The ‘new biology’ reveals that we are not an accident; we are an integral part of the environment and a vital interdependent element in the web of life.
Hold on to your hats—we are in for a truly amazing ride!
Many scientists are warning that humanity is at a critical crossroad in its evolution, citing that our technology and our ignorance in destroying the environment have contributed to global warming and the precipitation of the world’s sixth mass extinction. For these scientists, it is no longer a question of whether we are in crisis; it is now a question of whether we will survive. Current global crises are actually portents of an imminent upheaval that will shake the foundation of civilisation. While the world’s attention is focused upon fears of extinction, insights from new-edge science are offering a different scenario, suggesting we are on the cusp of an emergent evolutionary leap.
The human community is facing a situation similar to that of the cellular community comprising a butterfly’s larva. Billions of cells are fully engaged in the maturation of the larva as it continuously feeds and grows. At a certain stage of development, metabolic processes begin to shut down and life in the larva’s former bustling cellular community starts to fade away. From among the larva’s dying cells, an emerging population of progressive ‘thinking’ imaginal cells responds to a new awareness. These cells collaborate in restructuring their society to create a butterfly, a new organisation that allows them to experience the next higher level of their evolution.
As the light of our own civilisation begins to dim, creative minorities, the equivalent of human imaginal cells, are responding to new life-sustaining choices. Survival depends upon the choices we make, which in turn, are totally dependent on our collective awareness, the beliefs by which we live. The fundamental beliefs that collectively shape a society may be defined as its basal paradigm. According to Thomas Kuhn, a paradigm is a theoretical framework representing the ‘truths’ underlying any particular belief system, be it scientific, religious, economic or political in nature.
Abasal paradigm specifically represents the truths accepted by a civilisation in answering three fundamental question of human existence:
How did we get here?
Why are we here?
Now that we are here, how do we make the best of it?
Cultures use basal paradigms to make sense of life experiences. If a paradigm’s perceptions are accurate, people are afforded an opportunity to experience health and coherence. If the perceptions are distorted, then life and society become distorted as well.
Transition from monotheism to scientific materialism
Science had been creating technical miracles surpassing those of the Church for over two centuries, yet the truths it offered could not displace the Church as society’s truth-provider. The Church maintained its powerful position simply because science was unable to provide a satisfactory answer for the first basic paradigmatic question, ‘How did we get here?’ However, all that changed in 1859 when Darwin published his opus, The Origin of Species: By Means of Natural Selection Or The Preservation Of Favoured Races In The Struggle For Life. The public immediately preferred Darwin’s insights that life arose through millions of years of hereditary variations to the Genesis story championed by the Church. In adopting science’s theory of evolution over the notion of divine origins, civilisation officially transitioned from the era of monotheism into the current age of scientific materialism. This cultural transition was mediated by a profound revision of civilisation’s basal paradigm precipitated by Darwinian theory.
Two fundamental tenets of Darwin’s theory dramatically altered the fate and character of our current civilisation. First, the theory emphasised that hereditary variations responsible for one species evolving to another arise through random alterations (i.e., genetic mutations). By ascribing hereditary variations as accidents, science removed the role of God in shaping the biosphere and, particularly, in providing for our existence. Essentially, science suggests that there is no reason or purpose for our existence other than a genetic crapshoot. As accidental tourists we have no responsibility to the planet or each other.
The second culture-shaping feature of Darwinian theory is couched in the concept of natural selection. Not all hereditary variations are equal; some enhance survival, some threaten survival while most mutations are neutral. Natural selection implies that Nature supports the survival of the fittest individuals. In the final chapter ofThe Origin of Species, Darwin wrote of an inevitable “struggle for life”and that evolution was driven by “the war of nature, from famine and death.”Couple that with Darwin’s notion that evolution is random and you have a world poetically described by Tennyson as “red in tooth and claw”, a series of meaningless, bloody battles for survival. For Darwin, struggle and violence are not only a part of animal (human) nature, they are the principal forces driving evolutionary advancement.
