Nature is not a mechanism, but a process. To define mans place in nature, we must discover what situation he occupies in the process; to determine his role, we need to discover something of the essential characters not only of nature, but of man himself as a resultant within its process; and this exploration will lead to new views on the unity of knowledge.
Our age is the first in which we can obtain a picture of mans place and role in nature that is both reasonably comprehensive and based on scientific knowledge. We can be sure that the picture is still very imperfect, that its comprehensiveness will be much enlarged, and that its scientific basis will be powerfully strengthened; but the fact remains that our century is the first in which any both comprehensive and scientific picture has become possible.
In the world picture resulting from the Darwinian upheaval of thought, man was no longer seen as standing over against nature. His place was in nature; he was as much a product of evolution as the animals and the plants
Though biological science was content to classify him as just another animal, in his own eyes he was still the Lord of Creation, apart from the rest of nature, and in some unspecified sense above nature. Furthermore, in spite of pessimists and disheartened idealists, the unconscious assumption widely prevailed that, however disreputably animal mans origin might have been, the process of evolution had now culminated in nineteenth-century civilization, with its scientific discoveries and its technical achievements. All that was now needed to put humanity on the very pinnacle of progress was a little more science, a little more rational enlightenment, and a little more universal education.
We all know the disillusionment that has set in within the brief space of half a hundred years. How the orderly mechanisms of nineteenth-century physics gave way to strange and sometimes non-rational concepts that no one but mathematicians could grasp; how the idea of relativity, and its somewhat illegitimate extension to human affairs, destroyed faith in the absolute, whether absolute truth or absolute morality or absolute beauty; how our belief in the essential rationality and goodness of man was undermined by psychology and sent crashing in ruins by the organized cruelty of Belsen and the mass folly of two world wars; and how our idealistic notions of progress as the inevitable result of science and education were shattered by events. In brief, mans first evolutionary picture of nature and his own place in it proved false in its design and had to be scrapped
The twentieth century, besides introducing us to the new world of atomic physics and quantum theory at one end of the scale and to that of relativity theory and the expanding universe of spiral nebulae at the other, has given us our knowledge of the method and course of biological evolution; of the development and working of the human conscious and subconscious mind, and of its interactions with the body; of the variety of human societies and cultures revealed by social anthropology and ethnology; and of the course of human history and prehistoryin other words cultural evolutionfrom the Upper Paleolithic to the present day.
As a result, our picture of mans place and role in nature has once more changed. Though obviously this picture too will change in the future, we may expect the change to be one of natural growth and development, not the substitution of a wholly new design; for the present pattern is, as I emphasized earlier, the first to enjoy a reasonably comprehensive basis of scientific knowledge.
What, then, is the picture that emerges? First, we discover that all nature is a single process. We may properly call it evolution, if we define evolution as a self-operating, self-transforming process which in its course generates both greater variety and higher levels of organization.
Though single and continuous, it is divisible into three distinct sub-processes or phases, each with its own distinctive methods and results. They are the inorganic or cosmological, the organic or biological, and the human or psychosocial. The second is less extensive both in space and time than the first, out of which it arises, the third less than the second.
The cosmological phase covers all but a tiny fraction of the universe. It operates by methods of simple physical and chemical interaction and its tempo of change is exceedingly slow; its products show very limited variety and attain only a low level of organization. Nowhere in it can we discern any mental activity
Mans place in this process needs to be determined both in space and in time. Spatially, astronomy has now defined his place with some accuracy. It is an extremely small place. He inhabits one planet of one among hundreds of millions of stars in one among hundreds of millions of spiral nebulae or galaxies dispersed in an ocean of space to be measured in hundreds of millions of light-years. Temporally, the determination is less precise, partly because our knowledge of the past length of the process is less accurate, partly because its future can only be estimated. We can, however, affirm that man has come into existence somewhere in the middle reaches of the process, neither close to its beginning nor to its end. If, as some prefer to believe, human civilization represents the climax of evolution, it is only a climax to date, and has unimagined possibilities of further change still before it
So-called modern man and his civilizations are thus in no sense a final product of evolution, but only a temporary phase in the process. Furthermore, realization of our transitional and midway position demands that we cease thinking only of past origins and pay attention also to future possibilities.
A consideration of mans role in nature strengthens these conclusions Each major improvement in [organic] organization brings into existence a new and higher type, which then proceeds to demonstrate its improved nature by its biological success, as evidenced by its rapid multiplication and extension
Another important general characteristic of biological evolution is that the great majority of evolutionary trends are intrinsically limited: after a longer or shorter time they come to a dead end
This does not mean that all biological evolution has come to an end, as is often mistakenly alleged. New species are constantly being evolved, and we can be sure that new trends will continue to bring new types into being. But these trends will all operate on existing levels of organization, and no advance to a new and higher level will, it seems, be possible, nor any major improvement in biological efficiency
[But] the possibilities of improvement in the mental or psychological capacities of life had not been exhausted: a new method of evolutionary transformation became available The new evolutionary method which became available was the method of the transmission and transformation of tradition. This method of communication by concept and symbol provided an additional mechanism of inheritance involving the cumulative transmission of acquired experience, and permitted a much speedier and in many ways more effective type of evolutionary transformation, which we may call cultural evolution.
With the passing of this critical point, hominids became men, man became the new dominant type, and the human or psychosocial phase of evolution was initiated on our earth Psychosocial or cultural evolution depends on cumulative tradition Man is today the only organism capable of further major transformation or evolutionary advance.
