Evolution biologist Elizabeth Sahtouris explains how our scientific worldview bears significant responsibility for the ecological crisis we face today, yet it also has the ability help us unravel these problems. She envisions a scenario in which science leads the way out of ecological crisis, uniting us into a flourishing global community.
The ancient Greek word for science was philosophy –philos sophias, lover of wisdom. This name was intended to set science on a course of searching for wisdom, for practical guidance in human affairs, through understanding the natural order of the cosmos to which we belong. It was exactly this search that drew me to study science and continues to motivate me, though it was a long time before I found other scientists who shared it, so many of them having accepted the belief that science should be neutral – free of values and social intent – or that its new technologies are all humanity needs to solve its problems and continue its ‘progress’.
I became an evolution biologist, a student of life with a very long-term perspective. Evolution fascinates me because it gives meaning to humanity in an awesomely grand context and offers guidance for our future. But my even broader lifelong passion as a scientist is to make sense of everything in my entire experience of self, world and cosmos. I yearn for a new and inclusive scientific model of reality that does not separate my experience of the physical world from my spiritual experience of life, my heart’s life story from that of my mind.
Ever working towards this new worldview, I seek out other scientists, philosophers, clergy and broad-minded people as friends and colleagues, continually seeking new insights and angles for a model of reality that can serve everyone, and that can be understood and loved by anyone in our whole global community – a truly meaningful story of reality that guides us to lead fulfilling lives, both individually and together in the context of our beautiful and sacred Earth.
Everything in our human experience takes place within our consciousness and is shared as social reality through stories. In our scientific story the Earth evolves as its creatures evolve, and as we humans evolve so do our endeavors, from governance to the arts, education to law, science to religion. Historically, every culture has had its religion, with a priesthood that explained reality in terms of their religious beliefs. In today’s dominant world culture, however, science explains reality in terms of scientists’beliefs, and science is given the role and responsibility of a supreme priesthood above and beyond the myriad belief systems of the human race.
The difference between religious and scientific ‘realities’ lies in the difference between revelation and research. In any religion the story of reality – of ‘How and Why Things Are’– comes through revelation to certain people who write or inspire texts and develop a following, carrying the story to succeeding generations of believers. In science, the story of ‘How and Why Things Are’ is arrived at by people trained to propose and test models of Nature that become scientific reality. The models (or theories) suggest questions to be answered by experimental tests, to see whether the model is valid, and to gain clues for revising it if it proves not to be.
Science is thus expected to change, while in practice that is not so easy. Religion is expected not to change, which in practice is not so easy either. Ultimately there is pressure on both to evolve as the Earth and its people evolve.
Resistance to change among scientists is deeply rooted in holding unquestioned but fundamental assumptions – in forgetting that these assumptions did not come by cosmic revelation, but that European men of science devised them. They were men enamoured of machinery, projecting their own engineering expertise onto God by calling Him ‘the Grand Engineer’, and thus seeing Nature as lifeless machinery. Later, when they decided they had no need of God and made science a completely secular venture, the concept of machinery without an inventor forced them to believe natural machinery could assemble itself by accident. Their fundamental assumptions, therefore, were belief in a mechanical universe, a great cosmic clockwork assembled from the bottom up by accidental collisions of particles into atoms, atoms into molecules, and so on, all the way up to galaxies, galactic clusters, and the whole universe itself. Just like manmade machinery rusts and disintegrates if left to its own devices, they ‘proved’ by the Law of Entropy that this lifeless, non-intelligent, unconscious mechanical universe was running down to its ultimate cold death of nothingness.
In the life sciences, evolution theory placed man squarely into the natural world, where the notion of ‘survival of the fittest’ had huge social implications. It justified our taking everything we could from Nature – now seen as a collection of our ‘natural resources’–in an aggressive and competitive struggle to get what we can while we can in this meaningless, entropic universe. Thus children were chained to machines for the sake of profits, wars were fought over resources, the holocaust was designed to weed out the ‘unfit’ and the quarterly bottom line is our newest competitive tyranny, preventing corporate CEOs from being accountable to planet and people in their drive to maximise financial profit.
Now, as we progress through a new century at the beginning of a new millennium, we find ourselves stuck in a scientific worldview that leads us into ever more devastating modes of existence without any guidance toward wisdom.
Global warming and other disruptions of Earth’s weather systems and climate, mass starvation and disease epidemics, ever-increasing threats of nuclear, religious, oil and water wars, environmental toxins and waste buildup, genetic engineering disasters, soil degradation and erosion, water pollution, increased discrepancies between extremes of poverty and wealth (the list goes on), all vie for status in our arsenal of species suicide weapons. Yet, we know in our hearts and minds and in our very bones that crisis looms so large now that we can no longer ignore it, that things must change before it is too late.
As overwhelming as these crises may be, their solutions are simpler than meets the eye. While ‘waking up’ is usually framed in a spiritual context, I would like to propose a scientific context for it. If the science in which I was trained, the science that defines our basic understanding of the world we live in, bears much responsibility for the trouble we are in, then it also has a huge and golden opportunity to unravel and help solve the problem. Therefore, I will envision a scenario in which science leads the way out of our global problems and helps unite us into the flourishing global community I believe is on Earth’s evolutionary agenda for humanity.
