Archive for December, 2019

Evolutionary humanism: a secular religion for zero growth?

Saturday, December 28th, 2019

“…naturalistic evolution has clear consequences that Charles Darwin understood perfectly.” In particular: “No gods worth having exist; no life after death exists; no ultimate foundation for ethics exists; no ultimate meaning in life exists.” These conclusions, “are so obvious to modern naturalistic evolutionists” that they require little defense. 

William Provine

1 History

An essay entitled the New Divinity by Julian Huxley was published in Essays of a Humanist (Chatto & Windus, 1964).  It is a statement of Huxley’s idea for a new secular religion he called evolutionary humanism. He saw this as an inevitable outcome of a new vision of the world and humankind’s place and role in that world. His message is the destiny of humankind is to apply knowledge about evolution, which scientific knowledge has revealed, to maintain its progress. 

This new vision is both comprehensive and unitary. It integrates the fantastic diversity of the world into a single framework, the pattern of an all-embracing evolutionary process. In this unitary vision, all kinds of splits and dualisms are healed. There is no separate supernatural realm: all phenomena are part of one natural process of evolution. There is no basic cleavage between science and religion; they are both organs of evolving humanity”.

We are products of nearly three billion years of evolution through which the evolutionary process has at last become conscious of itself and its possibilities. The fulfillment of evolutionary humanism is for Homo sapiens to take on responsibility for the whole further evolution of life on Earth.

This blog is a transcription and update of Huxley’s essay. 

2 Human social evolution

Homo sapiens emerged as Earth’s dominant species about a million years ago, but has only been a psychosocial organism for under ten thousand years. In that mere second of cosmic time, Homo sapiens has produced astonishing achievements.   During human history, there has been a succession of dominant systems of thought and belief, each accompanying a new organisation of social, political and economic activities. Such was agriculture with its rituals of seasonality and annual rebirth as against hunting with its magic to guarantee success. Then came early civilization with cities and sacred kings, its written records and its priesthoods guarding universal and monotheistic religion.  Later came the scientific industrial age and the technological revolutions with their corresponding patterns of thought. Now we have the beginnings of a humanist revolution, whose ideological and social implications have still to be thought out. However, it is clear that humanism, being about being human, has to integrate the fantastic diversity of the world into a single framework encompassing the pattern of an all-embracing evolutionary process.  This process works on an entire cosmos made out of one and the same world-stuff, operated by the same energy as we ourselves. “Mind” and “matter” appear as two aspects of our unitary mind-bodies. There is no separate supernatural realm. All phenomena are part of one natural process of evolution which has taken place on planet Earth as a rare spot in the cosmos where mind has flowered through the evolution of Homo sapiens as a product of nearly three billion years of evolution.  

3  Religion

Religion, with or without a god, is a universal function of people in society.  It is the organisation made by humans for dealing with the problems of the destiny of individual men and women.  Its fulfillment is the task of societies and nations and of the human species as a whole. If the evolution of its ideological pattern does not keep pace with the growth of knowledge, with social change and the march of events, a religion will increasingly cease to satisfy the multitude seeking assurance about their destiny.  It will become progressively less effective as a social organisation. Eventually the old ideas will no longer serve and the old ideological framework can no longer be tinkered with to bear the weight of the facts. A radical reconstruction becomes necessary, leading eventually to the emergence of a quite new organisation of thought and belief.

There is no basic cleavage between science and religion; they are both features  of evolving humanity. Major organizations of thought and belief may be necessary in science as much as in religion. The classical example, of reorganisation of science was the re-patterning of cosmological thought which demoted the earth from its central position in the universe and led to the replacement of a geocentric pattern of thought by a Sun-centred one. A stepwise reorganization of western religious thought seems to have proceeded as follows. 

In its early, paleolithic stage religion was magic-centred, based on the ideas of supernatural forces inherent in nature, in personages such as “medicine men” and shamans, and in human incarnations, spells and other magic practices, including witchcraft. This type of belief developed gradually into animism and so to many beliefs in many divinities, supernatural beings and gods.  With the coming of agriculture a new pattern was imposed, centering on the ideas of fertility and rebirth, and leading to the rise of priest-kings and eventually divinized monarchs. The next major revolution of religious thought came in the first millennium B.C with the independent rise of the monotheist and/or universalist religions, culminating in Christianity, which later branched off into Islam. The last two thousand years have seen the development of elaborate monotheistic theologies; but in the process their single God has broken into many, or at least has assumed a number of distinct and indeed sometimes actively hostile forms; and their nominal universalism has degenerated into competition for the possession of absolute truth. 

God is a hypothesis constructed by humankind to help understand what existence is all about. The god hypothesis asserts the existence of some sort of supernatural personal or superpersonal being, exerting some kind of purposeful power over the universe and its destiny.  

A drastic reorganization of our pattern of religious thought is now becoming necessary, from a theocratic god-centered to a secular evolutionary-centered pattern.Today the god hypothesis has ceased to be scientifically tenable, has lost its explanatory value and is becoming an intellectual and moral burden on our thought. It no longer convinces or comforts, and its abandonment often brings a deep sense of relief. Many people assert that this abandonment of the god hypothesis means the abandonment of all religion and all moral sanctions. This is simply not true. Some events and some phenomena of outer nature transcend ordinary explanation and ordinary experience. They inspire awe and seem mysterious, explicable only in terms of something beyond or above ordinary nature.  But once we have jettisoned an outdated piece of ideological theocratic furniture that is no longer fit for purpose, we must construct a secular ‘something’ to take its place.

