'More evolved than you': evolutionary spirituality as a frame for psychedelic experience
How evo-spirituality can lead to spiritual narcissism and other ethical flaws.
Ecstatic experiences are shaped by the ‘set and setting’ of the people having them. Our cultural understanding of psychedelics shapes our experience of them. That’s why cultural history can be useful in articulating the frames that shape our experiences, both consciously and unconsciously. Cultural historians of psychedelics like Mike Jay, Nicolas Langlitz and Andy Letcher do this very well in their books.
In a new open-access essay published this week called ‘More Evolved Than You’, I explore how evolutionary spirituality is one of the dominant frames for interpreting psychedelic experiences in western culture, and what the flaws or ethical limitations of this frame are. I argue that evolutionary spirituality often leads to five toxic tendencies: spiritual narcissism, a contempt for those less evolved, spiritual Malthusianism, spiritual eugenics, and finally a tendency to illiberal medical-spiritual utopian politics. I’ll summarize my essay below.
What is ‘evolutionary spirituality’?
This is a tradition within the broader culture of New Age spirituality, which seeks to synthesize spirituality with evolutionary theory, and which asserts that human evolution is not finished and can be guided towards the creation of higher beings through such techniques as meditation, psychedelics and eugenics or genetic modification. It grew in popularity in the 19th century as a post-Darwinian substitute faith or ‘science-religion’.
Alfred Russell Wallace’s evolutionary Spiritualism, Friedrich Nietzsche’s cult of the ubermensch, Henri Bergson’s creative evolution, the evolutionary occultism of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the holism of Jan Smuts, the mystical-evolutionary psychology of Frederic Myers and William James, the process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead, Sri Aurobindo’s Integral Yoga, Helena Blavatsky’s Theosophy, Rudolf Steiner’s Anthroposophy, HG Wells’ Utopianism, Julian Huxley’s evolutionary humanism (later called transhumanism) and Teilhard de Chardin’s Christian evolutionary mysticism are all examples of pre-war evolutionary spiritualities. After World War Two, one could point to the various forms of the human potential movement (as articulated by Abraham Maslow, Aldous Huxley, Michael Murphy and others), the transpersonal psychology of Stanislav Grof and others, Ken Wilber’s Integral Theory, the evolutionary spirituality put forward in the 1990s by figures like Andrew Cohen and Barbara Marx Hubbard; some forms of Deep Ecology and ‘Gaia-religion’, and finally the different variants of transhumanism which emerged in the 1970s-1990s and have become popular with the Silicon Valley elite today
Most proponents of evolutionary spirituality are non-materialist in their metaphysics, although not all are. But on the whole, they see evolution as a spiritual force, as divinity unfolding in matter, or matter evolving into gods. They do not all think humans will inevitably evolve into superhumans – for some, it’s an open-ended question if homo sapiens will evolve or degenerate. They also have different ideas of how evolution takes place and can be steered. Most believe in natural selection, but some also support artificial selection (eugenics or genetic modification). And many champions of evolutionary spirituality believe in psychological, cultural and spiritual evolution, which supposedly takes place not through heredity but through ideas, books, spiritual practices and ecstatic experiences.
Proponents of evolutionary spirituality generally embrace a variant of the theory of evolution first put forward by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck in his Philosophie zoologique of 1809 in which physical characteristics acquired in your lifetime can be passed on to your descendants (in the famous example, children of a blacksmith would supposedly inherit the bulging muscles he developed in his life). Champions of evolutionary spirituality expand Lamarckism to include mental and spiritual traits, so that the attainment of a ‘higher state of consciousness’ can mark an advance in evolution and even the emergence of a new species.
Hence psychedelics could be one technique by which humans expand their potential and advance their evolution – an idea put forward by Albert Hofmann, Aldous and Julian Huxley, Humphrey Osmond, Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner, Robert Anton Wilson, Terence McKenna, Stan Grof, Rick Doblin, Paul Stamets, Roland Griffiths and other leading psychedelic thinkers.
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A good example of this way of thinking is Richard M. Bucke’s 1901 book, Cosmic Consciousness: A Study in the Evolution of the Human Mind. Bucke was a 19th-century Canadian psychiatrist, who became a devoted admirer of the poet Walt Whitman. After an evening spent reading Whitman’s poetry, Bucke had an ecstatic experience, which he described as ‘cosmic consciousness’. He felt he was born again, into the higher species to which Whitman belonged. Bucke then traced occurrences of cosmic consciousness in religious literature and contemporary reports, and came to the conclusion these experiences were becoming more common, especially among his circle. He concluded that a new species was emerging, as superior to homo sapiens as humans are to dogs, and this new species would eventually take over the world. Some humans would join the new species, while other individuals and races would not. This idea of being born again through a spiritual experience perhaps owes more to ecstatic Christianity and Gnosticism than Darwinism, but nonetheless, Bucke presented his religious worldview as an evidence-based evolutionary hypothesis, and it influenced subsequent scientists like William James, Abraham Maslow and Timothy Leary.
