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What’s love got to do with it?
From ‘survival of the fittest’ to compassionate connection

A program for Earth Literacies

May 17th to June 7th, 2022

3 minute intro

Why are we fighting and exploiting each other? And why are we destroying the planet’s natural resources and the balance of the global ecosystems we ourselves depend on? How do we treat each other and the biosphere with more kindness and compassion?

Some see conflict, competition and exploitation as natural and inevitable – an unavoidable fact of life. At the very least, it is difficult to reconcile our own self-interests with the impact we have on others and the natural world. The many global challenges we face – from biodiversity collapse, to armed conflict, to poverty and climate catastrophe – are driven by a failure to achieve this reconciliation.


Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection is a cornerstone of modern science. But “survival of the fittest” is not just a theory of biological change – it’s the dominant Western worldview. It aligns with the assumption that competition, selfishness and exploitation are not only natural and inevitable but the fundamental drivers of all ‘progress’ and ‘improvement’. This supports the conclusion that a selection-based worldview is rational, and actually desirable as a personal and socio-economic strategy, manifest in discompassionate maximisation of growth, performance and profit. Many reject this conclusion, of course – knowing that ‘for all our sakes’ a different path is needed. But it can be hard to pit our personal and vulnerable well-meaning convictions against a ‘rationale’ that enshrines short-term self-interest. If competition really is the only ‘prime mover’ of adaptive change, how can we possibly find a different direction?

In fact, a new explanatory framework for creative adaptation in biological systems is emerging. This comes from the recognition that, under suitable conditions, natural complex systems – from molecular networks to the biosphere as a whole – have potential to learn from experience spontaneously, and exhibit ‘systemic intelligence’ that is greater than the sum of the parts. This occurs not by competitive exclusion between one entity and another but through the easing of relationships between them, as each entity allows itself to be altered by its interactions with others.

A society based on such principles would value compassionate connection – vulnerability that allows ourselves to be changed by our relationships with others, forming connections that give us meaning that is greater than ourselves. A word people sometimes use as a shorthand to describe that type of interaction is love.


In this course we explore the ideas behind this emerging science and its implications for the assumptions behind the selection-based worldview. This is not just about defining an ideal, or stating an intention to encourage different outcomes within the current conceptual framing. It’s a different scientific basis for understanding the fundamental drivers of creative transformative adaptation. Different from the dominant Western worldview… but it’s hardly a new worldview. Indeed, the new science obviously resonates strongly with ancient worldviews familiar in the wisdom traditions. In particular, the view of nature as a connected harmonious network of inter-being (long cast aside by Western reductionism), re-emerges as a scientifically supported possibility - not ‘merely’ a spiritual mythology. Recognizing the role that compassionate connection and transformation plays in the creative adaptation of natural systems offers an antidote to “survival of the fittest” as a rule to live by, and provides a new scientific foundation for these ancient spiritual wisdoms. This supports a view of ourselves as parts with humble roles within something greater than ourselves, with meaning defined by our relationships with one another, not by differential survival, growth or power. This has different implications for how to live our lives personally and on the global stage, and offers the possibility to develop practical design principles and strategies to support social well-being, effective working together and a flourishing ecological civilisation (in the sense of Jeremy Lent – The Web of Meaning).

This course seeks to bring together the ideas of this new science and these worldviews to relieve the tension between self-interest and our impact on one another and the world around us. The focus will be both on presented material and what we can learn from each other to move into compassionate connection. The taught material will include slide presentations, with break-out room exercises, and opportunities to share reflections and to learn from one another in group discussion – and if Im feeling suitably brave and vulnerable, maybe a little guided visualisation to ‘feel into’ and invite the worldview we choose, and our role in it.

The four-week course (4x 2 hours, on Tuesdays) will cover the following topics.


Week 1 (May 17th): ‘Survival of the fittest’ as a biological theory and a worldview.

  • the Darwinian principles of natural selection (in biology)

  • its scope and limits: what can and cannot be adapted by natural selection

  • ‘nasty, brutish and short’ - survival of the fittest as a worldview for everything


Week 2 (May 24th): More than the sum of the parts: Connectionist models of learning.

  • theories of learning – adaptive transformation (without differential survival or growth)

  • from the intelligence of parts to the intelligence of the whole – how connections create distributed knowledge and collective wisdom

  • what kinds of systems can ‘learn’? – intelligence with and without brains


Week 3 (May 31st): How nature learns.

  • From natural selection to ‘natural induction’ – how networks learn spontaneously

  • Can Gaia ‘learn’? - expanding the scope of adaptation from microbes to planets

  • from ‘me vs you’, to us, to dissolving egos: natural induction in social systems


Week 4 (June 7th): Design principles: How to nurture systemic intelligence (and alleviate isolation, greed and unsustainable exploitation) in the systems you care about

  • how competition and utility-maximisation destroys systemic intelligence

  • the importance of ‘pulse’ – the myth of one-shot learning

  • strategies that nurture and tend to our intelligent self-organisation

  • the relationships between us and the systems you care about

Richard Watson, is an associate Professor in artificial intelligence and theoretical evolutionary biology at the University of Southampton in the UK. His research has developed an extensive unification of evolutionary theory and learning theory which he uses to address big questions about life, learning, evolution, cognition and love. His current work – explored in this course – uses this scientific foundation to unify opposing worldviews and support a more harmonious and compassionate way of life for individuals, the global community and the biosphere.

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