4 The role of divinity

Magical, mysterious, awe-inspiring, divinity-suggesting facts have included wholly physical phenomena like volcanic eruptions, thunder, and hurricanes; biological phenomena such as sex and birth, disease and death; and also inner, psychological phenomena such as intoxication, possession, speaking in tounges, inspiration, insanity, and mystic vision.

With the growth of knowledge most of these have ceased to be mysterious so far as rational or scientific explicability is concerned, though there remains the fundamental mystery of existence, notably the existence of mind. However, it is a fact that many phenomena are charged with some sort of magical hangover or compulsive power, and do introduce us to a realm beyond our ordinary experience. Such events and such experience merit a special designation. Huxley uses the term divine, though he says this quality of divinity is not truly supernatural but transnatural.  It grows out of ordinary nature, but transcends it. 

The divine is what a person or group finds worthy of adoration, that which compels awe.

Much of every religion is aimed at the discovery and safe-guarding of divinity in this sense, and seeks contact and communication with what is regarded as divine. A humanist secular, evolution-centered religion too needs divinity, but divinity without God. It must strip the divine of the theistic qualities which we have anthropomorphically projected into it, search for its habitations in every aspect of existence, elicit it, and establish fruitful contact with its physical manifestations. Divinity is the chief raw material out of which gods have been fashioned. Today we must melt down the gods and refashion the material into new and effective organs of religion, enabling us to exist freely and fully on the spiritual level as well as on the material, where land and landscape verge on the divine or sacred.

Though gods and God in any meaningful sense seem destined to disappear, the stuff of divinity out of which they have grown and developed remains. This religious raw material consists of those aspects of nature and those experiences which are usually described as divine. The term divine did not originally imply the existence of gods: on the contrary, gods were constructed to interpret man’s experiences of this quality.

Religions always have some intellectual or ideological framework.  This can be a myth or theological doctrine; some morality or code of behaviour, whether barbaric or ethically rationalized.  Religions have some mode of ritualized or symbolic expression, in the form of ceremonial or celebration, collective devotion or thanksgiving, or religious art. The codified morality and the ritualized expression of a religion, and indeed in the long run its social and personal efficacy, derives from its “theological” framework.  The framework is a practical aspect similar to an idiom that makes possible the description of realities, the formulation of beliefs, and the experiencing of inner attitudes, feelings, and sentiments. It belongs to George Lindbecks`cultural-linguistic’ category of religions. He sees religions as resembling languages and their correlative forms of life, or culture.  They have idioms for dealing with whatever is most important, and whose doctrines are, in analogy with the grammar of a language, the communally authoritative rules of discourse, attitude, and action. Taking up this theme, Lindberg says that religions and doctrine can be looked at as neither truth claims or so many expressions of subjective experience, but as rules for how to speak and act in a religious community.   

Religions are  “comprehensive interpretive schemes, usually embodied in myths or narratives and heavily ritualized, which structure human experience and understanding of self and world”. Becoming religious is like learning a language. Linbeck suggests that  when one acquires a culture or language they interiorize “outlooks that others have created” and they master “skills that others have honed.” Religious groups speak and live a “narrative” over time, that is to say, a religion is true to the extent that its community lives out what they claim to be ultimate and real. 

Doctrines are rules about communal religious life, but they are ultimately sourced in texts like the Bible or in the case of evolutionary humanism, Darwin’s Origin of Species and The Voyage of the Beagle.  What is the relationship between doctrine and text then? Does the religious text absorb the world or is the text absorbed by the world? Lindbeck wants the former to occur. We understand what the Bible, or Koran, “means” by adjusting that meaning to beliefs in the modern day world (i.e. the world absorbs the text). Creation science does this by absorbing Genesis.  Genesis must mean what we understand modern science to be telling us about the origins of biodiversity.. 

Doctrinal meaning has to radically change as the world changes or inner experience changes. Mark Mann writes “Primacy is given to the scriptural “narrative”: the Bible is unified by a complex but coherent narrative which centers on the personal agent Jesus, the Bible should not be read by attempting to impose a foreign or independent interpretive framework upon it.

Three main categories of functions religions can serve, as presented and defined by Gordon Lynch are: 

(i) a social function: religion provides people with an experience of community and binds people into a social order of shared beliefs and values that provide structure for their everyday lives;

(ii) an existential/hermeneutical function: religion provides people with a set of resources (e.g., myths, rituals, symbols, beliefs, values, narratives) that may help them to live with a sense of identity, meaning and purpose

(iii) a transcendent function: religion provides a medium through which people are able to experience ‘god’, the numinous or the transcendent.

 Lynch introduces these categories as potential ways to study the religious functions of popular culture, noting that a particular cultural phenomenon does not necessarily have to demonstrate all three categories of function to be considered “religious”.

This definition relies on people coming together to form a social order derived from shared beliefs and values to fulfill the classic function of religion, as characterized by Peter L. Berger as “constructing a common world within which all of social life receives ultimate meaning binding on everybody”.

