The Obligation

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In this excerpt from The Obligation, the book’s wisdom teacher, Congressman Harrison B. Grant, explains to the protagonist, John, Grant’s young aid, about the Evolutionary Impulse. It is evening and the two are sitting on a bench on the Washington Mall, between the Capitol building and the Washington Monument. John has gone through many trials leading up this moment, which takes place near the end of the novel. This excerpt begins where Cong. Grant is completing a diagram he’s carving in the dirt with a stick to illustrate the essence of The Obligation world view.

He paused to make sure I was following him. “The Evolutionary Impulse is the force that drives the whole train.” With that he carved a deep line right up through the middle of the spiral. “The Evolutionary Impulse is that urge to create on all levels in the universe. It is the urge for a star to come into being, and it is the urge for a piece of art to emerge on a canvas. It is the engine that gives power to the Endowments. It was the driving force to create the Endowments, and will impel our action until the Obligation is fulfilled. And it will sustain us into the next evolutionary stage, whatever that might be.

“In the most basic sense, it was the Evolutionary Impulse that started the whole universe in motion from the Big Bang on. In this context, Darwinian evolution comprises just a small subset of an infinitely larger picture. When something emerges from nothing we call it an act of creation. While the act of creation describes the moment something is made manifest in the physical world, the Evolutionary Impulse is the guiding force behind just what that “something” will be and how it will emerge into form. In other words, the Evolutionary Impulse is the intelligent energy that nudges creation into specific directions.”

He paused. By this point, I had thoroughly slipped into heightened attentiveness. There was a question forming in my mind, but he did not wait for me to ask it.

“Each evolutionary advancement—the emergence of new species of animal, plant, or other life forms—occurs in response to the Evolutionary Impulse. Prior to the moment of creation, the Evolutionary Impulse generates a certain tension or pressure on the physical world that prepares the way for a particular act of creation. This process is occurring in every moment in every square centimeter of the universe. It certainly occurs with the emergence of a new species, but actually is the intelligent energy that literally sustains everything. We see its work with each birth of a child. We see it in the formation of stars. We also see it in the advance of civilization, technology, culture and, as we’ve been discussing, in the development of consciousness.

“The tension that the Evolutionary Impulse imposes on human consciousness has helped guide our development out of the caves and into skyscrapers. The pull toward space migration is just one expression of this evolutionary tension. It is nothing less than a primordial demand to move off this planet and become a multi-planetary species.

“Someone might say that they’re interested in space travel and would like to work for NASA. If that person is talented enough he might live the dream and become an astronaut. If he lacks the requisite talent and skills, he might otherwise seek to build a career somewhere in the aerospace field. At a minimum, that individual will follow each launch with great interest, and perhaps join groups and write his congressman to keep NASA well funded. The important thing is that the Evolutionary Impulse coursing through the astronaut and the amateur lobbyist are no different. Although space advocates may feel that their passion is self-generated, it is actually a response to an encoded stimulus that is part of their being, which they are not even aware of.

“When Armstrong stepped on the moon the world was united in awe and wonder. It wasn’t merely a Cold War victory as some historians have concluded. Something momentous happened. A milestone had been reached. And the reaction of billions of people went much deeper than could be understood in technical rational terms. That global moment of euphoria was an expression of our movement toward fulfilling the Obligation.”

Now he paused long enough for me to react. “But that excitement about the moon missions didn’t last. The public got bored after Apollo 11, and the launches were no longer headline news.”

“Is that really so surprising?” At that moment, the sound of a child’s yelp drew our attention. About a hundred feet down the path a mother firmly held the hand of a pre-school boy. She pulled him along while he resisted, whimpering that he did not want to go home. She was clearly angry and fed up with the uncooperative child. It was getting late and the boy was no doubt tired and cranky. Mr. Grant chuckled at the scene. “I’ve certainly been there,” he whispered to himself, recollecting his own parental frustration.

