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Living Systems in Evolution

Elisabet Sahtouris

copyright © 1999 by Elisabet Sahtouris


Worldviews from the Pleistocene to Plato


The earliest worldviews we know anything about date back to the Pleistocene epoch of ice ages -- to what we call the Paleolithic, or Old Stone Age. In Europe and Asia, these sometimes cave-dwelling cultures were artistic and commonly symbolized nature as a great mother, a fruitful goddess who gave them life and all that was needed to sustain them. Seeing nature as the great Mother Goddess would have made sense of human experience by explaining nature's gifts of food and the birth of creatures, bright sunny days, like the goddess's good moods, and angry storms or droughts, like her bad moods. Nature seemed to love and to rage at her human children, giving them reason to celebrate her life-giving and nurturing, as well as to love, fear, and respect her.

We can safely assume that paleolithic peoples took all nature to be as alive as they themselves were, and that they felt themselves to be part of, or the children of, this great mother. Even today, peoples who live in natural settings without changing them significantly tend not to divide nature into living and nonliving parts as our dominant culture does. Their only concept of non-living is of something dead that has been alive.

Later Stone Age and Bronze Age peoples must have called the Mother Goddess by many names in many places -- only the later names, surviving into written language, were recorded. Just a few that were recorded are Nammu, Utu, Inanna, Ishtar, Iahu, Astarte, Ma, Kali, Isis, Gaia and Matrona. Iahu, meaning exalted dove, was the Great Goddess' name in Sumeria -- the first great urban human culture -- and was apparently later turned into the masculine Je-ho-vah. In ancient Greece they called her Gaia, as well as Eurynome and Demeter and Pandora, meaning `giver of all gifts.'

The Mother Goddess of these ancient religions was surely not conceived of as outside of nature. She was not the external creator of nature but the creative force of nature itself. In modern religious terms, Mother God immanent. Nature was felt as the creative-destructive dance of life and death. Various components or forces of nature -- Sun and Moon, winds and seas, mountains and rivers, animals important to people -- were assigned to members of the goddess's `holy family' or seen in other supportive deity roles.

The image of nature as a providing mother and the worship of this Great Goddess very likely influenced the development of Stone Age societies as agricultural `households.' Archaeologists James Mellaart and Marija Gimbutas, as well as the archaeological scholars Merlin Stone and Riane Eisler, have given us an image of such early civilizations, as exemplified by the well-preserved Neolithic town of Catal Huyuk in Turkey. People of such societies provided for themselves and one another by raising crops and keeping tamed animals.

Most striking in such well-planned and managed agricultural societies, with their large towns, agricultural technology, beautiful wall paintings, decorated pottery, sculpture and metal arts, is that unlike later cultures they show no evidence of fortification, warfare, conquest, slavery, or significant social inequality, judging by house size, burial customs, and so forth. This is taken to mean that men and women worked in partnership, and there is evidence at Catal Huyuk that those in need were provided for from public stores of food or from the goddess's temple gardens.

Such ancient societies seem to have practiced the kind of peaceful life with all people's needs met that our modern societies are still far from bringing about. The remains of cultures throughout the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe, including pre-Minoan and Minoan Crete, show highly advanced societies, in which, as historian Riane Eisler puts it, "linking, not ranking" predominated.

The extent to which these societies were designed and managed by women will probably be debated among archaeologists for some time, but there are indications that women's roles were at least as important as men's. Mellaart found the `holy family' at Catal Huyuk represented in order of importance as mother, daughter, son, and father, and a similar order was suggested in households by the sleeping platforms, that of the woman being more fixed and prominent than that of the man. There is no intrinsic reason to doubt that women, as the human representatives of the goddess, were accorded the social status that men gained later as human representatives of the god, but these early societies show no indication that men were oppressed by women; on the contrary, they indicate partnership.

