jet airliners), culminating in what may well eclipse the Industrial Revolution in hindsight (the Information Technology Revolution) and catalyze an even greater acceleration of change.

The most dramatic of these thresholds may appear to be technological, but many were social institutional as well: The Glorious Revolution in England, which put William III and Mary II on the thrown and tipped the scales toward a reversal of the principal-agent relationship between people and government (e.g., the invention of popular sovereignty); the U.S. Constitution, which inherited that political transformation, a body of Enlightenment thought, and an easily conquered new continental nation in which to more fully implement it; and the rise of “the administrative state” during and after The Great Depression.

Obviously, not all of these transformative developments were unambiguously positive: Industrial warfare wreaked horrendous destruction in WWI, which was eclipsed by WWII, which culminated in the only infliction of nuclear weapons on a human population. But equally obviously, they are not on the whole unambiguously negative: Popular sovereignty, the rule of law, an increasingly functional blend of a market economy with administrative oversight to harness that economy more in service to humanity, while all woefully imperfect and incomplete, are admirable achievements nonetheless.

There is also the crucial question of how do we as individuals best articulate our efforts with these grand historical processes and “revolutions,” given that most of them seem to be aggregations of more immediate and less ambitious efforts, rather than grand movements contemplated and executed in any intentionally organized way. “The Industrial Revolution,” for instance, was an accumulation of inventions, and even The American Revolution began as a war of secession in response to specific grievances, the crowning achievement, the U.S. Constitution, not even being a glimmer in the national eye until well after the war was over.

But all of these developments, dubbed “revolutions” in retrospect, were to some extent the result of underlying ideals and disciplines that gained favor and momentum through intentional human efforts and advocacy. The Renaissance involved a growing commitment to “humanism.” The Reformation was, to some extent, a reaction to the oppressive and exploitational Medieval Church, driven by religiously couched yearnings for increased liberty and justice. The Scientific Revolution was a growing commitment to a methodology which increased the robustness and reliability of the human exploration of nature (nor was it a bloodless development, with folks like Galileo enduring The Inquisition for having insisted that a scientific finding, that the Earth revolved around the sun rather than vice versa, was more accurate than the religious dogma it had challenged).

These historical developments and transformations do not occur independently of us, but rather because of us, because of the Thomas Paines who, only recently arrived in America, having failed miserably in all of his previous endeavors, wrote first “Common Sense,” basically starting the colonial conversation in earnest about whether those colonists should secede from the Empire of which they had until recently been proud subjects, and then the poem that gave hope and courage to the demoralized soldiers gathered at Valley Forge. They happen because people create and are inspired by new ideas, new possibilities, new nascent hope and belief that we are capable of something more than what we have yet accomplished.

We need to rally first to that realization, the realization that we can be conscious beings consciously participating in our own shared history, aspiring for more than the passage or defeat of this or that bill currently in Congress or the election of this or that candidate who seems to favor the ideology we prefer. Of course, these urgencies of the moment are anything but trivial, but they do not define the limits of what we can strive to achieve.

We need to divert a little of our passion, a little of our dedication, a little of our aspiration, to the deeper political struggle to promote the memes and emes which best serve our humanity, which lead ever more people to be ever more amenable to the disciplined products of imaginative reason and universal goodwill. I’ve offered my suggestion, in The Politics of Reason & Goodwill, simplified, about how we might go about doing so. In the second part of this essay (Can Wisdom & Compassion Go Viral? Part II), I make my appeal to all of you reading this how you can help me spread these particular memes and emes to as many others as possible.

Click here to buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards for just $2.99!!!

(The following is a modified excerpt from my novel A Conspiracy of Wizards; see An epic mythology).

As Algonion descended into Lokewood from the foothills of the Thresian Mountains, he could feel the nature of the forest begin to change. He was leaving the height of autumn behind, and entering a realm shrouded in a season of its own, unlike any that ever visited the lands of men. The trees became squat, stark, and twisted; the ground an uneven bed of bulging and pitted stone, acrid fumes seeping from frequent fissures. Electricity crackled in the air and, as he pushed on, small bolts of lightening sparked and stabbed arbitrarily. An eerie mist wafted among the trunks and charred stumps, and only a diffuse gray light filtered through the haze. Unseen wooden chimes rattled frantically wherever he approached, though the air was perfectly still.

