Evolving Toward Cooperation

Shortly after the publication of The Coming Interspiritual Age in 2013, I was contacted by Dr. David Sloan Wilson, founder of The Evolution Institute and Distinguished Professor of Biology and Anthropology in the State University system of New York. He said that if modern evolutionary theory were true, including what the new rubric of mainstream of science calls “group selection” and “multi-level selection,” we would expect a movement like Interspirituality to arise within the world’s religions.

His views, summarized in Yale/Templeton’s first book of its series  “Foundational Questions in Science”: Does Altruism Exist:  Culture, Genes and the Welfare of Others, documented current science’s conclusion that once evolution reaches the relationships between, and hierarchies within, groups, then nature’s definition of “fitness”—i.e., natural selection—changes from choosing the best competitor to choosing the best cooperator.

So, yes, “survival of the fittest” was true, but the definition of “fitness” changes from the best competitor to the best cooperator, especially as complexification increases. In the arena of academic scientific journals, D. W. Wilson and his famous colleague E. O. Wilson of Harvard, had also redefined sociobiology in terms of this new paradigm, concluding, in The Quarterly Review of Biology, “Selfishness beats altruism within groups.  Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary.” [1]

Of course, the question was—after a century and a half of “Social Darwinism” claiming that it was all about competition, from the lowest to the highest—could our world now dominated by the shark-tank rubrics of business, economics, and politics adjust to this astounding news? Could it realize that because of this basic blunder about Darwin’s message, we had, in fact, ended up with dystopia instead of utopia?

Five years later, at the 2018 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Toronto, Canada, as part of a panel with the new Parliament Chair and others on “The Future of Religion,” this was still “new news.” Most audience members had still not heard that science’s definitions of natural selection had changed, and that the “selfish gene,” long bowed to as the sole driver of natural process, actually hands over its reins to cooperation when groups and hierarchies of groups step into play.

The evolution of human culture, thus, emerges within a different set of rules, misunderstandings of which explain many of our mistakes of the past and have powerful implications on our future if the process of evolution is truly understood.

The Saga Continues

David Sloan Wilson now has a new book appearing in February 2019, This View of Life, about which advance reviews say:  “…One of the major advances in modern biology receives a splendid overview…An excellent argument that evolution applies to culture as well as organisms… Wilson begins with the basics and then carefully amplifies them….” [2]

Wilson’s 2015 book in the “Foundational Questions in Science” series had been branded the first “post-resolution” account of what is today called the “two-level view” of natural selection in the process of evolution—the fact that competition may dominate within groups but that it accedes to cooperation once relationships are between and among groups. Obviously, with over a century and a half of science built only on the “one-level view,” there was much more to come—and many obstacles and misunderstandings facing the integration of such a revolutionary change of view.

Wilson addresses this head-on in his new book, first noting that a fundamental change in evolutionary biology itself does not automatically reverberate outward, in implication, to other fields. Evolutionary science, after the Darwinian revolution, itself became a “siloed” field, self-restricting academically to the realities and processes of organisms, and, at best, ecosystems, with wider directions toward understanding culture in the context of comprehensive evolutionary theory only arising in the last few decades. With evolutionary theory being only a subset of science, all the other fields of academia also went their own way. The implications of evolutionary theory thus landed in myriad versions across diverse fields and even remain there today, sometimes in very outdated forms. This, he says, means that the challenges of creating a worldview based on a solid underpinning of our understanding of evolution itself are formidable. So much will have to be rethought.

Second, Wilson, and the Evolution Institute that he founded, have also opined that we humans are, in fact, “wired” for both our deepest objective and subjective ways of knowing. Our objective nature leads us to the fact-related disciplines of science, while the subjective leads to the purely experiential world of art and spirituality, which do not rely, necessarily, on empirical data sets. In sum, our world has become universally holistic enough, across the board, that we’re long past the demand to figure out which of these two elements of our apparent human nature is, or must be, primary. [3]

Dispelling the Myth of Social Darwinism

It does not surprise then that the first chapter in Wilson’s new book is “Dispelling the Myth of Social Darwinism.” Historically, this is not a simple matter either. First, Social Darwinism has diverse historical usages and academic definitions. It is one of a number of terms and phrases traditionally used to characterize Darwin’s legacy but which do not originate from Darwin himself. Generically, Social Darwinism is a sweeping generalization about supposed implications of Darwin’s “evolution by means of natural selection” and appears to broadly stem from “survival of the fittest”—a phrase coined by contemporary scientist-politician Herbert Spencer.

