Editorial – Medical Hypotheses - in the press

An evolutionary cosmology for scientists and the modern world in general

Bruce G Charlton


I believe that people will not feel comfortable and positive about the contemporary world until we can endorse and believe an evolutionary cosmology which is appropriate to modern conditions. A cosmology is a mythical account of the universe as it presents itself to the human mind; it needs to be poetic, symbolic, inspiring of a sense of awe and mystery. Furthermore, a complete cosmology should include the three levels of macro-, meso- and micro-cosm, in order to understand the nature of the universe, human society, and the individual’s relation to them. Traditional cosmologies described an eternal underlying structure to ultimate reality – a static ideal state towards which the world ought to gravitate. However, modern life is characterized by rapid growth, novelty, destruction and fluidity of all kinds of structures, a feature which traditional static cosmologies interpret negatively and pessimistically. A modern cosmology therefore needs to be focused on underlying dynamic process instead of structure and stasis. Biologists are better placed than many to appreciate a cosmology based on evolutionary change; because this is the mainstream understanding of adaptation and diversity in the natural world. The same dynamic, neophiliac and open-ended process of ‘creative destruction’ can be seen at work in science, economics, and modern spirituality. But a modern cosmology will only be experienced as both deep and spontaneous when it takes the form of a mythic account that is first encountered and assimilated during childhood. Since myths arise as a consequence of human creativity; there is a vital future mythogenic role for artists in the realm of ideas, images and stories: people such as mystics, poets and philosophers – including, I hope and expect, creatively-inspired scientists.

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I believe that people will not feel comfortable and positive about the contemporary world until we can endorse and believe an evolutionary cosmology which is appropriate to modern conditions. We already have the analytic and theoretical understanding to generate such a cosmology – but its achievement awaits future mythogenic work by creative artists in ideas, images and stories – including inspired scientists.

The need to feel ‘at home in the world’

The modern world currently lacks an appropriate and generally-accepted cosmology – existing cosmologies incorporate dysfunctional pre-modern concepts and are confined to minority sub-groups. Probably this deficiency is responsible for much cultural and individual pessimism. Because people do not have a basic symbolic understanding of the modern world and modern humanity’s place in it, they experience conflict between their cosmology and what they observe and experience. This mismatch between traditional cosmology and contemporary actuality is alienating. Consequently the modern world is frequently perceived as chaotic, meaningless, declining or collapsing.

Traditional cosmologies described an eternal underlying structure to ultimate reality – a static ideal state towards which the world ought to gravitate. However, modern life is characterized by rapid fluidity of all kinds of structures, including innovation and destruction, and growth in complexity of communications without a pre-established end-point. We do not know where we are going, yet we are accelerating towards it.

A modern cosmology therefore needs to be focused on underlying process instead of structure, on dynamism rather than stasis. If modern individuals become able to develop a mythic understanding of the evolutionary nature of things-in-general then their experience of change will match their deepest expectations. Consequently, people may be more likely to feel ‘at home’ in the world and broadly optimistic about the future.

Biologists are better placed than many to appreciate a cosmology based on evolutionary change; because this is the mainstream understanding of adaptation and diversity in the natural world as the result of a competitive evolutionary process (ie. natural selection). Furthermore the same process can be seen at work in the history of science itself.

What is a cosmology?

A cosmology is an account of the universe as it presents itself to the human mind. And although any plausible cosmology must be compatible with accepted current knowledge, a cosmology is not just the facts. In order to fulfil its psychological function a cosmology needs to be poetic, symbolic, inspiring of a sense of awe and mystery. It is the subjective basis of individual understanding of one’s place in the world, and expectations of the future [1].

Provision of a cosmology is one of the four main functions of mythology [2]. A complete cosmology should include the three levels of macro-, meso- and micro-cosm, in order to understand the universe, human society, and the individual’s relation to them. The macro-cosm is the natural world; and macro-cosmology is concerned with how things came to be and where they are going - including the creation of the universe, and the origins of life including human life. The meso-cosm is human society; and meso-cosmology describes how society emerged and developed and where it is aiming. The micro-cosm refers to human psychology and especially subjective consciousness. To form a complete cosmology, these three levels of macro, meso and micro need to be related by the same explanatory model, so that the universe is seen as a unified whole [1].

