8. Evolving life
We now have a working hypothesis. Life, which for us means life on earth but could be on the scale of the cosmos, evolves as the manifestation of a single impulse. We are saying nothing about where this impulse comes from, but we are not implying it evolves in any predetermined fashion or along the lines of some entity reproducing itself in a new way, as though taking on a new shape while remaining basically the same. Rather, let’s discard any thought of trying to discern some ultimate source of existence, since it is completely beyond our brain’s ability to comprehend and since it makes no difference at this point. Let’s take the universe and life as givens, as incontrovertible phenomena, and see how far we can get without inventing anything. Naturally, we have already covered a bit of ground as we spiraled in to this base level of reality, and we need not cover this ground again but can use the insights we gained along the way.
Our world is composed of matter. Somehow, whether by a one-in-a-zillion coincidence of chance reactions among proximate molecules, as the infinitesimal progress of the same impulse that gave birth to the universe or through cosmic insemination of the Earth by a comet from outside the solar system, what we call life first manifested itself on our planet a few billion years ago, maybe only a few hundred million years after the earth formed. Maybe someday we might even learn how this happened, but for now it is enough that it did.
Critically, life manifested in local groupings of matter that developed the capacity to reproduce themselves before decaying. Again, it does not matter for our purposes what got the ball rolling. What is important is that this ball changed as it rolled, and continues to do so. At a certain level of complexity, consciousness begins to occur, the organisms that life produces begin to become aware of their environment, as shown by their reactions to it. The living history of consciousness spreads before us like a time-lapse photo in the variety of species that inhabit our world.
Let’s be sure about the implications of what we are talking about. Life is single, but the various organisms — plant and animal — are the products of life manifesting, expressing itself, in the form of matter. Their variety derives from the fact that life manifests in an evolutionary way. It is not the transformation of a fully formed entity into its fully formed counterpart in another medium, but the probing, tentative record of shoots and offshoots as life works its way into matter, a radical incarnation. Each organism is a case of life surging into a form of sufficient complexity to be temporarily self-sustaining. Life is evolving in line with the laws of physics and chemistry, which are merely the ways that matter interacts.
Consciousness is an attribute of evolving life. It is no more individual than locomotion or reproduction. The human mind, however, is a rather advanced vehicle. It has developed, along with the brain, to the extent that it recognizes an individual subject. This “I” is a very handy construct for the lifespan of the mind-body that sustains it, and is a very real reference point. Our mind has enabled us to become aware of our capacity to reason and decide, to experience various emotions, to analyze and, most importantly, to act intentionally, on an individual basis. This reflective awareness is nothing less than life becoming aware of its material existence. But along with this phenomenal breakthrough comes the ultimately dangerous and almost unavoidable possibility of confusing the individual nature of consciousness’s manifestation with a self-contained consciousness, an individual self.
Besides the inherent caution in the illusory nature of the individual self, which we have discussed at length already, we should have the humility not to assume the human mind is the crown of creation. For instance, some other animals — apes and dolphins for example — also have minds capable of at least some forms of abstract reasoning. They might also be capable of self-consciousness. And breathtaking though the achievements of the human mind in science, technology and art may be, they have come with a rather steep price tag. Within less than 100 years — an infinitesimal span of time in cosmic terms — humanity has brought several destructive wars upon itself, resulting in the deaths of tens of millions of people; has created the real threat of nuclear annihilation, which seems to have receded but is still very much alive; and has damaged the earth’s ecosystem to a catastrophic level, possibly to the point of no return. In the end, our formidable mental powers might lead to our extinction. But we are digressing.
The idea of the unity of life is certainly nothing new. But I think it has implications besides the rarefied, if beautiful, expanses of abstract mysticism or the more recent attempts to popularize the incomplete and even less comprehensible reaches of theoretical physics. It makes sense to consider first our identity, since we have deconstructed the idea of individual identity so thoroughly.
