Evolving Collective Intelligence by Tom Atlee

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May 22, 2005

Growing Together at the Emerging Edge of Evolution

I've just returned from a five-day Evolutionary Salon that I helped organize. It was a remarkable gathering of scientists, social thinkers, activists and artists seeking to better understand how to creatively engage with the evolutionary challenges of our times.

Evolution tends to accelerate in times of great change and challenge. We wanted to know how to consciously participate -- and help society consciously participate -- in that accelerating emergence of new forms of life and culture.

Here are some of the things we did, experienced and learned during these days of intense engagement and connection.


We chose for our group process three approaches that embody the evolutionary dynamics we were exploring -- World Café, Open Space and Graphic Recording.

  • In World Café, participants gather around a question that matters, talking together in small groups -- and then, after a time, moving to different tables, cross-pollinating ideas across conversations and seeking deeper patterns. At the end of a World Café, the group harvests its individual insights and collective intelligence.
  • In Open Space, participants gather around a topic about which they are all passionate, and then create breakout sessions about whatever aspects of that topic they personally most love, or about which they feel most urgent. The group creates its own conference agenda and then lives it out, coming together in the morning and evening (in a multi-day Open Space) to share thoughts and announce new sessions they want to convene. People are encouraged to move wherever they can best learn or contribute ("the law of two feet"), and those who flit among sessions ("bumblebees") and who skip sessions ("butterflies") are validated for helping invoke the unexpected through cross-fertilization and novel side-conversations.
  • Graphic Recording captures the emerging meaning of the dialogue in words and pictures -- arrows and people and suns and trees and clouds and word balloons -- in real time -- so that by the end, the group can see the shape of what it was exploring, woven into a coherent whole.

After an introductory circle Thursday night, we spent Friday morning in World Café. We were asked,
"What question is most alive for you that this gathering might illuminate?" and "What in your own story leads you to care about this question?" You can imagine how rich that was, both in terms of idea exploration and also learning about each other, deeply and quickly. After lunch we moved into Open Space and were soon attending each other's sessions.

it became obvious by Saturday afternoon that significant insights were beginning to emerge -- albeit still vaguely -- we convened an evening session that creatively combined the all three methods to speed that emergence. Our innovation worked, thus demonstrating not only that we could use evolutionary group processes, but that we could -- if we opened ourselves up enough to the call of evolution among us -- help the processes themselves evolve.

Although I studied a number of books in preparation for this event, they became mere backdrops. We seldom talked explicitly about evolutionary dynamics I'd read about. But every session reflected a deeply shared assumption that
we were active agents in our accelerating cultural evolution (which is only the latest chapter in the Universe's evolutionary story) and that what we said and did here had evolutionary significance.

When it was all over,
I was struck by the fact that the content of our discussions -- as juicy as it was -- did not impact me as strongly as my experience of the process -- particularly the almost spooky power of a multi-day Open Space to impact the participants, individually and collectively, and to call forth nascent insights and innovations into clarity and power -- without ever telling anyone what to do.

Among the phenomena I noticed:

  • Normally domineering people became curious, engaged partners, listening well.
  • Normally quiet people spoke out more strongly.
  • Normally heady people spoke more from their hearts, their stories, and their present-time noticing.
  • Basic differences (e.g., the difference between the materialists and the spirit-based participants) informed the dialogue but never precluded us hearing each other and continuing our explorations together. Judgments and conflicts dissolved into productive, spicy interactions.
  • Hundreds of insightful comments -- including comments on what was happening right now -- burst forth with a rare spontaneity and naturalness.
  • Experiences on one day created tensions or possibilities that generated sessions on subsequent days, creating a sense of evolutionary unfolding not possible in one-day events. A one-day Open Space is nothing like a 3-5 day Open Space. I've come to see that non-linear processes like Open Space, while they can be productive in the short term, only produce transformational magic when they have enough time for the feedback dynamics of thought, feeling and conversation to bring the gestating breakthroughs out into realization.
  • The physical and social conditions necessary for certain things to emerge seemed to miraculously self-organize, until by the end I felt like I was not living in Open Space, but Open Space was living through me.


These last two items played out so remarkably during the Evolutionary Salon that I feel drawn to share the most vivid example from my own experience of those days.