In my essay, I highlight five ethical limitations with evolutionary spirituality.
Followers of evolutionary spirituality believe that all beings exist in a bell-curve of self-actualization. Some humans are more evolved, more conscious, more vital, more ‘fully human’. This often leads to the idea of an evolutionary elite, what Abraham Maslow called “advance scouts for the race”. The concept of a hierarchy of initiation leading to a spiritual elite is found in many religions, of course. And obviously, other religions’ idea of ‘the elect’ can lead to spiritual narcissism and casteism. However, it is my hypothesis that evolutionary spirituality leads to higher collective spiritual narcissism than other religions, due to two beliefs.
Firstly, following Friedrich Nietzsche (who has exerted a huge influence on the tradition), apostles of evolutionary spirituality tend to reject humility and self-abasement as important virtues, and instead celebrate humanity’s capacity to become gods. That’s not necessarily a problem if one believes that all humans share this potential. But in practice, believers in evolutionary spirituality often believe only a few humans are evolving to a higher stage – especially themselves – while others are failing to evolve. Secondly, followers of evolutionary spirituality believe they are superior to the masses not because they hold certain beliefs or follow a particular lifestyle, like Christians or Muslims. They believe they are essentially superior, the next step in evolution, the first buds of homo deus. In Richard Bucke’s case, he thinks he is as superior to homo sapiens as humans are to dogs.
In the essay I give several examples of this tendency to see oneself as a higher sort of human, one of the 3-5% of the evolutionary elite, in the works of Ken Wilber, Abraham Maslow and modern psychedelic thinkers.
Contempt for the less-evolved masses
This sense of evolutionary superiority is often accompanied by a tendency to look down on the masses as less evolved, less conscious, degenerate, unreal, bestial, not fully human. The tendency can be traced back toNietzsche, who believed the human species is divided between the few ‘natural aristocrats’ and the gormless masses. This contempt for the masses was taken up by many modernist intellectuals and bohemians in the early 1900s, like DH Lawrence, HG Wells, Aldous Huxley and Aleister Crowley.
Sometimes the bell curve of self actualization is racial – for example, Madame Blavatsky, prophet of Theosophy, believed that humanity spiritually evolves through various races. Some races — particularly the Aryan race — are more evolved, soulful, ‘elect’ and ‘God-informed’, while other races in the past and today are less evolved, ‘unholy’, ‘inferior’, ‘savage’, ‘soulless’, ‘monsters’, ‘accursed’, ‘black with sin’, materialistic (Jews), more bestial or ape-like,‘degenerate in spirituality’ and possibly even demonic. This racist evolutionary spirituality influenced German spirituality (and had an impact on Nazism) and can still be found in the racist spirituality of Willam Luther Pierce, a big influence on far-right white supremacists in the US.
One can find a contempt for the less-evolved masses in later post-war forms of evolutionary spirituality. Abraham Maslow, whose theory of self-actualization shows the influence of Nietzsche, wrote, “Only a small proportion of the human population gets to the point of identity, or of selfhood, full humanness, self-actualization”. Beneath that tiny percentage (which included him obviously), “it is perfectly true that the mass of society is still like a dead weight”.
Theories of evolutionary spirituality became popular in the psychedelic counterculture of the 1960s, thanks to figures like Timothy Leary, who suggested LSD was producing a ‘new race of mutants’. This sense of oneself as a higher species could lead to psychedelic snobbery. Tom Wolfe, in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, noted:
The world was simply and sheerly divided into ‘the aware’, those who had had the experience of being vessels of the divine, and a great mass of ‘the unaware’, ‘the unmusical,’ ‘the unattuned’ … Consciously, the Aware were never snobbish toward the Unaware, but in fact most of that great jellyfish blob of straight souls looked like hopeless cases.
The most extreme example of evolutionary elitism in the human potential movement is Rajneesh Bhagwan, also known as Osho. He predicted the evolution of ‘the new man’ from within his movement, and told journalists: ‘only the very rich, educated, intelligent, cultured can understand what I am saying’. Everyone else is retarded:
Scientifically, the average mental age of a human being is below thirteen … Those who are retarded will criticize you, condemn you. Ignore them. They are already stepping into their graves, soon they will disappear.
This sense of a sharp divide between the evolved elite and degenerate masses can lead to Social Darwinian and Malthusian attitudes: there are too many humans, and there are too many unfit humans. Let nature do its work to select the fittest while letting the unfit die off. This is one way that evolutionary spirituality can be quite different to older religions like Christianity, where those at the bottom of society are seen as having a place in the cosmic scheme of things, and part of serving God involves trying to help the poorest, weakest or least fortunate.
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