Moreover, Social Darwinism has an ambivalent history of being used either as a positive and supportive moniker for generalizations about Darwin’s message or as a pejorative negative stereotype concerning the most pernicious implications one might ascribe to Darwin’s work. One way or the other, for most people (and certainly in its most well-known sense), Social Darwinism has been carried into common parlance to refer to the competitive (“shark-tank,” “dog eat dog,” “over my dead body”) modalities of economics, business, social policy, and politics that claim to both reflect, and stem from, survival of the fittest. Social Darwinism’s take-away for most is the belief that only the best competitor and the strong survive, and that this was Darwin’s message. Globally, we have had nearly two centuries since Darwin’s era wherein Social Darwinism, whatever its definition, has been a staple of our political and economic systems and heritage.

The second obstacle to dispelling of the myth of Social Darwinism is the previously mentioned circumstance that evolutionary biology is itself not a powerfully influential field, in academia or elsewhere, as one might (wrongly) assume. There is not really a strong bully pulpit anywhere from which to dispel this historically elusive but powerfully influential myth.

Evolution’s Support of Cooperation and Interspirituality Again as Example

In answer to the dilemma of dispelling the myth of Social Darwinism, Wilson advises that the only way forward, inevitably, is to hope for a world future where sound evolutionary science actually becomes a basis for public policy. If, in fact, evolutionary process itself is arbitrating human and cultural development, Wilson asks, could it really be any other way?

Here he offers a new clarion call centered on emphasis of the extremely consequential difference between theory and worldview, a matter linked to deeper issues of causation in scientific philosophy. Fundamentally, he notes, the process of evolution itself progresses from activity amounting to “theory” (that is, knowledge about, or concerning “what is,” or “what might be”) to real-time actions, what Wilson calls the purview of  “worldview.” Theory and worldview become subject and predicate in the evolutionary process because they represent the progression to ultimate causation (actual actions to which an environment can respond [i.e., “natural selection”] from proximate causation (vision, intention, theory, etc., but not yet actualized in actions to which an environment can respond). This is a whole discussion in itself, but one Wilson devoted an entire chapter to in his 2015 book for “Foundational Questions in Science.” It is extremely consequential.

To clarify theory and worldview in Wilson’s words:   “The difference is that a theory can only tell us what is, while a worldview can tell us how to act.”

And accordingly, “Completing the Darwinian revolution therefore requires a massive reset in our understanding of humanity, which must take place at a timescale of years, not decades. We need not just a theory that states what is, but a worldview that informs how we ought to act, while remaining fully within the bounds of scientific knowledge.” [4]

Here, the reality of Interspirituality enters the stage again as evolutionary example. But first we must first explain what we mean by Interspirituality and then show how, as an evolutionary phenomenon, it has been progressing from theory to worldview—from what tells us “what something is” to its influencing “how we act.”  Let’s start with Brother Wayne Teasdale’s original vision of Interspirituality. It’s vision and tone, from his words, help us understand what a cooperative ecosystem of world religions and spirituality might look like and the context in which it could help realize positive outcomes for our inevitably globalizing and multicultural world. In Teasdale’s words:

We are at the dawn of a new consciousness, a radically fresh approach to our life as the human family in a fragile world. This journey is what spirituality is really about. We are not meant to remain just where we are. We cannot depend on our culture either to guide and support us in our quest. We must do the hard work of clarification together ourselves. This revolution will be the task of the Interspiritual Age. The necessary shifts in consciousness require a new approach to spirituality that transcends past religious cultures of fragmentation and isolation. We need to understand, to really grasp at an elemental level that the definitive revolution is the spiritual awakening of humankind. [5]