The transcendent function of consumerism might well be the most important of the three approaches introduced in this article for the study of consumerism as an implicit religion in secular settings. As has been shown above, consumerism in the cultural context of the West seems to have little to do with objects of consumption per se and more to do with the symbolic value that they possess. For example, Joerg Rieger observes that the “desire promoted by advertising is not the simple desire for the product; it is for something more transcendent to which the product points, like the hope for happiness and a better life”. That is to say, the underlying meaning of the consumption of consumer goods as a method of participating in the kind of symbolic communication that is outlined above goes beyond the physical world of things and material objects. This transcendent function can be imagined as representing the ultimate promises or hopes that drive people to articulate the meaning of life in a “system of shared understandings that keep us working, consuming, and investing in the economy, maintaining it so that it maintains us”

The above line of argument was created by  Mikko Kurenlahti and Arto O. Salonen in their article ‘Rethinking Consumerism from the Perspective of Religion’.  One of their main goals is to problematize the standard egocentric interpretation of consumerism as being about the promotion of the individual against the collective. Instead, they argue that consumerism effectively binds the individual to the existential process of shared meaning-making in inescapable ways, and thus connects people together to form ever-expanding consumer societies prone to support the ideals of consumer culture. They also argue strongly against claims that consumerist lifestyles are inherently hollow, worthless, and purposeless. Instead, the perspective of religion reveals a most definite quest for the meaning of life and the construction of individual value.  Both these claims are directed outwards into the community, in order to be validated externally, define consumerism as a religion.

5 A secular religion embracing evolution

When scientists  talk about a scientific “fact” or a scientific “theory.” they denote a hypothesis, a tentative explanation that has never failed to be confirmed by empirical testing and observation, not a mere opinion. Rather than seeing the theory of evolution as a threat to religious belief, Huxley says that a theology that embraces evolution can deepen and broaden a faith seeking understanding.  Thus the central long-term concern of a secular religion must be to promote further evolutionary improvement and to realise new possibilities; and this means greater fulfilment by more human individuals and fuller achievement by more human societies

Human potentialities under humanism constitute the world’s greatest resource for human betterment, but at the moment, only a tiny fraction of them is being realized.   Homo sapiens has also been guilty of unprecedented horrors and follies. Looked at in the long perspective of evolution we are singularly imperfect, still incapable of carrying out our  planetary responsibilities in a satisfactory manner The possibility of tapping and directing these vast resources of human possibility provides a secular religion of the future with a powerful long-term motive. An equally powerful short-term motive is to ensure the fullest possible development and flowering of individual personalities. In developing a full, deep and rich personality the individual ceases to be a mere cog or cipher, and creates and disseminates their own particular body of knowledge about what it means to be human and thereby contributing to evolutionary fulfilment.

What precise form these new agencies of religious thought will take in the religion of the future it is impossible to say in this period of violent transition driven by global warning. But one can make some general prophecies. The central religious hypothesis will certainly be evolution, which by now has been checked against objective fact and has become firmly established as a principle of human existence. Evolution is a process, of which we are products, and in which we are active agents. There is no finality about the process, and no automatic or unified progress; but much improvement has occurred in the past, and there could be much further improvement in the future, though there is also the possibility of future failure and regression.  Most important of all, an evolution-centered religion of the future can no longer be divided off from secular affairs in a separate supernatural compartment, but will interlock with them at every point. The only distinction is that it is concerned with less immediate, less superficial, and therefore more enduring and deeper aspects of existence.

Meanwhile, religious rituals and moral codes will have to be readapted or remodelled through the transfiguration of thought, a new religious terminology and a reformulation of religious ideas and concepts in a new idiom. A humanist religion will have to work out its own rituals and its own basic symbolism.

Christianity is a universalist and monotheist religion of salvation. Its long consolidation and explosive spread, achieved through a long period of discussion and zealous ferment, released vast human forces which have largely shaped the western world as we know it. An evolutionary and humanist religion of fulfilment could be more truly universal and could release even greater human forces, which could in large measure shape the development of the entire world. But it’s consolidation and spread will need a period of discussion and ferment, though with modern communications this is likely to be much shorter than for Christianity.

The evolutionary vision of our place and role in the universe, which science and scholarship have given us, could be the revelation of the new dispensation. What we now need is a multitude of participants to take part in the great discussion and to join in the search for the larger truth and the more fruitful patterns of belief that we can confidently believe is waiting to be elicited.

In place of eternity we shall have to think in terms of enduring process.  In place of salvation we have to think in terms of attaining the satisfying states of inner being which combine energy and peace. There will be no room for petitionary prayer, but much value in meditation involving aspiration and self-exploration. A religion of fulfilment must provide bustling secular humankind with connections to all that is permanent and enduring, with the deeper and higher aspects of existence.  Every possible opportunity of transcending the limitations of day-by-day existence have to be explored. This applies to the equivalents of shared worship, the secular self in acts of meditation and self-examination and in retreats from the secular world of affairs. It will of course continue to celebrate the outstanding events of personal and national existence. Already there are humanist wedding and funeral ceremonies. Furthermore, it will enlist the aid of psychologists and psychiatrists in helping men and women to explore the depths and heights of their own inner selves instead of restlessly pursuing external novelty.  Here the aim is to realize more of their mental and spiritual possibilities, to utilize even their repressed and guilty urges, and to transcend the limitations and the internal conflicts of the unregenerate self. There has to be a constructive wholeness and a sense of achieving contact or union with a fuller reality.  

