Nature’s Intelligence


In our consumer society, we are taught to see the world as a collection of objects to be transformed, sold, used, and, ultimately, to be thrown away. Perhaps that is one reason the enduring vision of the ancient Greeks still speaks to us today, because it was based on a deeper vision of nature in which the world itself was not a collection of objects but a living expression of life, beauty, and harmony. We can see this beauty, vitality, and harmony reflected in Greek works of art, sculpture, and architecture, and also in the work of the greatest philosophers.

The earliest Greek philosophers, the Presocratics, saw the world as alive and ensouled. The world and the heavens were seen as a living activity because they are in constant motion. All throughout nature we perceive the deployment of order and form in living structures, and those structures reflect strategies for problem solving. Anything that has a strategy also possesses a kind of intelligence. We can also see nature’s intelligence reflected in the regenerative powers of living organisms. If you cut your hand, your hand possesses the ability to heal itself. If you cut off the head of a flatworm, the flatworm knows how to grow a new head. As Epicharmus of Kos noted, “Everything that is alive is intelligent.”

Nature's forms integrate sameness and difference through the use of proportional relationships. from left: Nautilus shell, Romanesco broccoli, Cross-section of cauliflower.

Nature’s forms integrate sameness and difference through the use of proportional relationships. from left: Nautilus shell, Romanesco broccoli, Cross-section of cauliflower.

Nature’s forms are beautiful because they operate in the most economical and efficient ways; they do this by employing proportional relationships in their structures. These proportional relationships allow the parts to be integrated within the whole in the most elegant way, and these proportional harmonies give rise to beauty. We can see this aesthetic fitness reflected in the forms of flowers, spiral galaxies, nautilus shells, the unfolding spiral of the human hand—nearly every organic form found in nature. These proportional relationships (Greek: logos) also reflect a kind of intelligence (logos), and it is because of these whole-part harmonies that the forms of nature are so beautiful.
It is for this reason that Pythagoras called the universe a kosmos (‘adornment’) or a ‘beautiful-order.’ As various philosophers like Goethe and Gregory Bateson have noted since then, it is through nature’s beauty and aesthetic unity that we can sense a profound harmony in nature’s structure that is deeper than our ability to describe it in words. But because we embody and reflect that profound harmony too, because we are part of it, we can directly experience it in ways that transcend the limitations of verbal language.

A Little History of the Word Soul

“The kosmos was harmonized by proportion and brought into existence.”
—Plato

The great philosopher Plato took these ancient ideas of living nature, nature’s intelligence, and the proportional harmonies seen in nature’s structures and synthesized them together in his influential dialogue, the Timaeus. In that work, he was the first person in Western history to describe the ‘World Soul’ or the anima mundi. In an elaborate allegory that draws on mathematics and the harmonies of music, Plato described the generation of the World Soul—literally, the soul of the cosmos—and how it harmonizes Sameness and Difference through proportion.

By looking at the living forms of nature and fractal models of living forms, we can easily see how nature’s intelligence harmonizes Sameness and Difference through mathematical proportion. For example, in a chambered nautilus the organism grows and changes, which is a form of difference, but the shell unfolds according to the same mathematical ratio, which is a form of sameness. This allows the shell to grow in the most elegant and economical way (Figure 1). Similarly, in a cauliflower, we can see that each floret is a model of the branch and each branch is a model of the entire cauliflower. The same pattern is reflected at different levels of scale. Trees and other organisms engage in the same harmonious pattern-building activities because it allows them to integrate the part with the whole and to function in the best or most elegant way. The same kinds of harmony can be seen in many living forms, and other examples are provided in my recent book Restoring the Soul of the World.

Botticelli, Primavera. To the Renaissance philosopher Marsilio Ficino, the entire world was a garden permeated by the divine powers of creation. It was humanity’s task to work together with nature’s creative energies to cultivate the world and bring the world to a higher level of fruition.

Botticelli, Primavera. To the Renaissance philosopher Marsilio Ficino, the entire world was a garden permeated by the divine powers of creation. It was humanity’s task to work together with nature’s creative energies to cultivate the world and bring the world to a higher level of fruition.

These whole-part relationships are manifestations of the holism we see in living organisms and in the cosmos itself. Plato described the universe as “one Whole of wholes” and as “a Single Living Creature that contains all living creatures within it.” For Plato, the World Soul is the intelligent and harmonious principle of proportion or relatedness that exists at the heart of the cosmic pattern and allows nature’s living forms to unfold in the most elegant way.

Because of this pattern and intelligence (logos) that connects all things, we are part of a harmonious, cosmic community. This idea was carried forward by the Stoic philosophers, who spoke of the cosmopolis or ‘world-city’ of which all rational beings and everything else is a part—the first clear expression of the idea that we belong to a planetary community. In a passage reminiscent of ecological thought and our modern concept of ‘the web of life,’ hundreds of years ago the Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius wrote: “All things are interwoven with one another; a sacred bond unites them; there is scarcely one thing that is isolated from one another. Everything is coordinated, everything works together in giving form to the one universe.”

