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Living Systems in Evolution

Elisabet Sahtouris, PhD.

Presented as part of
At Home In The Universe: a symposium
on the developing dialogue between science and religion

at the
World Parliament of Religions
Capetown, South Africa,   December 1999

As an evolution biologist, my work and passion are looking at the evolving patterns of biological living systems over time in order to make sense of our present human affairs in a broad evolutionary context.  One might say that I'm a "Pastist" looking for perspective that will help me be a good Futurist.  But I have an even deeper passion, which is to understand myself, my world and the entire Cosmos in which we exist locally.

Within this broader mission I have long sought to undo the artificial barriers we have erected between Science and Spirit for historical reasons, to reveal a richer worldview or cosmovision.  I especially like the latter term -- cosmovision -- for its breadth and depth to the farthest reaches of what we can know through experience.  The word cosmos is Greek, and in Greek it means people, world or cosmos in the English sense, depending on context.  So cosmovision is a very inclusive term.

Every culture present and past has, or has had, its worldview or cosmovision.  Western science has evolved a cosmovision very different from all other human cultures, though it has become the one most influential in all the world now.  Its most obvious divergences from other cosmovisions lie in its seeing life and consciousness only in Earth's biological creatures, and in its narrowing of "reality" to what can be tested and measured scientifically.  This excludes from its reality gods, soul, spirit, dream experience, thoughts, feelings, values, passions, enlightenment experiences and many other aspects of consciousness beyond their physiological correlates.

Given that no one, neither scientist nor anyone else, has ever had any experience outside of consciousness, these omissions seem gravely limiting and unrealistic.

Nevertheless, Western science has defined the universe as an array of non-living matter and non-conscious energy -- a universe in which changes over time are due to random or accidental processes that assemble material particles, atoms and molecules into patterns within the constraints of a few physical laws. Thus random events account for life, which is seen as arising from non-life on the surface of one non-living planet, and possibly on others yet undiscovered, evolving by Darwinian random mutations and 'blind' natural selection. The origin of the universe is seen as a Big Bang and its end envisioned as the gradual wearing out of the Big Bang's spreading energy in "heat death" -- the ultimate coldness in which no further change takes place.

One way to sum up the essential difference between this western scientific cosmovision and all other human cultural cosmovisions is to see it portraying a universe in which things happen by accident rather than by intelligent design.    

The cosmovision which is the framework  in which we attempt to understand the patterns of biological evolution is enormously important.  If evolution proceeds by accident, rather than by intelligent intent, the same evidence for evolution, the same observations of it,  will be seen very very differently.  Context gives perspective, determining perception, meaning and interpretation.  And cosmovision, or worldview, is context.  Humans, for example, will be seen very differently from a religious, economic, cultural or scientific perspective.

While the western scientific worldview as described gives a satisfying picture and interpretation of nature to many scientists and persuades many others influenced by it, and while its adherents can feel awe at nature's complexity and beauty, ever larger numbers of people either cannot accept it or feel impelled to revise and expand it.  These numbers include many scientists dissatisfied with its limitations.  In fact, they are changing western science very rapidly now, toward an understanding of nature as alive, self-organizing, intelligent, conscious or sentient and participatory at all levels from subatomic particles and molecules to entire living planets, galaxies and the whole Cosmos, from local human consciousness to Cosmic Consciousness.  

The reductionist pursuit of matter to its tiniest particles broke us through to seeing all matter as disturbances of a great energy field, now called the Zero Point Energy (ZPE) field, in which everything is as dynamically interconnected as in Shiva's Dance or Indra's Net.  Furthermore, physics is now demonstrating non-locality in this ZPE, meaning that information from any spatial point in the universe is accessible at any other point, and that all events taking place in the universe at any time are accessible at any other time.

