Review Essay by Sylvia Engdahl
Published in Journal of Social and Evolutionary Systems
Vol.16, pp. 503-513 (1993)
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The Future of the Body. Explorations Into the Further Evolution of Human Nature by Michael Murphy. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam Books, 1992, 785 pages.
The subject of our evolutionary future has fascinated us since evolution was first accepted as the explanation of our species past. That humankind will continue to evolve was taken for granted by nineteenth century evolutionists, to whom the idea was a corollary of belief in the certainty of progress. Later, although that certainty was abandoned, the concept of future evolution was disassociated from belief in inevitable progress; viewed simply as hypothetical change, it has continued to occupy a prominent place in the speculative thought of scholars and popular authors alike. In recent years this trend has been particularly apparent. As Theodore Roszak observed nearly twenty years ago, Wherever the discussion of human potentialities arises these days, the evolutionary image is never far off. It emerges...at a variety of intellectual levels: in offbeat metaphysical speculation, in the mystical religions, in science fiction, in lumpen-occult literature. It has become an almost casual allusion among the experimental psychotherapists.1 Since those words were written, the publication of books well described by them has accelerated.
Yet for all this interest in evolution, there have been few detailed explorations of the human potentials suggested by atypical phenomena of our past history. Anomalous capabilities, when credited at all, have generally been seen as individual variations from a norm that is presumed to remain constant through time. Hoped-for advances in the material, social and ethical realms have, of course, been widely described as evolutionary; but that human abilities themselves may change has generally been suggested only in passing.
Now, in a long-awaited work that reportedly involved synthesis of over 10,000 sources2 and occupied the labor of its author and his associates for years,3 evidence for extraordinary human capabilitiesdrawn from the full spectrum of human activity across both culture and timeis presented in a form focused on its evolutionary significance. With a text of 675 pages and an 89-page bibliography, the book is a truly outstanding accomplishment. Its multi-disciplinary approach alone is enough to set it apart from previous treatments of its subject matter, most of which have been biased toward the various mystical and/or political schools of thought that their authors espoused. One respected scholar has characterized it as the most important work on the relationship between mind and body ever written.4 Few readers will fail to be impressed by its comprehensiveness, its erudition, and its value as a resource for those interested in the latent potential of human beings.
But the question I will explore here goes beyond these considerations. Is the books view of evolutionary theory sufficiently sound to convince skeptical experts in that field that the metanormal is worth serious consideration? I myself have long believed that so-called paranormal abilities, often portrayed in science fiction as freak mutations or as capacities belonging only to non-human aliens, are instead characteristic of evolutionary stages more advanced than ours; I portrayed them that way in novels published more than twenty years ago. So, I was delighted to discover Michael Murphys book and prepared to concur wholeheartedly with his positionespecially since he cites Marshall McLuhans suggestion that artists are a cultures distant early warning system as supportive of the idea that science fiction may prefigure knowledge of powers that can be used by the human race.5 Unfortunately, however, there are some problems in Future of the Body that I fear will prevent it from reaching the audience that would benefit most from open-minded consideration of its content.
Murphy is co-founder and Chairman of the Board of the Esalen Institute. He has extensive background in the investigation of human potential and of ways in which it can be developed. His definition of metanormal, a term he uses interchangeably with extraordinary with respect to human functioning, is functioning that in some way radically surpasses the functioning typical of most people living today.6 This includes far more than the paranormal, which he defines as a subset of the metanormal; and the scope of the book, which extends even to extraordinary performance in sports, encompasses more. Nevertheless, that the paranormal exists is its fundamental premise, and unless the reader accepts its evidence on this point, its detailed reports of the more spectacular forms of paranormal functioningdocumented feats of Yogis and Catholic saints, for exampleare likely to seem dubious despite the careful investigation of evidence that led to their inclusion.
