The New Universe Story

by Michael Colebrook

INTRODUCTION

We are the first generation of people who know that the universe has a history and that we, along with everything else, are participating in a very long and utterly marvellous story.

At the end of the last century human beings did not know that the stars are organized into galaxies, and they had not imagined that gravity could be merely an aspect of how space and time are arranged. They did not know how atoms or stars work, and they had heard of neither the quantum nor the atomic nucleus. Neither did they know that the continents move, or that genetic information is stored in DNA, and they had only the faintest notions of the history of life on Earth. Beyond this the idea that the universe has a history would, had they heard it, have seemed almost inconceivable. (1)

Indeed, at the turn of the nineteenth century, such ideas as there were about a cosmological history were related more to the future than to the past and were dominated by the second law of thermodynamics and the belief that the historical process was one of an inevitable increase of disorder leading to the final ‘heat death’ of the universe. There were visionaries such as Henri Bergson who were not satisfied with such a pessimistic view of reality and who postulated a creative force at work throughout the universe. But it is easy for us to forget just how recently it has been possible to put flesh on the bones of Bergson’s vision. Lee Smolin talks about the end of the last century. In fact, much of the synthesis of our increased knowledge into a coherent story has occurred during my lifetime. Our uncovery of the New Universe Story is far from complete and, of course, the story continues…

It is not the intention of this essay to tell the new story, this has already been done with great eloquence by Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry (2), but rather to focus on what it means for the human condition. In view of just how new the story is, it is not surprising that we are still struggling with its implications.

KNOWING ABOUT THE STORY

In the beginning … whatever it was, it was not a Big Bang. Perhaps it was a small sigh, in which space/time emerged and all the matter/energy in the universe started creating itself.

‘In the twinkling of an eye’ the story of the Universe began to unfold, it is a story of ever increasing richness and diversity, the universe is ‘constantly bawling with newness’,(3) and as the story unfolds it creates possibilities for new kinds of unfolding.

It is a story unlike any other because it is self-contained. The story writes itself and makes up its own ‘language’ as it goes along. What we know about the real story is both incomplete and corrigible and a distinction has to be maintained between the real story as it unfolds and the story that we, as intelligent self-reflective beings, have tried to uncover and to tell in some comprehensible form. In the last analysis, however, all ways of knowing and feeling are part of the story. All those who have tried to find out about the story and to tell it – scientists, philosophers, artists – are themselves part of the story. As Max Plank put it, ‘science cannot solve the ultimate mystery of Nature. And it is because we ourselves are part of the mystery we are trying to solve’.(4)

The process of biological evolution is such that features can emerge and be selected that surpass the immediate advantages they confer. Such seems to be the case with the human mind. It is far more powerful than it needs to be to simply improve the chances of human survival. The emergence of the human brain, the quality of the human mind and with it the power of imagination is probably the biggest risk that the story has taken with itself throughout the fifteen billion years of its telling because the human imagination recognises no constraints, no limits to its activities.

There are two features of the human imagination that are relevant to our view of the universe story. Firstly, as Rabindranath Tagore (5) has suggested, in the face of our mortality humans try to create images of truth which are believed to be universal and eternal. There does seem to be an inherent drive to go beyond the known in a search, for the divine, for the realm of ideal forms, for a theory of everything. This drive provides the spur to find out about the story of the universe but there is always a temptation to see more in what we find than can be justified. Secondly, the human imagination has discovered the phenomenon of doubt. It is a sublime irony that the universe story has produced something that questions the reality of the story that created it. What can we know? What is real? Is anything real?

Noam Chomsky (6) suggests that without a system of formal constraints there is no creativity, there is merely change. The human venture of uncovering the universe story has to recognise such constraints and stay within the confines of a creative exploration: forever probing the constraints, but never seriously doubting the existence of a fundamental reality.

In a contribution to one of the more interesting sites on the Internet the American cosmologist Lee Smolin (7) envisages the rebirth of the tradition of natural philosophy based on a new picture of the world. He identifies three overarching themes to the new philosophy. Firstly, the idea that the world is not static, it evolves over time; and not only in the biological realm but the universe as a whole is in creative change. Smolin suggests that we are only beginning to realize the implications of this. The second theme is the growing realization that the universe in effect creates itself, it is essentially self-organising through the action of relatively simple principles, such as natural selection in biology. The third theme is that in a self-organising world all properties are relational. Everything happens within a context. It follows that in a universe interesting enough to contain stars and living things, complexity is essential, not accidental.

What Lee Smolin is proposing is a new natural philosophy, implying that it is derived from what we know about the universe story as opposed to being based on pure thought and abstract concepts. As such it has much to say about the relationships between humanity, the cosmos in general and planet Earth in particular.

It seems reasonable to begin the process of considering the implications of the Universe Story by looking briefly at each of the three themes.

THEME ONE : THE EVOLUTIONARY UNIVERSE

The first of Thomas Berry’s twelve principles ‘for understanding the Universe and the role of the human in the Universe process’ states that, ‘The universe, the solar system, and the planet earth in themselves and in their evolutionary emergence constitute for the human community the primary revelation of that ultimate mystery whence all things emerge into being’(8) The Universe Story isthe story of the evolution and emergence of the cosmos.

The best current estimate of the age of the universe is about fourteen billion (14,000,000,000) years. The earth was formed around four and a half billion years ago. Modern humans emerged only a hundred and fifty thousand years ago. The Universe produced countless galaxies and stars, the earth produced continents and oceans and millions of species of living things existing in complex communities long before we humans appeared on the scene. The Universe got along very well without us for all but the few most recent moments of its history. More, on the earth it took at least two thousand million years for living creatures to create an environment in which humans could survive and flourish.

The evolutionary nature of the New Universe Story should tell us two things. Firstly, that all of how we became and all of what we are is completely contingent and an integral part of the Universe Story. Secondly, that we belong here: we are at home on the earth. We are not alien forms set here to do our best to survive in a hostile environment, but, neither are we totally autonomous beings. We emerged from the web of life on earth and we were and are nurtured by it.

Humanity represents a very significant step in the evolutionary story. The emergence of self-reflective awareness, the ability of conceptual thinking, coupled with the development of language and other means of symbolic representation, is a major event in the Universe Story: the emergence of beings whose quality of experience is such that they ask questions about it. But it led René Descartes to conclude, ‘I think therefore I am … I was a substance, of which the whole essence or nature consists in thinking; so that this ‘I’, that is to say, the mind, by which I am what I am, is entirely distinct from the body’.(9) Descartes did not invent mind/body dualism but he is usually credited with the definitive statement of it.

From mind/body dualism it is but a small step to establishing a dualism between the human and the rest of nature and this has led to the development of an almost exclusively human centred sensibility, especially in European and Western cultures.

THEME TWO: THE SELF_CREATING UNIVERSE

The realization that the universe effectively creates itself has profound implications. Creativity implies the emergence of genuine novelty. The fact that this creativity is part of an on-going story implies that that which is created is contingent, dependent on what has gone before, but it is not predictable, ‘every step is a precarious step into the unknown’.(10)

The mechanistic world view which emerged during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries taught that reality resides in what is fundamental – space, time, matter and energy. While our understanding of the nature of these entities has substantially changed in the age of quantum mechanics and relativity theory, the earlier concept of what is fundamental has carried over into the twentieth century. There is still a tendency to hold on to the idea that physics is the home of fundamental reality. However, if the universe is genuinely creative then the products of the creativity are genuinely novel. They possess their own inherent properties and emergent laws which are fundamental to their being. Created wholes are more than the sums of their parts. Chemistry is not reducible to physics. Biology is not reducible to chemistry. The oak desk on which sits the computer I am using to write this isreally solid, because solidity is an emergent property. The tree that provided the wood was really alive because life is an emergent property. Solids and living things are products of the inherent creativity of the universe. It can be argued that all such phenomena and the emergent laws that govern them are as fundamental in relation to reality as are the so-called fundamental particles, forces and basic laws of physics (see, for example, Wes Jackson (11)).

