October 23, 2017

High technology euphoria

Book review: The Awakening Earth – our next evolutionary leap, by Peter Russell. Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982. Published in The Ecologist Vol. 13 No. 5, September/October 1983.


This book has had considerable publicity and appears to have been a publishing success. The author recognises the extent of the ecological problems faced by the world today. He recognises too that something drastic has to be done to prevent massive catastrophes. This is as far as I go along with him. In fact, I disagree with just about every other point he makes, reflecting as they do a world view that is diametrically opposed to mine.

Russell’s world view has much in common with that of Teilhard de Chardin and also with that of Ilya Prigogine and Eric Jantsch and their disciples, within the intellectual community, especially on the continent of Europe. It follows that many of my criticisms of the ideas of Ilya Prigogine and Eric Jantsch, that appeared in my article “Superscience: Its Mythology and Legitimisation” [The Ecologist Vol. 11 No. 5] would also apply to those of Peter Russell. I shall consider them very briefly.

To begin with Peter Russell does not seem to be acquainted with the anthropological literature. If he were, he would realise that man is not just an individual member of a planetary community as he suggests, which to me is not the lesson to be drawn from Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis. Natural man – that is man living as he has lived until very recently in a traditional and vernacular society – may well have seen the world as a single living creature. He may also have entertained the idea of an earth goddess of some sort – but she played a small part in his religious life.

The basic feature of ‘primitive’, and hence natural, religion is that a people’s pantheon reflects its social structure and its view of the structure of its natural environment. Since the extended family is common to all traditional societies (with the possible exception of the Inuit) the family gods – the spirits of his dead ancestors – are those which will play the most important part in its religious life. If the extended family is organised into clans and tribes, then the gods of those social units will also play a part in its religious life.

It is only when society disintegrates and there is no longer an extended family, a clan and a tribe, that the corresponding gods become redundant and monotheism begins to rear its ugly head. Monotheism (whether the single god that is worshipped is termed ‘Gaia’ or not) is the religion of an individualistic society, hence a disintegrated society, one in which social controls are no longer operative, and whose behaviour is thereby chaotic and inevitably tends towards disaster. [See Edward Goldsmith, The Stable Society WEC, 1975.]

In common with Prigogine and Jantsch, Russell has reacted against the reductionism of modern science and has adopted the language of General Systems Theory. Now I am a great admirer of Ludwig von Bertalanffy, the founder of General Systems Theory. I have subscribed to the paper he edited until his death – the General Systems Yearbook – for more than 20 years.

I have written in it and spoken at the meetings organised by the association that publishes it. But it has always been clear to me that this whole subject suffers from a terrible flaw: the term ‘system’ has never been adequately defined. A lot of attempts have been made to do so – I could draw up a list of the various definitions provided – but none is satisfactory.

The reason is that the term is used far too loosely. To be useful, it should be used to apply to the natural constituents of the biosphere at every level of organisation. It is clear that humans, whether they be Inuit, Watutsi tribesmen, Polynesians or Europeans, have sufficient in common to justify being included in the category of ‘humans’.

It is clear too that elephants, sloths and voles, though they look very different, have enough in common to justify their inclusion in the category of mammals. It is less clear to most people however that organisms, families and real communities, (by which I mean tribal groups), and ecosystems also have a sufficient number of things in common to justify their inclusion in a category for which there was until recently no term.

Von Bertalanffy proposed the term ‘system’. (I am not sure if he was the first to use the word in this sense. It may have been Paul Weiss.)

The features that all systems have in common are clearly of a general nature – much more general than, for instance, what mammals and humans have in common – but it is the general features which are, after all, the most fundamental. Thus, all natural systems can be shown to be self-regulating: so too, they tend to maximise stability, which means reducing to a minimum the discontinuities to which they are subjected. To that end, they make use of information which, as I showed in a recent article tends to be organised in the same way – ill order, that is, to constitute a model of their relationship with the environment and a hierarchical set of instructions for maximising its stability.

By establishing what all systems have in common, it is possible to draw up a set of rules which can be shown to govern the behaviour of systems in general. Only then will one have the basis of a General Systems Theory.

The term ‘system’ loses its interest when an “import company or an airline” or an “oil-pipeline” or a “smoke stack” are seen – as Russell sees them – to constitute a “system”. Indeed, if everything is a system, then nothing is not a system – and the word ceases to have any meaning.

