Living Systems in Evolution
Principles of Living Systems at all Levels of Holarchy
copyright � 1995 by Elisabet Sahtouris
My holistic view is that we should teach and discuss everything within the overall framework of Living Systems: the economics of living systems, politics, arts, education etc. etc. etc. That would connect all our discussions meaningfully. We tend to understand these priniciples intuitively at the level of our bodies and of our families, but with bigger systems we forget them, primarily because we do not THINK of them as living systems. For example, in a family, parents don't starve three children to overfeed the forth. But we DO exactly that at a global economics level.
A simple preliminary list of of the principles of living systems at all levels of holarchy and following selected parts are extracted from various chapters and the appendixes of the book to be found at the end of this paper.
Excerpts from the Foreword of Earthdance:
The Gaia hypothesis, now Gaia theory, of James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis–the theory that our planet and its creatures constitute a single self-regulating system that is in fact a great living being, or organism–is the conception of physical reality in which my philosophy is rooted. Quite simply, it makes more sense on all levels–intuitive, experiential, scientific, philosophical, and even aesthetic and ethical–than any other conception I know. And I have come to believe, in the course of this work, that this conception contains profound and pressing implications for all humanity.
To ensure that my vision of evolution and history would stay simple and in clear focus, I kept telling its essence and more than a few of its particulars in something of the style of an ancient storyteller (albeit less poetically) during many social evenings among my Greek village friends. I also wrote the story in English for children before I set about an adult version.
To my surprise, these deliberate exercises in simplicity proved more difficult than writing for professional audiences, for in stripping our intellectual language to the essence of what is being said, we must be very sure that essence is really there, really coherent. Science has been a process of differentiating our knowledge into an incredible wealth of precise details, but these details become ever more disconnected from one another and cry out for integration into coherent wholes. I have no doubt I will be accused of oversimplification, and perhaps rightly so, as one pays for scope in lack of detail and precision.
Friends and colleagues have asked me now and then why I insist on dealing with all evolution, even all the cosmos, to discuss human matters, why I don't narrow my scope to workable proportions. My answer is that context is what gives meaning, and a serious search of context is an ever-expanding process leading inevitably to the grandest context of all: the whole cosmos. As the nested contexts for the human story–especially the context of evolution–became clearer to me, they revealed a simple but elegant biological vision of just why our human condition has become so critical and what we might do to improve it.
Other people ask why I'm so eager to save humanity when it is proving such a social and ecological disaster. To this I can only answer that, as far as I can see, every healthy living being or system in nature has evolved behavior consistent with its survival, and I do not exclude myself from this natural health scheme.
I can no more proclaim the worldview arising from my work “reality” than can any particular philosopher working at creating a meaningful worldview in any particular place and time, drawing on the scientific and historical knowledge of that place and time. Philosophy is an intensely personal search that one hopes will have relevance to others, will be validated by their experience, will offer them some insight and guidance, or will at least stimulate them in their disagreement to search further on their own. Yet a work of philosophy also reflects the broader context and search of a culture at a particular stage, and the biological evolutionary viewpoint of this book reflects a broadly emerging pattern of search for our origins and direction in nature–a reawakening of that search begun by the original pre-Socratic philosophers, indeed that goes further back to the roots of religion–the search for re-ligio, for “reconnection” with our origins in nature or cosmos, within which we were created and within which we continue our creation.
Paradoxically, our self-imposed separation from nature by way of an “objective” mechanical worldview during the past few millennia has led to the scientific knowledge that makes it possible to understand and reintegrate ourselves into nature's self-organization. It has also brought us to a stage of technology that permits us to share our discoveries and our understanding planet-wide in no time at all, to work together as a body of humanity with hope of transcending our present crisis in a far healthier and happier future for ourselves and all the rest of Earthlife.
Although the actual work of this book was done in relative isolation and without funding, I am indebted and profoundly grateful to many teachers and friends, from the forest creatures with whom I spent my earliest years to Jim Lovelock and Lynn Margulis, who have not only informed and inspired me in these recent years, but who have given me invaluable encouragement, confidence, and opportunities in seeing the work through.
Metochi, Agistri, Greece
The Dance of Life
It was in the search for life on other planets that we discovered what a live planet is–and that we ourselves are part of the only live planet in our solar system.
The first astronauts to see the whole Earth with their own eyes were astonished by what they saw. Although they couldn't see any of the living creatures they knew to be on it, the Earth itself looked very much alive–like a beautiful glowing creature pulsing or breathing beneath its swirling, veillike skin, as we saw it in our imaginary film.
Scientists, of course, cannot simply trust the way things look. After all, science was built on the discovery that the Earth is not the unmoving center of the universe, much as it looks to be just that. Nevertheless, it was seeing our planet from afar for the first time and noting how very different from other planets it appeared that inspired new ideas and studies of Earth.
Long before we saw our planet in this new way, scientists had adopted the view that the Earth with its various environments is a nonliving geological background for life, living creatures having evolved upon it by accident and having adapted to it by natural selection. The Scottish scientist James Hutton, who is remembered as the father of geology, seems to have been virtually ignored when, in 1785, he called the Earth a living superorganism and said its proper study should be physiology. A century later the Russian philosopher Y. M. Korolenko told his nephew, Vladimir Ivanovitch Vernadsky, that the Earth was a live being, and though it is not clear that Vernadsky believed this himself, his studies of Earth took a very different view of life than did those of other scientists.
