The Story of You-man Evolution

Reading time: 7 minutes

Sometime around seven million years ago, a primate climbed down from the trees. Standing upright to scan the horizon, the primate then took a step forward. And another. She probably wasn’t able to walk for long, at least not comfortably. But her children were able to walk a few steps further; her grandchildren a bit further still. With each successive generation, this ability to stand and walk upright was rewarded. First, being able to see above the tall grasses meant less likelihood of being eaten by predators – something we all can value, no doubt. Second, not being eaten by predators tends to make it much easier to pass on your genes, a key tenet of evolution.

These daring first steps by early pre-humans beat a path for the next several million years of human evolution to take place. 

The next major leap came around 1.5 million years later, when these bipedal primates began crafting basic tools. Soon after (measured in hundreds of thousands of years), they devised the hand axe. Nearly a million years after that came the discovery of fire. Perhaps not a coincidence, the brain underwent significant growth over the thousands of millenia that followed. Then came shelters, and spears, and use of the earliest symbols.*

Then around 200,000 years ago, our favorite species emerged: us, Homo sapiens. 

Countless generations later, around 70 to 50,000 years ago, a cognitive revolution** took place, pushing the human brain to new levels of capability. This “sudden” increase in brain power gave humans a capacity for symbol, language, and ultimately culture and storytelling – thus giving us a major boost in our bid for global dominance.

With every new evolutionary pressure, our ancestors, quite fortunately, found ways to survive. Beyond the physical adaptations, the human brain helped them to thrive. Their ability to share lessons and pass on wisdom from generation to generation pushed our species to new pinnacles of evolutionary success.

It would seem unreasonable to expect this process to be over.

We can (and must) continue to evolve.

Evolution at a personal scale

As evolution typically happens on a timescale of centuries or millennia, we won’t personally be around to see what evolution of the human species looks like. But we can still evolve as individuals, adapting to the “evolutionary pressures” in our own lives. Evolution on this personal scale better equips us to respond to inevitable challenges and to make a better contribution to our societies.

We all undergo a natural and unavoidable process of growth throughout our lives. Much of this is driven by forces outside of our control – you can’t help but grow physically, mentally, and emotionally.

First, you are born, riding a fast-moving train of growth to toddlerdom.

You start school and start to interact intensively with other tiny humans. Through this, you naturally learn (to varying degrees of effectiveness) how to cooperate, communicate, and be a part of a community.

On this high-speed train of youth, you then pass through many more stages of body and brain changes, becoming at each stage a recognizable “you”. You start to form an identity of who you are and where you fit in the world. You learn and grow and adapt to constantly changing social pressures, while your skills, beliefs, values, and interests constantly shift, expand, and contract.

This rapid personal development continues at breakneck speed until you finish your school years, perhaps going on to university level. Throughout these years, you are more or less pushed in the limited range of directions where society wants you to go, where to focus your energies.

Then after so many years of dependence, you’re out on your own. You get a job. You find a place to live. You’re free.

You follow a career path, which may be more or less satisfying. You buy a home, or not; you get married, or not; you have kids, or not.

For many of us, the idea of ongoing evolution and personal growth does not enter our daily thinking.

Triggers of change

How does evolution work on a personal scale? We all have evolutionary pressures acting upon us, which can help drive us to adapt and grow in response.

At some point in our lives, nearly all of us will face a crisis of some sort or another. This could be loss of a job or a loved one, the end of a relationship, or any number of personal or professional setbacks. Or it could be a threat that we face collectively as a species, as in the case of the global pandemic COVID-19 currently spreading rapidly around the globe.

Sometimes the experience of these crises triggers our personal evolution in a way that is unavoidable and automatic. We are forced to change – to adapt or die.

In The Second Mountain, author David Brooks describes this path to evolution. He tells stories of people who have achieved fame, fortune, notoriety, and other trappings of success. At some point, through crisis or other intense wake-up, these people saw a futility or emptiness in their success. They underwent a personal transformation, soon dedicating themselves to a new life path. They realized that fulfillment did not lie in having more stuff or accolades or selfish gain, but rather in making a contribution to the benefit of others.

