Living Systems in Evolution
copyright © 1999 by Elisabet Sahtouris
The Greek myth of Gaian creation began with an image of the goddess whirling out of darkness, wrapped in flowing white veils. In ancient India the very beginning of the universe, or cosmos, was imagined as swirls in a sea of milk.
We will probably never know how ancient peoples understood that the first forms to create themselves were whirling white spirals. However they knew, we in our own day can actually see just what those first swirling white forms out in space really were. We call them protogalaxies, or first galaxies. And we have learned that whole protogalaxies do dance as whirling white forms in space long before planets evolve within them, and longer before creatures can evolve as parts of planets.
The material universe, as most scientists describe it today, began with a huge explosion of energy they call the Big Bang. Some say this explosion was more like a great wave of energy rising out of an even greater sea of energy; others talk about continuous creation as well as an initial event; some of those tell us matter is continually created from an underlying intelligent source, such as consciousness. Whatever happened to start our universe, our current scientific story is that it began as very hot, explosively fast-moving energy that has been spreading and cooling ever since, creating spacetime as it does so.
The ancient Greek word chaos first denoted nothingness -- the great void before there was anything material in the universe. (They also spoke of a fullness of potential named the plenum.) Later, chaos came to mean anything so mixed up or messed up that it has no pattern, no order, no meaning, at least none that we humans can detect. (The word random carries the same meaning of lack of order or pattern.) With chaos theory, we began to see chaos as having hidden pattern -- pattern we are unable to detect. All these ways of using the word chaos have been used to describe the beginning of the universe. There was nothingness, as no-thing had been formed, yet the dance of energy that would create order or pattern had begun.
The word cosmos was coined as the opposite of chaos, to mean order as opposed to disorder, form and pattern instead of formlessness and lack of pattern, things instead of no-things, a world instead of no world. The first Greek philosophers understood creation as a process of turning disorderly or non-orderly chaos into an orderly cosmos, and we have no better way of describing it today. For as the chaotic hot energy cooled and spread, it turned itself into a great dance of spiraling cosmic patterns
Our best explanation of how this happened begins with the idea of imbalance, as it also did in many ancient philosophies. In the early chaos, as the explosive energy spread and cooled, there must have been pockets of more or less energy, or, as energy formed itself into particles, pockets of more or fewer particles, or different numbers of different kinds of particles. Any such imbalances would have set up currents of motion among the heavier slower-moving particles in the overall force of out-thrusting universal energy.
Particles, or subatomic particles, are the tiniest whirling packets of pure energy from which all matter -- all the stuff of the universe -- is made. The whirling energy of particles created a new force, or forces, among particles, so that when early cosmic particles passed close enough to each other to attract each other, some of them held together as simple atoms. We can imagine this as rather like people dancing, attracting each other when close enough to whirl each other about. Other particles were pushed apart, while most particles kept zooming along alone among the first slower atoms of floating gas.
The physical force that still works at the greatest distance among the clumps of matter that formed in our universe is the one we call gravitation; two others -- the strong and weak nuclear forces -- have their effect inside atoms and stars. The fourth and last to develop was the electrical force, which works to combine atoms into molecules, but that is getting ahead of our story. Some new theories describe gravitation as a basic property of the zero-point energy field, rather than as a force. It is wise to note that our theories are still evolving rapidly and that this story may still change dramatically.
Natural, or physical, influences, then, on great and small levels, pulled and pushed the universe into patterns great and small. As the number of atoms, and the explosive young universe itself, grew larger, imbalances here and there drifted and swirled the atoms into great gas clouds. These clouds formed more swirls within themselves, some of the thickest becoming protogalaxies sparking with light.
Light is made of energy packets we call photons. New photons can be created like tiny sparks when other fast-flying particles bump into one another very hard. Photons make the protogalaxies visible, and it now seems they are created continually everywhere in the universe, even inside us.
If an ancient storyteller could have looked through a modern telescope to see a protogalaxy forming, he might well have said, "Ah, you see, there is the white-veiled Gaia whirling about in her dance." A modern scientist, on the other hand, sees such protogalaxies as the natural result of imbalances and forces in the great cosmic energy field -- a swirling of disorderly or chaotic matter into orderly or cosmic patterns; a sea of energy whose forceful currents form natural whirlpools large and small. This is especially important to recognize: that the largest patterns -- the great swirling clouds within which protogalaxies took shape -- were forming almost as soon as the tiniest particles and atoms began whirling into being. Our universe, or cosmos, has always been a dance of interactions among the large and small moving patterns, each contributing to the other's formation. It was not built from the top down or from the bottom up, but evolved as a dance between great and small.