Vernadsky called life “a disperse of rock,” because he saw life as a chemical process transforming rock into highly active living matter and back, breaking it up, and moving it about in an endless cyclical process. The Vernadskian view is presented in this book as the concept of life as rock rearranging itself, packaging itself as cells, speeding its chemical changes with enzymes, turning cosmic radiation into its own forms of energy, transforming itself into ever evolving creatures and back into rock. This view of living matter as continuous with, and as a chemical transformation of, nonliving planetary matter is very different from the view of life developing on a nonliving planet and adapting to it.
While this Vernadskian view is stimulating much research in the Soviet Union, it never became widely known in the West. The biologist G. E. Hutchinson was one of the very few Western scientists of this century who took an interest in and promoted Vernadsky's view that life is a geochemical process of the Earth.
Then the independent English scientist James Lovelock, at NASA during the search for life on Mars, knowing nothing of Vernadsky's work, shocked the world of science by suggesting that the geological environment is not only the product and remainder of past life but also an active creation of living things. Living organisms, said Lovelock, continually renew and regulate the chemical balance of air, seas, and soil in ways that ensure their continued existence. He called this idea–that life creates and maintains precise environmental conditions favorable to its existence–the Gaia hypothesis, at the suggestion of his Cornwall neighbor, the novelist William Golding.
The Gaia hypothesis is now recognized as Gaia theory, but it is still controversial among scientists. Lovelock, like his predecessor Hutton, calls Earth-as-Gaia an organism or superorganism and claims its proper study is physiology. Yet he also calls Gaia a self-stabilizing mechanism made of coupled living and nonliving parts–organisms and physical environments–which affect one another in ways that maintain Earth's relatively constant temperature and chemical balance within limits favorable to life Lovelock describes this mechanical system as a cybernetic device working by means of feedback among its coupled parts to main tain Earth's stable conditions in the manner of a thermostat-controlled heating system that maintains house temperature, or an automatic pilot that keeps an airplane on course. This concept of Gaia as a cybernetic device is far more acceptable within the mechanical worldview that still dominates science than is the concept of Gaia as a live organism.
For Lovelock “organism” and “mechanism” are equally appropriate concepts, but in fact the two concepts contradict each other logically, and this causes confusion around the whole issue of Gaia theory. The concept of life–by any definition, including the autopoietic definition of self-producing and self-renewing living systems introduced in Chapter 3–is not logically consistent with the concept and reality of mechanism.
For one thing, life cannot be part of a living being; life is the essence or process of the whole living being. If Gaia is the living Earth, then it would be as meaningless to say that life creates its own environments or conditions on Earth as it would be to say that life creates its own environments or conditions in our bodies. Life is the process of bodies, not one of their parts, and in this book we maintain that the same is true for Gaia-Earth–that life is its process, its particular kind of working organization, not one of its parts. We can still say that organisms within Gaia create their environments and are created by them, in the sense that we say cells create their own environments and are created by them in our bodies. In other words, there is continual and mutually creative interaction between holons and their surrounding holarchies. But we do not divide living bodies or holarchies into “life” and “non-life.”
If we accept the autopoietic definition of life, we see another contradiction between Gaia as a living being and Gaia as a mechanical system in which life and non-life are coupled parts. An autopoietic system is self-producing and self- maintaining. It must constantly change or renew itself in order to stay the same–your body renews most of its cells within each seven years of your life, for instance. No mechanism has ever done this, because a mechanism is not self-ruled but other–rule–produced and repaired (or programmed for repair) from the outside. It cannot, and therefore does not, change itself by its own rules, and that one fact points out the essential difference between living systems and mechanical ones including even the most sophisticated computers and cybernetic robots. We will say more on this subject later, especially in Chapter 15. For now, let us just note the contradiction that arises if we define Gaia at once as a living organism and as a cybernetic device–a contradiction that is causing confusion about Gaia theory among scientists.
The position of this book, then, is that the Earth meets the biological definition of a living entity as a self-creating autopoietic system, and that only limited aspects of its function–never its essential self-organization–may be usefully modeled by cybernetic systems, just as we can usefully model aspects of our own physiology (for instance, temperature regulation) as cybernetic feedback systems.
Notice that calling the Earth alive, by definition, is different from proposing a new metaphor to replace mechanism. It is also different from proposing a Gaia hypothesis or a Gaia theory. There is nothing to be proven once we decide that Earth fits the autopoietic definition of life. But there is fruitful ground for many new hypotheses and theories about how its physiology works. Note that the autopoietic (self-creating) definition of life does not include growth or reproduction, though these are features of many living entities.
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Let us look now at the Earth as a self-producing living planet, which we call Gaia to distinguish it from a nonliving planet with life upon it. We have already seen how magma is constantly transformed into crust, how crust is transformed into microbes and organisms, how these are turned back into crust and magma to complete the ongoing cycle of self-creation.
Lovelock's first clue to Gaia came to him when he was comparing the atmospheres of different planets. The atmospheres of the other planets in our solar system all make sense chemically–they are stable mixtures of gases. Only Earth has an atmosphere that is quite impossible by the laws of chemistry. Its gases should have burned each other up long ago!