If women did have the authority to make social rules, we might expect those rules to have been based on partnership for the simple reason that women give birth to and raise both girl and boy babies without considering the one better than the other, if the mothers are permitted to act on their natural feelings. The preferential treatment of boy children in some later cultures came about when men made the rules and set the cultural patterns. Creation stories of ancient societies often told of man and woman having been created together, as they were in the original Hebrew-Christian Genesis before it was rewritten to have Eve created from Adam's rib.

On the contrary, the hunter or nomadic Father God worshipers who invaded and conquered these societies were apparently not so peaceful and egalitarian. They were apparently headed by men who were experienced in the use of weapons. Perhaps they were driven to violent competition by their harsh environment and had come to worship lightning-bolt-wielding and thundering sky-gods in fear. After all, they were relatively unsheltered in open spaces, vulnerable to storms as well as to the marauding attacks of other, similar tribes.

When these conquerors invaded and stayed to rule a settled society where they found life good, they changed not only the social structure and rule but the society's worldview as well. Often they turned the Mother Goddess into the wife or daughter of their chief god and joined lesser gods and goddesses from both religions into a single pantheon, meaning `all gods' religion.

Sometimes they got rid of the goddess altogether by making up stories in which the god was great and the goddess was only a disobedient mortal woman who was forever making trouble. Pandora was so demoted. Her name still means `giver of all gifts,' but in the story we hear about her she brings only troubles into the world by disobeying the Father God. Similarly, the Hebrews, whose difficult wandering existence in the desert had somehow led them to believe in a stern Father God, turned the Mother Goddess, along with her symbols -- the serpent of wisdom and the tree of knowledge -- into Eve, another mortal woman who brought trouble into the world by questioning male authority and disobeying God.

Later, when Christianity replaced the pagan religions, old male deities were also contemptuously dethroned. The Celtic Sun god Lugh, for example, first became Lucifer, angel of light, and then was cast from heaven in medieval times to become Lucifer, or Satan, the symbol of evil.

All in all, the historical record tells us that when some men acquired the kind of power that accrues to those who have weapons and wealth, they formed a worldview based on a belief in their own superiority. They projected their self-image into an authoritarian and violent male god, thus justifying the domination of women, who came to be seen as the property of males, to be safeguarded and bartered. Nowhere is this more graphically recorded than in the Hebrew-Christian Old Testament Bible, and even the fabled Golden Age is tarnished by a similar treatment of women. Such male rulers extended the idea of superiority and the practice of violence into their affairs with one another as well-making war upon each other, dethroning the deities of the conquered, making warriors their heroes, taking slaves and building class-structured societies.

Another important aspect of the shift from a worldview based on partnership to one based on domination, as god-worship replaced goddess-worship all over the civilized world, was the idea that nature was separate from both gods and people -- that it had been created and was ruled over by one God who was external to nature. Nature, as God's creation, was then seen as a gift given to His people to use and exploit for their own ends -- as in the biblical "to have dominion over." The Old Testament testifies to a jealous and unmerciful God who urges man to make war on and destroy all non-believers and other enemies, and to subjugate women. His story became history.

And so, at the same time -- a few thousand years before the Christian era -- humanity seems to have undergone the two greatest changes in history since the advent of agriculture. One was the shift from the worldview and culture of partnership to that of domination -- from the worship of life -- giving to the worship of life -- taking, as Eisler puts it. The other change was the shift from a worldview in which people and their deities were part of nature's own improvised dance, continually self-creating from within, to a worldview in which men and their gods stood outside and above nature, in which men claimed the god-given right to exploit women and all the rest of the natural world.

All this, of course, is a sweeping simplification of history for the sake of seeing broad patterns. The role of women as the glue that holds society together cannot be doubted even today, but the partnership status, the equal valuation of their work and their arts, has never been regained to this day.

One of the latest goddess cultures to survive was that of Crete, known to the ancient Egyptians as the Keftiu, to us as Minoan. A peaceful agricultural people we mentioned earlier, the Minoans left us exquisite art in admiration and praise of nature. Nature goddess worship was evident in other parts of Greece, too, and lasted in some form until classical times -- even Plato being initiated into the Eleusinian mysteries of Demeter. But the sequence of Greek myth, as Robert Graves pointed out, shows the gradual destruction of equality and goddess-worship in favor of patriarchal rule and god-worship.