Exploring the ethical and philosophical significance of the theory of evolution by tracing the history of ideas that led up to and beyond Darwin’s great discovery leads to such questions as, “Does modern evolutionary theory adequately explain the origins of consciousness?” “Is it possible for conscious beings to evolve from completely lifeless and mindless matter?” “Does the recognition of humanity’s shared evolutionary heritage undermine our human-centered worldview, or require that we change, particularly with respect to how we treat nonhuman life?”   

6  Human uniqueness

There is a strong tendency in Western thought to place humans at the top of a hierarchy of being.  Modern evolutionary theory fundamentally challenges the assumption that humans are utterly unique. Rather than being at the pinnacle of creation, distinct from all other life-forms, the theory of evolution places humans on a continuum of being, a continuum that challenges the idea that those things that make us who we are, such as culture, language, reason, and so on, are unique to us. The theory of evolution opens the door to the idea that those beings from whom we developed and those that are genetically close to us today may hold these same characteristics, though perhaps to different degrees. Rather than being a singular exception to the forces that shaped the natural world, human beings are a great exemplification of such forces. In recognizing this, evolutionary biology in turn must abandon the notion that physical reality is best understood as a valueless machine, deterministically playing out its programming. If, as evolutionary science teaches, humans evolved from simpler organisms, and if human beings are subjects who are free, conscious, and capable of self-reflection, then this sense of freedom and subjectivity also must be found in humanity’s evolutionary ancestors. 

There is a fundamental intellectual inadequacy of not only atheistic evolutionary materialism and simplistic biblical creationism but also more sophisticated contemporary approaches, such as scientific creationism and intelligent design theory. Rather than seeing the theory of evolution as a threat to religious belief, a theology that embraces evolution can deepen and broaden a faith seeking understanding. This counters the impulse to save religion by retreating into “separatism”; a view that science and religion are nonoverlapping domains of inquiry.. 

From the perspective of biblical creation stories, one can come to understand how these stories answer important transcendental questions, while realizing that one cannot expect them to address the questions posed by modern science. Today, one can build upon biblical creation accounts and, with the help of theology, address evolutionary theory, not as some construct that lies outside the theological sphere, but rather as a theory to be theologically engaged. 

The conclusion is that one must respect the autonomy and veracity of evolutionary biology, recognize the reality and ubiquity of suffering in the world, and begin to move toward an evolutionary theology that recognizes the richness that evolutionary theory can bring to one’s understanding of the transcendent’s relationship to creation. One of the great lessons theology can glean from a study of evolution is that all of reality is in the process of becoming. In this light, evolution is constantly offering us a world in transformation.

In the end, we need not choose between religion or science, faith or reason, Genesis or evolution.  Evolution is not a threat to faith, but rather an enrichment of faith. A thorough faith seeking understanding brings together Genesis and evolution.  This was the view of Catholic priest and renowned geologist and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881–1955) who wrote many works arguing that his own faith makes more sense after Darwin than it did before. Now evolutionary humanists see that the open universe has been created through natural processes rather than magic. The fact that this process involves struggling, chance, failure, and loss, along with grandeur and beauty,is completely consistent with the fact that the Universe remains unfinished. They interpret the whole of cosmic history as the path leading to our each contributing to the work of fulfilling the ongoing creation of a sustainable global ecosystem, opening the process of evolution to an ever-widening range of new possibilities as it moves toward a fresh zero growth economic future.

7  Evolution and conservation management

Hendry and a number of coauthors convincingly make the case that evolutionary biology is a necessary component for conservation. Evolution offers four key insights that should inform conservation and policy decisions.

First, they point out that evolutionary biologists are in the business of discovering and documenting biodiversity. They are the primary drivers behind long-term, sustained biological collections, because they need to know what exists in order to better understand the evolutionary history. With millions of species awaiting scientific discovery, their efforts are critical to measuring biodiversity. But not only are they discovering new species and enumerating them, they are uncovering their evolutionary relationships, which gives conservationists better information about which species to prioritize and the rationale for managing them.. Because of what Vane-Wright famously called ‘the agony of choice’, with limited resources, we need to prioritize some species over others, and their evolutionary uniqueness ought to be a factor. More than this, evolutionary biologists have developed pragmatic tools for inventorying and sharing data on biodiversity at all levels, from genes to species, which is available for prioritization.

The second key insight is that by understanding the causes of diversification, we can better understand and predict diversity responses to environmental and climatic change. By understanding how key functional traits evolve, we can develop predictions about which species or groups of species can tolerate certain perturbations. Further, research into how and why certain evolutionary groups faced extinction can help us respond to the current extinction crisis. For example, the evolutionary correspondence between coevolved mutualists, such as plants and pollinators, can be used to assess the potential for cascading extinctions. These types of analyses can help identify those groups of related species, or those possessing some trait, which make species more susceptible to extinction.

Third, evolution allows for an understanding of the potential responses to human disturbance. Evolutionary change is a critical part of ecological dynamics, and as environment change can result in reduced fitness, smaller population sizes and extinction, evolution offers an adaptive response to these negative impacts. Knowing when and how populations can evolve is crucial. Evolutionary change is a product of genetic variation, immigration, population size and stochasticity, and if the ability to evolve to environmental change is key for persistence, then these evolutionary processes are also key.