The basis for a modern cosmology which explains macro, meso and micro levels is well established in scientific domains such as the evolution of complex systems, selection mechanisms, complexity theory, self-organization, and the phenomenon of emergence [eg. 3, 4, 5]. This type of meta-model provides an outline summary of content of a possible modern cosmology. However, analytic understanding is not in itself a cosmology, since it lacks the necessary poetic and symbolic mode of expression which is characteristic of myth [1, 2]. To render evolutionary cosmology into myth is the future task of creative individuals working in ideas, images, symbols and stories.

Science is a process

Many scientists have an implicit general understanding of the interaction between humans and the natural world in terms of the functioning of science.

This includes such features as science being an open-ended process and not a specific set of facts and theories; that science is about change and transformation of structures; that science grows in complexity and explanatory scope over time; and that progress in science entails an intrinsic relationship between creation and destruction [6]. Science is therefore a process with direction but no specific goal, dynamic and open-ended; and an activity that does not aim at an ultimate complete, static and final state but at a continuous perpetuation of scientific progress.

Jacob Bronowski did a convincing and inspiring job of mythologizing the process of science and its relation to other social domains such as the arts and politics – and this account has become widely known [7]. However, he died before completing this task, and in particular the micro-cosmic domain of human consciousness was left-out of Bronowski’s synthesis.

By contrast with the scientific perspective, for traditional societies the cosmos was closed and finite. ‘Closed’ because although sometimes forms of life transformed and blended, there were no new forms and the eternal underlying forms were never permanently destroyed. ‘Finite’ because life energies circulated but they did not grow. There was neither ultimate destruction nor genuine novelty of creation. At root all discovery was re-discovery [8].

Creative destruction as a principle of evolutionary change

In science there is real creation and also real destruction, such that new energies are made available by increasing efficiency and re-allocating the liberated resources [6].

For example Popper’s philosophy of science is as much about destruction of superseded ideas as the creation of improved theories – famously he focused on refutation and falsification rather than proof [9]. Kuhnian revolutions were as much about discarding superseded science as about creating new theories [10]. Obsolete concepts from ‘Classical Physics’ such as ‘the ether’ and ‘phlogiston’ were discarded to allow scientific efforts to be re-allocated to focus on the new areas of relativity and quantum theory.

In economics these positive and negative aspects of evolutionary growth are linked in the concept of 'creative destruction' [11]. So, the essence of the capitalist economy is that creation typically depends upon destruction; because creative entrepreneurs are agents of disruption. The energies which fuel creation of new forms (eg. business practices, products, technologies) come from the destruction of old forms [5]. Resources saved by destruction of the obsolete are invested into innovation. Economic novelty and improvement therefore feeds-upon the shrinking and extinction of that which is old and inferior.

In other words, the underlying processes of market economics and social evolution in general can be analyzed as being precisely analogous to the processes of science [12]. Creative destruction is another way of describing the primacy of process and the subordination of specific forms. Both science and economics are therefore specific examples of selection mechanisms [13], or (more generally) instances of the evolution of complex systems [5].

Progress - whether in science or economics (or consciousness – see below) - is open-ended because it is fuelled by its own success, and success intrinsically includes both creation and destruction. Consequently we do not know in advance the limits or bounds of future evolutionary change, and growth can continue as long as creative destruction continues to improve efficiency [5].

Creative destruction in modern spirituality

The same evolutionary understanding of dynamic, creative destruction which applies to science and economics applies also to human consciousness.

Modern spirituality is often described as ‘seeking’- because it is a continuous, lifelong and experimental process aiming at maintaining the growth of long-term personal motivation, energy and fulfilment [1, 2, 14]. In contrast with the ideal state of permanent contemplative bliss associated with traditional religions, for New Age spirituality there is both genuine novelty and genuine loss in the inner world of subjective perceptions. Spiritual seekers learn new things and forget old things, give-up established life-ways and embark on new ones whenever old practices becomes stale.

