Widening the view of science to include an understanding of consciousness and spirit.

by Elisabet Sahtouris

By lifting a few constraints upon our Western scientific world-view, we can expand it to include the larger cosmo-vision traditionally relegated to religions. A keyboard metaphor for reality is proposed, with matter as the low keys, electromagnetic energy up to zero point energy (ZPE) as mid-range keys and undifferentiated cosmic consciousness in the high keys. Scientists, who have taken over from priesthoods to tell us ‘how things are’ are urged to recognize the one alive, intelligent universe in which spirit and matter are not separable and in which creation is continuous. Religious leaders are urged to recognize the importance of the uniqueness in each religion’s story, as well as in that of science, and the fundamental unity of All That Is. Only true communion with each other can lead us to a common understanding that we are co-creators at the leading edge of evolution, and to a common ethic that will bring renewed health to our species and others.

As an evolution biologist, my work and passion are looking at the evolving patterns of biological living systems in order to make sense of our present human affairs in a broad evolutionary context. One might say that I’m a ‘Pastist’ looking for perspective that will help me be a good Futurist. But I have a deeper passion, which is to understand myself, my world and the entire Cosmos in which we exist locally.

Within this broader mission I have long sought to undo the artificial barriers between Science and Spirit, to reveal a richer world-view or cosmo-vision. I especially like the latter term-cosmo-vision-for its breadth and depth to the farthest reaches of what we can know through experience. The word cosmos is Greek, and in Greek it means people, world or cosmos in the English sense, depending on context.

Every culture present and past has, or has had, its world-view or cosmo-vision. Western science has evolved a cosmo-vision very different from all other human cultures, though it is most influential in the world now. Its most obvious divergences from other cosmo-visions lie in its seeing life and consciousness only in Earth’s biological creatures, and in its narrowing of “reality” to what can be tested and measured scientifically. This excludes from its reality gods, soul, spirit, dream experience, thoughts, feelings, values, passions, enlightenment experiences and many other aspects of consciousness beyond their physiological correlates.

Given that neither scientist nor anyone else has ever had any experience outside of consciousness, these omissions seem gravely limiting and unrealistic.

Nevertheless, Western science has defined the universe as an array of non-living matter and non-conscious energy-a universe in which changes are due to random or accidental processes that assemble material particles, atoms and molecules into patterns within a few physical laws. Thus random events account for life, which is seen as arising from non-life on the surface of one non-living planet, and possibly on others yet undiscovered, evolving by Darwinian random mutations and ‘blind’ natural selection.

One way to sum up the essential difference between this Western scientific cosmo-vision and all other human cultural cosmo-visions is to see it portraying a universe in which things happen by accident rather than by intelligent design.

Since our cosmo-vision is the framework in which we attempt to understand the patterns of biological evolution, the way we frame it is enormously important. If evolution proceeds by accident, rather than by intelligent intent, the same evidence for evolution, the same observations of it, will be seen very differently. Humans, for example, will be seen differently from religious, economic, cultural or scientific perspectives.

While this Western scientific world-view gives a satisfying picture and interpretation of nature to many scientists, and while its adherents can feel awe at nature’s complexity and beauty, ever larger numbers of people either cannot accept it or feel impelled to revise and expand it. These include many scientists dissatisfied with its limitations. In fact, they are changing western science very rapidly now, toward an understanding of nature as alive, self-organizing, intelligent, conscious or sentient and participatory at all levels from subatomic particles and molecules to entire living planets, galaxies and the whole Cosmos, from local human consciousness to Cosmic Consciousness.

The reductionist pursuit of matter to its tiniest particles broke us through to seeing all matter as disturbances in a great energy field, now called the Zero Point Energy (ZPE) field, in which everything is as dynamically interconnected as in Shiva’s Dance or Indra’s Net. Physics is now demonstrating that information from any spatial point in the universe is accessible at any other point, and that all events taking place in the universe at any time are accessible at any other time.