Brother Wayne Teasdale

With these words penned nearly two decades ago, Brother Wayne Teasdale, a contemplative monk also famous for his advocacy of social activism, spurred an already existing global trend toward trans-traditional and transcultural spirituality in a world inevitably moving toward globalization and multiculturalism. He called the emerging global spirituality “Interspirituality,” and identified it in the message in over 50 major historical spiritual figures from across the multiplicity of our world’s spiritual and faith traditions. [6]

The Arising Universal Spirituality

Today, it is widely acknowledged that a universal spirituality is, in fact, arising on a global scale, uncannily reflecting Teasdale’s suggestion that the only viable religion for the Third Millennium is spirituality itself. [7]

This vision, now resonating strongly across the world’s interfaith community—and particularly in an emerging Interspiritual movement—is identified by many as a “spirituality of the Heart,” and one reflecting the emergence of a new global “unity consciousness.” This trend, identified by developmental philosophers as “a great conveyor belt” toward a successful global civilization [8], is attributed to multiple and convergent causes. In the evolutionary consciousness movement, and the consciousness sciences, it is recognized as the natural next step in our cognitive evolution. Social scientists see it as a global adaptation driven by inevitable trends toward globalization and multiculturalism. Some spiritual and religious leaders see a “divine purpose” at work, some even considering it the “spiritual perfection” of our species.

If such a “world awakening” is possible, moreover real, there are diverse and complicated implications for our complex world—including in the arenas of religion, science, social structure, governance, economics, culture, and more.

  • Globalization of planet Earth is inevitable; the question is what kind of a globalization it will be and whether it will include significant contributions from the Great Wisdom Traditions;
  • Multiculturalism is inevitable; again, the question is what kind of process will unfold and whether it will be a bumpy ride full of competition and conflict (indeed possibly even outright economic and military warfare) or whether a more reasoned dialogue may emerge, mitigating such negative consequences to some degree;
  • The world now faces an array of critical challenges that could affect its long term stability and peace. These include resource scarcity and competition, drastic global climate and population changes, and political agendas and fundamentalisms tied to narrow and competing national, religious, ethnic, or racial identities.

If the world’s religions could move away from the atmosphere of competing creeds, dogmas, and end-time scenarios, and take up their role as the world’s true Wisdom Traditions, they could help spur positive world transformation. It is not too late for the religions to take on this role, employing the “unifying” or “Archimedean points,” already identified through the world’s interfaith dialogue process. The four principles include (1) the possibility of a common core to human mystic experience; (2) fundamental teachings held in common by all the world’s religions; (3) the shared ethical implications of the teachings of all the great traditions; and (4) the inevitable mutuality across the religions regarding commitment to social and economic justice. [9]

Ken Wilber

Integral philosopher Ken Wilber characterizes this natural progression as the joining of “Waking Up” with “Growing Up.” “Waking Up” is the personal, internal awakening (specifically nondual awakening) that has been available to human persons since the early millennia of spiritual teachers and teachings. “Growing Up,” however, demands the building of a world that reflects these values, something Wilber says has only been perhaps possible in the last century or two (and among the saints earlier). [10]

These monikers, and everything in between (as in UNITY EARTH’s compilation with multiple contributors, Waking UpGrowing UpCleaning Up, Showing UpLinking Up, and Lifting Up”), reflect this wider realization that Wilber’s Integral Spirituality initialized. The conclusion is that in our globalizing and multicultural world, it is not one’s theory (theology, philosophy, vision) that counts but the developmental level of the behavior with which one is acting on these views—the consequential actions that Wilson includes in “worldview.” In fact, in the editing process of this book, I noted that of 70 prominent contributors, few cited specific religious beliefs or end-time scenarios, as the context of their views. Instead, nearly all of them cited basic principles from across the world’s diverse Wisdom Traditions along with the social behaviors that these high ideals and values imply. Immediately, I was struck by this apparent transition from “ideas about” to “actions implied.”

