Elisabet Sahtouris: Think global, act natural


Richard Moore

Original source URL:

Think global, act natural

Tijn Touber
This article appeared in Ode issue: 35

Nature directs us to the best solutions for 
pollution and poverty. Ode sat down for a 
conversation with biologist Elisabet Sahtouris.

Elisabet Sahtouris has a simple message: 
Evolution is not a life-and-death struggle in 
which only the fittest survive. She says there is 
a great deal missing in Darwin's theory, which 
for too long has been used to justify hunger, 
poverty and the continual devastation of the 

These are ideas that challenge typical thinking 
in the field of science, which is no surprise 
coming from a maverick like Sahtouris. At the age 
of 43, she walked away from her laboratory at the 
American Museum of Natural History in New York 
because the accepted Darwinian view of evolution 
had become too restrictive for her. At age 43, 
she gave up her position as a science writer with 
the Nova-Horizon TV series in Boston to go 
fishing. She bought a boat and settled on a Greek 
island. There, surrounded by the daily reality of 
life in and around the water, she discovered what 
she believed about how the world is really put 

And this is what she realized: 
Seventeenth-century philosopher René Descartes 
taught that nature works like machinery that can 
be understood and dominated by humans. Darwin 
described a battleground among species that 
fought to survive at the expense of one another. 
As a result, domination and competition have 
become a part of the modern world view-a view 
that feeds a great deal of misery on our planet 
because of our inability to see the bigger 
picture due to an emphasis on the separation 
between living things rather than the connection. 
Descartes and Darwin were misled, Sahtouris 
believes, as does a field of increasingly 
prominent fellow defectors-scientists, 
philosophers and spiritual leaders united in the 
belief that underneath the biological 
competition, nature is comprised of a refined 
network in which co-operation is key.

More to the point, according to Sahtouris, 
co-operation is a necessary foundation for 
survival and success. After the hostile 
competition of young species, they learn to 
negotiate differences and work out co-operation 
schemes to their mutual benefit. According to 
Sahtouris, co-operation is a necessary stage for 
sustainable success. She has worked out her 
version of this Theory of Everything in her book, 
EarthDance: Living Systems in Evolution 
(iUniverse, 2000).

Sahtouris thus offers an encouraging viewpoint 
for humanity. All we have to do is take a good 
look at nature, which shows practical and 
effective examples of co-operation that we can 
incorporate into business, government, 
international relations and throughout society, 
for the health and wealth of humanity.

  "It's time to develop a different version of 
Earth's life story," Sahtouris, now 70, says with 
conviction as we launch into a dialogue that will 
span a couple of billion years of evolution in 
just six hours. She believes evolution will 
create new human beings who don't exploit and 
dominate but merge with their surrounding natural 
habitat, evolving more harmoniously with it.

  "Earth is alive," Sahtouris explains. "It is not 
a mechanical, hierarchical system, but an 
organic, self-organizing system. The whole 
universe is a living enterprise that organizes 
itself. It's autopoietic, a definition of living 
entities as constantly creating themselves and 
their parts from within in relation to their 
environment. All healthy, living systems 
self-organize and maintain themselves by the same 
principles, whether as a single cell, your body, 
an ecosystem or a global human culture."

  That process is a continual dance in which 
individual and collective interests are equal 
partners. Sahtouris notes, "Each part of a living 
system has its own self-interest, but also works 
within the interest of the larger whole that 
contains it. In a mature system, every level 
expresses its self-interest, so that negotiations 
are constantly happening towards co-operation."

  There is, as Darwin observed, interaction among 
individual interests in any biological setting, 
but it goes deeper than raw competition. That 
interaction is less a fight than a negotiation 
played out in the broader context of collective 
interests. And that process, according to 
Sahtouris, is the driving force behind evolution. 
"So self-interest is not a bad thing, unless 
there is not a larger community interest with 
which to negotiate."

Sahtouris credits long hours on her fishing boat 
as the source of her new thinking. In the inky 
blackness of nighttime on the water, there was no 
horizon separating the stars above from the 
luminescent plankton she stirred up in the water 
beneath her. As she describes it, this gave her a 
profoundly real sense of being halfway between 
the macrocosm and the microcosm, knowing both 
formed a seamless whole. "Ever since," she says, 
"I have been working on an integral science of 
humans in a living universe, dissolving 
boundaries between physics, biology and 

  Dissolving boundaries is another lesson she 
learned from nature. Nature's boundaries are 
connectors. Everything is connected to everything 
else; nothing is separated from the greater 
whole. Nature doesn't choose between individual 
and collective interests. Yet humans are caught 
up in "either/or choices." Sahtouris offers a 
striking example: "Take the capitalist/communist 
rivalry that played out for most of my lifetime. 
It reveals the fundamental flaw of an odd and 
ultimately impossible ideological choice: to 
build society on the basis of individual interest 
or on the basis of communal interest. Nature 
doesn't work like that."

