The Evolution of Zion
Presented to the Mormon Transhumanist Association annual conference
Provo, UT April 8, 2017
As long as in the heart, within,
A Jewish soul still yearns,
And onward, towards the ends of the East
An eye still gazes toward Zion;
Our hope is not yet lost,
The two thousand years hope,
To be a free nation in our land,
The land of Zion and Jerusalem.
- Naftali Herz Imber, 1878
The above hymn helped to inspire the Zionist movement of the late 1800’s and after the atrocities committed against Jews in Europe during WWII the movement achieved its goal of repatriation in Palestine via the newly formed United Nations. The history of the region since the controversial action of the international community of cutting up Palestine, a strip of arid land already inhabited for centuries by Muslims who had driven out crusading Christians centuries before then, has been marred by much bloodshed and regional instability. Jews, Christians, Muslims, Mormons and the Rastafari movement all reverence the idea of Zion and claim hermeneutical privilege in its true meaning.
For Mormons, the plot thickens to include the mystical figure Enoch who we only snatch glimpses of in the Bible and apocrypha (Gen 5, Heb 11, Sir 44, Jude 14). From these verses we gain little insight except that Enoch, one of the ancient patriarchs, was exceptionally righteous and did not die but was taken into heaven to walk with God, and we learn derivatively that the audiences of both Old and New Testaments were familiar with his story. The story, a long-forgotten text in three parts, was known in fragments to medieval western Christendom and certainly informed Milton’s Paradise Lost, but was wholly rediscovered in Ethiopian script in the late 18th century and translated into English in 1821.
The works are attributed to Enoch, and speak of his ascent into heaven and his receiving the history of creation, including the War in Heaven and fall of the Watchers (a group of archangels who intermarried with humans creating a race of angel-human hybrid giants called the Nephilim), as well as the future history of the world. The work strongly influenced Kabbalistic angelology and likely inspired large portions of the Book of Moses in the Pearl of Great Price writings of Joseph Smith. In these writings we are told not just about the apotheosis of Enoch but an entire paradisiacal or utopian city which was transfigured, and we are given this beautiful, inspiring passage, “And the Lord called his people Zion, because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them.” (Moses 7:18)
To begin to grasp how this verse tapped into the existing utopian zeitgeist of Smith’s audience and inspired generations of Mormon pioneers to cross oceans and plains to build the Kingdom of God on Earth, we will first broadly review the history of Zion-Utopia in scripture, myth and literature, historical experiments (mostly terrible failures), and the Mormon experience. We will then look at how new philosophical ideas, new technologies and transhumanist ethics inform a modern revitalization of this ancient ideal.
Agriculture, Cities and the Fall
How did the City of Enoch come to be without poverty? Did not Jesus say, “the poor you will always have with you...”(Matthew 26:11; Mark 14:7; John 12:8)? Is poverty the default, fallen condition of humankind? Did we exist in a state of original affluence and noble savagery prior to the original sin or transgression of Adam and Eve and the fratricide of Cain? Interestingly the City of Enoch is a dramatic foil, not a reference to the city built by Cain in Genesis 4:17, also called the City of Enoch, after Cain’s son-- the first city to be mentioned in the Bible. It is arguable that the rise of urbanization, made possible by agriculture, was first viewed as evil by the authors of the Bible (think of the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah), who were predominantly pastoralists.
The story of Cain and Abel (the farmer who slew his brother, the shepherd) can be interpreted as the conquest of agricultural peoples over pastoralists or hunter-gatherers. Such an exegesis is found in the humbling tale Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn, of a gorilla with speech who instructs his human pupil to reinterpret the story of Genesis with the adoption of agriculture as the Fall of mankind from grace. Many contemporary, non-fiction and science-popularization works also exist (1491 by Charles C. Mann; Guns, Germs and Steel and The World Until Yesterday by Jared Diamond; Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari; Sex at Dawn by Cacilda Jethá and Christopher Ryan; Nonzero by Robert Wright; and The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker) which discuss the rise of agriculture and the disruption or punctuation of prehistoric human hunter-gatherer equilibrium with the environment and within societies.