Of course, Russell’s use of the word reflects another aspect of his world-view, which again he shares with Teilhard de Chardin, Prigogine and Jantsch. All of them believe in ‘progress’ which is possibly the most fundamental dogma of what we might refer to as the world-view of industrialism; a world-view with which we have all been imbued since our most tender childhood.

Progress is a gratuitous assumption. The word itself has never been defined, but it is assumed to coincide with the development of science, technology and industry and, hence, with the creation of that totally man-made world which is often referred to as the ‘technosphere’. That this process can really lead to the long-term improvement of man’s lot on this planet is one of the most naive, simplistic and pernicious of all the myths ever entertained by man.

We have shown, in The Ecologist, during the last 13 years, that it is this process that is in fact causing all the social and ecological problems which we face today and that, rather than be regarded as progressive, it must on the contrary be viewed as highly regressive.

This is clear if we consider that the technosphere, or surrogate world, can only expand at the cost of causing a corresponding contraction and degradation of the biosphere or real world, of which we are part – since it is from the latter that it derives the resources it makes use of and it is to the latter that it must consign the increasingly toxic waste products that it must inevitably generate.

Unfortunately those who believe in progress almost invariably see the process they identify it with as an integral part of the ‘evolutionary’ process. This is clearly a device for rationalising and hence legitimising it, by making it appear natural, beneficial and indeed inevitable – the qualities normally ascribed to evolution. This device is clearly made use of by Russell who tells us that

“we can sit here and wonder at the whole evolutionary process which has, step-by-step, resulted in me and in you, in farms, automobiles and computers, in men walking on the moon, in the Taj Mahal, the Emperor Concerto and the Theory of Relativity.”

So too, he refers to the modern world of man-made artefacts as “a Gaia-like complex being” as if in fact it were the natural product of the evolutionary process.

Of course the opposite is the case. The systematic annihilation of the world of living things – the inevitable concomitant of the expansion of the technosphere – can only be viewed as a reversal of the evolutionary process, as ‘anti-evolution’ as opposed to ‘evolution’. [see Edward Goldsmith, “Thermodynamics or ecodynamics?”]

This leads us to Russell’s view of how we should solve the terrible problems that confront us today. According to Russell, man must exploit fully the possibilities offered by his “consciousness” (a term that is particularly dear to Teilhard, Prigogine and Jantsch) in conjunction with the limitless possibilities offered by modern science and technology. In this way man can determine his own evolution and create a veritable paradise on earth. One of the most powerful of the tools that modern science makes available for achieving this end is, Russell tells us (as does Prigogine), genetic engineering:

“Recently human beings have become more than just passive observers of the living world. Within the last decade biologists have also learnt how to modify the genes in a cell, opening the door to the creation of completely new species. No longer must the evolution of new life-forms follow the slow process of trial and error and natural selection. They can be consciously designed and created within a matter of months.

From an evolutionary perspective, this is a most significant event. The only innovation which previously expanded life’s ability to diversify itself on such a wide scale, was the development of sexual reproduction by simple cells two billion years ago. Yet even this capacity took a billion years to evolve. Human science has achieved a comparable step in just a few hundred years”.

Atomic physics, we are assured, will also contribute to our further evolution.

“With the advent of particle accelerators, scientists once again became more than just passive observers. They were now able to change some elements into others, or even create completely new elements, by bombarding the nucleus with atomic particles and thereby changing its structure.”

The invention of the solar cells, he also tells us,

“represents an evolutionary development as significant as that of photosynthesis 3.5 billion years ago.”

Moreover, we shall soon be able to influence our ‘evolution’ by means of our growing ability to colonise space,

“a development as significant as the colonisation of land by the first amphibians 400 million years ago.”

The micro-electronics revolution is also transforming communications in a host of different ways and

“the combined effect of these developments has been the progressive linking up of humanity, a trend which is crucially important for the further evolution of humanity, and whose evolutionary parallel can be found in the emergence of the first multicellular organisms one billion years ago.”

Russell is so impressed by all these developments that he is led to ask whether “the rapid acceleration so characteristic of today, is heading us towards an evolutionary leap”. Indeed he goes further:

“Could we be on the threshold of a leap as significant as the evolution of life from inanimate matter?”

Russell is undoubtedly an optimist. He even sees the world population explosion – as does Prigogine – as highly beneficial.

“The human population has been rapidly expanding, and many see this as a negative trend. But from an evolutionary perspective, increasing numbers are vital, as they contribute to the complexity upon which evolution builds.”

Here, needless to say, he is misusing the term ‘complexity’ which cannot, by any stretch of the imagination be made to apply to the massive anonymous proletariat that is being built up in the cities of the Third World as a result of the current population boom.