This implies a dramatic change in the way we see the world. It is a world manifest as layer upon layer of emergent phenomena, all equally real, all equally fundamental, because none of them are reducible to or can be explained in terms of properties in any of the ‘lower’ layers. It is certainly true that ‘lower’ levels contain the potential for the emergence of the ‘higher’ levels, and the ‘stuff of the universe’, whatever it may be, has to contain the potential for manifestation as everything else. This is one of the mysteries of creation.

The means and methods of self-creation are currently the subject of much study. This is the part of the new picture of the universe that we know least about. One of the images that is useful is to see creativity in terms of the emergence of order out of chaos. We are learning that chaos is a much more complex phenomenon than we thought it was. And we are learning that given the right conditions, order can appear out of chaos quite spontaneously. It just happens.

Among the conditions for the spontaneous emergence of order are that the system be far from equilibrium and that it should be close to a critical state. Being far from equilibrium implies that something has to be happening to maintain the system in this state. Being critical implies that a very small perturbation can dramatically alter the state of the system. An example is a minute speck of dust in a saturated atmosphere acting as the locus for the formation of a raindrop that is orders of magnitude larger than the original seed. Systems in this state can be described as being ‘at the edge of chaos’.

THEME THREE: THE RELATIONAL UNIVERSE

Quantum theory indicates that at the level of the potential for the emergence of everything, it is not possible to derive a description of anything except in terms of its relationships with other things. At subsequent levels of emergence, a total web of relationship is an inevitable consequence of the origin of the universe as undifferentiated space/time and matter/energy and its subsequent self-emergence through an evolutionary unfolding.

Everything is relational because everything is contingent. At the same time, creativity involves the emergence of novelty. The universe of our every-day experience consists of separate and apparently independently existing things. It is possible to view the Universe Story as one of ever greater differentiation into ever more autonomous forms and structures. The process philosopher Alfred North Whitehead describes this apparent paradox, ‘The salvation of reality is its obstinate, irreducible, matter-of-fact entities, which are limited to be no other than themselves… That which endures is limited, obstructive, intolerant, infecting its environment with its own aspects. But it is not self-sufficient. The aspects of all things enter into its very nature… Conversely it is only itself by lending its aspects to this same environment in which it finds itself. The problem of evolution is the development of enduring harmonies of enduring shapes of value, which merge into higher attainments of things beyond themselves.'(12)

According to Erich Jantsch (13), emergent entities depend on patterns of internal relationships. Indeed, it is such relationships that are responsible for the emergent features and they play a key role in maintaining their integrity. The existence of enduring ‘matter-of-fact entities’, therefore, implies the existence of new and different forms of relationality rather than any break in the universal web of relationships. While such internal relationships may be necessary for stability, completely closed systems effectively shut themselves off from their surroundings and can play no further part in the creative process.

There is a large class of systems, which includes all living creatures, whose internal relationships are dynamic and require inputs of energy, and in many cases matter as well, in order to maintain their activities. These systems have to search for a balance between being closed in order to maintain stability and being open to input the energy and materials needed to maintain their internal relationships. By being open they are vulnerable to disruption, but at the same time their openness means that they influence their surroundings through their activities.

Entities do not evolve in a vacuum. They interact with their surroundings and this environment includes the evolutionary trajectories of other entities. Transpose this into what happens on the earth, with its myriads of living things existing within the systems of rock and water and air and continents and climates and we have a veritable feast of creativity, as all the processes involved in the dynamics of this vast web of being interact. It is easy to see why Whitehead considers the existence of ‘matter-of-fact entities’ as ‘the salvation of reality’. How else could such a complex system have any shape or form?

In the mechanistic view of the world, form and order were fundamental. In the New Universe Story they are emergent: they are the result of the interactions of an incredibly complex mass of processes happening on a enormous range of space and time scales. This is one of the areas where the telling of the new story is, as yet, incomplete. In place of a universe consisting of matter in motion determined by external laws, we have to think rather about a system constrained by and within its own context. In place of balance and equilibrium, we are faced with a universe of systems engaged in complex patterns of dynamics. The outcomes may be unpredictable, but they are not entirely free: in a relational universe, the future is always constrained by the now.

INTERLUDE

In a delightful short story called ‘God’s First Draft’ Stephen Dunstone (15) tells his version of the creation story. After three attempts to create a perfect world, all of which manifestly failed, God tried the idea of the level playing field…

“Time for the fourth attempt! Let there be light and – no hills or streams or woods or up or down, and let there be five hundred identical men and five hundred identical women; no birds or animals or insects in case they upset the balance, and no fish and no marrows or parsnips or any kind of vegetable, because there must be no hunger or cold or fear or any kind of desire… There… And God looked at his creation; his blameless creatures who stood without blemish, motionless, on this flat featureless world, untouched by any breath of wind. Changeless – eternal. He looked at this world and saw that it was perfect. He sat in his heaven in contemplation of perfection; and no seed of discontent stirred in the timeless silence. No cries of anger or pain or joy pierced the harmony of stillness. He looked and looked, and watched and waited. But nothing came to disturb the world. It was indeed perfect, and would last for ever. And God contemplated eternity. And he said to himself, ‘God, this is boring’. And it’s just as well that he did, because if he hadn’t, you wouldn’t be here today. With a contemptuous click of his fingers he consigned the perfect world to eternal non-existence. Gone. And not a trace of remorse or regret did he feel.

“God said ‘let there be light and dark and sun and moon and stars and dry land and hills and valleys and woods and streams and all manner of plants and insects and birds and animals and people; and let them fear and fight and feel pain but let them also feel desire and joy and love. Let the wind carry the sound of their suffering but let it also carry the sound of their laughter too, let them grow old but let them give birth, let them toil but let them dance, let there be sorrow but let there be ecstasy; let them work on the world but let the world work on them; let what may happen, happen. But above all let them learn from their mistakes.”

In God’s fourth attempt the ‘perfect’ men and women were created to be autonomous, they were complete and perfect within themselves and had no need to interact with each other (it was this that had been the problem with the three previous attempts). But, closed systems shut themselves off from the creative process, and this is boring. For a creative world there has to be variety and active relationships and interactions, but this implies vulnerability. There is an inevitable price to be paid for creativity. Relationships involve both the sweet and the bitter, fear and pain and suffering and death as well as birth and laughter and ecstasy.

We humans, with our powers of self-reflective awareness of suffering and death and joy and birth and having the gift of imagination, inevitably ask questions about what it all means. Why is there something rather than nothing? Does it mean anything? What does it mean to live in a world that learns from its mistakes? Does the story so far represent any kind of progressive process? Is it going anywhere? Clearly we are not standing motionless in a perfect world, but maybe we are stuck in some endlessly repetitive cycle. Most traditional creation stories imply at least some form of progress and many also point towards some sort of objective for the future. Does the New Universe Story as we now understand it throw any light on any of these questions? Specifically does the new story imply progress in the past and purpose for the future?