Yet if they had, Earth would have no living creatures. And of course it does. They make and use almost the entire mixture of gases we call the atmosphere, ever feeding it new supplies as they use it and as it burns itself up chemically. This activity of living things always keeps the atmosphere in just the right balance for the life of Earth to continue. We can compare it to the activity of our cells in producing, using, and renewing the blood, lymph, and intercellular fluids flowing around them.
Living creatures, for example, produce four billion tons of new oxygen every year to make up for use and loss. They also make huge amounts of methane, which regulates the amount of oxygen in the air at any time, and they keep the air well diluted with harmless nitrogen. In fact, the Gaian atmosphere is held at very nearly 21 percent oxygen all the time. A little more and fires would start all over our planet, even in wet grass. A little less and we, along with all other air-breathing creatures, would die.
Every molecule of air you breathe, with the exception of trace amounts of inert gases such as argon and krypton, has actually been recently produced inside the cells of other living creatures. Thus the atmosphere is almost entirely the result of the constant production of gases by organisms. If these smaller organisms within the great Gaian system stopped making and balancing the gases of our air, the atmosphere would burn itself up rather quickly. And if living things didn't turn salty nitrates into nitrogen and pump that nitrogen into the air, the seas would become too salty for life to go on in them, and the atmosphere would lose its balance. The right balance of chemicals and acid in the seas and in the soil, and even the balance of temperature all over the Earth–all of the conditions necessary for the life of our planet, that is–are regulated within the planet as they are in our bodies.
Our Sun has been growing larger and hotter ever since the Earth was formed, yet the Earth has kept a rather steady temperature–in much the same way that a warm-blooded animal keeps a steady temperature while things get cooler or hotter around it.
Old attempts to explain how geological mechanisms might regulate the Earth's temperature are giving way to new explanations of how a live planet does it. Part of the complicated system involves regulating “greenhouse gases” such as carbon dioxide and methane, which trap solar heat; another part involves controlling the amount of cloud cover to let in more or less sunlight. Perhaps the Earth even creates ice ages to cool its fevers.
In our own bodies, there are always things going on to upset the balance of oxygen or salt or acid in our blood and cells. Yet the parts of our living body work together constantly against these upsets of balance. Just so, it seems that the parts of the Earth work together to help it recover from its own imbalances, though as yet we know little about how this is done.
Although we have learned much about how the complex coordinated systems of our own bodies function, we can hardly even dream of knowing everything involved in building and running such systems. We seldom reflect on the fact that our bodies work without asking anything of our conscious, thinking minds. We need not even be aware of what is going on, much less having to think or plan or do anything about it. And a good thing this is, because we would most certainly mess up our bodies' wonderful work if we interfered in it in an attempt to control it ourselves. Lewis Thomas, an American scientist who is best known for his popular essays on science, has said that for all his physiological knowledge, he would rather be put behind the controls of a jumbo jet than be put in charge of running his liver. Any one of our organs is more complicated by far than the most complicated computer we've invented–and it knows how to run itself, repair itself, and work in harmony with all other organs.
In some sense, even if not in the sense of conscious minds, our bodies and other living cells and bodies know what is good for them–they know just how they should be balanced as well as how to do the balancing. Physiologists call this still mysterious property of life “body wisdom.” It is clear that such wisdom, or intelligence, can evolve without conscious mind or conscious purpose. So if we see our Gaian planet acting “intelligently” or “wisely” in its own interest, without planning ahead or being aware, without having anything like a mind in the human sense, it should not seem strange to us. We would do well to acknowledge and respect Gaian wisdom in the sense that Thomas suggests we respect the wisdom of our bodies.
The sooner we recognize and respect Gaia as an incredibly complex self-organized living being, the sooner we will gain enough humility to stop believing we know how to manage the Earth. If we stay on our present course and cling to our present belief in our ability to control the Earth while knowing so little about it, our disastrously unintelligent interference in its affairs will not kill the planet, as many people believe, but it will very likely kill us as a species.
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Starting with physicists' current view of cosmic beginnings we have seen that the universe has tremendous energy to spend–and that it spends this energy evolving itself into ever more complicated patterns, including those we recognize as alive. We have come to believe that the total useful, or working, energy of the universe–according to the laws of physics, in particular the law of entropy–is gradually running down. Yet living creatures collect, store, and increase working energy wherever they find it violating this law. To keep the laws of physics consistent, scientists believe that in increasing energy locally living beings must be decreasing the energy of their environment at an even greater rate Only thus would they satisfy the overall demands of the entropy law, otherwise known as the second law of thermodynamics–the jaw which says that things are running down as a whole. This Implies that living things must use up and thereby degrade their environment, making it ever less useful to other living things.
On our planet this would mean that each form of life gradually uses up or degrades its environmental supplies until it chokes itself off and dies. Indeed it seems that some living creatures sometimes behave in just that way, as did the first bacteria, which used up the ready-made sugars and acids in their environment, and as we humans do when we use up and destroy our natural resources. But when one kind of organism creates such a crisis, the living Gaian system as a whole seems to find a solution. On a planetary scale we find the enrichment of species and their environments in variety and complexity–a single system recycling its supplies without running down the way mechanical systems do.
What about the planet as a whole living being, then? Does it degrade its environment as it organizes itself? Over billions of years–surely a more than adequate test for the law of entropy–our Gaian planet has continued to self-organize in ever greater complexity. It lives off the sun, to be sure, but the Sun does not burn up faster because the Earth uses its energy, and the waste heat given off by the Earth cannot be construed as degrading its cold space environment. It would seem that the entropy law, which is one of the laws of thermodynamics, and was “discovered” to explain how certain nonliving mechanical systems such as steam engines work, can tell us nothing about living systems.
