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Living Systems in Evolution

Elisabet Sahtouris

copyright © 1999 by Elisabet Sahtouris


What the Play Is All About


Earlier we said that humans are the only species in the play of life that can think about and try to understand what the play is all about. Yet we are just now forming a scientific worldview in which we understand our world holistically -- as a whole made of interconnected parts. We are just beginning to understand how we are related to all the other players in our planetary holarchy of holons; to understand that we are new players in Gaian creation -- new players with the responsibility of exercising the freedom of choice our big brain gives us in ways that will keep the play going for all of us.

This idea of humans as part of one huge cosmic play, with freedom we must learn to use responsibly, is actually not new, but ancient. The Hindu Vedists and Chinese Taoists understood things this way, as did Homer and the first Greek poet to write plays surviving to the present -- Aeschylus, who lived in the fifth and sixth centuries B.C. The plays of Aeschylus are all about the role of humans in their social and natural world -- all about the human task of making responsible choices within the situations and limits set by the world of human society within the larger natural cosmos.

In fact, this playwright's layered cosmos can easily be seen as a natural order of holons in a holarchy. Aeschylus understood how each human choice in behavior affects not only the doer but the doer's family, society, and the larger cosmos beyond humans. He saw that the extent of our free choice within the natural cosmos to which we belong is the most remarkable thing about us, and his plays are about the questions people must weigh in making their choices, the effort to understand the consequences their choices will have at all cosmic levels.

The ability to think about choice -- to make images of our relationship to our world and imagine the consequences of the alternative choices we can make at each step through our world -- is the biggest role of our unique kind of conscious mind. The ways in which we picture our world and our relationship to it -- our stories of how things are -- are our worldviews, and these have a great deal to do with the kinds of choices we make in the play of our lives.

To understand what human worldviews are and where they come from, let's begin by considering how other species view their world. Whether it has eyes or not, every creature has some way of seeing its world -- some way of getting information about itself and its surround. Without such information and the ability to act on it, no creature could function in its environment.

We have said that every creature is a holon within the larger holons on which it depends. To live, it must know, in some sense of that word, what supplies to take in from its environment and what to return to its environment. It must do what it can to protect itself from harm and to do whatever else will help it go on living. Even a microbe can tell whether it is in a plentiful environment or not, can tell what is harmful in its environment from what is not, can tell what is useful in its environment from what is not, and so on. Further, it must coordinate all this information to help itself survive. We can call that pattern of information it perceives its worldview -- its map of reality.

The point is that some kind of environmental map, or worldview, is as necessary to the survival of any living creature as is its internal knowledge of how to run itself. In fact, as different creatures evolved, different worldviews evolved. The worldview of a microbe is clearly not the same as that of a marsh grass or a mongoose. Every living being has a worldview tailored to its own needs and experience. This is because each creature is a system capable of interacting with its environment through its unique ability to take in information and act on it.

No creature, even with a brain as sophisticated as ours, sees what is really out there in its world. Our eyes do not photograph a world independent of us. There is nothing remotely like a photographic mechanism in our eye-brain system, nor is there a world apart from that which we create moment by moment within our own consciousness.

Stop to consider this deeply for a moment. Have you ever had any experience outside your own consciousness? It simply is not possible -- not for anyone, not even for a scientist. Now, have you ever had any direct experience outside of the present moment? You are not alone or strange, for neither has any scientist. This is very profound. All experience of the world is through consciousness in the present moment. Everything else is stories and images created by ourselves -- including the image of linear time. Consider that you have a mental story of reading this book over a period of hours or days, but are always, always in the present moment. This is exactly what the Eastern philosophies meant -- that the world is illusion. Now science begins telling us the same thing -- that we create reality with our brains from moment to moment, as cosmic consciousness, which includes our individual consciousness, creates our brains from moment to moment. It shakes one up to think that deeply, for all humans across apparent linear time and cultures have made up stories of their reality. If there had been a reality really `out there' apart from our perceptions and stories, you would think cultural `descriptions' of reality would have been much more uniform. Instead, we find that every culture believes its own story and no one else's -- more on this shortly. It even means that the story of evolution is just that -- our story of how things came to be, not some ultimate truth.

Why then are we talking about how evolution happens? Because it is not possible to be human, to exist in our perceived reality, without a coherent story of how things are. When we recognize that the story is all we really have, then we see that it is truly essential. What matters is to create a story that brings us meaning and fulfillment in the world we see as real. The most exciting trend in our world now is that the stories of scientists and philosophers and religious leaders are weaving themselves into one coherent story told from different viewpoints. If scientists understand an intelligent cosmic consciousness as the source of all creation, and creationists call that source God, our stories are not very different.

