Living Systems in Evolution
copyright © 1999 by Elisabet Sahtouris
Life, as we have understood it in this book, is the fundamentally self-organizing, or autopoietic, activity of our planet and our universe -- the name of the game, we might say. Universal matter evolves into holarchies of living systems, driven by energetic interactions between great and minute events, between the tendencies of matter/energy to differentiate and reintegrate at ever new levels of organization.
In this view of life, to recap, matter/energy arranges itself into bounded but interacting living systems on galactic and super-galactic scales, as well as more locally on the scale of our planet, from its entirety to its microscopic bacterial domains. From our present perspective and limited knowledge, it appears to us that planetary life has evolved the most active and complex systems.
In the older, still very active mechanical worldview, life was understood as an incidental and accidental part of the universe, rather than as its essential tendency. In this view, the lifeless universal mechanism had already been grinding along and running down for more than ten billion years since its Big Bang when some of its non-living matter -- on at least one rare planet -- was accidentally converted into living matter. This was the only way life scientists could fit their discoveries into established physics models of our universe.
Because modern science was founded by astronomer-physicists, their mechanical mathematical models of the cosmos were accepted as the basis of all science. Physics is still considered the most basic science -- the one responsible for explaining non-living matter, the one responsible for explaining how the cosmos is formed. We can scarcely guess how far the organic worldview might have been developed by now if biologists instead of physicists had played the leading role in science -- if physicists had had to fit their discoveries into the model of an organic, living universe.
Biologists, who work with living organisms, seeing them reproduce, develop as embryos, care for themselves and make more of themselves, have often found it hard to fit life into the mechanical worldview. But biology simply did not have the status of physics, and so biologists had a hard time challenging the physicists' models of nature. Only now are physicists really coming to the fore with the implications of consciousness in quantum theory, and with experimental evidence to support that implication. But most of biology still lags behind this new physics, in rather Newtonian models of molecular assembly.
Now that we can see Earthlife as part of a self-creating galaxy, as planetary crust transforming itself into a web of creatures and environments, it is clear that living things are not built up from pieces as is machinery. Life forms are not assembled by accident from molecules here and there on some non-living planets and then in turn assembled into ecological systems. Rather, some whole planets develop the metabolism of living beings, coming ever more alive in the great flow of energy between their stars and themselves, gradually packaging their crustal material into ever more creatures that weave their own changing environments.
As yet we don't know what role living planets play in their galaxies and within the larger systems of our universe. We are only now discovering the first planets of other star systems, and as yet we know nothing of their life forms. As a matter of fact, we are still discovering new life forms on our own planet.
Our galaxy, we can see, has differentiated itself from a protogalactic cloud into a complex system of nucleus, stars, star systems, clouds, planets, comets, and other parts. Most likely, only a few of many planets -- as with the spores, seeds, and eggs of Earth's life forms -- come to develop. But a few of the vast number of planets likely to exist in our universe would still be a vast number.
If planets that do spring to life evolve like the smaller living systems of Earth we have observed, then their individuation -- as they are born from supernovas -- will also lead to tensions, conflicts, resolutions and cooperation as some great cosmic body or being. Scientific models of our own early Earth are still changing. Was it surrounded by clouds of methane and ammonia? Did it rather have an atmosphere in which carbon dioxide predominates, making early organic compounds more difficult to produce locally? Were living molecules imported by comets, asteroids and meteorites? David Deamer has extracted organic meteoric material that forms cell-like membranes, as well as light absorbing pigments that appear to be precursors of chlorophyll. Christopher Chyba thinks the dust that formed our planet -- and continues to bombard it daily -- could already have harbored such materials.
There are endless mysteries still to solve. A great variety of organic molecules, for instance, come through interstellar space, apparently from the center of our galaxy. Yet we don't know how they can be formed there or even what this center is made of, because it is hidden from us by great clouds which our telescopes cannot penetrate. Only now, as we said, do our telescopes begin to reveal planets belonging to stars other than our Sun.
Our present understanding is as though we were mitochondria in our own cells, trying to understand the organ galaxy and universal body we are part of without being able to see or even guess very much of what these larger holons are all about. Our actual mitochondria may understand us and the cosmos better than we, because they are not limited by a reflective brain looking only outward for information. Humans practiced in looking inward, through meditation, have revealed a great deal about the universe, most of which is not accepted in science, because it cannot be subjected to experimental measurement. However, as science progresses, we find more and more confirmation of ancient scientific cosmologies, such as the Vedic.