Non-locality thus implies a non-physical, non-timespace ground of being -- deeper and more essential than our mundane timespace reality -- in which everything exists as potential to be played out in our physical world and whatever other worlds exist.  I am reminded of the Kogi Indians of Colombia, saying of Aluna, their Creatrix, symbolized by water: "Through great mental anguish She lived all possible worlds before creating them; thus she is called Memory and Possibility."   And I am reminded of the Mayoruna -- the "Cat People" of the Amazon -- thought to be extinct until well-known explorer and National Geographic photographer Loren MacIntyre stumbled on them while lost in the rainforest. While living with them, MacIntyre not only learned to communicate their way -- by the telepathy he called "Amazon beaming" -- but discovered that they easily handled two concepts of time -- the eternal Now of non-timespace and linear time as we understand it.  That Now is also the Dreamtime of the Australian aborigines, the Akashic records of the esoterics and has been made accessible through ritual and meditation in many human cultures: indigenous, religious and other.

Most cultures understand the universe as conscious, and this cosmic consciousness, by various names, as the source of Creation. Now science itself is coming close to these views, through the quantum physicists' recognition that consciousness is essential to reality and somehow a deep feature of the ZPE field or an even deeper non-timespace.

Thus, our scientific cosmovision is shifting 180 degrees from the view of consciousness as a late product of material and biological evolution to the view of consciousness as the very source of material and biological evolution, as I and many of my scientific colleagues have shifted it for ourselves.

In molecular genetic biology this shift is supported by fifty years of research evidence that DNA reorganizes itself intelligently when organisms are environmentally stressed, and that the required information transfer often seems to obey some form of non-locality rather than slower chemical or electromagnetic transmission. Rather than being the sources of variation and evolution, errors known to occur in DNA during reproduction and by cosmic radiation or other accidents, are recognized at the molecular level and fixed by repair genes.  Thus we see intelligence at work not only in higher brains, but in the lowliest of bacteria and cellular components. We are thus moving toward a post-Darwinian era in evolution biology.

The earliest creatures of Earth, Archean bacteria, invented complex and diverse lifestyles, rearranged the planet's crust to produce patches of oxides (rusted earth) and pure streams of metals we mine today, including copper and uranium.  They created an entirely new atmosphere from their waste gases, especially oxygen and created huge continental shelf formations. By evolving ways to exchange DNA information among themselves around the world, we can rightly say they invented the first worldwide web of information exchange.  The importance this astoundingly flexible gene pool, which exists to this day, cannot be underestimated.  It is still as active as in Archean times and is related, for example, to  rapid bacterial resistance to our antibiotics.

Information exchange gave bacteria close relationships that facilitated both competition and cooperation in communal living.  We have known of their communal lives for some time, but only now are we able to investigate their amazing urban complexes in real detail and understand how surprisingly like our own their history was.

In what seems to us the almost unthinkably ancient past, the first half of Earth's four and a half billion year life, when bacteria still had the world to themselves, they not only discovered the advantages of communal living but even evolved sophisticated cityscapes.  We can see their huge urban complexes today as slimy films -- in wetlands, in dank closets,  in the stomachs of cows, in kitchen drains.  Scientists call them biofilms or mucilages, as they look like slimy brown or greenish patches to the unaided eye.  Only now can we discover their inner structure and functions with the newest microscopy techniques that magnify them sufficiently without destroying them (for example, confocal scanning laser microscopy).

Looking closely for the first time at intact bacterial microcities, scientists are amazed to see them packed as tightly as our own urban centers, but with a decidedly futuristic look.  Towers of spheres and cone- or mushroom-shaped skyscrapers soar 100 to 200 micrometers upward from a base of dense sticky sugars, other big molecules and water, all collectively produced by the bacterial inhabitants.  In these cities, different strains of bacteria with different enzymes help each other exploit food supplies that no one strain can break down alone, and all of them together build the city's infrastructure.  The cities are laced with intricate channels connecting the buildings to circulate water, nutrients, enzymes, oxygen and recyclable wastes.  Their diverse inhabitants live in different microneighborhoods and glide, motor or swim along roadways and canals.  The more food is available, the denser the populations become.  Researcher Bill Keevil in England, making videos of these cityscapes, says of one, "It looks like Manhattan when you fly over it."

Microbiologist Bill Costerton in Montana observes:  "All of a sudden, instead of individual organisms, you have communication, cell cooperation, cell specialization, and a basic circulatory system, as in plants or animals.... It's a big intellectual break." Researchers are coming to see colonial bacteria or even all bacteria now as multicelled creatures despite their separate bodies.