So, let us continue this story to see if it could bring us meaning, fulfillment and peace in the world we see as real.

Scientists tell us that inside our eyeballs, light does strike our retina in a way that reminds us of a photographic plate or film, and that the light pattern does produce a related pattern of nerve signals that travel to the brain. These nerve signals, however, are soon joined by a far greater number of other signals coming from inside the brain itself, combining the brain's own information with the incoming information to produce our visual images. Not like a camera at all -- rather, what we then see is this complex production of our brains.

The same thing happens when we look at a photograph. The reason the photograph resembles what we saw with our eyes when we took the picture is that our eye-brain system responds in the same way to the scene as it does to the photo that is a mechanical copy of its pattern of light.

Let's look at how scientists tell us a frog sees its world. A frog lives mainly on insects it catches as they fly or swim or crawl by. Its eyes and brain and body are an automatic system that has evolved to see and catch bugs. Whenever a tiny dark speck moves across the piece of world the frog's eyes are aimed at, it shoots out its long sticky tongue and pulls in the tiny dark thing. This system works very well in the frog's natural environment, because tiny dark things moving about that way are almost always insects.

We can fool a frog into trying to eat tiny shadows that we move past it, or into actually eating buckshot pellets that we roll past it. The frog does not learn that the buckshot is inedible, but will keep eating it until he is too heavy to move. Its catch-moving-dark-specks system is built into its brain and cannot be changed by experience. Its worldview is not subject to change in a way that permits the frog to learn which dark specks are edible and which are not.

A human baby also puts all sorts of things into its mouth, but for the baby this is a way of finding out what is edible and what is not, how things taste and feel. Its tongue, eyes, ears, and other sense organs form a system that determines and limits the kinds of information it can receive, but the baby is not programmed to put the information together in very fixed ways. The baby must test its world constantly, learning about it through direct experience of it, as well as through what it is taught and told. So, in time, it builds a worldview. From infancy on, our brain tests each new experience against those we had before in order to keep the worldview we are building consistent.

Let's look at another example of species differences in world views. Suppose a child is playing with a cat when it sees a bee land on a pretty flower. And suppose that all three -- the child, the cat, and the bee -- can talk to one another.

"What a pretty pink flower you have chosen," the child might say to the bee.

"What pretty pink flower?" the bee might well ask. "Can't you see I have chosen this flower for its deep red stripes? This kind has my favorite pollen."

"Red stripes?" the child says. "I should think a bee could see better than that! This flower is pink as pink can be."

"I beg your pardon," says the bee, "but it is you who do not seem to see very well! Look here, cat, is this flower striped or am I crazy?"

"Both of you are nuts," says the cat, "making a fuss about a flower. They all look alike to me, and rather dull-looking things they are, sitting about as they do. Now a grasshopper is another matter . . ."

Such an argument might occur because each of these three actually does create a different flower -- the child a pink one, while the bee's perception constructs a red striped one and the cat's a dull gray flower! Bees see more colors than humans, while cats have scarcely any color in their world. Bees need to know the world of flowers in order to make their living, but flowers do not matter a bit to cats.

Bats can see in the dark by sonar, as do dolphins in murky waters, by bouncing sound waves off objects in their environment. Dolphins and dogs create a good part of their worldviews from sounds we humans cannot perceive; many mammals live in a world made more of smells than of sights. Birds and insects sense the patterns of magnetic fields in the atmosphere.

Each species has its own system of senses that bring patterns of stimulation from the environment to its brain as it explores and does things to its world. These patterns coming in from outside merge with the existing inside patterns to create perceived images. The worldviews our minds are capable of projecting `out there' fool us into thinking we see things the way they really are.

The interesting thing about considering the projected worldviews of different species is how clear it becomes that none has a truer picture of the world than any other. A worldview made of smell patterns -- with all their attached meaning for that species or individual -- is no less true than one of light and sound patterns. Each species has evolved a way of constructing its world and then its worldview -- a way that best helps it get along in that world. Each uses only part of all the information, or patterns, available to all Earthlife species collectively -- the part it most needs to survive in health and do its part in the greater dance of life.

Only we humans know that all these different worldviews exist. We can record and measure light waves beyond those we see, sound waves beyond those we hear, chemical smells beyond those we smell, magnetism we do not feel. We alone can understand that our perception of the world involves only a small part of all the information available and do what we can to expand our range of information. We have figured out how to peek in on the worldviews of other species by using instruments that show the way they perceive or sense in their world. With sonar, we can see as bats and dolphins do; with microscopes we can look in on the world of microbes; and so on.

