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Living Systems in Evolution

Elisabet Sahtouris

copyright © 1999 by Elisabet Sahtouris


Worldviews from Plato to the Present


Eventually, through an itinerant preacher -- or storyteller, in Greek tradition -- named Paul, a new religion came to Greece from the East. It was a religion that fit Plato's worldview very well. Not only did it explain the creation of the world by a perfect God; it also explained the disorderly ways of humans as disobedience to God, their Father. This gave people a new hope -- that they could make themselves and their society more perfect by obeying God's law.

According to this Hebrew-Christian worldview, God had created the world only a few thousand years before, with all its different kinds of plants and animals, just as it is now and right at the center of the universe. This view was very much in keeping with Plato's brilliant student Aristotle's static view of nature, Anaximander never having been taken seriously on the subject of evolution.

The scenario is familiar -- God created the world as a paradise for humans, setting the first two people into its perfection. They were expelled after Eve disobeyed God's law by tempting Adam to join her in the sin of eating fruit from the tree of knowledge, thus bringing disorder and strife into the world forever after. Still, paradise could be regained after death, in a heavenly world, if people became perfect in God's eyes again, and this perfection could be accomplished by seeking forgiveness and obeying God's law.

In the ever expanding thrust of empires, Rome conquered Greece. Though Jesus himself had preached equality for all, including women, and had been opposed to any kind of dominance, the holy texts were rewritten to suit the priesthood of the new church, after the earliest Roman Christians had been tortured and killed. By the time the Byzantine empire split off from the Roman empire, the church's revised Christian worldview, adapted by priests to their hierarchical societies, had been officially adopted by both empires, with slight differences.

The rich heritage of ancient Greek scientific discoveries -- that the Earth moved around the Sun, that nature was alive and evolving, that humans were descended from simpler creatures, that many of their ills were curable by medicines and surgery -- was destroyed, forgotten, or denied as the new worldview took over. The great library at Alexandria was repeatedly sacked and burned by Romans, Christians, and Muslims; nearly a million book-scrolls of human knowledge and culture were lost.

In Europe, for well over a thousand years, all ideas -- scientific and other -- that did not reflect the Christian worldview were considered heresies and outlawed wherever possible. Brutal Crusades marched outside of Europe to attack Muslims as non-believer infidels; women were burned to death in droves as witches all over Europe -- for practicing the older nature religions persisting among ordinary people and healing with natural medicines. Christian priests, who explained God's law to people and enforced it, were the rulers of all Europe. Even kings bowed down to the highest priest of all, the pope of the Holy Roman Empire. Waves of plagues were seen as God's wrath released against his disobedient children, and the church grew ever stronger for its presumed power to grant salvation.

Many of Plato's ideas about education and politics in a perfect society were put into practice during the Christian era. Plato had written, for example, that a perfect society should be ruled by the most educated of citizens, people from all walks of life who lived simply, without personal possessions. Though Plato had not advocated the exclusion of women from education and rule, the Christian monks and priests, who wielded so much influence in Europe, otherwise met Plato's requirements. The highest-ranking clerics did indulge themselves, however, in affluent comforts and fine robes. The idea of heaven and hell as places where people would go after death to be rewarded or punished for their Earthly behavior also came from Plato's writings. And the works of Aristotle taught Christian Europe formal logic and the pursuit of virtue -- originally meaning excellence, but later coming to mean obedience.

For more than a thousand years the Christian Europeans educated only boys and men, teaching them the invented mechanical languages of mathematics and logic in the dead language of Latin. A dead language is one no longer in common use, no longer imbibed by children at their mother's knee, no longer changing, but frozen in time. This education is important to remember when, in the next chapter, we consider how the differences between natural living languages and artificial nonliving languages affect worldviews.

For now, let us note that the perfected mechanical languages of mathematics and logic played a central role in the rebirth of science in Europe. This rebirth was of course part of the larger rebirth -- or Renaissance -- of human curiosity and culture that began about five hundred years ago.

