Humanity in crisis, sustainability, learning from living systems
You may wonder what an evolution biologist is
doing on a "World
Commission for Global Consciousness and Spirituality" and
that certainly is an interesting question. Because I wouldn't have
guessed myself that I would be doing this kind of work. But trained
as a western scientist I came to feel that the world view I was
taught was too narrow, like a suit one had outgrown, and was searching
for the broader context for what a Western science would be. I've
been working on that now for quite a few decades and have come to
the view that consciousness is not a late emergent product of a
material evolution but the exact opposite, the source of all material
evolution. So I've come to believe that spirituality and science
were separated only for historic reasons and that it's time now
to reunite them in a single world view that can encompass the best
of our spiritual traditions and the best of our scientific traditions.
When you do that as a biologist, as I am, you
come to the view of a living universe rather than this strange concept
among human cultures that western science came to, that we're in
a non-living universe; a mechanical, celestial mechanics if you
like, that's running down by entropy and in which, by some miracle,
life emerged from non-life, consciousness from non-consciousness,
intelligence from non-intelligence. Those have been the stickiest
problems for western science. While many western scientists have
convinced themselves that there really are explanations for chemistry
coming out of non-life and producing life, I did not find that satisfying.
We have a new definition of life in biology in
the last few decades called autopoesis which means that a living
entity is one that continually creates itself. This is very unlike
a machine which is created from the outside by an inventor, given
its rules of operation, and usually in a hierarchic arrangement
and has to be reinvented to have generations of technology rather
than being able to reinvent itself in an evolutionary trajectory.
So when I looked at that definition of autopoesis I said "What's
the simplest entity I can think of that continually creates itself?"
What I came to was a whirlpool in water. It holds a form through
a constant intake of new water and lets out what it no longer needs.
Very like a human body: we eat food, drink water and breathe in
air. We continually renew all our molecules, cells and organs and
we hold a recognizable form through that process, letting go of
what we no longer need.
So I began to see a continuity between the vortex
form in proto-galactic clouds all over our cosmos, the galaxy that
we ourselves live in; the self creation of Earth over time, which
was initially a stardust ball of heavier elements, and then cooling
on the outside, magma inside, began to turn itself inside out, magma
coming through to the surface then crustal plates forming and melting
again into the magma as they move and shift. If you could see a
picture of Earth in a few hours, as it's been from the beginning,
you'd have no doubt that this is a living entity constantly changing
and recreating itself, and evolving evermore complexities. Three-quarters
of its life was devoted just to microbial life and then the big
multi-celled creatures came in. The Earth itself is like a giant
cell. Even Redwoods have just a thin skin of what we call biological
life on its surface. The rest of it isn't alive by our definition.
And yet we think of the whole tree as alive. So the planet with
its thin skin of biological activity also seems to be a self-creating
kind of cell.
Looking at its evolution over time I came to ask
the questions of who are we humans in this context? Where do we
come from? Where are we headed? What's going on for us now? The
obvious thing about humanity today is that we're in huge crisis,
that we've created enormous crises in economics, in politics, in
spirituality, in just about every area of human life. Besides destroying
our eco-systems in the process of developing our technologies. So
we're asking ourselves now where do we go from here? How do we solve
this? We've got global warming. We've got pollution, we're sharing
it all over the globe. Our political boundaries don't keep it away
from each other. We have to develop global family. We have to engage
in this process of globalization. That is our evolutionary trajectory
How do we globalize? How do we shift [a] non-sustainable
way of life to a sustainable way of life? If we know something is
unsustainable it means it can't last and we have to reinvent it.
Our job now is to see if we can acquire a world view in which we
start with cosmic consciousness (because no human has ever had an
experience outside of consciousness) and then recognize that our
direct experience is always now and that reality has to be the sum
total of human experience. How do we build a scientific model of
that? You see we can't build an objective model of the world out
there. We can only build a model of our experience. And our experience
at present is how to get out of crisis.
Looking at living systems over time, I came
to understand that they all go through a cycle that's very like
our psychological maturation cycles. We start with a unity, we're
undifferentiated, we come into the world new. And then individuation
happens. We have many experiences. We branch out in many directions.
And humanity, as it diversified and had more and more people, created
more and more conflict. Exactly as the early Earth differentiated
into bacteria and then they developed different lifestyles and they
became competitive. They invented technologies in order to carry
out their hostilities. They created enormous problems including
global hunger and global pollution. And had to solve those eventually
by negotiating differences, moving on around the cycle, and working
out cooperative schemes that ultimately lead the ancient bacteria
that ruled for the first half of Earth's life to form a new kind
of cell as a community of different lifestyle bacteria working together.
That's the nucleated cell that we're made of, that all these trees
are made of, all the beings in the waters are made of. Everything
see around us are made of this wonderful big cooperative cell.