Again we run into a contradiction between mechanics and organics. Many non-scientists, many readers of this book, probably find it strange that scientists do try to explain life in mechanical terms, feeling intuitively (and rightly) that there is something wrong with the whole idea. In later chapters we will see how the mechanical worldview of science and society came about.
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Recent discoveries in physics strongly suggest that the nature of the universe was from the beginning such that it would come alive however and wherever possible. Perhaps planets are to our galaxy something like seeds and eggs are to multicelled Earth creatures in that far more of them are produced than can actually form new living beings. And perhaps, like the cells in our own bodies, the “cells” of the universe, in the form of star systems or planets, may be alive for a time and then die; after death, their components may be recycled–in other words, the energy locked up in their atoms and molecules may be used again by some other part coming alive and needing supplies to develop. Those parts of the universe that seem most lifeless to us may be something like its skeleton–providing a framework as does the core of the Earth in supporting its living surface, or the deadwood forming most of a redwood tree under its living surface.
If we agree that nature is not mechanical but organic, why should we not understand the energetic motion of the very first whirling shapes in the early universe as the first stirrings of that self-organizing process leading to living organisms? The spiraling pregalactic clouds, composed of spiraling atoms, held themselves together, drew in more matter-energy from their surroundings built it into themselves, and lost energy again to their surround. In this process of energy exchange they evolved into new, more complicated forms. By the time we get to galaxies and to fully formed stars within them, the dance toward life has become quite complicated already. We are only beginning to discover how complicated are the structure and process of our own Sun star, and we still have much to learn about the way our own planet rearranges its matter into those lively chemical patterns we all agree to call living organisms.
Earth, we now know, is the only planet in our solar system that had just the right size, density, composition, fluidity of elements, and just the right distancing and balancing of energy with its Sun star and satellite Moon to come alive and stay so. Yet its life is a result of this fortunate confluence of conditions, just as the development of a plant or animal embryo is. Our living Earth is likely no more a freak accident than is the seedling that grows or the frog egg that matures. All are the inevitable result of right compositions and conditions. Some scientists believe the conditions were so special that Earth is a rare phenomenon, perhaps the only such planet in the universe. But there is no better reason to believe this than there is to believe that living planets are as common in the universe as are the successful seedlings and hatchlings of Earth. And if this is so, there are billions of other live planets in the billions of galaxies, each with billions of star systems.
The only part of the Earth that is more energetic than living creatures is the lava erupting or oozing through its crust, but most of that energy is quickly lost as heat pouring into the atmosphere while living things recycle their energy within and among themselves and from one generation to another. On the whole the living matter of the Earth, as Vernadsky would call all its living creatures taken together, is up to a thousand times more active, more energetic, than the rocky crust from which it and they evolved. Hardly an example of the decreasing energy predicted by the entropy law! Where did all this energy come from?
The giant molecules from which the first creatures formed themselves were produced by powerful solar and lightning energy or from Earth's hot core, some of which got locked up in them. The creatures formed from these molecules released this energy by breaking up other big molecules, or learned to use solar energy directly as we have seen, maintaining themselves and producing an oxygen-rich atmosphere in the process. Oxygen-burning respirers get their energy by consuming fermenters, photosynthesizes and one another. Organisms can thus convert stored energy or direct solar energy into other useful forms of energy–the energy of motion, of heat, of chemical reaction, even of electricity–while the atmosphere regulates the kinds and amounts of solar radiation available, keeping it within appropriate bounds. As Lewis Thomas has said, Earth seems to be a creature “marvelously skilled in handling the sun.”
Meanwhile, the raw materials of the Earth's interior spew or well up as new rock to be transformed into living matter, while old living matter, dead and compressed back into rock, sinks back into the soft mantle at the edges of tectonic plates. On the Earth's surface scientists have a hard time finding any rock that has not been part of living organisms, that was not transformed into living matter before it became rock again. We will see examples of this process later.
Thus virtually all of the atmosphere and all of the rocks have been through at least one phase in which they were living matter. The same is true of the soil and the seas. It is easier to distinguish between life and death than between the domains of life and nonlife we have assigned to biologists and geologists. In fact, virtually every geological part or feature of Earth we can find is a product of our planet's life activity. Further, living organisms have “invented” 99.9 percent of all the kinds of molecules we know, almost all of them back when bacteria were the only creatures around. This is autopoiesis–the self-production we take, in this book, as the definition of living beings.
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What confused us for so long–kept us from seeing that our planet is alive as a whole–is at least in part our own human space (size) and time perspective. Since we easily see ourselves and many kinds of plants and animals as wholes separate from one another and from their surround, we have had as hard a time recognizing ourselves or them as parts of a single being as we had recognizing that we ourselves are made of separate cells. In one instance we saw the parts more easily than the whole; in the other we saw the whole more easily than the parts.
If we had a magnifying glass powerful enough to let us see everything in the world around us at the level of molecules, we would see life in the energetic molecular dance of chemical reactions and recombinations–the dance that weaves molecules into new patterns, some livelier than others. But instead, our experience comes through eyes that see life as a collection of separate plants and animals. This makes it hard for us to see them as parts of their environment, much less as parts of a whole living planet. Yet when we see the whole Earth from far enough away to show it on a movie screen and speed up its rotations, it does look alive, though we can no longer see its “separate” plant and animal parts. We have no way of seeing our world of life-within-life at all its size levels at once, but we can use our minds to put information about different levels together and understand its living holarchy of holons.
