We just read about the work of Elisabet Sahtouris, explaining how Nature can be our guide to the destination of a peaceful and prosperous future. We recently had the opportunity to ask Elisabet Sahtouris to tell us about her life and her work, and the answers are just fascinating!
How would you describe “evolution biologist”?
As an evolution biologist, I’m a scientist who studies the changes in Nature over time—the history of our planet Earth over nearly four billion years.
What was your path to becoming an evolution biologist?
I wanted to be a scientist from childhood, but actually studied art before science at university as my parents considered science a male profession. Once beyond their influence, I did study science, all the way to a PhD and then a post-doctoral fellowship at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Then, after a year of research and teaching at the University of Massachusetts and M.I.T., I found academic settings too constrained for my own evolving ideas about how Nature evolved and what humanity needed to learn from it. Ancient Greeks had developed science to study Nature in order to find guidance in human affairs, which was very much my own purpose. They named natural science ‘philos sophias’—love of wisdom.
Where does spirituality come into the picture?
I was interested in the origins and nature of the entire universe, not just Earth, and therefore explored leading edge theories in physics along with continued study of biological evolution. Eventually I came to see the entire universe as a living system rooted within a limitless field of Cosmic consciousness, ever evolving in a process of continuous creation. This concept was completely compatible with the spirituality of Eastern sciences (or philosophies, or religions), such as Vedic in India, Taoism in China, Kotodama in Japan, and widespread Buddhism, none of which have a Creator God outside of Nature. The founders of quantum theory also looked to such ideas to help them make sense of their research results in ways that made more sense than the standard scientific view of a material universe.
How can we reconcile science and spirituality?
The division of science and spirituality lies in the conflict between the purely material universe of (non-quantum) western science and the ‘desert religions’ (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) which all have a Creator separate from his Creation. Thus one side holds that the material universe, without intelligence or purpose, can give rise to life, intelligence and then purpose through long chains of accidents, while the other side believes in an intelligence (deity) that created the natural universe from outside it. The solution is perhaps role-modeled by Islamic science, which made many contributions to western science, and which holds that Allah created a living, natural universe and instructed humanity to study this living nature scientifically. Once you understand and adopt the concepts of the farther East traditions that I just mentioned you no longer perceive any conflict because the universe creates itself from within—Creation is its own Creator, so to speak.
How can evolution biology help us understand our current situation?
Economic theory in the West is based on a very simplified version of Darwinian evolution: that life is an endless competitive struggle in scarcity and that individual humans are thus naturally competitive and acquisitive. All of us have been taught this in Europe and America and now most of the rest of the world. The Soviet Union taught evolution through Kropotkin’s book, Mutual Aid, on cooperation in Nature. Both sides of the Iron Curtain politicized their view of science and economics, one side sacrificing community to individualism, the other sacrificing individual ambitions to community. In my view, both need to be balanced so that both individuals and community can flourish.
Only recently have new research reports and books on evolution biology been published in the West to demonstrated that there is not just natural selection among individuals, but also selection among groups, and that groups are selected according to how well the individuals within them cooperate! (i.e. David Sloan Wilson’s Does Altruism Exist?) This is exactly the fusion of Darwin with Kropotkin we have so long needed!
How can we move from a competition phase to a cooperation phase?
My own best discovery was a maturation cycle that has repeated itself throughout Earth’s evolution. From the ancient bacteria that had Earth to themselves for fully half of evolution all the way to humans, we have moved from youthful growth economics, with lots of creativity and competition, to mature stabilized economics based on cooperation and community. The tipping point from youth to maturity—from hostilities to harmony—comes when growth economy hostilities become prohibitively expensive in terms of energy expenditure and give way to the less costly and more peaceful, efficient and resilient stability of cooperation economics. The details are spelled out in my books, including the latest Gaia’s Dance: The Story of Earth and Us.
What do you see for our future?
Ancient Polynesian navigators sailing without a compass knew Nature so intimately that they could not get lost. Humanity is at a critically important stage where our deepest stories of who we are and in what kind of cosmos we live are challenged by the turbulence raging around us economically, politically, spiritually, personally. We can each stand tall enough in our own canoes to see a bigger picture in which the way through the storm comes clear.
Nature will guide us through our perfect storm of crises to the world we dream of if we listen!