Now humanity is going through the biggest event
since the time that bacteria formed the nucleated cell because we're
now trying to form the body of humanity around the globe. Seeing
that other species matured out of a youthful competitive phase into
a mature cooperative phase means everything to us now. The Darwinian
story only goes to the adolescent part where there's hostile competition.
You take all you can get. You fight your enemy. You try to out-do
him or try to bump him off and that's what makes you survive.
But that's not what sustainability is all about.
Sustainability happens when species learn to feed each other instead
of fight each other. You get mature ecosystems such as rainforests
and prairies where you have far more cooperation than you have hostile
competition. You can still have friendly competition, but that's
very different. So I see humanity doing exactly this right now.
We of the western culture who divorced ourselves from nature saying
"We're separate. That's nature out there. Let's see how we
can exploit it to our purposes." Interestingly, we're the species
who invented the concept of entropy and we're the one who creates
it, who deteriorates eco-systems while the other species are building
them up. So we have a great deal to learn from nature and by recognizing
that our conscious experience is of other beings, is of teachers
in nature that we can learn from and gain hope from. If bacteria
could do it without benefit of brain, can't we [do it] as humans
with big brains?
Crisis of economics, WTO, GM foods, interconnectedness, butterfly
metaphor and body economics
In addition to this maturation cycle I see in
evolution, it's also very important to recognize the embedded-ness
of living systems within each other. Our bodies are made up of cells
within organs, within organ systems, within a whole body and we
can see that every level within this holarchy (these are holons
within a holarchy - terminology from Arthur Koestler), we can
see that the self-interest of every level can be expressed and that
what happens is that pushes negotiations towards a cooperative overall
system. So self-interest is good as long as its contained by the
self-interest of a community. You see, that makes us always be aware
of other levels. If we can learn this as humans to say when we're
making a decision: Is this good for me, my family, for my ecosystem,
for my nation for my world? And then if it's good at some levels
and at least harmless at others, like the Hippocratic oath "Do
No Harm" then go ahead and try it. You're a creative human
In evolution we see that every time the Earth
has had a huge crisis like an extinction then afterwards we have
had an explosion of new life. Not slow accidental Darwinian lineages.
But an explosion of all kinds of new life like the Cambrian explosion
where suddenly multi-celled creatures appear in the evolutionary
record. Many different types at once. Or after the last extinction
with the dinosaurs, when extinct we see a flowering of all the different
kinds of mammals afterwards. Not one giving rise to the other but
many chains of them emerging at once. Human creativity now is our
big crisis. And we are causing the latest big extinction. We're
extinguishing creatures faster than that meteor that caused the
extinction of the dinosaurs. This is a big crisis, a huge crisis
that we've created. And we have to let all the different cultures
express their self-interest and their understanding of the situation.
What we have now in the world (because our biggest
problem is economics) is a World Trade Organization (WTO) that's
trying to dictate to other countries how they should behave economically. What they can produce and what they can export. What we have
to recognize is that we need glocalisation rather than globalization.
Local and global flourishing at once. So if the WTO functions at
the expense of the local economies, it's just like a body trying
to run at the expense of its cells. That awareness has to come about
that the negotiations of the cycle can happen simultaneously among
levels of a body or a world economy.
We also have some practices in our world economy
today that don't work very well like Genetically Modified (GM) foods. DNA is a worldwide information system and genes, which are pieces
of DNA, are tradable among all creatures. My genes and the genes
of a plant are interchangeable. I breathe in new genes all the time
in viruses all the time - in bacteria, in plasmics, in prions -
all kinds of them are flowing through my body all the time. And
it appears that we have an intelligent genome. We know now there
are what biologists call repair genes. When there's accidental damage
to the genome it is immediately repaired.
Otherwise these errors would build up and you
wouldn't be able to function for a whole lifetime. We now know there
are editor genes when DNA is copied that make sure it's copied correctly.
There are repair genes fixing any damage done so again we have to
give up the Darwinian notion that evolution occurs through accidents
and trust that the genome is intelligent. We see it's intelligent.
We have a hundred trillion cells in our bodies
and each one of them has thirty thousand recycling centres renewing
our proteins. They're so hi-tech that they can take in a protein,
disassemble it, build a new protein (perhaps an entirely different
kind) and issue the new protein. That's as if we could stick trees
into a chipper machine and get a live tree out the other side. Very
hi-tech! We're not nearly as hi-tech yet, as our own internal microworld.
We have a great deal to learn from nature. Take
economics. If we ran our bodies' economy the way our economy is
run it might look something like this. We could call the heart-lung
system the "northern industrial organs". You give them
ownership of the bones in which you mine the raw material blood
cells that arise in the marrow. Sweep them up here to the northern
industrial organs. Purify the blood as actually happens. Add oxygen
and then the heart distribution centre announces "The body
price for blood today is so much. Who will buy?" And you ship
the blood to the organs that can afford it and not all can. This
is the situation we have economically in the world today. You can
see that a living system can't function that way.