Changing Visions of Living Nature

The Greek view of living nature and the World Soul was the normative way of looking at the world for many hundreds of years. Some early Christian writers accepted it, while others, like Lactantius, rejected it. Lactantius wrote that God had built the universe like a house or an artifact (an idea that was totally foreign to Greek thought). He wrote that there was no intelligence present in nature and that we humans don’t really belong here in the world, which was only a stopping point on the journey to our real home: the Christian afterlife. While some Christians had identified the World Soul with the Holy Spirit present in nature, for others the idea of the World Soul gave too much power to nature and raised the anxiety-producing idea that nature had the power to create itself.

With the rediscovery of classical thought by the Renaissance humanists, the idea of the World Soul experienced its greatest flowering ever in the thought of philosophers like Marsilio Ficino, who saw the world as an animated and enchanted garden permeated by the divine powers of creation (Figure 2). He wrote: “There is nothing to be found in this whole living world so deformed that Soul does not attend it, that a gift of soul is not in it.” For Ficino and similar philosophers, humanity was entrusted with a divine task to understand the creative, life-giving powers in nature so that we could work together with nature, in collaboration, to bring the entire world—ourselves, society, and nature’s garden—into a state of flourishing, creative fruition. Above all, this approach was supremely therapeutic in its orientation.

The Mechanistic Worldview

The Renaissance idea of caring for and cultivating the world was not to last long. In the 16th and 17th centuries, a new analytical spirit emerged that was highly mathematical. Associated with the great geniuses of the Scientific Revolution, this new way of looking at the world portrayed the cosmos not as alive but as a dead, clockwork mechanism, perpetually ticking along according to eternal laws. The French philosopher René Descartes summed up the mechanistic worldview perfectly in one line—“I have described this Earth, and indeed this whole visible world, as a machine”—the exact opposite of Plato’s view that the universe is “a Single Living Creature that contains all living creatures within it.” Moreover, with Descartes, a new image of human nature also emerged. Human beings were now pictured as rational spectators, who now had no intrinsic relationship with the world. For Descartes, the world was something we could only now understand through the disembodied mind, which was different in nature from everything else.

At this key turning point in the development of scientific awareness, all of reality came to be increasingly pictured in terms of two main principles: dead, inanimate matter, and motion, the external cause that powered it. In this process, nature came to be seen as radically other and different from humanity. According to Descartes, animals were only unconscious machines (Figure 3). If you hit a dog and it cried out, it was only an automatic response, just like the sound given off by a mechanical doorbell. The cosmos could now be modeled mathematically, and mathematics gave us control over the external world, which was coming to be pictured more and more as an exploitable resource rather than as a living community of which we are a part.

An automaton of a duck created by Jacques de Vaucanson in 1783 inspired by the mechanical philosophy. Descartes and his followers believed that animals functioned only as unconscious machines and lacked the ability to feel pain.

An automaton of a duck created by Jacques de Vaucanson in 1783 inspired by the mechanical philosophy.
Descartes and his followers believed that animals functioned only as unconscious machines and lacked the ability to feel pain.

 

Emerging with the new scientific worldview was also a new spirit of utilitarianism. While the Greeks had sought to enjoy and understand nature through contemplation, the modern question came to be, How can we make use of nature? Francis Bacon wrote that organized scientific research and experimentation would establish “the Dominion of Man over the Universe” and render nature “the slave of mankind.” Later utilitarian philosophers would argue that nothing in the natural world had intrinsic value in itself and only became valuable if it could be used or turned into something else. Culturally, this idea gave rise to the myth of progress and sanctioned the birth of the Industrial Revolution and the transformation of our planet through mass manufacturing. This struck a second blow to human nature. The first blow, from Descartes, suggested that human beings were different, with no real connection to the world. The second blow, struck by utilitarianism, was that nothing possesses any real value—including our lives—as it exists in the present moment. To possess real value, things needed to be transformed into something else, and the real measure of value was money.

In the human sphere, utilitarianism sacrifices leisure to work. Free time should not be enjoyed for its own sake but should always lead to a future outcome that can be evaluated and measured. Every dimension of life then becomes a ‘bottom line’ situation that is all work and no play. For the modern, secular world, what we have is never enough. The future beckons. Everything becomes an investment, an opportunity, a leverage point for some future ‘utopian’ state we are promised but which can never ultimately be situated in the world.

The greatest achievement of the mechanistic worldview was Sir Isaac Newton’s model of celestial mechanics, which allowed for the precise, mathematical prediction of the planetary movements. Suddenly, it seemed that a scientific revelation was at hand. Poets sang of Newton’s intellectual greatness and even Newton himself proclaimed, “O God, I think thy thoughts after thee!”