  It almost sounds like she's blaming human nature 
for our divisions, I say. She falls silent for a 
moment, and then clarifies: "From an evolutionary 
perspective, current global economics violates 
the fundamental principles by which all mature 
living systems are organized. Global economics is 
a hierarchical system where one level survives at 
the expense of another level. This top-down 
approach is never seen in healthy biological 
systems. In mature natural systems there are no 
authoritarian governments. What species is in 
charge in a rainforest? What part is in charge of 
your body? Imagine doing world politics in our 
bodies. Imagine the brain deciding not to 
allocate resources to certain organs, but keeping 
them to itself. You can't do world economics in 
your body. You can't have some organs exploiting 
the others. You would die."

  The conclusion is inevitable: An economy in 
which one person's profit is based on another's 
loss does not fit in with a healthy living 
system. The pollution, exploitation and 
destruction wrought by our modern economy are 
sure signs of the need for change. But is 
humanity capable of evolutionary maturation?

The good news, according to Sahtouris, is that 
there is evidence dating back billions of years 
that our distant biological relatives survived a 
similar crisis. "Our most remote ancestors 
created fabulously complex lifestyles with lots 
of technological innovations such as nuclear 
energy, electric motors, biodegradable polyester 
and a worldwide web of communications and 
information based on the ability to exchange DNA. 
As their numbers grew, they built elaborate 
cityscapes and vehicles in which to move around. 
Yet like ourselves, they got themselves deeper 
and deeper into crisis by pursuing economics 
based on invasions and exploitation. They created 
devastating environmental and social crises as 
the very atmosphere they lived in became deadly 
to them. They had to adapt, or die."

   While I'm trying to figure out which major 
civilization she's talking about, she smiles and 
continues. "Now here comes the good part: they 
managed to solve every one of their problems by 
reorganizing their lifestyles from destructive 
competition into creative co-operation. The 
amazing thing about this is that these bacteria, 
called 'Archebacteria,' didn't even have the 
benefit of a brain! These single-celled bacteria 
survived by merging into communities, so they 
could join forces."

  Scientists today are researching how bacteria 
use uranium to produce heat and how they make 
biodegradable polyesters. Nanotech researchers 
are also trying to produce more energy-efficient 
motors by copying the locomotive methods bacteria 
use. Bacterial motors have rotors, stators, ball 
bearings and couplings. They rotate in an 
electromagnetic field and have flagella attached 
to propel them around in their environment.

  We owe our existence to these prehistoric 
inventions, which allowed bacteria to transform 
from competition to co-operation. Indeed, the 
human body is the result of the new co-operative 
organizations those single-celled bacteria 
managed to discover. Sahtouris says, "Each one of 
our nucleated cells is a collective of ancient 
bacterial types that lived billions of years ago. 
This process of uniting competitive entities into 
a co-operative whole was repeated when nucleated 
cells aggregated into multi-celled creatures, and 
it is happening now for a third time as we 
multi-celled humans are being driven by evolution 
to form a co-operative global humanity in harmony 
with each other and with other species."

Elisabet Sahtouris sees both the source of our 
problems and the solution in the current 
organization of the world economy. The 
globalization process is forcing humanity into a 
higher level of integration. There is, she 
believes, less and less room for exploitation as 
diverging interests become increasingly linked.

  "What we call 'globalization' is not a choice; 
it is an inevitable evolutionary process of 
shifting from hostile competition to mature 
cooperation," she says. "For us humans, it began 
when we started settling on all continents. Over 
the past few thousand years, human 
empire-building has been a continual process of 
merging cultures. In modern times, this 
empire-building process has been shifting from 
imperial nations with colonial empires to 
corporate cartels and mergers, even a World Trade 
Organization that can overrule national political 
laws and policies."

  But the healthy balance between the individual 
and collective interest has not yet been struck. 
Globalization continues to be a threat to local 
economies and ecosystems. This runs contrary to 
the laws of sustainable living systems, which 
hold that poverty in one place ultimately spells 
disaster for the entire system. Just as a body 
can only be healthy if all organs are healthy, 
people can only survive in a world economy in 
which all the local economies are healthy.