THE QUESTION OF PROGRESS

An evolutionary and self-creating universe necessarily implies that change takes place in a particular direction. The concept of progress assigns value to this process, it implies that what is new is, or may be, an improvement on what has gone before. According to Jacob Bronowski, ‘it is pointless to ask why evolution has a fixed direction in time… It is evolution, physical and biological, that gives time its direction… The progression from simple to complex, the building up of stratified stability, is the necessary character of evolution from which time takes its direction. And it is not a forward direction in the sense of a thrust toward the future, a headed arrow. What evolution does is to give the arrow of time a barb which stops it from running backward.'(16) If this is true then it implies that the Universe Story creates its own direction: the story is a narrative. But for Bronowski the question of progress has no meaning.

In the field of biological evolution the problem of progress has been hotly debated. Julian Huxley was a fervent advocate: ‘The scientific doctrine of progress is destined to replace not only the myth of progress, but all other myths of human earthly destiny. It will inevitably become one of the cornerstones of man’s theology, or whatever may be the future substitute for theology, and the most important external support for human ethics.'(17) On the other hand Stephen Jay Gould writes, ‘Progress is a noxious, culturally embedded, untestable, nonoperational, intractable idea that must be replaced if we wish to understand the patterns of history.'(18)

Both of these extreme views reflect powerful cultural influences; the enlightenment for Huxley and the post-modernist distrust of meta-narratives for Gould. The problem lies in the definition of progress. We tend to visualise progress in terms of some sort of ascent, in which the new, assumed to be better, replaces the old. We humans see ourselves at the top and we have then devised the ladder that we are at the top of.

Charles Darwin left a note to himself in one of his books: ‘Never use the terms higher and lower’. Darwin was, of course, thinking about biological evolution but the warning applies to the whole evolutionary process of the cosmos. What we see when we look at the Universe Story through new eyes is an unfolding. We see, as the story develops, an ever increasing diversity of things coupled with ever more elaborate patterns of relationship between them. To the extent that these qualities are regarded as values, then the Universe Story can be said to exhibit progress. The concept of progress can be applied to the biosphere as a whole, but it involves inter-dependence. The newer manifestations of biological evolution always emerge from, build themselves out of and intimately incorporate the earlier. The existence of humans is absolutely dependent on the activities of bacteria and all the other emergent layers of living things together with their interactions with each other and with the non-living environment. There is no doubt that we humans shine in the reflected glory of the progress of the biosphere as a whole, but it is questionable whether a council of all beings would share the view that humanity, as it is currently behaving, represents a progressive step in the Universe Story.

THE QUESTIION OF PURPOSE

This is related to progress in that if there is no progress there can be no purpose, but simply to demonstrate progress does not necessarily imply purpose. Again the problem of purpose is hotly debated. Jacques Monod probably speaks for many when he claims that ‘man knows at last that he is alone in the universe’s unfeeling immensity, out of which he emerged only by chance. His destiny is nowhere spelled out, nor his duty.'(19) Most religious traditions, on the other hand, believe that there is divine plan and a purpose in the form of an ultimate state towards which the universe is being directed.

The new Universe Story seems to be incompatible with both of these positions. If the universe is self-creating involving the emergence of genuine novelty, there cannot be a plan. At the same time there does seem to be a direction and one which implies more than Bronowski’s barbed arrow of time. The arrow of time does give the impression of pointing somewhere even though the where may be unknown and is probably unpredictable. This feeling about the arrow of time is expressed beautifully by Rainer Maria Rilke in one of his letters to a young poet, ‘we stand in the middle of a transition where we cannot remain standing … the new thing in us, the added thing, has entered our heart, has gone into its innermost chamber and is not even there any more, – is already in our blood. And we do not learn what it was. We could easily be made to believe that nothing has happened, and yet we have changed, as a house changes into which a guest has entered. We cannot say who has come, perhaps we shall never know, but many signs indicate that the future enters into us this way in order to transform itself in us long before it happens.'(20)

Immanuel Kant speaks of, ‘Purposiveness without purpose… A purposive creation has its centre of gravity in itself; one that is goal-orientated has its centre external to itself; the worth of the one resides in its being, that of the other in its results.'(21) What we understand of the Universe Story suggests that we live in a purposive creation in this sense. W H Vanstone speaks of creation as being,’the realisation of vision, but of vision which is discovered only through its own realization.'(10)

Both Kant and Vanstone point to the tautology that lies at the heart of the universe. If the universe is essentially self-contained and self-referent, it is its own justification. Its worth ‘resides in its being’ and throughout its evolutionary history the universe discovers itself through its own unfolding.

THE QUESTION OF ETHICS

If there is no purpose to the world, it is possible to argue that there can be no ethics. What are the implications for ethics of a purposive universe whose worth resides in its being?

It is one of the cornerstones of traditional ethics that what actually happens in the universe has no connection with what should happen. This idea is generally stated in the form that one cannot derive values from facts. According to Freya Mathews, ‘contemporary philosophical thought … sees questions of metaphysics and cosmology as generally belonging to the realm of fact, and thereby quite divorced from questions of value.’ But, she continues, ‘I was never persuaded of this divorce. It has always seemed plain to me, intuitively, that the way we conceived of reality and of our place in the scheme of things was central to questions about the meaning and ends of life. Cosmology was the basis of our worldview, but our worldview was informed by value.'(22) She is implying that the Universe Story provides a view of the world that has a normative as well as a scientific dimension. Warwick Fox suggests that ‘making sense of the world is the key. This is what gets us going on the moral road.'(23) But making sense of the world in a moral context implies the existence of values.

So, where do values come from? In the context of the New Universe Story, values can be viewed from at least two perspectives. Firstly, they may be seen as emergent phenomena, as the product of the activities of human minds acting in concert, within the constraints of a particular culture. Secondly, values may seen as intrinsic to the Story itself and related to the nature of creation as a spiritual entity (see below). From both perspectives, values are derived from the realm of fact but they are not reducible to it.

The most significant implication for ethics of the Universe Story and the realization of human embeddedness in the story is that all the actors in the story and all the processes in the story have to be included within the scope of ethical concern. Simply by virtue of being, everything has intrinsic value. Such a view is all very well as a basis for the development of an ethical system but, as ethicists frequently point out, it is far too all inclusive to be useful in reaching decisions in situational ethics where, all too often, the need is to agree on priorities or to find a path through a maze of conflicting interests and freedoms.

It is clearly way beyond the scope of this essay even to begin to try to solve the problem of ethics. Wendell Berry has, I suggest, provided a valuable pointer, when he says, ”We might make a long list of things that we would have to describe as primary values, but the one I want to talk about, because it is the one with which we have the most intimate working relationship, is the topsoil.’(24) Not life, liberty or the pursuit of happiness; not truth, beauty or compassion; but the topsoil! Clearly, the topsoil on its own does not provide the basis for a system of ethics, but is also clear that any system that does not recognise the existence and value of the topsoil, and does not reflect how we make sense of the world in practical as well as conceptual terms is going to be inadequate. Wendell Berry obviously intended his statement to be provocative. It runs counter to just about everything anybody has said or thought about ethics in the Western world for at least the last five hundred years and it indicates the extent of the challenge posed by the task of developing a system of ethics pertinent to the New Universe Story.