For this reason, I find it unfortunate that in general, Murphy slights evidence for lesser and/or more common paranormal phenomena in favor of those that are more spectacular and/or obscure. To be sure, choices had to be made; even 785 pages cannot contain everything, and the coverage fits the needs of those of us well acquainted with the rapidly-growing body of literature sometimes listed under the heading of new paradigms in science. Yet the very volume and scope of the book may lead other readers to assume that it does contain everything: that if evidence on certain points seems slight, it is because no better could be obtained. This is particularly true since virtually all of the known phenomena are mentioned at least briefly, and no reasons for the comparative lack of detail with respect to them are given.
For example, the treatment of psi phenomenatelepathy, clairvoyance and psychokinesisstrikes me as inadequate. To be sure, experimental parapsychology does not uncover meaningful occurrences of these phenomena, since they cannot, by their nature, be produced in laboratory situations. As Murphy says, comparing them to those of other sciences that must rely on field work, To observe paranormal events in their more vivid forms, we must do so when and where they happen.7 Still, there are many readers who will not be satisfied with what they will term anecdotal evidence; and experiments do serve to establish the underlying fact of psis reality. Murphy quotes experts to the effect that such experiments are not compelling and often strike skeptics as representative of statistical anomalies, which until a few years ago was quite true. The situation has, however, changed dramatically with the application of statistical meta-analysis techniques to parapsychology. These very recent studies, which show its experimental results to be more reliable than had been believed, are the strongest scientific evidence we have for the existence of so-called paranormal capabilities, and the most likely to impress doubters.8 It is therefore too bad that no summary of them is offered.
There are other puzzling omissions. There is no reference, for instance, to research on psychokinesis at the microscopic level, such the important work of Robert Jahn and Brenda Dunne at Princeton.9 The common phenomenon of firewalking is mentioned only briefly, in connection with shamanic and yogic powers, although the recent popularity of firewalking seminars in our own culture has shown that average Americans with no training beyond brief, possibly hypnotic, preparation can usually perform it without injury.10 And perhaps most serious of all, the rapidly expanding field of psychoneuroimmunology, through which we are at last beginning to understand some of the physical mechanisms underlying minds influence on the body, is discussed only in the introductory chapter, without later elaboration at the level of detail given to hypnosis and biofeedback and without incorporation of its implications in the major chapters on placebo effects and spiritual healing. Readers who are as yet unacquainted with psychoneuroimmunology will be less predisposed to accept evidence for mind over matter in general than those who have already begun to revise traditional assumptions.
Omissions such as these pose potential problems first, with regard to the books credibility among scientifically-oriented readers who are uninformed about the areas concerned, and second to its completeness as the standard reference which it will surely become. They do not, however, detract from the value of its coverage in other areas, nor are they significant to its main thesis. The greatest strength of this book, and at the same time its greatest weakness, lies in its focus on the concept of emergent evolution.
As I have said, many authors during the past few decades have suggested that current or desired trends in the development of our species amount to evolutionary transcendence. Murphys intent is to do more. Elsewhere he has stated, Over the years, Ive grown dissatisfied with conceptual schemes that map humanitys higher growth potential. Most theorists who look at evolution from a spiritual vantage point have an unconscious bias. They value cognitionconsciousnessas the summum bonum of life, and tend to denigrate other metanormal capacities, such as remarkable healing and movement abilities, telepathy, telekinesis and metanormal vitality, and certain extraordinary alterations of the flesh. I created this new taxonomy to honor the entire spectrum of our human attributes, not just cognition.11
This accounts for the title The Future of the Body, which may seem puzzling to some readers in view of the books emphasis on what most of us would consider capabilities of mind, and which in one respect (which I will point out below) is seriously misleading. Wisely, Murphy wishes to make plain that his subject is the whole human being, not the human spirit in a mystical sense, divorced from physical form, on which many advocates of individual spiritual evolution have concentrated.