Through trade with the East, opened up by Crusades, some Europeans, such as the Medici family in Italy, became very wealthy and very worldly. To have beautiful and interesting things around them, they hired architects, artists, and scientists to create splendid new works and to seek new knowledge. Of note, this expansion of urban life and culture also led to vast deforestation all over Europe, as ancient Rome had deforested northern Africa to build its ships and cities, as well as to open land for growing its grain.

Traders and refugees brought copies of surviving ancient scientific writings from Constantinople, from Arab lands, from Moorish Spain, from wherever they had been preserved, studied, and further developed, as they were especially in Muslim mathematics, astronomy, alchemy, and medicine. These manuscripts, including many Greek works salvaged from Alexandria and preserved by Muslims, reawakened interest in questions of planetary movement through the skies and of the location and nature of the Earth, with all its living plants and animals.

Giordano Bruno, the first philosopher-scientist to revive the ancient notion that the Earth moves around the Sun, was burned at the stake in the year 1600 by the Christian priests of the Holy Inquisition. But only ten years later Galileo Galilei built the first telescope and with its help showed that the Earth does revolve around the Sun and so cannot be at the center of the universe. Neither Bruno nor Galileo ever meant to disprove the religious worldview, but only to improve it. Yet Galileo, too, was punished by the church. Narrowly escaping the stake, he was imprisoned and forbidden to teach.

It is important to remember that all the founding fathers of modern science were religious men eager to show the glory of God by giving people a better understanding of His wonderful creations. They imagined God very much as Plato had -- as a geometer. Mathematics, Galileo said, was the language in which all nature was written. And so the most important task of reborn science was to discover the mathematical laws by which God had created the world.

·    ·    ·

Throughout the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and even later during the Age of Enlightenment, as Carolyn Merchant documented in The Death of Nature, a belief in nature as alive, personal, and mysterious, persisted among ordinary people as well as in the tradition of alchemy. Yet as modern science evolved, it weeded out these ideas in favor of a belief in nature as an impersonal mechanism that had to be brought under human dominance by rational understanding and mathematical description. Let's see how this dramatic change in worldview occurred.

The ancient Greeks, especially Archimedes, had already begun to make mechanical models of how things in nature work. In fact, the words mechanism and machine come from the ancient Greek words for these models. Archimedes built actual machines that were very ingenious and successful -- especially some rather amazing machines for fighting wars, such as huge cranes equipped with claws that could life ships out of water and smash them on ground. But he was so ashamed of these crude imitations of sacred geometrical designs built for practical mundane purposes that he never even wrote about them himself. Greek philosophers felt that physical machines were poor imitations of God-the-geometer's sacred works -- such sacrilege that ancient Greece did not develop its technology.

The Renaissance, however, gave rebirth not only to art and science but to mechanical engineering as well. Scientists themselves began building mechanical models to help work out the geometric patterns of the heavens wheeling around the Earth. Later models showed the Earth and other planets wheeling around the Sun while Moons wheeled around planets, all against the greater background of wheeling stars. Each heavenly body they knew about was attached, in these models, to its own ring of metal in the great sphere of the universe. Some of the most elaborate models with the greatest number of rings looked a bit like huge sculptured balls of metallic yarn. All these rings wheeling about within one another suggested that the universe must be something like other Renaissance machinery -- something like the clockworks in church towers, with various wheels turning other wheels in their mechanisms.

Rene Descartes -- another founding father of modern science -- invented a new mathematics along with a whole new framework for the religious-scientific worldview. In this view, God was not only a geometer, but a Grand Engineer. Using mathematical laws, God had not only created a cosmic clockworks, but had put into it endless smaller mechanical inventions such as plants and animals and people. Descartes insisted there was no essential difference between man-made machines such as clocks, grain mills, or jeweled golden wind-up birds that sang and the living mechanisms God had created. God's were more complex, but man could learn that complexity. This became the dominant worldview of all science.

As men were God's favorite mechanisms, Descartes explained, He attached to them inventive minds that worked quite like His own. Women, like animals, had no such minds, and were to be controlled by men along with the rest of mechanical nature. Since men's minds had been made to work like God's own, it was no surprise that men, too, were inventive engineers, putting their own mechanical robots into their own mechanical clocks high upon the church towers in honor of the Grand Engineer.

