Investing with an evolutionary perspective

By Hal Brill

Now that we’ve outlived 2012’s end-of-world prophesies, the New Year beckons us to turn our attention towards the future. Our problems haven’t gone away, and neither have our opportunities. As investors, we strive to thrive in a future that will undoubtedly surprise us. To guide us, we assemble a view of the world that is as unbiased and complete as possible. 

But this is harder than it seems – our perceptions and points of focus are shaped by our personal experience, cultural context, genetics, and more. We “see what we want to see,” then mistake that view for objective reality. Today’s diversity of media heightens this possibility – we can choose which blogs, websites, sources we wish to visit; generally we choose ones that reinforce our preconceptions.

We’ve discussed how “scenario planning” is an essential tool to help us question our own assumptions.  But as one begins the exercise of thinking deeply about the future, you may discover that some scenarios are harder for you to envision than others. I, for instance, have a certain resonance with scenarios that either extrapolate the future from the way things are now (we’ll keep muddling along), or in which some of the basic structures of modern life (economy and ecology) will collapse.

 What I find difficult to lock into is a vision of the future that is both realistic and compelling – neither static, nor dreamy, nor dire. I’ve always thought of myself as an optimistic person; I’ve spent my life seeking out and weaving together the pieces of a sustainable future. So it’s humbling to discover how easily I can fall into a rather grim view of the future. Only recently have I concluded that I need to supplement my information-diet with regular infusions of inspiration! 

Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to foster a clearer, more neutrally receptive stance. For me, the starting place is to clear my mind and center in the present moment. This tends to put me into a more heart-centered, receptive state of mind. Physical exercise, preferably out in nature, is always good medicine for me.

Simple steps like these bring a sense of calm and gratitude to my work in the world. This feels great and has all sorts of benefits, but it doesn’t get me outside of the mold that I identify as “me,” complete with well-worn points of view and comfortable habits. For that, I need an overarching worldview that helps me make sense of the bigger questions of life: Where did we come from? Where are we going? 

Learning about “worldviews” has helped me make sense of the vast differences between people. Our worldview becomes a sort of filter through which we experience the world. My first real taste of their importance came from the writings of George Lakoff, a linguist known for his metaphor of the Republican/Democratic divide as one between a “strict” and “nurturing” parenting model as the foundation for one’s view of the role of government. This helped me come to terms with the re-election of George Bush in 2004, which forced me to accept that fact that many Americans obviously saw the world much differently than I did.

HB evolutionaries WEBCarter Phipps, in his book Evolutionaries: Unlocking the Spiritual and Cultural Potential of Science’s Greatest Idea, says “worldviews are like invisible scaffolding in our consciousness, deep conclusions about the nature of life that help shape how we relate to just about everything else around us… We don’t have worldviews, for the most part they have us.” Worldviews are so deeply engrained that they are hard to recognize. Phipps’ book showed me that the reason I have difficulty envisioning a generative future scenario, one where humans rise to the challenge of our situation and create a more meaningful and sustainable world, is because I lacked a worldview that could embrace this potential trajectory.

Phipps’ work takes the scientific concept of evolution and elevates it as the unifying principal of an emerging new worldview. “Evolution transcends biology. It is better thought of as a broad set of principles and patterns that generate novelty, change, and development over time.” He credits Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a French Jesuit priest, for being among the first to recognize that evolutionary perspective would be the insight that would someday transform human culture. As de Chardin proclaims, “We are moving! We are going forward!” All that humanity once thought was fixed and static, from matter to culture, technology and even spirituality, is now seen to be part of an evolving cosmos that is going someplace.

Discovering this evolutionary worldview, and seeing how it applies to virtually all aspects of life, is a very juicy concept. But it takes practice to see the world through evolutionary eyes. One needs to shift into a larger perspective of time; during the short span of our own lives we might see instances when evolution takes a step backwards. As Benjamin Franklin observed, “no pain, no gain.” Despite the setbacks, the bigger sweep of evolution has brought us from stardust to Shakespeare, a realization that can fill one with optimism even in the face of problems as serious as climate change and school killings. “Evolutionaries recognize the vast process we are embedded within,” says Phipps, “but also the urgent need for our own culture to evolve and for each of us to play a positive role in the outcome.”

It is this point that brings us back to investing. Investing with an evolutionary worldview means that we are committed to moving the ball forward, applying a portion of our capital and energy towards lifting up projects and companies that share these values. If Nature can generate a beautiful new butterfly perfectly adapted to a particular niche, then perhaps it is possible for humans to align with evolutionary principals and generate “novelty, change, and development” that gets us beyond today’s seemingly intractable challenges.  

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Hal Brill

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