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Living Systems in Evolution

Elisabet Sahtouris

copyright © 1999 by Elisabet Sahtouris


Less Than Perfect, More Than Machine


While the mechanical worldview and the explosion of technological progress it led to are historically Western innovations, their consequences in science, technology, economics, and politics have by now shaped the course of all humanity. Our invention and use of machines has become the guiding force of our species' evolution -- we are now, for better or worse, technological creatures.

The word technology comes from the Greek techne, which originally meant any art, but has since come to mean the art of building mechanical systems, including our computer and telephone systems. Machines have given us powers far beyond those of our bodies, and we probably began inventing them to compensate for body parts that we lacked, such as long teeth, claws, and fur.

Our earliest machines -- designed to extend the power of our hands and arms -- were levers to move rocks, slings to throw stones, bows to fire arrows. To feed and clothe ourselves we formed flat and hollow stones for grinding and pounding food, spindles and simple looms for making cloth. All these are machines, as distinguished from tools, in that they have parts which move in relation to one another.

As our civilizations developed, we invented winding mechanisms and wheels, nuts and bolts, pulleys, and other ingenious devices for improving our machinery. We built mills and carriages and great machines of war to hurl missiles at enemies and climb their walls. But the real explosion of human technology came much later with inventions such as the printing press and the spinning jenny, which made useful things in larger quantities and less time than ever before; with inventions such as steamships and locomotives, which moved people about in larger numbers at greater speed than ever before; with inventions such as the radio and the telephone, which let more people communicate farther and faster than ever before.

Machines are made of parts that move to do something humans wish to do. In the first machines, the parts were moved by people themselves or by domesticated animals, so it is easy to see them as extensions of people. But as water power, steam power, fossil fuels, electricity, and finally atomic power were harnessed to machines, they seemed to take on a life of their own and we forgot that machines are still now, as they always were, a part of humanity invented by humans to extend human powers, rather than something independent of us.

Mechanisms come into being and function only through human design, manufacture, and use. They extend our power to build, to make things, to go places, to fight wars, to measure time and space, to perceive much more of our world and our whole cosmos in its tiniest and vastest reaches than can our senses alone. Machines extend our power to amuse, teach, and talk to one another, to show ourselves to one another around our whole planet. They even extend our power to remember, to think, to predict and plan our future.

In all these ways and more, machines extend the powers of their designers and users. No machine would ever have existed without a designer and builder -- not even the automatic machines that seem most independent of us. Science fiction writers may imagine worlds run by self-designed and self-reproducing machines, but machines will never exist without their creators and users somewhere in the background.

The idea that computer-run robots could come alive on their own is part of the misunderstanding even scientists have of mechanisms. Those who believe that life evolved by accident in a mechanical universe, on a nonliving planet, can also believe in accidents that will make robots come alive. But the fundamental distinctions between living organisms and machines show us why this will never be so.

Let us review those distinctions. Living organisms or systems remain functional only by continual change, whereas mechanisms remain functional only if they do not change, except as programmed. (Note that changes in natural systems can progress in only one direction, as they cannot undo their aging, while machines can run, in principle at least, both forward and backwards.) Living organisms are autopoietic and autonomous -- that is, self-produced and self-ruled. Mechanisms, on the other hand, are allopoietic and allonomous -- other-produced and other-ruled. The `others' are humans, or human-programmed robots, which make other robots. A robot making itself by its own rules is a logical impossibility.

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If we understand machines as extensions of ourselves and then think back to the mechanical worldview of Descartes, we can see that it was at least logical. Descartes understood natural mechanisms as God's creations -- as engineered extensions of God's power, in the terms we used to describe mechanisms. It was later, when scientists decided to explain nature as self-evolving mechanics, without any creator, that a contradiction arose. Scientists were identifying non-created `natural mechanisms' -- which they believed to exist without purpose or design -- with man-made mechanisms that exist only on purpose and by design.

Take, for instance, the human brain. When scientists took God out of their worldview, they also had to take out the idea of the human mind as a copy of God's. That left mind as a mechanism itself, or as the product of the brain mechanism. But just what kind of a mechanism could the brain-mind be? At first, scientists saw it as a kind of plumbing system -- nerves were pipes and valves through which thoughts, feelings, and instincts flowed like water or got shut off and built up pressures that caused problems. When telephones were invented, the brain seemed more like a telephone exchange of messages along nerve-wires. No sooner were computers invented than the brain seemed to be a computer. More recently, some scientists have chosen to see it as a holographic camera and projector or as a parallel processor, which are among their newest inventions.