Indeed, as reprised at the recent 2018 Parliament of the World’s Religions, Interspirituality is now afoot worldwide under many names: spiritual but not religious, nones, unaffiliated, etc.; those cultivating universal, world-centric, trans-traditional, integral, holistic, or cosmic spirituality (to name only a few); and in the sociological movements and experiments of multiple belonging, transcultural community, ecovillages, and the like. In fact, the current definition of Interspirituality is a rather pragmatic one—any activity that reflects what becomes of religion and spirituality in the process of globalization and multiculturalism.

From How We Think to How We Act

It is important for people to understand what has happened thus far in this evolutionary progress within the world’s religions. A major background event (known by some but not by all) was the thirty-some year process, through the Snowmass Interreligious Conference (hosted by the late Catholic Benedictine monk, Fr. Thomas Keating and involving delegates from across all the world’s traditions), creating the “Nine Points of Agreement” among the world’s religions. [11] From these emerged, through Teasdale, a behaviorally-oriented calling articulated as the “Nine Elements of a Universal Spirituality.” [12]  Globally now, most interfaith discussions are based, knowingly or unknowingly, on these elements or principles.

The “Nine Points of Agreement” put forward by the Snowmass Interreligious Conference include these shared principles:

  1. The world religions bear witness to the experience of Ultimate Reality to which they give various names: Brahma, Allah, (the) Absolute, God, Great Spirit.
  2. Ultimate Reality cannot be limited by any name or concept.
  3. Ultimate Reality is the ground of infinite potentiality and actualization.
  4. Faith is opening, accepting, and responding to Ultimate Reality. Faith in this sense precedes every belief system.
  5. The potential for human wholeness—or in other frames of reference, enlightenment, salvation, transformation, blessedness, nirvana—is present in every human.
  6. Ultimate Reality may be experienced not only through religious practices but also through nature, art, human relationships, and service to others.
  7. As long as the human condition is experienced as separate from Ultimate Reality, it remains subject to ignorance, illusion, weakness, and suffering.
  8. Disciplined practice is essential to the spiritual life; yet spiritual attainment isn’t the result of one’s own efforts, but the result of the experience of oneness (unity) with Ultimate Reality.
  9. Prayer is communion with Ultimate Reality, whether it’s regarded as personal, impersonal (transpersonal), or beyond both.

These are the more mental, intellectual, or “left-brain” elements of the consensus that has been arising across the world’s religions for the last four decades.

On the other hand, the “Nine Elements of a Universal Spirituality” reflect the behavioral implications, traits of personal character, or spiritual maturity, that would reflect the values inherent in the “Nine Points of Agreement.” The Nine Elements not only represent the aspirations of authentic spirituality but also describe its goals and fruits. Each circumscribes a realm of spiritual and ethical inquiry and responsibility, and each contains multiple aspects that are critical to global interfaith harmony and interfaith education:

  1. Actualizing full moral and ethical capacity
  2. Living in harmony with the cosmos and all living beings
  3. Cultivating a life of deep nonviolence
  4. Living in humility and gratitude
  5. Embracing a regular spiritual practice
  6. Cultivating mature self-knowledge
  7. Living a life of simplicity
  8. Being of selfless service and compassionate action
  9. Empowering the prophetic voice for justice, compassion, and world transformation

In sum, these principles—springing from whatever language is used (Brahma, Allah, (the) Absolute, God, Great Spirit, etc.)—emphasize the great ethical and wisdom teachings of the religions. They stress the grandeur of humanity—a grandeur that is not only the heart of authentic religion but of the arts, including literature, poetry, music, art, dance, and all the other manifestations that mark Homo sapiens as an unparalleled species.

These values have become the hallmark of the currently emerging global Interspiritual movement which arrives at the same conclusion as Wilber’s Integral Spirituality: that (i) it is not your worldview that is important but how you act; and (ii) the historical calling of all the world’s religions is to guide our globe’s spiritual traditions through these higher and higher levels of ethical and moral behavior.