On the third day, as I mentioned, a number of us felt certain coherent possibilities were emerging. We did our Saturday evening session with about half the group, which resulted in incredible excitement about what we found together. The next day, none of the sessions seemed to relate to that, and I got concerned.
Peggy Holman, our lead facilitator, suggested that perhaps this was fallow time and I shouldn't worry. But she had told us to "take responsibility for what you love" and so I decided not to go to any of the afternoon sessions, but instead to become a "butterfly" and sit by myself working over the ideas from the previous night, to push their evolution ahead.

On my way through the kitchen to do this (our meeting facility was a fabulous adobe structure with maze-like passageways and full kitchens and dining rooms we used together) I bumped into another participant who asked me what I was up to. Soon we were deep in an (unscheduled, unconvened) conversation that drew out more and more elements of the vision I'd been sensing. We moved to the living room. Other participants drifted by, joining the conversation. Some left, for food or other conversations. But
by the time the whole Salon came together at 5pm for our afternoon circle, a core of a half dozen of us had been gnawing on the topic for several hours. I announced our efforts to the group and invited people to join us shortly in the living room for an evening session exploring what was emerging among us and further developing these ideas.

The Sunday evening session went well, focusing on things I was particularly interested in for an hour or two. Then a participant who had just come to the Evolutionary Salon a few hours before, and had not grown into our participatory culture over the preceding days, interrupted the flow of conversation to talk about his personal agenda. After a while I became frustrated and left ("the law of two feet") to participate in a light-hearted "talent show" session upstairs, where I read
my poem about living together in uncertainty at the leading edge. When I returned from that to the "what is emerging among us?" conversation in the living room, people had abandoned the things I was most passionate about and moved on to another vision entirely. I guessed I must be ahead of my time (Open Space facilitators often say that to give heart to those whose sessions are very poorly attended) and with mild, tired sadness accepted that this new thing was where the group energy was. And with that I went to bed.

Monday morning I decided to do something completely out of character: I would go to a "chanting" session that had been called for 8 am in a round tower room that rose high above the rest of the building. I had a quick breakfast and climbed the stairs to the tower. No one was there. I looked out the windows, fiddled with some aroma therapy bottles, and then sat and half daydreamed/meditated for five or ten minutes, waiting. As I sat there,
I realized how the two visions that had emerged the previous night fit together. What I'd wanted and what these other people wanted actually formed a coherent whole that was more powerful than either vision alone. I tried to draw a picture of it, but it was not coming easily. So I want down to our main meeting room (where all of us were to meet at 9 am) and started sketching out possible diagrams on a big sheet of chart pad paper.

At 8:30 some people came through the meeting room gathering pillows for the belated chanting session, but by then I was deep in my chart. When 9 am came and we did our final whole-group check-in circle, I presented the new model, the new vision of the whole, that had come to me in the tower. The group was thrilled to see it all layed out, a new coherence for what they'd been thinking, feeling and dreaming.

Then, as they began to compliment me on "my" map,
I was struck by the realization that that this integrated vision was not "mine." If Open Space had not encouraged me to "take responsibility for what I love" and made space for me to develop my emerging ideas (with other "butterflies") during Sunday afternoon and then convene a session Sunday night, the potentials of Saturday's session would have been lost. If Open Space had not allowed a newcomer to "interrupt" that Sunday night conversation and had not encouraged me to use my two feet to leave that conversation, then my initial ideas might have dominated and the other ideas trying to emerge might not have shown up. If Open Space had not allowed (mysteriously engineered?) a change in schedule for the chanting, then I would not have been sitting alone in the tower, in an open mind-space, where the integration of the two major emerging visions came together. If Open Space had not invited new insights in the final circle of the Evolutionary Salon, I would not have had an opportunity to share what came to me. The more I looked at it, the more it seemed like I was a vehicle for the emergent wisdom of Open Space, rather than an independently intelligent actor within it.


We decided that we were part of
an emerging movement for the conscious evolution of (increasingly conscious) social systems. The success of that movement would not involve taking over society or even creating a new society, but rather having the society's conscious capacities expand until it became able to consciously and wisely participate in its own evolution.