In addition to rearranging Earth's crust, creating an atmosphere, devising urban lifestyles and creating the first worldwide web, bacteria invented other amazing technologies.  Some produced polyester, though biodegradable; others harnessed solar energy as photosynthesis, permitting the making of food when it became scarce; still others invented the electric motor for locomotion -- -a disk with flagellum attached, rotating in a magnetic field, complete with ball bearings, not to mention the atomic pile, probably to raise local temperatures.   Seeing these startling parallels to human lifestyles and inventions makes us see evolution fractally.  In fact, when I fly over human cities, making them appear small, I see them as cells spread over a substrate,  or as bacterial colonies.

Some bacterial colonies, as we know, cause infections, diseases and deteriorate our teeth, our buildings and bridges.  But most bacterial cooperatives are harmless or indeed cooperative with other creatures, many living inside their guts, as in termites and cows, helping with digestion.  They maintain our worldwide habitats by renewing and chemically balancing atmosphere, seas and soils; they work for our health by the billions in our guts and have evolved into the organelles inside our cells.  

We use bacteria in our original biotechnologies of making cheese, yogurt, beer, wine, bread, soy sauce and other foods.  We harness them for newer biotechnologies: to remove contaminants from water in sewage treatment plants, to clean up our oil spills and other pollution, to refine oil, mine ores and even to make that biodegradable polyester they were making long before we were.  All our genetic engineering efforts depend on them as they do much of the work of DNA recombination in our laboratories.  

Most astonishing to investigators, communal bacteria turn on a different set of genes than their genetically identical relatives roaming independently outside of biofilms.  This gives the urban dwellers a very different biochemical makeup.  A special bacterial chemical, homoserine lactone, signals incoming bacteria to turn into city dwellers.  All bacteria constantly discharge low levels of this chemical.  Large concentrations of it in urban environments trigger the urbanizing genetic changes, no matter what strain the bacteria are.

These changes include those that make bacteria most resistant to antibiotics.  Costerton estimates that more than 99 percent of all bacteria live in biofilm communities, and finds that such communities, pooling their resources, can be up to 1,500 times more resistant to antibiotics than a single colony.   Under today's siege by antibiotics, bacteria respond with ever-new genetic immunity.  Our fifth generation of antibiotics failed in 1996.  

Researcher Eshel Ben-Jacob also finds bacteria trading genes and discovers complex interactions between individuals and their communities.  The genomes of individuals -- defined as their full set of structural and regulatory genes -- can and do alter their patterns in the interests of the bacterial community as a whole.  He observes that bacteria signal each other chemically, calculate their own numbers in relation to food supplies, make decisions on how to behave accordingly to maximize community wellbeing and collectively change their environments to their communal benefit.

Bacterial communities thus create complex genetic and behavioral patterns specific to different environmental conditions.  The genomes of individual bacteria alter their composition, arrangement and the pattern of which genes are turned on in response to changes in the environment or communal circumstances.  This important information is coming from various research laboratories.  Both Ben-Jacob and Costerton see individual bacteria gaining the benefits of group living by putting group interests ahead of their own.  Ben-Jacob concludes that colonies form a kind of supermind genomic web of intelligent individual genomes.  Such webs are capable of creative responses to the environment that bring about "cooperative self-improvement or cooperative evolution."

Einstein's worldview was shaken when some quantum physicists suggested that electrons intentionally leap orbits. Microbiologists are beginning to see similar intentional activity at systemic, cellular and molecular DNA levels. These discoveries of genomic changes in response to an organism's environment, in the context of a holistic systems view of evolution, are changing our story of how evolution proceeds in very significant ways.  We are discovering, in short, that the fundamental life forms from which all other organisms evolve are capable of both self-organization in community and self-improvement through environmental challenge.

Genomic changes in response to an organism's environment have actually been known since the 1950s, but they challenged the accepted theories of the time, so it has taken half a century to amass sufficient data to warrant changing our scientific picture of evolution accordingly.

Barbara McClintock, who did much of her work on corn plants, pioneered this research showing that DNA sequences move about to new locations and that this genetic activity increases when the plants are stressed.  She also found closed-loop molecular bits of self-reproducing DNA called plasmids moving about among the normal DNA and exchanged from cell to cell.  Plasmids were invented by ancient bacteria and persist in multicelled creatures.  They are used a great deal in genetic engineering as they can be inserted into new genomes.

