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Living Systems in Evolution

Elisabet Sahtouris

copyright © 1999 by Elisabet Sahtouris


A Matter of Maturation


We have seen human worldviews change dramatically from the early view of nature as the Great Mother to a view of nature as the mechanical creation of a Father God, then to the portrayal of nature as mechanism evolving by accident, without purpose or design, there to be used for human purposes.

A psychologist might see this sequence of worldviews that is the heritage of industrial and post-industrial humanity as having something in common with those of an individual member of our present society passing through stages of personal development. Technological culture, on which this book is focused, has clearly become -- for better or for worse -- the dominant human culture that will make or break us as a species. What matters, then, is to recognize that this culture is still immature from a developmental perspective. We may then hope it will learn not just from its own experience but also from that of the few remaining non-technological cultures it is wiping out in its drive to so-called progress, though they may be far more mature in their relation to our parent planet. In Chapter 19 we will look more deeply at who they are and how we might cooperate with them fruitfully at this critical transition time for humanity.

Of our species infancy we know very little; our earliest artifacts, as we said in earlier chapters, indicate a recognition of nature as mother and of our closeness to and respect for her. In our long, relatively peaceful childhood we learned nurture from her, developing agriculture and art. Father figures existed primarily in absentia from the early agricultural civilizations -- as the gods of nomads and hunters who eventually came to disrupt them with violent conquest and lasting domination.

Under the influence of paternal gods, we formed our ego the Greek word for `I' -- coming to see ourselves as separate from nature, growing out of the close union with nature-as-mother into seeing nature as separate from us, as the creation of an authoritarian Father God, in whose laws and demand for obedience we found some security.

In this analogy, the European Middle Ages seem to be our pre-pubescent phase -- a stable God-fearing Christian society that lasted over a thousand years under His authority -- until man began expressing his ego more boldly. In time he challenged religious stories, or revelations about the world with scientific observations, making discoveries and developing technology in ways that permitted him to transform nature ever more to his own purposes. Was it not as if humanity through its Renaissance and Enlightenment reached the stage of competence and confidence we associate with adolescence? As scientific knowledge and technological industry swelled the adolescent ego, the father's authority was rejected and nature was seen as no more than a knowable and predictable environment for men to control and exploit as they wished.

Is it not to be expected that a smart and clever adolescent will reject or at least question the unchallenged parental authority in which the child believed? Is it not common to gain in adolescence, between bouts of insecurity, the conviction of knowing everything and being in full control? Why shouldn't whole human societies go through the life stages of childhood and adolescence as each individual human does? Is not our whole species, quite like every child born to it, still young and free to learn from experience?

In mythology -- mythology long having served as cultural psychology -- the heroic cycle often represents the life cycle. The youthful hero leaves home, encounters challenges in the course of his adventures, then finally returns as a mature, wise man. Such myths often portray the hero as a brash youth with the hubris -- the gall, as we would say -- to believe himself as invulnerable and powerful as the gods themselves. For this he is invariably punished by a fall, which may be permanent if he does not learn the lesson of false pride.

In real life, the adolescent who strikes out with a false sense of maturity, believing he or she knows it all, can be expected to get into some kind of trouble before maturing into an adult. And the adolescence of civilized humanity is running true to form. Our view of nature as a mechanism to be exploited fostered great progress in technology, but we made this progress recklessly in our belief that all nature was ours to do with as we pleased. Now we find ourselves punished by the enormous problems we have created along with our modern technology.

Like any adolescent who is suddenly aware of having created a very real life crisis, our species faces a choice -- the choice between pursuing our dangerous course to disaster or stopping and trying to find mature solutions to our crises. This choice point is the brink of maturity -- the point at which we must decide whether to continue our suicidal course or turn from it to responsible maturity. Are we going to continue our disastrously competitive economics, our ravaging conversion of our natural supply base into things, our pollution of basic soils, waters and atmosphere in the process? Or will we change the way we see life -- our worldview, our self-image, our goals, and our behavior -- in accord with our new knowledge of living nature in evolution?