But can we really see protogalaxies forming billions of years ago while looking through telescopes now? Is it possible to look back into time, and so very far back at that?
We can. With modern telescopes we can see back to nearly the beginning of the universe! Magical as it seems, the explanation for this strange power we have is quite simple. Everything we see comes to our eyes as light photons that have bounced off or come out of whatever we are looking at. Light bounces off a cat or a cloud, for instance, and comes out of a candle flame or a star. But what exactly is light?
We've already talked about photons as energy particles created when other particles bump into one another. Stars and flames are made of atoms and particles moving so fast that unusual numbers of photons are created in them.
Photons travel through space in waves of different lengths and strengths, some of which we see as different colors and brightnesses when they get to our eyes. Though light is extremely fast by human standards -- at 186,000 miles per second -- it still takes some time to get from an object that created it, or from one it has bounced off, to our eyes. The time it takes light to travel holds the secret of looking back in time.
It takes about seven minutes for light to get from the Sun to our eyes. Every time we look at the Sun, we are seeing the light pattern that left it seven minutes ago. That means we are seeing the Sun the way it was seven minutes ago and not as it is the moment we are looking at it. The Sun is the star nearest to us. Other stars are so far away that their light takes years to get to our eyes -- thousands of years, even millions of years, depending on how far away the star is. The distance of stars, in fact, is measured in light-years -- the number of years it takes for their light to reach us.
Whenever you look up at the night sky, even without a telescope, you are looking back into time. You see each star as it was when the light reaching your eyes left it. By looking at many stars, you are looking at many times past. How far past depends, of course, on the distance of each star. The farther away the star is, the longer ago it sent out the information about what it looks like -- that is, the light pattern of the star that has finally found your eyes.
Our own galaxy, the Milky Way, is shaped like a giant swirling pinwheel within an enormous but less visible spherical torus. It takes light a hundred thousand years to cross it. If there are any creatures on another planet -- say, three thousand light years from us, in our own galaxy -- who are looking at us right now, what do they see? If their telescopes are powerful enough, they may be seeing a storyteller speaking of Gaia's dance in an ancient Greek village!
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Powerful telescopes can pick up light that is too weak from its long travels for our eyes alone to see -- even light from stars and galaxies so old that they were among the first stars and galaxies, or protogalaxies, in the universe, so old they are just beginning cosmic creation. Let's watch one of them in its evolving dance.
Inside the spiraling veils of hydrogen gas, which is made of the first and simplest atoms in the universe, smaller rolling waves create a ring of denser atoms, of more intense energy, at the center. Around it, great loose balls of gas form, something like the way dust balls form under a bed. In the center of such balls, the lively atoms and particles are pulled ever closer together by physical forces until it gets very hot from all the crowding. As these gas balls get hotter and heavier, they become stars.
Wherever we look back into ancient skies, we see galaxies taking shape and growing through different stages. Inside the first generation of stars the incredible heat and pressure begins causing what we now know as nuclear reactions -- the transformation of one kind of atom into another. The first such reaction squeezes hydrogen atoms together to form helium atoms, which is what our Sun is doing all the time. This process creates heat and light, some of which escapes from the stars in spreading waves of photons. The burning gases on the outside of stars pull away in waves, like the skin a snake sheds, because of the gravitational pull of matter, such as other stars, around them. Stars must constantly keep their balance between tremendous forces pulling them apart and other forces squeezing them together.
Eventually, the first-generation stars collapse from growing so heavy they can no longer keep their balance between the internal and external pulling. Their atoms mass ever more tightly together. Eventually the star implodes and then explodes, scattering stardust like seeds back into the galactic gas cloud. The mother cloud becomes ever thicker with the gas and dust of such explosions and gives birth to a new generation of stars as the old ones die.
The next generation of stars forges its atoms into yet bigger and heavier kinds until all the different kinds of atoms -- all the different elements of the universe -- have been formed from the original hydrogen atoms. Meanwhile, the central ring of gas clouds in a galaxy grows larger and more complicated, becoming a kind of skeleton that holds the galaxy together. At last many of the atoms from exploding stars are too heavy to form new stars and begin to form themselves into planets circling around stars that are made of the lightest elements. This is why our Sun, although it is not a first-generation star, is made like one. The heavier elements of its parent star are in its planets.