Most cultures understand the universe as conscious, and this cosmic consciousness, by various names, as the source of Creation. Now science itself is coming close to these views, through the quantum physicists’ recognition that consciousness is essential to reality and somehow a deep feature of the ZPE field or an even deeper non-time/space.

Thus, our scientific cosmo-vision is shifting 180 degrees from the view of consciousness as a late product of material and biological evolution to the view of consciousness as the very source of material and biological evolution, as I and many of my scientific colleagues have shifted it for ourselves.

The First Worldwide Web
In molecular genetic biology this shift is supported by fifty years of research evidence that DNA reorganizes itself intelligently when organisms are environmentally stressed, and that the required information transfer often seems to obey some form of non-locality rather than slower chemical or electromagnetic transmission. Rather than being the sources of variation and evolution, errors known to occur in DNA during reproduction and by cosmic radiation or other accidents, are recognized at the molecular level and fixed by repair genes. Thus, we see intelligence at work not only in higher brains, but also in the lowliest of bacteria and cellular components. We are thus moving toward a post-Darwinian era in evolution biology.

The earliest creatures of Earth, Archean bacteria, invented complex and diverse lifestyles, rearranged the planet’s crust to produce patches of oxides (rusted earth) and pure streams of metals we mine today, including copper and uranium. They created an entirely new atmosphere from their waste gases, especially oxygen, and created huge continental shelf formations. By evolving ways to exchange DNA information among themselves around the world, we can rightly say they invented the first worldwide web of information exchange. The importance of this astoundingly flexible gene pool, which exists to this day, cannot be underestimated. It is still as active as in Archean times and is related, for example, to rapid bacterial resistance to our antibiotics.

Information exchange gave bacteria close relationships that facilitated both competition and co-operation in communal living. We have known of their communal lives for some time, but only now are we able to investigate their amazing urban complexes in real detail and understand how surprisingly like our own their history was.

In the first half of Earth’s four and a half billion year life, when bacteria still had the world to themselves, they not only discovered the advantages of communal living but even evolved sophisticated cityscapes. We can see their huge urban complexes today as slimy films-in wetlands, in dank closets, in the stomachs of cows, in kitchen drains. Only now can we discover their inner structure and functions with the newest microscopy techniques that magnify them sufficiently without destroying them. 

Looking closely for the first time at intact bacterial micro-cities, scientists are amazed to see them packed as tightly as our own urban centers, but with a decidedly futuristic look. Towers of spheres and cone- or mushroom-shaped skyscrapers soar 100 to 200 micrometers upward from a base of dense sticky sugars, other big molecules and water, all collectively produced by the bacterial inhabitants. In these cities, different strains of bacteria with different enzymes help each other exploit food supplies that no one strain can break down alone, and all of them together build the city’s infrastructure. The cities are laced with intricate channels connecting the buildings to circulate water, nutrients, enzymes, oxygen and recyclable wastes. Their diverse inhabitants live in different micro-neighborhoods and glide, motor or swim along roadways and canals. The more food is available, the denser the populations become. 

Microbiologist Bill Costerton observes: “All of a sudden, instead of individual organisms, you have communication, cell co-operation, cell specialization, and a basic circulatory system, as in plants or animals…. It’s a big intellectual break.” Researchers are coming to see colonial bacteria or even all bacteria now as multi-celled creatures despite their separate bodies. 

Researcher Eshel Ben-Jacob also finds bacteria trading genes and discovers complex interactions between individuals and their communities. The genomes of individuals-defined as their full set of structural and regulatory genes-can and do alter their patterns in the interests of the bacterial community as a whole. He observes that bacteria signal each other chemically, calculate their own numbers in relation to food supplies, make decisions on how to behave accordingly to maximize community well-being and collectively change their environments to their communal benefit. 

