Living Systems in Evolution
copyright © 1999 by Elisabet Sahtouris
This book is a work of philosophy in the original sense of a search for wisdom, for practical guidance in human affairs through understanding the natural order of the cosmos to which we belong. It bears little resemblance to what we have come to call philosophy since that effort was separated from natural science and became more an intellectual exercise in understanding than a practical guide for living.
To find meaning and guidance in nature, I integrated my personal experience of it with those scientific accounts that seemed to best fit it. From this synthesis, meaning and lessons for humanity emerged freely. I wrote the original version in the peaceful, natural setting of a tiny old village on a small pine-forested Greek island, where I could consider the research and debates of scientists, historians, and philosophers, then test them against the natural world I was trying to understand.
Putting into simple words the specialized technical language of scientists and winding my way through labyrinths of philosophic prose, I gradually simplified the story of the origins and nature of our planet within the larger cosmos, and of our human origins, nature, and history within the larger being of this planet.
The Gaia hypothesis, now Gaia theory, of James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis -- the theory that our planet and its creatures constitute a single self-regulating system that is in fact a great living being -- is the conception of physical reality in which my philosophy is rooted. Quite simply, it makes more sense on all levels -- intuitive, experiential, scientific, philosophical, spiritual and even aesthetic and ethical -- than any other conception I know. And I have come to believe, in the course of this work, that this conception contains profound and pressing implications for all humanity.
To ensure that my vision of evolution and history would stay simple and in clear focus, I kept telling its essence and more than a few of its particulars in something of the style of an ancient storyteller during many social evenings among my Greek village friends. I also wrote the story for children before I set about an adult version. To my surprise, these deliberate exercises in simplicity proved more difficult than writing for professional audiences, for in stripping our intellectual language to the essence of what is being said, we must be very sure that essence is really there, really coherent. Science has been a process of differentiating our knowledge into an incredible wealth of precise details, but these details become ever more disconnected from one another and cry out for integration into coherent wholes. I have no doubt I will be accused of oversimplification, and perhaps rightly so, as one pays for scope in lack of detail and precision.
Friends and colleagues have asked me now and then why I insist on dealing with all evolution, even all the cosmos, to discuss human matters; why I don't narrow my scope to workable proportions. My answer is that context is what gives meaning, and a serious search of context is an ever-expanding process leading inevitably to the grandest context of all: the whole cosmos. As the nested contexts for the human story -- especially the context of evolution -- became clearer to me, they revealed a simple but elegant biological vision of just why our human condition has become so critical and what we might do to improve it.
Other people ask why I'm so eager to save humanity when it is proving such a social and ecological disaster. To this I can only answer that, as far as I can see, every healthy living being or system in nature has evolved survival oriented behavior, and I do not exclude myself from this natural health scheme. Of course my purpose is to show how we are straying from this course, so that we may correct the deviations.
I can no more proclaim the worldview arising from my work "reality" than can any particular philosopher working at creating a meaningful worldview in any particular place and time, drawing on the scientific and historical knowledge of that place and time. Philosophy is an intensely personal search that one hopes will have relevance to others, will be validated by their experience, will offer them some insight and guidance, or will at least stimulate them in their disagreement to search further on their own.
Yet a work of philosophy also reflects the broader context and search of a culture at a particular stage, and the biological evolutionary viewpoint of this book reflects a broadly emerging pattern of search for our origins and direction in nature -- a reawakening of that search begun by the original pre-Socratic philosophers, indeed that goes further back to the roots of religion -- the search for re-ligio, for "reconnection" with our origins in the nature or cosmos that gave rise to us and within which we continue our co-creation.
Paradoxically, our self-imposed separation from nature by way of an `objective' mechanical worldview during the past few millennia has led to the scientific knowledge that makes it possible to understand and reintegrate ourselves into nature's self-organization patterns. It has also brought us to a stage of technology that permits us to share our discoveries and our understanding planet-wide in no time at all, to work together as a body of humanity with hope of transcending our present crisis in a far healthier and happier future for ourselves and all the rest of Earthlife.
Although the original version of this book was done in relative isolation and without funding, I am indebted and profoundly grateful to many teachers and friends, from the forest creatures with whom I spent my earliest years to Jim Lovelock and Lynn Margulis, who have not only informed and inspired me in this work, but who gave me invaluable encouragement, confidence, and opportunities in seeing the work through.
As this edition goes to press, scientists have recognized that we are well into the sixth great extinction of species -- the first caused by a single species, and proceeding more rapidly even than the last one, which eliminated the great dinosaurs sixty million years ago because Earth's climate changed dramatically under the impact of a huge meteor in the Caribbean basin.
There is no doubt that we humans continue creating the chaos of ongoing disaster and denial. As I say in Chapter 19, Onondaga Chief Oren Lyons, at the Earth Summit known as Rio '92, reminded us that the passengers of the Titanic refused to believe that marvel of modern technology could go down on its maiden voyage. It did, of course, go down, as its extremely popular and timely Hollywood version reminded us. We may be a true biological marvel as a hi-tech human species, but we have truly gotten ourselves into serious trouble.
A healthy world for all cannot easily rise from total destruction; rather it must be formed now, in the midst of the chaos we create. Such a "new world order," I am again and again reminded by the indigenous elders I have listened to intently for their deep understanding of sustainability, must be based on a very old world order -- on the laws of nature as indigenous people understand them, on laws they have been trying to teach us for a very long time: laws of balance, harmony, of giving back in full measure for all you take; laws designed to insure survival at least seven generations into the future.