Now, in some ways, all these ideas were and are useful, for each of these man-made mechanisms -- the plumbing system, the telephone exchange, the computer, the holographic camera and projector, the parallel processor -- could be taken as a model of some aspect of the brain-mind in a way that would help us understand something about it. There is nothing wrong with using our mechanisms as metaphors for or models of nature -- as long as we remember that they are only models and that they can only model certain measurable aspects of things found in nature.

The contradiction arises when scientists confuse the model or metaphor with the thing they are studying -- when they believe, for example, that brains are complicated computers just a bit more sophisticated than present man-made ones, rather than seeing that computers are simply useful models of certain limited things brains do. Computers do these things in entirely different ways from brains, yet the model of the function can be valid in its limited way.

The confusion of models with reality comes from a failure to understand that scientists create abstractions the same way that artists do. If they did understand their models of nature as abstractions, they would no more confuse those models with reality than artists confuse their paintings or sculptures with the real subjects they portray.

But just what is an abstraction? To abstract means `to lift out or away from.' An artist lifts out certain perceptions of something and makes them into a painting, while a scientist lifts out certain measurements of something and makes them into a scientific model. In both cases, the painting and the model are abstractions that stand for the whole thing. A mechanical bird can be considered an abstraction of a live bird into an assemblage of metal parts, just as Picasso's Guernica is an abstraction of human warfare into an assemblage of brushstrokes on canvas. Similarly, a scientific computer model of a biological or economic situation is an abstraction of certain measurable elements from the actual biological or economic situation. And, as an aside, many problems in our world today stem from what is not included in our economic models -- such as the effects and costs of using up natural resources and polluting the environment.

Going back to the mechanical worldview of Descartes as an abstract world model, we see that he abstracted just those measurable features of nature that men were able to copy in mechanisms. Wind-up birds and church-tower puppets represented a few abstractable mechanical aspects of nature, but were then taken to stand for the natural creatures they represented. Still, Descartes recognized that theses mechanisms had to have a Creator -- that they could not `happen' or evolve on their own. Instead of seeing nature as autopoietic, that is, he saw it as God's allopoietic creation. Whether we think that a good description of nature or not, it was at least a logically complete system.

Now we can see that the danger of confusing scientific models with nature itself is that aspects of nature which we cannot measure, and therefore cannot abstract, may be the most essential aspects there are. Descartes' worldview, or world model, was logical because he understood that mechanical nature could not exist without an Engineer. But later scientists who dropped God from their explanations of nature failed to see that they were dropping the very essence of life from their world model. Much as they have tried to explain life in mechanical terms, their explanations have never been satisfying.

Scientists who do not mistake their models for nature readily admit they are only models. But they may still consider nature entirely mechanical by arguing that it is far more complex than, though in essence the same as, present mechanisms. More and more scientists, however, are dissatisfied with the mechanical worldview, recognizing that it is the self-creative aspect of nature that none of our mechanical models can account for. They are coming to realize that nature must be far more than mere mechanism, that it has a creative aspect no machinery can have.

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Some ancient Greek philosophers, such as Pythagoras, had seen sacred geometry not as a human invention, but as the human mind's recognition of nature's underlying, designing intelligence. The mechanical worldview originated with a secular geometry that was pure mathematics, a human invention with no inherent consciousness. Such geometry, in and of itself is like mechanics in and of itself -- it cannot spring to life any more than can a set of building blocks. Nor can secular geometry account entirely for such movements as those of the Sun, Moon, Earth, and other planets. Every calendar devised by humans has been plagued by the irregularities of nature. How much more difficult to explain the growth of an invisibly small egg into an entire human being by geometry.

The revival of ancient Greek sacred geometry today is proving valuable in explaining the fundamental physics of nature. Most physicists and mathematicians showing interest in it are those who understand consciousness as the source of creation and ever inherent in creation. This is a true revival of sacred geometry. Cosmic consciousness, in this scenario, assumes geometric forms to build a physical world in which they become an infinite variety of consciously self-assembling patterns -- the improvisational dance described earlier, which repeats workable patterns in ever new configurations. Nature, we might say, is more an artist than an engineer, using the same recycled materials and the same schemes again and again, but endlessly creating something new from them and never machine-copying anything.