So protogalaxies evolve into galaxies -- whirling, weaving, squeezing, exploding, pulsing their insides into ever richer patterns and parts. Molecules formed of groups of atoms, even the kinds of molecules from which the familiar living systems of the Earth formed themselves, are created in complex galactic processes, as we shall see later. For now, let us remember that the stars we see in our night skies are only a few of those in our own galaxy, and, as we see them with our eyes, they don't begin to hint of our galaxy's complex patterns and processes. Far beyond those stars lie billions of other galaxies, each made of billions of stars and planets wheeling in their clouds of gas and dust, creating who knows how much life.
Astronomers, whose name comes from the Greek word for star, astron, now know the different shapes of individual galaxies and can see them clustered into larger patterns. There are even clusters of clusters, called superclusters, even some greater pattern that extends all through the universe, parts of it appearing in the images we have been able to make of them, like huge curved strings and the holes in Swiss cheese. These still crude images, we may hope, will one day resolve themselves into an understanding of the greatest patterns of all.
Though we don't know what these patterns are as yet, it appears increasingly obvious that they form a cosmic unity of process and pattern rather than a chaotic spray of unrelated parts. A single notion that would account for such pattern is the concept of mutual consistency, which is at the heart of `bootstrap philosophy,' a mathematical physics conception popularized by Fritjof Capra. This is the concept that the universe is a dynamic web of events in which no part or event is fundamental to the others since each follows from all the others, the relations among them determining the entire cosmic pattern or web of events. In this conception, all possible patterns of cosmic matter-energy will form, but only those working out their consistency with surrounding patterns will last.
Mutual means shared; consistency means agreement or harmony. Thus we can sense mutual consistency as the shared harmony worked out among cosmic patterns. The notion can be made more familiar by considering the shared social harmony worked out by groups of people when each individual adjusts his or her behavior to that of the others in a harmonious way. Anyone who cannot do this will tend to be excluded from the group, unless the deviant can force the others to make their behavior consistent with his or hers, in which case a new (if tenuous) mutual consistency would have been worked out. At present our species is not behaving in a way that is mutually consistent with the other species and features of our planet, and the consequences may preclude our survival.
Increasingly, then, we are discovering with modern instruments and measurements what ancient peoples told in myth -- that all of the universe is one great pattern, a single dance evolving into ever richer complexity over billions of years.
Until recently, scientists had a rather different idea of how nature forms itself -- a mechanical idea of wholes built from parts as machinery is built, though coming together automatically without any designer or builder. We shall learn more of this way of looking at things later, when we look at human history. For now what matters is to understand this new way of seeing that all evolution -- of the great cosmos and of our own planet within it -- is an endless dance of wholes that separate themselves into parts and parts that join into mutually consistent new wholes. We can see it as a repeating, sequentially spiraling pattern: unity -> individuation -> competition -> conflict -> negotiation -> resolution -> cooperation -> new levels of unity, and so on.
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We have already seen how the swirling gas clouds that evolved into galactic clusters began forming as soon as particles joined together to form the first simple hydrogen atoms. The early universe thus evolved by forming more and more parts within itself, many of them becoming new wholes in their own right if they proved consistent with other wholes surrounding them. As stars form within a protogalaxy, it becomes a galaxy -- a great star system that in turn forms within itself relatively independent single or double star systems, some with planets such as our solar system. Later we will see how a planet's crust can form the packets of life we call microbes, or bacteria, and how these in turn can join together in building larger living cells, which in their turn evolve into larger creatures.
The universe of all these parts within parts, or wholes within wholes, reminds us of nesting boxes or of the Chinese or Russian dolls of various sizes that fit inside one another. The philosopher scientist Arthur Koestler suggested we call each whole thing within nature a holon -- a whole made of its own parts, yet itself part of a larger whole. A universe of such holons within holons is, then a holarchy -- in Greek, a source of wholes -- one original whole that formed ever more complicated smaller wholes within itself, some becoming holarchies themselves. We will use this image and the terms holon and holarchy throughout this book to show the embeddedness of natural entities.