  This leads Sahtouris to explain another 
significant pattern from nature that we too-often 
ignore: the fact that monocultures do not exist 
there. Sahtouris: "The No. 1 lesson of nature is 
diversity. Monoculture is not a workable living 
system. Monoculture fails in agriculture as in 
social culture, in economics as in religion. 
Social monoculture is rooted in an outmoded and 
ignorant fear of difference and of scarcity. It 
is time we learned to respect and cherish our 
human diversity as the creative source of 
potential harmonious complexity. If humans don't 
start behaving as healthy local living systems 
within the larger systems we know as nature, 
planet and cosmos, then we will face serious 
evolutionary setbacks in short order."

This stark realization-that something truly needs 
to change to prevent the downfall of 
humanity-became clear to her when she came into 
intimate contact with nature once again in 
Greece. "One day," she remembers, "I was 
strolling the pier of my tiny fishing village, 
when suddenly I looked into the eyes of a speared 
cuttlefish, just as it squirted its last ink 
before dying." Sahtouris felt she was looking 
into the eyes of her ancestor. It moved her and a 
deep sense of wanting to help restore the balance 
in nature came over her. That night she whispered 
to the stars: "Use me!"

  One look in Elisabet Sahtouris' datebook is 
enough to see that her offer was readily 
accepted. In the 30 years since that evening, she 
has lectured on every continent, written numerous 
books, laid out her ideas on television and radio 
and sat on numerous international committees with 
prominent people like former Russian President 
Mikhail Gorbachev, doctor and author Deepak 
Chopra and former UN Assistant Secretary-General 
Robert Muller.

  Sahtouris who, after marrying a Greek fisherman 
holds two nationalities (American and Greek) is 
now focusing her efforts on influencing 
politicians and business people-not just because 
she sees them exercising the power to enact 
changes, but because she often perceives a 
disconcerting lack of insight and intelligence 
among their ranks.

  "Intelligence," she says, "means being able to 
see the many levels of the whole in space and 
time and taking them into account when making a 
decision. Many current leaders are mainly focused 
on selfish interests and don't look very far into 
the future. It's all about context. The larger 
your context is, the more intelligent your 
decisions will be. It's about being able to think 
at different levels of reality at the same time."

  While most modern politicians fail to look 
beyond the next election and corporate executives 
beyond the next quarterly earnings report, 
Sahtouris points to the customs of native peoples 
in North America to teach their children to think 
seven generations ahead.

  "On the whole," she says, "indigenous people 
seem to understand holarchy [a word taken from 
the Greek "holos," or whole, and the concept of 
"hierarchy"], diversity and respect for the 
natural habitat more clearly than modern cultures 
do." In Bolivia, for instance, she met Nicolas 
Aguilar Sayritupac of the Aymara Indians. He 
summed up his perception of the "Western" 
approach to life as follows: "The human being of 
the West has abandoned being human and has turned 
himself into an individual. Community has died in 

But Sahtouris doesn't pine for the "good old 
days" before the industrial and technological 
revolutions that changed the face of the world. 
"I love technology. I google, chat, blog and 
skype. This communications technology is vital to 
connecting future self-sufficient living 
communities with each other as a global web. The 
Internet is a beautiful example of a 
self-organizing living system and vital to human 
evolution. But we also need to develop the 
Innernet connecting us to each other and to deep, 
universal wisdom."

  The solution, as Sahtouris sees it, starts with 
education: "We should be teaching the politics of 
living systems, the economics of living systems 
and the science of living systems. You have to 
teach people how life works. Most scientists 
don't even understand life. They don't understand 
its amazing intelligence, so they fail to update 
reductionist theories, including Darwinian 
evolution, and make a mess of things such as 
genetic engineering. The win/lose economics model 
is justified by the inadequate Darwinian theory."

  But through the lens of evolution, Elisabet 
Sahtouris finds ample evidence for hope: "When 
humans-after all, still a young species-drop our 
adolescent arrogance of thinking we know it all 
and learn from the wisdom in our planet's 
accumulated experience of living systems design, 
we too will mature as a species. When we learn to 
see the advantage of co-operation we will be able 
to give up competitive juvenile hostilities. It's 
not too late to remodel our engineered 
institutions into healthy, living systems."

More information: http://www.sahtouris.com and http://www.ratical.org/lifeweb

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