McClintock's work on transposable genetic elements was verified and elaborated by many researchers until it became clear that DNA reorganizes itself and trades genes with other cells, even with other creatures. The trading process sometimes involves viruslike elements known as transposons.  Some are retrotransposons and retroviruses that transcribe their RNA into DNA -- opposite to the usual order and not thought possible before their discovery.  Some theorists now believe that bacteria may have invented viruses as well as plasmids.

1993 Nobel Laureate biologists Phillip Sharp and Richard Roberts discovered that RNA is arranged in modules that can be reshuffled by spliceosomes, referred to as a cell's "editors."   Other researchers have shown that bacteria naturally retool themselves genetically and can correct defects created by human genetic engineers.  Ancient bacteria had already evolved the ability to repair genes damaged by UV radiation.  

Further research shows that bacteria not only alter genomes very specifically in response to specific environmental pressures, but also transfer the mutations to other bacteria. Many of these genetic transfers appear to be evolutionarily related to 'free-living' viruses, according to Temin and Engels in England.  Retroviruses are known to infect across species and enter the host's germline DNA.  

We are still in early stages of understanding the extent to which DNA is freely traded in the world of microbes to benefit both individuals and their communities.  And we are just beginning to see these processes of genetic alteration at cellular levels as intelligent responses to changing environmental conditions in multicelled creatures. We know viruses and plasmids carry bits of DNA from whales to seagulls, from monkeys to cats, and so on, but it remains to be understood whether all this transfer is random or meaningful.

Most research in this area is still confined to microbes in which these matters are easier to study.  As yet we do not know to what extent DNA trading occurs in creatures larger than microbes, nor to what extent it facilitates specific responses to environmental conditions.  For that matter, we still do not know what the vast proportion of multicellular creature DNA does at all.  Depending on the particular plant or animal species, only 1% to 5 or 10% (in humans) -- codes for proteins.  The remaining 90 to 99% remains a mystery! So our stories are far from complete, but it seems reasonable to hazard the guess that nature would not have evolved an evolutionary strategy as sophisticated as gene trading to facilitate evolution billions of years ago only to abandon it in evolving larger creatures.

When we see that genomes respond to stress in many different species, from microbes to plants and animals, with the changes passed on to succeeding generations, as Jeffrey Pollard in England has reported, we are closer to the much discredited Lamarck than to Darwin.  Pollard tells us we are seeing "dramatic alterations of developmental plans independent of natural selection," which itself may "play a minor role in evolutionary change, perhaps honing up the fit between the organism and its environment."

This growing body of evidence suggests that evolution may proceed much faster under stress than was thought possible.  It also reveals how the worldwide web of  DNA information exchange invented by ancient bacteria still functions today, not only among bacteria as always, but also within multicelled creatures and among species.  As Lynn Margulis puts it: "Evolution is no linear family tree, but change in the single multidimensional being that has grown to cover the entire surface of Earth."

Margulis meant the multidimensional being of an interwoven biological network.  But  let's look at this concept of multidimensional being in an even broader sense.   Physicists discovered an astounding interconnectivity and interdependence among all the particles of our material universe, with each particle actually created by the others, just as Buddhist monk  Thich Nat Han tells us that a sheet of paper is everything that it is not, showing us how we can trace the paper to its source in factory and forest, the workers and woodcutters, their families and so on to all things interconnected.  Now biologists are showing us the same interconnectedness among bacteria and larger organisms, in ecosystems and in the Earth as a whole living entity.  Earth continually recycles its matter into new organisms through the great recycling system of erupting magma cooling into rock, transforming into creatures,  eventually into sediment and back into rock and molten magma as tectonic plates slide beneath each other and back into the Earth's fiery depths below the continents.

My co-author Willis Harman once said, "If consciousness is anywhere in the universe, it must be everywhere. "  The easiest way to understand this is to see that consciousness is a fundamental property of the source of all being, as more and more physicists believe it to be.   This consciousness is a vital dimension of being, more fundamental than energy or matter.  