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Only the earliest known Greek philosophers were deeply influenced by ancient ideas of nature's self-creation, as were early philosophers in other lands. By the sixth century before Christ, most of the civilized world had been organized into large kingdoms or empires with generally patriarchal religious worldviews and strict laws for keeping order.

And yet, sixth century BC thinkers such as Lao-tse and Confucius in China, Vedist Hindus and Gautama Buddha in India, Zoroaster in Persia, and Thales, Anaximander, and Heraclitus in Milesian Greece (now Turkey) all came to very much the same idea about how nature works. In carefully observing and thinking about nature, they all saw it as alive and forever changing from within, whether or not it was symbolized by a pantheon of gods and goddesses. They saw nature as striving to create its own balance and order through an endless dance of opposing forces or principles such as male and female, light and dark, hot and cold, inward and outward, storm and calm, creation and destruction. In this dance, opposites clashed or simply got out of balance so that things grew, say, too cold or too stormy or otherwise disorderly. Yet somehow new forms and patterns created themselves to bring about new balance and harmony.

Even though they could not talk to one another, these great thinkers all over the civilized world of the sixth century B.C. somehow agreed that nature's constant movement was away from disorder and toward balanced order -- what we now call "order out of chaos." This balance, or harmony, they believed, must ever be re-created from imbalance or discord, very much as it is in human affairs. This did not surprise them, because they all saw humans as part of nature.

In Greece such thinkers formed the first scientific worldviews by trying to understand and explain the world in terms of what they could see in nature. Poets, meanwhile, continued to spread the Greek worldview of Gaian creation and the Olympian pantheon of gods and goddesses who ruled the world, as did Homer in the Iliad and Odyssey, which had, by then, been written down.

The new scientific thinkers came to be called physicists -- as the Greek word for nature was physis -- or philosophers -- from the Greek words philos, meaning lover or friend, and sophia, meaning wisdom. The wisdom they loved and sought after was an understanding of how nature works, because they believed that by understanding the natural order they would come to understand how to order human life, both personal and social, more wisely.

In the myth of Gaia, recall, the goddess comes out of chaos to transform her body into the Earth by her dance. Originally, chaos meant nothingness; later it came to mean anything that seemed to have no pattern, that was completely lawless or disorderly. The opposite of chaos was order, which was called cosmos, still today the Greek word for world. The world, in other words, is the pattern of things.

The eastern Greek Milesian philosophers agreed that the natural world is orderly -- that it has a pattern that can be discovered, described, and understood by human beings. As scientists, they saw orderly rhythms, balance and harmony in the patterns of stars and planets, the cycles of seasons, the beautiful forms of plants and animals. This order was disturbed by disorder, or chaos, but it seemed that wherever disorder arose, order was quickly restored. Birds and worms ate up dead animals; old leaves disappeared into rich new soil; rain made droopy plants grow healthy and flower; new forests grew from burned ones. Nature kept making orderly patterns out of chaotic disorder. And what was so interesting about all this was that everything in nature played its part without being told what to do. This observation came to play a very important role in Greek politics before long.

Plants took form, growing from seeds, then rotted back into soil, losing their form. Older animals died as young were born in an endless chain of life. One creature ate another to live itself. Nature was one great intertwined pattern in which, as the philosopher Anaximander said, "Everything taking form in nature incurs a debt which must be paid by dissolving again so that other things may form." He saw this as a kind of justice -- each thing, or creature, in nature borrowing from nature's supplies, then paying them back. Rivers dried up while new rivers formed elsewhere. Clouds formed, dissolved in rain, and left clear skies, which later formed new clouds. Fires and storms created chaos, yet from the chaos of destruction new life and new order always arose. Everything that took on its own form later gave way to other newer forms.

