The Evolutionary Potential of Quakerism

Boulding 1956

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Ken boulding2

Kenneth Boulding

Kenneth E Boulding delivered the first Backhouse Lecture, The Evolutionary Potential of Quakerism to the inaugural Australia Yearly Meeting in 1964. This is a summary paraphrase. See below to obtain the full text of the original.

Introduction (p.4)Edit

The scientific history of the Universe can largely be written in terms of three great concepts – equilibrium, entropy and evolution. Without equilibrium everything would dissolve into chaos, however all equilibrium states are temporary. Otherwise there would be no history (1)…a nation or a religious society has its origins in some creation of social potential. As its history unfurls this potential is used up and unless it can be renewed the organisation likewise matures, ages and dies…

Without equilibrium everything would dissolve into chaos, however all equilibrium states are temporary. Change in history is governed by two apparently opposing concepts and processes: a “running down” process, which is associated in science with the concept of increasing entropy, and a “building up” process which is associated with the phenomenon of evolution.

The Process of Evolution (p. 6)Edit

Evolution operates as far as we know through a very simple machinery. Any given system and any given state of the world is subject to random shocks and random changes. Because any existing state is an equilibrium state most of these changes produce states that will not survive. Sometimes however these changes will be large enough to move the system to a new position of equilibrium, and if this happens it will never return to the old equilibrium. The capacity possessed by higher levels of organization to form stable systems, which can be reached by a series of possible changes from some previous system, which give the universe its evolutionary potential, a potential which was present in the primordial explosion or act of creation. The process by which systems change is called mutation. It is the combination of mutation and selection which gives rise to the evolutionary process and which permits the realisation of evolutionary potential.

The evolutionary process itself mutates. It has changed several times in the history of the universe, each time as it were, stepping into a higher gear and increasing the rate of evolutionary change. When life was established the rate of evolution increased enormously, for life itself in its genetic structure had an apparatus for recreating potential in each generation and for enormously increasing the rate of possible mutation.

There is no doubt however that the advent of man, a mere half million years ago, represents a break and a change of gear in the evolutionary process at least equivalent to the invention of life itself. With the development of the human nervous system an apparatus was devised which could learn, that is carry on an evolutionary process within itself. Biological evolution then becomes relatively insignificant compared with social and cultural evolution, though now we seem about to reach a further stage, where cultural evolution gets to the point at which man can begin to intervene actively in the process of biological evolution. It seems highly probable that man will soon begin to create new forms of life.

The Quaker Mutation (p.8)Edit

Considered, therefore, as a case of social evolution, the Society of Friends can be seen as a mutation from the Christian phylum, not from the phylum of Buddhism or Islam. It is a mutation furthermore, from Western, indeed English, Protestant, Puritan Christianity. Some Friends who conceive of Quakerism as embodying a universal and absolutely valid truth may not find this statement attractive, but its historic truth can hardly be denied.

Toward Perfection And Experience (p.11)Edit

The Quaker mutation included a surprisingly large change, comprising an unusually large number of elements. It represented a change from existing beliefs and practices in a considerable number of important religious and cultural elements. The first one of these, and I think the most important, is that the Quakers were perfectionists. They believed that life without sin could be lived on earth and they set about rather deliberately to organize a society to do this. A second very important strand in the Quaker mutation might be called “experimentalism”. This is the insistence on first-hand experience as the only true source of religion and indeed of perfection. Perfection cannot be achieved by the mere following of an outward rule or by book learning. “Thou sayest, Christ said this and the apostles said that, but what canst thou say?” This is the constant appeal of George Fox and indeed of all the early Quakers.

Creating A Social Body (p.14)Edit

Out of these two mutations towards perfectionism and experimentalism comes a series of great practical mutations: the Meeting for Worship, the related Meeting for Business, and the whole structure and practice of the Quaker meeting as a social organization.

Factors Of Survival (p.18)Edit

The assessment of any mutation in regard to its evolutionary potential is rendered difficult by the fact that mutations hardly ever come singly and the effect of one is difficult to disentangle from the effect of others. A mutation for instance can often survive and reproduce itself not because it is in itself particularly favorable but because it happens to be associated with other mutations which are favorable, and there are mutations which are quite unfavorable in the short run but favorable in the long run.

Quakers played a disproportionate role in the rise of modern science and technology and in the industrial revolution in England in the eighteenth century. This was not unrelated to the religious characteristics of the Society of Friends, and that indeed science and modern technology would be unlikely to develop outside of a society in which the ideals of perfectionism and experimentalism were present. The Society of Friends therefore must accept a partial responsibility for the much larger mutation into science and technology which has dominated the world from the beginning of the eighteenth century. The Society of Friends was only a small part of the forces which brought about this transition even though we may claim that qualitatively it played a vital role.

I defend the proposition that the evolutionary potential of Quakerism is not yet exhausted and indeed is still very high. I think Quakerism is an example of a mutation which was in a sense premature before its time.

Religion in the Post-Civilized World (p.20)Edit

I argue that it is precisely in religious experience that one finds the evolutionary potential that looks forwards to the ultimate future of man. This is why I think that religion will not pass away as we move from civilised to post-civilised society but will become immensely strengthened and enriched. Once we have gotten rid of war, poverty, and disease what is left for us to do? The only answer is to pursue what is good for its own sake. This is what religion at its highest has always meant by the search for God. It is not impossible for a new religious mutation to arise out of Quakerism.

Building Human Identity (p.23)Edit

The Society of Friends is deeply committed to love as a major ethical principle, and on building the human identity around universal love which knows no barriers of race, class, country or creed. Quakers therefore are deeply committed to what I elsewhere called the “integrative” system for the organization of society and management of human affairs. The development of mankind leads almost inevitably to an increase in the proportion of social activity which is organized through the integrative system and a decrease in proportion of the social system governed by threats or even exchange

Finally I suggest that the Society of Friends has a great intellectual task ahead of it, in the translation of its religious and ethical experiences and insights into a conscious understanding of the way in which the kind of love which we treasure and covet can be produced, defended, and extended. A great part of this task no doubt lies outside of the Society of Friends, for instance in the development of the social sciences. Friends however have a unique opportunity before them in the decades to come. The principal, though not the only, growing point of the Society of Friends in the twentieth century lies in the intellectual community.

Why, however, should a religious society have an intellectual task — surely this should be left to the universities! The answer is that the task in question is spiritual as well as intellectual, in the sense that it involves not merely abstract knowledge, but love and community.


Page numbers refer to

Boulding, K. E. (1964). The Evolutionary Potential of Quakerism. Wallingford: Pendle Hill Publications. This can be downloaded here

A different summary by Katherine Purnell (2007) titled Evolutionary Potential of Kenneth Boulding can be downloaded from Quaker Voices in the 21st Century

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