Becoming a driver

As Ray Dalio describes in Principles: Life and Work, taking control of our own evolution is one of the most important things we can do, which he describes in his principle “maximize your evolution.” Having conscious awareness of our capacity to evolve is what sets us apart from other species. Our highly developed neocortex and its role in reasoning and reflection fuels our ability to consciously evolve during our lifetimes. 

By constantly taking on new challenges, engaging in regular reflection, and being radically open to changing our own behavior based on what we learn, we can trigger our own evolution. This process is not easy, and nor should it be. However, it is possible and the value is immeasurable.

As with the people profiled in Brooks’ Second Mountain, finding a life purpose and dedicating yourself fully to that purpose can help us to adapt to any circumstances – and to emerge a better human than before.

Perhaps no one has presented this as clearly as Victor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning. While immersed in perhaps the most soul-crushing circumstances imaginable – being a prisoner in a concentration camp – Frankl recognized that having a purpose meant the difference between life and death. As he says, “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”

Practical ways to evolve

For every person, the specific path to evolution will be different. But there are many practices and perspectives – both secular and spiritual – that we might explore. 

From a secular perspective, Ray Dalio’s advice in Principles is to constantly seek new challenges and to push ourselves through our work. In doing so, we are in essence creating a set of evolutionary pressures by stepping outside of our comfort zones, in turn creating opportunities to grow.

To act on this typically means embracing our difficulties, setbacks, and pain.

In modern Western society, the idea of embracing pain or difficulty is nearly heretical, as the avoidance of any form of discomfort is deeply embedded within consumer culture. Embracing difficulty doesn’t mean condoning bad things or liking them or being passive. Rather, this means accepting that pain is an inevitable part of life and often serves a vital purpose. It is a teacher and a guide. It is fuel for transformation

On the spiritual front, fully recognizing that not all of us feel connected to religion, there are nonetheless some common practices to guide us in times of confusion. These practices help prepare ourselves to be open to transformation. 

Prayer can be a powerful activity when faced by fear and uncertainty. Even praying to an unknowable force in the cosmos – whatever label or non-label you want to apply – can create fertile soil for personal growth. In this practice, we open ourselves to the vulnerability and humility that it takes to admit that we cannot solve all problems on our own. We can ask for guidance. We can ask for growth and clarity. We can ask to be a tool for greater things. In doing so, we can gain tremendous strength that comes from beyond the self.

Likewise, many forms of meditation can help. Some practices calm the mind, in turn helping us to gain clarity. Other practices focused on lovingkindness and compassion help to open our hearts and shift our focus on other beings, not just ourselves. And there are practices to cultivate insight, to deeply explore reality and our place in it.

Whatever approaches you take, the effort will be worthwhile. Modern society has achieved great material wealth, but has lost so much richness of meaning and purpose. Solving our greatest challenges such as the current global pandemic of COVID-19 does require material resources, but it will also call for people who think beyond themselves, who help to counteract fear, selfishness, and division. 

You have no doubt heard a call to evolution. You’ve heard a call to contribution to something larger than the self. Today is a great time to answer.


* For some key milestones in human evolution, see:

** The Cognitive revolution is a period in which prehistoric sapiens was considered to have achieved “behavioral modernity.” See:

See Ray Dalio’s Principles (“Maximize your evolution”) for some ideas on what this process of personal evolution can look like. He references the neocortex and its role in reasoning and reflection as being a key factor in our ability to consciously evolve during our lifetimes. It involves taking on challenges, frequently as part of our work, and either “seeking something new [that challenges them and forces them to grow] or seeking depths in something old.”

See David Brooks’ The Second Mountain for some great writing on the importance of adopting a “contribution mindset,” or more specifically of devotion to the benefit of others while giving up a focus on “personal freedom.” To arrive at this point often requires some form of painful growth, transformation, and evolution towards this new form of ourselves. We adapt to the adversities, setbacks, and suffering we experience to be reborn as a version of ourselves that is better equipped to support the betterment of the human community as a whole.

See Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, which conveys the vital importance of having a purpose in life – in particular one that is focused on “other,” not “self.” If it’s a happy, fulfilled life we’re after, we should be less focused on trying to wring every last drop out of the world for our own purposes and selfish drives, but rather on what life needs us to do. “It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us.”