Bacterial communities thus create complex genetic and behavioral patterns specific to different environmental conditions. Both Ben-Jacob and Costerton see individual bacteria gaining the benefits of group living by putting group interests ahead of their own. Ben-Jacob concludes that colonies form a kind of supermind genomic web of intelligent individual genomes. Such webs are capable of creative responses to the environment that bring about “co-operative self-improvement or co-operative evolution.”

1993 Nobel Laureate biologists Phillip Sharp and Richard Roberts discovered that RNA is arranged in modules that can be reshuffled by spliceosomes, referred to as a cell’s “editors.” Other researchers have shown that bacteria naturally retool themselves genetically and can correct defects created by human genetic engineers. Ancient bacteria had already evolved this ability, for example in their repair of genes damaged by UV radiation. 

This growing body of evidence suggests that evolution may proceed much faster under stress than was thought possible. It also reveals how the worldwide web of DNA information exchange invented by ancient bacteria still functions today, not only among bacteria as always, but also within multicelled creatures and among species. As Lynn Margulis puts it: “Evolution is no linear family tree, but change in the single multidimensional being that has grown to cover the entire surface of Earth.”

My co-author Willis Harman once said, “If consciousness is anywhere in the universe, it must be everywhere.” The easiest way to understand this is to see that consciousness is a fundamental property of the source of all being, as more and more physicists believe it to be. This consciousness is a vital dimension of being, more fundamental than energy or matter.

The Best Life Insurance
I said earlier that western science is changing very rapidly now, toward an understanding of nature as alive, self-organizing, intelligent, conscious or sentient and participatory at all levels from subatomic particles and molecules to entire living planets, galaxies and the whole Cosmos, from local human consciousness to Cosmic Consciousness.

Evolution from the perspective of linear time displays cycles that ever move upward, reflecting the complex spiraling paths of planets and stars and galaxies. Each cycle begins with some form of unity dividing into diversity, leading it to conflict, which then moves into negotiations and resolution in a higher level of co-operative unity. 

The ancient bacteria diversified from the unity of a new planet’s crustal mixture of elements, moving them about as they invented new forms and lifestyles. They competed with each other for resources as they caused major planet-wide problems such as starvation and global pollution. They invented new technologies to solve them, but finally had to negotiate and learn to cooperate in communities and in the ultimate symbiotic bacterial community, which became the first “multi-creatured cell”-the nucleated cell-a new unity at a higher level of complexity. 

From this nucleated cell, new diversity emerged as many kinds of single cells competed, negotiated and finally co-operated as multi-celled creatures. From this new level of unity, all other creatures diversified, competed and negotiated their way into harmonious ecosystems. The best life insurance for any species in an ecosystem is to contribute usefully to sustaining the lives of other species, a lesson we are only beginning to learn as humans.

Today we humans are repeating this process in amazing detail, in what we have come to recognize as globalization. Human history repeats evolutionary history, with all its problems and technological solutions-diversification from the unity of the earliest human family, all the old patterns of competition and negotiation played out in wars, conquests and assimilation for the thousands of years in which we have built the empires of individual rulers, then of nations and now of corporations. Finally we recognize that we need a co-operative world-unity at a higher level, a new multi-creatured cell the size of our entire planet. And gradually we see that just as our beautifully evolved body cannot be healthy if one or more organs are ill, so our global economy can thrive only if all local economies are healthy as well. Thus, we become concerned with the ecosystems we have damaged and with the economic inequities we must solve.

How fascinating that just as we evolve this pattern of globalization in recognition of our need for harmony with each other and with other species, we also awaken to our identity as spirit having a human experience, striving to understand the ultimate unity from which we sprang! What ancient mystics and religious prophets and saints taught is now becoming widespread. Thus, our new negotiations toward co-operation are not only reflected in economic globalization and our own worldwide web-the Internet-but in many efforts to globalize friendly conversation among the world’s religions. In this process we move from religious conflicts to co-operation, in part by recognizing that ultimate unity, that cosmic consciousness, that ground of being, as the source of all “God” concepts. 