THE QUESTION OF SPIRITUALITY

Lee Smolin’s plea for the rebirth of a natural philosophy leads inevitably towards thoughts about the rebirth or reassessment of a complementarynatural spirituality. Thomas Berry seems to suggest that given the New Universe Story such a spirituality is inescapable, ‘The natural world is subject as well as object. The natural world is the maternal source whence we emerge into being as earthlings. The natural world is the life-giving nourishment of our physical, emotional, aesthetic, moral, and religious existence. The natural world is the larger sacred community to which we belong. To be alienated from this community is to become destitute in all that makes us human.'(25)

All that can be attempted in this brief essay is to outline some of the parameters within which an appropriate sense of this sacred community may be developed. A natural spirituality has to honour and acknowledge the Universe Story and be relevant to an evolving, self-creating and relational universe.

First and foremost this means that spiritual concerns can no longer be considered to relate and apply only to humanity. In his much quoted essayThe Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis, Lynn White voices the criticism that’Christianity is the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen.'(26) Where the rest of creation is acknowledged, it tends to be in the form of an extension of human spirituality to embrace that of the natural world which is of concern to us. A natural spirituality relates to the universe, and within it the human is embraced.

The traditional way in which a natural spirituality has been expressed is in the form of the Argument from Design. This states that as the universe is so magnificent, awesome, intricate, coherent, apparently meaningful and possessed of purpose, it must be work of an external divine being who creates, sustains and guides it (see, for example, Keith Ward (27)). The recent realisation of the evolving, self-creative and self-organising nature of the universe, coupled with a new understanding of the implications of deep space and deep time, require a substantial recasting of the argument from design and a reassessment of the bond between the created order and the divine.

Throughout most of its history, the Christian tradition has recognised the divine as both transcendent and immanent. In particular the creation of the universe is seen in terms of an activity of God, shaping it from the ‘outside’ with a purpose and according to a plan. But God is also visualised as immanent and within the universe, particularly through the incarnation of Jesus.

The evolutionary and self-creative character of the universe implies a relationship between the divine and the created order that is essentially immanent; that is of the inside rather than from the outside.

Anne Baring and Jules Cashford claim that the earliest European societies believed that ‘Nature is spiritual and spirit is natural’.(28) This implies that in a very real sense this whole essay has been about the question of spirituality. And, throughout the ages there have been prophets and mystics who have recognised, and tried to communicate, the identity of the natural and the spiritual dimensions of reality. Many of them have recognised that the spiritual is most visible in the inter-connectedness of the whole of existence. In the words of Hildegard von Bingen:

‘O Holy Spirit,
You are the mighty way in which every
thing that is in the heavens,
on the earth, and under the earth,
is penetrated with connectedness,
is penetrated with relatedness.'(29)

Others, down to the present day, have expressed the same sentiment in the language of their own time.

The New Universe Story suggests that we should seek to recover and develop these insights. Clearly a key feature of this process is to learn about the story itself. As Sallie McFague points out, ‘you cannot love what you do not know.'(30)

EPILOGUE

In her near-perfect poem ‘On the pulse of the morning’ Maya Angelou (31)speaks of ‘A Rock, A River, A Tree’, the Rock cries out to us, the River sings a beautiful song and we hear the speaking of the Tree. Maya Angelou wants us to be aware of what is going on out there, all around us, because it matters to us – and to the rock, the river and the tree.

This is the heart of the message of the New Universe Story. We have to learn how to look and how to listen. We are within the story and we are not the only characters, the rock, the river, the tree are also there, together with countless others. Together we form the sacred community of the Earth and the Universe. And the story continues. . .

The Horizon leans forward,
Offering you space
To place new steps of change
Here, on the pulse of this fine day
You may have the courage
To look up and out and upon me
The Rock, the River, the Tree, your country.
Here on the pulse of this new day
You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sister’s eyes
And into your brother’s face
Your country
And say simply
Very simply
With hope –
Good morning.

References and Notes

1. Lee Smolin. The Life of the Cosmos (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1997), p. 157.
2. Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry. The New Universe Story (HarperCollins, 1992).
3. Annie Dillard. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (Picador, 1976).
4. Max Plank. Quoted in John Barrow & Frank Tipler. The Anthropic Cosmological Principle (OUP, 1986), p.123.
5. Rabindranath Tagore. The Religion of Man (Unwin, 1988), p. 34.
6. Noam Chomsky. in James Peck (Ed.) The Chomsky Reader (Serpent’s Tail, 1988).
7. Lee Smolin (http://www.edge.org), February 1998.
8. Thomas Berry. in Anne Lonergan & Caroline Richards (Eds.) Thomas Berry and the New Cosmology. (Twenty-Third Publications, 1988), pp. 107-108.
9. René Descartes. Discourse on Method and the Meditations (Penguin Books, 1968).
10. W H Vanstone. Love’s Endeavour, Love’s Expense (Darton, Longman & Todd. 1977).
11. Wes Jackson. ‘Hierarchical Levels, Emergent Qualities, Ecosystems, and the Ground for a New Agriculture’ in William Thompson (Ed.). GAIA 2. Emergence (Lindisfarn Press, 1991), pp. 132-153.
12. Alfred North Whitehead. Science in the Modern World (Free Association Books. 1985), p. 117.
13. Erich Jantsch. The Self-Organizing Universe (Pergamon Press. 1980).
15. Stephen Dunstone. God’s First Draft (Transcript of BBC Radio 3 Broadcast).
16. Jacob Bronowski. ‘New Concepts in the Evolution of ComplexityStratified Stability and Unbounded Plans’ (Zygon, 5,1970). Quoted in Connie Barlow. Evolution Extended (MIT Press, 1994), p. 125.
17. Julian Huxley. New Bottles for New Wine (Harper & Rowe, 1957).
18. Stephen Jay Gould. Quoted in Connie Barlow. Evolution Extended (MIT Press, 1994), p. 50.
19. Jaques Monod. Chance and Necessity (Penguin Books, 1997), p. 180.
20. Rainer Maria Rilke. Letters to a Young Poet (W.W.Norton & Co., 1993), pp. 64-65.
21. Emanuel Kant. Quoted in Cassirer, E. Kant’s Life and Thought (Yale University Press, 1981).
22. Freya Mathews. The Ecological Self (Routledge, 1991), p. 1.
23. Warwick Fox. From notes taken at a conference on Environmental Ethics, Dartington, 1996.
24. Wendell Berry. Standing on Earth. (Golgonooza Press, 1991), pp. 169-170.
25. Thomas Berry.’ Economics: Its Effects on the Life Systems of the World’, in Anne Lonergan and Caroline Richards (Eds.) Thomas Berry and the New Cosmology (Twenty-Third Publications, 1988), p. 18.
26. Keith Ward. God, Chance and Necessity. (Oneworld, 1996).
27. Lynn White. ‘The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis’ (Science. 155, March 1967), pp. 1203-1207.
28. Anne Baring & Jules Cashford. The Myth of the Goddess (Arkana, Penguin. 1993).
29. Hildegard von Bingen. in Gabriele Uhlein. Meditations with Hilgegard of Bingen (Bear & Co., 1983).
30. Sallie McFague. Super, Natural Christians (Fortress Press, 1997).
31. Maya Angelou. On the pulse of the morning (Virago, 1993).

Select Bibliography

In this paper it has not been possible to do more than touch on some of the more significant features of the New Universe Story and to hint at some of its implications for the human condition. The literature in this field is vast. The following book list makes no pretence to be complete but it will serve as an introduction to a fascinating and endless journey.