Surely this, too, makes us a special brain experiment -- the only species of players able to understand something of what all the others are doing in the play. We humans have, in fact, a strange ability that no other species has, as far as we know -- we are able to make ourselves the audience of the very play in which we are acting.

While there are always communications going on within and between species holons in holarchies, even among the cells of our body holarchies, no other species investigates the others as we do, trying to figure out what they are like and what they are up to. No other creatures think of themselves as observers of the whole world, indeed the whole universe -- all the others simply participate in co-creating it. Nor did we ourselves think this way when we first became human. In fact, it is likely that we played human roles in the play of Gaian creation long before we could stand apart from the world in our own minds to see ourselves and others as players. What was it, then, that changed our worldview to the perspective of audience?

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In bacteria and protists, there is a pretty direct link between stimulation from the environment and behavior in response to it. Their sensory parts are directly connected to the parts that behave by contracting, rowing away with cilia, or engulfing a food particle. In multicelled organisms, the stimulus may occur many cells away from the moving, behaving parts, so communications systems evolved -- chemical and hydraulic systems in protists, funguses, and plants; ever more elaborate nervous systems in animals. But the more complex the nervous system became, the more it developed its own patterns to come between the incoming sensory patterns and the outgoing behavioral patterns. The connections, that is, are no longer direct, and the creatures' worldviews are determined as much or more by their nervous systems and life histories than by the new patterns actually coming in from outside.

In social species something else comes into play between the senses and behavior -- the whole history of interactions among socially related individuals. There is, in a sense, a social brain or mind organized and shaped by social interactions and language over time, incorporated into the brain and behavior of individuals as they learn to live in society.

Language has played an enormously important role in the building of human societies and cultures. The human mind itself is largely a product of our social language community. Language is without doubt at the heart of our humanity. Written language may have been the invention that changed our mental images of ourselves and our world more than any other.

It was very likely writing that changed the way we saw ourselves in relation to the world in which we live -- that permitted us to be observers of as well as participants in life's play. Before the development of writing, only pictures let people think of themselves as separate from their world -- as observers, or knowers, of it. Today, we can see the history of the world in a book, or events in another part of the world in a film or video -- the latest technologies for keeping records of ourselves and our world apart from direct or directly reported experience of it.

Before writing, language was not a thing in itself. Talking was simply a skill like walking. Nor could people imagine knowledge being passed on through language in any way other than through direct learning from another living person. Neither poetry nor law nor any other body of knowledge could exist without a live human knower of it before words could be carved in rock, inscribed on a clay tablet, or written on papyrus. Writing made us observers of our own play and gave us a way to store information and pass it on unaltered to our own and all future generations.

It's hard for us to imagine what it must have been like not to have separated ourselves from the world as observers of it, not to think of ourselves as separate from our knowledge, not to think of our languages as languages and our minds as minds, or our world as something to know about in our minds. Yet all of us were like this as small children before we were taught to read and to think about the world. In this sense, human infancy even today repeats something of the infancy of our species.

Before we invented writing, the script of Gaian creation existed only in consciousness and was stored only in geological records, in DNA, in the development of embryos, in nervous systems, to some extent in human minds constructed by language. Through writing we began to separate our knowledge and ideas about the dance from the dance itself -- in a sense, to separate the script from its playing out.

But remember that the reality we humans see as ourselves and our relationship to the world around us is our own creation, our own conscious imagery. Our worldviews are rich in the images that language makes possible -- an ever increasing wealth of linguistic portrayals of our human interactions with one another and with the rest of nature. These we accumulate in our beloved and useful linear time and over cultures through written records.

Even our pictorial art is influenced by the way the artist's mind talks about what it sees. Try imagining something without imagining accompanying verbal labels and ideas. The flower we saw earlier through a child's eyes as quite simply pink and pretty has become, as we say, all things to all people -- a tasty morsel for a farmboy to feed his donkey, a symbol of beauty and a token of love to a lover, a source of perfume to a maker of cosmetics, a model of reproduction to a biology teacher, a solar energy plant to a physicist, a warning of fading youth to one who is advancing in age. Any one of us can change these preceptions into other perceptions as often as we like.

The meaning we give things comes from the context in which we see them, and we supply this context not from the sense impressions we receive from our world but from the patterns ever evolving inside our nervous systems -- patterns which reveal themselves as that richly complex self-organizing mind which ever composes and recomposes itself through individual and cultural experience.

