August 20, 2017

Harmony, nature and the sacred

Edward Goldsmith chairs a debate between Professor Brian Goodwin and Dr Rupert Sheldrake, organised by the Scientific and Medical Network in Fife, Scotland, 1996. This is the chairman’s introduction, preceded by enthusiastic audience applause.

© Scientific and Medical Network 1996

Edward Goldsmith: Thank you very much indeed. Well I am told we are going to have a very virulent debate here, between the two combatants, that I do not have to introduce to you. My role is to make sure that they observe the rules of the game, fairly rigidly, and to separate them if it gets too hot. However, I have been told by David that I can say a few words myself on how I see our subject: human kind, nature and the sacred. I’ve been given 10 minutes to do that in and I shall avail myself of this opportunity.

Humankind – I prefer the idea of natural man – but to me, humankind, has very definite features. There are natural dung beetles, natural fiddler crabs and there are natural men, as well. They all have different features, and for me, man or humankind, has always lived in extended families which are part of small communities within a larger group – usually an endogamous one with which they share a common culture. That is how they have lived, and whether you go to Africa, Polynesia, or anywhere in the world, even Europe if you go back far enough. People have always lived that way. And I don’t believe in randomness [Audience laughter].

If they lived that way, then there is a very good reason for it: that is how natural man has always lived. And also, I think that if you look carefully at natural man – you’ve got to look carefully – you’ve got to dig in to it – you will find that all natural groupings of man entertained the same worldview. The more you look into this, you will find that they all had a very, very, very similar worldview and this worldview was critical, for the preservation of nature.

If we are going to be able to preserve nature, we have to be organised the way they were organised: into families and communities. I do not believe that an atomised society such as the one in which we live today, which is organised into totally artificial social groupings such as corporations and state institutions, can possibly preserve the natural world. By its very nature, it has to destroy it. Nor do I believe that a society such as the type we live in, can entertain the sort of worldview which I regard as critical to the preservation of the natural world.

By the way, it not only the natural world – the natural world is part of it. Traditional man, vernacular man, Chthonic man, believed that the cosmos was one; that its integrity had to be maintained at all costs; that his welfare depended on maintaining the critical structure. So as you can see, we are moving a long way away from randomness: the critical order of this cosmos.

The cosmos was seen as including the natural world and including society. The cosmos, of course, was seen as run by various cosmic forces (which were eventually personalised into gods, who inhabited the cosmos). Now what is particularly important is, and I quote from my own book The Way: an ecological worldview, that he saw “this hierarchical organisation – the cosmos, containing the natural world and society which he was governed by, as a single law” – the cosmic law.

If you are interested in the notion of cosmic law, I refer you to Nercha Illiya’s Encyclopaedia of Religions – look at the section on cosmic law – it says it all [Audience laughter]. Now, this cosmic law – the laws that governed society, which the Greeks called the gnomos, were the same as the laws that governed the natural world or the dike – and that is a long, long way away from our situation today. We can destroy the planet altogether, wipe out all its trees, completely transform the climate, make the human species extinct, without violating a single one of our laws [audience laughter].

The laws of the cosmos were the moral order, the moral laws, which were supreme. You did not have to make cost-benefit analyses: when someone tells you you’re going to introduce a human gene into a pig to make it fatter – this is not acceptable, because it is immoral. The discussion should end. Cost-benefit analyses are irrelevant. This is a violation of the moral law – the law of the cosmos. Now Pythagoras stated [it in] this Way. He said:

Themis in the world of Zeus, dike in the world [below] – hold the same place in rank as gnomos in the cities of men, so that he who does not justly perform his appointed duty may appear as a violator of the whole order of the universe.”

Now this to me is absolutely critical. If we are going to have an ecological society, that is how the society must see things. There is one rule that governs it all, and if you do not observe this law, then chaos ensues. The great, great problems – like epidemics and droughts and floods – all the great disasters are caused by our failure to observe these laws. We have violated the order of the cosmos. This to me is critical. To me, the behaviour pattern of traditional man, was entirely geared to maintaining the order of the cosmos – that is the thesis in my book The Way: an ecological worldview.

You can see that his rituals and ceremonies were designed to renew the the cosmos, to prevent it from reverting to the original chaos; his economic activities were designed to achieve the same end entirely. There is a chapter that I quote on a tribe in New Guinea – the Angor. When you look at their approach to agriculture, it is not only designed to produce food, it is designed to produce social order. Organisation, according to the author, is the main product of their agriculture, as well as their rituals, their economy etc. It was all designed to achieve this end.