These works highlight a vigorous, ongoing debate among historians, biologists, sociologists and anthropologists as to whether the human condition was improved or harmed by agriculture and whether its adoption, with multiple, independent discoveries of these technologies, was an inevitability in the cultural evolution of humankind. Extant hunter gatherer groups act as “living fossils” and help us understand how humans lived before the spread of agricultural technologies radically changed our lives and social structures. These technologies have benefited humankind in terms of reproductive success without changing our genetic or biological fitness, but have incurred great costs to women, more “primitive” minority groups and the natural environment. For better or worse, it has been a man’s world for the past 10,000 years since the dawn of agriculture, and more recently a white-man’s world for the past 500 years.
Paradise in Scripture
Many creation myths include idyllic original states that were corrupted by evil and provide a path to reclaim innocence and communion with the divine. Accounts of blessed peacetime in the Bible include the Garden of Eden from Genesis, a brief time of communal peace among the early Christians in Acts chapters 2-4, and the Millennium after the Second Coming and the binding of Satan in Revelations chapters 20-21. In verse 4 of chapter 21 we read, “And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.” Of note, in similitude of Enoch, Jesus promises his apostle John, who is considered the author of the Revelation, that he will not taste death but will be left on Earth to continue his work. Indeed, the promise of immortality, in the form of transfiguration and resurrection, is inseparably linked to the promise of a New Heaven and New Earth. As the poet said, “Death, thou shalt die! (John Donne, Holy Sonnet X)”
In 3rd and 4th Nephi of the Book of Mormon we are told of the ~200 years of peace and prosperity that followed catastrophic natural disasters and the visitation of Jesus. These chapters tell of a perfect communal society (“and they had all things common among them...” 3 Nephi 26:19; 4 Nephi 1:3) with enough for all, no greed or contention, no social or ideological divisions and summarize by stating, “surely there could not be a happier people among all the people who had been created by the hand of God.” (4 Nephi 1:17) Also prominent in these chapters is the tale of the Three Nephites who, like John, were not to taste death but remain behind to minister. Contemporary accounts of their visitations among the Saints are numerous and form an oral tradition which enriches the scriptural account to believers and is encouraged, or at least tolerated, by church leaders.
Of course, other non-Christian faiths offer messianic and millenarian visions for the future. In Kabbalah there is an imperative to the enlightened Jew to heal and repair the world (Tikkun Olam) as part of the preparation for the promised Messiah. Buddhists revere bodhisattvas, sages who like the Buddha have attained enlightenment, but like John and the Three Nephites have postponed their ascent to Nirvana in order to help others along the Path. The faithful of Shia Islam believe the “Hidden” Twelfth Imam will return and fill the world with justice and peace.
Paradise in Literature, Philosophy and History
Plato’s Republic, written in the 4th century BCE, lays the framework for a perfect society as imagined by Socrates during a leisurely after-dinner conversation with Athenian nobles. The first known work of its kind in Western literature posits a class of “philosopher-kings” who are raised to rule out of a sense of duty rather than ambition, and multiple supporting castes below them fulfill other necessary functions of the state. Aristotle’s Politics and Poetics, and later St. Augustine’s City of God provided additional ideas about the marriage of literature and law, both secular and holy, to create a better world. The story of King Arthur’s Camelot sought to marry the belief in the divine right of kings with romantic ideals of honor, justice, virtue and limited equality. Dante’s Divine Comedy told of the ascent of a traveller through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise, meshing pagan mythology, Christianity and current events together in an epic ballad.
Sir Thomas Moore’s Utopia, published in 1516, inspired by Amerigo Vespucci’s accounts of the New World and based loosely on the fable of the lost continent of Atlantis, extolled ideals of the Renaissance (humanism and nostalgia for the classical world) showing them flourishing in his “Good Place.” By resurrecting the ancient longing for an ideal society Moore softly inspired, and continues to inspire, dreamers and innovators alike for the next 500 years.
King Henry the 8th, Moore’s patron-turned-executioner, is credited along with Martin Luther for starting the Protestant Reformation. The Reformation spread across Continental Europe and evolved with new voices like that of John Calvin based in Geneva, which enjoyed an almost Utopian reputation during its Golden Age. In his seminal work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, sociologist Max Weber credited the counter-intuitive drive to righteousness and personal prosperity, born from a desire to prove one’s predestination for Salvation (arguably the core belief of Calvinism) for realizing the potential of capitalism dreamed of by the Florentine Medici. Seeking better fortunes than serfdom, people began moving into cities as a result of the agrarian revolution. Their strong desire to join the swelling middle class (the bourgeoisie) made wealthy by the rise of mercantilism led to a concentration of cheap labor, making conditions ripe for the industrial revolution.