The conclusion reached in this book, that we humans as a species must learn quickly to fit our lifestyles harmoniously into the rest of nature, is what led me to seek out indigenous knowledge between editions. Indigenous peoples never saw themselves as anything but an integral part of nature, and so they tend to know much more about that than do industrial peoples. Once, I listened to Jeannette Armstrong, a wise woman of the Okinakan nation, which still lives traditionally, speaking in detail about her peoples' understanding of nature. It was precisely the understanding I had gained in the course of writing this book far off on a Greek island -- confirmation to me that I had gotten it right, for her people had the credibility of thousands of years of careful and scientific observation.
The immense knowledge of nature, the coherent philosophies and the non-technological achievements of indigenous people impressed me deeply. They have observed us far more carefully than we them. Their conscious choice not to develop technological consumer societies gave me a more balanced view of human life and some valuable insights I have shared in several new chapters. One of these insights -- that there can no more be one true science than one true religion -- was difficult to share with fellow scientists of my industrial culture. Almost invariably, they responded, "You mean indigenous knowledge; they don't have science, there is only one science." I have therefore taken some care to show that indigenous people do indeed have science, by our own definitions, as a deep aspect of their cultures (see Chapter 19).
The great effort of industrial culture to fragment our world, to separate science, religion, art, economics, politics and other social practices, has long seemed to me very costly in blinding us to their interrelations. Today this is expressed in such problems as the difficulty of integrating the economy with ecology, two words meaning, in their original Greek, the organizational design and the operating principles of a household. Clearly they should never have been separated! How could it have happened? As Janine Benyus pointed out in a speech at a Bioneers conference, we assigned one group of people -- biologists -- to study how other species make a living, and another unrelated group of people -- economists -- to determine how humans make a living. Only now do we see interest in living systems enter the world of business.
Indigenous people have also taught me that good science can be done without tearing it out of the seamless and sacred fabric of life. They have always known this is a participatory universe, which Western scientists only now acknowledge. We simply cannot observe it without changing it. Indigenous people understand science and spirituality as aspects of the same reality -- an intelligent, conscious continuum with physical and non-physical aspects. They are aware that all parts and aspects of nature are in constant non-physical communication. In Western science, physicists only now discover the deep connectedness and dialogue of everything through concepts of non-locality and zero-point energy.
One crisp cool day in a cornfield on the barren Hopi reservation in Arizona, I watched Martin Gashweseoma -- now almost the only traditional Hopi elder still alive -- kneeling in the dry earth beneath a brilliant blue sky, picking dried ears of blue corn from the stubby plants rustling in a cold late fall wind. Martin continues to live in the sacred way, with only the digging stick given by the Great Spirit, Maasau, along with instructions for living in peace and simplicity. He stood up to greet me and began speaking of the eviction of the faithful Hopi from Old Oraibi in 1906 with only what they could carry, of his uncle Yukiuma who led his people like Gandhi on this exodus, even going to the White House to plead their cause, of the sacred stone tablets his uncle later entrusted to him, of the way they were taken away, of the Day of Purification the white man, Bahanna, is bringing on, with all its suffering as the world becomes desert....
What he said was familiar, as I had been working with the Hopi and other Indians for years by this time, but it took on new significance as it burned into my heart on that crisp, clear fall day, the azure sky blazing behind him as we talked. Three men who had brought me to the field stood behind me and never interrupted; Martin did not take his eyes from mine during our long interchange. It was an experience of total undivided attention I, as a woman, had never experienced from men. The intense energy flowing between Martin and myself created a dense whirlpool tangible even to me, a person normally insensitive to such things. A whirlpool, as I say in this book, is a living entity, and Martin wove such an entity.
Anguish flowed through me at his despair. He spoke of his and other elders' failure to reach the White Brother -- our dominant culture -- with the Hopi Prophecy, and of how even the Hopi were abandoning their traditions, their cornfields. The Hopi prophecy, discussed at the beginning of Chapter 19, says the world as we know it will end if the White Brother does not heed the Sacred Way of the Red Brother and share his mission to develop technology in that spirit.
His truth -- the need for cooperation between the ways of indigenous and industrial peoples to build a sustainable world -- is vital to our survival. I found this same truth over and over again in many teachings I have gained from indigenous peoples in many places. I explored this truth in many contexts, from presidential commission dialogues on a sustainable human future in Washington D.C. to traditional villages in the Peruvian Andes, where I spent a whole year studying the cosmology and science of ancient Andean cultures, and now in the corporate world of multinationals, the most powerful organizations humanity has yet devised.
This corporate world, which, along with science and technology, is often blamed for current crises, is suddenly in crisis itself because of a dramatic new development on the human scene: the Internet. From my perspective as an evolution biologist, this World Wide Web of information exchange is a kind of fractal biology repeat pattern of the first version, built by bacteria billions of years ago, as we see in Chapter 4. And just like its ancient counterpart -- still in existence among bacteria worldwide today -- it is a self-organizing living system.
Chapter 20 describes the inherent organizational design and operating principles of this new Web as those of living systems, and that is why it has the power to force corporations with organizational designs and operating principles based on command and control mechanics to change their ways -- to become more like living systems themselves. As corporations, which play such a powerful determining role in our species' behavior as a whole, understand and abide by the sustainable survival principles of living systems, their goals will come into harmony with our personal and community goals. We can then mature like other species from competition to cooperation and build a human society in which the goals of individual and community, of local and global economy, of economy and ecology are met. This will shift us out of crises and into the happier, healthier world of which we all dream. Let it be so!
Elisabet Sahtouris, September, 1999