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Living Systems in Evolution

Elisabet Sahtouris

copyright © 1999 by Elisabet Sahtouris


A Note From The Author A Twice-Told Tale


Everyone knows that humanity is in crisis, politically, economically, spiritually, ecologically, any way you look at it. Many see humanity as close to suicide by way of our own technology; many others see humans as deserving God's or nature's wrath in retribution for our sins. However we see it, we are deeply afraid that we may not survive much longer. Yet our urge to survival is the strongest urge we have, and we do not cease our search for solutions in the midst of crisis.

The proposal made in this book is that we see ourselves in the context of our planet's biological evolution, as a still new, experimental species with developmental stages that parallel the stages of our individual development. From this perspective, humanity is now in adolescent crisis and, just because of that, stands on the brink of maturity in a position to achieve true humanity in the full meaning of that word. Like an adolescent in trouble, we have tended to let our focus on the crisis itself or on our frantic search for particular political, economic, scientific, or spiritual solutions depress us and blind us to the larger picture, to avenues of real assistance. If we humbly seek help instead from the nature that spawned us, we will find biological clues to solving all our biggest problems at once. We will see how to make the healthy transition into maturity.

Some of these biological clues are with us daily, all our lives, in our own bodies; others can be found in various ages and stages of the larger living entity of which we are part -- our planet Earth. Once we see these clues, we will wonder how we could have failed to find them for so long.

The reason we have missed them is that we have not understood ourselves as living beings within a larger being, in the same sense that our cells are part of each of us.

Our intellectual heritage for thousands of years, most strongly developed in the past few hundred years of science, has been to see ourselves as separate from the rest of nature, to convince ourselves we see it objectively -- at a distance from ourselves -- and to perceive, or at least model it, as a vast mechanism.

This objective mechanical worldview was founded in ancient Greece when philosophers divided into two schools of thought about the world. One school held that all nature, including humans, was alive and self-creative, ever making order from disorder. The other held that the `real' world could be known only through pure reason, not through direct experience, and was God's geometric creation, permanently mechanical and perfect behind our illusion of its disorder.

This mechanical/religious worldview superseded the older one of living nature to become the foundation of the whole Western worldview up to the present.

Philosophers such as Pythagoras, Parmenides, and Plato were thus the founding fathers of our mechanical worldview, though Galileo, Descartes, and other men of the Renaissance translated it into the scientific and technological enterprise that has dominated human experience ever since.

What if things had gone the other way? What if Thales, Anaximander, and Heraclitus, the organic philosophers who saw all the cosmos as alive, had won the day back in that ancient Greek debate?

What if Galileo, as he experimented with both telescope and microscope, had used the latter to seek evidence for Anaximander's theory of biological evolution here on Earth, rather than looking to the skies for confirmation of Aristarchus's celestial mechanics? In other words, what if modern science and our view of human society had evolved from organic biology rather than from mechanical physics?

We will never know how the course of human events would have differed had they taken this path, had physics developed in the shadow of biology rather than the other way around.

Yet it seems we were destined to find the biological path eventually, as the mechanical worldview we have lived with so long is now giving way to an organic view -- in all fairness, an organic view made possible by the very technology born of our mechanical view.

The same technology that permits us to reach out into space has permitted us to begin seeing the real nature of our own planet to discover that it is alive and that it is the only live planet circling our Sun.

·    ·    ·

The implications of this discovery are enormous, and we have hardly even begun to pursue them. We were awed by astronauts' reports that the Earth looked from space like a living being, and were ourselves struck by its apparently live beauty when the visual images were before our eyes. But it has taken time to accumulate scientific evidence that the Earth is a live planet rather than a planet with life upon it, and many scientists continue to resist the new conception because of its profound implications for change in all branches of science, not to mention all society.

The difference between a planet with life on it and a living planet is hard at first to understand. Take for example the word, the concept, the practice of ecology, which has become familiar to us all within just the few short decades that we have been aware of our pollution and destruction of the environment on which our own lives depend.

Our ecological understanding and practice has been a big, important step in understanding our relationship to our environment and to other species. Yet, even in our serious environmental concern, we still fall short of recognizing ourselves as part of a much larger living entity. It is one thing to be careful with our environment so it will last and remain benign; it is quite another to know deeply that our environment, like ourselves, is part of a living planet.

The earliest microbes into which the materials of the Earth's crust transformed themselves created their own environments, and these environments in turn shaped the fate of later species, much as cells create their surround and are created by it in our own embryological development.