Will we come to hold nature sacred once again, as wise indigenous elders urge, so that seven or more generations to come will benefit from our decisions? We are at the point where we can see our own historical evolution and decide whether to hold up its natural advance into maturity -- prolonging our adolescence dangerously -- or whether to speed its course by making haste in the face of crisis to complete the mature cooperative body of humanity by conscious choice.

Growing up is not easy, as we all know. Youth must fall on its face in its ambition, must learn by experience; the hero must be wounded in battle and be knocked down for his hubris, his pretension to godhood. Maturity comes only when youth gains perspective on itself and is at last willing to admit there is still something to learn.

As we have not yet gained this perspective, many of us believe that today's human problems will never be solved, that they have simply gotten too big for solutions of any kind or that, even if we solved them temporarily, human nature cannot itself change and therefore we would just get into the same mess again. This pessimistic view of ourselves as a species reflects the way we feel as individuals whenever we are depressed and our problems seem insoluble.

Hopeless pessimism often comes from lack of perspective. If we look at things narrowly, from within a difficult situation, they may well seem hopeless, but if we manage to step out of our dark hole, so to speak, to gain some perspective on ourselves within it, we may begin to see a way out.

The purpose of this book is to put human life into just this kind of perspective -- to see ourselves within the whole evolving world, even within the whole evolving cosmos. When we look at things broadly this way, we see that the problems we humans have created may not be as great as problems other species have created, for which life found solutions. What could be more interesting, more exciting, than to be alive in the very age when we as a species have the opportunity to mature, to solve the adolescent problems we have caused ourselves and others?

·    ·    ·

One solution to human problems proposed in the name of ecology is that we should recognize technology as an inhuman disaster, an evil to be rooted out along with the science that produced it, so that we may go back to a simple, more natural life. After all, those humans who never invented technological languages and machinery, who never built big cities or hierarchical class societies, never got to adolescent crises of their own making. In fact, natives of the Amazon, New Guinea, the Australian outback and other places where people remained in settings relatively undisturbed by themselves, cannot be said to be immature in the sense that technological humans are. Though they belong to our very young species, they have never rejected the parental status or lessons of nature, never developed our kind of ego, simply learning deeply what it takes -- and does not take -- to live as one species within a mature and balanced ecosystem.

The rest of us -- the vast majority of our species -- must recognize that our development has taken a different path for reasons of its own and that no living system can reverse its evolutionary history. Our technological development is as natural as was our pre-technological infancy, and we cannot turn back. We could, however, move forward with more mature restraint and wisdom.

Fortunately, our industrial technology is already in transition from crude adolescent efforts to more mature sophistication. In developing our heavy industry and feeding it with raw materials, fuel, and human workers, we have devastated or polluted whole ecosystems, alienated ourselves from our natural origins, formed ourselves into mechanical societies living in concrete jungles. Yet the information age has already moved us into the next phase of living more lightly upon the Earth. We have begun replacing heavy industry with light, energy sources that can run out with those which won't, industrial cities with more distributed production networks connected through computers.

Many developing countries can now avoid the expensive and exhausting heavy-industry phase almost entirely by jumping directly into the age of electronics and information with the assistance of the most technologically advanced nations. This is already happening, but unfortunately it is happening in a context of profit motives and competition, often leaving beneficiaries worse off than before. They are forced to pay back assistance loans with heavy growing interest, to make political concessions and demonstrate loyalties. These development schemes continue to devastate ecosystems, as the World Bank has long admitted, and often help promote a climate of threatened, if not actual, hostility. Notorious are the post-colonial banana republics -- single-crop economies that have created unstable ecosystems and dictatorships that keep their own people poor and hungry. Revolutions ensue; military might and the notorious `disappearances' are used to crush them. Even where peace seems to reign, governments almost always work more for the interests of the rich and foreign investment industry than they do for the majority of their ever more impoverished people.

The building of dams to generate electricity, the burning and bulldozing of forests for monoculture crops or grazing cattle, the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, the manufacture of fuels and metals from fossil and ore deposits, are all financially profitable to those who own or rule the land. But they are so ecologically destructive that the life of ordinary people may become intolerable or non-viable.