Our own solar system, with its Sun-star nucleus surrounded by planets, Moons, asteroids, comets, and space dust, is a holon within the larger holon of our galaxy. It was born of the scattered gases and stardust of an older star that became a supernova exploding about five billion years ago, maybe even more than one of them. The Earth is still so radioactive from this explosion that its core is kept hot by continuing nuclear reactions, and many atoms all over its surface -- in rocks and trees and even in our own bodies -- are still exploding.
In our bodies it has been estimated that three million potassium atoms explode every minute. These explosions are much too tiny for us to see, feel, or perceive in any other way. They are not arranged to blow up neighboring atoms as well as themselves, as in our powerful man-made nuclear chain reactions. Still, they are evidence that stardust is not just fairy-tale magic; it is what we are really made of -- we and everything else that is part of our world.
Between five and four and a half billion years ago, some of the gas and dust from that great star explosion gathered into an Earth-ball made of twelve different kinds of atoms, or twelve elements. As it condensed, it grew heavier and spun around faster. The heat of pressure and nuclear reactions inside it melted the packed matter into a fiercely burning liquid. But the outside of this fiery ball, touching cold space, cooled off as a thin crusty skin, a bit the way homemade pudding forms a skin as it cools, or the way fat hardens on top of cooling gravy. The Earth's skin was made of rock -- a crust of rock around a hot, molten mantle of magma, with its heaviest elements at its solidifying core.
While it was still very thin, this crust melted again and again, each time letting the heaviest metal elements sink back towards the core while lighter elements formed a foam of rock around those fiery insides. Today's Earth has a thicker crust, broken up into great tectonic plates that ride on the denser mantle surrounding the solid core. We can still see the hot liquefied elements of the mantle pouring out through volcanoes puncturing the crust. And in Earthquakes we can feel the motion of the great tectonic plates as they slide about creating new geological formations.
In the myth of Gaia's dance, as her body forms mountains and valleys, the seas are formed from her warm moisture. Just so, it seems, the seas eventually pooled on the young Earth.
At first, when the Earth's crust cracked here and there, the liquid magma insides oozed out as lava. Lava, as the pressure that keeps it together is released, separates into heavy atoms that cool into more crusty rock, into water that hisses up as steam, and into other atoms light enough to float over or off the surface of the planet as gases. We now believe the water steaming off the hot crust stayed high above an early atmosphere of poisonous (from our point of view) gases for what may have been a long time, but eventually formed clouds that condensed into rain. The rain poured down so hard and for so long that the seas began pooling on top of the heavier rock. As more and more lava oozed through cracks in the Earth's crust, the crust itself grew thicker and lumpier; as new clouds gathered and fell in cycles, the seas grew ever bigger and deeper.
As the Earth's crust grew thicker, new streams of lava broke through it with greater force. Spitting volcanoes shot their fiery insides high into the air, forming mountains as the lava cooled and hot ashes settled down. More mountains were formed when Earthquakes cracked the crust and slid parts of it over one another, and when the crust heaved and bulged without breaking. Rocks sliding over one another were ground into sand and dust.
Huge dust clouds were created when meteors of all sizes -- some of them as large as small planets -- struck the Earth, smashing into the crust, pitting it, breaking it up, mixing it with the space rocks themselves.
The gases floating around the planet, those just heavy enough to be held by its gravity, were nothing like the air we breathe now. There was no oxygen, but only a mixture of gases which, had the Earth not come alive, would have eventually settled into something like the atmosphere on Venus and Mars today -- an atmosphere without oxygen around a lifeless planet.
What, then, did the Earth have that Venus and Mars did not? James Lovelock, author of the Gaia hypothesis called one of its special features the `Goldilocks effect:' Venus was too hot, Mars was too cold, but the Earth was just the right temperature for life. Another was its water, enough of it in liquid form, in this just-right temperature, to carry supplies from place to place as blood is carried through a body. The constant transport of supplies must be possible for life to evolve.
Everything of Earth's surface -- oceans and rivers, mountains and fertile fields, forests and flowers, creatures that float or fly or crawl or climb, everything, including ourselves, is actually made from the same original but recycled supplies, except for the small input of meteors. Our world has created itself as new arrangements of the same atoms that started out inside a star, then formed the molten metal, crusty rock, and gases of a newborn planet -- a planet that covered itself in seas as we have seen and is now ready to go on with its dance of life. Let's follow this great Gaian recycling system to see just how stardust continues to transform itself into a living planet -- into all the amazing complexity of our beautiful world.