The Cambrian Explosion and Riding Evolution’s Whirlwind

By Dr. Keith Witt
November 27, 2023

Something strange is happening with evolution—it’s speeding up. Every few years we’re doubling the volume of human knowledge. Genetic engineering is adding intention to the evolution of species. Artificial intelligence will dramatically accelerate and democratize human creativity the way electric guitars and recording studios accelerated and democratized music. We haven’t had such a rapid increase in complexity since the Cambrian Explosion 541 million years ago.

Wait, what? The Cambrian Explosion?

Let me explain:
Before 541 million years ago, the fossil record is basically dominated by various forms of yeast and algae. Suddenly (from an evolutionary perspective) in the space of 11 to 25 million years twenty to thirty-five major phyla suddenly appeared in the earth’s oceans. No one, including Darwin, has ever been able to satisfactorily explain this.

The concept of “punctuated equilibrium” was the original hypothesis—the idea that evolution progresses slowly until there is a major shift in the environment that results in fast diversification and change in species. Unfortunately, punctuated equilibrium cannot explain the Cambrian Explosion because there is no credible path from simple organisms to highly complex biodiversity in such a tiny evolutionary window. Mathematicians, geneticists, and paleontologists almost without exception have come to agree that the Cambrian Explosion is impossible with our current understanding. Something different happened 541 million years ago that we can’t explain.

  • Was there a visitation from another planet? Maybe.
  • Was there some form of intelligent design? Maybe.
  • Leading up to the Cambrian Explosion was earth populated by the missing intermediate species that left no fossil record due to soft bodies or environmental conditions? Maybe.
  • Are there morphic fields in the universe for proteins, chemical reactions, and all life that can be triggered by some level of biomass or biochemistry that rapidly self-organized into the apparently new forms that suddenly appeared? Maybe.

We are currently in the evolutionary equivalent of the Cambrian Explosion. Humans have been accelerating evolution for five million years.

  • We came down from the trees and developed the human pair bond on the savannahs of African five million years ago.
  • A million years ago we tamed fire, developed tools, and could concentrate calories to support progressively bigger and more complex brains to help navigate the staggering social complexity of hunter gatherer tribes.
  • Two hundred thousand years ago two mutations on the FOXP2 gene gave humans the capacity for grammar and metaphor. I, you, we in the past present and future combined with abilities to tell stories, create analogies, and imagine miracles.
  • Fifty thousand years ago the human frontal cortex reached its current size, and we begin to see cave paintings and evidence of major civilizations building huge structures.
  • Eleven thousand years ago the human brain developed more cerebral territory from new convolutions in the cerebral cortex.
  • Ten thousand years ago we shifted from hunter-gatherers to agrarian means of production that ushered in math, writing, laws, and civilizations spreading from the four major river valleys of Europe and Asia. The advent of cities increased human biological evolution a hundred-fold—ten thousand percent.
  • Three hundred years ago the enlightenment and the printing press launched the industrial revolution and the proliferation of all the sciences accompanied by geometric increases in human knowledge and populations.
  • We currently are doubling the amount of knowledge in the world every few years and have created spectacular tools to enhance human creativity, biology, physiology, and general intelligence.

The human race is currently increasing complexity of consciousness, biology, and technology at a hockey stick rate. I’m not saying this is necessarily a good thing for life on earth—after all, we have precipitated a great die-off of other species (the sixth in the history of life on earth) and are changing the entire climate and biosphere, largely for the worse so far.

On the other hand, the evolution of consciousness is generally characterized by deeper understanding and more compassion. I’m seeing evidence of this in modern marriage, more global education, the general acceptance of climate change, and the unconscious assumption of many that we are a global civilization economically, biologically, and socially.

We are in the center of a Cambrian Explosion right now!

Consciousness is developing more swiftly than life did during the Cambrian Explosion. We who are alive today have seen and will see more significant shifts and transformations than all previous generations.

We didn’t evolve to handle so much complexity easily, and many of today’s current psychological, social, and environmental problems reflect humanity’s desperate attempts to ride the evolutionary whirlwind. That being said, humans have many more opportunities to participate and contribute than ever before.

Any of us can contribute consciously to the evolution of consciousness. We all have instincts for self-transcendence, which generates ontological and phylogenic evolution. The central importance of evolution of consciousness was clear to me early in my Integral career. For decades, when people have asked me, “What is your purpose?” I’ve said, “To support the evolution of consciousness.” 

Look around you. Here it is! We’re all riding the whirlwind of evolving consciousness!

I’m seeing shared reverence for life, unity, and spirit all over the world. Imagine this we-space of deepening unity evolving forward thousands of years. I suspect those beautiful future people are likely to want to light up fertile worlds with the seeds of consciousness. Maybe such beings seeded our world in the Cambrian Explosion.

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