One of the central elements in Vedic science is that reality, including matter, is created by consciousness, and that matter itself is a created illusion, rather like the matter in our dreams. Now western physicists, as Sally Goerner points out, are also coming to understand matter as an illusion of energy in motion. Physicists have long been talking about fields -- traditionally taken to mean all matter, or mass, and energy in a particular region. Einstein's E = mc2 -- meaning there is a relationship between mass and energy that is mediated by the speed of light squared -- was taken to be a conversion formula for matter into energy or vice versa. But more recently some physicists tell us that the interaction of massless electric charges within an electromagnetic field creates the appearance of mass. In this scenario, Einstein's formula becomes "a statement about how much energy is required to give the appearance of a certain amount of mass." (The Sciences, Nov. 1994, p. 26)
Consider a universe of pure energy with the appearance of material reality. To have an appearance, there must be an observer, and as quantum theorists pointed out long ago, in a completely interconnected universe, consciousness anywhere means consciousness everywhere. Now non-locality tells us that anywhere is everywhere! In fact, it would seem that energy itself, like matter, is an `appearance' of consciousness. This certainly fits with out previous observation that no human -- scientist or other -- has ever had any experience outside of consciousness or outside of the eternally present moment.
Thinking things through in this way we see how limited our worldviews have been. And yet, for daily existence in our reality, our usual concept of matter is still practical. When physicists told us that chairs were made mostly of empty space, they did not begin to collapse beneath us. Learning that they are illusions of consciousness will also not cause them to collapse, since our consciousness creates ourselves from the same `stuff' as the chairs. Note that we can sit on chairs very well even in our dreams, causing eastern philosophers to speculate on what is waking experience and what is dream.
Nevertheless, there will be enormous effects of learning that our consciousness creates our reality -- that our assumptions, our beliefs as individuals, as societies and as humanity are the basis of the world we produce for ourselves and co-produce together, along with all living systems, from moment to moment. Jane Roberts has given us the most complete description of how our world works in these terms in her Seth books, more and more corroborated by physics. One of Seth's more challenging questions is, how much we can really learn about the deep nature of the universe by measuring matter with material instruments? If we chase ever smaller material particles with material measurement devices, he says, we create the particles we find from consciousness as we create the rest of reality, and can play the game till we tire of it and learn to study consciousness itself.
Non-Euclidean geometries and the theory of relativity broke through the limits of Euclidean geometry and classical physics. The organic worldview overcomes the limits and lifelessness of the mechanical worldview. A consciousness worldview will give us even greater perspective on our creative universe and our role at its leading edge. It will also give us the freedom and power to recreate our world in ethical integrity, from a place of community and love.
Science does at times reach out boldly into the new, but on the whole it tends to be conservative. It has taken half a century to accept the conscious universe implications of its own quantum theory, and as much time to accept the implications of DNA as intelligent in its own right, capable of altering organisms in response to their changing situations.
Jeremy Narby has calculated some amazing numbers in relation to this intelligent DNA. If the DNA packed into the invisibly small nuclei of each of our cells (along with protein and water) were stretched out, it would be about six inches long. End to end, the DNA of our several trillion cells would extend so far that it would take a jet plane traveling one thousand kilometers per hour over two centuries to reach its end! After this surprising result, Narby calculated that a single handful of living earth contains more DNA than that of our entire bodies -- because bacteria are packed far more closely in soil than cellular nuclei are in our bodies.
Consider nature once more in this light -- the entire surface of Earth covered and penetrated by intelligently self-organizing and reorganizing DNA in this almost inconceivable quantity. Is it truly the language of life through which cosmic consciousness expresses itself in `material' worlds? Will we find it to be a common language throughout our co-created universe?
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Not long after the mechanical theory of evolution was proposed by scientists, it was opposed by some philosophers, including Henri Bergson, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and Alfred North Whitehead, who worked out organic models or theories in which life is seen as inherent in the universe. Bergson opposed the idea of purpose in nature, but proposed the existence of a mysterious life force that is separate from and struggling with matter in an attempt to organize it. Scientists tended to reject his model because there was no room for a `life force' in their worldview. Teilhard de Chardin, though he explained life as the natural evolution of self-organizing matter, saw evolution as purposive, leading -- by way of mankind -- to a "God-Omega point." His work was also rejected by most scientists. Whitehead was ignored as too obscure for most scientists, but his talk of organics and God would have put them off in any case.