It is our human heritage to continually work at making conscious, thoughtful sense of all these patterns. We embed all new information into existing brain-mind patterns, put these patterns into categories or contexts of meaning, add to them, change them, rearrange, distort, and enrich them until they make sense to us as part of our overall worldview.

·    ·    ·

We have wanted and needed to make sense of the world for as long as we have had our human type of consciousness, and we can do this only by using our free minds to create meaningful worldviews. Yet just because our brain-minds are so free, each individual human can see and understand the world as differently as can various other whole species. If all of us saw and understood the world in the same way, without being told anything about it by others, we wouldn't have to try to make sense of it, or try to teach one another just what kind of sense we think it makes. Everyone would just know how things were and what they meant. We would be like frogs, all of whom see dark specks in just the same way and know just what they mean and what to do about them.

Human worldviews must be created through the personal experience of living in the world. At the same time, all of us must fit our personal experience into a worldview given to us by others. For if our own experience does not fit into the culturally approved way our fellows see the world, we will be thought quite mad. In fact, people with worldviews completely different from ones we call normal are commonly considered insane or profoundly handicapped.

Only by agreeing with one another on what the world is all about -- on how to make sense of it -- can we have human societies or cultures. Most of our individual worldviews actually come from our culture -- from family, friends, schools, books, television, and so on -- though all of us add our own special touches through personal experience and ideas. Our creation of worldviews is thus yet another way in which our brains are an experiment in freedom. While most other species have evolved their special way of seeing the world as they have evolved their behavior -- building it into their body plans -- we humans are free to improvise both our worldviews and our behavior.

When we look at human history to see what a people's worldview was in a different time and a different place, we see that worldviews have evolved along with the visible aspects of culture, and that there is a very powerful relationship between the worldviews that people hold and the kind of society they construct -- an inseparable relationship, that is, between the way people believe their world is and the things they do to one another and that world. In practice, our worldview is our script for the play of life, assigning each of us our role within it.

The most important kinds of worldviews we humans have created are religious and scientific worldviews. In religious worldviews, a goddess or a god -- or both or many deities -- create(s) the world and then continue(s) to rule or look out for it in some meaningful, purposeful way. In the western scientific worldview up to the present, the world happens accidentally and runs mechanically without purpose. As we have seen, however, this is changing rapidly to bring western and eastern scientific worldviews together in the belief that the world is a self-creative manifestation of an underlying conscious source that may or may not be purposeful.

In both kinds of worldview, the human task is understanding how the world is ordered -- by what god-given or natural laws it works, or what else gives it meaningful or at least coherent pattern. The way to this understanding, however, is very different in the two worldviews. In religious worldviews, the order is learned from certain people, such as priestesses or priests to whom it has been revealed, or from sacred writings such people or their followers have recorded. In scientific worldviews, the order or pattern of the world is learned from scientists who look for it in nature, make theories about it, and do experiments to test their theories.

Theories are no more, no less, than well thought out ideas or models of what various aspects of the world seem to be and how they work. Scientific theories, then, are ordered worldviews that can be tested against predictions we make from them, though we must expect them to change as we ourselves change and as we gain new knowledge. Until recently, religions had worldviews that were not to be questioned, but with new historical information some religious worldviews are now changing to come toward harmony with scientific worldviews from their own side.

Religion and science thus give us our cultural worldview -- our image of the natural world and our relationship to it. Our worldview also includes our ideas of what our relations to one another are, or should be, so it includes political, ethical, artistic and other cultural images and ideas.

Until the last half century before the new millennium, it did not occur to people that they could have anything to do with creating their worldview. All through history, people thought the way they saw the world was the way the world really was -- in other words, they saw their worldview as the true worldview and all others as mistaken and therefore false. Many wars, both hot and cold, were caused by disagreements between people who believed in a particular religious or political worldview and people who didn't believe in it -- who had a different worldview that suggested different kinds of behavior and social structures. For example, the Christian Crusades against Muslims in the Middle Ages, the democratic revolutions against rulers in the past few centuries, and the more recent communist revolutions, were all of that sort.

People are very reluctant to change their worldviews, because their worldviews hold everything together -- as we said, they make sense of the world. To change a worldview is to lose that sense, and so worldviews have usually changed only by force -- when people with one worldview conquered those with another, as in the ancient conquests of Goddess-worshiping societies by God-worshiping tribes. In some cases, they have changed by persuasion, as when missionaries or scientists persuade people to adopt a new worldview in place of their old one.

Perhaps the most important discovery of modern science is that there can be no single true and complete worldview. Like all species, we have only partial information about the world, and our information changes as our knowledge increases, as our inventions become more sophisticated, and as we and other species actually change our world. We change the world even while we are looking at it, for we are never only observers -- we are co-creative players in the play.