What are we left with if we do not have our self? We have the life we express through our individual physical existence and manifestations of consciousness. We live our individual lives separate physically, but like waves on the surface of the ocean. Life is the ocean, and if you want to speak of a true identity, that is it. Our physical existence is a surface phenomenon, impermanent by nature, and our self-identity is wholly dependent on this physical apparatus; it is based on the perceptions and experiences recorded by the physical brain and stored in it as memories. Our individual window of awareness provides each of us a seductive, personal experience of reality that we naturally cling to, but maybe more is at hand if we loosen that grasp.
The idea of “selflessness” is perhaps even less novel than that of the fundamental unity of life, nature, existence, however you want to phrase it. But its surface familiarity as an English word in ordinary use subjects it to casual and innocuous misinterpretations. It is used to refer to almost any personal sacrifice for the welfare of another. We noted toward the beginning that in the extreme of sacrificing one’s life for another, selflessness is the most heroic of virtues. But herein lies the problem. It becomes a virtue to be cultivated, whether the stepchild of a love supreme or with an eternal reward as the promised bargain. In the latter case, however, it reduces to an investment, though admittedly a difficult one to make.
On the other hand, we can talk about selflessness not as a virtue, not as the fruit of a particular philosophical or religious conviction, but as simple reality. It is a starting point, not something to be arrived at. And the consequences are disturbing enough that any self would understandably want to keep as great a distance as possible. To see the reality of selflessness is nothing less than to die. Self-existence is a wave, a bubble that will cease with no hope of continuance beyond the death of the physical apparatus that hosts it. From the vantage point of the self, selflessness is an abyss, a black hole from which not even the light of possibility escapes.
We have touched on this, but I didn’t want to lay it so bare and devoid of even the chance of hope until we had uncovered the other side of the coin: We are not individual selves, but a unity. Individuality, in fact, is what separates us, so death of the individual is paradoxically what reunites us. This might seem little comfort, and no more real than the promise of rebirth or an immortal afterlife, but life’s progress on earth over the last few billion years is a whole lot more tangible, so let’s travel a little further on our road and see what we find.
If our “real” existence is as life possibly getting its first conscious glimpses of itself, at least in our corner of the universe, and if all that distinguishes you from me is an erroneous, accidental and temporary self-concept, then there is no meaningful difference between us. We are not talking of some mystical abstract unity achieved through education or spiritual practice. We are talking about a simple recognition of fact, an insight. It is not adding anything to reality as we know it, but removing an illusory wall we built early on, without knowing it, that separates us from the rest of reality.
We might shy away from this recognition, we might come to the brink of it only to step back in fear any number of times, but it is not a gradual process of understanding. We acknowledge it or we don’t; there is no middle ground. It happens when we realize we have no other choice. (This is as good a time as any to steer people in the direction of J. Krishnamurti for his reflections on self as memory and understanding as instantaneous, outside the realm of time.) It might take time to come to terms with this insight, or to get past the fear that holds us back, but that is different. That is what we are doing.
So if you and I, if we and they, are really the same, then what justification is there for treating anyone differently from any other? Obviously there is none. Fundamentally, I cannot deprive you or her or him or them without depriving me. I cannot hurt you or him or her or them without hurting me. Because there is no me to begin with; there is only us. There is no need for God to tell you to be good; there is no need for abstract concepts of justice, kindness or charity. Arnold Schopenhauer pointed out the Achilles’ heel of ethics rooted in some Divine command, as it was for centuries and mostly remains. In On the Basis of Morality, he cogently proposed compassion, seeing through the eyes of another, as the basis of ethics. But “seeing through the eyes of another” is a somewhat troublesome requirement. Just how is one to do it? And that is without even trying to resolve the thorny issue of whether anyone has more of a claim to this or that than someone else. When there are no others, ethics simply reduces to reality.
We thus have a reasonable ground for ethics that puts a twist on the Golden Rule: “What you do unto others you do unto yourself.” Not figuratively, not abstractly, but literally. Beneath our temporary mental-physical assemblages, the briefly lit I’s and you’s we easily mistake for selves in a much grander sense, is only “we.” But is this a relatively small circle of friends, restricted to the human race?
Unless we wish to self-validate a claim that humans are the culmination of life and hence matter more than anything else, we must recognize humanity as a stage in the evolutionary development of life. Consider also that there are no reasonable grounds even to assume that this evolution is linear, let alone confined to the world of our knowing, and perhaps we can do no more than make a choice between erring on the side of humility or on the side of arrogance.
