Nature directs us to the best solutions for pollution and poverty. Ode sat down for a conversation with biologist Elisabet Sahtouris.
Elisabet Sahtouris has a simple message: Evolution is not a life-and-death struggle in which only the fittest survive. She says there is a great deal missing in Darwin’s theory, which for too long has been used to justify hunger, poverty and the continual devastation of the planet.
These are ideas that challenge typical thinking in the field of science, which is no surprise coming from a maverick like Sahtouris. At the age of 43, she walked away from her laboratory at the American Museum of Natural History in New York because the accepted Darwinian view of evolution had become too restrictive for her. At age 43, she gave up her position as a science writer with the Nova-Horizon TV series in Boston to go fishing. She bought a boat and settled on a Greek island. There, surrounded by the daily reality of life in and around the water, she discovered what she believed about how the world is really put together.
And this is what she realized: Seventeenth-century philosopher René Descartes taught that nature works like machinery that can be understood and dominated by humans. Darwin described a battleground among species that fought to survive at the expense of one another. As a result, domination and competition have become a part of the modern world view—a view that feeds a great deal of misery on our planet because of our inability to see the bigger picture due to an emphasis on the separation between living things rather than the connection. Descartes and Darwin were misled, Sahtouris believes, as does a field of increasingly prominent fellow defectors—scientists, philosophers and spiritual leaders united in the belief that underneath the biological competition, nature is comprised of a refined network in which co-operation is key.
More to the point, according to Sahtouris, co-operation is a necessary foundation for survival and success. After the hostile competition of young species, they learn to negotiate differences and work out co-operation schemes to their mutual benefit. According to Sahtouris, co-operation is a necessary stage for sustainable success. She has worked out her version of this Theory of Everything in her book, EarthDance: Living Systems in Evolution (iUniverse, 2000).
Sahtouris thus offers an encouraging viewpoint for humanity. All we have to do is take a good look at nature, which shows practical and effective examples of co-operation that we can incorporate into business, government, international relations and throughout society, for the health and wealth of humanity.
“It’s time to develop a different version of Earth’s life story,” Sahtouris, now 70, says with conviction as we launch into a dialogue that will span a couple of billion years of evolution in just six hours. She believes evolution will create new human beings who don’t exploit and dominate but merge with their surrounding natural habitat, evolving more harmoniously with it.
“Earth is alive,” Sahtouris explains. “It is not a mechanical, hierarchical system, but an organic, self-organizing system. The whole universe is a living enterprise that organizes itself. It’s autopoietic, a definition of living entities as constantly creating themselves and their parts from within in relation to their environment. All healthy, living systems self-organize and maintain themselves by the same principles, whether as a single cell, your body, an ecosystem or a global human culture.”
That process is a continual dance in which individual and collective interests are equal partners. Sahtouris notes, “Each part of a living system has its own self-interest, but also works within the interest of the larger whole that contains it. In a mature system, every level expresses its self-interest, so that negotiations are constantly happening towards co-operation.”
There is, as Darwin observed, interaction among individual interests in any biological setting, but it goes deeper than raw competition. That interaction is less a fight than a negotiation played out in the broader context of collective interests. And that process, according to Sahtouris, is the driving force behind evolution. “So self-interest is not a bad thing, unless there is not a larger community interest with which to negotiate.”
Sahtouris credits long hours on her fishing boat as the source of her new thinking. In the inky blackness of nighttime on the water, there was no horizon separating the stars above from the luminescent plankton she stirred up in the water beneath her. As she describes it, this gave her a profoundly real sense of being halfway between the macrocosm and the microcosm, knowing both formed a seamless whole. “Ever since,” she says, “I have been working on an integral science of humans in a living universe, dissolving boundaries between physics, biology and spirituality.”
Dissolving boundaries is another lesson she learned from nature. Nature’s boundaries are connectors. Everything is connected to everything else; nothing is separated from the greater whole. Nature doesn’t choose between individual and collective interests. Yet humans are caught up in “either/or choices.” Sahtouris offers a striking example: “Take the capitalist/communist rivalry that played out for most of my lifetime. It reveals the fundamental flaw of an odd and ultimately impossible ideological choice: to build society on the basis of individual interest or on the basis of communal interest. Nature doesn’t work like that.”
It almost sounds like she’s blaming human nature for our divisions, I say. She falls silent for a moment, and then clarifies: “From an evolutionary perspective, current global economics violates the fundamental principles by which all mature living systems are organized. Global economics is a hierarchical system where one level survives at the expense of another level. This top-down approach is never seen in healthy biological systems. In mature natural systems there are no authoritarian governments. What species is in charge in a rainforest? What part is in charge of your body? Imagine doing world politics in our bodies. Imagine the brain deciding not to allocate resources to certain organs, but keeping them to itself. You can’t do world economics in your body. You can’t have some organs exploiting the others. You would die.”
The conclusion is inevitable: An economy in which one person’s profit is based on another’s loss does not fit in with a healthy living system. The pollution, exploitation and destruction wrought by our modern economy are sure signs of the need for change. But is humanity capable of evolutionary maturation?
The good news, according to Sahtouris, is that there is evidence dating back billions of years that our distant biological relatives survived a similar crisis. “Our most remote ancestors created fabulously complex lifestyles with lots of technological innovations such as nuclear energy, electric motors, biodegradable polyester and a worldwide web of communications and information based on the ability to exchange DNA. As their numbers grew, they built elaborate cityscapes and vehicles in which to move around. Yet like ourselves, they got themselves deeper and deeper into crisis by pursuing economics based on invasions and exploitation. They created devastating environmental and social crises as the very atmosphere they lived in became deadly to them. They had to adapt, or die.”
