Gurdjieff/Ouspensky confusion on evolution


One of the strains of the Gurdjieff corpus is the play of isolated remarks on evolution. Here we confront a tricky question. The issue of Darwinism is one thing, check out Darwiniana, the blog, for a series of critical views of Neo-Darwinism. A critique of Gurdjieff/Ouspensky on evolution is not intended as a plus for standard Neo-Darwinian views.
The views of Gurdjieff here reflect the revolt against Darwinism of Blavatsky and the Theosophists, et al.
But Gurdjieff embroiders this with his own questionable interpretation in terms of the seven stages of man. That rubric sounds convincing on one level, at least to some, but surely ‘evolution’ can’t work that way. The idea of man evolving from man number 1,2,3 to man number 4,5, 6, … is a stilted and cliched formulation that confuses evolution with self-development.
The fault is one inherited from nineteenth century New Agers such as we see in the legacy of Theosophy.

To clarify, the various New Age intrepretations of ‘evolution’ have coopted the word for a different meaning, usually some kind of spiritual development process. But is that ‘evolution’?

The question can’t be answered since the neologism ‘evolution’ appeared in the nineteenth century as a near semantic orphan, one not even used by Darwin in the first edition of his Origin. An earlier usage was ‘transformation’, or ‘transmutation’.

Here confusion arises because of the Darwinian theory of natural selection, and the legacy of scientism that it embraces with an overly narrow reductionist view of man. Darwinists correctly point to the fact of evolution in deep time, but their emphasis on natural selection is open to severe challenge.
The various groups in reaction to scientism, and Gurdjieff, and especially Ouspensky, fall into place here, correctly pointed to the failure of scientific reductionism to account for the complexity of human consciousness. But then these groups produced their own confusion, and began to concoct all sorts of myths about the descent of man, almost as unhelpful in reverse as Darwinism.

The nature of the confusion can be seen from the fact, as noted, that ‘evolution’ is a neologism, and that none of the ancient and canonical sutras of yore used the term. It is important to consider this point, since the modern usage of the term ‘evolution’ for spiritual development is a piece of speculative wiseacring, one that can lead to wrong work.
It would have been better to have chosen a different and clearer terminology, e.g. ‘self-realization’, which is a closer match to the usage of antiquity.

To say that people doing yoga are somehow doing ‘evolution’ is a botch of terminology, one that we can’t actually protest very easily, since you can use words as you please.
But the idea arises that New Age style paths are provoking a future evolution of man. We simply cannot be sure of that and it is in fact a doubtful assertion, one that might vitiate the real significance of the classic methods of the development of consciousness.
To be fair, the point is simply unclear, since we don’t know how man evolved, and how he evolved to be able to show the complex potential realizable as indicated by ancient sutric discourses.

Men of developed consciousness are nonetheless not in a position to pontificate on the descent of man, a thoroughly complex mystery as yet unresolved by any party to the debate.
Much more could be said here, but the bad usage that we see in Gurdjieff (as reported by Ouspensky) is highly misleading, and suggests incorrectly that a development of self-awareness is a form of evolution, and that, pace Nietzsche, that ominous figure in the background, self-aware men are to become a sort of ubermensch circuit. It all goes to show that these figures are not all they are cracked up to be.
Men’s self-realization is roughly the same, we suspect, at all stages of his history since the Paleolithic transition (??), and while it is entirely possible that this potential tends to remain hidden or latent, it is doubtful if its realization is a form of evolution. One suspects, given the striking image of the meditating yogis on cylinder seals from before 2000 BCE, that spiritual practices and tantras are very ancient with man. They are a given for man as he is now, not a result of his evolution which is probably static in this set of age periods (the last ten thousand years).

Man’s real evolution in the past is a mystery, and, remarkably, even a figure such as Buddha couldn’t resolve it.

More on this later.
But anyone entangled in the Gurdjieff confusion should realize the abuse of the evolutionary idea here, and its Nietzschean wiseacring at work: an isolated individual who thinks some occult knowledge makes him ‘more evolved’ and somehow a ‘higher being’ then proceeds to wreck the potential of others who have not found that set of states, in the process wreaking havoc with such people.
It is mostly fantasy, and a failure to realize the immense complexity of real evolution, which is not understood by man as yet, and not reducible to the provincial notions of Indic-style yoga practitioners, however significant such aspects of historical culture might be.
Again, it should be noted that the term evolution was not used in antiquity, even if we noted that various forms of Samkhya, for example, come close.
The question of ‘evolution’ is very deep, and the wrong interpretation promoted by Ouspensky, and Gurdjieff, can create endless confusion, and much unfairness and wrong work.

Evolution is better thought of as a species level action in greater nature. The self-realization of individuals in that context is a realization of the potential emerging from that greater evolution.
Gurdjieff does make a significant point, using the wrong language, that ‘evolution’ of consciousness can’t be mechanical, that unconscious evolution can’t be conscious. That sounds plausible, but the language is wrong.
Much of man’s evolution obviously was mechanical, or a complex hybrid of the mechanical and something else.
The point is that while evolution in general might be mechanical the process of self-realization requires self-consciousness, or self-awareness, not just passive awareness, and nature, so far, only brings man to the threshold. The rest is up to him. But to realize this potential is not ‘evolution’. We could certainly hope that some future ‘evolution’ might faciliate the realization of that potential. We have no grounds for saying what that might be like, or what process of nature could perform that. In fact, it is likely that the New Age thinking is a garbled version of the right idea, that man’s future ‘evolution’ must be his own creation. But so far the antics of a figure such as Gurdjieff really don’t foot the bill, and his obvious mistakes throw severe doubt on the authority he proposes for himself.

It is worth checking out both and the site on the eonic effect, with its considerations of just these questions of macroevolution and self-development.

One thought on “Gurdjieff/Ouspensky confusion on evolution

  1. The truth is, without some kind of formal training in chemistry and physics, most will never really understand these concepts. The fourth way, religious teachings etc. are really just trying to make people see themselves for what they are…motile bags of molecules on the surface of a rock that foolishly believe they are “conscious”. Realizing these facts and watching it, is what will differentiate you from the rest of the “bags”.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s