All around him, as the lightening grew larger and brighter, tortured limbs flashed in silhouette, reaching for him like a thousand desperate arms frozen in a thousand separate poses, threatening, terrifying, beseeching. The path dwindled and disappeared. The branches closed in on him, grabbing at him, buffeting him, clutching him, obstructing his forward progress. Wherever he turned, many-fingered boughs assaulted him, as though intentionally slung. Jagged bolts struck ever nearer, forcing him to dodge their deadly thrusts. His body began to move as it had in the ice sphere in Vaznalla (see The Wizards’ Eye), dancing among these hazards with liquid grace, anticipating them, flowing between them. But here, the first mistake could be a fatal one.

Avoiding the bright javelins of fire, leaping and tumbling over and under the encroaching limbs, he gave himself over to the movements, freed from all other thoughts, a wild thing at home in the woods. Vaznalla, though an incubator of perfection, was an incubator none the less. Here, he moved as if born anew, challenged by the random rather than contrived. It was as if he were Evenstar’s crystal statue unfrozen into vivid life.

The trees gradually became taller, though no less twisted, rising in a tangle of bare branches. Small fires burned and smoldered wherever lightening had struck dead wood. Lokewood was a simmering maelstrom of sizzling air and boiling earth, pools of mud and lava bubbling all about. Rancid steam rose from cracks in the earth like the flatulence of an ailing giant. Sinkholes sucked at Algono’s feet. Though there wasn’t the slightest breeze, the sound of howling wind was everywhere, of mocking laughter, of ominous hoots and caws. Eyes peered out from every shadow. Wafting tendrils of smoke closed around Algonion like a spectral hand. At last, he discerned Loci faces peering out from among the trees.

(The Loci imps, capable of setting off cascades of chaos by making tiny manipulations both in Nature and in people’s minds and bodies, stood a couple of feet tall, with twisted, gibbous bodies, lopsided faces and crag-toothed grins, protruding eyes glaring with hideous intensity….)

Soon he came upon a group of the imps gathered around a pet of some kind, tormenting it with their blowdarts. Through the throng, he saw what kind of animal it was: A young man, naked and wild-eyed, cringing and curling into a fetal ball, shrieking and crying, robbed of any last vestige of dignity. Algonion recognized him. It was one of the Champions he had seen on the road from Boalus to Ogaropol, years ago. Apparently, the Contest had not gone well for him.

The forest grew thicker around Algonion, complicating his advance, though he never faltered nor slowed. The openings left few choices, channeling him where they would. Sometimes he had to dive up and over branches, sometimes to climb higher still in search of a gap. Eventually he found himself steadily ascending, swinging around one branch, hands and feet coming together to lithely catapult off another. Unfurling like a sail, arms and legs flung wide, he would glide down and grab a limb around which to pivot, using the momentum of his fall to launch himself upward again. He could almost feel his body stretching, arms elongating as he swung, spreading out as he soared, wearing the world like a glove.

At last he saw below him, in the depths and in the heights, a thousand flickering lights. As he descended toward them, he reached the threshold of a Locu city of sorts, a city that could only be called “Pandemonium.” Devoid of straight lines and parallel planes, it was made rather of sinuous surfaces coaxed from the fabric of nature, woven-vine sacks and meshed-branch enclosures, large holes pocking hollow trees, portals to havens of Loca life. Everywhere, bursts of lightening ignited charred stumps, as old flames sputtered and died.

Around these many fires, the ongoing orgy of Loca life was in full bloom. Brawls and assaults erupted as readily as the smoldering woods and belching ground. A Loca who was being dragged by her ear grabbed hold of her assailant’s leg and sunk her jagged teeth into his calf. He released her to attend to the wound, and in that moment she raised him up on her shoulders and tossed him into the nearest blaze, which flared to consume his resinous body. The piercing scream was quickly drowned by the cheers and laughter of the crowd, some of whom gathered to savor the smell of burning flesh, inhaling it as though it were an aphrodisiac.