The smaller living holons or organisms within Gaia grow and reproduce, so we have come to think of growth and reproduction as essential features of living beings. The autopoietic definition of life, remember, does not include them as essential or defining features; rather, they are consequences of the autopoietic life process–something that may or may not happen, as when people do or do not reproduce. Therefore, the argument that the Earth cannot be alive because it does not grow or reproduce does not hold.
Cells are the “packages” in which living matter housed itself when our planet came alive; they contain and connect autopoietic systems by enclosing them in open boundaries–membranes of their own making that allow materials and energy to be exchanged with the environment, as does the self-produced atmospheric membrane of the Earth. In a sense, the whole Earth is a giant cell within whose boundary membrane other smaller cells multiply, die, and are recycled in such a way that the whole need not grow. This is a wonderfully efficient way to make living beings (planets) possible in cosmic deserts with only stars for nourishment. Because our perception has been so focused on separate organisms in their physical or social environments, we tend to see insect animal, and human societies, as well as whole ecosystems, as collections of individuals that have come to live and function together. It is actually more appropriate to see that such collections have always functioned as wholes which were never separated into completely individual beings. Individual creatures surely exist within and across species, but none could ever become completely independent, though some are relatively more or less independent than others. All their complex forms and ways have evolved within a single system, just as our cells evolved their separate functions within an inseparable whole. Their connections with their species fellows and with their ecosystem are as holons within holarchies up to the whole Gaian planet–connections that were never broken and cannot be, just as our cells cannot break their connections with their organs or their/our whole bodies.
Scientists who try to understand Gaia as a collection of separate organisms mechanically coupled to nonliving environments get bogged down in arguments about whether the organisms–collectively called the biota, or “life”–could actually have joined forces on purpose to “control” the conditions of their abiotic, or nonliving, environment in their own interest. How could all bacteria–assuming the Gaian mechanism was formed when there were no other creatures–get together, they ask, to work cooperatively and purposively for their own good?
This argument, like the other confusions previously discussed, is another result of seeing Gaia as a mechanism. Purpose is an essential aspect of machinery, all machines being built to serve the purposes of their inventors and users (more on this in Chapter 15). Thus, machines are “other-ruled,” as we said earlier. And so, seeing Gaia as a mechanism raises the question of purpose. But purpose is a taboo in scientific descriptions of nature, because God, whom Renaissance scientists saw as the Grand Engineer of natural mechanism, is no longer part of scientific explanation. Scientists thus argue a logical contradiction: that nature is mechanical but has no creator and no purpose.
If we see natural organisms as self-ruled autopoietic systems that evolved without benefit of a purposive God external to nature, we see that they simply evolve wherever they are not prevented from so doing, wherever their energetic development is mutually consistent with whatever else is going on around them. No one argues about whether or not our bodies regulate our temperature “on purpose”–we simply accept that they do so because they evolved that way, “purpose” being limited to the relatively recent (in evolution) conscious mind, about which we will say more later. Alternatively, we can identify all of self-creating nature with the concept Creator (God), making no separation and thus ending the split between science and religion.
The answer to the question of whether bacteria assembled purposively to control their environments is thus that they did not “get together” any more than did the cells of our bodies assemble themselves after they had formed. All bacteria are living matter transformed from Earth's rocky crust and packaged in open boundaries that keep them functioning as a single system. They are not separate from one another or from the crust; they are not parts of an assembled mechanism but part of a single Gaian life process we can call geobiological. Earthlife has evolved to do what it needs to do in order to preserve itself as naturally as we do and with no more or less purpose than we find in our own bodies.
If Gaia is a single live planet, why did its rock rearrange itself into such an astounding variety of individual creatures? Why not just a planet holon, instead of a planetary holarchy of holons?
We might as well ask why the first gas clouds sorted themselves into individual galaxies, and the galaxies into stars and planets and other space bodies. The answer, as we now begin to understand, is that life becomes ever more stable as it becomes more complex! Mechanical systems may be more vulnerable to breakdown as they become more complex, but this seems not to be true of living systems. The Gaian division of labor or function among different species–different kinds of creatures–makes possible a division of labor similar to that of our bodies, which function efficiently through the combined work of many different kinds of organs. No place, or environment, on Earth–from the barest mountaintop to the deepest part of the sea–has fewer than a thousand different life species, mostly microbial, forming it and doing different things to keep it alive and evolving. If a planet does come alive, it would seem that it must come alive everywhere, not just in patches.
Scientists are only now beginning to work out the physiology of our Gaian planet–to understand why the introduction of a single new species into a complex environment can make that environment ill, just as the introduction of a single species of disease microbe into our bodies can make us ill; they are only now coming to understand why the destruction of an environment such as tropical forest can unbalance the whole planet, just as removing an organ from our bodies can unbalance us. Yet we are also discovering that Gaia's incredible complexity makes her tougher and more resourceful than we are. We are far more likely to choke our own species off by destroying our environment than we are to kill Gaia. Gaia's evolving dance of life will continue with or without us.
