The direction of evolution and the future of humanity

John Stewart

Member of the Evolution, Complexity and Cognition Research Group, the Free University of Brussels



This site includes the full text of my book Evolution’s Arrow.  Originally Evolution’s Arrow was available outside Australia only through this website.  It is now also available internationally in printed form.  The printed version has received a rousing reception including a growing number of very positive reviews, and sparked a unique meeting of evolutionary visionaries in the United States in May 2005.  A significant number of printed copies of the book have been sold despite the fact that it can be accessed free from this website (apparently many people still find a printed book more convenient).  Evolution’s Arrow is helping to promote a significant evolutionary shift in which increasing numbers of individuals are seeing themselves as having a conscious role in the future evolution of life on earth.


(new) The most recent and refined version of the evolutionary worldview that was first presented in Evolution’s Arrow can be found in the 34 page document The Evolutionary Manifesto which is here






Evolution’s Arrow uses the methods, tools and findings of science to demonstrate that the evolution of life is directional.  Evolution is not an aimless and random process, it is headed somewhere.  This has significant implications for humanity.


Whenever life emerges on any planet, two great evolutionary trends begin.


The first trend is towards the formation of cooperative organizations of greater and greater scale.  Human societies are currently the largest scale cooperative organizations of living processes on this planet.  Our societies are made up of individuals who are in turn made up of trillions of cells that are in turn made up of the descendants of simpler cells.


Our societies are the result of many repetitions of a process in which living entities team up to form larger scale cooperatives.  Self replicating molecular processes teamed up to form simple cells, they eventually teamed up to produce complex cells, they in turn teamed up to produce multicellular organisms such as bees, termites and humans, and they teamed up to produce societies. 


Human cooperative groups began on a small scale as families, families teamed up to form bands, they teamed up to form tribes, tribes teamed up to form the first agricultural communities, they teamed up to form cities, and so on.  Strikingly, the cooperative groups that arise at each step in this long evolutionary sequence become the organisms or entities that then team up to form the cooperative groups at the next step in the sequence.


Three thousand million years ago, cooperation extended only between molecular processes over some millionth of a metre, the scale of early cells.  Now some forms of cooperation extend between human organisms over some 12 million metres, the scale of the planet – and over some 380 million metres when there are moon landings. 


It is easy to see what has driven this unmistakable direction in evolution – at every level of organization, cooperative teams will always have the potential to win out over isolated individuals. 


The details of the evolution of life on any planet will differ, but the direction will be the same – towards unification and cooperation over greater and greater scales.  Eventually, evolution on any planet will reach the same significant threshold that we have reached on earth.  It is clear that for us, the next great step in this sequence is the formation of a cooperative, sustainable and creative global society.


The second great evolutionary trend on any planet is towards greater evolvability.  Life gets better at evolving and adapting.  Its ability to find solutions to adaptive problems improves progressively.


Initially living processes discover better adaptations by trial and error.  They find out what behaviours are effective by trying them out in practice.  But eventually organisms will evolve the capacity to form mental representations of their environment and of the impact of alternative behaviours.  This enables them to foresee how their environment will respond to their actions.  Rather than try out alternative behaviours in practice, they can now test them mentally.  They begin to understand how their world works, and how it can be manipulated to achieve their adaptive goals.


Evolvability gets a further significant boost when organisms develop the capacity to share the knowledge that they use to build their mental representations.  This enables the rapid accumulation of knowledge across generations and the building of more complex mental models. 


Eventually organisms with these capacities will develop a theory of evolution - they will acquire the knowledge to build mental models of the evolutionary processes that have produced the living processes on their planet.  On any planet where life emerges, the trend toward increased evolvability will eventually produce organisms that understand the wider-scale evolutionary processes that have produced them and that will govern the future of life on their planet.  The organisms will begin to see themselves as having reached a particular stage in an on-going and directional evolutionary process.