We have seen that at least a few scientists during the mechanical worldview era saw the Earth as alive or close to it. Darwin's younger Russian contemporary Vernadsky saw it as metabolically active; George Hutchinson of Yale University spread Vernadsky's ideas in America. James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis acknowledged geologist-physician James Hutton's concept of a living Earth as a forerunner to the Gaia hypothesis. Erich Jantsch's self-organizing universe called attention to the interplay of the largest and smallest events of cosmic matter/energy in producing the ever more complex systems of an essentially living universe. None of these scientific models included the notions of purpose or life force or God, as some of the philosophical ones did.
The mystery of life began clearing up as soon as we stopped thinking of the cosmos as a mechanical assembly of atomic, astral, and galactic parts -- as soon as we began to see that cosmic `parts' form themselves from -- and are formed within-larger wholes, rather as species form themselves within, and are formed by, ecosystems in evolution. Is it not likely that life `here below' behaves essentially the same way as things do `above' in the greater cosmos, as the ancients claimed?
If the universe is created by consciousness -- cosmic consciousness differentiating into levels or layers of cosmic holarchy -- and if an underlying sacred intelligent geometry is its means to create apparently physical worlds, then we should expect to find that it patterns itself in ways that repeat like fractals.
In Chapter 2 we saw that forms as simple as whirlpools -- whether in water or in protogalactic clouds -- take in matter, maintain their form in shaping its flow, and give off used matter to their environment -- the essential pattern of any living thing's organization in relation to its surround. These vortex forms are as characteristic of subatomic particles as of galaxies and are found throughout the levels of nature familiar to us, for example in seashells, seed pods, rivers and tornadoes. Consistent with this basic model, all living holons gain their identity and relative autonomy by organizing their own form and function through a continual exchange -- or re-creation -- of matter while remaining dependent on their environment or larger holon to supply their resources and absorb their wastes. That is the pattern of the fractal cosmic and planetary dance.
Many scientists still unwilling to accept consciousness as the source of creation, rather than its late product, will continue for some time to vacillate between ideas of accident and purpose in attempts to explain how non-life becomes life. It took time to see matter and energy, wave and particle, time and space, as aspects of the same underlying unity; it may be even more difficult to see life and non-life as aspects of the cosmic process or as relative organizational states of cosmic matter. Scientists have no problem seeing the process of life in a puffball bursting to scatter its spores, but they do tend to have difficulty seeing the process of life in a star bursting to scatter its dust, for all that we are made of that dust.
The further development of a conscious, organic model of the universe clearly requires the cooperative efforts of biologists and physicists as well as other scientists, not to mention philosophers and spiritual leaders in a great co-creative process. With so much to learn and co-create as new stories, or worldviews, this is a most exciting and challenging time of discovery and new understanding. Most important in these developing efforts is the promise of seeing ever more clearly just how we humans fit into the great cosmic holarchy of life and how we may learn to cooperate in creating its greatest health and fulfillment.
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As we have seen, our historic worldviews -- our images of who and what we are in relation to all nature -- have been, on the one hand, limited by narrow perspective and, on the other, unbounded in egotism. For thousands of years we considered ourselves God's favorite creatures; then, when we had no more use for God, we saw ourselves as the pinnacle of natural evolution. In both views nature was ours to command and exploit as we liked. Only when we ourselves began suffering from the damage we had done to our environment did we begin to gain a more realistic view of ourselves as one species among still uncounted others on whom we depend.
In our cosmic worldview, sacred or secular, ours is a middle-sized planet circling an ordinary star at the edge of a common type of galaxy -- a planet now in its middle age, about halfway through its expected life. Its oldest living creatures are bacteria, with an origin billions of years ago, but still the basis of its self-regulating systems and of all other life forms evolved since. Its newest living species are mammals that evolved only millions of years ago, though not a single species of early mammals survives today.