“When there is a new birth, everyone is excited and drawn to the wonder of a new life joining our family. After the initial event of the birth, however, the child eventually becomes just another kid. There are diapers to change. You have to child-proof everything. They throw tantrums on the Mall. The first moon landing was a lot like a newborn. When we first saw it, it was wonderful, incredible, a miracle. After that it was still nice. You still believed in the mission, of course. But, what about the football game or the ‘I Love Lucy’ rerun you wanted to watch? How can you blame the networks or the public for Apollo’s drop in viewership? But the lack of newsworthiness never made the missions any less worthy. Just as being in the world for a while doesn’t diminish the value of any of God’s children, even when they get to be a pain in the ass.” The mother and uncooperative child were some distance down the Mall, the boy’s outcries still audible.

“God’s children,” I repeated, sparking a question. I hesitated, but I needed to know. “The Evolutionary Impulse sounds like the guiding hand of God. You used the term “intelligent energy” and said that the Evolutionary Impulse guides the creation of things in the universe. Are you saying there is a God?”

Mr. Grant leaned back, drew a deep breath raising his eyebrows. “Now, that’s a loaded question. To say there is an intelligent directionality to the evolution of the universe is not to say that that force is the essence of what traditional religions accept as God. Remember we spoke earlier about the universe unfolding according to a DNA blueprint. The potential for human existence preceded our arrival. We have free will, but at the same time we are guided by the Evolutionary Impulse to accomplish certain things, including being stewards of the planet as well as migrating beyond it. You see, no one, or any god, is forcing us to be interested in space travel; therefore we have free will to deny it—and certainly many do. However, it is part of our collective DNA to be very interested in such things.

“As for the existence of God–I believe the mystery that the prophets and sages have been speaking about for millennia is still very much intact. As significant as the revelations of the Obligation may be, it is nothing more than peeling back one more layer of the onion. There will always be greater depths to fathom. And the fact that humanity may have a particular symbiotic relationship to its host planet does not imply that there is not yet some additional divine or genetic purpose for our existence. There may well be. But, on the question of our divinity and of God in general, I am afraid to say, I am completely unqualified to speak. On the other hand, could anything be more divine than serving in a role similar to that of the bumble bees?”

He shifted his body on the bench, turning it to face me. “What’s important to emphasize here is that the Evolutionary Impulse is driving us to find the way into space. There are differences of opinion on how that will best be achieved, and by whom. But these debates, and even the space race itself, are moving civilization as a whole in the same direction. We may not have made all the right decisions so far. Certainly, had we maintained focus and funding after Apollo, it’s perfectly conceivable that by today astronauts would be exploring the far reaches of the solar system, and we would be well on our way toward building self-sustaining human settlements. But, we were distracted by other priorities and global challenges—issues we could say relate to the Primary Obligation. It’s not that the interest in space development had diminished. We simply couldn’t get past other roadblocks of the last few decades. In fact, it’s amazing how successful NASA has been considering the political challenges and modest public interest.

“This impulse to expand into space is like water rolling downhill; the water will trickle in many directions before it finds the right groove, which becomes the brook and eventually the mighty river. The U.S./Soviet space race of the sixties is a good example of this point. Historians will say it was Cold War tensions that provided the impetus for the moon race. While it’s true, without the Cold War we might not have had Apollo, it is also important to remember that the desire for space travel was a fire in the minds of many people long before tension with the Soviet Union created a rationale for demonstrating mastery in missile technology. The original rocket scientists like Goddard and von Braun dreamt of space travel for the benefit of all mankind, not so one nation could show technological superiority over another. The first space visionaries were expressing the ideas that trickled down the mountainside, finding the niches and cracks, gathering and pooling. The Cold War merely provided a wide channel through which the current of the Evolutionary Impulse could surge in the direction of the Obligation.”

When he finished, a prolonged silence helped to anchor his words in my mind. I looked down at the diagram Mr. Grant had scratched in the dirt. There was an elegant simplicity about it that made perfect sense.

“So is that it? Is that all of the philosophy of the Obligation?” Once again, I reached for closure. It all seemed complete.

“Yes…and no. But it’s getting late, my friend. And I am late for a fundraiser at the Willard Hotel.”

And without further comment, he stood, smiled at me and walked down the Mall path. I wanted to ask him something else and keep the discussion going, but nothing came out of me as I watched his hulking figure get smaller and disappear.


The Obligation is available on

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