As for physiology, we already know that the Earth regulates its temperature as well as any of its warm-blooded creatures, such that it stays within bounds that are healthy for life despite the Sun's steadily increasing heat. And just as our bodies continually renew and adjust the balance of chemicals in our skin and blood, our bones and other tissues, so does the Earth continually renew and adjust the balance of chemicals in its atmosphere, seas, and soils. How these physiological systems work is now partly known, partly still to be discovered, as is also still the case with our bodies' physiological systems.

Certainly it is ever more obvious that we are not studying the mechanical nature of Spaceship Earth but the self-creative, self-maintaining physiology of a live planet.

Many still take the live Earth concept, named Gaia after the Earth goddess of early Greek myth, more as a poetic or spiritual metaphor than as a scientific reality. However, the name Gaia was never intended to suggest that the Earth is a female being, the reincarnation of the Great Goddess or Mother Nature herself, nor to start a new religion (though it would hardly hurt us to worship our planet as the greater Being whose existence we have intuited from time immemorial). It was intended simply to designate the concept of a live Earth, in contrast to an Earth with life upon it.

Actually, Gaia, or the Roman form, Gea, was an earlier name for our planet than Earth. It was lost in the wandering of words from ancient Greek through other languages to English. In Greek, our planet has always been called Gaia in its alternate spelling Ge, which we see in English words taken directly from Greek, such as geology, the formation of the Earth; geometry, the measurement of the Earth; and geography, the mapping of the Earth. In accord with our own practice of calling planets by the names of Greek deities in their Roman versions, we really should call the Earth Gea. Greek, like English, has always used the same word for Earth-as-world and Earth-as-ground -- the ancient Ge that became the modern Gi, pronounced Yee. The English word Earth came from an ancient Greek root meaning working the ground, or earth-ergaze -- which evolved into the name of the Nordic Earth goddess, Erda and then into the German Erde and the English Earth. Thus even the word Earth implies a female deity.

With that digression intended to make the name Gaia more acceptable to those who still consider the name and image somehow inappropriate for a scientific concept, let us look also at the myth itself -- the creation myth of Gaia's dance.

The story of Gaia's dance begins with an image of swirling mist in the black nothingness called Chaos by the ancient Greeks -- an image reminding us of modern photos of galaxies swirling in space. In the myth it is the dancing goddess Gaia, swathed in white veils as she whirls through the darkness. As she becomes visible and her dance grows ever more lively, her body forms itself into mountains and valleys; then sweat pours from her to pool into seas, and finally her flying arms stir up a windy sky she calls Ouranos -- still the Greek word for sky -- which she wraps around herself as protector and mate.

Though she later banishes Ouranos -- Uranus, in Latin -- to her depths for claiming credit for creation, their fertile union as Earth and Heaven brings forth forests and creatures including the giant Titans in human form, who in turn give rise to the gods and goddesses and finally to mortal humans.

From the start, says the myth -- true to human psychology -- people were curious to know how all this had happened and what the future would bring. To satisfy their curiosity, Gaia let her knowledge and wisdom leak from cracks in the Earth at places such as Delphi where her priestesses interpreted it for people.

Our curiosity is still with us thousands of years after this myth served as explanation of the world's creation. And in a sense, Gaia's knowledge and wisdom are still leaking from her body -- not just at Delphi, but everywhere we care to look in a scientific study of our living planet.

The new scientific story of Gaian creation has other parallels to the ancient myth. We now recognize the Earth as a single self-creating being that came alive in its whirling dance through space, its crust transforming itself into mountains and valleys, the hot moisture pouring from its body to form seas. As its crust became ever more lively with bacteria, it created its own atmosphere, and the advent of sexual partnership finally did produce the larger life forms -- the trees and animals and people.

The tale of Gaia's dance is thus being retold as we piece together the scientific details of our planet's dance of life. And in its context, the evolution of our own species takes on new meaning in relation to the whole. Once we truly grasp the scientific reality of our living planet and its physiology, our entire worldview and practice are bound to change profoundly, revealing the way to solving what now appear to be our greatest and most insoluble problems.

From a Gaian point of view, we humans are an experiment -- a young trial species still at odds with ourselves and other species, still not having learned to balance our own dance within that of our whole planet. Unlike most other species, we are not biologically programmed to know what to do; rather, we are an experiment in free choice.

This leaves us with enormous potential, powerful egotism, and tremendous anxiety -- a syndrome that is recognizably adolescent.

Human history may seem very long to us as we study all that has happened in it, but we know only a few thousand years of it and have existed as humans for only a few million years, while Earth has been self-creating and evolving for billions of years. We have scarcely had time to come out of species childhood, yet our social evolution has changed us so fast that we have leaped into our adolescence.