The word “evolution,” when used in talking about human dancing, means the changing patterns of steps in any particular dance. A dance thus evolves when its step patterns change into new ones as the dance goes on. In exactly this sense, the evolution of Gaia's dance–of Earthlife–is the changing patterns of steps in the interwoven self-organization of creatures and their habitats over time.
We see that Gaia's dance is endlessly inventive. Trying out new step patterns in a dance is called improvising, as a creative dance is not planned out in advance. Rather the dancers improvise as they go, testing each new step for its fit with other steps and with the whole dance pattern. Gaia's dance seems to have evolved by such improvisation, the working out of basic steps used over and over in new combinations.
In Gaia's dance, all organisms smaller than Gaia, from the first bacteria to ourselves, have been built from DNA and protein molecules. The very complex patterns of these giant molecules are almost entirely made of only six kinds of atoms–hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and sulfur. And as we saw, all kinds of atoms other than hydrogen were created all over the universe under pressure inside stars as combinations of the original hydrogen atoms, which were combinations of the original subatomic particles.
There are very few kinds of protein or other molecules on Earth today whose patterns the ancient bacteria had not already invented billions of years ago. Nor have any new basic life processes been developed since bubblers, blue-greens, and breathers invented the three ways of making ATP energy molecules: fermentation, photosynthesis, and respiration. In other words, evolution since then has been a matter of rearranging not only the same atoms but also the same molecules and life processes into an endless variety of new creature patterns. This, then, is Gaia's dance–the endless improvisation and elaboration of elegantly simple steps into the awesomely beautiful and complex being of which we are the newest feature.
Principles of Living Systems
Defining and Diagnosing Living Systems
Autopoiesis, the definition of life used in this book, tells us that anything which constantly creates its own parts is alive. We have shown that this basic definition implies that living systems or entities are self-organizing and self-maintaining. We have also shown that they exist at many levels of complexity from the simplest possible “proto-life” form of whirlpools to our planet and ourselves. The thesis of this book has been that we must reorganize our human systems to conform to the principles of healthy living systems as we self-organize a worldwide body of humanity. Let us look, then, at the basic features common to complex living systems at all levels from single cells to bodies, families, communities, ecosystems, nations, etc. By understanding these characteristics we can assess the health of any particular living system and see where it may be dysfunctional. This in turn will give us clues to making the system healthier. Try translating the examples given for your body or your family into similar functions in your organizations or schools, your town or city, your bioregion, nation or the world. Discuss them in your family, in groups from your school or community. This will help you see where your own living systems are healthy and where they may need change. Self-creation: Nature's self-creation is endless. We can see that all living systems are continually building and renewing themselves. In your body, for example, the molecules and cells of different parts renew themselves at different rates (your stomach lining and the molecules in your brain cells renew themselves in hours or days; other kinds of cells are replaced more slowly, but about every seven years you are made entirely of new materials. Your family, as a larger living system, shows renewal not only within its individual members, but in the the way their material extensions (possessions such as home, clothing, car, etc.) are exchanged over time. The members, and so the system as a whole, also exchange knowledge, thoughts, moods and actions.
Have you ever heard people talk about “R & R” as psychological restoration or of spiritual renewal?“ The home you live in probably always needs some repairs or additions so your family can function well in it. How else does your family recreate itself? What about your community? Your ecosystem? Embeddedness: Self-creation requires an environmental source of matter and energy, Even the tiniest atoms are constantly self-creating whirlpool forms that draw zero-point energy and release spent energy into this background. As we said, a curling cloud cannot be lifted out of the sky or a whirlpool out of a river. Even such protolife forms are always embedded in some matrix. Complex living systems are embedded in larger living systems: cells within bodies, bodies within families, organizations, communities, bioregions, human world, planet Earth, cosmos. Notice that any individual person is very deeply embedded and can only have an illusion of separateness.
Transformation: Living systems take in matter, energy and information; they use and change them, then put out transformed matter, energy and information.You as an individual living system, for example, take in food, water, and air, as well as sound, light and other energies. You also take in information from many sources (other people, radio and TV, printed matter, computer programs, everywhere you look and listen and touch. All this input is transformed within and by your mind/body. Have you recently transformed matter by cooking, fixing things or creating new ones? Have you ever transformed anger into strength or love? In how many forms and ways do you take in and put out matter, energy and information? Adapt this exercise for living systems at other levels. Complexity: Living systems always have multiple parts and diverse aspects. Think of how many kinds of cells and organs your body's harmonious function requires. Creativity can only come out of diversity. How does diversity in the membership of your family and of the organizations to which you belong contribute to their healthy function? How does creativity manifest in mixed ethnic group discussions? Good organizations need visionary entrepreneurs, implementers, administrators, integrators. Could they work well with only people good at one of these? Sometimes organizations fail because they are not sufficiently diverse to accomplish the tasks they set out to do.
Communications: The parts of a healthy living system “know” each other by sharing and exchanging information and materials with each other. Every cell in your body contains information about every other cell through the DNA it contains. Cells and organs constantly exchange messages and materials delivered to and collected from receptor and emitter sites. The members of your family know each other and all the material extensions of themselves brought into their system: house, car, furniture, reading material, etc. How many ways can you think of in which your family shares and exchanges information and things?
What about larger systems?