Nature works not for profits but for balance, recycling everything. Humans cannot much longer run their profit-oriented growth economies at the expense of planetary economics, as Thomas Berry, the economist and philosopher priest, has warned. Paul Hawken tells us business will survive only if it adopts the recycling economy of nature. Business ethicist and professor William Frederick points out that nature's economy is about doing more with less -- "the only way to survive, grow, develop and flourish." David Korten tells us we need "a story that gives meaning to life beyond an eternal competition for material acquisition and consumption." In fact, these voices are cropping up everywhere, making it evident that we recognize what has to be done.

If we are willing to see the problems we now face as those of a species on the brink of maturity, yet still in the fiercely competitive phase of belligerent adolescence, then we can learn as a species from our individual experience in maturation. Let us recall Mark Twain's now classic joke about the young man who comes home again after having struck out to make his way in the world. He is shocked yet pleasantly surprised to see how much his father has learned in the few years of his absence, how much they can at last agree on. The joke, of course, is that the son has changed and not the father -- his own experience of the world having given him new perspective on his father as a wise and sensible man with something worthwhile to say.

This is exactly what can happen to us as a species. As a result of our own experience and our recognition of the environmental trouble we have caused, we can take a new look at the planet that gave us birth and we can begin seeing it in a new light. Through our brilliant science, our measuring and computing instruments, our space technology, we can see our planet as a whole living being that we have misunderstood and mistreated at our own expense. We begin to understand that while the planet has great experience and wisdom to teach us, our own lack of understanding and respect have led us to exploit it as though it existed for no other purpose. Only now do we understand that we have been recklessly destroying the parent planet on which we depend and from which we can learn a great deal about using our gift of conscious freedom more wisely.

·    ·    ·

In discussing the problems of free and conscious behavioral choice in earlier chapters, we spoke of our lack of innate rules for dividing land and resources fairly, for avoiding killing our kind, and for governing ourselves peacefully and cooperatively. We suggested that guidance in achieving these things by our own choice could be found in the organization and functioning of natural holarchies. We also recognized that turning our understanding into practice, instead of just reasoned ideas, requires a lot of responsible effort.

The Athenian democracy in ancient Greece was just such an effort, yet it seems to have collapsed at least as much from internal weakness -- from the human reluctance to accept the hard responsibilities of freedom -- as from external causes. Modern so-called democracies may work as well as they do only because they are much less demanding of their citizens than was ancient Athens, and this is important food for thought. In the United States today, compulsory taxation is the only requirement of citizenship, and compulsory taxation has never made a democracy.

Late in the nineteenth century, the great Russian writer Feodor Dostoevsky identified the problem of accepting responsibility for freedom as humanity's essential crisis. Dostoevsky presents the crisis of human freedom in a myth within his novel the Brothers Karamazov, by having one brother tell it to another. In this myth, Christ reappears in sixteenth-century Seville at the time when the Holy Christian Fathers, in that city alone, were burning as many as a hundred heretics a day at the stake in actual fact. A Grand Inquisitor condemns Christ to his second death -- this time at the stake -- for preaching freedom to mankind. The grounds given by the Inquisitor for this sentence is that "nothing has ever been more unendurable to man and to human society than freedom."

Men cannot bear, and so do not want, the responsibility of freedom, the Inquisitor claims, and the church has relieved them of that burden. Men will endure slavery for the sake of being fed and they will be happy only when their rebelliousness is turned to obedience, he insists, for they are sheep, preferring to believe they are free while actually doing as they are told by authorities who give them work, bread, rules to live by, and forgiveness for their sins.

Interestingly, Dostoevsky calls men "unfinished experimental creatures" in this passage, implying that they are immature as a species. Further, in his allegory, he deliberately pits two heroic images against each other in an analogy of personal adolescent crisis. Christ, on the one hand, represents the call to maturity -- the acceptance of human responsibilities of free choice; the Inquisitor, on the other hand, represents retreat from maturity -- the delegation of responsibility to an authority. Thus Dostoevsky portrayed his painful awareness of the human failure to practice responsible freedom.