To engage people in this activity would involve introducing them to the evolutionary story and their role in it. This was well described by John Stewart, author of
Evolution's Arrow: The Direction of Evolution and the Future of Humanity, in a paper he submitted after the Salon. He suggested we need to be able to "transmit evolutionary epiphanies" that help us shift "from societies of disconnected, atomistic, self-concerned individuals to a society in which individuals see themselves primarily as part of a larger whole, and act accordingly."

Key ingredients for experiences that are capable of assisting this transition include:
  • The experience needs to produce a shift in consciousness in which individuals suddenly step outside of themselves and see themselves and their actions as a necessary part of a larger whole; and
  • The context provided by the larger whole needs to be capable of making at least some individual actions meaningful, and therefore capable of answering the central existential question facing all individuals: what should I do with my life?
The great evolutionary story has as a unique capacity to provide evolutionary epiphanies founded on these ingredients. It has an intrinsic ability to spark a shift in consciousness in which individuals come to see themselves self-reflexively as part of a larger meaningful process.

This is because it is not just a story about events external to the individual. Instead it is about the processes and history that have produced everything on the planet and that will continue to produce whatever exists in the future.
The shift in consciousness can be sparked when the individual suddenly comes to the realisation that:
  • she is a product of this larger evolutionary whole:
  • she exists only because of the larger whole:
  • her life and actions are an essential part of the larger evolutionary process;

And, critically,

  • her actions can have meaning and purpose insofar as they are relevant to the wider evolutionary process. To the extent that her actions can contribute positively to the evolutionary process, they are meaningful to a larger process outside herself that has been unfolding long before she was born and that will continue long after she dies

This works because it produces a shift in consciousness that changes the object of self-reflection. The object of self-reflection is no longer just the isolated self and its particular concerns, it is the self-as-part-of-the-planetary-evolutionary-process... The individual now identifies with the wider whole rather than the narrow self.

This shift can be facilitated through a wide variety of methods and media. Certain participants of the Evolutionary Salon agreed to explore how to further this. Right now one of the most powerful forms through which the "Great Story of Evolution" is spreading is the
presentations given by Evolutionary Salon convenor Michael Dowd and his wife Connie Barlow. For three years they have been living on the road, preaching evolutionary sermons in hundreds of diverse churches, temples and other spiritual communities and doing presentations in schools and other forums. I've seen Michael preach the story of evolution from the Big Bang to Conscious Humanity, where we are (factually, scientifically) stardust -- we are the universe looking at itself through telescopes -- and I assure you it is awesome.

Once people awaken to their evolutionary role, they need to find their calling or contribution in the context of that evolutionary project. There are a number of methods -- from psychospiritual practices to publicizing options, visions and stories of successful projects -- to help people find their best place in all this. Certain participants of the Evolutionary Salon agreed to explore how to further this.

The movement for conscious evolution of social systems is already well underway. Much of it is made up of parts of other movements -- movements for sustainability, for dialogue and deliberation, for human potential, for a democratic internet, for human rights and justice, etc. -- that consider the welfare of the whole, or provide tools for human connectivity and collective wisdom. So another contribution we could make would be to map these various elements of the world we want and the ways we want to get there, to show their interconnections, and to clarify successful practices -- and to do all this in an ongoing and participatory way. (A model that inspired us in this is the "pattern language for sustainability".) In effect, we could provide a nexus for the collective intelligence of the movement, itself. We have visions for how this might be done, but no commitments for action on it yet.

However, related to that is the idea of convening strategic conversations -- or perhaps we should call them, in this context, further evolutionary salons. The idea behind these is to
provide means for noticing where there are stuck points in the evolutionary process, or where there are potential synergies or evolutionary opportunities. When these are seen, breakthroughs can be evoked by convening conversations between key people. These can range from a phone call to a full-fledged conference. The inquiries that shape such conversation and the processes used can make all the difference in the world. Thankfully, considerable wisdom exists about how to craft powerful questions and how to host and facilitate powerful processes. The potential is there to use conversation as an elegant, mindful tool for evolutionary interventions, freeing up energy and innovation at precise points where shift is ready to happen. Certain participants of the Evolutionary Salon agreed to explore how to further this.