In an important further development, some individuals will begin to undergo a critical shift in consciousness.  Instead of experiencing themselves as isolated and self-concerned individuals, they will begin to see and experience themselves as participants and actors in the great evolutionary process on their planet.  They will realise that:

  • a life dedicated to the pursuit of narrow desires and pleasures cannot be worthwhile.  They will see that their desires are evolution’s way of programming them to be adaptive and successful in past environments.  In many cases their desires and pleasures no longer serve this purpose effectively – they often produce maladaptive behaviour;
  • the main game on their planet is and always has been the evolutionary process;
  • they can be conscious participants in the evolutionary processes that will shape the future of life on their planet.  They can play an important role in the actualisation of the next great steps in evolution on their planet;
  • the successful future evolution of life on their planet depends on their conscious participation in the evolutionary process.  Unlike past great evolutionary transformations, the step to a unified and sustainable planetary society will occur only through the conscious efforts of organisms, and not otherwise.  Conscious organisms will need to envision the planetary society and design strategies to get there.  If it is left to chance, it will not happen – in the past, chance took millions of years and many failures and false starts to produce cooperative organizations such as complex cells;
  • their actions can have meaning and purpose insofar as they are relevant to the wider evolutionary process.  To the extent that their actions can contribute positively to the evolutionary process, they are meaningful to a larger process outside themselves that has been unfolding long before they were born and that will continue long after they die;
  • the evolutionary perspective therefore provides them with an answer to the great existential question that confronts all conscious individuals:  What should I do with my life?
  • their awakening to the evolutionary perspective and the awakening of others like them is itself a critically important evolutionary event on their planet.
  • to maximise their evolvability, they will need to develop themselves psychologically to become self-evolving beings - organisms that can adapt in whatever directions are necessary to advance the evolutionary process, unrestricted by their biological and social past. 

As more and more individuals make this transition, a wave of evolutionary activism will emerge, directed at the unification of living processes on the planet to form a creative and sustainable planetary society.


Evolution’s Arrow takes a strictly scientific approach to demonstrating that evolution is directional and exhibits the two great trends outlined above.  It makes its case drawing only on the evolutionary processes and forms of argument accepted by mainstream science.  It shows that the dogma that evolution is directionless is bad science.  The book develops and extends the ideas that were first presented by the author in a number of papers published in the international science journals Artificial Life, Evolutionary Theory and The Journal of Social and Evolutionary Systems.


Evolution’s Arrow founds its conclusions on a new theory of the evolution of cooperation.  It shows how self-interest at the level of genes and individuals does not stand in the way of the movement of evolution toward increasing cooperation.  Evolution progresses by discovering ways to build cooperative organizations out of self-interested individuals.


The book argues that ‘management’ and ‘governance’ are keys to explaining the evolution of cooperation.  It shows how management can organise cooperative organizations of self-interested components.  Management can be external (eg. proteins managed by RNA, and human societies managed by rulers or government) or can be internal and distributed (eg. insect societies managed by genes reproduced in each individual insect, multicellular organisms managed by genes reproduced in each cell, human tribes managed by inculcated beliefs reproduced in each tribal member).


Evolution’s Arrow also notes that humanity has reached the major evolutionary threshold referred to above.  The next great step in social evolution on earth is the formation of a cooperative, sustainable and creative global society.  Individuals are beginning to emerge who have decided to consciously contribute to the evolutionary process by doing what they can to actualise such a global society.  They are aware that their evolutionary activism is part of a significant evolutionary event on earth.

Evolution’s Arrow is also part of my personal answer to the question ‘What should I do with my life?’  It is part of my conscious contribution to the unfolding of the great evolutionary process on this planet.

If you want a short introduction to the evolutionary perspective developed in Evolution’s Arrow that is suitable for circulation to others who may be interested, I have provided a six page overview here. 

Spanish  Para la versión en espańol de este resumen de seis páginas de la Flecha de la Evolución que ha sido generosamente traducido por Irma Patricia Flores Rosales, please click here.

 (new) Für eine deutsche Version die die Inhalte von Evolution's Arrow zusammenfasst und freundlicher Weise von Stefan Pernar übersetzt wurde kicken Sie bitte hier.