As Brother Teasdale said in his seminal writings on Interspirituality, “This journey is what spirituality is really about,” and “This revolution will be the task of the Interspiritual Age.” [13] The heart-centered Interspiritual movement, emerging from the global interfaith movement, seeks to meet this challenge head-on. Through cooperation and co-creation, the diverse inner experiences and wisdom of our species can become a transformational asset for our future. Always an outspoken and challenging voice, Teasdale also warned that it would take great courage for members of any world religion or spiritual tradition to follow a more universal path. Nevertheless, he was convinced that this path is the destiny of all the world’s religions. Teasdale’s view echoes the current message of Integral Philosophy and Integral Spirituality—that the mandate of the world’s religions is to become a “conveyor belt” for moving the religions from their millennial foundation of “Waking Up” to today’s crucial process of “Growing Up,” with all the aspects and implications of creating an actual world that reflects those high values and aspirations.

The role of global interfaith movements and their synergy and co-working with the diverse efforts of the world’s widespread peace and sustainability movements are critical to this positive manifestation planetwide. Without these cooperative efforts, we may face not only critical global challenges but, in our inability to meet them with the creativity that has aided our species’ survival in the past, we may face the ultimate possibility of eventual extinction.

Darwin’s “This View of Life”

Up until 2015, I too, with my PhD in evolution predating the current “two-level” view of natural selection, was unaware that the evolutionary process ultimately and broadly selects for cooperation and that, in hindsight, this “direction” can be clearly seen and demonstrated. The books and scientific journal articles championing this vital understanding, like those of the Wilsons, fulfilled the requirements of robust science with their copious review and citation of data. This did not make them bestsellers or well-known to the public in our Trumpian era, where invented mass entertainment often “trumps” fact and reality. And still, “science marches on” regarding public policy [14], both figuratively and literally; hopefully, this will always remain true.

David Sloan Wilson

In a recent interview, as yet unpublished, Dr. David Sloan Wilson was asked why he stuck it out so long as a champion of the reality of “group” and “multi-level” selection in evolutionary theory, with its now-widespread acceptance that led to the current “two-level” understanding of natural selection and its special importance to cultural evolution. He replied that he found the opposite view “counter-intuitive” to his own experience as a human being, especially to that of nature’s balances and beauties. It is heartening for all those dedicated to a positive future for our planet to know that the direct support of cooperation by the evolutionary process “puts the wind at our backs” in our shared ideals of the Heart, and not as an impediment in our faces, as the unbridled myth of Social Darwinism has had many so long believe.

In this latest commentary on evolution (and the pilgrim’s progress of our species), Wilson notes that, like it or not, much of our emerging cosmology today parallels the views of Jesuit priest and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a holist far ahead of his time. Teilhard also laid out the grand perspective of cosmic evolution as having progressed from geosphere to biosphere and, finally, to noosphere—the world of consciousness and all that it implies. One of its implications is the question of whether consciousness, and highly intelligent organisms, have the role to be “managers” of the unfolding emergence of evolution, taking the “driver’s seat” as Wilson says, so that evolution doesn’t inadvertently take us somewhere we don’t want to go. Conscious choice, which comes with the package of consciousness and intelligence, certainly is just that.

Charles Darwin, reflecting on the implications of his evolutionary paradigm, closed the last paragraph of the first edition of his On the Origin of Species (Nov. 24, 1859) with this sentence: “There is grandeur in this view of life…this planet has gone cycling on…from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.” There is grandeur in this view of life, and process, and it also suggests the question of whether our species will actually live in some accordance with that grandeur. 

Note and Acknowledgments

This article resulted from a panel on “The Future of Religion” at the 2018 Toronto Parliament of the World’s Religions, organized with Deborah Moldow, Audrey Kitagawa, Ben Bowler, and Kiran Bali. My thanks to them for asking me to share insights from mainstream science about the phenomenon, and evolutionary direction, of religions. A special thank you to Dr. David Sloan Wilson for an advance look at his 2019 book (which, reviews say, significantly advances our comprehension of cultural evolution) and for more than an hour of discussion. Since our backgrounds in science and religion differ somewhat, my emphases and interpretations may not always be the same as his. There is a fine short online synopsis of Wilson’s first book on the “Foundational Questions in Science,” by him, here.