Anaximander's teacher, Thales, thought all things in nature had formed from water, and had water as their essence. Anaximander himself, seeing the fossils of sea creatures on land, thought about the great changes in geology and in life forms that must have happened over time. He came to believe that living creatures first formed in the seas, later came out onto dry land and shed their shells. Humans, he reasoned, must have been born from earlier animals, since the first human babies could not have taken care of themselves. As far as we know, he was the first scientist to see a pattern of evolution by actually observing nature. The way in which nature was understood by Anaximander, his teacher Thales, and his pupil Heraclitus -- all Milesian Greeks -- was very much the way scientists are beginning to understand it again now -- as a great dance of life in which all natural things are connected and constantly improvise their steps as they move toward balance and harmony.

These philosophic ideas seem to have echoed a distant time when people actually lived in democratic balance and harmony within the larger context of nature. Some memory of these times was recalled by the poet Hesiod, around the same time as Homer, when he wrote (as quoted in Eisler's The Chalice and the Blade) of a former goddess culture he called the Golden Race: "All good things were theirs. The fruitful Earth poured forth her fruits unbidden in boundless plenty. In peaceful ease they kept their lands with good abundance, rich in flocks and dear to the immortals." This race, Hesiod continues to tell, was later conquered by a lesser race of silver and then by "a race of bronze, dreadful and mighty, sprung from shafts of ash," bringing war. "The all lamented sinful works of Ares [God of war] were their chief care."

It is interesting to note that in the original myth of Gaian creation, the Olympic gods were born of the giant Titans, who were the first children of Gaia and Ouranos, the sky whom she created. Were the Titans perhaps a symbolic memory of the powerful patriarchal tribes -- the Achaeans who destroyed the goddess's rule at Delphi and put Apollo in her place, the Aeolians and Ionians who overran Greece in later waves?

In the sixth century B.C., the ruler of Athens, Solon, put into practice philosophical ideas of natural balance and perhaps also the mythologic-historic memories of greater equality. Trying to create some semblance of democracy, he divided land more equally among people and made laws to ensure greater justice and to give citizens more say in the decisions of their society.

The playwright Aeschylus, whom we mentioned earlier, also used these ideas in his dramas, giving his heroes and heroines the task of balancing the scales of justice in working out their personal lives within the larger framework of family, society, and all nature. But we also see in Aeschylus how this process of justice was undermined in the shift from a goddess culture to a god culture by the devaluing of women.

At the beginning of Aeschylus' famous trilogy about the Mycenian house of Atreus, Queen Clytemnestra's murder of her husband Agamemnon is personally justified by his previous sacrifice of their daughter, Iphigenia, and socially justified by the queen's status as head of her clan, with the responsibility for avenging bloodshed. At the end of the trilogy, her son Orestes is tried by the new court of Athens for murdering his mother in revenge and acquitted on the grounds that he has not shed kindred blood. Athena, no longer the ancient nature goddess, but the warrior child of Zeus, sprung to life from his ear, presides over the trial and casts the deciding vote. As Apollo explains, "The mother is no parent of that which is called her child," but "only nurse of the new planted seed that grows."

This, then, was the beginning of the Golden Age of Greece, which all the world remembers for its beautifully harmonious temples and theaters, for its sculptures and Olympic Games, and for its experiment in male political democracy.

It is important to understand that when this limited democracy was formed, the Greeks had no concept of perfection in their worldview. Their traditional gods and goddesses were seen, like people themselves, as part of nature -- imperfect, moody, and mischievous, often intentionally creating disorder, from which they then made order under the higher law of justice. Nor did the Milesian philosophers, the first scientists, see nature as perfect. They knew well that nature was never perfectly balanced or harmonious, but always struggling toward balance and harmony. Wherever it was won, it was soon followed by new imbalance that drove the dance forward in search of harmony.

