Presentation by Elisabet Sahtouris
Learning from Nature to Create Global Family
I am going to be contributing my piece to the idea of creating a new civilization, talking to you about learning from nature to create our global family. I hope to show you in a very short time how nature’s life now going on for 4 billion years has learned a lot and has a lot to teach us.
I wanted to know from childhood these big questions: Who are we? Where do we come from? Where are we going? So I became a scientist—an evolution biologist, in order to understand where we are going in the future. So I am a pastist in order to be a futurist.
However, science did not answer these big questions of mine, so in mid-life in my early 40s, I went to Greece for 13 years to work on my own. I discovered that the Greeks who had founded science had called it Philos Sophias (Friend of Wisdom.) The purpose of science in ancient Greece was to study nature—not to learn how to make a consumer society, but to find guidance in human affairs so that we humans could express our fullest potential. That was exactly why I had become a scientist
So I looked back at all human cultures, noting that every one of them has had a creation story—a story that tells you where you are in the Cosmos, how you came to be, and gives you some guidance for your life. In Europe, a few centuries ago, the guiding stories had been given by religion because there was an alliance of the church and the state. But with the Industrial Revolution, which was financed by stolen gold and silver from the New World in the era of exploration, the young entrepreneurs of industry became so successful and made an alliance with the scientists to help them build an industrial world that they became the official priesthood or tellers of the creation story for our culture. This is very important that in the modern secular state for the first time we didn’t have a spiritual story of creation, but a scientific one.
This scientific story beginning in Europe with founding fathers such as Newton and Descartes is of a non-living, non-conscious, mechanical universe. We are all robots and everything is happening by accident in this universe. This worldview evolved into today’s scientific creation story, which has two main parts: physics and biology. Physics is telling us that we are in a non-living universe that is running down by entropy. This inspires people to get what you can while you can. Biology gives us the other part of our creation story saying we are doomed to an endless struggle in scarcity. Where did that idea come from?
You may have learned in school about Thomas Malthus. Thomas Malthus was the chief economist of the global multi-national East India Company of his day. He studied the earth’s resources. They knew by then that the earth was round, and that there were finite resources. He came up with a theory that the world would end soon because human population always outstrip their food supplies. Human population created agriculture for their food supplies by deciding which species were good for them and ignoring the rest. It wasn’t the way other species do things, but the East India Company now had a rationale for stealing from all over the world to get enough for the Europeans.
Meanwhile Darwin, probably on an East India Company ship, was going around the world looking at all these fantastic marvels of nature. Then he had to come up with a theory of how everything works in evolution. His grandfather had a theory of evolution before him, but he adopted Malthus theory of struggle and scarcity as his evolution theory.
This is a quote from the Origin of Species where Darwin is saying “…the universal struggle for life must be thoroughly ingrained in the mind or the whole economy of nature, with every fact on distribution, rarity, abundance, extinction, and variation, will be dimly seen or quite misunderstood” “It is the doctrine of Malthus applied with manifold force to the whole animal and vegetable kingdoms.” This is Darwin’s own statement. Interestingly, Darwin noticed cooperation in nature. He saw it everywhere. It inspired him to think that humans might really learn it. But he did not put it into his theory because it did not fit the Malthusian model.
Every time the earth has a major crisis such as an extinction, which has happened 5 or 6 times now, you don’t see slow Darwinian lineages after the extinction, but many species appear all at once because this earth is functioning as a whole. DNA is tradable among all species; plants, animals, fungi, bacteria all share the same DNA. It works as a whole. In a crisis, it takes the opportunity to create whole new organs—species as organs for the planet.
We also now know from more than half a century of scientific evidence that evolution happens when DNA intelligently reorganizes itself to do something new, planet-wide or within a single body. Yet this has not become part of the mainstream scientific story. When there are accidents, our genome must be able to identify and repair them. If the Darwinian theory is correct, it means that the genome must recognize which accident might be useful, and say don’t clean that one, don’t fix that one, and keep it until that organism can reproduce and pass it on. That’s not very likely. Science works very hard to prove that nature is not intelligent.
I call myself a post Darwinian evolution biologist because I believe life is too intelligent to proceed by accidents. Nature does not do human ‘either this or that:’ I am a democrat or a republican; I am a conservative or a radical. We make each other choose. But nature is very conservative with the things that work well and very radical when things don’t work. When there is crisis, it is opportunity for change and that is a very important lesson for us.
To understand living systems in evolution, I abstracted two patterns that make it very easy to see how things work. The first one I call a ‘Cycle of Evolution.’ You will see that it is also a cycle of maturation. It always starts with some unity but individuates. For example, the crust of the early earth was a very homogenized mass of minerals and then it packaged itself into individual bacteria. When you have individuation in nature, you always get tension and conflict. This is very natural. This is as far as Darwin got—to see the tension and conflict. But if species do not kill each other in this stage, they will begin to negotiate some of these differences. And in these negotiations, it is possible for them to resolve some problems and build cooperative schemes or systems. In the best-case scenario of evolution, this process will continue until there is a new unity at a larger size level.
I will show you another example by explaining that the first half of earth’s life was only about bacterial evolution. They evolved many lifestyles. They were very competitive. They caused worldwide crises of hunger when they ate up all the free food. They caused pollution when they started to make their own food with photosynthesis and were emitting the deadly gas of oxygen that polluted the earth. That was, however, a good technological advance because they harnessed solar energy to make food when they had run out. Then they also did things like building nuclear piles by consuming uranium and moving it out of the homogenous earth into streams of it or copper. They rearranged continental shelves. They created a whole new atmosphere. They even invented the electric motor which is now of great interest to nanotech engineers. And they created the first World Wide Web. Isn’t it interesting that our most ancient ancestors were doing all the things that we are now repeating at our larger size level?