  (new)如果你希望对进化之箭(Evolution's Arrow)中针对所涉及特定人群感兴趣的论述发展观点做一个简要的了解,在此 我为你提供了长达一个六页的概览,请点击这里

For evolutionary purposes, it would be useful to have this overview available in as many languages as possible.  If you are able to translate it into another language, and want to do so, I would greatly appreciate it if you could send me a translated version and I will post it on this site.

You can access the Amazon.com web page for the Printed Book version of Evolution’s Arrow by clicking on the following button:

You can get the much cheaper Kindle Book of Evolution's Arrow at its Amazon page here 


The international journal Complexity published a favourable review of Evolution's Arrow in an article that also deals with five other books concerned with the evolution of new levels of complexity. The review identifies how the theory of the evolution of cooperation developed in Evolution's Arrow goes beyond the approach taken by Maynard Smith and Szathmary in their work. The review can be found here.


A review of Evolution’s Arrow published in the August-October 2004 issue of the magazine What is Enlightenment? said:  Evolution’s Arrow is, quite simply, both mind-expanding and confidence-building.  By inviting us to trust the deep patterns of evolution’s past, it opens the future to undreamed-of spiritual and social transformation.”  The full review is here.


An Amazon.com review by Copthorne Macdonald, the Canadian author of the book Matters of Consequence and of a number of other important works, states that “I can here only hint at the insightful gold that resides between the covers of Evolution's Arrow. Whether your interest is a clearer understanding of evolution, or saving evolution's experiment here on earth from today's human mis-management, get and read this book.”    The full review is here.


Evolution’s Arrow sparked the convening of a unique meeting of evolutionary visionaries in California in May 2005.  Details of the participants and the event are here.



For full publication details of Evolution’s Arrow, click here.




Part 1:   Evolutionary Progress?

1.      Introduction

2.      The Causes of Progress

Part 2:   The Evolution of Cooperation

3.      Why Cooperate?

4.      Barriers to Cooperation

5.      Organising Cooperation

6.      The Evolution of Management

7.      Internal Management

Part 3:   The Evolution of Evolution

8.      Smarter Cooperation

9.      Smarter Genes

10.   Smarter Organisms

11.   Smarter Humans

12.   The Self-Evolving Organism

Part 4:   The Evolution of Life on Earth – Past, Present and Future

13.   Evolution of Life on Earth

14.   Management by Morals

15.   The Rise of Governed Societies

16.   Limitations of Markets

17.   Planetary Society and Beyond

18.   Humanity V. Bacteria

19.   The Evolutionary Warrior


Feel free to make use of the HTML version in any way that you wish.  You can print pages or full copies, or cut and paste sections into other documents.  There is no requirement to acknowledge the source if it is inconvenient to do so.


The Amazon page for the Kindle Version of Evolution's Arrow is hereDescription: http://www.assoc-amazon.com/e/ir?t=evolutiosarro-20&l=as2&o=1&a=B008KACTI8 


If you want to buy a copy of Evolution’s Arrow in book form, or if you want your library to get a copy, it can be obtained in local bookstores via the US book wholesalers Ingram, and Baker and Taylor.  UK bookstores can obtain copies through the UK wholesaler Bertram books.  For further details on how bookstores and libraries can order copies, click here.  The book is also available through the main online booksellers.  You can go to the Amazon.com web page for Evolution’s Arrow by clicking on the following button:





I am a member of the interdisciplinary research group Evolution, Complexity and Cognition.  It was established in 2003 by Francis Heylighen at the Free University of Brussels.  The central aim of ECCO is to study the emergence and development of complex, organized systems, and in particular those that display some form of distributed cognition. This includes living organisms, minds, organizations, cultural systems, languages, and socio-technical systems such as the Internet.  Further information about the group and links to articles and books written by members of the group can be found here.




For other articles by John Stewart that address a number of the issues discussed in Evolution's Arrow see:

The Evolutionary Manifesto (new)

Overview of the evolutionary perspective developed in Evolution’s Arrow

The evolutionary significance of spiritual development 

Future psychological evolution

The evolution of evolvability

Evolutionary transitions and artificial life

Evolutionary progress

Is evolution progressive?

Is evolution directional?


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