By following this, and observing this behaviour pattern, you follow what is normally referred to as the Way in many societies. The R’ta of the Indians and Vedic periods; the Usha of Avestas in Persia; the Dharma, later to be called in India – had been taken up by the Buddhists. There seems to be a word for it in all the societies we know about. This whole notion was reinforced by the notion of vital force which seems to have appeared in all societies – first mentioned by an anthropologist in the 1960s called Maddock, but largely ignored by today’s anthropologists. They are not interested in cosmology whatsoever – especially in England.

Now this to me is a very important issue. This notion of vital force is absolutely critical – mana if you like, among the Polynesians, because it is organised within your society in such a way as to reflect its critical structure, and the natural world as a whole. So the cosmos is permeated with this vital force, which is organised in such a way as to reflect its critical structure which has to be maintained if you want to prevent the worst disasters.

And of course, this notion of vital force to me is totally related to the notion of the sacred. Things are sacred because they are imbued with this power, and this power can be good and it can be bad. If you violate it, you violate the laws, and you disrupt the order of the cosmos. If you disrupt the way this vital force is organised within your society, then you are causing a terrible result. That is precisely what [tabus] are. That is what the origin of sin was. You are violating the order of the cosmos, hence you get all these various problems.

Now, this interpretation may appear quaint to those so used to scientific language, but it is fundamentally correct. If today you have floods in the Deccans, in the plains – which are getting worse and worse – it is because we have violated the order of the natural world. We have cut down the forests of the Himalayas, and there is only one answer to it, and that is to replant those forests. If today we have a crime wave – something that we have never seen before, it is because we have violated the order of our society. The families and communities have disintegrated. We have created a totally atomised society.

Of course our scientists would say, or our politicians, which we leave these problems to – Michael Howard, that highly enlightened man [audience laughter] – that the answer is to build more prisons [audience laughter] and that is what they have done in America. They now have 1.5 million people behind bars. They can put 10.5 million people behind bars, but it would not change anything. It would not make it safer to walk in the streets of Detroit, or the South Bronx.

These solutions do not work. Building dams, and huge embankments to prevent the floods, are just going to create more problems. We have documented this, my colleagues and I, in our book The Social and Environmental Effects of Large Dams. So in fact, this interpretation is correct. And to me, following the Way, is the only possible ecological worldview.

That is to say, if we are going to create an ecological society which is going to protect nature, and prevent the total destruction of the natural world, then we have to return to a society based on the family and the community. We have to return to a society which will entertain the sort of worldview that I have mentioned – which sees the natural world as sacred, and which sees the whole cosmic order as sacred, and everything that enables us to maintain it, as sacred.

To me, there is no alternative. It may be a tall order, it may be difficult to achieve, but all I can say is, that what our politicians and industrialists are trying to achieve, is impossible. What I am suggesting here is only difficult—and I think it is best to opt for the difficult rather than the impossible [Audience laughter]. There is so much that I would like to say on the subject but I now pass you to Brian Goodwin who is going to start this discussion.

Brian Goodwin: Well, ladies and gentlemen, it is a great pleasure for me to address you this evening, but the first thing I want to reassure you about, is the fact that Teddy & I are deep friends. [Discussion continues followed by Rupert Sheldrake, for an hour.]


Edward Goldsmith: A view from my position as Chairman, here. We will start. I agree with a number of things which have been mentioned. First of all, I see the world as highly orderly. I cannot see that this social chaos makes much sense. I mean if you have read Paul Lux – you must have read Paul Lux.

Brian Goodwin & Rupert Sheldrake: Oh yes.

Edward Goldsmith: Paul Lux was a cytologist and he looked at cells under a microscope and saw them as very chaotic, but when he looked at the cell itself, it had an identity and it was orderly. Now things that look chaotic at a low level, can appear very orderly when you see them at a high level. He used the terms micro-determinacy macro-determinacy and macro-indeterminacy. That is, you cannot predict the behaviour of the small parts but you can predict the behaviour of the whole when it is highly ordered.

Now to me, that satisfies the requirement for your chaos theory: you cannot predict these things because you are looking at micro-things which cannot be determined. If you take an ecosystem such as a forest, and burn it down, you will see what happens. Heathroll and Levins did some well known experiments on this.