Young people all over the world today reflect this dilemma in their personal lives, whether or not they are aware that it is as much a species dilemma as a personal one. Some struggle hard to develop and work in organizations that show all humanity how to accept the responsibility of freedom to end war, hunger, and ecological disaster. Others hurt so much from seeing the human failure to solve these problems that they fall into anarchy and depression, believing in no future at all and driving the youth crime and suicide rate to an unprecedented high. The rest -- as Dostoevsky despairingly and accurately noted -- do not concern themselves with such great problems but do what is asked of them to make their personal lives as comfortable as possible.

Perhaps most people search for comfortable security under some authority other than their own because we have been taught to fear failure if we fly in the face of tradition to exercise our own free choice. We have had the goal of perfection held up to us for thousands of years, and we fear failure and disapproval if we stray from whatever path we are told is the right one. Better to look to some authority for guidance, for the ideology, the formula, that will make us and our societies more perfect, than to risk acting on our own imperfect ideas.

For more than two millennia, ever since the ancient Greeks thought up the idea, we have been chasing after perfection. Now we are forced to wonder if we have not crippled ourselves in this chase after a chimera -- a foolish and sometimes frightening fantasy. Let us consider it a happy discovery that the cosmos is not rigidly perfect as Plato thought, but an imperfect creative learning process much more as Anaximander saw it, with everything forming and re-forming in the never-ending process of making order from chaos.

Ever since Plato, western worldviews have held up the goal of making ourselves and our societies as perfect as God's creation -- as perfect as well-oiled machinery. Only now do we see that despite billions of years of experience, despite the marvelous integrity of life's patterns, things go wrong in Gaian nature, unbalancing the dance here or there. Yet in going wrong, they create pressure to reorganize the dance of life, to try new steps, or new combinations of old steps, and so the imperfection leads to progress.

The story of Earthlife is the story of improvisation wherever and whenever a species or ecosystem became unstable. Yet in nature there is never any break with the past -- there is always continuity in the dance, even through extinctions. And the dance always works to produce a remarkable integrity and stability after periods of competitive strife. Nature teaches us that order can be maintained through change -- even, when necessary, through disastrous change.

When, for example, the dinosaurs were killed off by severely changing conditions due to an accident, Earth's living systems continued to create new reptile, bird, and mammal species from the genes left in the small survivors of the disaster. We sometimes think of the great dinosaurs as unsuccessful species because they became extinct. But dinosaurs and their cousins flowered into a wonderful variety of species including the largest creatures the Earth has ever seen, and they flourished for nearly two hundred million years -- forty times longer than our few million years as humans. Nor was their extinction their fault.

It is still up to us to prove that the human big-brain experiment is worth the risk, that freedom from innate rules -- the conscious freedom to choose -- will pay off in creativity that benefits, or at least does not harm, the whole Gaian system. If it doesn't pay off, we, too, will become extinct, more likely by our own doing than by outside forces as in the case of the dinosaurs. We would be wise to remind ourselves often that Gaia's dance will continue with or without us.

·    ·    ·

Nature, as we said before, is far more like a wonderfully resourceful artist than like a grand engineer, more like a mother juggling family needs, economics, and conflicts than like a coldly calculating geometer. In the improvised dance of nature toward order and balance, complexity unfolds, becomes chaotic or fragmented, is reorganized to new unity, then permits new complexity to unfold, new disorder to arise. This evolving system of life protects what is stable and works well, yet is ever open to change when instabilities arise, using change to create both new unity and new variety -- variety that gives nature, among other things, the resilience to survive disasters.

Every species is different from all the others and every individual is a variation of that species' kind, just as in our bodies every organ is different from all the others and every individual cell a variation of that organ's kind. Machines can be mass-produced to be all alike, but nothing in nature is exactly like anything else.

It is Gaian wisdom to balance variety and use it creatively in forming highly stable ecosystems. The greater this variety is, the more stable the ecosystem is as a whole, as ecologists such as Eugene Odum and Edward Goldsmith have pointed out. We are also discovering that tampering with such systems by introducing a new species that has not been worked into the dance may disrupt it entirely -- as in the case of the gypsy moth or Dutch elm disease.