The combination of all these can serve to further the kind of conscious social creativity that can transform the society in all sectors and at all levels at once -- not according to plan, but according to an emergent evolutionary wisdom rooted deep in our past and in the ways life has found to move into a better future. This wisdom is imprinted in our cells and in our capacity to interact with each other and our world. To release its potential, we just need safe space to experiment and opportunities to see our lives in a big-picture perspective, as part of a story of remarkable transformation, over and over and over, from the big bang and supernovas to poetry, trees and the internet. What will we do next?


Some evolutionary theorists claim that there is no directionality in evolution. We may have human brains and civilizations, but we also have simple bacteria. Others claim that the appearance of more complex life forms over time is evidence of an evolution towards complexity. Still others, while acknowledging the growing complexity, claim that the evolution is most importantly moving towards more complex and inclusive forms of cooperation.

It seems to me obvious that many old life forms continue, while newer forms evolve. It isn't that new forms are always crowding old forms out of life-niches (although that often happens) but that new forms discover or create new niches to occupy, adding to the range of ways life can survive and flourish. So
what I see evolving is the RANGE and VARIETY of complexity. More complex life forms emerge, and the simple life forms remain, and new varieties of elegant simplicity get created, as well. Some versions of old life forms -- both simple and complex -- die off. But what doesn't stop is the ever widening range and variety of complexity.

And much of that complexity is only there because three other things are present and co-evolving:

  • cooperation - from simple synergies and exchanges to massively self-organized global economies;
  • competition - from simple fights over a piece of food to modern war games and chess strategies; and
  • intelligence, by which I mean the ability to take in, process, and act on information from the environment -- from a one-celled organism turning towards or away from light or salt, to an international team of scientists and supercomputers working together on a problem over the internet.

It also seems to me clear that
complexity, cooperation, competition and intelligence are deeply intertwined. Each evolutionary step in one is evoked by, and evokes, evolutionary steps in one or more of the others. And they often contain each other in fascinating ways that remind me of the Taoist yin-yang symbol, a circle bisected by an S-curve, creating two fish-like figures -- one black and one white -- chasing each other's tails. In a further touch of insight, the black fish contains a white eye, and the white fish contains a black eye, suggesting that at the heart of each side of a dichotomy is some form of its opposite.

One of the most fascinating aspects of all these is that they have internal and external dimensions, and real and virtual versions. For example:

  • Competition BETWEEN life-forms stimulates cooperation WITHIN them. Think of sports teams, or the evolution of multi-cellular organisms. As one form proves more competitive through division of labor or elegant internal communication and response systems, its competitors often develop their own more sophisticated internal cooperative systems to survive (or beat the competition).
  • A cooperative life system can allow competition to safely flourish within it. Think of the Olympics, sportsmanship, and "the rules of the game" (of sports, business, politics, war). Or think of the vast synergies and interdependencies in an ecosystem (including the exchange of materials like oxygen and carbon dioxide) and how they create a life-space in which the infamous evolutionary competitions of "tooth and claw" can unfold without the whole system self-destructing.
  • Competitive games and posturings both prepare for and replace life-and-death battles -- not only among humans, but among many other species. (This is a vital understanding in a world where war can destroy so much.)
  • Nature learns and evolves through trial and error (or innovate-and-test) in the real world, leaving dead organisms and extinct species in the wake of her powerful creative intelligence. The human mind can test ideas and scenarios "in its head" or "in the laboratory" or "in a work of art", replacing real death and suffering with discarded ideas, failed experiments, morality tales and virtual versions of life and death.
  • The intelligence of an ant colony is largely contained in the chemical patterns the ants deposit -- and then perceive and respond to -- in their environment. We might learn from this how much of our vaunted human intelligence lies not in our heads but in our libraries, universities, internets, pathways and signage. Much of intelligence is external, environmental, cultural.

All this is discussed in the books I read for the Evolutionary Salon. But another factor has not been discussed: the evolution of simplicity.
I suspect that simplicity has also evolved, perhaps in the form of elegance, economy, efficiency, capacity for self-organization, and so on. If some function will help organisms survive, a simple form that can do it (using less parts and energy) will tend to out-compete a complicated form (which uses more parts and more energy), assuming both forms are equally good at performing that function. Furthermore, as a function evolves, it often goes through waves of increasing complication followed by simplification. Computing power developed by building giant machines filled with thousands of vacuum tubes -- which were quickly replaced by transistors which were then replaced by integrated circuits (computer chips). The increasingly complex mathematics required to describe the observed motions of the planets using Ptolemy's earth-centered astronomy was overthrown in one strike by Copernicus, who simplified everything by putting the sun in the center of the solar system. (If you know any biological and paleontological examples of this, please let me know.)

