Complexifying Our Evolutionary Understanding

A group of evolutionary psychologists has replaced the top layer of Abraham Maslow’s influential “Pyramid of Needs” — “self-actualization” — with parenting and mate selection. I just read an article describing the debate surrounding this development.’s-pyramid-gets-a-makeover60809 It provides a good example of some understandings sadly missing from most neo-Darwinian thought. As potent as Darwin’s insights were, there is more to evolution than meets the neo-Darwinian eye. The emerging sciences of complexity, self-organization, and emergence offer much to complexify and deepen our understanding of evolutionary dynamics.

Evolution creates new realms for evolutionary dynamics to play out in. Consider the full sweep of evolution from the Big Bang till now: The physical realm complexifying led to the chemical realm which, complexifying, led to the biological realm which, complexifying, led to cultural and psycho-spiritual realms. Each realm has its own evolutionary dynamics which emerge from the dynamics of prior realms, but have their own novel qualities, as well.

Also: evolution creates phenomena — sex, beauty, play, internet — which end up being used for purposes quite other than what they were originally evolved to serve — especially if those phenomena are in some way enjoyable or otherwise attractive. For example, play evolved originally to motivate the practice of behaviors needed for success as an adult mammal (or bird, or other culture- /teaching-based child rearing species). But now play is, itself, a realm within which its own unique evolutionary dynamics “play out” (pun intended), sometimes in ways that counter the original purpose of play (consider the delayed maturation of some video-game-addicted youth).

I support evolutionary psychologists identifying parenting and mate selection as needs missing from Maslow’s hierarchy. However, I think they miss many emergent realms of evolution: They stop at sex and biological reproduction, and fail to account for the power of culture, meme production and reproduction, and the evolutionary dynamics unfolding within the realms of psyche and spirit — phenomenal realms of which Maslow’s “self-actualization” is an individual expression.

Finally, while there is ample evidence for the hierarchical nature of Maslow’s pyramid model of human needs, there is also considerable evidence that many individuals manifest those needs outside of his hierarchy. Consider, for example, people who seek self-actualization THROUGH denial of food (fasting). Once again, we find that the map is not the territory, and that we need to stay grounded and flexible in the complexity of reality and avoid reifying our useful reality-simplifying models. Especially when they deal with something as powerful and meaningful as evolutionary dynamics….

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