Thomas Berry. The Dream of the Earth (Sierra Club Books, 1990).
Fritjof Capra. The Web of Life (HarperCollins, 1996).
Robert Elliot (Ed.) Environmental Ethics (OUP, 1995).
Brian Goodwin. How the Leopard Changed Its Spots (Phoenix, 1995).
Erich Jantsch. The Self-Organizing Universe. (Pergamon Press, 1980).
Stuart Kauffman. At Home in the Universe (Viking, 1995).
Peter Marshall. Nature’s Web (Simon & Schuster, 1992).
Freya Mathews. The Ecological Self (Routledge, 1991).
Sallie McFague. The Body of God (SCM Press, 1993).
Sallie McFague. Super, Natural Christians (Fortress Press, 1997).
Diamuid O’Murchú. Reclaiming Spirituality. Gill & Macmillan, 1997.
Rosemary Radford Ruether. Gaia and God (HarperSanFrancisco, 1992).
Henryk Skolimowski. The Participatory Mind (Arkana, 1994).
Lee Smolin. The Life of the Cosmos (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1997).
Charlene Spretnak. The Resurgence of the Real (Addison-Wesley, 1997).
Brian Swimme. & Thomas Berry. The Universe Story (HarperCollins, 1992).
Richard Tarnas. The Passion of the Western Mind (Ballantine Books, 1991).
Edward Wilson. The Diversity of Life (Penguin Books, 1994).

 

 

 

Cosmic Walk

Walking the Story of the Universe

June on a cosmic walk

A good way of honouring the epic of evolution is by going on a cosmic walk. Imagine a walk where with every step you take, you travel several million years through time. This is what you have to imagine as you start out on a cosmic walk.

The walk starts at the beginning of time, at an event known as the Big Bang. As you walk along the path you will meet, in your imagination, the evolution of stars and galaxies, move on to the birth of planet earth with its incredibly long and rich history, and finally arrive at the present.

A small book describing the walk is available. It includes two versions, a long walk of 1.37 Km and a much shorter version of just 200m.
The book of 68 pages is available as a free download  .pdf file of 1.2MB. DOWNLOAD

Cosmology & 21st Century Culture

by Nancy Ellen Abrams & Joel R. Primack

Reprinted by kind permission of the authors from Science (239, pp. 1769-1770, 7 September 2001).

We like to think of our generation in this Information Age as the smartest and most knowledgeable that has ever lived Yet most people in modern Western culture have no idea what our universe looks like or how to begin to think about the way we humans may fit into the cosmos. Every traditional culture known to anthropology has had a cosmology – a story of how the world began and continues, how humans came to exist, and what the gods expect of us. Cosmology made sense of the ordinary world by defining a larger context and grounding people’s sense of reality, their identity, and their codes of behaviour in that grand scheme. Like modern science, it embedded everydayness in an invisible reality: Modern science explains by means of countless molecules; African cosmologies explain by means of countless spirits. Ordinary people in traditional societies accepted responsibility for maintaining the cosmos itself by ritually re-enacting the creation stories for every generation. This is how they knew who they were. The absence of a cosmology was as inconceivable as the absence of language. Their pictures of the universe were not what anyone today would consider scientifically accurate, but they were true by the standards of their culture.

Science undermined all traditional pictures of the universe in the Renaissance, centuries before it was in a position to create one of its own. A cosmology can only be taken seriously if it is believable, and after the scientific revolution our standards of believability were forever changed. For four centuries, scientific cosmology was not taken seriously: because the ratio of theory to data was almost infinite. However, science now appears to be closing in on an origin story that may actually be true – one that can withstand the most rigorous tests and will still be accepted hundreds of years from now, as Newton’s theory remains valid for the solar system (within known limitations). This is the highest grade of truth possible in modem science (1).

Modern cosmology is in the midst of a scientific revolution. New instruments are producing the first detailed data about the distant universe. Since light travels at a finite speed, looking out in space is the same as looking back in time. We can now observe every bright galaxy in the visible universe, and even look back to the cosmic dark ages before galaxies had formed. In the patterns of the subtle temperature differences in the cosmic background radiation in different directions we are learning to read the Genesis story of the expanding universe.

The resulting origin story will be the first ever based on scientific evidence and created by a collaboration of people from different religions and races all around the world, all of whose contributions are subjected to the same standards of verifiability. The new picture of reality excludes no one and treats all humans as equal. The revolution in scientific cosmology today may open the door to a believable picture of the I~rger reality in which our world, our lives, and all our cultures are embedded.

Religion and Cosmology

In Biblical times when people looked up at a blue sky, they understood the blue to be water, held up by a hard, transparent dome that covered the entire flat Earth. In the King James translation, the dome was named the ‘firmament’ According to the first creation story at the beginning of Genesis, by creating this dome on the second day, God divided the waters ‘above’ from the waters ‘below’ and held open the space for dry land and air.

At about the same time as the Genesis story took the form in which we know it, Greek philosophers were living in a different universe in which the Earth was not flat and domed but a round celestial object. By the Middle Ages, the Greek image of concentric spheres, and not the Bible’s flat domed Earth, had become the unquestioned universe for Jews, Moslems, and Christians alike.

Thus, on a clear night in Medieval Europe, a person looking up into the sky would have seen hard, transparent spheres nested inside each other, encircling the center of the universe, the Earth. Each sphere carried a planet, the moon, or the sun. Heaven itself was immediately outside the most distant sphere, which carried the ‘fixed stars.’ The hierarchies of church, nobility, and family mirrored this cosmic hierarchy. Every thing and every creature in the universe tended toward its proper place for love of God.

The stable center was torn out of the Medieval universe at the beginning of the 17th century, when Galileo’s telescope observations showed that the Ptolemaic Earth-centered picture was wrong (2). Galileo ridiculed the prevailing cosmology in his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems (1632), but the Catholic Church forced him to recant and held him under house arrest for the rest of his life. This was a frightening and sobering event for scientists all over Europe. Eventually, following the lead of Bacon and Descartes, science protected itself by entering into a de facto pact of non-interference with religion: Science would restrict its authority to the material world, and religion would hold unchallenged authority over spiritual issues. By the time Isaac Newton was born in 1642, the spoils of reality had been divided The physical world and the world of human meaning were now separate realms.

The new picture portrayed the universe as endless empty space with stars scattered randomly in it. It never fully replaced the Medieval universe in people’s hearts, partly because it felt so incomplete. There was no particular place for humans, no place for God and no explanation of the universe’s origin. In the mid-17th century, Blaise Pascal [Pensees (1670)] expressed a sentiment unheard of in the Middle Ages: ‘engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces whereof I know nothing, and which know nothing of me, I am terrified…The eternal silence of these infinite spaces alarms me.’ Newtonian cosmology was the first that had nothing to say about humans, and believers in science could no longer even conceptualize the ancient ideal of humans living in harmony with the universe.

Instead, most educated people in the 21st century live in a cosmology defined by a 17th-century picture of cold still, empty space, along with fragments of traditional stories and doubts about what is real. Many have not fully absorbed the discovery nearly a century ago of the great age and size of the universe; indeed controversies between science and religion often center on conflicting origin stories. The current cosmological revolution may provide the first chance in 400 years to develop a shared cosmology. There is, however, a moral responsibility involved in tampering with the underpinnings of reality, as scientific cosmology is now doing. How well the emerging cosmology is interpreted in language meaningful to ordinary people may influence how well its elemental concept’s are understood, which may in turn affect how positive its consequences for society turn out to be. Will the new scientific story fuel a renaissance of creativity and hope in the emerging global culture–or will it be appropriated by the powerful and used to oppress the ignorant, as the Medieval hierarchical universe was used to justify rigid social hierarchies? Will news of new discoveries about the universe just be entertainment for an educated minority but, like science fiction or metaphysics, have little to do with the ‘real world’?