Success or failure in this ‘evolution of consciousness’ is evaluated by individuals introspectively and for themselves – nobody else’s opinion need be involved [14]. And spirituality is compatible with science because spiritual ideas are subjective, private, symbolical and metaphorical while scientific ideas are objective, public, precise and literal [15, 17]. Therefore, for most people most of the time spiritual ideas are not in competition with scientific ideas and each domain has a distinct objective and realm of applicability. Because of this separation in terms of scope and procedures, science and modern spirituality have grown side-by-side in the USA - which is both the premier scientific nation and the primary source of much New Age spirituality.

People increasingly recognize that attitudes, beliefs, and life itself cannot continue unchanged - even if we sometimes wish that they could. Over time, spiritually positive and fruitful ideas tend to grow and become elaborated because they are motivating and energizing, while negative ideas which lead to despair or demoralization will tend to diminish and be discarded. This has led to the notably hopeful and optimistic stance of New Age spirituality, compared with most traditional religions [14, 16].

Creative destruction is therefore at work in the inner world, as well as the outer. Life energy to invest in new personal projects is found by abandoning unsuccessful past projects because they became ineffective or inefficient at generating motivation; and re-allocating our efforts into more hopeful and efficiently-gratifying goals. New beliefs and practices are therefore intrinsically disruptive because they grow and make space for themselves at the expense of old ones.

New Age spirituality can be seen to share precisely the same underlying process as science and free market economics: the process of transformative growth by creative destruction. It is a typically modern process which has direction but no goal; it is changing, dynamic and open-ended; and is not aiming at a static final state but rather at the perpetuation of progress.

Characteristics of evolutionary cosmology: neophiliac, dynamic, open-ended

From the perspective of a traditional religious cosmology, an evolutionary, process-oriented modern cosmology does not seem like a cosmology at all [5]. For example, an evolutionary cosmology does not offer an eternally-valid structural description of the ultimate nature of the universe.

Furthermore, modern cosmology may seem to lack an adequate ethical basis – while many traditional cosmologies incorporate universal ethical distinctions as the core of reality.

In modern societies, the scope of proper ethical behaviour is not universal but particular; morality tends to be specialized to specific social functions [5]. For example, scientific research ethics are different from business ethics, and both are different from ethics appropriate within families. Furthermore, socially-approved behaviour changes over time, so that what was good and bad may become transposed. For instance, modern sexual ethics and practices are regarded as immoral by traditional societies; and the imperative of loyalty to the extended-family or ethnic group in traditional societies is regarded as racist or corrupt by modern societies.

But it is characteristic of modern evolutionary cosmology to be positive towards new things – it is characterized by ‘neophilia’ (ie. love of novelty). While new things can turn-out bad as well as good (indeed this happens more often than not), novelty is generally favoured because it is necessary for continued growth. Conversely, the lack of novelty is seen as dull and probably degenerate. For evolution to operate, a surplus of new choices and options must be generated and tried-out in practice and in competition with each other and with older patterns. In the longer term, the newness which is retained and built-upon is that which turns-out to be more efficient at fulfilling its objectives and provides growing-points that are fruitful for continued longer-term growth in communications [5].

Novelty involves creative destruction. A predisposition to pay attention to the new diverts attention away from the old. The known good may be risked or sacrificed in the short term by the hope for even-better things to emerge in the long term. And even when things improve overall and in the long term, evolutionary growth inevitably involves real losses. Progress is inextricably mixed with degeneration.

As Kevin Kelly has described (‘That we will embrace the reality of progress’; www.edge.org accessed 22 May 2007), the margin of benefit over harm resulting from change may be small, and the problems deriving from change may be almost as great as the solutions generated; but so long as there is a balance of benefit on average, in a dynamic process operating over time this accumulates by ‘compound interest’ such that it soon becomes deserving of the name of progress. Just one percent overall improvement per year doubles overall benefits in 70 years.