Upon the heels of the Reformation came the Enlightenment, with an emphasis on reason, individualism and rejection of tradition for its own sake. The first rational explorations of human logic, psychology, the structure and function of society, morality, justice, medicine and the philosophy of science were made during this time in continental Europe by minds such as Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz. English empiricists such as John Locke, Francis Bacon and Sir Isaac Newton later laid the foundations for modern science and fueled growing faith in the power of the human mind to discover the laws of nature. In The Wealth of Nations, the Scottish economist Adam Smith observed that “free” markets with many participants tend to exhibit emergent properties or fairness and self-regulation, as if guided by an “invisible hand,” leading to a widespread adoption of laissez faire economic policies, reinforcing burgeoning individualism and struggles for greater personal liberty. In the same vein and born from the Enlightenment were the writings of Rousseau on the social contract, the explosion of western philosophy and the birth of America with its vision of the founding fathers “to establish a more perfect union.”
American and Mormon Experiments in Utopian Living
In this atmosphere of limitless possibility and westward expansion of Europeans in the New World, emerged the first intentional societies in New England whose express purpose was to find a way to live according to the will of God as they understood it, but others desired to live in freedom and equality without religious dictates. With a near-constant supply of converts (European immigrants fleeing poverty and oppression in the Old World) these utopian movements -- Shakers, Owenites, Fourierists -- dotted the countryside between upstate New York, northern Pennsylvania and Ohio. Other groups in the region, such as the Oneida Community, experimented with different sexual and marital mores, group child rearing and dabbled in selective mating for superior offspring.
Driven west and south by the failed harvest of 1816, the “year without a summer,” the Smith family left their ancestral Vermont for Palmyra New York as economic refugees. Commonly called the “Burned Over District” of the Second Great Awakening, it was a hotbed of religious revivalism and the family of Unitarian and Methodist roots quickly found itself caught up in and divided by allegiances to competing religious sects. We know the official version of the young Joseph Jr.’s scriptural and prayerful search for the truth, his visions and the revelations that became the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price. We have been taught of the founding of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, its successful missionary efforts in Europe, and its successive attempts (and failures) to establish a stable, sustainable, self-contained theocracy first in Kirtland, Ohio, then Jackson County, Missouri (explicitly called Zion and the future site of the New Jerusalem in a series of revelations to Smith) and Nauvoo, Illinois.
Along with the practice of polygamy, the consequences of which led to Smith’s violent death, this communal system of living was referred to as the United Order of Enoch, based on the Law of Consecration. The law, contained in a revelation received by Smith during the Kirtland period (D&C 42), instructed the faithful to deed or “consecrate” their property to the church under the direction of the local Bishop, and in turn each member would be given a “stewardship” and was expected to return the excess of their labors to a central storehouse. At first, participation in the system was requisite for membership, but these early communal experiments were unstable and short-lived before the exodus of Mormons to the mountain west.
Under the direction of Smith’s main successor Brigham Young, new voluntary communities were established throughout the Wasatch Front and the frontier. Notable examples were the Zion’s Cooperative Mercantile Institution (ZCMI); Brigham City, which operated a stock company system, lasted several decades and was financially successful even during large recessions in the 1870’s associated with mining that affected the rest of the state; and Orderville, a puritanical break-away group from the Mount Carmel community, near Kanab, which took Smith’s vision even further with communal meals, recreation, uniform clothing and living spaces. Where a lack of morale and reluctance to adopt communal values had doomed prior experiments, Orderville had such qualities in spades; however, external pressures of social conformity by the federal government, in the form of the Edmunds Anti-Polygamy Act, and directions to disband from the central church authorities as part of a new effort to reintegrate into mainstream American society are largely blamed for its eventual collapse in the late 1800’s.
The vision of Joseph Smith to establish Zion in the New World was a strong motivator for early converts to the Mormon Church and continues to inspire multigenerational members whose ancestors participated in these experiments (such as my own 4th-great grandfather, Isaac von Wagoner Carling). In the past hundred years since the era of the Order, the Church has refocused its efforts instead on strengthening social connections among members and their individual and family welfare. It has built a robust safety net that provides food and money to the needy funded by fast offerings, a system of hospitals in the Intermountain West and then donated them to a large non-profit. The Church continues to “bring them in” by supporting refugee relocation efforts in Salt Lake City, supporting generous and unique services for the city’s homeless and mentally ill, and encourages a moderate and family-centered approach to immigration reform that makes the Utah brand of Republicanism slightly less xenophobic than the rest of the “red” states.
