Why we are not at the top of the pyramid and other musings, Dispelling Old Notions

So far we’ve been using very broad strokes to begin painting a picture of our place in the universe. But mankind’s nature is twofold and before we go any further we need to establish, again in broad contextual terms, how we fit into life on the planet.

It has been the norm to put ourselves at the top of the pyramid, our brainpower placing us at the apex of life on Earth.

Unfortunately, this could not be further from the truth and is actually kind of pathological in its egocentricity. A large part of the reason for this is the left brain rut we have established we are in.

To jar ourselves out of this complacency we must understand, first and foremost, that Western civilization is bogged down in mainstream, textbook views of the world, forms of reductionism clinging to post-Enlightenment observations that have been dragged into the present by Victorian sensibilities and their limited understanding we latched onto and refuse to let go of.

Current forms of government and global corporatization are byproducts of this and these very institutions are what now keep us from making concrete changes towards the next step in our evolution.

In spite of this predicament we continue to make immense strides in understanding Earth’s operating systems, shedding ever more light on how the planet functions, bringing us to the point as a species where we either clear the path of those older views to see the horizon beyond or continue on blindly and fall off the cliff into the abyss.

There are many pieces in Earth’s operating puzzle, but four great interlocking concepts together create a kind of owner’s manual, illustrating how every system nested within them is able to function optimally.

In Dazzle Gradually Lynn Margulis, the evolutionary theorist and her son, author Dorian Sagan, realize the bacterial game of life begun billions of years ago started a pattern we still live and work by today as microbial beings ourselves. Ancient bacterial biotechnology led to all sorts of innovations including fermentation, photosynthesis, oxygen breathing, and fixing of atmospheric nitrogen into proteins, but also led to pollution, overpopulation, and starvation.

What we are going through is not something new, but part of a continuing process. We are not the be-all and end-all of life, merely one continuing phase of it.

As anthropologist Gregory Bateson, in Mind and Nature, put it, “Every evolutionary step is an addition of information to an already existing system.”

A system that will continue to build new, unexpected forms.

Michael Crichton understood that “Life is actually a series of encounters in which one event may change those that follow in a wholly unpredictable, even devastating way.”

Something we as humans are not above.

These observations help us to recognize what, in biology, theorists call punctuated equilibrium; periods of practical stasis punctuated by rapid change, which we can understand not only as species evolution, but in other patterns as well. Every system reaches a point of bifurcation urging potential out of what it has built up.

The clearest example is our geologic past, where eons of time have been punctuated by major volcanic eruptions and/or meteor devastation that encompassed mass extinctions from which new, more complex, lifeforms arose. A process that is ongoing.

And in eras of human history, where for example, the Middle Ages can be considered the period of practical stasis which helped build the foundation of the Renaissance that burst into an age of discovery on all fronts with the advent of humanism, art, architecture, voyages of exploration, and the sciences.

Recognizing punctuated equilibrium as a kind of mainframe operating system allows us to predict instability. Early warning signs fire a broadside telling us that once rapid change has begun it will snowball into something wholly unexpected and uncontrollable.

Older ways of life must die off before new kinds can thrive.

Because at the heart of punctuated equilibrium is the second of our interlocking concepts: self-organized systems, every living organism on the planet, encompassing everything from individual cells to the planet itself. Self-organized systems grow in complexity through phase changes, developing new kinds of life in whatever period or form they occur.

Stephen Buhner eloquently analyzes this in Plant Intelligence and the Imaginal Realm. In biological terms he finds that self-organization occurs when a certain density of molecules is reached: a sudden unity and synchronization forms a new, collective, ordered state of being. “A unique living system that is more than the sum of its parts. This new entity is not something you can predict, neither its physical nor behavioral nature can be predicted from a study of its parts, there is no linear additive process. A threshold is crossed between randomized molecular movements and sudden self-organization and emergent new behavior.”

Understanding this as a universal paradigm is critical.

If most forms of life die off, Margulis and Sagan realized that bacteria have survived and thrived because they “routinely transfer their genes to other bacteria very different from themselves. A recipient bacterium can use the visiting, accessory DNA to perform functions that its own genes cannot mandate. Bacteria exchange genes quickly and reversibly, in part because they live in densely populated communities.”

Bacteria live in a state of symbiosis. The third of our concepts, where any nutrient-poor environment sets up a system of recycling through symbiotic relationships that help the system thrive. This proves true whether it is an ecosystem, a social system, or an urban system. Symbiosis is a mainstay of existence.

Something we must return to as a species.

An ancient example of symbiosis can be found in Robert Hazen’s finding that earth’s early stage was lacking in mineral diversity, yet with the creation of microbial life through use of these few minerals microbes were then able to produce another two-thirds of the mineral types found today.

Symbiosis is one of the shadows Earth casts, showing us how to sustain complex structures created by self-organized systems.

Perhaps the greatest thing to take from this knowledge is the Gaian Paradigm. Paraphrasing Buhner, we see that Earth generates self-organized systems out of the ecological matrix of the planet to fulfill certain functions, instilling in each form of life a drive to do so. How each actually fulfills that function by creating their own response is up to them. Each individual in each species has the ability to choose.

As Buhner says, Earth trusts the individual genius of each organism to innovate, respond, and create solutions around what it experiences. There is no other way for vast systems to work. A linear top-down approach is not functional. Earth creates ecosystems which give rise to the plants and animals necessary to maintain not only their own health but the health of the biosphere.

Coral reefs, rain forests, and prairies highlight this kind of symbiotic ecosystem relationship.

Here we need to understand human societies as ecosystems in their own right. A linear, top-down approach is not only unsustainable, it is damaging when it imagines it has the power to solve problems it is not directly in touch with.

A working example of this is illustrated in Steven Johnson’s book, Ghost Map, about a cholera outbreak in London which in the end took two independent, open, probing minds and an intimate knowledge of community, partnered with a set of values, to solve the crisis which outside authorities were not only unwilling, but unable to deal with.

We will be going much deeper into these concepts; the crucial point here is to understand we are already part of an operating system that has been time-tested over billions of years. We are not here to reinvent the wheel.

Arrogance aside, we must recognize we are now entering a highly charged phase change. It will play out whether we cooperate or not. Old ways of life are going to die. If we want to survive we better start understanding the system we live nested within, and utilize the lessons to be learned.

What those lessons are and how we might best use them is next time.