The taxonomy to which he refers is his organization of human functions into twelve setsperception of external events, communication abilities, and so forthwithin each of which a progression can be seen, from animal capabilities to ordinary human ones and finally to the metanormal. Though much of his historical evidence for the latter is drawn from accounts of religious experience, he is not biased toward any one religion, Eastern or Western. Moreover, he specifically contests religions traditional warning against cultivation of the paranormal powers (charisms or siddhis) which such experience often arouses, as well the ancient concept of human descent from a higher state. Philosophers of ancient and medieval times should not be faulted because they did not know about evolution, he writes, but anyone now who attempts to build a comprehensive understanding of this world without contemplating its stupendous history is a self-blinded explorer. And conversely, no general theory of human development can in good faith overlook the enormous witness to mystical cognition and other metanormal abilities revealed by...systematic inquiry into extraordinary experience.12 The book as a whole aims to combat both forms of blindness.
If this were its only aim, its presentation of material might be convincing. However, at the outset, Murphy maintains that a widespread realization of extraordinary capacities would constitute an evolutionary transcendence analogous to the rise of living species from inorganic matter, or of humankind from its hominid ancestors,13 and, citing the ideas of both evolutionary theorists and philosophers, attempts to build support for such a conclusion. Here, I am afraid, the case is overstated. Although I agree that large-scale development of those capacities would be a major evolutionary advance and should be seen in that light, I do not believe it can be characterized as so epochal a one as that; nor do I share Murphys conviction that it needs to be.
The basis of his argument in this regard is that inorganic, biological and psychosocial evolution operate according to separate principles and that those of one cannot be reduced to those of another. That is certainly true, and as a strong opponent of reductionism in all its forms, I surely do not mean to dispute the statement. But it does not thereby follow that emergence of metanormal capabilities demands a fourth set of principles, a new type of evolution that has patterns which distinguish it from ordinary psychosocial development.14 The problem Murphy is trying to solve is epistemological, not ontological. The fact that our theories of ordinary psychosocial development do not explain the paranormal, and that our science is unable to accurately measure its manifestations, is not necessarily a sign that such functioning is part of a new domain. On the contrary, our conception of psychosocial development was more likely inadequate to begin with. Quantum physics cannot be explained by the laws of Newtonian physics, yet the processes of quantum physics existed all along; they were simply unknown and unmeasurable at the time of Newton. Similarly, paranormal processes cannot suddenly have arrived on the scene: if they exist, we may in fact be sure that they have been operative not only throughout psychosocial evolution, but throughout much of biological evolution as well.
How can we know this? We know because there could be no evidence of their existence if we did not already possess the genetic capacity for them. Murphys premise, like that of parapsychology, is that they are not a new mutation but have existed throughout human history and can be developed by people living today. Although he seems unclear about whether genetic change would be involved in their emergenceremarking in one place that each of us to some extent can realize our own evolutionary transcendence, our own exceeding of genetic endowment15this statement is, I suspect, merely a reflection of an underlying confusion between the concept of genetic endowment and that of genetic determinism.16) This is the point on which the title Future of the Body misleads, since to many readers that may imply future genetic change. At least one reviewer has remarked that Murphys view of evolution is more Lamarckian than Darwinian, and that scientists may therefore fail to take it seriously;17 but this is not a fair criticism since only genetic evolution proceeds by means of natural selection.
If we already possess the genetic capacity for metanormal development, this capacity must have evolved biologically at some time in the past. There is every reason to think that it did so before our separation from our hominid ancestors, and in fact before the appearance of hominids, since ESP in animals, though not covered by Murphys book, is a well-attested phenomenon.18 Moreover, some species have navigation capabilities that we would call paranormal if they appeared in humans. To be sure, the degree of such faculties development in animals is very much less than that seen by Murphy as a new epoch in evolution; but so is the level from which our other capabilities grew. Evolutionary epistemology, for instance, maintains that the rational mind is the product of biological evolution, that our cognitive system is an adaptation to the environment in which our species evolved.19 We cannot suppose that any latent metanormal capabilities we possess were derived in any other way.