Then some of the imps noticed Algonion swinging down into their realm. They began jumping about, shrieking and howling. That cacophony, Algonion realized at once, was their language, the language of the forest itself. And though it lacked any recognizable grammar, or for that very reason, it was the subtlest language Algonion had ever heard, subtler even than the mathematical abstractions of the Vaznallam wizards. For, to his amazement, he understood it as though it were his own native tongue, his mind dancing among the woven sounds much as his body had danced among the forest’s interlaced branches moments before. He felt it rather than merely heard it, felt the primal passions of their voice, the captivity of their mother (see The Hollow Mountain), the defilement of their world, the rage that had been festering ever since, that had twisted them over the ages into what they had now become. They clamored around him, ever closer, demanding to be heard, demanding that he deliver them from the frustration and anger of having been pushed aside.

But Algonion could not give them what they wanted. He chirped and growled like one of them, jumped up and down and pounded this and that, trying to explain things that had no place in that idiom. He cooed that he had not the power to command history, no more than they. He screeched that his people would not, could not, leave, that they had nowhere to go. He squawked that the river of time and events could not flow backwards, that the sea could not be sucked into the high mountain springs. He tried to tell them, as a prelude to discussing what could be done, but their tolerance was short, and they would brook no contention from such as he. He felt them turning hostile, spitting and clawing at him with the fury of slighted beasts, feral shrieks now calling the hordes down upon him.

Loci swarmed, popping out of shadows, swinging toward him on vines and boughs, blowing their darts at the despised intruder. Algonion couldn’t dodge them all. He felt stings, and then emotions flying out of control. Sorrow, remorse, hatred, fear, all welling up at once, vying with one another for dominance. Disoriented though he was, he retained enough presence of mind to flee. He dove and tumbled and rolled back through the forest, with no sense of direction, with only the desire to get away. He was no longer focused enough to avoid the hazards, the grasping branches and stabbing bolts. He was scratched and bruised and burned and shocked a thousand times before he escaped those bewitched woods, finally emerging onto an unfamiliar coast, where shallow tiers of stone descended into the sea.

Cast up on the lowest tiers were all kinds of debris: driftwood and shells and pieces of wreckage. The sky was overcast, and a strong, wet wind blew. The sea churned as though tossed by a storm, thrashing about like a beast with struggling prey clamped in its jaws. Algonion heard a noise rising in the forest behind him: The Loci were still in pursuit! As he saw them emerging from the woodline, he turned and ran in bounding leaps down the broad stone tiers to the water’s edge, loping like a large, gangling bird trying to get itself aloft. There were no branches to grasp, but still his body reached, reached out to the air, trying to swing himself to freedom upon its interlaced limbs. If only I could fold myself into the wind, he thought, desperately, wrap myself around it like flesh around a whim….

And, indeed, as he reached the last tier and landed amid the refuse vomited up by the wrenching sea, his body began stretching and folding, collapsing into a new form, like that of a loon. But it was as much Algonion as it was beast, retaining his shape even while assuming another. His perceptions transformed as well, akin to passing through the threshold between lucidity and dreams. He saw the world as a bird would see it, felt the loss in some parts of his mind and the gain in others. Yet it was still Algonion, taking on some aspect of what he was not, but never quite becoming it.

So he shimmered and transformed in his last strides toward the sea, skimming the surface with his dangling feet, his fallen clothes snatched away by the snapping whitecaps. His large wings flapped, and he slowly rose up into the air and sailed out above the frantic waves, quickly shrinking to a more conventional size for a bird of his kind.

(See also The Hollow Mountain, The Wizards’ Eye, The Cloud Gardener, Prelude to “A Conspiracy of Wizards”, The History of the Writing of “A Conspiracy of Wizards” and About “A Conspiracy of Wizards”.)

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