When we humans express ourselves through our technology, we usually copy some part of nature that we can abstract and translate from nature's evolutionary artistry into our relatively crude and lifeless engineering. But we must remember that our human ability to copy some aspects of nature in mechanical form does not in any way prove that nature itself is mechanical.

Let us go back to our earlier discussion of thermostats. The thermostat we install in a house so it will keep itself at the same temperature is a mechanical device designed to simulate what every warm-blooded creature does, and what we saw that our whole living planet does. But the `thermostats' of our bodies and of the Earth are vastly more complex. Such natural thermostats cannot be removed from their living bodies, reduced to their parts, and rebuilt. They exist only in place as a feature of the whole body, and we can only search the intact body for evidence of their function, such as vasodilation and sweating.

We have copied the spinning and weaving of spiders, the termites' building of very tall structures, the trees' pumping of water against the pull of gravity, the tunneling of creatures into the Earth and their flying into the sky. We have copied the ability to see through darkness and detect things by sonar, to produce chemicals, solar power, and by now almost countless other natural wonders including the ability of our brains to solve problems. But though we can make mechanisms to copy things creatures do, we cannot even come close to building a working mechanical copy of the simplest single-celled creature as a whole. Our mechanics are limited in ways that nature's organics are not.

Does this mean that we must abandon mechanical models in science in order to understand nature? Not at all. We said earlier that the only way we can ever understand anything is by comparing things we don't yet understand with things we do -- things that are familiar to us. And what can be more familiar to us than the things we ourselves have designed and created? If we had not invented the mechanical worldview along with our other mechanical inventions, we might not have made so much progress in understanding our world. But we must keep our minds open and recognize that nature is far more than mechanism, that we will hold up further scientific progress if we mistake our present models of nature for nature itself.

Descartes and the great physicist Newton built their worldview into a frame of space and time. Space and time were believed to have existed before the universe came into being, as a kind of stage on which atoms and the larger bodies they formed had been created and moved about lawfully. Each atom had a very definite location in space at any given time, in this model, and moved to new locations as time passed, according to fixed laws of motion. As the French astronomer-mathematician Pierre Simon de Laplace put it, an intellect that knew the positions of all the atoms in the universe at any given time could predict the entire future of the universe.

During the nineteenth century this simplistic model was shaken by the discovery of electromagnetism and the new science of heat -- thermodynamics -- which later came to be called the science of complexity. But perhaps the greatest blow to the mechanism analogy came when physicists were finally able to study the atom itself.

All atoms, remember, were supposed to be exactly alike, though they formed all the different things found in nature by being arranged in different patterns. Far too small to be seen, they were believed to be so hard they could never be broken or destroyed -- they were thought to be not only invisible, that is, but also indivisible.

Even if non-material electromagnetism had to be added to material nature, and even if heat made things behave erratically, it was assumed that our ability to study the atom itself would surely confirm the mechanical worldview. Atoms, the smallest parts or building blocks of natural mechanism, must be moving lawfully in time and space. Scientists were at last ready to work out just how things were built from the bottom up.

But were they? We already mentioned the first shocking surprise they got -- the realization that atoms were not all alike and were not tiny hard bits at all. Each atom seemed to be more like a tiny solar system, though its shape had to be guessed at from how it acted together with other atoms in forming molecules and their chemicals. Scientists often have to work this way to figure out the shape of things they cannot see with their own eyes. Think about our solar system -- instead of being too small to see, as atoms are, it is much too large for anyone to see all at once. Its shape had to be figured out from the way the parts we can see act in relation to one another.

Anyway, just as the Sun is at the center of our solar system, something was at the center of the atom, with smaller things apparently whirling about it like planets. Physicists called the center of the atom the nucleus, and the things whirling around it electrons. Apparently, different kinds of atoms had different numbers of these electrons in orbit at various distances away from the nucleus.

The next surprise was that the atom's nucleus was itself made of parts, more tiny bits held together by forces so unbelievably strong that splitting the nucleus into its separate parts made an explosion. We all know what that discovery led to.

Every atom, no matter how tightly it is locked into its place -- as, for example, in a crystal -- turned out to be a tiny mass of jiggling, whirling parts. All the parts, around the nucleus and inside it, are nowadays called particles. But these particles soon proved not to be solid things either.

Deep in the very heart of matter, we now know, there is nothing solid at all. Particles are like tiny whirling winds in a storm of energy, or like waves dancing on a sea of energy. When physicists try to catch hold of them they rush off, leaving pretty curved trails. They disappear, divide, merge into one another, and reappear out of nothing -- in fact they do anything but hold still to be studied. All the physicists can describe -- or try to describe -- is the pattern of their energetic whirlwind dance with one another -- a dance that is, in fact, made of pure energy.