Humans are not the first creatures to make problems for themselves and for the whole Gaian system, as we will see. We are, however -- unless whales and dolphins beat us to it in past ages -- the first Gaian creatures who can understand such problems, think about them, and solve them by free choice. In fact, the argument of this book is that our maturity as a species depends on our accepting the responsibility for our natural heritage of behavioral freedom by working consciously and cooperatively toward our own health along with that of our planet.

Our ability to be objective, to see ourselves as the I or eye of our cosmos, as beings independent of nature, has inflated our egos -- ego being the Greek word for I. We came to separate the I from the it and to believe that `it' -- the world apart from us, out there -- was ours to do with as we pleased. We told ourselves we were either God's favored children or the smartest and most powerful naturally-evolved creatures on Earth. This egotistic attitude has been very much a factor in bringing us to adolescent crisis.

And so an attitude of greater humility and willingness to accept some guidance from our parent planet will be an important factor in reaching our species maturity.

The tremendous problems confronting us now -- the inequality of hunger on one side and overconsumption on the other, the possibly irreversible damage to the natural world we depend on, just as our cells depend on the wholeness of our bodies for their life -- are all of our own making. These problems have become so enormous that many of us believe we will not be able to solve them in time. Yet just at this time in our troubled world we stand on the brink of maturity, in a position to recognize that we are neither perfect nor omnipotent, but that we can learn a great deal from a parent planet that is also not perfect or omnipotent but has the experience of billions of years of overcoming an endless array of difficulties, small and great.

When we look anew at evolution, we see not only that other species have been as troublesome as ours, but that many a fiercely competitive situation resolved itself in a cooperative scheme. The kind of cells our bodies are made of, for example, began with the same kind of exploitation among bacteria that characterizes our historic human imperialism, as we will see.

In fact, those ancient bacteria invented technologies of energy production, transportation and communications, including a WorldWideWeb still in existence today, during their competitive phase and then used those very technologies to bind themselves into the cooperative ventures that made our own existence possible. In the same way, we are now using essentially the same technologies, in our own invented versions, to unite ourselves into a single body of humanity that may make yet another new step in Earth's evolution possible. If we look to the lessons of evolution, we will gain hope that the newly forming worldwide body of humanity may also learn to adopt cooperation in favor of competition. The necessary systems have already been invented and developed; we lack only the understanding, motive, and will to use them consciously in achieving a cooperative species maturity.

It may come as a surprise that nature has something to teach us about cooperative economics and politics. Sociobiologists, who have told us much in recent decades about humanity's animal heritage, have tended to paint us a bleak picture. Calling on our evolutionary heritage as evidence that we will never cure ourselves of territorial lust and aggression toward one another, they continue to predict there will be no end to economic greed and political warfare. But it is the aim of this book to show that these sociobiologists have presented a misleading picture -- as misleading as earlier scientists' one-sided view of all natural evolution as "red in tooth and claw," the hard and competitive struggle among individuals on which we have modeled our modern societies.

The new view of our Gaian Earth in evolution shows, on the contrary, an intricate web of cooperative mutual dependency, the evolution of one scheme after another that harmonizes conflicting interests.

The patterns of evolution show us the creative maintenance of life in all its complexity. Indeed nature is more suggestive of a mother juggling resources to ensure each family member's welfare as she works out differences of interest to make the whole family a cooperative venture, than of a rational engineer designing perfect machinery that obeys unchangeable laws.

For scientists who shudder at such anthropomorphism -- defined as reading human attributes into nature -- let us not forget that mechanomorphism -- reading mechanical attributes into nature -- is really no better than second-hand anthropomorphism, since mechanisms are human products. Is it not more likely that nature in essence resembles one of its own creatures than that it resembles in essence the nonliving product of one of its creatures?

The leading philosophers of our day recognize that the very foundations of our knowledge are quaking -- that our understanding of nature as machinery can no longer be upheld. But those who cling to the old understanding seriously fear that all human life will break down without a firm foundation for our knowledge of nature in mathematical reference points and laws of physics. They fail to see what every child can see -- that hummingbirds and flowers work, that nature does very well in ignorance of human conceptions of how it must work.

Machinery is in fact the very antithesis of life. One must always hope a machine, between its times of use, will not change, for only if it does not change will it continue to be of use. Left to its own devices, so to speak, it will eventually be destroyed by its environment. Living organisms, on the other hand, cannot stay the same without changing constantly, and they use their environment to their advantage. To be sure, our machinery is getting better and better at imitating life; if this were not so, a mechanical science could not have advanced in understanding. But mechanical models of life continue to miss its essential self-creativity. Fortunately, our survival struggle is leading to intuitive grasps of nature's principles that are shifting our technologies into serving cooperative life purposes, especially clearly in the phenomenon of the global Internet.