If nature reached perfection, its evolution would come to a stop. If things fell back into complete chaos, creation would also cease. Nature's dynamic balance is always achieved somewhere between chaos and perfect harmonious order. There was certainly no reason in this Greek worldview to expect men or their society to be perfect. On the other hand, there was hope that neither men nor the society they were trying to balance would fall into complete disorder.

The experiment of the Greeks in trying to make order out of chaos by ruling themselves democratically instead of letting rulers tell them what to do was not an easy one. Would men be able to agree on how to balance their society and live harmoniously? Balance in society would mean allowing all male citizens to take equal part and responsibility in how things were run. Harmony would mean a love of the good life not only for oneself but for everyone else, too. Men would have to make choices that were good for themselves and, at the same time, good for all society.

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While the Athenians struggled toward democracy for imperfect men in an imperfect world, the western Eleatic philosophers on the other side of Greece from the Milesians were forming a new kind of worldview. They had become fascinated with the human mind itself, and with a kind of perfect order it had created, a perfect order they had found not in nature but in the man-made language of mathematics.

The Greeks had used mathematics to measure the size and distance of things, to map the heavens and the Earth, to make calendars, and to predict events such as eclipses, as had other ancient peoples such as the Egyptians and Babylonians. These were practical uses of mathematics. But mathematics was a wonderful invention by itself because of its perfect order.

Arithmetic and geometry were languages of number and form built on rules of balance and harmony -- but not the kind of natural harmony that falls into disorder and has to rebalance itself by creating new forms. Mathematical rules kept things in perfectly balanced order. Geometric figures -- such as circles, spheres, cubes pyramids, octahedrons and others -- were the most perfect things that humans had ever created. Furthermore, their perfection never changed, never fell into disorder.

The ancient Eleatic Greek philosophers, who lived in what is now southern Italy and Sicily, with Pythagoras as their first mentor, sought these perfect forms and harmonies in sacred geometry. They decided the Milesians must be wrong about a natural cosmos evolving through the ever changing, or dynamic, balance between chaos and order. The Eleatic worldview was of a cosmos created in the mathematical perfection of unchanging balance and harmony. They held that nature only appeared to be imperfect because people were blind to its underlying perfection.

In this worldview, the stars and planets were held on perfect invisible spheres that turned around the Earth, which was at their center. Stars were the effect of cosmic fire shining through holes in these spheres. Pythagoras' discovery that musical harmony obeys mathematical laws gave birth to the idea that the heavenly spheres created music in their turning.

This worldview permitted no evolutionary change -- only a perfect turning around and around, a perfect repetition of the same cycles in the heavens, and of the same cycles of birth and death among the creatures of Earth. Some Hindu traditions maintain worldviews of ever-repeating cycles even today. For the Eleatics, everything had been just as it was now from the very beginning of the cosmos. In place of the uncountable opposites unbalancing and rebalancing themselves in the Milesian worldview, Empedocles proposed four unchanging elements that mixed in different proportions to form things. Parmenides even arrived at the idea that nothing in the cosmos or world moved at all -- that the whole appearance of motion in the world was an illusion, a strange trick of human perception. And Zeno, whose mathematical puzzles still fascinate mathematicians today, `proved' that the world had neither motion nor parts.

Parmenides and Zeno formed these ideas by using their minds to think about how things must be beyond their appearance. There cannot be anything that does not exist, Parmenides reasoned, so all the cosmos must be filled with things that do exist. And if it is completely filled with existing things, there can be nowhere for them to move. His pupil Zeno was even better at showing logically that nothing is as it seems to be. In using pure thought to map their world, these philosophers abandoned scientific observation of nature.

Other philosophers, even if they did not agree that there was no motion at all, did come to feel strongly that the human mind could understand nature better just by thinking about it than by observing it through their own senses. Democritus, for example, came to the idea that everything in nature is made of invisible tiny hard bits he called atoms -- from atoma meaning individual -- and that the motion of atoms combined them into the things we see. These atoms were eternal and perfect, as they never changed and could not be destroyed.