Such discoveries truly confused physicists, whose view of neatly ordered mechanical reality was shattered by them. Particles were neither solid nor reliable; they could pop in and out of existence with alarming speed and mystery. Einstein, furthermore, showed that time and space did not exist by themselves, as a stage for natural mechanisms, but were two aspects of the same concept and were really relationships created continuously as the universe created itself. Space did not even obey the laws of Euclid's geometry as had been believed, nor did time tick away in one great perfect clock rhythm. Instead, it seemed that cosmic spacetime curved like the dances of its tiniest particles, and one man could travel through this time-space without aging while his twin stayed home and became an old man.

The world seemed to dissolve at its very foundation. Yet it didn't dissolve into nothing, for the moving pattern of the energy dance is always there giving matter its form. It's just that separating the dancers from their dance -- to study a particle as an object in itself -- is quite impossible. As impossible as trying to take winds out of the air and waves out of the sea in order to study and understand a storm. If you try, you will find you have nothing at all in your hand -- even though you know the storm is made of wind and waves.

Quantum physicists, such as Hal Puthoff, director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Austin, Texas, research the zero-point energy field -- a background of random, fluctuating energy that is everywhere, even in so-called empty space, even at absolute zero (whence its name) where no thermodynamics remain. It is now estimated that every point in spacetime, no matter where it is, contains -- or is the source of -- an infinite amount of such energy. If we remember Einstein's formula for converting energy to matter -- E = mc2 -- that means each point in our universe has far more than enough energy to create entire universes!

Puthoff found something extraordinary about atoms -- that atoms themselves, always considered the most stable things in the universe, actually lose energy continually and must replace it from the zero-point energy source. This discovery means that our universe creates itself continually, not simply from a single Big Bang.

The atom itself seems more and more like the vortex or whirlpool we used earlier as a model of the simplest form an autopoietic entity could take -- continually self-creating by taking in and spitting out matter/energy while holding its form. Rather like the giant protogalactic clouds that evolve into galaxies -- the largest and smallest things dancing in concert to create our world and universe. Physicists such as Puthoff are now working to harness free zero-point energy as an alternative to fossil fuels.

The universe, after all is said and done, cannot be separated into parts as can a machine. Physicists have to be ever more inventive to learn about their strange new universe. They study particles, for example, in cyclotrons -- the largest machines ever made, designed to allow scientists to study the tiniest things. But to see even traces of the particle dance, they must disturb it and try to work out what the real dance is like from traces of this disturbance. What matters, it turns out, is the pattern of the steps in the dance, for certain patterns of energy are what we call matter. Dancers not dancing are no dance -- and the dance, it turns out, is all there is!

Though we can never see the natural particle dance undisturbed, we can be sure it is there -- forming and connecting the stars and their reflections in the sea, the Earth and all its creatures, ourselves and all the things we make and use. Everything is made of countless invisible dancers' movements in one single dance forming endlessly new patterns -- a dance far too small to see and yet so large that it is the whole universe.

These discoveries, together with physicists' discoveries of larger dance-like patterns -- patterns of wave mechanics in gases, liquids, and solids; of thermodynamics in heated matter; of electromagnetism -- called for new ways of modeling nature, new kinds of mathematics that are less mechanical, more flexible, more like living nature.

All mathematics, up to the present, has been built on a foundation of mechanics devised at about the same time by Aristotle for logic and by Euclid for geometry. Yet, until the last century of the second millennium, the connection between logic and mathematics was not obvious even to mathematicians. Now that it is, mathematicians recognize logic -- rules of orderly classification and combination of elements -- as the true foundation of mathematics. And what this means is that mathematics can be changed as much as worldviews, because its logical rules can be changed.

By fiddling with Aristotle's logical mechanics, for example, mathematicians have created new and more dynamic systems of mathematics built on these changed foundations. Computers with their vast capacity for performing calculations have greatly increased possibilities for modeling self-organizing systems. Chaos theory, dynamics, complexity, fractals, sacred geometries sprout like mushrooms after a rain. In time, new kinds of logic, new ways of ordering human thought about a dynamically alive universe -- an organic rather than a mechanical universe -- will lead to a whole new kind of mathematics that will be useful in modeling such a universe. Science and mathematics are now working hand in hand on their exciting co-evolution.