The draw to Zion still burns and calls many Mormons to dream of the prophesied future when the Kingdom of God will be more than a limited liability or tax-exempt corporation, a series of pro-social policies or a nebulous idea rarely revisited in nostalgic sermons and Seminary or Sunday School lessons. As the 20th century dawned, bringing drastic, unprecedented changes that rival the agricultural revolution, Mormons were stepping back from their vision of a physical, ontologically unique and “peculiar” utopia to join the secular world and witness its attempts to corner the market on societal perfection.
Science and Humanism - New Founts of Faith and Folly
The scientific and industrial revolutions filled people with hope in a humanistic future and spurred the first wide-scale rejection of gross inequality, leading Karl Marx in 1848 to call, “Workers of the world, Unite!” His materialist view of history and political philosophy of communism would come to rule a third of the world’s population in its heyday. Darwin, inspired by the writings of Malthus On Population, synthesized his theory of evolution by natural selection, which inspired the humanist intelligentsia of his day to look forward to a glorious future when evolution by artificial selection became a tool for mastery of other species, as well as our own. German romanticism and nihilism, together with rising tides of nationalism following the demise of the old order after the first World War and the ill-fated eugenics movement led to the rise of fascism. In the “free world,” social darwinism together with capitalism established the current imperialist and paternalist monoculture which continues to steamroll by globalization and often by coercion after its military and political victories over fascism and communism.
The follies of our pursuit of happiness in the last centuries are numerous and humbling. After the “discovery” of the New World, we were briefly captivated by a fascination and desire to civilize the “savages.” In the face of our insatiable desire for wealth, our tenuous tolerance quickly devolved into our destruction of countless advanced natural experiments in social evolution among Native Americans and their genocidal slaughter, exploitation and imprisonment in reservations. Following this, our brutal enslavement of millions of West Africans for purely economic purposes and post hoc religious and pseudoscience justifications for this. Countless other acts of superiority and imperialism have been (and continue to be) committed by European powers who presumed their degree of cultural and technological evolution was due to some biologically (or divinely) endowed selection.
It is no surprise that modern Westerners have become weary and skeptical of utopian ideologies, preferring instead the counter-genre of dystopias which arose in the early 20th century with classics such as Huxley’s Brave New World and Orwell’s 1984. The German historian-philosopher Eric Voeglin saw the rise of destructive utopian ideologies as cautionary tales of Christian idealism. The atrocities of totalitarianism in Stalin's Russia, Ceausescu’s Romania, Mao’s China, Pott’ Cambodia, Fidel’s Cuba, as well as Pinochet’s Chile, Trujillo’s Dominican Republic and numerous African dictatorships demonstrate the dangers of secular and post-religious utopianism. Such failures are not confined to the West or traditionally Christian societies. The rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the form of the modern state of Iran, the Taliban of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the new incarnation of ISIS demonstrate that religious idealism can be universally powerful and destructive. Why, then, is the draw into such ideologies so strong and convincing, despite their abysmal track records?
The Evolution of Zion
When presented as a list of steps in an evolutionary path, it is tempting to view cultural and scientific “progress” as an inevitable march; however, by pointing to failures, dead-end branches and extinctions we see a fuller, bushy view of history and cultural evolution. The fact that most of us were born into successful societies should come as no surprise (it is demonstrably obvious) and should not induce any sense of privilege or ethnocentrism. There is no pinnacle of evolution to sit upon, we hairless apes must content ourselves with our branch, but this does not preclude an underlying selective pressure for stability and survival. We may ask, is there an arc to history and if so, does it truly bend toward justice?
Studies of other primates demonstrate that reciprocal altruism, indignation and a sense of “justice” do appear to have a biological basis. These qualities lend themselves to non-zero-sum interactions and support the theory of group selection, which has broader explanatory power than kin selection theory for eusocial behavior among animals who have not sacrificed individual sexual reproduction, in contrast to classic examples of eusocial animals (ants, bees, termites, etc.). The study of biological evolution has yielded clear patterns and its results can be predicted, even manipulated or selected, if key environmental variables are influenceable or controllable. While it may be reductionist to assume that social and technological evolution yield themselves to similar prescience and control, it is possible that the needed advances in our understanding and the tools necessary to monitor and influence these complex systems represent a difference of degree and not of kind (i.e. a “Popperian” vs “Kuhnian” scientific revolution).