I like to think of creaturehood as life music played on a keyboard, with consciousness or spirit represented by the high keys, electromagnetic energy as the mid-range and matter as the low keys.  With this metaphor, we see that Einstein showed us how to transpose the music of the mid-range to the low range and back, with his simple equation E = MC2.  Now we are seeking the key to transposing from the high keys into the world of matter, via electromagnetic energy, through the ZPE field, formerly called the Plenum by the Greeks, the ether by Europeans and the Implicate Order by physicist David Bohm.   I participate in many different discussion groups on this subject, mostly with other scientists, all of us asking: "If consciousness is the source of creation, just how does it transmute into our measurable electromagnetic energy?  What are the properties of electromagnetic energy that we do not yet understand?  What keys lie in the ZPE range?"

I said earlier that western science is changing very rapidly now, toward an understanding of nature as alive, self-organizing, intelligent, conscious or sentient and participatory at all levels from subatomic particles and molecules to entire living planets, galaxies and the whole Cosmos, from local human consciousness to Cosmic Consciousness.   

In this newer framework or cosmovision, biological evolution is holistic,  intelligent and purposeful.  Notions such as entropy in a non-living universe, running down to its death, no longer apply.  Rather we see a living universe, with a metabolism like that in our bodies, with its continual creation from the ZPE as anabolism, while  entropy can now be seen as catabolism -- continual dissolution for purposes of recycling.  In this version entropy does not lead to the death of the universe because the universe is capable of replenishing itself continually.    

Evolution from the perspective of linear time displays cycles that ever move upward, reflecting the complex spiraling paths of planets and stars and galaxies.  Each cycle begins with some form of unity dividing into diversity, leading it to conflict, which then moves into negotiations and resolution in a higher lever of cooperative unity.  

The ancient bacteria diversified from the unity of a new planet's crustal mixture of elements, moving them about as they invented new forms and lifestyles.  They competed with each other for resources as they caused major planetwide problems such as starvation and global pollution.  They invented new technologies to solve them, but finally had to negotiate and learn to cooperate in communities and in the ultimate symbiotic bacterial community which became the first "multi-creatured cell" -- the nucleated cell -- a new unity at a higher level of complexity.  

From this nucleated cell,  new diversity emerged as many kinds of single cells competed, negotiated and finally cooperated as multicelled creatures.   From this new level of unity, all other creatures diversified, competed and negotiated their way into harmonious ecosystems.   The best life insurance for any species in an ecosystem is to contribute usefully to sustaining the lives of other species, a lesson we are only beginning to learn as humans.

Today we humans are repeating this process in amazing detail, in what we have come to recognize as globalization.  Human history repeats evolutionary history, with all its problems and technological solutions -- diversification from the unity of the earliest human family, all the old patterns of competition and negotiation played out in wars, conquests and assimilations for the thousands of years in which we have built the empires of individual rulers, then of nations and now of corporations.  Finally we recognize that we need a cooperative world -- unity at a higher level, a new multi-creatured cell the size of our entire planet.  And gradually we see that just as our beautifully evolved body cannot be healthy if one or more organs are ill, so our global economy can thrive only if all local economies are healthy as well.  Thus we become concerned with the ecosystems we have damaged and with the economic inequities we must solve.

How fascinating that just as we evolve this pattern of globalization in recognition of our need for harmony with each other and with other species, we also awaken to our "full keyboard" selves, to our identity as spirit having a human experience, striving to understand the ultimate unity from which we sprang!   What ancient mystics and religious prophets and saints taught is now becoming widespread.  Thus, our new negotiations toward cooperation are not only reflected in economic globalization and out own worldwide web -- -the Internet -- -but in many efforts to globalize friendly conversation among the world's religions.  In this process we move from religious conflicts to cooperation, in part by recognizing that ultimate unity, that cosmic consciousness, that ground of being, as the source of all "God" concepts.  This conference, as the third Parliament of World Religions, is a prime example of this process.  

The barriers between science and spirit are dissolving as scientists find cosmic consciousness in a non-local, non-time energy field that transmutes itself into electromagnetic energy, and, in turn, matter, in the creation of universes such as ours, as we have seen. Presumably it can also create itself -- self organize -- into other pure energy patterns in a myriad ways, including angelic realms, for example, and all the "worlds" we may exist in between lives, and eternally.  