None of the scientists who accepted this worldview ever seemed to wonder if man had not projected his own mind, talents, and achievements into his image of God, rather than the other way around. They were convinced that, except for their own male minds, everything in nature was God's mechanical creation, made to be understood by men. Surely this was as strange a worldview as humans had ever held, yet it wove the religious worldview and the scientific worldview into one and gave scientists new visions of understanding and controlling all nature, as they were convinced God intended.

Imagine the excitement they felt -- if everything in the whole world, even in the whole universe -- was mechanical, then men who understood mechanics could understand how all nature worked by taking everything apart to see what made it tick! And sooner or later, surely, they would be able to make their mechanical birds as good as God's feathered ones.

Another founding father, Francis Bacon, who is credited with having developed the scientific method, wrote much about the coming Golden Age of Science, when man would understand and control all nature, creating his own mechanically perfect societies, which would be free of all human problems. Wasn't that what God intended for his favorite creatures? Bacon was a lawyer who attended many witch trials. He, like many men, identified mysterious nature with woman. Science, he said, would flourish when men grew up and stopped expecting her to unveil herself at their request, but instead hounded nature and tortured her secrets from her.

It is interesting to contrast Bacon's vision of a future Golden Age with ancient Hesiod's lament for the times of a past Golden Race -- to reflect on what seems utopian in the context of different worldviews. For Hesiod, peace and bounty seemed to pour from nature itself, whereas for Bacon all good things were to be wrested from nature at any cost by dominating and controlling it.

·    ·    ·

The mechanical worldview suited the next few centuries very well, for nothing mattered more to the Europeans and their offspring Americans than the machinery that was changing the whole human way of life. Scientists, living in a society that was becoming ever more mechanized, saw more and more mechanisms wherever they looked in nature. Geologists described geological mechanisms -- how the Earth was put together, how the cycles of weather ground up rocks, and so on. Biologists spoke of the mechanisms of living things -- how the parts of plants and animals and people were put together and how they worked. In time, doctors spoke of heart and lung pumps, of bone and muscle mechanisms; still later psychologists studied the machinery of the brain and social planners worked on the mechanisms of society.

Scientific discoveries of `natural mechanisms' depended on the invention of new man-made mechanisms such as telescopes, compasses, thermometers, barometers, scales, clocks, and later more sophisticated devices, all of which made it possible for the scientists to detect and measure ever more parts of the natural world. Science also depended on the invention of new mathematics for modeling relationships among these measured parts of the world, for only measurable parts of the world could be studied by scientists with a mechanical worldview.

Let's look for just a moment at this role played by mathematics in science. Mathematics itself is not a science -- it is the art of making complicated and beautifully balanced patterns from very simple basic symbols and rules for combining them. Mathematicians can keep finding new patterns to make from the basic symbols and rules they have adopted, or they can change those symbols and rules to develop a wholly different set of patterns.

In pure mathematics, the symbols have no real-world meaning -- no one has ever found a 2 or a + or a > in nature. But scientists have found that when they assign a real-world meaning to the symbols, some mathematical patterns turn out to be very useful as models of the measurable aspects of nature they study. Many mathematical models are designed to be translated into physical mechanisms, as they were in the Renaissance models of the cosmos.

Consider that whenever we want to describe something previously unknown to us -- when we want to understand it -- we must find something familiar to us with which we can compare it. The known thing becomes a metaphor -- literally a carrier -- for understanding the unknown thing. This is because the brain can use new incoming patterns of information only in the context of its existing patterns.

Every day we use metaphors such as "This material is as soft as a baby's skin and as blue as the sea," or "That man is watching me like a hawk," or "The boss wants everything to run like clockwork." But how often do we reflect on the fact that all new understanding, even scientific understanding, comes about in this way? The patterns or forms of machines and mathematics are human inventions, and thus they are very familiar to their inventors. So, when scientists use them as models -- saying, for example, that hearts pump blood and plants pump water -- we should be clear that these are simply metaphors that help us understand something about hearts, plants and their energy use.

The idea that reality is made up of only measurable things, and that their description is the only possible knowledge of reality, is called positivism. The tasks of positivist science have been seen as twofold -- to discover what the parts of natural mechanisms are, and to see how the mechanisms work through the movement of these parts. In other words, scientists took things apart in order to see of what they were constructed as well as how they `ticked.' This method of reducing things to their parts came to be known as the reductionist method of science.