The barriers between science and spirit are dissolving as scientists find cosmic consciousness in a non-local, non-time energy field that transmutes itself into electromagnetic energy, and, in turn, matter, in the creation of universes such as ours, as we have seen. 

This Creative Source has been called “I Am” from the perspective of the local consciousness in beings such as you and me, when we practice meditation to expand our little consciousnesses into the Cosmic Consciousness of which they are part. In this state we not only perceive union with God, we may even transcend our local selves such that we recognize ourselves as God.

From a linear time perspective, our universe appears to be a learning universe. I like to say its basic principle is “Anything that can happen, will happen,” and so it learns what works well and what doesn’t. Evolution can thus be seen as an improvisational dance, keeping the steps that work and changing those that don’t.
Cosmic Consciousness, then, begins as Unity and divides into Complexity a stage at a time as it embodies itself in such vast varieties of energetic and material forms as we see in biological evolution, for example, from our human perspective of linear time. In its non-time/space Source, which some physicists now identify as the more fundamental nature of the universe, all these possibilities exist together in complexity inconceivable to us humans. 

The Creative Edge of God
I believe each life comes with the freedom to choose a path through these endless possibilities at myriad choice points along its way, just as every particle weaves its trajectory through time/space. Every organism composed of and playing on its full keyboard from pure consciousness to matter, can theoretically be led in its development by its ultimate goal. The acorn can know the oak tree it will become, as we can know the higher selves toward which we evolve.

All nature is thus conscious, and all of it has access to non-time/space; all of it is an aspect of God. Only we humans of western culture have played the game of cutting ourselves off from the Great Conversation that our very cells can still hear! I have come to believe, like many of my indigenous teachers, that soils, waters, organisms, ecosystems, Earth, even DNA itself, all know themselves in relation to the whole play of universal evolution as our cells know each other and our whole bodies in evolution, behaving intelligently to maintain themselves and that whole. Only this way can I understand how my own body, in its tremendous complexity, functions and preserves its health.
Perhaps God, through western technological culture, is trying out the most dangerous game of all-the game of truly forgetting our nature. A great risk, but it had to be done to try all possibilities! It seems our human task now is to wake up and recognize ourselves as parts or aspects of God-as-Nature and behave accordingly. All are One, all harm harms each of us, all blessings bless each of us. What a guideline for choice!

Suppose we remind ourselves occasionally to see ourselves as the creative edge of God (a phrase I learned from a dear friend)-as God looking out through our eyes, acting through our hands, walking on our feet, in exploration of the new-and to observe how that changed things for us.

I pray that all the religions will recognize the importance of the uniqueness in each story and the unity of All That Is. I pray that scientists, who have been given the role of “official” priesthood, with the mandate to tell us “how things are,” will soon officially recognize the one alive, intelligent universe in which spirit and matter are not separable and in which creation is continuous. I pray the indigenous people who never separated science and spirituality will be honored for that. It is time for the true communion which alone can save our species and all others, which alone can bring about the perfectly possible world we all dream of-a world expressing this understanding of ourselves as the creative edge of God!

This article is from the proceedings of At Home In The Universe: a symposium on the developing dialogue between science and religion, at the World Parliament of Religions, Capetown, South Africa, December 1999.

Elisabet Sahtouris, Ph.D. is an internationally known American/Greek evolution biologist and futurist, author, speaker and consultant on Living Systems Design. She has taught at the University of Massachusetts and M.I.T., was a science writer for the HORIZON/ NOVA TV series, a United Nations consultant on indigenous peoples and is a member of the United Religions Initiative. Her current focus is on evolution biology as a model for organizational change; her recent books are Biology Revisioned, co-authored with Willis Harman, A Walk Through Time: From Stardust to Us and EarthDance: Living Systems in Evolution.