We might be correct to consider human consciousness the leading edge of the evolutionary movement of life, but looking at the vastness of the universe should at the very least give us cause to pause. And even if we are the crest of the wave, the fundamental unity of life extends across the boundaries of species. As we already considered, the animal kingdom manifests a spectrum of levels of consciousness. Might we someday come to find that plants too exhibit some form of consciousness? (The experience of the Findhorn Garden community certainly is interesting in this regard, whatever one makes of it.) And what of the “group consciousness” we could ascribe to animals such as ants or bees? Is consciousness more a family tree than a linear phenomenon? Or have “less developed” species simply maximized the consciousness their level of neural complexity can support? (Colony/tribal consciousness might logically require less individual brainpower than full-fledged individual consciousness, since each organism need perform only a limited number of tasks and processes.)
The choice, then, is between assuming we know enough to use and even destroy other forms of life at will, because they are no more than dead ends on the evolutionary road that culminates with humans, or leaving room for life to proceed in ways we cannot foresee, and which might not obviously be advantageous to humans. And if the way of humility is not particularly attractive, consider where the way of arrogance has brought us — to the near destruction of the physical environment we need to survive. On the other hand, what would be the cost of slowing things down to allow for more cautious evaluation of “progress”? Or to allow for more equitable distribution of resources and of technologies proven more beneficial than harmful? Not much, if anything, besides a slower pace in the arrival of the latest in luxury, entertainment or processed foods. The field of medicine might be an exception, but we must keep in mind that we have pretty much ignored any number of potentially useful alternatives to Western allopathic medicine and instead placed almost all our eggs in that one basket. Now we face the dilemma of how far we can go in modifying genetic codes without unintended and negative repercussions.
I see no reason to complicate our premise of life evolving as a unity by assuming that humanity holds an ultimate position. That can be left to believers in anthropomorphic deities and those who need to justify exploitation of nature. Rather, I think we can “play the odds” and proceed on the basis that “we” in its fullest sense does not mean humans but life itself. Thus, our “new” Golden Rule extends to all forms of life, giving our ethics of reality a universal scope. But the mandate is even stronger.
As life becoming aware of its physical manifestation, we have the perhaps unprecedented opportunity to be partners in the evolutionary incarnation we are part of, which has emerged upon a new threshold with the development of the capacity for self-consciousness. We merely need to get past the dangers that arise as we learn to use this new ability, or this new mechanism. Just like a baby cannot help but fall when first trying to walk, or like a child learning to ride a bike will topple at least a few times before getting the hang of it, so we must learn to use our self-consciousness in productive ways.
You might question this idea, since self-identity has seemingly been around for millennia. But it took billions of years for life to evolve brains capable of this. So does it really seem far-fetched that it might take thousands of years for humans to learn how to use it properly? That is not a long stretch in evolutionary time.
In fact, individualism is not that old in practical terms. The very idea of individual rights has evolved only recently in human societies, where tribalism and its more modern and large-scale counterpart, nationalism, have long held sway. The emergence of the individual as distinct from the tribe parallels the infant’s emergence as an entity distinct from her or his mother. This does not mean that the individual supersedes the group, but perhaps that the individual historically has been given too little recognition. Part of the reason, of course, is the fearsome and inescapable mortality of the individual, which we have considered at length. And if the individual is assuming an unhealthy prominence today, one need only consider that unbalanced systems often overcorrect in the opposite direction before coming closer to a stable equilibrium. Just think of a ball rolling down a ramp and part way up another, back and forth a few times before coming to rest.
The parallel between emergence of the individual and individualism in society might be worth looking at more closely, but it is not significant for our discussion. More to the point, the idea of self-consciousness as an evolving phenomenon, as something we are still learning, is exactly what one would expect if consciousness itself is evolving as part of the evolutionary journey of life. But we are not talking about some safe, guided evolution. Rather, two distinct paths open before us. We move forward to a self-consciousness that recognizes the unity of life, or we literally get lost in our selves and maybe bring an end to the evolutionary experiment we are part of.