This variety principle holds also for the gene pool of any species. We have learned by hard experience, for example, that our practice of `perfecting' our food crops and domestic animals by breeding out their genetic variety, while breeding in the features we like, leaves them weak and subject to diseases or developmental anomalies. The first `successfully' cloned sheep, Molly, for example, proved to age at ten times the normal rate for sheep. When we reduce variety by breeding a particular strain or cloning a single individual, by replacing natural ecosystems with monocultures on bulldozed land, we creating highly unstable and vulnerable situations.

Human variety, in our physical makeup as well as in our languages and cultures, ideas and lifestyles, is surely equally important to our healthy survival. Yet oddly, while we humans fight for our individual right to be different from others, not to be forced into the same social mold, we cause ourselves a good deal of trouble as a species by thinking there is something wrong with people who are different from us. We discriminate on the basis of color, culture, or belief -- convincing ourselves there is something in difference to be hated, feared, ridiculed, or stamped out. Let us hope such prejudice will disappear as we learn more about nature and begin to respect, welcome, appreciate, and love our individual and cultural differences, using them like genetic variety to create new and fruitful combinations.

It has become obvious, for example, that a common human language is essential to communication and cooperation in the newly formed body of humanity, and English appears to be naturally evolving into that common language. But that is no reason to suppress any of the languages of different cultures. It is no problem at all for human children to learn several languages, and the variety of human languages represents a very important variety in human thought and worldviews. Just as we are foolish to breed natural variety out of domestic food plants and animals while killing off one wild species after another, we are foolish to eliminate variety in human language, culture, and thought.

Many natural languages have already become extinct as a result of foreign conquests. Conquerors have killed off conquered peoples and sometimes even punished survivors for speaking their native tongue, as was done in mission schools that children of native North and South American tribes were forced to attend. Just as we have begun to work at preserving endangered animal and plant species, we should be working to preserve endangered cultures and languages.

Over half the world's languages are already gone and it is estimated that half those remaining will be gone in one more generation. When we cut tropical forests, we destroy not only vital ecosystems but also the human cultures that are part of them, that cannot survive being transplanted to concrete jungles -- cultures from which we can learn a great deal about living in harmonious balance with the rest of nature (see Chapter 19).

Nature's adaptive ability to change creatively without ever falling back into chaos surely suggests that we humans should give up the idea of finding the ideal economic and political organization or social structure. Our basic and natural task is the same as that of any other species -- to balance individual good with collective species good, to be conservative with what is healthy in human society while radically changing what is not.

Nature teaches us that evolution depends on competition and cooperation, on independence and interdependence. Competition and independence are both important to individual survival, while cooperation and interdependence are both important to group, or social, or species survival. Individuals and their society or species are holons at two levels, or in two layers, of the same holarchy. We can see that these levels or layers must achieve mutual consistency by looking out for themselves and working out between themselves a balance of competition and cooperation, of dependence and interdependence.

If we work creatively to maintain this balance between ourselves as individuals and ourselves as societies -- local, national, and worldwide -- we will complete the evolution of a healthy body of humanity. If we look to our own individual bodies as a rough model for making it work, we might see that cooperative peace is a real option for nations with different languages and cultures that can make different contributions to the worldwide economy. There is no reason why individuals should not have the freedom to pursue their own interests and also contribute to their society. There is no reason why all should not be well fed and cared for in an equitable system of work and income.

·    ·    ·

From the Gaian perspective, solutions to the great human problems of war, overpopulation, and hunger are far simpler than from any other perspective. But simplicity does not mean ease. We could solve these problems by shifting our worldview from one of international competition to one of international cooperation, with the goal of producing a healthy body of humanity. But worldviews, as we said earlier, do not change easily.

The present perspective of the powerful nations, banks and multinational corporations -- those powers capable of quickly transforming humanity into a healthy body -- is not a Gaian perspective. To attain the Gaian perspective, their leaders must change their worldview and the behavior based on it. As it is, these leaders are uneasy at predictions of doomsday -- at suggestions that their course is suicidal for all humanity -- but they do not yet believe in a healthy alternative that would be as good for themselves as for all humanity.