Through its influence on society’s basal paradigm, Darwinian theory has had a profound impact upon shaping the current state of civilisation. In the era of scientific materialism, the public has bought into the following ‘truths’ in response to the perennial questions:
How did we get here? Through random evolution.
Why are we here? We are simply genetic accidents; so there is no reason for our existence.
Now that we are here, how do we make the best of it? Live by the law of the jungle as we compete in the struggle for survival.
While science measures evolutionary success in terms of an individual’s survival, it does not stipulate the means needed to obtain those ends. Life is simply perceived as a struggle with winners and losers. An Uzi is as powerful a means of securing survival as is having a large brain or expressing the character of love. In such a competition-based world, morality is frequently seen as an impediment in achieving evolutionary success.
Darwinian theory misgauges the thrust of evolution as an inevitable competition for survival. World leaders, in an effort to adhere to this philosophy, have made a commitment to ensure survival by encouraging violence-based competition in the perceived struggle for survival. It is precisely this belief that has nurtured the violence and ecological upheaval that is currently eroding our civilisation. Even more problematic, our ‘purposeless’ existence has profoundly impacted global harmony by detaching us from the environment and from each other. In pursuing our Darwinian destiny, civilisation has contributed to a growing number of global crises, environmental challenges threatening our collective survival.
The light at the end of the tunnel
Unbeknown to the general public, a renaissance in biology is profoundly challenging the conventional paradigmatic beliefs that shape contemporary civilisation. Recent scientific discoveries provide a compelling new story, one so ‘out of the box’ of conventional wisdom that even science is having a hard time accepting their implications. That new story is one of harmony and relatedness, of life and love. Interestingly, the new insights echo a truth that was provided to humanity 50 years before Darwin formulated his theory.
French biologist Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck provided new insights into the meaning of life when he published the first scientific report on the theory of evolution in 1809. For those of us who vaguely remember high school biology, the name Lamarck will forever be associated with the idea that giraffes developed long necks because of their desire to reach high-hanging leaves and fruit. This ridiculous notion was actually a product of France’s foremost scientist, Baron Cuvier, a ‘creationist’ who intentionally slandered Lamarck and discredited his theory in order to protect the Church’s control of the monotheistic paradigm. For if Lamarck was right about evolution, then the ‘truth’ of the Genesis version of creation supported by the Church was wrong.
Lamarck rose to prominence in the wake of the French Revolution, in which Napoleon and his army of peasants disempowered the King, the Church and aristocrats. The revolution offered Europe a brief window wherein Nature became king and France became a republic. In this environment, free of church dogma, Lamarck introduced his revolutionary ideas about evolution. “Nature”, he wrote, “in producing in succession every species of animal, and beginning with the least perfect or simplest to end her work with the most perfect, has gradually complicated their structure.” Lamarck’s ideas about progress being part of the course of nature had some dangerous implications. If Nature could progress, then it was natural for the lower classes to progress as well. So when Napoleon’s revolution failed and the monarchy was restored, Lamarck found himself out of favour with both the Church and the ruling class.
Had Lamarck been alive to defend himself, he would have emphasised that evolution is based on a cooperative interaction among organisms in the biosphere that enables life forms to survive by adapting to dynamic environmental changes. This becomes obvious when we observe the perfect relationship between organisms and their environments: polar bears don’t live in the tropics and orchids don’t grow in the Arctic. Lamarck suggested that evolution is the result of organisms acquiring and passing on environment-induced adaptations needed to sustain their survival in an ever-changing world.
When Darwin introduced his version of evolution 50 years later, he claimed that hereditary alterations arise from random chance. Consequently, the Lamarckian notion of environment-induced acquired characteristics became a hotly contested issue by proponents of Darwinian theory. Once again, Lamarck and his theory would be unfairly undermined, this time not by a creationist but by a fellow evolutionist. German biologist August Weismann helped propel Lamarck into obscurity with his efforts to disprove adaptive evolution. Weismann cut off the tails of male and female mice and mated them, arguing that if Lamarck’s theory were correct; the parents should pass on their tailless state to future generations. The first generation of mice was born with tails; so Weismann used the offspring and repeated the experiment for 21 more generations. In five years of experiments, not one tailless mouse was born.