All possibilities are still open because the meaning of this new cosmology is not implicit in the science. Scientific cosmology unlike traditional cosmologies, makes no attempt to link the story of the cosmos to how human beings should behave. It is the job of scholars, artists, and other creative people to try to understand the scientific picture and to perceive and express human meanings in it (3). A living cosmology for 21st-century culture will emerge when the scientific nature of the universe becomes enlightening for human beings.

This will not happen easily. The result of centuries of separation between science and religion is that each is suspicious of the other infringing on its turf. In 1999 the AAAS Program of Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion sponsored a 3-day public conference (4) that asked: Did the universe have a beginning? Was the universe designed? Are we alone? Not surprisingly, no consensus was reached on any of these questions. Although the goal was ‘constructive dialogue’ between science and religion, some of the participants complained that the dialogue went one way–science always demanding that religion adapt to new discoveries. Naturally, science is not about to change its methods to accommodate religious concerns. But a cosmology that does not account for human beings or enlighten us about the role we may play in the universe will never satisfy the demand for a functional cosmology that religions have been trying to satisfy for millennia.

There is space in this article for only one of many possible examples of how the emerging scientific cosmology could provide a basis for a living, functional cosmology for the 21st century that, like ancient cosmologies, can help guide humanity (5).

The Transition from Cosmic Inflation to Expansion as a Model for Earth

Standard Big Bang theory explains the creation of the light elements in the first 3 minutes, but it does not explain what preceded or what has followed. Gravity alone could not have created the complex, large scale structures and flows of galaxies that are observed to exist. If matter were absolutely evenly distributed coming out of the Big Bang, gravity could have done nothing but affect the rate of the overall expansion. · Consequently, either some causal phenomenon such as ‘cosmic strings’ acting after the Big Bang formed the giant structures we observe today-which looks increasingly dubious because such theories conflict with the new observations of the cosmic background radiation–or else gravity must have had some differences in density to work with from the beginning. Cosmic Inflation could have caused such primordial differences.

The theory of Cosmic Inflation was proposed two decades ago by Alan Guth, Andrei Linde, and others. It is the only explanation we have today for the initial conditions that led to the Big Bang (6). It says that for an extremely small fraction of a second at the beginning of the Big Bang, the universe expanded exponentially, inflating countless random quantum events in the process, and leaving the newly created space-time faintly wrinkled on all size scales. All large structures in the universe today grew from these quantum fluctuations, enormously inflated in scale.

Inflation is also the controlling metaphor of our culture in the present epoch. Not only is the human population inflating; so too are the average technological power and the resource use of each individual. The human race is addicted to exponential growth, but this obviously cannot continue at the present rate. In a finite environment, inflation must end however cleverly we may postpone or disguise the inevitable.

The single most important question for the present generation may be how global civilization can make the transition gracefully from inflating consumption to a sustainable level. But the cosmic transition from inflation to the slow and steady expansion that followed the Big Bang shows that ending inflation does not mean that all growth must stop, even though many people trying to save the planet assume so. Inflation transformed to expansion can go on for billions of years. Processing information, which occupies more and more of the world’s population, does not need to be environmentally costly. Human life can continue to be enhanced as long as our creativity in restoring the Earth stays ahead of our material growth.

Notes
1. N.E. Abrams. J. R. Primack. (Philos. Sci. 9, 2001), p. 75.
2. T.S. Kuhn. The Copernican Revolution (Vintage Books, 1959). especially pp. 222-224.
3. N. Abrams. Alien Wisdom (a CD of her original music exploring themes of this article; for more information see www.expandinguniverse.org).
4. I.B. Miller, Ed. Cosmic Questions (Ann. N.Y. Acad. Sci., December 2001). The entire text plus video excerpts from the meeting and interviews with speakers will be included on a CD-ROM; for further information see www.aaas.org/spp/dser/.
5. Another example: J.R. Primack, N.E. Abrams. (Tikkun 16), p. 59.
6. For a more detailed explanation of current thinking about the initial conditions for the Big Bang, see, e.g.. A.H. Guth. The Inflationary Universe: The Quest for a New Theory of Cosmic Origins (Addison-Wesley, 1997); M. Bees. Before the Beginning: Our Universe and Others (Addison-Wesley, 1997).See also:
http://www.edge.org/conversation/the-inflationary-universe-alan-guth

Nancy Ellen Abrams is a lawyer, writer. and performance artist, and her husband Joel R. Primack is a professor of physics at the University of California. Santa Cruz They have been teaching a course at UCSC on Cosmology and Culture for 6 years. Primack currently serves on the executive committee of the American Physical Society Division of Astrophysics and chairs the advisory committee to the AAAS Program of Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion. N.E. Abrams and J.R. Primack are at the Physics Department. University of California. Santa Cruz. CA. USA.

Exploring the Universe Story

by Victor Anderson

WHAT DOES THE UNIVERSE STORY SHOW US?

The story of the development of the Universe is not only a magnificent story which could be told for its own sake, but a story with some specific and important implications.  These “lessons” of the Universe Story are all things we might believe anyway without ever hearing the story, but it does seem to me that the story makes these principles seem more grounded in truth and less like “just nice ideas”.  The Universe Story shows:

(a)  Our kinship with other things in the Universe, both living and non-living, through our sharing of a common ancestry (ultimately in the Big Bang); we are therefore living surrounded by things we have a connection with.

(b)  The nature of our dependence on the rest of the Universe, even reaching to the extent of our bodies being made out of elements such as carbon and hydrogen which themselves have an origin and history; this can be seen as a sort of factual basis for “thankfulness”, not taking life for granted.

c)   The universe story tells us about creativity – the Universe has manifested tremendous changes and incredible diversity in a continuous process which we are all products of, contributors to, and expressions of.

(d)  The story explains the responsibilities we each have as members of the dominant species on our planet, with the enormous impact we have on other species and the significance which our species has for the evolutionary process as a whole.

(e)  It explains the nature of the existence of different levels of organisation (sub-atomic particles, atoms, molecules, cells, multi-celled organisms, etc.), and enables us to use this as a way of understanding the current stage in the process, which is the development of globalisation in human organisation.

WHAT DOES THE SCIENTIFIC NATURE OF THE UNIVERSE STORY IMPLY?

What follows from the fact that the Universe Story is a scientific story?

(a)  It is more likely to be true than the creation myths of the past.  Of course the myths of Egypt, Palestine, India, and so on, conveyed and still convey important truths, but in a literal sense there is far more evidence that the current scientific Universe Story is true as an actual account of how the Universe, the Earth, the human species, etc., came into being.  It may be a worse story in some other ways – it may be less emotionally compelling, less clear as a basis for organising society – but in this respect at least it has an advantage, which must matter to us if we are concerned about truth.  I don’t therefore think the universe story simply takes its place as one creation myth amongst many.

(b)  As a scientific story, the product of a global scientific community, the Universe Story can be widely accepted as true by people from a wide range of cultural backgrounds and parts of the world.

(c)  At the same time, it is a story which can be complicated and difficult to engage with, both emotionally and intellectually.  Parts of it are difficult to understand.

(d)  It is also not a clear-cut and finalised collection of objective truths: the story is a provisional one, continually being changed, and always a field of debate, including significant disagreements and uncertainties.  This is in the nature of a scientific account.

(e)  But at the same time, we need sufficient tough-mindedness to – provisionally – back particular theories, views, and generalisations, and not get so drawn into the uncertainty that we find the story just comes to pieces in our hands and turns out to be nothing we can do anything with.