Newton’s theory, while it worked very well, was based on underlying assumptions that would all later be shown as false. These assumptions included the beliefs that matter was dead and inert, only acted on by external forces; the universe was rigidly ordered and strictly deterministic; the observer was objectively distinct from the world under study; space and time were absolute, unchanging realities; and no creativity existed in nature, only in the mind of God at the beginning of time.

By radically oversimplifying the world, classical physics contained the seeds of its own undoing. The entire edifice rested on a reductionistic dualism that separated spirit from matter and self from the world. Because of this dualism, the cosmos was not a unified, organic phenomenon in which humanity and life even had a place.

Fortunately, however, the story does not end there. As I show in my book Restoring the Soul of the World, within three centuries of Newton, every one of the primary assumptions behind the Newtonian worldview was thoroughly refuted by new scientific discoveries. To offer just one example, we now know that matter itself does not consist of passive little billiard balls knocked around by external forces. At the atomic and subatomic levels, matter is a dynamic, creative activity. In the words of naturalist Loren Eiseley,

If ‘dead’ matter has reared up this curious landscape of fiddling crickets, song sparrows, and wondering men, it must be plain even to the most devoted materialist that the matter of which he speaks contains amazing if not dreadful powers.

The Earth’s atmosphere, seen from above. Gaia theory shows how life on Earth and the environment developed together as one co-evolutionary system. Without the presence of life, the Earth’s atmosphere would be 98% carbon dioxide and the planet’s surface temperature would be between 466 and 644 F.

The Earth’s atmosphere, seen from above. Gaia theory shows how life on Earth and the environment developed together as one co-evolutionary system. Without the presence of life, the Earth’s atmosphere would be 98% carbon dioxide and the planet’s surface temperature would be between 466 and 644 F.

Collaborating with Life in a Living Universe

Matter is not just active and creative. Like the entire universe, matter has an evolutionary history. Rather than being separate from the universe, as Descartes had suggested, all living systems—including human beings—are creative outgrowths of the process of cosmic evolution, creative outgrowths of nature’s own intelligence.

Life on Earth arose 3.8 billion years ago. It arose at the earliest possible opportunity, once the violent environment of the young Earth had stabilized sufficiently. As I argue in Restoring the Soul of the World, while Darwin’s theories of natural selection and evolution are certainly important, they are also incomplete. Darwin never wrote about the origin of life and his theory of natural selection was itself heavily influenced by the mechanistic worldview: it pictured organisms as objects being acted upon by the external forces (the environment). Darwin’s theory was good as far as it goes, but it did not address the creative powers of life itself or the power of self-organizing systems in nature, which, in recent years, have been seriously explored by a new generation of scientists and biologists.

Darwin was correct to say that the environment influences life, but life also influences the environment. This is obvious today in our human activities. The most stunning example is seen in Gaia theory, which shows how life and the environment developed as one co-evolutionary system. As Gaia theory shows, over millions of years the Earth’s living systems were able to remove excess carbon dioxide from the Earth’s atmosphere to create planetary-wide conditions that were favorable for the long-term development of life itself. As James Lovelock has shown, without life on Earth, the atmosphere would contain 98% carbon dioxide, similar to Venus, and the surface temperature of the Earth would be somewhere between 466 and 644°F. As Lovelock noted, “The evolution of the species and the evolution of their environment are tightly coupled together as a single and inseparable process” (Figure 4).

The co-evolutionary relationship between life and the atmosphere is a symbiotic relationship characteristic of all living systems. Biological evolution is as deeply indebted to community and cooperation as it is to competition. In symbiotic relationships, organisms evolve together in collaboration and depend on one another for their continued existence. One symbiotic relationship exists between bees and flowers, which emerged together about a hundred million years ago and have been closely intertwined ever since. Bees depend on flowers for their food and flowers depend on bees for their pollination. Without nature’s community-building process, molecules, organisms, bees, and flowers simply could not exist. As Lynn Margulis has shown, the mitochondria in our ‘single’ cells used to, in fact, be separate organisms before merging together aeons ago with other kinds of cells.

Life is not just a community-building phenomenon; it’s a learning phenomenon. Plants have learned how to arrange their branches at the exact mathematical angle that allows each leaf to absorb the greatest amount of sunlight. Our finger bones or phalanges embody this exact same mathematical ratio, which allows the hand to integrate the part with the whole and to open and close in the most efficient, elegant way (Figure 5). Billions of years ago plants learned how to gracefully transform sunlight into other forms of energy. While our photovoltaic cells transform sunlight into electricity with 15% efficiency on average, plants transform sunlight into energy with 90% efficiency.

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Nature’s intelligence and the ability to learn are reflected in the structure of the human hand. The continuous geometrical proportion between the phalanges is the famous Golden Section or Phi ratio, which allows the hand to open and close in the most elegant way, by integrating the part with the whole.

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