Getting back to GM foods. DNA has been traded from ancient times
in the bacterial world among species.
But it's an intelligent trading system and it
knows what to take in, what not to take in, what to release. When
we started to implant genes in other genomes, first of all we harnessed
bacteria and viruses that were capable of carrying DNA into cells
to do the work for us and we plant the genes in that way. Then the
next time we looked at what was happening in those plants that were
modified that way, we saw that gene was gone, it had disappeared.
So it took many years to figure out how to get genes to stay in
place when we put them in there. Unfortunately, our genetic "engineers"
think that you can stick a new screw in place in the machine and
change it that way. But it's not a mechanical system. Genomes
are intelligent systems and can detect the gene that doesn't belong
and get rid of it. So they were throwing the genes out.
What we do now, essentially, is to shoot them in under pressure
with a kind of crazy glue attached and force the genomes to accept
these genes. The good research is showing that the whole organism
reacts in the same way flesh hardens and gets red around a splinter.
The entire organism can be disrupted by this because its passed
to all its cells. We find that for rats, fed on genetically modified
foods versus natural ones, their organs begin to shrink and go leathery.
But research scientists who discover these few things we know about
it tend to get fired because the research is usually funded by the
big corporations that are doing the work.
So we're in trouble with genetically modified
food. In Mexico the wild stocks of corn are now polluted. Even though
the company scientists said the pollen wouldn't carry the modified
genes that far, but it did. In Canada we have farmers sued for
having genetically modified crops in their fields when they did
not steal or plant them. They blew in on the wind. In the United
States we can no longer guarantee organic soy or corn because the
stocks are so polluted. So the genie's out of the bottle, and we
can't stop it. Europe is being much more sensible in rejecting these
foods because the research on their effects on people over time
are absolutely inadequate. We do know that some of the GM foods
are interfering with people's medications. It's certainly enough
to warrant a ceasefire on this until we know far more about it and
until we understand life better and possibly can make good use of
such technologies, learning from the natural world that's been trading
genes for so long.
The really exciting thing about being alive today
is that we're all here for a great transformation. It's clear that
we're unsustainable. We have to change things and we're figuring
out how. And in a sense the old system is getting more entrenched,
more violent, more powerful. It's trying to keep itself alive while
we know that we need a new system.
The best metaphor I've found about this situation
comes from the biological world again. It's the metamorphosis of
a caterpillar into a butterfly. If you see the old system as a caterpillar
crunching it's way through the eco-system, eating up to three hundred
times its weight in a single day, bloating itself until it just
can't function anymore, and then going to sleep with its skin hardening
into a chrysalis. What happens in its body is that little imaginal
disks (as they're called by biologists) begin to appear in the body
of the caterpillar and its immune system attacks them. But they
keep coming up stronger and they start to link with each other.
As they connect, as they link with each other, they mature into
fully-fledged cells and more and more of them aggregate until the
immune system of the caterpillar just can't function any more. At
that point the body of the caterpillar melts into a nutritive soup
that can feed the butterfly.
I love this metaphor because it shows us why,
first of all, we who want to change the world are co-existing with
the old system for a while and why there's no point in attacking
the old system because you know the caterpillar is unsustainable
so it's going to die. What we have to focus on is "can we build
a viable butterfly?" A butterfly that really can fly because
that's not guaranteed.
We can put our energy into building all the alternative
ways of doing things that we know we want for a loving world. The
kind of world we talk about in this Commission. How do we wake people
up to understand that we're spiritual beings having human experiences?
We can learn from nature how to go about this process of evolution
that's called for today. We can build alternatives to the old models
of education, of law, of healthcare. All of this we're doing. We
know we can function as a global family because we've got communication
systems that are global. Even if wars are going on we see that we
can send faxes and make phone calls and be on the internet. The
internet, by the way, functions like a real self-organizing living
system. You have to tolerate a lot of chaos in that situation
to see the good things emerging, to see us connecting more and more
and that's happening.
So I have tremendous hope for all of us humans
together, using our creative technology, our computers, in order
to link each other -- linking our minds, our concepts, our visions.
Above all we need a very powerful vision to hold that butterfly
image for us. To know where we want to go. Because the old system
is very clear about what it wants. And we really do create our realities
out of our beliefs. If we don't believe in a positive world
in which all humans are liberated to express their creativity, we
cannot build it. We must hold the vision very clearly and then go
about doing whatever each of us loves doing most, knowing that the
others will do the other parts. None us has to do the whole thing.
Together we can really make it happen.