While I’m trying to figure out which major civilization she’s talking about, she smiles and continues. “Now here comes the good part: they managed to solve every one of their problems by reorganizing their lifestyles from destructive competition into creative co-operation. The amazing thing about this is that these bacteria, called ‘Archebacteria,’ didn’t even have the benefit of a brain! These single-celled bacteria survived by merging into communities, so they could join forces.”
Scientists today are researching how bacteria use uranium to produce heat and how they make biodegradable polyesters. Nanotech researchers are also trying to produce more energy-efficient motors by copying the locomotive methods bacteria use. Bacterial motors have rotors, stators, ball bearings and couplings. They rotate in an electromagnetic field and have flagella attached to propel them around in their environment.
We owe our existence to these prehistoric inventions, which allowed bacteria to transform from competition to co-operation. Indeed, the human body is the result of the new co-operative organizations those single-celled bacteria managed to discover. Sahtouris says, “Each one of our nucleated cells is a collective of ancient bacterial types that lived billions of years ago. This process of uniting competitive entities into a co-operative whole 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 co-operative global humanity in harmony with each other and with other species.”
Elisabet Sahtouris sees both the source of our problems and the solution in the current organization of the world economy. The globalization process is forcing humanity into a higher level of integration. There is, she believes, less and less room for exploitation as diverging interests become increasingly linked.
“What we call ‘globalization’ is not a choice; it is an inevitable evolutionary process of shifting from hostile competition to mature cooperation,” she says. “For us humans, it began when we started settling on all continents. Over the past few thousand years, human empire-building has been a continual process of merging cultures. In modern times, this empire-building process has been shifting from imperial nations with colonial empires to corporate cartels and mergers, even a World Trade Organization that can overrule national political laws and policies.”
But the healthy balance between the individual and collective interest has not yet been struck. Globalization continues to be a threat to local economies and ecosystems. This runs contrary to the laws of sustainable living systems, which hold that poverty in one place ultimately spells disaster for the entire system. Just as a body can only be healthy if all organs are healthy, people can only survive in a world economy in which all the local economies are healthy.
This leads Sahtouris to explain another significant pattern from nature that we too-often ignore: the fact that monocultures do not exist there. Sahtouris: “The No. 1 lesson of nature is diversity. Monoculture is not a workable living system. Monoculture fails in agriculture as in social culture, in economics as in religion. Social monoculture is rooted in an outmoded and ignorant fear of difference and of scarcity. It is time we learned to respect and cherish our human diversity as the creative source of potential harmonious complexity. If humans don’t start behaving as healthy local living systems within the larger systems we know as nature, planet and cosmos, then we will face serious evolutionary setbacks in short order.”
This stark realization—that something truly needs to change to prevent the downfall of humanity—became clear to her when she came into intimate contact with nature once again in Greece. “One day,” she remembers, “I was strolling the pier of my tiny fishing village, when suddenly I looked into the eyes of a speared cuttlefish, just as it squirted its last ink before dying.” Sahtouris felt she was looking into the eyes of her ancestor. It moved her and a deep sense of wanting to help restore the balance in nature came over her. That night she whispered to the stars: “Use me!”
One look in Elisabet Sahtouris’ datebook is enough to see that her offer was readily accepted. In the 30 years since that evening, she has lectured on every continent, written numerous books, laid out her ideas on television and radio and sat on numerous international committees with prominent people like former Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev, doctor and author Deepak Chopra and former UN Assistant Secretary-General Robert Muller.
Sahtouris who, after marrying a Greek fisherman holds two nationalities (American and Greek) is now focusing her efforts on influencing politicians and business people—not just because she sees them exercising the power to enact changes, but because she often perceives a disconcerting lack of insight and intelligence among their ranks.
“Intelligence,” she says, “means being able to see the many levels of the whole in space and time and taking them into account when making a decision. Many current leaders are mainly focused on selfish interests and don’t look very far into the future. It’s all about context. The larger your context is, the more intelligent your decisions will be. It’s about being able to think at different levels of reality at the same time.”
While most modern politicians fail to look beyond the next election and corporate executives beyond the next quarterly earnings report, Sahtouris points to the customs of native peoples in North America to teach their children to think seven generations ahead.
“On the whole,” she says, “indigenous people seem to understand holarchy [a word taken from the Greek “holos,” or whole, and the concept of “hierarchy”], diversity and respect for the natural habitat more clearly than modern cultures do.” In Bolivia, for instance, she met Nicolas Aguilar Sayritupac of the Aymara Indians. He summed up his perception of the “Western” approach to life as follows: “The human being of the West has abandoned being human and has turned himself into an individual. Community has died in him.”
But Sahtouris doesn’t pine for the “good old days” before the industrial and technological revolutions that changed the face of the world. “I love technology. I google, chat, blog and skype. This communications technology is vital to connecting future self-sufficient living communities with each other as a global web. The Internet is a beautiful example of a self-organizing living system and vital to human evolution. But we also need to develop the Innernet connecting us to each other and to deep, universal wisdom.”
The solution, as Sahtouris sees it, starts with education: “We should be teaching the politics of living systems, the economics of living systems and the science of living systems. You have to teach people how life works. Most scientists don’t even understand life. They don’t understand its amazing intelligence, so they fail to update reductionist theories, including Darwinian evolution, and make a mess of things such as genetic engineering. The win/lose economics model is justified by the inadequate Darwinian theory.”
But through the lens of evolution, Elisabet Sahtouris finds ample evidence for hope: “When humans—after all, still a young species—drop our adolescent arrogance of thinking we know it all and learn from the wisdom in our planet’s accumulated experience of living systems design, we too will mature as a species. When we learn to see the advantage of co-operation we will be able to give up competitive juvenile hostilities. It’s not too late to remodel our engineered institutions into healthy, living systems.”