This Creative Source has been called "I Am" from the perspective of the local consciousness in beings such as you and me, when we practice meditation to expand our little consciousnesses into the Cosmic Consciousness of which they are part.  In this state we not only perceive union with God, we may even transcend our local selves such that we recognize ourselves as God.

From a linear time perspective, our universe appears to be a learning universe.  I like to say its basic principle is "Anything that can happen, will happen," and so it learns what works well and what doesn't.  Evolution can thus be seen as an improvisational dance, keeping the steps that work and changing those that don't.  God-as-Cosmic-Consciousness becomes Cosmic Consciousness transmuting into material universes.  Perhaps we could say that in this process even God learns to know the nature of Self by exploring all possible forms and states of being and reflecting on those "selves,"   just as we, God's human reflections, learn to do.  

Cosmic Consciousness, then,  begins as Unity and divides into Complexity a stage at a time as it embodies itself in such vast varieties of energetic and material forms as we see in biological evolution, for example,  from our human perspective of linear time.  In its non-timespace Source, which some physicists now identify as the more fundamental nature of the universe, all these possibilities exist together in complexity inconceivable to us humans.  

I believe each life comes with the freedom to choose a path through these endless possibilities at a myriad choice points along its way, just as every particle weaves its trajectory through timespace.  Every organism composed of and playing on its full keyboard from pure consciousness to matter, can theoretically be led in its development by its ultimate goal. The acorn can know the oak tree it will become, as we can know the higher selves toward which we evolve.

All nature is thus conscious in my worldview or cosmovision, and all of it has access to non-timespace; all of it is an aspect of God. Only we humans of western culture have played the game of cutting ourselves off from the Great Conversation that our very cells can still hear!  I have come to believe, like many of my indigenous teachers, that soils, waters, organisms, ecosystems, Earth, even DNA itself, all know themselves in relation to the whole play of universal evolution as our cells know each other and our whole bodies in evolution, behaving intelligently to maintain themselves and that whole.  Only this way can I understand how my own body, in its tremendous complexity, functions and preserves its health.   

Perhaps God, through western technological culture, is trying out the most dangerous game of all -- the game of truly forgetting our nature.  A great risk, but it had to be done to try all possibilities!  It seems our human task now is to wake up and recognize ourselves as parts or aspects of God-as-Nature and behave accordingly.  All are One, all harm harms each of us, all blessings bless each of us.  What a guideline for choice!

Suppose we remind ourselves occasionally to see ourselves as the creative edge of God (a phrase I learned from a dear friend) -- as God looking out through our eyes, acting through our hands, walking on our feet, in exploration of the new -- -and to observe how that changed things for us.

This is the scientific worldview as I see it when the barriers are removed, expanding it to include the larger cosmovision traditionally relegated to religions.  It is the view that makes sense to me at this point in my lifetime of exploration.  We have only our stories to go by, and each must necessarily be at least somewhat, if not radically, different -- for God/Cosmic Consciousness has become very complex, though always an eternal Unity.  

I pray that all the religions will recognize the importance of the uniqueness in each story and the unity of All That Is.  I pray that scientists, who have been given the role of "official" priesthood, with the mandate to tell us "how things are," will soon officially recognize that there is one alive, intelligent universe in which spirit and matter are not separable and in which creation is continuous.  I pray the indigenous people who never separated science and spirituality will be honored for that.  It is time for the true communion which alone can save our species and all others, which alone can bring about the perfectly possible world we all dream of -- a world expressing this understanding of ourselves as the creative edge of God!

Elisabet Sahtouris, Ph.D.   is an internationally known American/Greek evolution biologist and futurist, author, speaker and consultant on Living Systems Design.  She has taught at the University of Massachusetts and M.I.T., was a science writer for the HORIZON/ NOVA TV series, a United Nations consultant on indigenous peoples and is a member of the United Religions Initiative.  Her current focus is on evolution biology as a model for organizational change; her recent books are Biology Revisioned, co-authored with Willis Harman,  A Walk Through Time: From Stardust to Us and EarthDance: Living Systems in Evolution.

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