Jul 26 2013

EARTHDANCE: Living Systems in Evolution

Published by under Book Reviews

By Elizabet Sahtouris. © 2000
Elizabet Sahtouris is a Greek-American scientist, author and lecturer whose field is evolutionary biology.
Reviewed by Ian Crumpton

“We used to believe that we were put here to do whatever we wanted to with our planet – that we were in charge. Now we see that we are natural creatures which evolved within a great Earthlife system. Whatever we do that is not good for life, the rest of the system will try to undo or balance in any way it can. That is why we must learn Gaia’s dance and follow its rhythms and harmonies in our own lives.”
So writes Elizabet Sahtouris as she concludes the fourth chapter of her book – a book which explores the implications of James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis’s Gaia Theory, a theory which proposes that organisms interact with their inorganic surroundings on Earth to form a self-regulating, complex system that contributes to maintaining the conditions for life on the planet.
As Lovelock himself points out in the foreword, this maturing theory is now spurring a great deal of scientific research into the geophysiology of our living planet, as well as philosophical and religious ideas of what it means to our species to be part of a living planet. Here, the metaphor of dance to represent the improvisation, evolution and myriad patterns that result from a few simple steps. A strength of the book is its treatment of those earliest steps, and the aeons of time through which primitive organisms reigned supreme. “We really should talk about co-evolution” she writes,
“…to remind ourselves that no species can or does evolve by itself, but that all must co-operate by adapting to, or negotiating with, the others’ steps in the dance of life. Thus they reach mutual consistency with one another and with the rest of their surround.”(Ch.7, Evidence of Evolution).
There is careful treatment of the development of human understanding of our world:
When we look at human history to see what a peoples’ world-view was in a different time and a different place, we see that world-views have evolved along with visible aspects of culture, and that there is a very powerful relationship between the world-views people hold, and the kind of society they construct…”
Had the more biological approach of the Greek Anaximander prevailed, rather than the more atomistic and mechanical views of Plato Aristotle, and the like, scientific investigation and cultural history would have taken a radically different course. Mounting evidence set out here leads her to the conclusion that we must learn quickly to fit our lifestyles harmoniously into the rest of nature. For that reason, Elizabet gives considerable coverage to examining indigenous peoples who never saw themselves as anything but an integral part of nature, with immense knowledge of nature, and consciously choosing not to develop technological or consumerist societies.
Much evidence is produced to show how our cultural blinkers influence our understanding of the natural world:
“Not long after the theory of evolution became known, the Russian Revolution produced a new “social mechanism” known as communism, which was heralded as being based on co-operation rather than on competition. Russian scientist rewrote the theory of evolution accordingly, to show that co-operation in nature produced more fit natural creatures than did evolution!”(Ch.14)
Today, many scientists still believe in the Aristotlean/Newtonian mechanical world-view. But many others note the mounting evidence for an alive and integrated natural order. They see life as self-creating in a dynamically alive universe, rather than winding down entropically in a mechanical one. They also begin to see that life can create its own meaning and purpose. (Ch.14).
There are many memorable passages herein, all showing our species as being in a stage of profligate youthfulness, but on the cusp of a rapid maturing:
“We also saw that species living now can exist only because the earth spent billions of years burying atmospheric carbon in forests and underground. We noted that cutting and burning these forests and fossil fuels reverses the planet’s system for keeping atmospheric conditions and climate conducive to species health. It is not a sustainable way to live. It is the way of an immature species that gobbles up all available resources, like the weeds that take over land along our highways or in abandoned fields, where we have destroyed mature ecosystems.”(Ch.20)
There is documentation relating to the inefficiency of modern industrial-scale agribusiness, the damage it does to the environment, the dangers of pesticides, the piracy of patenting plants, and the dangers of genetic engineering. In the face of all this, the demand for organic food is rocketing. Bio-regionalism emphasises local production, and is consistent with grass-roots democratic and self-sufficiency movements which are cropping up everywhere, nurturing more viable systems as the old ones decay. Another positive development, Elizabet claims, is the internet, unwittingly adopting the design and operating principles of living systems to create a viable living system to generate, process, sort and distribute material on a planetary scale.
But in the end, Sahtouris concludes,
“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, and 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.” (Ch.21)
The book is a clear summary of a deep transformation now under way in our world-view, our science, and our sense of the spiritual. It points out the damage we are doing, but looks with hope to the revolution now under way: a revolution in our understanding and behaviour that will undoubtedly dwarf those wrought by Copernicus and Charles Darwin.
The book concludes with a very comprehensive bibliography – in itself a further indication of the evolutionary leap our science, culture, and religion are now taking, as so many top scientists and scholars take up the theme.
(Reviewer’s note: I have been unable to cite page references to the quotations in this review as I only have an e-book version, where pages are not fixed or numbered. – I.S.C.)

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