In so reducing things to their parts, scientists showed us a fascinating inner world of things. Live bodies, for instance, were made of bones, skin, blood vessels, nerves, and other organs; each organ was made of tissues, each tissue of cells, each cell of chemicals. In fact, everything turned out to be made of chemicals, which in turn were made of molecules.

Molecules that were fixed in tight patterns so they could not move formed solid things, such as rock or wood. If they slipped and slid around each other, they formed liquids. If they floated about loosely, they formed gases. And molecules, it turned out, were made of atoms. At last scientists had the instruments and the mathematics to show that all natural mechanisms were really made of those tiniest and most indestructible building blocks called atoms -- just as the ancient Greeks had said more than two thousand years before!

Only one problem -- things did not prove to be quite so simple. Atoms turned out to be made of parts themselves, and their parts turned out to be anything but solid machine parts. Atomic physicists, just when they reached the very foundation of mechanical nature, discovered that nature is not so mechanical after all. But before we go on with this story, let's go back to look at the other part of what scientists were doing -- seeing what the movement of parts was all about in natural mechanisms.

From their measurements and models scientists worked out mathematical laws of motion among the parts of nature's mechanisms. The more they studied motion in the universe, the more the universe seemed to move and change. Not only did the Earth no longer stand still at the center of perfect heavenly spheres, but it turned on its own wobbling axis and wheeled around its Sun in spirals, because the Sun itself wandered through space, dragging its planets with it as part of a galaxy moving on its own, and so on.

Geologists, digging into rock and studying landscapes, discovered that the Earth itself has changed a great deal over time. Biologists meanwhile grew curious about the fossils geologists uncovered. Earth seemed to contain her own record of plants and animals that had lived long ago, and the record indicated that they had changed a great deal, too.

How could the Earth be only a few thousand years old, as measured from the generations of people listed in the Bible from the creation of Adam to historically known kings? The geological record was proving it to be very much older, with different kinds of plants and animals at different times in its history. Had God created these different kinds of plants and animals at different times, rather than creating them all at once? Did He keep making them more complicated with each wave of creation? Or had they somehow changed by themselves?

Once the idea of evolution, buried since Anaximander's time, emerged again, it quickly made a great deal of sense, and the whole scientific-religious worldview was turned upside down to fit it. Creation had been seen as a kind of ladder with God at the top. On the next rung down were the angels, then people, then the large animals, then the smaller ones, and on down to lowly worms and even smaller things, all Earth creatures having been created at once by God. In the new evolutionary view, the ladder began at the bottom with the most ancient, tiniest creatures, which changed over time, forming new rungs of ever larger creatures, climbing the ladder up to the rung of humans, who seemed to be at the very top -- for scientists were beginning to doubt the existence of angels and God. Eventually, scientists gave up the whole concept of God and declared their separation from religion, a matter we will go into further later on.

When Darwin's theory of evolution through natural selection of the fittest in a great competition for limited resources became popular, the industrial age was well under way. In fact, the industrialists of Darwin's England were in just such competition for survival with one another, so they readily adopted the new evolutionary theory as part of their worldview. These ever wealthier industrialists were not so ready to believe the news that they were cousins to the apes, but the idea that they were the fittest creatures in all nature seemed to make up for it. They did not need to lose sleep over the poverty and toil they were forcing on their workers in factories and colonies, for their own riches and comforts were simply proof of their natural fitness. In fact, they took Darwin's theory as evidence that their way of life -- industrial competition -- was the most natural and the surest way of human progress. Did it not follow that a competitive capitalist society was the best possible social mechanism for producing the fittest humans through natural selection?

Not long after the theory of evolution became known, the Russian Revolution produced a new `social mechanism' known as communism, which was meant to be based on cooperation rather than on competition. Russian scientists rewrote the theory of evolution accordingly, to show that cooperation in nature produced more fit natural creatures than did competition!