About Kurt Johnson. Dr. Kurt Johnson has worked in professional science and comparative religion over 40 years. A prominent figure on international committees, particularly at the United Nations, he is author of the influential book The Coming Interspiritual Age(2013) and two award-winning books in science: Nabokov’s Blues (2000) and Fine Lines (2015). Learn more about his work at www.interspirituality.com. 


Miles-Yepez, Netanel [Ed.].  2006. The Common Heart: An Experience of Interreligious Dialogue.  Brooklyn NY: Lantern Books.

Teasdale, Wayne. 1999.  The Mystic Heart:  Discovering a Universal Spirituality in the World’s Religions. Novato CA: New World Library.

Johnson, Kurt and David Robert Ord.  2013. The Coming Interspiritual Age.  Vancouver CN:  Namaste Publishing.

Johnson, Kurt., Shannon Winters and Rick Ulfik [Eds.].  in press.  Waking Up, Growing Up, Cleaning Up, Showing Up, Linking Up and Lifting Up.  New York NY: UNITY EARTH (and serialized in The Convergence magazine).

Wilson, David Sloan.  2015. Does Altruism Exist?  Culture, Genes and the Welfare of Others, from Foundational Questions in Science Series, 1.  New Haven CT: Yale University Press/Templeton Press.

Wilson, David Sloan.  2019. This View of Life:  Completing the Darwinian Revolution. New York NY: Pantheon Books.


1. David Sloan Wilson and Edward O. Wilson, “Rethinking the Theoretical Foundation of Sociobiology,” The Quarterly Review of Biology, Vol. 82, No. 4 (Dec. 2007), p. 345, and since in numerous books and other media.

2. Kirkus, starred review, https://www.kirkusreviews.com/search/?sf=r&q=David+Sloan+Wilson.

3. See these online publications: https://evolution-institute.org/steering-toward-the-omega-point-a-roundtable-discussion-of-altruism-evolution-and-spirituality/ and https://issuu.com/unityearth/docs/the_convergence_oct_2017; and other products at YouTube’s “Altruism Channel”: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCs0cUeK8JhaJfhOBRGynqcA.

4. Both from “Evolving the Future” in David Sloan Wilson, This View of Life:  Completing the Darwinian Revolution (Pantheon 2019) unpaginated PDF, with permission.

5. Words from Brother Wayne Teasdale’s The Mystic Heart [“MH”] (p. 4 forward) read at the founding of the Universal Order of Sannyasa [now Community of The Mystic Heart], Jan. 9, 2010 (http://communityofthemysticheart.org/history).

6. See vision of social activism in Wayne Teasdale, A Monk in the World (New World Library 2003) and historical pioneers of Interspirituality in Johnson and Ord, 2013, and at www.thecominginterspiriualage.com and http://multiplex.isdna.org/.

7. See Wayne Teasdale, 1999, MH, p. 26, in References.

8. See Ken Wilber,  Integral Spirituality (Integral Books 2007), and The Religion of Tomorrow (Shambhala 2017).

9. See these as identified and documented in Johnson and Ord, 2013, Chapter 19.

10. See the citations of endnote 8.

11. Although available in various unpublished versions for years, see Netanel Miles-Yepez [Ed.], as published in 2006, and as recorded, updated, and adapted in Johnson and Ord, 2013 and at http://www.thecominginterspiritualage.com/initiatives#The-Interspiritual-Declaration and http://multiplex.isdna.org/declaration.htm.

12. See Wayne Teasdale, 1999, in References and as adapted and updated by Johnson and Ord, 2013, and the internet links of endnote 11.

13. See endnote 5.

14. See the education, media, and public demonstrations of “Science Marches On” and “The March for Science” regarding public policy, at   https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/March_for_Science.

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