Gaia’s Dance: A Vision of Wholeness

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“From a Gaian point of view, we humans are an experiment — a young trial species still at odds with ourselves and other species, still not having learned to balance our own dance within that of our whole planet…” , says Elisabet Sahtouris

The following is an excerpt from the book Earth Dance: Living Systems in Evolution, written by evolutionary biologist Elisabet Sahtouris in 1999. Inspired and encouraged by scientists Jim Lovelock (Gaia Theory) & Lynn Margulis, Dr. Sahtouris shares here the vision of wholeness that Gaia science and theory provides us with..

“Everyone knows that humanity is in crisis, politically, economically, spiritually, ecologically, any way you look at it. Many see humanity as close to suicide by way of our own technology; many others see humans as deserving God’s or nature’s wrath in retribution for our sins…

Our intellectual heritage for thousands of years, most strongly developed in the past few hundred years of science, has been to see ourselves as separate from the rest of nature, to convince ourselves we see it objectively — at a distance from ourselves — and to perceive, or at least model it, as a vast mechanism.

Philosophers such as Pythagoras, Parmenides, and Plato were thus the founding fathers of our mechanical worldview, though Galileo, Descartes, and other men of the Renaissance translated it into the scientific and technological enterprise that has dominated human experience ever since.

What if things had gone the other way? What if Thales, Anaximander, and Heraclitus, the organic philosophers who saw all the cosmos as alive, had won the day back in that ancient Greek debate?

In other words, what if modern science and our view of human society had evolved from organic biology rather than from mechanical physics?

We will never know how the course of human events would have differed had they taken this path, had physics developed in the shadow of biology rather than the other way around.

Yet it seems we were destined to find the biological path eventually, as the mechanical worldview we have lived with so long is now giving way to an organic view — in all fairness, an organic view made possible by the very technology born of our mechanical view.

The same technology that permits us to reach out into space has permitted us to begin seeing the real nature of our own planet to discover that it is alive and that it is the only live planet circling our Sun.

The implications of this discovery are enormous, and we have hardly even begun to pursue them. We were awed by astronauts’ reports that the Earth looked from space like a living being, and were ourselves struck by its apparently live beauty when the visual images were before our eyes.

But it has taken time to accumulate scientific evidence that the Earth is a live planet rather than a planet with life upon it, and many scientists continue to resist the new conception because of its profound implications for change in all branches of science, not to mention all society.

The difference between a planet with life on it and a living planet is hard at first to understand. Take for example the word, the concept, the practice of ecology, which has become familiar to us all within just the few short decades that we have been aware of our pollution and destruction of the environment on which our own lives depend.

Our ecological understanding and practice has been a big, important step in understanding our relationship to our environment and to other species. Yet, even in our serious environmental concern, we still fall short of recognizing ourselves as part of a much larger living entity.

It is one thing to be careful with our environment so it will last and remain benign; it is quite another to know deeply that our environment, like ourselves, is part of a living planet.

The earliest microbes into which the materials of the Earth’s crust transformed themselves created their own environments, and these environments in turn shaped the fate of later species, much as cells create their surroundings and are created by it in our own embryological development.

As for physiology, we already know that the Earth regulates its temperature as well as any of its warm-blooded creatures, such that it stays within bounds that are healthy for life despite the Sun’s steadily increasing heat.

And just as our bodies continually renew and adjust the balance of chemicals in our skin and blood, our bones and other tissues, so does the Earth continually renew and adjust the balance of chemicals in its atmosphere, seas, and soils..

Certainly it is ever more obvious that we are not studying the mechanical nature of Spaceship Earth but the self-creative, self-maintaining physiology of a live planet.

Many still take the live Earth concept, named Gaia after the Earth goddess of early Greek myth, more as a poetic or spiritual metaphor than as a scientific reality.

However, the name Gaia was never intended to suggest that the Earth is a female being, the reincarnation of the Great Goddess or Mother Nature herself, nor to start a new religion (though it would hardly hurt us to worship our planet as the greater Being whose existence we have intuited from time immemorial).

It was intended simply to designate the concept of a live Earth, in contrast to an Earth with life upon it…

We now recognize the Earth as a single self-creating being that came alive in its whirling dance through space, its crust transforming itself into mountains and valleys, the hot moisture pouring from its body to form seas. As its crust became ever more lively with bacteria, it created its own atmosphere, and the advent of sexual partnership finally did produce the larger life forms ~ the trees and animals and people.

The tale of Gaia’s dance is thus being retold as we piece together the scientific details of our planet’s dance of life. And in its context, the evolution of our own species takes on new meaning in relation to the whole. Once we trulygrasp the scientific reality of our living planet and its physiology, our entire worldview and practice are bound to change profoundly, revealing the way to solving what now appear to be our greatest and most insoluble problems.

Humans are not the first creatures to make problems for themselves and for the whole Gaian system.. We are, however ~ unless whales and dolphins beat us to it in past ages — the first Gaian creatures who can understand such problems, think about them, and solve them by free choice.

The tremendous problems confronting us now — the inequality of hunger on one side and overconsumption on the other, the possibly irreversible damage to the natural world we depend on, just as our cells depend on the wholeness of our bodies for their life – are all of our own making.

When we look anew at evolution, we see not only that other species have been as troublesome as ours, but that many a fiercely competitive situation resolved itself in a cooperative scheme. The kind of cells our bodies are made of, for example, began with the same kind of exploitation among bacteria that characterizes our historic human imperialism, as we will see.

In fact, those ancient bacteria invented technologies of energy production, transportation and communications [during] their competitive phase and then used those very technologies to bind themselves into the cooperative ventures that made our own existence possible.

In the same way, we are now using essentially the same technologies, in our own invented versions, to unite ourselves into a single body of humanity that may make yet another new step in Earth’s evolution possible.

Humans are not the first creatures to make problems for themselves and for the whole Gaian system.

If we look to the lessons of evolution, we will gain hope that the newly forming worldwide body of humanity may also learn to adopt cooperation in favor of competition. The necessary systems have already been invented and developed; we lack only the understanding, motive, and will to use them consciously in achieving a cooperative species maturity…

The new view of our Gaian Earth in evolution shows an intricate web of cooperative mutual dependency, the evolution of one scheme after another that harmonizes conflicting interests.

Is it not more likely that nature in essence resembles one of its own creatures than that it resembles in essence the nonliving product of one of its creatures?

The leading philosophers of our day recognize that the very foundations of our knowledge are quaking — that our understanding of nature as machinery can no longer be upheld.

We are learning that there is more than one way to organize functional systems, to produce order and balance; that the imperfect and flexible principles of nature lead to greater stability and resilience in natural systems than we have produced in ours — both technological and social — by following the mechanical laws we assumed were natural..

Like Gaian creation itself, human understanding or knowledge ever evolves.”