The point here is that simplicity, too, evolves, often hand-in-hand with complexity. In modern complexity theory, the vast complexity of certain systems is built on very simple foundations. Studies show that many entities following a few simple rules can generate complex self-organized behaviors like the flocking of birds, the branching of trees and the flow of goods in a market. And the theory of holons (wholes that are parts of larger wholes) points out that incredible complexity (like my physiological systems) can be subsumed into a simple coherent entity (my body), which then becomes a building block for larger systems (my community, my networks). So
simplicity and complexity contain each other, dance together, and co-evolve.

To many of us, humanity's current patterns of complexity, simplicity, cooperation, competition and intelligence seem to be leading us inexorably towards global destruction. We feel an urge to do something about that, but feel so small in the face of it.
We might take heart in the fact that our urge to do something is evolution, itself, at work within us at this moment: Life rising up in life -- within us and among us -- in the face of new dangers and opportunities -- to transform itself, to learn, to innovate new patterns of complexity, simplicity, cooperation, competition and intelligence that will serve our survival -- and thrival -- once again.

As we hit the limits of this one earth, the elegance of our solutions will necessarily expand us and deepen us into realms we barely imagined.
We ARE evolution, unfolding consciously for the first time. There is no adventure remotely like this one, and we are all on it.

My own piece of this adventure is to help explore the relationship between various forms of individual, collective and universal intelligence, and how we can expand and deepen those -- and into those -- to bring forth wiser forms of cooperation -- and competition -- to co-create cultures that serve equally well the life within us and the life around us, and the healthy evolution of it all.

We are All. In This. Together.

Blessings on the Journey.


posted by Tom Atlee on Sunday May 22 2005
updated on Saturday September 24 2005

URL of this article:




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Readers' Comments

Tom, I was so inspired by your mapping of the evolutionary process of the evolutionary salon. You asked a question above about biological examples or others which demonstrate the simplicity that emerges from complexity, which reminded me of a book "The Biology of Transcendence" by Pearce. The heart-brain mind that he describes to me is a discovery of the simplicity and elegance that we can tap into if we do listen to our hearts. Often, we get trapped in the thoughts in our mind and the millions of options we have in a certain situation, when in fact, being still for just a bit and listening to what our heart-mind tells us might simplify our agonizing decision process. So I see that as one example of how we can tap into elegant simplicity amidst much intellectual confusion and analysis paralysis.

Posted by: Mino Akhtar on May 22, 2005 06:04 PM


Tom, Magnificant! Read carefully and followed leads. Wish I was there.

# The intelligence of an ant colony is largely contained in the chemical patterns the ants deposit

Posted by: Larry Victor on May 22, 2005 07:21 PM



A superb piece sounded very enjoyable as well! We will read it again very carefully. We gave a copy to our UU minister today and hope the process rings true for other uses.


Posted by: Peter Fisher on May 23, 2005 12:17 AM


another comment from me. . .

if you have a new appreciation for open space after experiencing it for 3.5 days, I invite you to experience open space with your day-to-day work colleagues for ten days, then thirty, then more.

We are always free to practice open space.

Posted by: Therese Fitzpatrick on May 23, 2005 12:55 AM


another comment from me. . .

if you have a new appreciation for open space after experiencing it for 3.5 days, I invite you to experience open space with your day-to-day work colleagues for ten days, then thirty, then more.

We are always free to practice open space.

Posted by: cynthia on May 23, 2005 09:49 PM


another comment from me. . .

if you have a new appreciation for open space after experiencing it for 3.5 days, I invite you to experience open space with your day-to-day work colleagues for ten days, then thirty, then more.

We are always free to practice open space.

Posted by: Diana on May 24, 2005 01:59 AM


another comment from me. . .

if you have a new appreciation for open space after experiencing it for 3.5 days, I invite you to experience open space with your day-to-day work colleagues for ten days, then thirty, then more.

We are always free to practice open space.

Posted by: Therese Fitzpatrick on May 27, 2005 05:48 PM


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