Win/Win Economics: Recall the example of doing body economics the way we humans do world economics. Here is what might happen. Raw material blood cells formed in bones all over the body are swept up to the “northern industrial organs”–the heart/lung system. Here the blood is purified and oxygen is added. Now the finished blood is a useful product. The heart distribution center announces: “The body price for blood today is so much. Who wants?” Blood is shipped to the organs that can afford the price; the remaining blood is chucked out as surplus–or bottled until the price can be paid. Can a living body survive such economics? Of course not. It is a win/lose system. And only a win/win system can make and keep a living body healthy. Mature ecosystems practice win/win economics. Discuss win/win economics for families, communities, nations, all nations together. Mutual assistance: The parts of a healthy living system do things for each other. In your body, all the organs constantly contribute to each other's welfare. Every cell looks out for itself as well as for its organ. It does not choose between “right” and “left,” between conserving what works and changing what doesn't: it simply does both. Do all members of your family contribute as willingly to each other? What are your special contributions? In what ways is your community like a living system in itself and in what ways is it like an organ in a larger body?
Non-discrimination: The parts of the system are honest and impartial with each other. In your body there is implicit recognition that every part is essential to the whole. There is no competition among parts about being better or more important, no argument if one part needs extra resources to heal or rebalance itself. The parts do not look down on each other, nor do they deceive each other to get a bigger share of the body's resources or other favorable treatment. You can see from this that non-discrimination in a healthy society goes far beyond racial and religious tolerance. Explore these ideas.
Service Government: Healthy living systems which are governed, have governments in service to the whole. Cells are governed by their nucleus, bodies by the nervous system. Such natural governments are not authoritarian and do not enforce rules by threat of punishment. Rather, they seek information from all parts of the system, analyze what needs to be done to keep it all in healthy balance, and give out the information and instructions enabling parts to assist each other. They are truly democratic governments, giving each part of the whole system equal rights to resources and equal responsibilities of participation. Such governments seem to be the hardest thing for humans to create. What do you see as the obstacles to service government, in your family, community, world? How would you propose to overcome them?
Balance of Interests: Each part of a healthy living system balances its self-interest with the interest of the whole. Every cell in your body, for example, looks out for itself, for its organ and for the whole body. Nothing in the body tries to make it decide between self-interest and community interest, so it pursues both. Are there conflicts in your family between your personal interests and the wellbeing of your family? How do they get resolved? What about conflicts between humans and the other species?
Conservation: Healthy living systems conserve what works well. Your body does not change to the point where you would not recognize yourself; it conserves all its parts and their relationship to each other because they have been tried and tested by the creative process of evolution over a very long time and work well. What would you want to protect and conserve in your family? Your community? Your world?
Change: Healthy living systems explore and negotiate changes in whatever is not working well. How are such changes explored and negotiated in your family? Is there a process in your community for exploring change? How could you implement one? Human social systems have far more flexibility in changing their organization than do our bodies (which changed slowly over many many generations). What changes do you see as needed in your family? Your community? Your world? Can you think of ways to work on them?
Contribution: A healthy living system has only quality output: all the matter, energy and information it puts out is useful to other living systems. No species other than humans create waste materials that cannot be used as food by some other species. All species recycle, while it is a new concept to us! Discuss the idea of eliminating the concept of “waste” altogether. Is it possible to recycle everything we make and do not consume? What a fascinating challenge to figure out ways to do it! How has your family, your community, begun this process?
Human systems have some special features: Conscious Awareness: The system is consciously aware of other living systems around it and knows it depends on them for its own welfare. As a baby, you quickly learned your dependence on other family members. As you grew older you learned how your family depends on your community. Now, all humanity is learning its dependence on the very ecosystems we are destroying. Are you aware of the bioregion you live in? Is it a river valley, a mountain, a prairie, a coastal plain? What was it like before it was settled by Euro-Americans? How much do you know about its carrying capacity–its limits for supporting humans and other species in healthy balance? Ethics and Law: A healthy social system creates its own guidelines for behavior. Other species have innate knowledge of how to live their lives, but humans have vast and unique freedom of choice. Ethics and law are the guidance systems we develop to limit our negative behavior and inspire our positive behavior. What is your family's ethical system? Its rules? How would you set up an ethical system for world economics and commerce? What role would environmental considerations play?
Spirituality: Most of Humanity acknowledges, pays tribute to and is guided by spiritual concepts of Creation, some Higher Power and I intelligence we know by the many names of God. Even a simple concept of the Oneness of all things seen and unseen inspires awe and reverence.
This objective mechanical worldview was founded in ancient Greece when philosophers divided into two schools of thought about the world–one that all nature, including humans, was alive and self-creative, ever making order from disorder; the other that the “real” world could be known only through pure reason, not through direct experience, and was God's geometric creation–permanently mechanical and perfect behind our illusion of its disorder.
This mechanical/religious worldview superseded the older one of living nature to become the foundation of the whole Western worldview up to the present. Philosophers such as Pythagoras, Parmenides, and Plato were thus the founding fathers of our echanical worldview though Galileo, Descartes, and other men of the Renaissance translated it into thescientific and technological enterprise that has dominated human experience; ever since.
What if things had gone the other way? What if Thales, Anaximander, and Heraclitus, the organic philosophers who saw all the cosmos as alive, had won the day back in that ancient Greek debate? What if Galileo, as he experimented with both telescope and microscope, had used the latter to seek evidence for Anaximander's theory of biological evolution here on Earth, rather than looking to the skies for confirmation of Aristarchus's celestial mechanics? In other words, what if modern science and our view of human society had evolved from organic biology rather than from mechanical physics?