(f)  It is also right to be critical of science as it has developed in the West, and sceptical about the way the Universe Story has been told, because Western science has grown within a particular historical and social context, and therefore bears the marks of that in the form of the impacts of imperialism, capitalism, patriarchy, etc., on science.  Evolution is one of the aspects of science where this can be seen most clearly, especially in views about which particular types of humans are at the top of the evolutionary tree.  I remember as a child a book my uncle had, which included a picture summing up the evolution of life.  Right at the top of the tree, above the savages and fishes and primitive blobs, there sat a white man in an armchair, reading, looking remarkably like my uncle.

(f)  Western science has also developed with a particular psychological style which has emphasised the factual/intellectual content of science but very often (though by no means always) played down any sense of awe and wonder, or emotional involvement with what has been discovered.  This legacy is one of the things which makes it difficult for us now to move from an intellectual engagement with the Universe Story to an engagement which is also an emotional one.

HOW CAN THE UNIVERSE STORY BE EXPRESSED THROUGH RITUAL?

One of the ways in which the Universe Story might be engaged with in our hearts, and embedded within our ways of looking at things, is through its expression in ritual.  This works for some people a lot more than it does for others.  Here are a few thoughts which might be explored in practice.

One form of ritual which has been done is the cosmic walk, where participants walk perhaps 1.5 kilometres to represent the past 15 billion years, contemplate the formation of galaxies and Earth as they walk along, and are then struck by the tiny distance which represents the entire lifetime of the human species.

Celebrations of the seasons could be adapted to explicitly emphasise the astronomical movements which produce them.

Another basis for ritual is to take a limited set of key events from the Story and arrange them spatially, linking them with the directions marked out in a neopagan circle.  This works well if we start in the South-East with the Big Bang as a transition to Fire (South), the fire of the initial fireball, from the Air (representing in this case emptiness, absence) of the East.  Then after the formation of atoms and then galaxies, the South-West is the formation of the Earth, which is a process of Fire (South) from the Sun being turned into a planet covered mainly in Water (West).  Water is then the element in which life develops, with the Cambrian explosion a key stage in that process, and then in the North-West, what could fit better than the transition from the Water (West) to Earth (north), in the form of the first amphibians?  Then after dinosaurs and monkeys along with North side, the North-East is the transition from Earth-bound (North) creatures to the Air (East), representing human consciousness and creativity.  Then we have the industrial revolution and the potential future ecological revolution along the East side, reflecting the development of human consciousness through history.

Something else about evolution that we experience physically is the existence of our backbones, which are simultaneously central to the story of the evolution of life on Earth and central to our own bodies.  In between the worms and the fish in the evolutionary process, something began which is within us now whenever we walk, dance, or lie down.  In ‘Acrobats of the Gods’, Joan Dexter Blackmer says: “A dancer’s training is an investigation, a venture into one’s animal ancestry …”

MORE QUESTIONS ABOUT THE STORY

Question 1:  What is the relationship between the science and the myth?

In order to connect emotionally with the Earth Story (or the wider Universe Story) it is necessary to “translate” it from a purely scientific form into something that people can grasp and feel.  This wasn’t so difficult with creation stories from earlier cultures, which relied on easily understood concepts about the actions of different animals, or gods working in very human-like ways.  But can we emotionally grasp the Earth Story without falsifying it?  This falsification (or oversimplification at least) might be generated through seeing what happened to different species as though these were things which happened to humans, or importing human ideas about meaning and purpose where they do not belong.

Question 2:  How can we derive ethical conclusions from an account of what has happened?

The Earth Story is an account of what has happened.  But can we derive from that any ethical conclusions, about right and wrong?  Isn’t it possible that what ought to have happened is different from what actually did happen?  We are jumping to conclusions if we simply endorse the long-run direction of what has happened and what we might guess is likely to happen in the future.  Perhaps as human beings we should be able to make judgements that stand outside that: for example, animal life and its evolution have involved a great deal of pain and suffering, eating and being eaten.  How can that provide any ethical standard by which to determine how things should be taken forward by human beings?

Question 3:  Is there a single Earth Story?

A large part of the attraction of the Earth Story is that it is a single story which can provide an overarching narrative within which a multiplicity of different projects and decisions can be located.  Because of its basis in science, and because it is a global story, it can provide a focus for unity amongst different peoples in different parts of the world.  However, is it as simple as that?  Can’t we tell the story in different ways, with different emphases, different interpretations, different conclusions?  Won’t we in fact have (and perhaps this is what we already have) a Roman Catholic version, a Marxist version, a New Age version, a Social Darwinist version and so on?  Isn’t this just another field of debate between different people with many conflicting perspectives, rather than a unified grand narrative?

Question 4:  Is later better?

If we think we can derive some sort of ethical, political, or spiritual guidance from the Earth Story, this is probably because we are happy to go along with the direction evolution has taken up to now.  We are therefore implicitly accepting that “later is better”: for example human beings are an advance on fish, which are an advance on bacteria, and so on.  What do we do then about extinction crises and their aftermaths?  Were the periods directly after an extinction crisis an advance on the periods just before, or do make an exception to the “later is better” principle in the case of extinction crises?  If our species destroys itself, can we say that what replaces it will inevitably be better?  Would we say that, in the aftermath of a nuclear war, a takeover by lichen which could withstand radioactivity was an advance on what human beings created in the Renaissance, simply because the lichen-dominated world came later in the evolutionary process?  On the other hand, if we don’t accept some sense of “progress” based on some judgement about what in the Middle Ages was called “the Great Chain of Being”, how do we avoid the sort of ultra-egalitarianism which says that the life of a human being suffering from malaria has no more value than the life of a mosquito?

Question 5:  How do we apply the lessons of the Earth Story to human history?

Teilhard de Chardin was clear: there is a definite “principle axis” of evolution, which for the past three thousand years can be summed up as “the rise of the West”.  Does this mean “West is best”?  Teilhard says (in ‘The Phenomenon of Man’): “we would be allowing sentiment to falsify the facts if we failed to recognise that during historic time the principle axis of anthropogenesis [the development of the human species] has passed through the West…  It is not in any way naïve to hail as a great event the discovery by Columbus of America.”  However, another way to tell the story is that the West conquered through violence and ruthlessness, and therefore it was not the morally best culture which won out in the conflicts between cultures, but simply the one which was best at conflict.  And what happens to the analysis now, with the economic and cultural rise of Islam, India, and China?  Does this reflect a wrong turning taken by evolution, the disastrous spread of unsustainable production and consumption, or the development of a fairer world resulting from something positive about globalisation?

These questions all create difficulties for the Earth Story.  However, so powerful is the attraction of the Story, in my view, that we will be better off finding answers and moving ahead on the basis of them than simply abandoning the idea that the Earth Story has anything useful to tell us.  And how can we possibly imagine that an account of the development of life on Earth, and human history within it, has nothing to tell us about the choices which are open to our species in the future?  It would be a strange world indeed if we could derive nothing of value from all this, and we could safely ignore it and choose our ethical judgements, religious practices (or rejection of them), political projects, and so on, paying no attention to the long-term big picture story of what has happened on this planet up to now.

Evolution and its relevance to the way we live now

by Victor Anderson

We are in the midst of the biggest global crisis in the life of man; climate change, population growth, peak oil, financial crisis and major tensions between Christian and Moslem and Moslem and Jew. Green economist Victor Anderson reflects on what Darwin would have made of our predicament and what evolution implies for economics, policies and consciousness.