The ethical dimension of modern cosmology is related to the favouring of dynamic processes over static states [18]. The positive valuation of open-endedness can be seen in science, where a fertile theory or technology (ie. one which leads to the establishment of a new field of research) is more highly-valued than a discovery which closes-off a line of enquiry. Political or economic policies which trigger growth are preferred to those which aim to fix the status quo. And modern people most value ideas and experiences which lead to dynamic personal learning, development and improvement. A state of open-ended and perpetual change, while anxiety-producing, is implicitly regarded as preferable to stasis, since stasis is regarded as prima facie evidence of stagnation. Although change often turns out to be fashion-driven and either pointless or damaging; nonetheless, in a growing society stasis is indeed equivalent to relative decline. So, because modernity seeks positive sources of energy and motivation at macro, meso and micro levels – an evolutionary cosmology requires the built-in expectation of preventing closure, facilitating disruption, and taking risks in order to maintain eventual cumulative progress.

The mythogenic role of creative minds

To conclude, modern societies in general need a cosmology which is both compatible-with and supportive-of, the fundamental basis of the modern condition. For scientists specifically, a viable cosmology must be compatible not just with current knowledge, but also with the intrinsic changeability and open-ended quality of knowledge. Only a process-orientated and evolutionary cosmology would seem to fit the bill.

So, a modern evolutionary cosmology should explain, foster and maintain the kind of dynamism shared by science, society and the requirements of human consciousness. Such a cosmology should support positive emotions and feelings in the human individual. At macro-, meso- and micro-cosmic levels; existing strategies must be discarded when they become ineffective or when something (potentially) better has become available.

Traditional cosmologies took the form of poetic, symbolic myths and the same must apply to modern cosmology. And the way that myths arise is a consequence of human creativity: specifically the work of artists in the realm of ideas, images and stories: people such as shamans, mystics, poets and philosophers [1]. Once created, mythic forms are selected and refined in a communal process. In traditional societies this was done by ‘the folk’ leading to the many myths characteristic of local ethnic groups. The modern equivalent of the folk is the global mass media, and mass media communications now serve to generate and maintain social cohesion spanning hundreds of millions of people and many thousand of miles [19]. To fulfil its role, a modern evolutionary cosmology must therefore become a permanent part of the global mass media.

If modern individuals are to ‘feel at home in the world’, this requires not just acceptance but delight in the spectacle of the dynamic evolution of complexity. Such a cosmology will probably only be experienced as both deep and spontaneous when it has become a myth that is encountered and assimilated during childhood and developed throughout adult life. An evolutionary cosmology needs to have versions which are simple enough for a child to understand, and also to have the potential for elaboration into more complex explanatory models which are believable and useful to highly-educated modern specialists such as scientists.

Scientists are in a position to be among the first to recognize that we now have the intellectual tools for explaining how the growing diversity of modern systems and perspectives is unified by evolutionary processes. To use this analytic understanding and create a poetic modern cosmology is the task of future mystics, artists and philosophers – including, I hope and expect, creatively-inspired scientists.

Bruce G Charlton
Editor-in-Chief – Medical Hypotheses
Newcastle University
E-mail: bruce.charlton@ncl.ac.uk

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13. Wright R. Nonzero: the logic of human destiny. New York: Pantheon, 2000.

14. Heelas P The New Age movement. Oxford: Blackwell, 1996.

15. Charlton BG. Despite their inevitable conflicts--science, religion and New Age spirituality are essentially compatible and complementary activities. Medical Hypotheses, 2006; 67: 433-6.

16. Heelas P. Expressive spirituality and humanistic expressivism. In: Ed. Sutcliffe J & Bowman M. Beyond New Age. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000. 

17. Charlton BG. Why Medical Hypotheses does not publish papers from the field of alternative healing. Medical Hypotheses, 2004; 63: 557-9.

18. Postrel V. The future and its enemies. New York: Free Press, 1999.

19. Charlton BG. The paradox of the modern mass media: probably the major source of social cohesion in liberal democracies, even though its content is often socially divisive. Medical Hypotheses. 2006; 67: 205-8.


also by Bruce Charlton
Palliative psychopharmacology
The Malaise Theory of Depression
Public Health and Personal Freedom
Psychiatry and the Human Condition
Pharmacology and Personal Fulfillment
Awareness, Consciousness and Language
Injustice, Inequality and Evolutionary Psychology