That espression of paranormal facultiesunlike that of the rational mindhas not been continuous should not seem strange, for we can readily conjecture that they were more adaptive in the past, or in the past of some ancestral species, than during the phase in which our rational capabilities were being established. Rhine, in fact, suggested long ago that psi is an elementary mode of reaction of the organism, one that probably represents the beginning of orientation in the initial adaptation to the environment, in part because it has been found to be inhibited by the more recently acquired intellectual powers.20 Murphys twelve-category scheme breaks down in its failure to recognize this. His intent is to show continuities between animal, normal human, and extraordinary human development...stages of a single development from rudimentary sentience to metanormal perception.21 But adaptiveness for a capability such as ESP would be greatest in a species that does not communicate verbally. Furthermore, research in parapsychology consistently suggests that non-rational (not irrational) forms of thoughtwhich are at least partially products of different areas of the brain than rational formsare involved, just as they are in artistic creativity.
So, our primitive ancestors may well have utilized metanormal capabilities more than we have done since we learned to rely on reason, and perhaps their temporary suppression was in itself adaptive as a means to rational advancement. (As Murphy himself points out, overdevelopment of contemplative insight may have injured material and social development in India; had this occurred everywhere, the survival of our species would have been at risk.) This is not to say that their reemergence would not be adaptive in the environment we now inhabit, and indeed many authors have suggested that the growing interest in them is a response to the worldwide crises we face in our era. But the line from animal to ordinary to metanormal capability is hardly the continuous vector Murphy implies.
Surprisingly, Murphy never mentions the concept of adaptation. This omission alone is apt to disturb evolutionary theorists, despite the fact that he does not attempt to cover the subject of paranormal capacities biological roots. Adaptiveness, after all, is generally considered to underlie all evolutionary advances, psychosocial as well as genetic, and there is no reason to think that even if a new domain were involved, this principle would be violated. If in the future we develop capacities that have remained largely latent in the past, surely this will be because these are adaptive for our species. The level at which they reemerge may raise the difficult issue of preadaptationor more accurately, exaptation, according to Goulds terminologybut as Gould has written, I suspect that many important functions of the human brain are co-opted consequences of building such a large computer for a limited set of adaptive uses.22 In other words, we need not assume that each and every latent talent we possess has had past adaptive utility, since some may have been passed on simply because they were genetically associated with others. But the wide extent of paranormal capabilities seems too great for their underlying genetic basis to have been a mere attachment to some adaptively-unrelated function.
The distinction between ordinary and metanormal in Murphys scheme is also problematic. If metanormality means functioning that radically surpasses that of most people living today, but that can be attained through transformative experience, then to what degree is ordinariness merely a cultural phenomenon that may vary with time and place? Some metanormal capabilities have been accepted as unsurprising in certain cultures where our own skills would seem miraculous; early Native Americans, for instance, sent their adolescents on vision quests, but would have been incredulous at the idea of their learning to drive 65 miles per hour in heavy traffic. Thus ordinary psychosocial development, and the scientific theories pertaining to it, seem to be distinguished from metanormal development not by a discrete evolutionary gap, but by our own conceptions of its boundaries. Murphy, later in the book, devotes a subchapter to discussion of how culture does influence individual functioning, yet continues to picture ordinary in terms of the culture we live in.
Furthermore, if so-called paranormal capabilities do exist, then may they not have influenced psychosocial development from the beginning? It has sometimes been suggested that the paranormal faculties most evident in gifted individuals operate universally at an unconscious level;23 would not this factif it were found to be fact have a profound impact on our knowledge of what psychosocial development involves? At the very least it might lead to resolution of controversies between competing theories; social science lacks consensus precisely because we do not yet understand all aspects of human functioning. Also, it would surely shed light on more controversial ideas, such as Jungs collective unconscious and Sheldrakes morphogenetic fields, which have been advanced to explain data that cannot be discounted and yet cannot be accounted for under the conventional premises of science.