(From GreenSpirit, vol. 11.1, Spring 2009)

 

What would Darwin have made of our current predicament? He might have been disappointed with how our species is getting on, Victorian believer as he was in the superiority and continuing progress of human beings.
The optimism characteristic of his time has largely disappeared. The First World War gave it a jolt, then the Nazis, the Second World War, the atom bomb, and the ecology crisis. All that hope for progress has gone sour, or at least appears very problematic.

There has been progress of various sorts, of course. There has been economic growth, with more production and consumption almost every year than there was the year before. There have been amazing developments in technology, communications, science, and medicine. There are more human beings than ever before, and on average we live a lot longer than we used to. The picture is a mixed one, so mixed in fact that it looks paradoxical. How could we as a species have achieved so much, and yet have produced the terrible disasters of world wars and a whole set of different varieties of environmental devastation? How should we rate our chances now of coming through, in the long run, into some better day?

Natural history provides two different lessons. One is that the rise and fall of a species is nothing exceptional, but is the norm. Population dynamics is a standard part of ecology, and the standard pattern is that a species multiplies in numbers whilst it has the food and circumstances to sustain that, then overreaches itself, running out of food, taking up too much space, producing too many waste products, and as a consequence numbers then fall back, until food and circumstances once again enable population numbers to recover and the cycle begins anew.

The other lesson is an evolutionary one. Species reach points where they find it hard to cope with existing circumstances. Perhaps a river dries up, or a forest dies back, or an Ice Age arrives. There is then a sort of fork in the road. Either the new circumstances defeat the species in question, and it becomes extinct, or else adaptation and evolution take place, such that the species or its descendents become able to cope with the transformed circumstances. Again, reaching such a fork in the road is nothing unusual, it is a standard pattern in evolution.

Does any of this sound familiar for our own species? We are living inside both of these patterns, the population dynamics and the fork in the road. But because our species is different from other species in some crucially important ways, we are living through these patterns in an unusual way. The population dynamics, for us, are the dynamics not only of population, but also of living standards and technology. The planet is supporting not only more people, but also on average, continually rising material standards of living. The burden on environment and resources has been described as “the IPAT equation”, meaning environmental Impact equals Population multiplied by Affluence multiplied by Technology (meaning the efficiency with which the technology delivers the affluence) (1). It follows from this that the energy and resource efficiency of our technologies is a problem, and that the scale of population is also a problem.

Evolution drawing

 

For humans, reproduction is now to a large extent a matter of conscious choice. That is also a key aspect of the “fork in the road” which we face. We face it consciously, knowing the situation, or at least knowing that we can know about it if we choose to. In this respect, we are a very unusual species, and that consciousness gives us the possibility of deliberately choosing one path rather than another, without any inevitability. If we didn’t have consciousness and the ability to choose, I have no doubt that we would be heading now towards ecological disaster, with nothing able to stop us. And that is, of course, how it sometimes seems, surrounded by evidence that we are not actually using our consciousness and our ability to choose, but are instead in a state of denial and/or distraction.

Our future depends principally on two factors, both of them highlighted by the study of natural history and evolution. One is the IPAT equation, implying the need to restrain population growth and find ways to improve our lives without greater and greater impacts on environment and resources. The other is the need to make use of the consciousness that we have in order to face up to our current crisis, and get ourselves organised to do something different, a process which has been called “conscious evolution”  (2).

The evolutionary story, however, has another lesson to contribute. This is that the development of consciousness is itself part of the evolutionary process. The feature of our species which may save us is a product of the Evolution and its relevance to the way we live now.  Evolution is, amongst other things, the evolution of consciousness. Although some theories present the evolution of consciousness as some sort of inevitable progression through a series of stages (3), one after the other, in fact historically progress has been less smooth than that. And there is also the problem of seeing consciousness as the prime force moving evolution along, when a Darwinian (and more plausible) account sees consciousness as useful in the struggle to adapt and survive, and therefore as a product of evolution as well as a cause.

Now that we are getting used to being in the 21st Century, we can say with some certainty that the 20th Century got things wrong about human consciousness and social organisation. One way of getting it wrong was totalitarianism, the effort to organise our species top-down, through dictatorships such as those of Stalin and Hitler, making use of centralised power but not making use of the independent abilities and energies of the millions of people who were crushed underfoot by those systems. The other way of getting it wrong was selfish individualism, according to which “greed is good”, “there is no such thing as society”, and our responsibility is simply to look after ourselves. This mobilised the initiative of many more people than totalitarianism did, but it was initiative which did not aim to contribute to the common good or acknowledge social responsibility.

Neither of these forms of consciousness and social organisation stands much chance of getting us through our current crisis, which requires a combination of initiative and responsibility. That depends on not choosing between individuality and the common good, but on reconciling them, arranging society so that they go together. To make this particularly difficult, it is the key task at a time when each of the four main traditional means of achieving this reconciliation is in great difficulties: the market economy (with, at its best, the principle that it should only be possible to make a profit by serving other people’s needs); democracy (with the principle that it should only be possible to be elected if one serves other people’s needs); the sense of belonging created by membership of social units such as communities and nations; and religion (from the origin of the word, meaning “to bind together”).

Since, in order to get through our evolutionary crisis, we need to find ways to reconcile individuality and the common good, and we need to carry this through at a time when the market, democracy, community, and religion – in their traditional forms – are all failing, each one of these four will have to be transformed in basic ways if they are to going to be of use to our species in getting through our current evolutionary crisis.

Elisabet Sahtouris, an evolutionary biologist, has likened our time to the period when separate single-celled creatures first joined together to become multi-cellular, and therefore became able to cope with a much wider range of life’s problems. They achieved what we are finding difficult: an arrangement whereby they could combine, but also allow each component part the specific role it could perform best (4). What she sees as central to the current period of human evolution is the emergence of the global level of human organisation, beyond the nation- state, a unit of organisation which was at its peak in Darwin’s time.

This emergence of the global is not only about “global consciousness”, though that is important: it is also about getting ourselves better organised. One important part of this picture is the process of international discussion on climate change. So are the talks which have been taking place with the aim of getting the world economy on track, this time with India, China, and other developing countries as full participants, moving on from the days when the “G7”, the richest Western countries, could sort things out amongst themselves and impose their will on the rest. Now it’s “G20”, representing in a very approximate way a more democratic world. And another important aspect of all this is the discussions which are taking place about armaments and the settling of old disputes, such as those in the Middle East (5).

All this is described as “politics” and “economics”, but it is not separate from the evolution of consciousness or the evolutionary process in general. It is all essential to what evolution means for our species in our time. Darwin would probably have been surprised if he knew that the future progress of our species was to become so problematic. But it would have been no surprise to him to find that the development of our consciousness and our powers of social organisation have become the two keys to giving humans a chance of breaking out of difficulties of population and environment which have led millions of previous species to defeat and destruction.

References
1. The IPAT equation was part of Paul Ehrlich’s response to Barry Commoner, in debates in the early 70’s environmental movement. Ehrlich P & Holdren J: “Review of ‘The Closing Circle’” (Environment, April 1972, pp. 24-39).
2. “Conscious evolution” is a phrase associated particularly with Barbara Marx Hubbard. Hubbard, B.M.: Conscious Evolution (New World Library, 1998).
3. For example, the stages set out by Ken Wilber. See Wilber, K: A Theory of Everything (Shambhala, 2000).
4. Sahtouris, E. Gaia: the human journey from chaos to cosmos (Simon & Schuster, 1989). See also Swimme, B. & Berry, T. The Universe Story (Penguin, 1992).
5. The best website for tracking these and other developments in global politics is, in my opinion, www.iht.com (the online global edition of ‘The New York Times’).