The tailless mice experiments served to debunk Lamarck and relegate him to the historical joke pile, despite the fact that Weismann’s conclusions were scientifically unjustified. Lamarck suggested evolutionary changes take “immense periods of time”, thousands of years. Weismann’s five-year experiment was clearly not long enough to test Lamarck’s theory. Weismann’s experiment was even more fundamentally flawed in that Lamarck never claimed every change an organism experienced would take hold. Lamarck said organisms maintain traits that support survival. Although Weismann didn’t think the mice needed their tails, he never considered whether the mice thought their tails were relevant for survival! Weismann’s experiments bolstered Darwinian theory and ultimately led to Lamarck slipping out of public awareness. After Weismann, biologists dismissed the influential role of environment in creating genetic mutations that shape the path of evolution.
Science’s established belief in random evolution was profoundly challenged in 1988 by the surprising research of internationally prominent geneticist John Cairns. Cairns’ novel studies on bacteria, whimsically entitled The Origin of Mutants, were published in the prestigious British journal Nature. He chose bacteria with a ‘crippled’ gene that made a defective version of the enzyme lactase that is needed to digest the milk-sugar lactose. He then put these lactase-deficient bacteria into culture dishes in which the only nutrient was lactose. Unable to metabolise this nutrient, the bacteria should neither grow nor reproduce. No colonies would be expected to appear in any of the plates.
Surprisingly, a large number of cultures showed the growth of bacterial colonies. When Cairns sampled the bacteria in their original situation, none of those had mutated their defective lactase genes. He concluded that the mutations that repaired the lactase genes followed, not preceded, their exposure to the new environment. In Cairns’ study, life-sustaining mutations arose as a direct response to the environmental crisis experienced by these bacteria. Further assays revealed that only the genes associated with lactase metabolism were affected in these stressed bacteria. Additionally, all the surviving bacteria expressed the exact same type of mutation out of a possibility of five different mutation mechanisms. These results clearly do not support the assumption of random mutations and purposeless evolution!
Cairns referred to this newly discovered mechanism as directed mutation. The very idea that environmental information could feed back into and rewrite the genes was an affront to proponents of Darwinian theory. The response from conventional science was swift and hostile. Both the British journal Nature and the American journal Science published editorials raging against Cairns’ findings. The American editorial title, in a large bold font, proclaimed, “A Heresy in Evolutionary Biology.”The white-coated priests of scientific materialism were ready to burn Cairns at the stake! Cairns’ results were replicated over the next decade and his shocking and unacceptable notion of directed mutation has since been softened to read adaptive mutation and then relegated to beneficial mutation.
Along with this challenge to the randomness of mutations came the challenge to explain the mechanism of how such mutations would occur in the first place. It is now recognised that, in stressed bacteria, feedback mechanisms select and actively make copies of genes associated with their particular dysfunction. Rather than employing conventional DNA copying mechanisms, bacteria engage a unique error-prone DNA-copying enzyme that creates mutations as it copies the gene. Think of it as a sloppy copying machine that seems to intentionally make mistakes. Using this enzyme to produce a large number of randomly mutated gene copies enables cells to accelerate their mutation rate to enhance their survival. The generation of these random mutations represents the Darwinian part of this process.
Referred to as somatic hypermutation, this mechanism provides stressed bacteria with a large number of duplicated genes, each expressing a different variation of the genetic code. When a gene variant produces a protein product that is more effective at resolving the organism’s stress, the bacterium cuts the original defective gene out of its chromosome and replaces it with the newly minted version. This is the Lamarckian part of the mechanism, the step where an interaction between the environment and the cell leads to the selection of the best version of the new gene.