What happens is that a new vegetation appears, which has a stature – it will have the decomposers and there will be herbivores. There will be predators, and there will be all sorts of different things – it will have all the normal components of an ecosystem, but the species, will be quite different. You cannot predict which species are going to move in to fulfil all the different roles that have to be fulfilled for the ecosystem to maintain its stability, therefore it is not micro-indeterminant but macro-determinant. It is the basic structure that is important.

And for me, when it comes to change, change in the living world, nothing is trying to change. This is a fair enough statement. It is one of the only sensible things Richard Dawkins has ever said [Audience laughter]. Dawkins said that things are not trying to evolve. They, things, are trying to maintain their stability or homeostasis. That is what you can glean from the Gaian thesis, the Lovelock thesis. James Lovelock will not say it, because he does not want to be a teleologist but he is really implying that Gaia is trying to maintain her homeostasis – that you have stability in the face of internal [and] external challenges.

Now, to do this, a system which is static, is not stable, because it is not adapting to changes. In order to adapt and to maintain its stability, it has to make small changes, for the purpose of avoiding the necessity of making bigger ones – in order to maintain its basic structure, which is what it is trying to do. It has to make concessions – small changes. That is how this evolutionary change tends to occur. So to me, then, homeostasis is not sufficient – we are back to where we started.

What is lacking in the whole discussion on homeostasis is that you cannot have a stable natural system or organism – whatever you want to call it – which is part of an unstable larger one. I cannot have a stable farm in a world where I cannot predict the climate changes, or where the climate is completely de-stabilized. We will not know when to sow or when to reap. We cannot have stable families in an unstable society where everyone is killing each other off. In other words, to maintain your homeostasis, you have got to maintain the homeostasis of the larger units of which you are part – i.e. the whole Gaian hierarchy – the cosmos, if you like – which totally justifies the worldview of Chthonic man which I was referring to earlier on.

Now there is one other thing, to me, which seems to be critical, and that is, the whole discourse about whether Darwin believed in progress, whether he saw evolution as a progressive process, or not. There has been a lot of discussion on that. People are always writing about whether evolution involves progress or not. But I am not discussing that. I am talking about the second process, which is this man-made progress, which started off if you like, with Bacon. He started an idea that occurred in the 17th century, and Pollard’s idea of progress, Bellard’s idea of progress, all came out of the 17th century – this man-made progress to which we are totally committed today. Corporations, biotechnology, this to me is a very different process.

Now unfortunately, the great biologists of the 1950s, who I admire – the organicists, if you like, the Huxleys and Waddingtons of this world – these people seem to see it as the same process. [Medawar], for instance, talks about endosomatic progress and exosomatic progress. You see, what is happening today is something that is happening outside our bodies. It is no good – it is part and parcel of the same process. That is what is so horrific about it all.

They all see it – all these biologists that you admire, that we all admire, really, the great ones, they still see this process as the same! They cannot distinguish between the process that created the biosphere and the process that we have set up, which is annihilating it. It is directly opposed to it. They still see it as the same process. What we call ‘progress’ today, is a negation of the evolutionary process that we are interested in and no one seems to have made this point. There is evolution and there is anti-evolution – and that is what we are involved in today.

One final thing about organisms. Ecology, as it became an academic discipline, at the turn of the 20th century in America, dominated by people like Clements, Phillips, and Shelford, changed. They saw an ecosystem as an organism. They called it a superorganism, and then they were suddenly attacked. The whole thing became mechanistic and reductionistic. It had to fall into line or there would not be Departments of Ecology at Universities – it had to be quantitative, it had to become this spectacle, and they (the establishment) all attacked the superorganism concept.

So they said ecosystems are not organisms – they are nothing at all because they are so different from organisms. They said organisms reproduce, ecosystems do not reproduce in the same way. They had definite borders, like membranes. These things [don’t] have definite borders. You know, where there is a forest, where does it begin? You see. And they produced all these arguments, some of which made sense – showing that an ecosystem is not an organism – it’s similar to an organism.

Let’s take – why not take Ludwig von Bertalanffy’s terminology and call them both “specialised instances of a more general principle” which can be referred to as a Natural System, which Paul Weiss defined as an “entity that is seeking to maintain it’s homeostasis in the face of external and internal challenges”. There are many such definitions. These seem to be the best ones.

So it is simpler to avoid this terrible discussion, because what is happening now with Ecology, is that we have now come to a Newtonian ecology – the stuff they teach in our universities is anti-ecology. They now say you can understand ecosystems by looking at the parts – because ecosystems are not superorganisms. But the conclusions are all wrong. It is so much simpler not to call them organisms, to avoid acknowledging this whole new move, that is totally destructive.


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