The Cold War decades brought the world to the point where arms manufacture cost four times as much as it would cost to retire the developing nations' debt, provide worldwide clean, safe energy, housing, health care and clean water, stabilize populations, eliminate starvation and malnutrition, prevent ozone depletion, acid rain, deforestation and soil erosion, according to an analysis by the World Game Institute. What could more graphically show the bizarre distortion of our human endeavors? During the Gulf War, the five peacekeeping nations sent by the UN were the very ones that provided arms to both sides in the conflict!

It is no easier to get the citizens of our modern democratic or communist societies to take on the informed and responsible task of running things, instead of submitting to the oligarchic rule of the few, than it was to get ancient Athenian citizens to do so. But trends toward more networks in place of top-down authoritarian structures are emerging in new organizations and in various existing industries, services, and other enterprises as they decentralize their management and make it more concentric than hierarchical. But nowhere is this trend as much in evidence as in the Internet, as we will see in more detail later. As more people come to understand and adopt a Gaian perspective, this trend will surely grow.

Just as individuals may grow out of adolescence without consciously assisting their own process of maturation, a cooperative body of humanity may evolve without our conscious intent -- just by the force of evolutionary change that is already under way. But the process will surely continue with less turmoil and suffering if we stop opposing it and consciously, actively assist it. Would it not be healthier for us to give up our dangerous competition for the greatest financial profits and work together at creating an imperfect but ecologically sensible economics and politics -- a system that works with its variety to give everyone the opportunity for a healthy life, just as our bodies give that opportunity to each of their cells?

In recognizing our planet as an experienced living system with a good deal of accumulated wisdom to teach us, we gain the perspective to see how we might apply some of that wisdom to our own human problems. All over nature, throughout the Gaian life system -- right under our noses, so to speak, and all around us -- we find the clues to making our own human affairs more organic and ethical, more creative and wise, as the earliest philosophers believed we would.

Let us continue gaining perspective by seeing that great problems can be the very challenges needed to push evolution along into new creativity. We saw that the oxygen crisis of billions of years ago became an opportunity for a new way of life and new forms of living creatures. The environmental crisis that caused the mass extinction of dinosaurs provided the opportunity for our own mammalian evolution. Both the bacterial oxygen crisis and the dinosaurs' extinction crisis were more severe from a Gaian perspective then any trouble we humans have caused so far. Yet we have already initiated another extinction and it increasingly appears to be a life or death crisis for our own species. Our increase of the greenhouse gases alone may force Gaia to regain stability at an average temperature beyond human tolerance. Ozone holes, nuclear holocausts, poisoned air and waters, chemically depleted soils, epidemics caused by microbial defenses against our war-on-life antibiotics -- we seem to be capable of inventing a remarkable number of potentially species-suicide weapons.

Why not put our cultural and ethnic differences and imperfections to creative use in dialoguing about a healthier future? Why not see the crises of our making as incentives to move forward in new ways. Gaian creativity might have come to an end without problems, challenges, opportunities for creating solutions leading to new species and ways of life. If we follow nature's lead, we will make mistakes, juggle things about, find solutions, generate new problems without guilt -- and on the whole, we will find our mutual consistency with other natural organisms and with each other.

Let us also remember that if we continue on our current path, our planet may be better off without us. Our species demise -- by suicide or extinction -- might actually promote Gaian health.

Yet we are potentially as creative as the whole Gaian system we belong to. If we find ourselves in an adolescent crisis of our own making, that is no reason for us to give up in despair. It should, instead, urge us to face ourselves, swallow our foolish pride, adopt a little humility, a wider perspective, and gain mature humanity in the best sense of this word we have coined for ourselves.

The wider perspective many humans are waking to now is the perspective that we are not humans capable of having spiritual experiences, but spirits having human experiences. This perspective was until recently found only among religious people, but with new discoveries in physics we talked about earlier -- such as evidence of cosmic consciousness and intelligence, and the non-locality of a completely interwoven universe in which everything affects everything else at any `distance' -- scientists and other lay people are joining their ranks. This worldview connects especially easily with Gaian science and philosophy in Buddhism, which is enjoying great outreach in the West.

Another past province of religion now broadening its base is ethics, since science, in its love affair with objectivity, divorced itself from such concerns. Now we find there is no possibility of cold objectivity in a participatory and interwoven universe. Perhaps we can even find ethics built into nature itself.

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