In previous blogs I’ve touched on the topic of fractals and self-similarity, or the idea that the more we’re able to observe our universe, the more we recognize set patterns of self-resembling organization at every level. Through this construction, the universe seems to unfold in a grand, yet paradoxical design, ceaselessly falling into chaos while simultaneously feeding upon that chaos in the development of progressively higher levels of organization. If there is a fundamental shortcoming in the western mindset -- and a possible source of modern depression and despair -- it may well be our failure to recognize and resonate with this pattern, and to find purpose in its unfolding. Instead we consider it our job to defeat the pattern, to overcome the natural order, and to ultimately put an end to death. Yet, would not an end to death also mean an end to the evolution of humanity? So, while I love the idea of living longer, less painful lives, I fear our obsession with overcoming death betrays a deep dis-ease within us, and serves as an indication that we are out of step with the natural order of the universe, one in which our planet appears to be but a single cell.
Thinking of our planet, our families, or indeed ourselves as "cells" provides a helpful abstraction in looking at our lives and beginning to understand what purpose we may derive from the modern experience-envisioning what our collective efforts may be adding up to. Works such as Teilhard de Chardin’s The Phenomenon of Man proceed in such fashion, viewing the story of humanity’s evolution through an altered lens in an attempt to illustrate the progress (and possible purpose) of self-similar design through its increasing levels of complexity here on planet Earth.
Without delving into the expansiveness of Teilhard’s work, we may instead look at ourselves through a lens he may well have approved of, that is to say the lens of all that we are made of. Science is currently shifting its opinion of the human organism, and whereas it once viewed a human being as one organism, it is now coming to the conclusion that the explanation may be much more involved.
Thinkers such as Teilhard and many others eschew traditional notions of the human being as purely individual, and have instead worked to paint a picture of the human being as a cooperative community, one which contains immeasurable life forms which have somehow organized themselves into a structure ... our structure. In this way of thinking, we are not one thing, but an amalgamation of many things that happen to be aligned in the service of a larger purpose: life.
Hence, a healthy human stands as an example that when seemingly dissimilar communities join forces, amazing things can take place, in other words, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. (In contrast, when a human being fails to maintain this alignment within his or her body all sorts of troubles ensue.)
Yet the story does not end here, for evolution is an ongoing process, one which Teilhard argues is far from random, but directed inasmuch as the units of organization at every level are constantly compelled to reach higher, always seeking more complex forms of organization, a process he refers to as "directed evolution," (the direction being increased complexity.)
Beyond the level of the ecosystem known as a human being, Teilhard suggests that humanity itself represents something truly special within the process of the Earth’s unfolding. Unlike the caterpillar, the owl or the housecat, humanity finds itself in possession of reflective consciousness. In other words, while the aforementioned creatures surely know (possess the ability to perceive and respond to their environment), humans know that they know.
As humans, we now understand evolution inasmuch as we stand witness to where we came from and where we are currently located within the process. This knowledge, should we choose to embrace it, affords us the ability to be conscious participants in our own evolution moving forward. In other words, whether or not you accept the randomness of the evolutionary process that got us here, you must accept that we now have the opportunity to direct our evolutionary path into the future, or at least have a say in it. This is a luxury the caterpillar and the housecat do not enjoy.
So what exactly is our role in the process of evolution? Teilhard might ask us to consider this question in the form of an abstraction, that is, if a human being is a collection of microorganisms aligned in a common purpose, Earth is a collection of organisms still evolving towards an as yet unknown common purpose-with humanity as its crowning jewel: the planetary mind (the Earth, or evolution, become aware of itself). It may well be the case that as humanity goes, so goes Earth, for we as humans represent the planet's evolution of self-awareness.
As Teilhard’s theory outlines, the path of Earth’s evolution roots in a single spark of life which has given birth to all that we see via the process of evolving into ever more complex forms and varieties, yet never ceasing to be a single life form as it grows. This is what many traditions have referred to as the "the tree of life", we call it evolution. It is a true marvel to consider as, from age to age, the Earth has taken inumerable shapes and forms, eventually even standing up, walking upon the land, and referring to itself as “human”.
Although this may seem a radical concept upon first blush, there is an underlying straightforwardness and elegance to the work of Teilhard and others like him, a sense of purpose, which is something I observe the modern world to be severely lacking in. The more I watch life unfolding around me, the more I find myself drawn to this way of thinking, while always understanding that to pin myself down to any one way of thinking is to render myself inert (to destroy my own ability to evolve).
This blog has only touched on some of Teilhard’s more salient points and as such it does no justice to his ideas, and it completely leaves out his prediction of humanity’s (Earth’s) eventual evolutionary destination. If you’re interested in learning more about The Phenomenon of Man, I highly recommend the following video … it’s a campy throwback to the educational films many of us middle-age types used to watch in school, which only increases its entertainment value in my book! Till next time...
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