Our knowledge thus now enables us to define mans role as well as his place in nature. His role is to be the instrument capable of effecting major advances and of realizing new possibilities for evolving life.
This, however, is only a broad and general statement. To define his role more accurately we need to study in more detail the peculiarities of man as a unique psychosocial organism, and the trends and mechanisms of his new form of evolution
It was the primary uniqueness of self-reproducing tradition which enabled man to become the new dominant type in evolution. This property of man depends on his capacity for true speech, which in turn is correlated with his capacity for conceptual thinking. True speech involves the use of words as symbols to denote objects and ideas, as against all forms of animal language and communication, which merely utilize auditory or visual signs to express feelings or attitudes.
Thinkers discussing the distinctive characters of man have usually laid their main or sole emphasis on intellectual or rational thought, and on language as its vehicle. This is precisely because they were thinkers, not artists, or practical men, or religious mystics, and therefore tended to overvalue their own methods of coping with reality and ordering experience. In addition, the verbal formulation of intellectual propositions promises greater exactitude and facilitates the accurate and large-scale transmission of experience.
But this intellectual and linguistic overemphasis is dangerous. It takes no account of mans emotional and aesthetic capacities, exalts reason and logical analysis at the expense of intuition and imagination, and neglects the important role of arts and skills, rituals and religious experiences in social life and cultural evolution. The evolutionary philosopher (and also the true humanist, whether he be anthropologist, historian, psychologist, or social scientist) must take all the facts into account: he must attempt a comprehensive view of mans special character.
The distinctive feature of man is that he is a cultural animal. In the psychosocial phase, it is cultures that evolve. I am of course using cultures in the anthropologists sense, of patterns of language and law, ritual and belief, art and skill, ideas and technology, which all have to be learned and all depend on symbols and their communication, instead of being innate and depending on sign-stimuli and their interaction with releasing mechanisms as in animals
Mans place in nature, we have seen, is at the present summit of the evolutionary process on this planet; and his role is to conduct that process to still further heights His evolution is now almost wholly a cultural evolution, operated by the transformation of shared and transmissible noetic systemsin other words, symbol-based systems . [Ed's note: noetic coming from or understood by the human mind.]
The possible creation of a unity of knowledge by extending a common system of facts and ideas to the whole human species had a number of implications. Since the only potentially universal type of knowledge is scientific, in the broad sense of resting on verifiable observation or experiment, it follows that this unity of knowledge will only be attained by the abandonment of nonscientific methods of systematizing experience, such as mythology and superstition, magico-religious and purely intuitional formulations. Here is an enormous and vitally important task for intellectuals of the worldto foster the growth and spread of a scientifically based noosystem
We are now in a position to consider the relation between mans place and role in nature and the unity of knowledge, or, as I would prefer to say, the unity of organized experience. If mans role is to be the instrument of further evolution of this planet, he needs the best possible noosystem to enable him to perform that role effectively. To start with, he requires to extend his knowledge of the unitary process of reality that we call nature, including of course the part of reality included in his own nature and his own psychosocial evolution; research must be vigorously prosecuted in every field of science and learning. Secondly, he must attempt to unify his knowledge by systematizing it and by discovering the interrelations between different fields of experience
How does all this apply to our immediate task? Let me recapitulate the essentials of the problem. Psychosocial evolution is cultural: it operates via the culture-complex, and is realized through the evolutionary transformation of cultures. Noosystems play a necessary and important part in cultural evolution; and noetic integrators provide a necessary and important part of the driving force and interpretative efficiency of noosystems. Our problem thus is to develop noetic integrators suitable for our present phase of cultural evolution. They must be consonant with the structure and the trends of mans present system of knowledge: they must also help to secure a pattern and direction of cultural evolution which will most effectively enable man to perform his evolutionary role in nature.
The most important facts and ideas which our new integrators must symbolize, focus, and order seem to me to be these. First, the fact of the unity of nature, of the entire reality of the cosmosunitary monism as against any form of dualism, whether the dualism of natural and supernatural, of body and spirit, of actual and ideal, or of matter and mind. Secondly, the fact that nature is a process, all reality a pattern of processesevolution as against static mechanism, change as against fixity. Thirdly, the fact that evolution is directional, that it generates greater variety, higher organization, increase of mental activity, more definite and more conscious values
It is clear, I think, that the dualistic ordering of experience round the two incompatible integrators of natural and supernatural must go, and must be replaced by the idea of universal unity. Similarly, the duality of material and spiritual elements in civilization must somehow be resolved in the unity of psychosocial culture, and that of mind and body in the concept of psychosomatic integration
Assuredly the concept of man as instrument and agent of the evolutionary process will become the dominant integrator of all ideas about human destiny. It will replace the idea of man as the Lord of Creation, as the puppet of blind fate, or as the willing or unwilling subject of a Divine Master
Finally, I would prophesy that the central overriding integrator, round which mans entire noetic system is organized, will be that of fulfillmentsatisfaction through fuller realization of possibilities
Nor would general acceptance of fulfillment as central noetic concept ensure that human beings would always rule their actions and their lives in accordance with it. Men will continue to steal and kill, to act stupidly and deceitfully, as they have done in the past in spite of their general acceptance of the integrating concepts of theistic religions. But man s noetic systems do have an influence on his actions: they determine and provide the general policy and the general set of his cultural behaviour, through which he pursues his destiny.
It is further obvious that noetic systems differ in their efficiency and value, and I would maintain that in the worlds present age, one organized round the integrating concept of fulfillment will achieve a greater degree of unity than any other, and will give man more help in the better accomplishment of his role in nature.