Evolution, Process, and Conversation:
A Foundation for Conscious Evolutionary Agentry
by Peggy Holman
Why have a column on process in a newsletter devoted to evolution? What could process possibly have to do with evolution? In a word, everything.
We now know that our universe is not the static, clockwork mechanism scientists once believed it to be. Rather, we know that it is constantly changing. In fact, change through time is central to the definition of evolution.
A process is a naturally occurring or designed sequence of changes. Sound similar? You could say that evolution is the mother of all natural processes. And, as our mothers often do, evolution has much to teach us about the design of processes. Why do processes matter? The better we are at designing processes that are consonant with the patterns underlying the dynamics of evolution, the greater our likelihood of creating changes that serve us well.
This column is devoted to processes used in human systems; processes that enable change to serve the needs of individuals, collectives, and the larger whole of which we are all a part. We offer such a column because we believe that we are all agents of evolution and that the more conscious of this we are, the greater the difference each of us can make. In the months ahead, we’ll share concepts, stories, and process skills that you can use with yourself, your family, your friends, and your colleagues.
Since conversation is a primary means for human interaction, it is central to how process happens in human systems. As such, conversation is as an evolutionary force of extraordinary potential.
Evolution and Conversation
Over the last 14 billion years, as western science currently understands it, the growing edge of evolution – the appearance of radically new forms of complexity – has moved from the cosmic to geologic to biologic to cultural. The universe itself learns and transforms, having made a variety of leaps through its billions of years. At every stage, single entities come together to organize themselves into more complex entities – from hydrogen gas to stars and planets; the molten earth into a habitable planet filled with mountains and oceans; from single celled entities to the wondrous array of plants and animals on the Earth today; and through humanity itself, from family groups to world-wide socio-economic systems.
At each stage of evolution, the interaction that enables these leaps occurs differently. In stellar and galactic evolution, gravitational and subatomic interactions dominate. In geologic evolution, basic chemistry and Newtonian physics are central. In biology, interactions are biochemical, physiological and ecological — and DNA becomes fundamental in mediating them. And for humans, perhaps the most significant and ubiquitous form of interaction happens through conversation, which mediates most other forms of human interaction (such as conflicts and economic interactions). It is an intriguing concept, that conversations are for the evolution of social systems what DNA is for the evolution of life and gravity is for the evolution of galaxies and stars!
There is something vital and hopeful about the central role of conversation for the survival of our species. With its primary role in interaction among humans, conversation has the potential to do the work that interaction always does in evolution: enable distinct organisms (like singe cells) to self-organize, cohering into novel, more complex organisms (like us). What are the implications for humans? What do self-organizing differentiated humans become when they converse with each other?
We already know humans create tribes, nation-states and other collective bodies. I believe there is something of vastly more creative potential available to us. It involves another gift on the emerging edge of evolution: consciousness.
What’s Consciousness Got to Do with It?
Cosmologist, Brian Swimme, compared consciousness “to the emergence of oxygen within Earth’s early communities of life, a development that carried both the destructive and the creative significance of that earlier event.” When life first began generating oxygen with photosynthesis, the earth had no way to use it creatively, and it accumulated as a toxic waste product, oxidizing rocks and bacteria everywhere. It sparked the first environmental crisis, almost eliminating all life on earth. Instead, life mutated, inventing respiration – a new means to interact, perfect for the times – thus finding a new stability through increased complexity.
Could it be that consciousness is the latest evolutionary innovation that, when applied to conversation, catalyzes a new form of social system, the conscious co-creative collective, the radiant network of deep community? I believe that conscious conversation is the path to what Thich Nhat Hanh imagined when he said: “It is possible that the next Buddha will not take the form of an individual. The next Buddha may take the form of a community, a community practicing understanding and lovingkindness, a community practicing mindful living. And the practice can be carried out as a group, as a city, as a nation.”
The practice of conscious conversation has the potential to help us creatively engage with the overwhelming natural and human-generated crises we face today. In fact, it may be the only thing that can.
What is conscious conversation and how might it be our salvation?
A conscious conversation continually increases our awareness of ourselves, others, and the whole in relation to each other and our environment. There is a growing body of experience, research, philosophies, principles, and practices that teach us about the power of conversations to create breakthroughs. Where conscious conversation happens, violence disappears.
Individual practices, such as nonviolent communication, and projects, such as the Compassionate Listening Project, are examples of what is possible. Processes that engage hundreds, even thousands in creating the communities and organizations they want, are just beginning to demonstrate their potential for creating forms of being together that benefit and serve the needs of both individual and the collective. These processes that consciously engage people in conversation are at their best when dealing with diversity, conflict, and complexity. Processes, such as Open Space, Appreciative Inquiry, and The World Café are making a difference around the globe with thousands of people.
In the coming months, we’ll share stories of the powerful force of conscious conversation.
What does it mean for you?
Become conscious of the power of conversation to change the world. Learn how the dynamics of conversation matter and use them. By learning to converse well and helping others converse well, you become a conscious agent of evolution.
What are the conversations that matter to you? Who are the people who care, as you do? How can you engage them?
Explore the process websites above — and other more general conversation-supporting websites like the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation and the Co-Intelligence Institute — and try out some simple conversational hints and processes in your own life and community. Conversations that have heart and meaning can change the world — and you can convene them!
1. Swimme, Brian and Thomas Berry. The Universe Story: From the Primordial Flaring Forth to the Ecozoic Era, HarperCollins Publishers, NY, 1992, p. 143.
2. Thich Nhat Hanh, “The Next Buddha May Be A Sangha” in Inquiring Mind, Vol 10, No. 2, Spring 1994.