·    ·    ·

Moving away from religion, science came closer to the politics of industrial man, who had wrested social and political power from the church. In both the capitalist and communist worlds, scientists were awarded the status of a secular priesthood with the mission of forming the cultural worldview -- the story of how things came to be. In turn, they were supported by governments and rewarded for shaping worldviews consistent with the politics of their societies. Yet much as they argued the natural advantages of competition on one side and cooperation on the other, industrialism itself evolved and dictated a similar way of life on both sides for those who owned the means of production and those who worked for them. Industrialism, that is, shaped human habits to its needs -- which have now shown themselves as greeds -- making society itself into the great mechanism so wonderfully spoofed by Charlie Chaplin.

City transportation systems were built to get workers to and from factories, and education systems were designed to produce the workers. Schools trained children to be on time and to sit still for long hours without talking to their neighbors, doing what they were told even if it was boring, as they would have to in factories when they got older. It was as if children were raw materials put into the school machine and turned out as workers. The clocks and schedules of industrial workers replaced the Sun and the weather in telling people when to do what. Government systems got more complicated, more centralized, more organized, to manage society in ways that made industry and the trade of industrial products work smoothly.

Thus, families, schools, hospitals, governments, and other social institutions were run as efficiently as factory machines. The whole way of life became as mechanical as the scientific worldview, and new branches of science -- economic science, political science, sociology -- were created to design and build the machinery of society, to keep it well oiled and in good repair.

The idea of perfecting humanity, first stated in Plato's worldview, was held throughout the Christian Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and that same idea fired the imaginations of the founding fathers of modern science and industry. Now it was put to its greatest test -- the modern industrial age was to bring the solution to all problems at last; it was to create perfect order in the lives of individuals and in all society.

The later Greek philosophers and the Christians had sought perfection in the practice of ethics -- the human pursuit of what is right and good for one and all. But modern science did not concern itself with ethics or with any other human values. Scientists were not interested in what they saw as vague and apparently religious ideas of what is right or wrong, good or bad, which could be argued forever and would only muddle the task of science. This they saw as the purely positivist task of describing natural mechanisms and passing their knowledge on to the engineers who would bring both nature and human society under control with perfectly designed and managed technology.

But neither personal nor social nor economic nor political problems were brought under such control. Science and its applications in linear cause and effect engineering made great advances in industrial production, in transportation and communications, in medical technology, in weaponry, and finally even in the exploration of space, but industrial nations were at one another's throats in the biggest wars ever fought and the environment was steadily razed to feed the machines. Enormous wealth, moreover, had been gained at the expense of vast numbers of the world's people, once self-sufficient, now poor, hungry, ill, uneducated, and without opportunity for anything better. The promised Golden Age of humanity seemed farther away than ever.

Meanwhile, scientists were extending ideas about the mechanisms of evolutionary change to the cosmos as a whole. Astronomers traced the universe back to a Big Bang -- an original event explosion that was assumed to have created all the cosmos we know as its super-hot energy expanded. Stars and galaxies evolved, but moved ever farther apart, so that the universe as a whole was apparently spreading out and cooling off. Thus the great cosmic machine, the astronomers said, was running down -- moving ever closer to its finish, when all order would be dissipated in the ultimate cold where no energy moved.

However far off this `heat death' end might be, it was a depressing vision, and scientists offered no salvation from it, no comfort of values or ethics to give life meaning. People began seeing themselves as helplessly trapped inside a cosmic mechanism that would run down no matter what they did. Life simply had no meaning in this coldly scientific worldview, but who could oppose scientific knowledge? Modern philosophies such as existentialism and some schools of modern art reflected the scientists' view of a mechanical universe running down, humans caught in it like cogs in wheels, without meaning or hope.

Many scientists today still believe firmly in just such a mechanical worldview, but many others now see nature as alive and intelligent. Those who believe that life is self-creating in a dynamically alive universe, rather than winding down in a mechanical one, also believe that life can create its own meaning and purpose.

In Chapter 5 we spoke of the differences between mechanisms and organisms in connection with the autopoietic definition of life, and of entropy as the catabolic side of a metabolic cycle which builds up as it breaks down. But to really understand the present scientific debate on whether nature is or is not mechanical, we must go back once again to look at just what we mean by the concept and physical reality of mechanism, and at what role it has played in human history.

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