By Dana Visalli
The scientific community in recent years has uncovered an avalanche of insights into the functioning of the natural world that bring science and spirit uncomfortably close together.
For example, physicists tell us that if the force of gravity had been a millionth of a percent stronger or weaker, the universe would long ago either have collapsed back in on itself or just blown apart into random, lonely atoms. If the speed of the expansion of the universe were slightly faster or slower, or the electro-magnetic force that holds atoms together slightly stronger or weaker, things would not have worked out very well. It turns out almost everything is just right. Goldilocks would be pleased.
You don’t need to take my word for it. Physical chemist and Nobel laureate Ilya Prigogine said, “The statistical probability that organic structures and the most precisely harmonized reactions that typify living organisms would be generated by accident, is zero.” One of the rather breathtaking insights into the functioning of the universe is that it is “self-organizing” on all levels. We could start at any scale to find examples; one of my favorites is the rock granite.
Why is granite the most abundant rock on all continents? Granite is made up primarily of the elements oxygen, silicon and aluminum. Granite is always made up of oxygen, silicon and aluminum. Why? Because it is self-organizing; if you give the Earth’s elements some freedom of movement at the concentration, temperature and pressure found at the Earth’s mantle/crust boundary, granite will form, over and over again. Due to the nature of the precise electro-magnetic attractions and bonds between elements, continental crust (granite) is repeatedly cooked up.
Life on Earth seems to play by this same rule: It is self-organizing. For example, to build the most basic yeast cell, you would have to miniaturize about the same number of components as are found in a Boeing 777 jetliner and fit them into a sphere just 5 microns across. Then you would have to persuade that microscopic jetliner to reproduce. Somehow, living organisms have the reproductive knack, while jetliners never reproduce themselves.
For better and for worse, this brings us to two of the universe’s more recent creations, the human brain and mind. The brain is a physical entity and plays by the rules of chemistry and physics, i.e., it is composed of 100 billion cells and is held together by electro-magnetic forces — just like granite.
The mind on the other hand is temporarily liberated from physical reality; any abstract thought whatsoever can be fabricated. Thus, for at least several thousand years most of humanity “thought” (an imaginary product of mind) that the sun revolved around the Earth. A number of humans that perceived the truth of the matter — that the Earth orbited the sun — were put to death, as the collective mind is somehow protective of its concepts, even if they are utterly, even idiotically wrong. Galileo spoke up for the evidence-based reality of a sun-centered solar system and was condemned to house arrest for the duration of his life.
Which brings us back to Goldilocks. The Earth and life itself are emergent expressions of a nearly perfect, self-organizing universe. Because of the sloppy, imprecise functioning of the human mind at this time in its relatively young evolutionary history, and its ignorance of ecological dynamics, it is presently reversing the long-term trend of the Earth’s biosphere. The trend over several billion years has been in the direction of greater organic diversity and complexity. The impact of the human species has been to impoverish planetary diversity and complexity.
One could cite innumerable examples, but consider for a moment the Vietnam War. The people inhabiting the continent of North America traveled 6,000 miles across the Pacific Ocean to kill 5 million of the people living in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. They dropped 7 million tons of bombs, 400,000 tons of napalm and sprayed 20 million gallons of toxic herbicide on one of the world’s richest ecosystems. The reason? There was none; except for the inorganic, non-ecological, dream-like imaginings of the human mind.
It appears that the task before us is to free our minds from functioning as simple servants to the fear-driven genetic imperatives transmitted by our DNA. The potential exists for us to live in perpetual awe of the infinitely complex, dynamic beauty of our living world. Surprisingly, it may take courage to do so. For example, if someone you never met and don’t know from Adam insists that you contribute to a fund to build and maintain an arsenal of nuclear weapons that could destroy all multi-cellular organisms on the planet, you might have to just say no.
Dana Visalli lives in Twisp.