Imagine that a global retreat of leading scientists is held for one ‘sabbatical’ year on a Greek Island, named The Second Socratic Symposium. The outcome of this symposium is a manifesto that officially changes the fundamental assumptions of the scientific worldview and its entire model of reality. This manifesto is put into popular language and broadcast throughout the world’s media…
The world learns that scientists now recognise that all human experience occurs within consciousness and we cannot therefore perceive any ‘objective’ reality outside consciousness. Subsequently, the model of a lifeless, mindless mechanical universe outside human experience must be rejected as a false construct. The new model acknowledges that the only appropriate definition of reality is the sum total of direct human experience, perceived both as a world of ‘outer experience’, and as a world of ‘inner experience’. Taking inner experience as seriously as outer, science seeks information to inspire experiment from current religions and past cultures such as Vedic, Taoist, Kototama and indigenous traditions that have ancient experience in studying perceived inner worlds, thus building important bridges with spiritual traditions.
From this new perspective, science accepts consciousness as a fundamental assumption in its model of a reality in which everything perceivable self-organises and creates itself. Because self-creation (autopoiesis) is the definition of life, the new scientific model is of a living, intelligent universe from a human perspective.
Alternative medicine becomes mainstream and psychology gains a context of cosmic consciousness, which sees each individual consciousness as a unique perspective on knowing the whole. Many conferences are organised to further integrate religious and scientific worldviews, while respecting their diversity and individual evolution. A whole new branch of investigation into the ongoing communion and conscious co-creation among all species and life forms develops, with special attention on indigenous knowledge in this field.
Perhaps most importantly, evolution biology goes beyond the Darwinian model of species evolution through competitive struggle in scarcity, recognising that this is merely an immature level of development in which species compete aggressively to establish themselves, before they learn to form cooperative alliances in which they feed and nurture each other to build complex, stable ecosystems, such as rainforests. The new model shows that Earth’s greatest crises brought about her biggest waves of creativity, each extinction followed by a sudden explosion of new life forms.
All the symposium results leading to the new models have in fact already come out of research in physics, chemistry, biology, medicine and psychology over the past century, but the old model of a non-living universe has blinded most scientists to understanding their implications in a holistic context.
As soon as the new scientific model is publicised there is an outburst of hope and joy –we have always known from experience that rigidified structures do not change without shaking their very foundations. A butterfly cannot be born without the destruction of a caterpillar. The phoenix rises from the ashes. Whole cultures had to collapse before new ones arose; countries destroyed in wars emerged in shiny new forms; philosophies and beliefs have been challenged and dissolved throughout history, so that new ones could take their place.
The new story of species maturation into peaceful cooperation is a powerful catalyst for the billions who long for a peaceful world. New projects for building global family through cooperative enterprises flourish around the globe as the Internet weaves them together. With science promoting a model of living systems embedded within one another, operating by the same principles at all size levels, it becomes easy to relate healthy families and communities to a healthy global economy, in which everyone’s needs are met. Diversity becomes recognised as essential to creativity, and humanity moves into mature cooperation and mutual sustainability.
Recognising the need to replace oil with alternative energies, science leads the way into massive development of solar, hydrogen and other forms of benign power, as well as the conversion of industry from the extremely wasteful heat, beat, treat methods of hydrocarbon-based production, to follow nature’s lead in carbohydrate-based production with zero waste.
Every Christian has already been taught to value service to others over wealth and status, and to turn the other cheek when attacked. Muslims have been taught to do good to others and refrain from wrongdoing in daily life. The ancient Golden Rule of virtually all ancient cultures –Do unto others as you would have them do unto you –is finally recognised as the normal way of being for a mature species. The Dalai Lama has stressed that multiple religions are an excellent way to meet the needs of diverse humans and that kindness is the universal spiritual practice that we can all embrace.
It becomes clear that science and spirituality have only temporarily been separated. All humans want to be loved, understood and cared for – we know how to treat each other well, but the old scientific model taught us that life had no meaning and was an individual struggle before it all ended in nothingness. The new scientific model, like a gust of fresh air, has an impact as sudden and positive as the fall of the Berlin Wall, the demise of Soviet communism and the release of Nelson Mandela from prison, only vastly greater than all of these put together.
Nowhere is the wake-up call so dramatic as in the United States’ government, which reconsiders its constitution in light of the new scientific worldview. The President makes it clear that the US will do everything in its democratic power to be a model global family member, beginning with unilateral disarmament and the prompt conversion of all military bases to educational, health and conflict resolution centers.
More women are urged to run for political office in recognition of their perspective. At the forefront of domestic and foreign policy is the transition from fossil fuels to clean green energy, the rich countries helping the poor to ensure that it can be achieved everywhere. Armaments including nuclear weapons and all war materials are outlawed worldwide. The Earth Charter is ratified universally, ecocide becomes global law and full support is given to the World Court in The Hague.
Jubilation is instantaneous around the world. Big corporations trip over one another in their race to become more sustainable and more accountable to people and planet. Cooperative ventures among religions mushroom as never before. It is as though a hurricane has swept away an old world in deep trouble and freed the hearts and minds of people who eagerly embrace the new cosmic vision.
Is it possible? My faith in the conscious cosmos brings me a resounding and joyful‘Yes!’ I believe we are all a continuum of conscious energy, rising like a keyboard from the slow waves of the physical into the highest frequency waves of spirit, so I shall continue to play my whole keyboard, with every blessed cell in my body, and with my whole heart and mind until it is so.