DNA is virtually the oldest thing in Earth's evolution still alive on its surface -- propagating itself from the beginning in an unbroken chain, as surface rock transformed into endless creatures, who recycled it in turn into sediments that were subducted back into the magma of origin by great tectonic plates. All the while, DNA's species came and went, playing their roles and then disappearing, while it continued the dance.
There is little reason to think, from a biological perspective, that humans will change the pattern of species flux and survive for the rest of the life of our planet without further evolving. We haven't even the patience to wait for natural evolutionary changes, but are impatient to redesign our own DNA. What does this urgency signify? Do we sense that we are on the brink of a huge new leap in evolution? Do we think altering our own biology, rather than exercising our consciousness, is the way to get there?
No doubt we are a bold improvisation in Gaia's dance -- a new kind of creature that may not survive very long at all if it doesn't learn to play a humbler and healthier role than it has thus far We produce and patent new plants and animals and create ever new kinds of artificial ecosystems.
Where are we headed in the arrogance of thinking we understand genetic engineering as well as those humble bacteria that invented, defined and refined it? In fact, we can only do it by enslaving them to carry out our intentions, as we have enslaved them to clean crude oil, to manufacture biodegradable plastics they invented long before us and to make them manufacture other particular substances they know how to make for us. But do we really want to eat plants we get them to insert poisons into every cell of to ward off insect predators, when nature long ago evolved plants healthy enough to keep them at bay in their own ways? Do we really want to clone ourselves to attain immortality, when our cloned sheep Dolly proved to age ten times faster than her peers?
Our rapid progress in biotechnology will likely get us into as much trouble as our nuclear-age mechanical technology if we don't make equal progress in understanding life systems and their dynamic ecological balance. Only if it is used with understanding of and respect for living systems can biotechnology offer the possibility of working with life for life.
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On our planet, at least, we are indeed unique for the range of our conscious free choice of behavior, the range of our technological prowess, and our ability to foresee, plan, and act for the future. But the very evolution of such abilities on our own planet suggests they may well have evolved on many other planets around the universe. The same kind of matter exists everywhere and seems to undergo the same processes all over our cosmos. There is no good reason not to assume that planets come alive and evolve in essentially the same way everywhere. This assumption is fairly widespread among scientists now and underlies our ongoing efforts to reach and communicate with intelligent life in other star systems.
In most of these communications efforts, such as the radio telescope project CETI, scientists assume that intelligent species of other planets will have invented a mechanical technology composed of mathematics, machinery and electronics essentially similar to our own, and that they will not have progressed beyond it. This assumption is made in the belief that intelligence -- the gathering and using of information to gain understanding -- can grow to human proportions only through our kind of technology, through a similar co-evolution of conscious thought with the productive use of manipulative organs such as our hands. This idea rules out the possibility that creatures such as cetaceans could be as intelligent as humans, and it would be wise to feel less sure of ourselves on this score until we know more about the whales and dolphins.
It is interesting to consider that several of our own technological inventions -- including sonar, diving equipment, insulated clothing, and high-speed long-range communications systems -- all evolved within cetacean bodies, which function comfortably at widely varying pressures and temperatures as they move freely about the seas covering most of the Earth's surface. We have no present way of knowing how far such naturally evolved internal biotechnology can go or how it can be used by highly evolved brains -- or whether it could contribute to the formation or function of living systems beyond our planetary Gaia.
There is a whole literature about and by people who have had demonstrable telepathic communications with cetaceans. Indigenous humans use telepathy routinely to communicate complex thoughts and concepts with each other, as well as with other species. One such tribe's use of telepathy is described in detail by Petru Popescu, in his story about National Geographic photographer Loren McIntyre's experiences with the "cat people" of the Amazon, who had been thought extinct until he stumbled on them while lost. It is of special interest that these so-called primitive people have sophisticated understanding of both practical linear time and a deeper non-linear understanding of radial time as physicists only now begin to comprehend it.
Harvard psychiatrist John Mack, whose credibility was put to severe academic test and passed, has interviewed patients and others around the world about their experiences with extra-terrestrials. His findings show almost universally that ET communication is telepathic and so prolific in `downloading' that the people involved can only grasp and communicate small parts of it.
Many people with ET contacts believe that galactic and cosmic life systems larger than those confined to single planets already exist, and our very popular science fiction films have reflected that belief for some time. A galactic living system would require communications and space travel, but most likely not of the sort we have imagined -- radio telescopes and great space ships supplied for generations of physical life forms.