The first World Wide Web was the information trade in DNA. To this day any bacterium on earth can trade DNA with any other and we breathe in DNA from bacteria and plasmids and they run around our bodies and we breathe them out. We are exchanging DNA all the time. Genetic engineering was not a human invention.
The first time that we went to a larger level of unity, it happened this way. Protists, which are single nucleated cells, evolved when colonies of ancient bacteria ceased their hostilities and each gave some of their DNA to the central library we call a nucleus in this much larger cell. Then you have the only other kind of cell after bacteria to evolve on the earth. That was the completion of a maturation cycle, overcoming hostilities and creating a cooperative new unity. Later in evolution, the large nucleated cells became multicelled creatures, which is the next level of forming a larger unity.
Everything in nature in our biological world is at some stage of this evolution. You can find competition and you can find cooperation as well, because they are not at the same stage of the cycle at the same time. We see these dynamic cycles of competition into cooperation.
Ecologists recognize different kinds of ecosystems and they call Type One Ecosystem pioneer species. How do they behave? They take as many resources as they can get. They take as much territory as they can get. They reproduce as fast as possible and they are very competitive in doing so. However, by the time you have a Type Three Ecosystem such as a rainforest or a prairie, you find that the species are now sharing the territory and resources and have worked out many cooperative schemes. Why is it that ecologists do not see a connection? If you ask about Type Two, you can call it transitional—some of each kind. But ecoligists don’t see a connection. This is like aliens coming to the planet and seeing children and grown-ups and think they are a different kind of species. I call the Type One young species and the Type Three mature species.
The second pattern is Holons in Holarchy—simply the embeddedness of living systems in each other. You can have a single cell within a multicelled creature within a local ecosystem that is part of a larger ecosystem. Or you might have a nice self-organizing living storm that lives within a living planet that lives within a living galaxy. That’s the idea of holarchy.
Let us look at the cycle of evolution all at once in the now and think about your own body. In your body, every molecule, every cell, every organ and the whole body has self- interest. When every level of holarchy shows its self-interest, it forces negotiations among the levels. This is the secret of nature. Every moment in your body, these negotiations drive your system to harmony because self-interest is bad only if there is no larger community self-interest to contain it. We have room for self-interest.
Now imagine that your body’s economy were run the way we run the economy of the world today. We will call the heart-lung system north of the diaphragm the Industrial Organs and give them the power to exploit the resources of the rest of the body, including bone marrow where raw material blood cells are made. They will bring this raw material up to the heart-lung system, add oxygen, purify the blood, and now you have a useful product. The heart distribution announces what the body price for blood is today and you ship it to the organs that can afford it. Not all of them can. Can our bodies stay healthy in that kind of a system? Think holarchy and you will see that every level of our system must be healthy and must express self-interest.
Globalization to me is a natural biological process toward the formation of human global family. We already see the cooperation happening in many ways. Hazel Henderson will talk after me about economics. There is cooperation in the arts, in our ability to travel, in our communications including the Internet today, in our ability to change money across cultures, our international space stations, more and more spiritual organizations such as the World Parliament of Religions getting together more often, the United Nations, scientific cooperation... These are all demonstrating that we are ready to become global family. Only one problem is that our economics are still in the juvenile Type One species mode.
If we consider ‘Glocalization,’ we can see that expressing self-interest at all levels of holarchy means the World Trade Organization cannot dictate to local economies what is not good for them. They must take into account the self-interest of every local ecosystem and economy. This is all to say that we need a world that works for everyone.
The Goi Peace Foundation’s Declaration for All Life on Earth tells us that we are all one and that we must become harmonious together. I say it is our evolutionary mandate to create sustainable global economics and truly become a global family.
I will end with a metaphor of a caterpillar becoming a butterfly as an illustration of crisis as opportunity. What happens to the caterpillar? It crunches its way through an ecosystem eating hundreds of times its own weight in a single day. Then it is so bloated having caused quite a lot of destruction, it hangs itself up. Its skin hardens into a chrysalis and in its body tiny imaginal cells begin to arise. The immune system of the caterpillar attacks these new cells. Why? Scientists now understand that the butterfly has a completely different genome carried down through evolution. It’s about a very different kind of being. So the immune system knows that these cells are going to spell its end and so it attacks them until they come up so fast, so many of them, and link up together that they overcome the immune system and the caterpillar’s body melts into a nutritive soup.
This model shows that an old world and a new world, or an old civilization and a new civilization, must coexist for a while. Those of us who come together in gatherings like this as imaginal cells linking up to do the work of building a new civilization must hope that the caterpillar does not die too soon. We must honor the civilization that gave birth to this new civilization and hope it does not collapse before we are strong enough to build the butterfly. That is my lesson. We have no choice but to build the butterfly. We do not need to worry about the old system; just hope it doesn’t collapse too fast.
Are we ready to become a mature species—to know our earth as alive and intelligent; to meet each other as facets of oneness; to create mature living economies; to share the earth’s resources fairly with each other and other species; and to truly know ourselves as spirit having a wonderful human experience? A crisis is our opportunity to build the civilization that we want.
Elisabet Sahtouris , a citizen of the United States and of Greece, is an evolution biologist, futurist, author, speaker, media personality and consultant on Living Systems Design. She uses nature's principles and practice, revealed in biological evolution, as useful models for organizational change. She applies these models in the corporate world, in global politics and economics, in an effort to create sustainable health and well being for humanity within the larger living systems of Earth.