In other words, one cannot have things both ways. If psychosocial evolution indeed operates as we now think it does, then emergence of a further evolutionary domain is too great a discontinuity to superimpose upon it; small wonder that our scientistslike the Aristotelian physicists of Newtons time who rejected gravity as an occult force are unwilling to give it much thought. On the other hand, if paranormal capabilities exist, then we do not need to postulate a domain beyond that of psychosocial evolution to account for them; we have only to enlarge our understanding of that process. That profound change in the world would follow their widespread emergence is incontestable, but it would be more comparable to the advent of tools or language, I think, than to the divergence of Homo sapiens from its ancestral species.
There is still another reason why Murphys scheme is questionable from the standpoint of evolutionary theory. While future development of some capabilities categorized as metanormal can be viewed as potentially adaptive, others would have far less survival value in our present technologically-advanced culture than in the cultures from which his evidence for them is drawn. I do not see, for instance, why there would be any advantage to the species in more of us being able to perform feats of physical prowess such as those of exceptional athletes, let alone to cover 300 miles in three days on foot like Japanese Ninja. However great some individuals wish for less reliance on technology (and, elsewhere, Murphy has revealed his own bias in this regard with the remark, Behind most inventions stand withered human faculties24) one cannot validly conceive of such a trend as adaptive in the evolutionary sense. Species adapt to the environment in which they live, not the one in which their ancestors lived; that is the whole meaning of adaptiveness. Our environment includes technology, and if it did not, our niche would be smaller, even without taking into account our prospect of expansion beyond the limits of a single planet. Technology and the human abilities that create it have evolved because they permit the species to thrive, and though further abilities may evolve as adaptations to the perils created by our present one-sidedness, those of value only in a vanished environment will not be among them.
And yet, in spite of all this, one feels intuitively that Murphy is right in his general thrust: that the various metanormal capabilities he lists are indeed connected in some essential way, and that together they would be manifestations of a new phase of evolutionary transcendence. What, then, is the common denominator, if it is not mere distance from animals, or from todays norm, and is not their individual adaptive value, either?
Murphy provides a clue when, in another context, he says, If we actually harbor the potentials described in this book, we stand at the edge of an immense frontier. This frontier, conceivably, could attract our love of exploration, our need for new territories, our drive to exceed ourselves. In so doing it could help reduce certain evils caused by lack of creative outlet. I dont think it farfetched to suggest that much of our overconsumption, drug addiction, and need for deadly conflict result from energies that could be rechanneled.25 Thus these potentials may have survival value not in themselves, necessarily, but because of the challenge they involve. This is a strong point in favor of their overall adaptiveness. Whereas personally, I believe the primary and essential outlet for our species need to explore new territories is the humanization of space, that outlet will not be available to all, or even most, individuals born on planet Earth; and the energies of the Earthbound population will continue to need rechanneling.
Moreover, space exploration itself may well require us to possess capabilities beyond those valuable for survival on our home world,26 and since we cannot know in advance what these will be, our love of challenge for its own sake may be our most adaptive quality. That space fiction has traditionally included ESP among its major themes, or that Murphy has focused upon science fiction films in his chapter on the embodiment of the metanormal in legend and art, is perhaps no accident. The existence of paranormal powers, exemplified by Luke Skywalkers use of the Force in Star Wars, is an integral part of our growing Space Age mythology;27 perhaps that fact will in itself prove to be adaptive.
I suspect, however, that the ultimate adaptive significance of the metanormal faculties in Murphys extensive list may be somewhat greater than is apparent in the mere statement of their challenge value. It seems to me that the factor common to them is that their controlled use (as distinguished from earlier, spontaneous manifestation) is, in each case, an advancement in human volition.28 This is really what Murphy implies throughout the book, where, though heretofore I have not stressed it, great emphasis is placed on the voluntary development of these capabilities through transformative practices. And, does not the past evolution of the human mind show a steady tread toward increased volition in one area after another? For that matter, what is the need for challenge if not our compelling wish to go beyond routine functioning and act through the exercise of deliberate, conscious choice?