The same somatic hypermutation mechanism is used by our immune systems to produce the specially crafted antibody proteins that protect us from invasive viruses, bacteria and parasites. Technology has taken advantage of this mutation mechanism to engineer bacteria that can digest oil spills or extract certain minerals from raw ores. At the same time, medical science has been confounded and out-manoeuvred by this mechanism for it enables pathogenic microbes to become resistant to our most powerful antibiotics. Cairns’ work introduces us to the reality that evolution is not simply an accident of blind chance but a coordinated Lamarckian dance between an organism and its environment, a dynamic process in which organisms can continuously adapt to novel or stressful environments.
Living organisms share their genes
Genome scientists have recently discovered an additional mechanism of evolutionary adaptation that reveals an amazing cooperation among species: living organisms share their genes. It had been thought that genes are passed on only to the progeny of an individual organism through reproduction. Scientists now find that genes are shared not only among individual members within a species, but also among members of different species.For example, it has already been established that, when humans digest genetically modified foods, engineered genes transfer into and alter the character of the life-sustaining beneficial bacteria in the intestine. The sharing of genetic information via gene transfer speeds up evolution since organisms can acquire learned experiences, in the form of genes, from other organisms. Given this sharing of genes, organisms can no longer be seen as disconnected entities; there is no wall between species.
Sharing genetic information is not an accident. It is Nature’s method of enhancing the collective survival of the biosphere. The recently recognised exchange of genes among individuals disperses information that influences the survival of all organisms comprising the community of life. Awareness of this inter- and intra-species gene transfer mechanism highlights the dangers of genetic engineering, since human-altered genes can spread throughout the entire biosphere, altering organisms in ways that we cannot foresee.
Genetic evolutionists warn that if we fail to apply the lessons of our shared genetic destiny, which should be teaching us the importance of cooperation among all species, we threaten human existence. We need to move beyond Darwinian theory that stresses the importance of individuals, to a theory that stresses the importance of the community. Toward this end, British scientist Timothy Lenton provided evidence that communal interactions among species are more important for evolution than are the contributions of individuals from within a species. Evolution selects for the survival of the fittest groups rather than the survival of the fittest individuals. Lenton suggests, “We must consider the totality of organisms and their material environment to fully understand which traits come to persist and dominate.” The awareness that organisms have coevolved and continue to coexist in an entangled web of life demands an understanding of life based upon holism, not upon individuals.
In emphasising the web of life, the new biology fully supports James Lovelock’s Gaiahypothesis that the physical Earth and all living beings constitute one collective organism. Tampering with the balance of the Gaian super-organism, whether it is by destroying the rainforest, depleting the ozone layer or altering species through genetic engineering, threatens its survival and consequently our own. If we want our world to change, then what we tell ourselves about our world—our story—must change first.
Fortunately, the new awareness offered by science profoundly rewrites the story of life and offers better answers to civilisation’s basal paradigmatic questions:
How did we get here? Through a series of adaptive mutations that enables us to balance the environment.
Why are we here? In the wisdom of the Native Americans, ‘We are here to tend the Garden.’
Now that we are here, how do we make the best of it? Learn to live in harmony with Nature and with each other.
Basal paradigms shape the character and fate of civilisation. As the new scientific awareness enters mainstream thought, it will release us from the constraints of scientific materialism’s old story of purposelessness, struggle and competition. The emerging new paradigm reveals that we are not here by random chance; we are here by an intention and purposeful design of Nature. As we live into the new story, humanity, like the butterfly, will soon experience the next higher level of our evolution. It’s going to be a great flight!
©2008 by Bruce H. Lipton Ph.D., a cellular biologist whose breakthrough research on stem cells made him a pioneer in the new biology. He is the bestselling author of The Biology of Belief. This article is derived from The Wisdom of Your Cells: How Your Beliefs Control Your Biology, an eight CD Audio Listening Course by Sounds True ©2006, www.soundstrue.com. A three-part article based on this presentation was published in the 2007 Spring, Summer and Autumn issues of Light of Consciousness.
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