Finally, evolutionary patterns and processes have important implications for ecosystem services and economic and human well-being. Both genetic and evolutionary diversity of plant communities has been shown to affect insect diversity, primary productivity and nutrient dynamics. Thus understanding how changes in diversity affect ecosystem processes should consider evolutionary processes. Further, exotic species are often cited as one of the major threats to biodiversity, and evolutionary change in exotics has been shown to increase exotic impacts on native species.

All together, these key reasons why evolution matters for conservation, mean that developing sound conservation management plans requires considering evolution patterns and processes. We can use evolution to our benefit only if we understand how evolution shapes current species dynamics. The challenge to evolutionary biologists is to present their understandings and conservation ideas to a broader audience and to engage policy makers so as to incorporate evolutionary views into existing biodiversity and conservation programmes –most notably into DIVERSITAS.

Just as ecological processes cannot be fully understood without appreciating species ancestry and ts dynamics, so must the development of extensive, expansive conservation strategies take evolution into account. Huxley’s idea of evolutionary humanism signals the beginning of a new era of a synthesis between ecology and evolution, to  produce a precise, viable global conservation strategy. In particular, conservation management should aim at conserving evolutionary processes that generate biodiversity. For want of a better definition, this is the practical application of the world-changing teachings of darwinwallaceism. The objective is to practice economics with a specific social goal of conservation, not year on year monetary growth, remaining true to the ultimate social goal of all human economics, making people happier.  As a religion, evolutionary humanism has to create idioms from darwinwallaceism to deal with whatever are the most important issues facing society, The doctrines are analogous to the grammar of a language. The communally authoritative rules of discourse and attitudes are to be expressed in conservation management systems to maintain progressive human evolution and its wider co-evolving biodiversity.


Human biological evolution

The modern synthesis of the theory of evolution by natural selection is the unifying conceptual framework that explains the origins of our species, Homo sapiens, and the millions of other life-forms on our planet.

We are primates members of the mammalian order Primates, which comprises two suborders: 

  • the prosimians (lemurs, lorises, and tarsiers) 
  • and the anthropoids (monkeys, apes, and humankind).

All primates are descended from tree-dwellers, exhibiting adaptations which allow for tree climbing that include: a rotating shoulder joint, separated big toes and thumb for grasping, and stereoscopic vision.  Other primate characteristics include: having one offspring per pregnancy, claws evolved into flattened nails; and larger brain/body ratio than other mammals, and tendency to hold the body upright. Evidence that we are descendants of these early primates was first provided by Charles Darwin in his Origin of Species, published in 1859.  

According to fossil records, primates originated in the Late Cretaceous (97.5 to 66.4 million years ago).  Primates, the ancestors of prosimians, first appear in the fossil record in the Eocene epoch around 55 million years ago; they were similar in form to lemurs.  Anthropoids ancestral to both Old World and New World monkeys appear in the fossil record in the Oligocene epoch around 35 million years ago. Apes are divided into two main groups of hominoids: lesser apes or hylobatids (gibbons and siamangs) and great apes (Pongo: orangutans, Gorilla: gorillas, Pan: chimpanzees, and Homo: humans).  

Hominids refers to the subfamily Hominidae within the superfamily Hominoidea.  Currently the superfamily Hominoidea includes the families Hominidae (great apes: orangutans, gorillas, chimps, humans) and Hylobatidae (gibbons and siamangs). Homininae is a subfamily of Hominidae that excludes orangutans. 

The term “hominin” refers to bipedal apes, which are all now extinct except for humans.  Examples of extinct bipedal human relatives are Australopithecus africanus, Homo habilis , and Homo erectus.  Few very early (prior to 4 million years ago) hominin fossils have been found so determining the lines of hominin descent is extremely difficult.  Within the last 20 years, three new genera of hominoids were discovered: Sahelanthropus tchadensis, Orrorin tugenensis, and Ardipithecus ramidus and kadabba, but at the moment their status in regards to human ancestry is somewhat uncertain  

Internet references

The new nature movement

The new divinity

Evolution ecology extinction

Evolution of aesthetic pleasure

Evolutionary biology and the meaning of life


Evolution and meaning


The biology of wonder

Radiation of hominids

Evolution of primates

Text absorbs word 


Milestones in humanistic education

Saturday, December 14th, 2019

“The  world is  changing –  education must  also change. Societies  everywhere are  undergoing deep transformation, and this calls for new forms of education to foster the  competencies  that societies  and economies need,  today and tomorrow. This means moving beyond literacy and numeracy, to focus on new learning environments and on new approaches to learning for greater justice, social equity and global solidarity. Education must be about learning to live on a planet under pressure. It must be about cultural literacy, on the basis of respect and equal dignity, helping to weave together the social, economic and environmental dimensions of sustainable development. This  is a humanist  vision of education  as an essential common  good. I believe this  vision renews with the inspiration of the UNESCO Constitution, agreed 70 years ago, while reflecting new times and demands. Education is key to the global integrated framework of sustainable development goals. Education is at the heart of our efforts both to adapt to change and to transform the world within which we live. A quality basic education is the necessary foundation for learning throughout life in a complex and rapidly changing world”.

