The Evolution of the Soul

By Mad Sweeny (Ed Chapman) MDnuz 1994 Vol.4 No. 1

The Dinosaurs have finally learned to fly! They perch on the trees and they make the telephone lines sag.
The Evolution of the Soul-- The Grand Journey, over many lifetimes, to the ultimate destination-- finally, to perfection: the evolution of the spirit into har mony with the light! The idea has run like a silver current in most mystical and magic(k)al traditions, both western and eastern. It is an integral part of Illuminism, Christian mysticism, Gnostic philosophy, Victorian magical societies, Theosophy, modern Rosicrucian and other mystery schools, and, in the east, in the classic Buddhist and Hindu religions. Even some modem Druids and Wiccans believe in the idea, and, of course, it’s what the whole ‘new age’ personal growth movement is all about. The soul is seen as evolving to greater and greater heights, through one life or many, suffering, and learning, until it reaches the pinnacle of fixed purity that some folks like to call God.

That’s all very nice, as far as it goes, but did you notice how neatly the word "evolve" seems to fit into all of this? I’d like to use this article to explore the popular metaphor of ‘spiritual evolution’, first from the viewpoint of an evolutionary biologist, and then from a Neopagan point of view.

Ever since the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, the term ‘evolution’ has been used, to describe what until then had been called a journey, or a ‘pilgrims’ progress’; the soul's advance to higher realms. While this gives the idea a new pseudo-scientific legitimacy, it also fosters false notions about the biological theory of evolution. Strangely, even as we approach the year 2,000 CE, people talk about evolution as if they still have the old medieval ‘Chain of Being’ (animals below; man on top) stuck in the back of their heads. Diagrams of evolutionary ‘lines’ that look like ‘trees’ may subtly reinforce this. Yet, I don’t believe that Darwin ever wrote that evolution was in any way a hierarchy of this sort. He wrote in his theory of natural selection that variations and mutations of species are created spontaneously. Complex forces in the environment, which, for our purposes, we can call Mama (Massive Ambient Mutating Area?) then select which ones succeed, and which ones don’t, simply by letting them interact, or play with each other. Things live because they adapt to an environment; they die because they don’t adapt. There is no ‘progression,’ no ‘end point,’ and no ‘ultimate species’ (although many humans seem to think that they are it). It doesn’t matter which species survive and which don’t, Mama isn’t interested in that. There is nothing that nature aspires to. Everyone from metaphysicians to racial purists have misunderstood this important idea, and that’s a shame, because the whole theory of evolution hinges on it.

Stephen Jay Gould, perhaps the best known evolutionary biologist in our day, likens evolutionary growth to that of a bush. (unlike a tree, a bush can grow in all directions at once. There is no top, no bottom-- only growth. The bush spreads, creating more bush-stuff as it goes along.) Evolution is messy: it makes diversity, and diversity is messy. It doesn’t grow up, it grows out. Even when a species is successful in a particular niche, Mama still messes with it. Some new species survive, and some don’t. Regardless, nature continues to create. Look around you at what the universe does in the mundane world. No two things are alike. Species survive for the stupidest reasons-- a simple lack of predators; larger genitalia; an opposable thumb, and they die for reasons just as stupid-- the temperature cools by two degrees; man hunts them to extinction to decorate his hats.

So, what does all this have to do with Neopaganism? Well, it’s food for thought. I think that while the process of evolution is an inappropriate metaphor for theologies that say that the soul moves toward purity, perfection, a God, or a goal, natural selection could be a very useful metaphor for a polytheist Pagan view of the universe. The idea of spirits inhabiting numerous diverse and magical lives in an endless series of strange and varied species is not only very appealing, but closer to what Mama is actually doing on a mundane level. Creatures come and go, and, it appears to me, most of them are rather hysterically magically ridiculous, the fruit of Her amazing imagination. And just as we fight to save the diversity of species in Earth’s rain forests, we should fight to save the diversity of spirit in our souls as well. We are all on different and interesting paths-- not at all coinciding in the same predetermined place, but free to grow in any direction we are experimentally and experientially able. We’re a wonderfully messy universe.

A friend of mine, a student of a rigorous Tibetan Buddhist study program, was shocked when I said that the purpose of life is the production of a lot of beautiful nonsense. He views life as more or less a long arduous trek, culminating in rebirth into a human body and mind and the possibility of leaving the wheel of birth and death and suffering. But that’s not what most Pagans believe. We don’t suffer well. And, I simply don’t see the universe working in this manner. I see Her constantly creating beautiful, startling nonsense; continuous creation and destruction, sometimes in cycles, with the only possible end ultimate destruction with the chance to begin it all new again.

Evolution of the Soul? I’m against it, unless it’s evolution in the natural sense of growth and change in any random direction, and for no particular purpose at all. Nonsense implies freedom. The lack of meaning means freedom. The notion of the evolution of the soul toward some pure ultimate destination strikes me as a narrow, even tyrannical idea. It assumes that there is a single goal, that at some point one becomes a ‘master’ and attains it, and that others must do so, too. Polytheology can help keep us from thinking along such linear lines (pardon the redundancy) and can keep us from falling into monotheistic thought-traps. Instead, we can fully enjoy all the stuff of the universe, find our desires and follow them, and stop worrying about where we are going, or where we might sit on some cosmic measuring device. We don’t need to search for perfection. Perfection is where creativity stops, it is where the imagination dies:

is unimaginable
the soul complicates itself
cell by cell to consciousness
and remains unsatisfied,
the imagination unfulfilled.

Poetry’s the same: I type
‘cut the nonsense, purify the vision’
and the paper sticks in my typewriter
like a white flag of surrender.

So, perhaps, the secret
lies in the opposite:
it’s January, but already the birds
are flashing crazy colors
over the overwhelming snow.

Hail Eris!

REFERENCES—Evolution of the Soul

CODES OF EVOLUTION, Dozier, Rush W., 1992, Crown Publishers. p223 "Many thinkers...have incorporated explicitly evolutionary eiements in their ideas. These interpretations, however, have been dominated by notions of inevitable progress and cosmic design, rather than the opportunistic workings of variation and selection."

Minor Climate Change Can Unravel A Forest- Monastersky, R., SCIENCE NEWS, November 27, 1999

Cognative Darwinism: Rational-Emotive Therapy and the Theory of Neuronal Group Selection- Blau, Shaw F., ETC: A REVIEW OF GENERAL SEMANTICS, Vol. 50, No.4

THE FLAMINGO’S SMILE, Gould, Stephen Jay, 1985, W. W. Norton & Co.
The Religion of Healthy-Mindedness- James. William, THE VARIETIES OF RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE, pp. 79-113, 1961, Collier Books

GROWING THE TREE WITHIN, Gram, William G., 1991, Llewellyn Publications, pp.28-31

DIRECTORY OF POSSIBILITIES, ed., Wilson, Colin & Gtant, John, p48 "...oc’ cultists, whether they realize it or not, believe in a dynamic evolution in which their minds may play a role..."

WORKSHOP CATALOG, Pumpkin Hill Farm (A Theosophical Center For Study, Service, Meditation & Fellowship), from a course description: ‘Astrolo~gy, Ancient Wisdom 69 H.P. Blavatsky’ " information about how the universe operates and evolves- the Divine Plan."

IBID, from a course description of ‘The Pilgrim and the Pilgrimage’ "...defines the nature of the spiritual soul and it’s evolutionary pilgrimage..."

IBID, from description of ‘Attuning to the End-of-the-Millenium Spiritual impulse’ " align oneself with a new spiritual/evolutionary impulse."