Many of the new studies of self-organizing systems have been inspired by the work of Nobel Prize-winning chemist-physicist Ilya Prigogine, who revived the ancient concept of nature's creation of order from chaos, showing how self-maintaining systems even at a chemical level can re-create new order when they reach chaotic states. Prigogine's work extends the physics of equilibrium thermodynamics -- which was invented to describe non-living systems -- into non-equilibrium thermodynamics, which he used to model living systems. But let us keep in mind that his is still an attempt to describe living systems evolving in a non-conscious and non-intelligent universe.

We cannot repeat often enough that our scientific stories are changing more rapidly now than ever before. One particularly interesting thing to consider, is this: If the eastern philosophers were right in saying the world is illusion -- that each of us creates our world from our beliefs -- then what does it mean to measure a `physical' universe with physical instruments? Are we measuring an illusion with parts of that very illusion? -- creating ever smaller particles by believing in them? Our searches are leading us to fascinating puzzles and it is wise to keep very open minds in the process.

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New theories and questions are part of our rapidly evolving scientific worldview. Yet we first encountered the organic worldview in the works of the earliest Greek philosophers, before the concept of natural self-creation was suppressed and God's perfect order became such an obsession that the whole Western worldview was changed to fit it.

Today's scientists are discovering things that many human cultures have understood -- in their essence, if not in scientific detail -- for millennia. Indigenous people who have not seen themselves as separate from the rest of nature consciously engage in its co-creation as one living system, using ritual, dance and myth as tools of their trade. Most important now is that western scientists -- with their own ritual experimentation and theoretical stories -- are coming back to this understanding of the universe as a conscious, alive and ever-creative dance of life. We ourselves are acting out its creative edge!

The ancient Greek myth told of Gaia's dance; the Indian myth told of Shiva and his wife Shakti, who forever dance the universe and our world into being. Of all creation myths, none tells of a world assembling itself mechanically as tiny parts come together to form the larger parts, which then come together as a whole world -- none but that of our mechanical science, now passing into history. Rather, most creation myths begin with a whole -- an undisturbed ocean generating individual waves, or a single being that divides into, or gives birth to, the different parts of the world. These parts may later rejoin as new wholes, or holons, within the great dance holarchy, in the repeating cycle described earlier of unity-> individuation-> conflict-> negotiation-> cooperation-> new level of unity.

We have seen that living systems are in many ways the antithesis of machinery; we have seen that images of dance fit many aspects of our new understanding of nature better than mechanical images do. To review, dance is a living, self-creative process as is nature in evolution. We may begin to create a dance spontaneously, as a natural expression of our energy that is not planned or designed in advance -- as an improvisation. It may then evolve as new variations on the same basic steps create ever more intricate and meaningful patterns, just as in natural evolution.

Some of the patterns in a human dance may even be quite mechanical, as we express our mechanical ability through them, though we see and feel that the more mechanically perfect they are, the less lifelike they are. Classical ballet was an intentional effort to make dance as perfect as possible, and it developed at the same time our machine age developed. At the height of our infatuation with our machinery, while Chaplin was spoofing that, we developed ballets with long rows of dancers performing as nearly identical movements as possible -- impressive, but never considered real art. The real art of dance seems to depend on human variation, on personal style, on imperfections, on surprise, to give it life and interest.

Classical ballet has become less popular than dances with freer patterns, and this may well be because our human search for perfection in the world and in ourselves no longer fascinates us as it did during the mechanical age. We seem to have satisfied our longing for perfection in building close-to perfect machines. We want such machines to free us from our own boring, mechanical tasks, but we are rebelling against being treated as machines or machine parts ourselves -- on the job, in schools, in government bureaucracies or wherever. We are tired of being told to be in perfect shape, in perfect control of our lives, because we begin to see now just how unnatural that kind of perfection is.

Nature is orderly without being perfect, as we have seen again and again. Nature's most useful patterns are never outdated but are kept for endless re-use, and the overall scheme of evolution is very stable and resilient. But mechanical perfection would be death to nature as it would be to us as part of nature. Nature is a live, self-creating process forever making order from chaos, forever free to do something new -- to reorganize itself when necessary, even if only to stay the same; to create new forms when old ones no longer work. Perfection would be the end of evolution, the end of freedom, the end of creativity. We have learned that nature is far less than perfect for a very good reason -- for the same reason that nature is far more than mechanism.

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