I. G. Bokova (2014), UNESCO Director General  

1 Think globally: act locally

The quest for sustainable development is espoused by a multitude of international and local  organizations, governments, think tanks and academics. It is by far the world’s most important goal towards which collective local, regional and national actions are sought.  An important exhortation “think globally, act locally” has gained world-wide prominence, which resonates a broad understanding of the world’s contemporary problems including global warming and loss of biodiversity, prompting actions to address such issues. This blog presents two examples of humanistic education involving engagement with the local environment, each of which is set in a global knowledge system for learning about climate change.  

2 Humanistic  education: Skomer

Skomer, a small offshore island off the South West coast of Wales, played a significant historical role in the development of humanistic education because it was a focus of Julian Huxley’s idea of evolutionary humanism in the 1930s.  Huxley moved on to become a founder member of UNESCO.  His idea was applied by Denis Bellamy to establish a succession of field courses on the island organised on humanistic principles in the 1970s.  Global warming as an educational topic was hardly visible in those days. Now, to be an evolutionary humanist one has to acknowledge that global damage done to the environment has been caused by human action and constitutes an existential threat to humanity and many other species.  Only we humans can manage the climate crisis we have created. Therefore, the practical goal of humanism is to act on the understanding that the responsibility to create and maintain sustainable methods of living is a collective one. 

There are five basic principles of humanistic education which make it particularly suitable for online classrooms and lifelong learning:

  • Students should be able to choose what they want to learn. Humanistic teachers are facilitators, not disseminators of knowledge, who believe that students will be motivated to learn a subject if it’s something they need and want to know.
  • The goal of education should be to foster students’ desire to learn and teach them how to learn. Students should be self-motivated in their studies with a desire to build a personal body of knowledge on their own and communicate it to their peers.
  • Humanistic educators believe that grades are irrelevant and that only self-evaluation is meaningful because grading encourages students to work for a grade and not for personal satisfaction. In addition, humanistic educators are opposed to objective tests because they test a student’s ability to memorize and do not provide sufficient tutorial feedback to the teacher and student as a learning unit.
  • Humanistic educators believe that both feelings and knowledge are important to the learning process. Unlike traditional educators, humanistic teachers do not separate the cognitive (knowledge) and affective (attitudes) domains.
  • Humanistic educators insist that classrooms need to provide students with non threatening environments so that they will feel secure to learn. Once students feel secure, learning becomes easier and more meaningful. 

The five basic principles of humanistic education can be summarized as:

1) Students’ learning should be self-directed.

2) Classrooms should produce students who want and know how to learn.

3) The only form of meaningful evaluation is self-evaluation.

4) Feelings, as well as knowledge, are important in the learning process.

5) Students learn best in a non threatening environment.

Today, practical work in the context of a humanistic education involves assembling a personal body of knowledge about a particular feature of the local environment backed up with a digital library.  The outcome of the investigation is then presented online as a mindmap delineating connections with, and dependencies on, other features and a wider curriculum. These individual digital presentations thereby become information packages for others to build upon.  An example is the educational framework proposed by Julian Huxley for Skomer. The features contributing to a holistic view of the island are listed in the contents of the book ‘Island of Skomer’ (Table 1), published in 1950 as the report on the first field survey of the island in 1946.

Table 1 Features of Skomer Island suitable for humanistic education projects


The Flora

Spring Migration


The Petrels

The Auks

Gulls and Cormorants

Small Mammals

The Atlantic Seal

Marine Biology

Autumn Migration

The Rock Types 

This list can be regarded as the holistic catalogue of a Skomer digital library from which a student can select a feature of its biodiversity, geology or archaeology to assemble a personal body of knowledge that can be displayed on line (Fig 1; Table 2).

Fig 1 A humanistic mind map for navigating from a personal body of knowledge about Skomer’s  Puffins to enter the wider context of a syllabus about global warming

Table 2  Four examples of websites created collaboratively as classrooms as assignments to communicate personal bodies of knowledge. 

Skomer: a Mind Map

Skomer: a Knowledge Island

Rescue Mission Planet Wales

Global Warming

International Classrooms Online

3 Humanistic education: Rescue Mission

Agenda 21 is a non-binding action plan of the United Nations with regard to sustainable development. The “21” in Agenda 21 refers to the 21st century.  It is a product of the UN Conference on Environment and Development held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1992, which has been adopted by the UN, other multilateral organizations and individual governments around the world to be executed at local, national, and global levels.   

The Agenda has been affirmed with a few modifications at subsequent UN conferences with the aim of achieving global sustainable development. One major objective of the Agenda 21 initiative is that every local government should draw up its own Local Agenda 21 in consultation with its communities. Since 2015, Sustainable Development Goals are included in the Agenda 2030.

The book ‘Rescue Mission Planet Earth’ was launched in 1994 as an educational outcome of the 1992 sustainable development summit.  To communicate the language of the agenda, 28 young people from 21 countries assembled to edit the book, which is organized into four chapters containing 46 subject headings which correspond to the 40 chapters of Agenda 21. Each chapter clearly represents corresponding concepts detailed in Agenda 21, with excerpts from the United Nations document, quotes, commentary, poems and illustrations from youth around the world. Since 1992 the agenda has been confirmed by successive summits with ever increasing urgency.

The focus of part IV is on the role of young people in shaping local action plans that will give them a prominent role in protecting the environment. The goal of this chapter is summed up by the following quote: “You children of today are the hope for tomorrow.” The Law on Child Rights, signed by 148 governments, gave youth the right to participate in decisions that affect them. Rescue Mission clearly illustrates the need to adopt humanistic behaviours from the classroom to respond to the impact of a developing global political-economic structure that starts at the child’s local school/community and extends to international organizations promoting lifelong learning for living sustainably.  