If live planets are the cells of such galactic systems, their living creatures may not have to come into physical contact with one another, any more than the mitochondria of our liver cells need to meet the mitochondria of our bone cells. A common information-communications system may unite them effectively.
Clearly linear time and physical space as we have understood them, preclude any kind of efficient or reasonable space travel. Even the exchange of messages coming one at a time across light years of space now look like a crude and primitive idea. Does that mean that space travel and communications are impossible, or simply that our concepts of time and space were wrong? Non-locality, radial time, creation by consciousness and other concepts new to western science are rapidly changing our assumptions on how our universe works, and opening doors to our long-dreamed of contacts with other beings of our cosmos. In fact, once we see that these things are possible, as Joe Firmage points out, we will be less reluctant to believe they are happening, and perhaps always have been throughout human history.
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Before we consider how we might become part of an interplanetary or intergalactic life system, shouldn't we consider how we might look to other members of such a system? We have seen the Gaian system and ourselves from various perspectives within or just outside it. Let us now try looking at ourselves from the point of view of some intelligent species from another star system that can observe us.
Learning what we are and what we are up to, would they consider us an intelligent form of life?
Surely it would strike them as most peculiar that we destroy the environment on which we depend. No intelligent species would knowingly pollute its air, water, and soil to the point of endangering itself. It would hardly cram itself into communities of concrete that sealed the species off from natural processes and made its air unbreathable with its own wastes when there was plenty of space on the planet and ways to avoid creating the pollution.
They would surely wonder why we destroy the natural ecosystems of our planet to grow our own food without preserving variety and recycling water and nutrients to prevent the land from turning into deserts. They would note that we deliberately overload our planet's delicately balanced atmosphere and thus overheat the planet itself with carbon dioxide as we hack down our tropical forests and destroy the coastal areas that might reestablish the balance. They would wonder how we could know that our whole planet's life system is driven effectively by solar energy and not use this safe energy source extensively ourselves, if we cannot yet tap deeper sources such as zero-point energy.
Could they consider us intelligent after they see that we are quite capable of providing a comfortable life for all humans, yet choose to devote enormous resources to escalating an arms race rather than using them for the wellbeing of our people? Would an intelligent species overproduce food for some of its members while millions of its young die annually of starvation? Would our observers not wonder that the males of our species had long ago declared the female half of the species inferior, largely excluding them from their former positions of authority and management, at the same time often shifting social priorities from life-giving to life-taking?
They would see us systematically exterminating other species and whole ecosystems, even the other large-brained creatures most like ourselves, such as dolphins and whales, elephants, chimpanzees, and gorillas, though they are peaceful and inoffensive to humans. They would see our leaders, many of whom hold their positions by popular consent, maintaining hostilities that threaten nuclear warfare, which would destroy all parties and create a planetary nuclear winter. What would they think of our popular Star Wars weapons cult and of our use of that name for a weapons system?
If extraterrestrial species developed technologies essentially similar to ours, they would sooner or later discover nuclear energy or even more sophisticated means of destruction. If they were warring species at the time of such discoveries, they would have faced crises similar to our own -- crises of choice between species suicide or species cooperation. One might think any species that has survived such discoveries would have learned peaceful cooperation or blasted itself out of existence.
This leaves our expectations of alien belligerence less likely, and perhaps even embarrassing, if it comes to a meeting. Are we a cosmic anomaly -- a species once mutually consistent with its ecosystem that became rather suddenly, over a period of a few thousand years, hostile and destructive to itself and its living planet? May we attribute this peculiarity to the temporary condition of youth -- to unprecedented freedom during the heady stage of species adolescence? Have our observers reason to hope we shall soon grow up and become wiser?
In the stories of ET encounters Dr. Mack hears from his patients, the ET's are indeed appalled at the destructiveness of human behavior, and their most common plea to humans is to take care of their planet while they still can. What is the evidence they might see in our favor -- that might give them hope we can behave as an intelligent species?