More and more the philosophers felt that senses such as sight, hearing, and touch, through which we get our everyday experience of the world, were less trustworthy than the reasoning mind. The reasoning mind, which had invented arithmetic and geometry -- rules for ordering numbers and shapes -- now invented logical rules for ordering human thought, for making it as much like the perfection of mathematics as possible. Thoughts and ideas ordered by logic could be written down, compared with other philosophies, polished, and perfected. Such a philosophy could exist, like arithmetic or geometry, as a thing to be known in itself and passed on to future generations.

Of all the amazing Greek philosophers exploring these various worldviews, the one who was most fascinated by the way the human mind formed its ideas was the Athenian Socrates. For all we know about Socrates, it is not often mentioned that he acknowledged the priestess Diotema as his teacher, nor that Pythagoras had acknowledged Themistoclea in the same way. Socrates was much less interested in what the natural world was and how it worked than in what the human mind was and how it could be made to work better than it did in most people. If ordinary people, not only philosophers, could get clear on just what they meant by the good life and good government, for instance, he felt they might figure out how to improve their lives and their government.

The limited democracy of Athens had become a kind of shouting match in which the cleverest speaker won the day, whether he really knew what he was talking about or not. Some men were simply looking out for themselves and seeking ways to gain power. If they argued loudly and well, others too lazy to think for themselves would vote their way. Many citizens balked at having to listen to one another's harangues and vote on them. Squabbles continued and men complained about their responsibilities as citizens; others took advantage of the confusion to try to bring back dictators. The playwright Aristophanes wrote some very funny plays about solving social problems in spite of the lying, cheating, lazy, yet clever Athenians. He also resorted, in several of his plays -- Lysistrata and Women in Parliament -- to the idea that women might solve the social problems of government and war better than men could.

Socrates -- immortalized by his star pupil in Plato's Dialogues -- was meanwhile spending all his time cornering people and pressing them with questions to help them think more clearly, and he was much loved and admired for this by his followers. But his criticism of the muddle democratic government had gotten into finally led to his trial and execution.

Socrates saw people as throwing their ideas together from anything at all that came into their heads -- like builders trying to make a building without a plan, throwing together any materials they happened to find lying around. So he tried to teach them to decide just what they wanted to think about, how to recognize and throw out useless ideas, how to make muddled ones clear, and how to build the clear and useful ones into the understanding they sought -- in other words, he taught them to think in orderly ways, to reason logically.

Plato was influenced by the Eleatic search for perfection and fascinated by the beautifully clear ideas or definitions Socrates was able to arrive at by reasoning. Thus he concluded that perfect ideas must really exist somewhere behind the muddled world we normally see. Not only, he reasoned, was the material world beyond the senses perfect -- with ideal forms of chairs and trees and everything else in our sensory world -- but so also was there a world of perfect ideas, such as justice, love, truth, and beauty. Our senses shackle us, said Plato, showing us merely the flickering shadows of a perfect world beyond -- a world of light we can reach only with our minds. It is interesting to compare these ideas with those of eastern philosophers teaching meditation to reach a perfect state of merger in the source reality of loving oneness.

Plato's ideal world fit in with other philosophers' ideas of the cosmos as a construction of perfect spheres, a world built from perfect atoms. All the older worldviews seemed childish in comparison with this elegant new one `discovered' by reasoning minds. What could a perfect world, or cosmos, have to do with an unpredictable, moody goddess or with disorderly gods and goddesses who lied and tricked one another to get out of the messes they made? Poets began making fun of the old religion while philosophers began thinking of a new one.

A perfect world had to be the work of one perfect creator, Plato reasoned, a God, who existed apart from this shadow world, who created a perfect and unchanging world, a God who was always doing geometry!

The old philosophy of nature as alive and creative in its imperfection was replaced by belief in the perfect and rather mechanical creation of a single, though yet unknown, God. Perhaps this new worldview was comforting to the Athenians at a time when they were having so much trouble working out democratic order. At least they could believe in a perfect world just beyond the mess they were stuck in.

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