Peter Russell describes Waking Up in Time as "a tapestry of ideas" that draws on evolution biology, physics, computer science, psychology, and philosophy in exploring what he sees as an evolutionary crisis confronting the human species at century's end. The crisis stems from two unprecedented changes: the prospect of environmental catastrophe and the ever-accelerating pace of change in human civilization. Russell shows how the "quickening" of change is not limited to modern times but can be traced back through history all the way to the beginning of creation. What we are experiencing today, he says, is the culmination of billions of years of accelerating development.
Evolution continuously accelerates because, with rare exception, each developmental breakthrough facilitates some future advance. Multicellular organisms, sexual reproduction, and the emergence of nervous systems all contribute to the speeding up of evolutionary change. With the emergence of human beings, two new features helped to hasten development yet further: 1) language, which permitted the sharing of knowledge, and 2) the use of tools, which allowed us to, in Russell's words, "take the clay of Mother Earth and reshape it to our own ends." This, in turn, paved the way for the Agricultural Revolution, tens of thousands of years ago, and later the migration into towns and cities. In this way, each new development is made possible by what preceded it and occurs in a mere fraction of the time required for the previous advance — somewhere between one-quarter and one-tenth the time, by Russell's estimation.
If evolution continues to follow this pattern in the future — and there is good reason to suppose it will — then the pace of change will only continue to accelerate. The intervals will drop from decades to years to months and we will be approaching a moment when the rate of change is, in effect, infinite. Mathematicians call this a "singularity," a point at which the growth curve becomes so steep that equations break down and cease to have any meaning. At this point, Russell observes, "we would find ourselves evolving so fast that we experience an unimaginable degree of evolution within a finite time." The general consensus of opinion among researchers in this area, he says, is that the singularity in time lies in the first half of the 21st century — presuming, that is, that we do not destroy the biosphere or turn the planet into a nuclear wasteland before then.
Russell devotes an entire section of the book to exploring this second possibility — the prospect of annihilating ourselves through shortsightedness. We are at an evolutionary crossroads, he argues, and there is no way to predict which path we will take, that of destruction or that of transformation and renewal. One thing is clear, however: "If we are to navigate ourselves safely through this critical moment of history we must make a break with the past, and look at ourselves and our world with fresh eyes. This will entail a fundamental shift in thinking and perception — a shift in consciousness more profound and far-reaching than any in our history. It will mean awakening to the wisdom that lies within us all, of which the great sages have always spoken. This is our next step in evolution, not an outer step, but an inner step."
The challenge, then, is to harness and transform our immense power by inner growth and maturation. The next great frontier, Russell states, is to "develop the wisdom that will allow us to use our new powers for our own good, and for the good of all." This step in our evolutionary development may occur very quickly since it involves a shift in our ability to think and communicate. Citing the groundswell of interest today in human consciousness and "the art of self-liberation," he notes that signs of such a transformation are already quite numerous.
He goes on to explore how we, as individuals, might begin to take that next evolutionary step, to liberate our minds from outmoded habits of thought and to, as it were, wake up. He offers a range of suggestions, from breaking the shackles of conventional thinking to deepening intimate relationships to learning how to meditate. In a final section, he offers some speculations about where we may be headed in the future. He explores some of the many prophesies that predict turmoil and change at the end of the millennium, suggesting that they be used as metaphors for profound inner transformation and awakening rather than literal truth. He also offers some philosophical, even spiritual, reflections on whether evolution has an underlying design or purpose. Citing recent work in cosmology, he believes that a strong case can be made for the idea that the universe was designed so that conscious creatures can evolve and fathom creation in all its dimensions.
An earlier version of this book was published by HarperSanFrancisco in 1992 under the title The White Hole in Time. Like Russell's other books — most notably The Global Brain (see review) — it is accessible and interesting, if somewhat sketchy. It doesn't delve very deeply into either science or spirituality, though it clearly draws on — and attempts to bridge — them both. The line between the two gets a bit blurry here and there which is bound to offend the serious reader. Russell also weakens his own argument by routinely importing scientific facts to bolster philosophical arguments that have nothing to do with science. This kind of sleight-of-hand works well on the lecture circuit, but it doesn't play well in print. As a scientist and scholar, he should know better. But having said that, the book provides a valuable and engaging overview of the major challenges facing us, both as individuals and as a species, at the dawn of a new century.
Copyright 2000 by Scott London. All rights reserved.