If we can even partially design our future consciously, I promote that then we should do so. I personally resonate with the idea that evolution has a prosocial agenda, which can be glimpsed through the lens of increasing non-zero-sum interactions among we conscious and verbal beings as well as nonverbal conscious beings and the plants and microbes we have selected. I also suspect that trusting in such a belief to bring about a better world naturally (or by an external act of God), is to fall prey to the naturalist fallacy (or fundamentalist fatalism) and complacence to a trajectory that may be leading us instead headlong toward extinction. Evolution, unaided and undefended, will not produce such a paradise with the environmental conditions as they currently are-- radical economic and political reforms are necessary. Without ethically focused technological intervention, we may miss our greatest opportunity to improve the lives of all mankind, ensure our continued survival and evolutionary potential, and protect the wealth of genetic biodiversity which natural evolution has graced this planet with.
Such small evolutionary steps must confer serial selective advantages and should strive to respect universal human rights and needs as described by Maslow and the students of positive psychology, and the rights of nonhuman conscious beings. Changing the way we live will involve new systems of economics based on ecological impact and a strong decentralized authority made possible via the internet. Previous iterations of such ideologies, e.g. libertarian socialism and the Arcology movement of Paulo Soleri, fell prey to scarcity based economic pressures in part because they lacked technologies such as blockchain and access to powerful, mobile sources of energy, water, manufacturing and bio-engineering (high-efficiency solar collectors, fusion reactors, desalination and atmospheric water collectors, self replicating 3-D printers and CRISPR) which are now becoming available and getting cheaper. Proposed examples of small steps in civilization's evolution range tremendously and include seasteading, Masdar City and the recently released plans for the first human settlement on Mars patronized by the UAE, and other longshots such as generational ships (e.g. The Nauvoo) sent to nearby habitable planets and large-scale terraforming projects of the Solar System.
Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” is really an invisible network of supercomputers formed by the collective brains of all participants in the market. With the technological singularity we will have far more than the required computational power that earlier attempts at centralized economic planning needed but lacked. The widespread use of technologies such as blockchain and crypto-currency would shed light on the dark and secret world of wealth and income inequality and be invaluable to a fair taxation system, increasing enfranchisement and power in a democratic fashion. Reducing inequality, in an effort to end poverty, happens in one of two ways, taxation or philanthropy, and the benefits are clear either way (systems with less economic inequality have better objective outcomes). The concept of universal/basic income is currently being pioneered in the Nordic states which have long been successful examples of democratic socialism.
While scarcity for resources, capital, and agents who are willing and able to produce work will never be eliminated, it may be possible for us to move beyond our current understanding of scarcity and practices of rationing and justification for extreme concentrations of wealth while large percentages of our population struggle to meet their basic needs.Improved and ubiquitous resources for education, increased access to contraception and advances in medicine leading to longer, healthier and more productive lives will continue to swell the world's growing middle class and put enormous pressure on the current economic system which is suffering from gentrification and scarcity of resources. Hopefully, new and promising technologies discussed above will come online in time to prevent Malthusian-type population collapse.
We may be able to help prevent such disasters by increasing our understanding of the biology of human empathy and development of atonement technologies (immersive simulations of another’s subjective experience) as a form of education and enlightenment. Most neuroscientists agree that humans have very limited “free will,” conceding that belief in free will does improve prosocial/moral behavior. Vital to our success in this endeavor is improved understanding of the biology of self-interest, motivation and incentive, and biological enhancement to foster “desire” to do the “right” thing not just those things evolution has programmed us to want. Instead of removing internal conflict altogether, this would likely work more as a catalyst, reducing the starting energy needed to move a reaction in the desired direction. Such enhancements and enlightenment would be highly effective within religious contexts and point to a avenue for future relevance and leadership among those faiths that most readily adopt and adapt to these needed changes. But a word of caution to exclusive "universal" faiths who strive for dominance: the future you envision is unsafe for all, including yourselves. We must reject monolithic cultures and ideals, and instead work for a healthy and diverse global village with interacting players in a non-zero-sum game of infinite complexity as the one, whole and healed mind and body of humanity.