At the time of its publication Rescue Mission was praised as the simplistic yet comprehensive overview of Agenda 21 telling future generations how they should act for humanity’s long term survival.  In this respect it provides environmental educators with information and tips for incorporating ideas into their classrooms. Moreover, it offers a wealth of information for everyone in the form of a glossary, index, listing of the Agenda 21 taskforce, an outline of Agenda 21 and contact information to participate in the national and international Resource Mission.

Rescue Mission singles out not only the profound institutional and cultural barriers to accomplishing a more sustainable development, but reflects on several of the necessary radical steps and strategies: 

  • the transformation of capitalism;
  • the transformation of politics and regulation; 
  • the restructuring of science and education;
  • and a peaceful  revolution in culture. 

The book points out several untapped forms of humanistic education, in part viewing society as a cradle-to-grave learning system where a multitude of small actions can make a major difference. It presents a tentative proposition of a new humanist agenda for a sustainable future. In general, Agenda 21 addresses the challenge of transforming the complex aggregate of modern society – its cultural, economic, political and scientific components — in order to tackle fatale environmental destruction.  

The call for a new humanism in the 21st century roots in the conviction that the moral, intellectual and political foundations of globalization and international cooperation have to be rethought. Whilst the historic European humanism was set out to resolve tensions between tradition and modernity and to reconcile individual rights with newly emerging duties of citizenship, the new humanism approach of Agenda 21 goes beyond the level of the nation state in seeking to unite the process of globalization with its complex and sometimes contradictory manifestations. As Irina Bokova postulated in her installation speech as UNESCO Director-General (November 2009), the new humanism constitutes; 

“a universal vision, open to the entire human community and embracing each and every continent […] it is to give fresh impetus to solidarity, to bring people together and awaken their conscience”. 

The new humanism approach to education exemplified in the creation of Rescue Mission by an international group of young people, advocates the social inclusion of every human being at all levels of society and underlines the transformative power of education, sciences, culture and communications. Therefore, human­ism today needs to be perceived as a collective educational effort that holds governments, civil society, the private sector and human individuals equally responsible to realize its values and to design creatively and implement a humanist approach to a sustainable society, based on integrated economic, social and environmental development. 

This “conscience of humanity”, to put it in the visionary words of Jawaharlal Nehru, reflects UNESCO’s normative principles and political mandate and indicates the way forward to multilateral strategies for sustainable development, “releasing a political energy that can deliver us right to the heart of contemporary thinking about cosmopolitan democracy”.

A new humanism as set out in Rescue Mission describes the only way forward if we want to live in a world that accounts for the diversity of identities and the heterogeneity of interests and which is based on inclusive, democratic, and, indeed, humanist values.  To this end the book was the starting point for a pilot in Welsh schools With funding from theTexaco refinery, the local authority and the Countryside Council for Wales, Rescue Mission was promoted through schools into the communities they served. The pilot, was known as SCAN (Schools and communities Agenda 21 network). Despite the success of the pilot which was coordinated in teacher’s resource centres, the National Curriculum and the embryonic Internet were limiting factors in its widespread uptake.  However, a practical component of environmental networking/monitoring role in schools continues to this day in the National Museum of Wales’ Spring Bulbs educational network.

4  Being as one with nature

The aim of lifelong learning is to focus on new digital classroom environments to teach the competencies  that societies and economies need, today and tomorrow. helping to weave together the social, economic and environmental dimensions of global warming and over-consumption of Earth’s environmental services.  This means learning for living on a planet under pressure, with an emphasis on:

  •  cultural literacy;
  • greater justice;
  • social equity; 
  • global solidarity;
  • being as one with nature.

Being as one with nature is living for the mutual benefit of all life forms.  The phrase defines a land ethic which expands the definition of “community” to include not only humans, but all of the other parts of the Earth, as well: soils, waters, plants, and animals, or what Aldo  Leopold called “the land.” In Leopold’s vision of a land ethic, the relationships between people and land are intertwined: care for people cannot be separated from care for the land. A land ethic is a moral code of conduct that grows out of nature connectedness and caring relationships in a family of things.  This is elegantly stated in the following poem by Mary Oliver.

“Whoever you are, no matter how lonely

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –

over and over announcing your place

in the family of things”.

—Mary Oliver, “Wild Geese”

Nature connectedness is the extent to which individuals include nature as part of their identity. It includes an understanding of nature and everything it comprises, even the parts that are not pleasing.  Characteristics of nature connectedness are similar to those of a personality trait: nature connectedness is stable over time and across various situations. Schult describes three components that make up the nature connectedness construct:

  • The cognitive component is the core of nature connectedness and refers to how integrated one feels with nature.
  •  The affective component is an individual’s sense of care for nature.
  • The behavioral component is an individual’s commitment to protect the natural environment.

These components are evident in the holism of Skomer and Rescue Mission.  In fact they are now central for us to adapt to global warming in that they highlight the importance of effective teaching to define being at one with nature.  Everyone should be aware of this societal problem, takes action in solving the problem, and becomes socially responsible for future generations. A topic framework for a global warming syllabus is presented in Table 3.

Table 3 A topic framework for a ‘global warming’ syllabus.