What animals do, they do instinctively. The assertions of strict behaviorists notwithstanding, humans learn to choose; and the ability to choose is what has enabled psychosocial evolutionfrom the earliest divisions of labor to the most complex achievements of modern technology to take place. If we had not gained control first over our day-to-day actions and then over our rational minds, we would still be living in the manner of our hominid ancestors. That we have not learned to control our emotional responses at the same pace is a truism, but against those who assert that this indicates some sort of pathology, I have always maintained that it is a natural consequence of our evolutionary stage. Emotional faculties, like other unconscious functions, are not as easy to control as rational ones; a different form of volition29 is involved, probably different even at the neurological level. Everything we have discovered about metanormal capabilities indicates that they too involve this other form of volition and that conventional willpower, while necessary to certain transformative disciplines, is counterproductive in the actual attainment of non-rational skills. This is as well known to athletes as to mystics, and is clearly shown by Murphys extensive discussions of the means of human transformation. We may not unreasonably suppose that the survival value of such skills lies less in their specific utility than in the new form of volition underlying them, and that this may in the future have as much effect on the extension of human powers as our control over rationality has had.
Murphy does not present evolution in these terms. Though he envisions species-wide advancement, he conceives it purely as individual striving toward personal self-transcendencewhich is indeed the level at which it would have to operate. Comparatively few of us, after all, give primary consideration to the long-term human survival value of our choices, although some would say that our species doom is sure unless we learn to do so. Murphy does not believe that. He is an optimist, although he does not claim that advance is in any sense inevitable. He is unwilling to accept reductionistic views that limit the underlying processes of the universe to those we can presently investigate. Thus, after examining past philosophic outlooks on human development, he concludes that some sort of panentheism, some influence of a transcendent Reality, is needed to account for the evidence of extraordinary human functioning. This teleological outlook will bother some readers; personally, I am in sympathy with it and feel that without its metaphysical dimension the book would be a lesser achievement.
At the same time, however, I think it would be more convincing if it relied less on its metaphysical foundations and offered, in addition to them, more argument for the adaptive value of metanormal development. For surely, the two are not incompatible, once one accepts the fact of evolution as the means whereby both organisms and civilizations come into being. Unless our ideas of how such evolution works are entirely mistaken, adaptation of a species to its environment is the basis of all significant advance. If there is a transcendent cause, it operates through this process, not as an alternative and certainly not in opposition to it. Thus individual self-transcendence, by whatever means inspired, will serve our species adaptively, just as our remote ancestors first groping with tools has served.
This being the case, I hope that scientifically-oriented readers will read between the lines, and not allow the books metaphysical speculations (which are more extensive in certain areas than will please its entire audience) to prejudice their view of the data presented. These data do not depend on any authors ideas about them. If the evidence so carefully collected and screened is reliableand there is no valid reason to presume that it is notthen it cannot be swept under the rug; yet unfortunately, anyone looking for an excuse to ignore it is all too likely to find one through the process of guilt by association. It would be easy to pinpoint sections that might profitably have been left out for this reason, though I will not attempt to do so here. I do feel that Murphy sometimes tends to accept metaphorical interpretations of phenomena at face value, but that is too large and complex a topic to deal with in a review, and in any case does not affect the issue of the underlying phenomenas existence.
As Murphy, quoting Stephen Jay Gould, points out, Facts are the worlds data. Theories are structures of ideas that explain and interpret facts. Facts do not go away while scientists debate rival theories for explaining them.30 Though this is introduced in the context of organic evolution, it applies as well to our view of the paranormal. As has often been noted, we do not yet have a theory to explain it, and without a theory addressing underlying mechanisms, no body of evidence attains scientific standing. Evolution was widely discussed before Darwin appeared; the unconscious mind was recognized before Freud. Sooner or later, a comparable breakthrough will be made with respect to the facts we now know about the metanormal. In the meantime, those presented in The Future of the Body should receive the serious consideration they deserve.
Copyright 1993 by JAI Press, Inc.
Sylvia Engdahl's Home Page: www.sylviaengdahl.com