·    ·    ·

We are learning that there is more than one way to organize functional systems, to produce order and balance; that the imperfect and flexible principles of nature lead to greater stability and resilience in natural systems than we have produced in ours -- both technological and social -- by following the mechanical laws we assumed were natural.

We designed our societies as though they were machinery; we made a Cold War on one another over who had the perfect social design. Our greatest recent conflict was over whether individuals should sacrifice their individual interest to the welfare of the whole or whether individual interest should reign supreme in the hope that the interests of the whole would thus take care of themselves

No being in nature, outside our own species, is ever confronted with such a choice, and if we consult nature, the reason is obvious. The choice makes no sense, for neither alternative can work. No being in nature can ever be completely independent, although independence calls to every living being, whether it is a cell, a creature, a society, a species, or a whole ecosystem.

Every being is part of some larger being, and as such its self-interest must be tempered by the interests of the larger being to which it belongs. Thus mutual consistency works itself out everywhere in nature, as we will see again and again in this book.

For clues on organizing a workable economics and politics, we need not even look beyond our own bodies, with their cooperative diversity of cells and organs as a splendid example to us in working out our social future.

Diversity is crucial to nature, yet we humans seem desperately eager to eliminate it, in nature and in one another. This is one of the greatest mistakes we are making. We reduce complex ecosystems to one-crop monocultures, and we do everything in our power to persuade or force others to adopt our languages, our customs, our social structures, instead of respecting their diversity and recognizing its validity. Both practices impoverish and weaken us within the Gaian system.

We are right to worry about our survival, for we foolishly jeopardize it.

We are wrong to devote our attention to saving or managing nature. Gaia will save herself with or without us and hardly needs advice or help in managing her affairs. To look out for ourselves, we would be wise to interfere as little as possible in her ways, and to learn as much as possible of them.

Our technology has ravaged nature and continues to do so, but the ravages of technology are rooted in our youthful species' greed, our single bottom-line quest for profits motive. There is no intrinsic reason that we humans cannot develop a benign technology once we agree that our desire to maximize profits is completely at odds with nature's dynamic balance -- that greed prevents health and welfare for all. As Janine Benyus has pointed out, we assigned one group of people called biologists to study how other species make their living, and a completely separate group of people called economists to determine how our species makes its living.

No other creatures take more than they need, and this must be our first lesson. Our second lesson is to learn and emulate nature's fine-tuned recycling economics, largely powered by free solar energy. This does not mean going back to log cabins or tipis, but to eliminate waste and junk as we creatively develop diverse human lifestyles of elegant and sustainable simplicity.

The purpose of this book is to help pave the way to a happier and healthier future through an understanding of our relationship to the Gaian Earth system that spawned us and of which we are part -- a great being that, however it may annoy us, is not ours to dominate and control. We can damage it, but we cannot run it; we had better try to find out what it is all about and what we are doing, and may do, to survive happily within it.

The aggressive and destructive motives of domination, conquest, control, and profit have been presented to us as unchangeable human nature by historians as well as by sociologists. But mounting evidence from archaeology strongly suggests that human societies were, for the greater part of civilized history, based more on cooperation and reverence for life and nature than on competition and obsession with death and technology. It seems our human childhood, which lasted far longer than has our recent adolescence, was guided by religious images of a near and nurturing Mother Goddess before a cruel and distant Father God replaced her in influence. As we come out of adolescence we often recognize the value of what we were taught in childhood, and this new historical view of ourselves supports the general thesis of this book.

Like Gaian creation itself, human understanding or knowledge ever evolves.

Parts of the story you are about to read will already have changed by the time you read it. Others will change in the years to come as new things about Earth-Gaia and about human history are discovered. Any of us is free to help find new pieces of the story, bring those we know up to date, and then reinterpret the evidence as a whole, for in the last analysis, every interpretation has its personal color and flavor.

The next chapter is concerned with cosmic beginnings as a living context for our living planet; succeeding chapters, up to half of this book, tell of Gaian evolution over billions of years before we humans become part of it. Those interested in the story of human society may be tempted to skip this part of the story, but the scientific account of evolution in this book is not separable from our human social history. The details of our biological heritage from ancient bacteria on are given because therein lie the clues to a better human future. It is only within this context that we can appreciate our newness and our differences from the rest of nature, to see at the same time how we can benefit from its vast experience to fit ourselves in more harmoniously.

It is on this that everything now depends; species suicide is our only alternative, and there is really no reason to make a dramatic adolescent exit instead of growing up, taking on adult responsibility, and reaping the pleasures of productive maturity. Let us then follow the evolution of Gaian creation and of our own history as social and technological creatures within this great dance of life. Let's see what meaning and guidance all this may give in our present crisis, to speed us on our way into full maturity, to a happier future in which we promote our own health and that of our planet within the greater cosmic dance.

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