1 Warming

2 Causes

3 Effects

4 Feedback dynamics

5 Climate models

6 Responses

7 Politics of global warming

8 Elements of a decarbonising economy

9 History of the science

10 See also

Although the syllabus can be entered  through any topic, ‘Responses’ is a good portal because it opens up a wider perspective for practical work, whereby students become engaged with the management of global and local biodiversity as adaptations to effects of  global warming (Table 4). 

Table  4 Responses to the impact of global warming on biodiversity

6.2 Adaptation

6.3 Nature connectedness

6.4 Biodiversity hotspots

6.4.1 Terrestrial regions

6.4.2 Water-bounded islands

6.3.3 Habitat fragments

6.4.4 Cultural islands

6.5  Conservation management

6.6 Climate engineering

5 ‘Skomer’ and ‘Rescue Mission’: classrooms of the future

The humanistic classroom is, at its heart, a place to learn how to fix problems and live well.  With the evolution of computer technology, educational capabilities are growing and changing every day. The Internet is a vast electronic library of information, and both research and instruction can be achieved through a click of the mouse.  Educational technology in the digital classroom is generating new opportunities for personalized learning, engaging classroom strategies with much more collaboration between students, with teachers as facilitators. In the foreseeable future, the biggest impact of artificial intelligence in the humanistic classroom is likely to be in personalised tutoring and virtual reality learning.  Virtual reality makes learning fun, as students learn about things, places, objects from the comfort of their classrooms without spending money or time travelling. In a wider context artificial intelligence in the classroom can help address many of humanity’s most critical issues: including those related to education, the sciences, culture, media, access to information, gender equality, poverty alleviation and climate change. Yet these major opportunities that artificial intelligence offers can only be unleashed, if it is developed with respect to universal norms and standards, and if it is anchored in peace and humanism, with a focus on achieving ethical sustainable development. 

News that Pearson, the world’s largest textbook publisher, is phasing out print publications for higher education in order to adopt a resolutely digital-first policy may signal an eventual end for traditional book learning. But the wealth of technology coming on stream heralds an exciting new chapter for the future classroom.  In the view of Mike Buchanan, executive director of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference, which represents independent school head teachers in the UK, digital education will unlock a less rigid approach to classroom-based learning, Buchanan predicts individual academic achievement will be charted by artificial intelligence, rather than by a plethora of exams, and argues that for teachers disenchanted by the current need to “teach to the test”, will gain freedom to pursue a more rounded curriculum and foster a new optimism.  In particular, living in a zero carbon economy in an ethical equilibrium with Earth’s ecological productivity will require an education system for adapting to a state of prosperity independent of wealth. Prosperity will be defined as flourishing and thriving with good fortune or successful social status encompassing happiness and health. 

Rose Luckin, co-founder of the Institute for Ethical Artificial Intelligence in Education steers developments in educational technology in a firmly ethical direction. She believes that while individual tools such as virtual reality, augmented reality or MOOCs (massive open online courses) will each play a role in the future classroom, close attention should be paid to the “over-arching intelligence infrastructure” as online education develops.

“We need to recognise that education for all ages must change to create the skills society will need in the future and this means looking at the possibilities of artificial intelligence in a more holistic way.  Cutting-edge technologies must be constructed from an ethical framework, which empowers both learners and teachers, rather than exploiting them for purely commercial gain.” she says.

Drawing a parallel with the growth in social media, Luckin believes: “We have all witnessed the power of the big digital networking platforms to shape users’ behaviour and habits, and there have been negative as well as positive, impacts from this. When we look at the future of the classroom, we can see that as long as there is an ethical purpose to what we do, individuals and society will benefit from a global education technology infrastructure which deploys a whole range of digital tools.”  But Luckin issues a warning to those who believe the future classroom needs to concentrate on computer coding alone.

“As society’s educational needs continue to change, we may well decide not to engage with some of the breakthrough things that we know artificial intelligence can deliver. We need advanced thinking around what we want to deliver in terms of lifelong learning for each individual citizen, rather than an obsession with clever algorithms and coding.”

Julian Huxley defined the ethics of lifelong learning in terms of treating all peoples as equals with respect to human dignity, mutual respect, and educational opportunity.  His idea of evolutionary humanism can be traced to his making of the first ever wildlife documentary in the 1930s as an exercise in mass communication about the wildness of nature.  After this he launched his vision of Skomer as an outdoor humanistic classroom with a steady stream of eager learners. In 1946 he became Unesco’s first Director-General and set out an education programme that was cosmopolitan in vision, one concerned with humankind in relationship with nature and with its past, one in which art and science were equally valued. During his tenure as Director-General he also began to articulate fully the concerns which would occupy the later years of his life: the relation of overpopulation to poverty and ignorance, the necessity for the conservation of wilderness and wildlife, and the importance of the renunciation of parochial views on religion and politics. Finally, he came to stress even more strongly than before his optimistic belief that humankind can and should take control of its own environmental and biological destiny.  His view of humanism as the foundation of UNESCO eventually bore fruit in the international group of young people who met after the 1992 UN environment summit to produce Rescue Mission as a prescription for planetary survival. Thus, both ‘Island of Skomer’ and ‘Rescue Mission’ stand as milestones pointing to science, art and literature as part of the bigger picture of planet Earth with all its species, human and nonhuman, as one interacting entity.