We will never know how the course of human events would have differed had they taken this path, had physics developed in the shadow of biology rather than the other way around. Yet it seems we were destined to find the biological path eventually, as the mechanical worldview we have lived with so long is now giving way to an organic view–in all fairness, an organic view made possible by the very technology born of our mechanical view.
The same technology that permits us to reach out into space has permitted us to begin seeing the real nature of our own planet–to discover that it is alive and that it is the only live planet circling our sun. The implications of this discovery are enormous, and we have hardly even begun to pursue them. We were awed by astronauts' reports that the Earth looked from space like a living being, and were ourselves struck by its apparently live beauty when the visual images were before our eyes. But it has taken time to accumulate scientific evidence that the Earth is a live planet rather than a planet with life upon it, and many scientists continue to resist the new conception because of its profound implications for change in all branches of science, not to mention all society.
The difference between a planet with life on it and a living planet is hard at first to understand. Take for example the word, the concept, the practice of “ecology,” which has become familiar to us all within just the few short decades that we have been aware of our pollution and destruction of the environment on which our own lives depend. Our ecological understanding and practice has been a big, important step in understanding our relationship to our environment and to other species. Yet, even in our serious environmental concern, we still fall short of recognizing ourselves as part of a much larger living entity.
It is one thing to be careful with our environment so it will last and remain benign; it is quite another to know deeply that our environment, like ourselves, is part of living planet.
An Inspirational Tale of Ancient Times
In studying the Earth's evolution, the most fascinating story I know is that of ancient beings who created an incredibly complex lifestyle, rife with technological successes such as electric motors, nuclear energy, polyester, DNA recombination and worldwide information systems. They also produced - and solved - devastating environmental and social crises and provided a wealth of lessons we would do well to consider.
This was not a Von Daniken scenario; the beings were not from outer space. They were our own minute but prolific forebears: ancient bacteria. In one of his popular science essays, Lewis Thomas, estimating the mitochondrial descendants of ancient bacteria in our cells as half our dry bulk, suggested that we may be huge taxis they invented to get around in safely (Lives of a Cell, 1974).
From whatever perspective we choose to define our relationship with them, it is clear we have now created the same crises they did some two billion years ago. Further, we are struggling to find the very solutions they arrived at– solutions that made our own evolution possible and that could now improve the prospects of our own far distant progeny, not to mention our more immediate future. I owe my understanding of this remarkable tale to microbiologist Lynn Margulis, whose painstaking scientific sleuthing traced these events back more than two billion years.
The bacteria's remarkable technologies (all of which still exist among today's free-living bacteria) include the electric motor drive, which functioned by the attachment of a flagellum to a disk rotating in a magnetic field; the stockpiling of uranium in their colonies, probably to heat their communities with nuclear energy; perfect polyester (biodegradable, of course) and their worldwide communications and information system, based on the ability to exchange (recombine) DNA with each other.
Yet, like ourselves, with our own proud versions of such wondrous technologies, the ancient bacteria got themselves deeper and deeper into crisis by pursuing win/lose economics based on the reckless exploitation of nature and each other. The amazing and inspirational part of the story is that entirely without benefit of brains, these nigh invisible yet highly inventive little creatures reorganized their de-structively competitive lifestyle into one of creative cooperation.
The crisis came about because respiring bacteria (breathers) depended on ultra-violet light as a critical component in the creation of their natural food supply of sugars and acids, while photosynthesizing bacteria (bluegreens) emitted vast quantities of polluting oxygen which created an atmospheric ozone layer that prevented ultra-violet light from reaching the surface of the Earth. Cut off from their food supply, the hi-tech breathers, with their electric motor rapid transport, began to invade the bodies of larger more passive fermenting bacteria (bubblers) to literally eat their insides– a process I have called bacterial colonialism.
The invaders multiplied within these colonies until their resources were exhausted and all parties died. No doubt this happened countless times before they learned cooperation. But somewhere along the line, the bloated bags of bacteria also included some bluegreens, which could replenish food supplies if the motoring breathers pushed the sinking enterprises up into brighter primeval waters. Perhaps it was this lifesaving use of solar energy that initiated the shift to cooperation.
In any case, bubblers, bluegreens, and breathers eventually contrib-uted their unique capabilities to the common task of building a workable society. In time, each donated some of their “personal” DNA to the central resource library and information hub that became the nucleus of their collective enterprise: the huge (by bacterial standards) nucleated cells of which our own bodies and those of all Earth beings other than bacteria are composed.
This process of uniting disparate and competitive entities into a cooperative whole- a multi-creatured cell, so to speak– was repeated when nucleated cells aggregated into multi-celled creatures, and it is happening now for a third time as we multi-celled humans are being driven by evolution to form a cooperative global cell in harmony with each other and with other species. This new enterprise must be a unified global democracy of diverse membership, organized into locally productive and mutually cooperative “bioregions,” like the organs of our bodies, and coordinated by a centralized government as dedicated in its service to the wellbeing of the whole as is the nervous system of our bodies. Anything less than such cooperation will probably bring us quickly to the point of species extinction so that the other species remaining may get on with the task.
– adapted from E.Sahtouris, “The Evolution of Governance,” In Context
1. 36, Fall 1993