The question we must now ask is what sort of paradise are all these developments creating for us? The answer is apparently a totally integrated world system in which we all live together in a sort of high technology global village. He even talks of “a global brain” in which everybody’s brain cells will be linked together with everybody else’s by means of modern communications technology.

Eventually, he tells us, we will reach a time

“when the billions of information exchanges, shuttling through the networks at any one time, create similar patterns of coherence in the global brain as are found in the human brain. Gaia would then awaken and become her equivalent of conscious.”

Russell then tells us that the world-view with which we have been imbued since the industrial revolution must be radically transformed. He explores other possible worldviews; the Chinese one, for instance; that of the perennial philosophers; and that of the new mystical physicists. It all sounds very ecological but his conclusion seems to be, if I understand him correctly, that all these ideas must merge and that this will permit the development of “psycho-technology”. This is to be

“the application of technology to improve the functioning of the mind and raise the quality of experience and the level of consciousness.”

Indeed, no part of Gaia is to be left alone. She is to be devastated by developers of all sorts. Nuclear physics is to be used to transform her very atoms, her basic building blocks: the genes of her living inhabitants are to be systematically reorganised by genetic engineers; photosynthesis, the means she has evolved for harnessing the power of the sun, is to be superseded by solar technology; and the minds of her human inhabitants are to be totally reshaped by psycho-technologists.

It is difficult to see how Russell can advocate such a programme and, at the same time, express his belief in the age-old cult of Gaia, the Earth Goddess. The basic principle of such a cult must be that Gaia is perfect, indeed sacred, which means that she must be left inviolate, preserved in all her perfection, splendour and sanctity.

The programme Russell advocates is, on the contrary, based on the assumption that God (or whoever created the earth) did a bad job; that Gaia is most imperfect and most unsplendid and indeed – far from being holy and inviolate – requires the most radical possible transformation.

The rest of the book consists of euphoric ravings about the New Age that all these activities will bring about. Russell ‘thinks big’. The setting up of his global high-technology village, he considers, may well be too paltry an achievement. It may well be that the whole galactic system should be transformed into a global village and one whose parts are so closely integrated that, like both man and Gaia, it may develop its own consciousness.

Indeed, he writes:

“Could the universe as a whole be headed towards becoming a single Universal being?”

This would have dramatic implications.

“If, over thousands of millions of years, the ten billion galaxies in the Universe not only evolved into galactic super-organisms, but also began to interact and communicate with each other, there might come the final stage of evolution – a universal super-organism.”

A seventh level of evolution (I am afraid I have not bothered to describe the other six) might then emerge,

“a level we could call Brahman, after the Indian word for the wholeness of the Universe in both its manifest and unmanifest forms . . . If this were indeed the final evolutionary development, it would in some respects bring the whole process full circle. Beginning from a unity of pure energy, the Universe would have evolved through matter, life, consciousness, Gaias and galaxies to a final reunion in Brahman. From a unity of total non-differentiation it would have evolved, through the most multifarious diversities, to a unity of total integration. From Brahman to Brahman.”

How any serious person can take this naive and euphoric drivel seriously is very difficult to understand, yet a lot of people seem to. But then, of course, so do a lot of people take Teilhard de Chardin, Prigogine and Jantsch very seriously – Prigogine in particular for he is a scientist and has been awarded a Nobel Prize.

Perhaps part of the answer is that some of the basic assumptions which underlie their writings, also underlie what we might refer to as the ‘world view of science’. Scientists as a body have accepted the individualist view of man. They need it in order to justify the reductionist or ‘analytical’ method so dear to them.

By disregarding the importance – indeed in many cases the very existence – of societies and ecosystems as essential constituents of the biosphere, they can also ignore the social and ecological constraints to which the behaviour of the individual must be subjected, if it is to tend towards the maintenance of stability at these and other levels of biospheric organisation.

That, in turn, enables them to see the hierarchy of the biosphere as being essentially malleable, which it must be, if the totally destructive nature of the Baconian enterprise – to which they are ever more committed – is to be effectively dissimulated.

The Baconian enterprise, of course, is only justifiable if we accept the principle of ‘progress’. Moreover there seems no more effective way of rationalising that myth than by viewing scientific, technological and industrial progress as part and parcel of the evolutionary process itself. It is an assumption that has been made by almost all of our philosophically minded scientists – from Jacques Monod to Sir Peter Medawar and even the great C. H. Waddington. It is also an assumption that is totally gratuitous.

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