Most of what scientists do is try out -- test by experiment -- different parts of a scientific worldview, to see where it works and where it needs changing. Archaeologists and historians, along with biologists and physicists, conduct scientific searches, seeking experimental ways of testing their theories. It makes good sense to keep improving our worldviews as we gain new knowledge, to be sure they are reliable maps to the future we want.

While there is no scientific test for the truth of a worldview, there is scientific and practical evidence showing how well we get along in the world when we use a particular worldview as a map to guide our experience and behavior. We can test our worldview to see whether it guides us to as healthy an existence for ourselves and the larger life system of which we are part as do the worldviews that are programmed into other species. We will say more on this in later chapters. For now let us note that for the first time in our history, we as individuals are consciously evolving our worldviews by thinking about, questioning, and testing them, rather than just letting the events of history and a few powerful individuals dictate them to us.

·    ·    ·

Part of our evolving scientific worldview, as we said, is recognizing the validity and importance of other species' worldviews, expanding our own by incorporating theirs. It is equally important for us to recognize the validity and importance of different human worldviews, expanding our own in so doing. Every human culture that has its own language and customs has ways of seeing the world that are unique, though any human individual can learn any human culture and language. We can thus communicate across languages and share cultural experience in ways that enrich us all.

Today's dominant scientific worldview evolved in European languages with common roots and close relationships. These languages happen to be structured in a way that forces us, in talking or writing about our world, to think and speak of it in terms of `thing-nouns' and `action-verbs.' This language structure -- taken for granted in English and other Indo-European languages -- gives us a worldview, as soon as we begin speaking as children, in which we actually see the world as made of separate things that stay still (nouns) or move or are moved in relation to one another (verbs). The reasoning, the logic, and the mathematics of scientists are all based on this way of dividing up the world.

It can come as a great surprise to us that all people do not see the world in this way, and that this is related to language structures. Some human languages do not make our kind of distinction between nouns and verbs. Rather, the world is seen through certain languages as a pattern of interwoven processes in time, not as a pattern of separate things in space. Speakers of Hopi or Nootka, for example -- both North American indigenous languages -- cannot imagine things without their motion, change, aging, or other aspects of coming into and out of being. Instead of saying, for example, "The light shines," or "The water falls," they have single-word expressions that do not separate the light from its shining or the water from its falling. In such process languages, people do not think of time as made up of a series of `things' called seconds, minutes, and hours. They see time as the change in things, which is more the way physicists now understand time.

These are only a very few examples of the way in which a language can determine how we see our world, yet they are enough to make us think about what the scientific worldview might be like if it had been developed in a very different set of languages. Einstein once suggested to Benjamin Lee Whorf, who studied and wrote about these language differences, that it might be easier to describe the discoveries of modern physics in the Hopi language than in English. In Hopi we would not face the contradictions of a world made at once of particle-things and wave-actions, of matter-things and energy-actions, never having separated things from actions in the first place.

Process-language cultures are better suited to organic than mechanical worldviews. Perhaps such cultures did not develop mechanical technologies because machinery is necessarily conceived and built as the interactions of separate and, insofar as possible, unchanging parts. As it happened, science developed most fully in European-language cultures along with machinery, becoming closely associated with machinery, as we will see in greater detail shortly.

Anthropology and linguistics, the sciences of human cultures and languages, are relatively new parts of science as a whole, but they have taught us that human experience is very varied and rich. They have made us realize that the scientific worldview, which was developed mainly in industrializing western countries, is based on and represents only a limited part of human experience. Many scientists, especially physicists and physicians, have begun to use ideas and practices from eastern worldviews to enrich their western science, while western science has become an important part of eastern life, especially in Japan and China.

Unfortunately, just as we dominant humans have worked at killing off other intelligent species, so have our dominant technological cultures worked at eradicating non-technological human cultures. Every culture and language lost seriously diminishes the variety and richness of human experience. This variety and richness is as essential to our cultural health as is genetic variety to the health of any species, and species variety to the health of any natural ecosystem. Our human mania for reducing variety to create monocultures is not expressed only in our agriculture and animal husbandry, but in our own cultures as well -- and it is equally destructive in all cases.

Keeping in mind this perspective on our still-evolving scientific and cultural worldview -- our continuing effort to understand what the play of life is all about -- let's now look at its historical roots, its evolution within the cultural traditions of our species. Let's look, in other words, at the scripts people have written for themselves as they played out the historical steps leading us to our present conception of the play.

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