We have begun to understand and be concerned with ecological balance; we are beginning in at least some areas to protect endangered species, reduce our pollution, and give the rest of nature a chance to clean up and restore its balance. Unfortunately these constructive efforts are very far from balancing our continuing destruction. Still, there is hope that we may increase these efforts dramatically when we finally recognize ourselves as a living system -- part of a living being whose delicate balance is tailored to our needs, but which may eliminate us if we force it to reorganize itself to cope with our reckless destruction of that balance.
The threat of all-out nuclear war actually lessened dramatically as we took to heart our scientists' predictions of its dire consequences for all humanity, but genuine disarmament has not happened among the great powers, and renegade nuclear weapons in smaller nations proliferate, ever more difficult to track. This suggests that we do respond to our knowledge by changing our ways, but we need to speed this process.
Our technology is well on the way out of the industrial age of heavy steel and polluting fossil fuels, into the information age of lightweight transistor technology, the Web, and benign energy sources such as sunlight, wind, waves, hydrogen and alcohol, with water fuel cells and zero-point energy on the immediate horizon. If we put our future welfare ahead of immediate profit motives, turning corporations into living systems that make only consumable and recyclable products, this transition could be completed rapidly and effectively, as we said in the last chapter.
Agricultural research, as we also saw, is beginning to look more seriously at older, even ancient, methods of natural pest control and crop rotation and variation, recognizing that monocultures sustained by chemicals are rapidly destroying the land and polluting the waterways. The shift to organic agriculture is already underway.
Our worldwide economic system, our transportation and communications technology, our information revolution, have bound us into a body of humanity that is now being pushed for the sake of its survival to evolve from competition to cooperation among nations and with our environment. We see that the integrative evolutionary forces which produced protists and multicelled creatures are now pushing us to complete our own organizational task. We see that we only prolong and aggravate our biggest problems by resisting this evolution with habitual fears and hostile competition. We can use our gift of freedom to make up for our lack of innate limits to territorial and aggressive behavior by channeling these into constructive negotiation and sharing, as we are practicing on the Web.
We can recognize that the strength and resilience of living systems lies in their diversity, and stop trying to make ourselves all alike. We can analyze and reorganize efforts such as the United Nations, which are as critical to the organization of the body of humanity as were nuclei to eukaryotes and brains to animals.
We can end the sexual inequality that is not merely an injustice to women but a deplorable waste of half our species' talents for creative management and nurture of the species as a whole. As long as women remain a tiny minority in positions of human leadership, they will be pressed on the whole to conform to the established male model of society based on bureaucracy, top-down command and control organizations, competition, conquest, and profit. Only when women assume equal leadership will they be free to express effectively their abilities in organic organization, networking, cooperation, nurture, and mutual benefit.
Certainly we would be foolish to continue our environmental destruction and our hostilities to the point of possible extinction when we are surrounded by clues to exciting, creative, natural solutions for our greatest problems. If we accept ourselves as an adolescent species in crisis and face the challenge of taking on mature responsibility for our freedom with courage and enthusiasm, we stand an excellent chance of growing up and reaping the benefits of maturity.
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How rewarding it would be if, when we openly communicate with extraterrestrials we could do so having solved our great problems of inequality, hunger, pollution, devastation of ecosystems and nuclear threat. We would then be in a wonderful position to face new challenges with appropriate pride in our species. Perhaps we will be called on to protect Gaia by detecting and diverting massive meteors or planetoids; perhaps if we come to understand and help foster Gaia's healthy ecosystems, we will be able to bring life to Mars or some Moons of our solar system, thus spreading Gaia's seed.
Whatever our dreams of such roles, or of cooperating in a larger cosmic life system, our immediate task is still here at home. On the whole, there seems to be good reason to believe our recklessly egotistical and destructive phase is coming to an end with new knowledge that leads us back to ancient wisdom. We are capable of regaining our reverence for life, of replacing the drive to conquer with the will to cooperate, of remaking our engineered institutions, including our corporations, into living systems.
The more we learn about nature, including human nature, the more we can see that our living parent planet and our whole living cosmos are far more beautiful and awesome in the reality of their self-creation than is any myth we made as we struggled to develop our knowledge. At last our scientific and religious quests can merge in the recognition that conscious, sacred, self-creating nature, both Gaian and cosmic, is our physical and spiritual source, the wellspring of our ancient inspiration to love, and the experienced guide we have always sought -- the guide we need more than ever now that we stand on the brink of maturity.