In The Web of Meaning, Jeremy Lent investigates humanity’s age-old questions- Who am I? Why am I? How should I live? The book offers a compelling foundation for a new philosophical framework that could enable humanity to thrive sustainably on a flourishing Earth. Today, we have an excerpt from the book that talks about metaphors for life.
Excerpt from Chapter Five: The Harmonic Dance of Life
What, then, are metaphors for life that more accurately reflect the findings of evolutionary biology and might have the adaptive consequence of influencing our civilization to behave with more reverence toward its only home?
Frequently, when cell biologists describe the mind-boggling complexity of their subject, they turn to music as a core metaphor. Denis Noble entitled his book on cellular biology The Music of Life, writing that ‘the music of life is a symphony’. Ursula Good-enough describes patterns of gene expression as ‘melodies and harmonies’. Another biologist writes of ‘a veritable symphony of chemical signals’ arriving at a cell’s nucleus to turn genes on and off. While the music metaphor aligns with my earlier discussion of harmony, I get concerned about certain aspects of the symphony setting. After all, a symphony is a piece of music written by a composer, with a conductor directing how each note should be played. The awesome quality of nature’s music arises from the fact that it is self-organized. There is no outside agent telling each cell what to do.
Perhaps a more illustrative metaphor would be an improvisational jazz ensemble, where a self-organized group of musicians spontaneously creates fresh melodies from a core harmonic theme, riffing off each other’s creativity in a way similar to how we’ve seen evolution work. Geneticist Mae-Wan Ho captures this idea with her portrayal of life as ‘quantum jazz’. She describes it as ‘an incredible hive of activity at every level of magnification in the organism… locally appearing as though completely chaotic, and yet perfectly coordinated as a whole. This exquisite music is played in endless variations subject to our changes of mood and physiology, each organism and species with its own repertoire.’
A related metaphor – and one that I find even more compelling – is a dance. Cell biologists increasingly refer to their findings in terms of ‘choreography’, and philosopher of biology Evan Thompson writes vividly how an organism and its environment relate to each other ‘like two partners in a dance who bring forth each other’s movements’. As biologist Brian Goodwin points out, it’s important to recognize that this is not just any dance. ‘Each of these forms of life,’ he writes, ‘each natural species, has intrinsic value and meaning in relation to the whole tapestry of life so that there is a sense of the sacred in this living dance.’ The expression of life’s sacred weave is powerfully captured by Goethe in the opening scene of Faust, where he has the Earth Spirit announce:
In the torrents of life, in action’s storm
I weave and wave in endless motion
cradle and grave a timeless ocean
ceaselessly weaving the tissue of living
constantly changing, blending, arranging
the humming loom of Time I ply
and weave the web of Divinity.
If our mainstream media and commentators began using these metaphors in place of the selfish gene, before long we might begin to perceive our world in a fundamentally different way.
What might happen if we applied this new understanding of nature’s harmonic dance to establish different norms for our own society? Imagine if, instead of our socioeconomic system constructed on the presumption that ‘the economy of nature is competitive from beginning to end’, it was structured instead on the basis of symbiosis – an ecological civilization.
Rather than existing in hierarchical structures, organic systems are more like a self-organized democracy, interacting through complex participation, each party actively performing its own role while paying attention to what’s being done around it. As Mae-Wan Ho writes, ‘Everyone is simultaneously boss and worker, choreography and dancer. Each is ultimately in control to the extent that she is sensitive and responsive.’
Ecosystems have developed tremendous resilience from these internal dynamics, sometimes existing for millions of years, continually adapting yet remaining stable and robust. Widespread symbiosis means there are no waste products – what one species expels is nutrition for another. Healthy ecosystems embrace both competition and cooperation at multiple levels, but always within a context of harmony for the entire system. The possibility of applying these ecological principles to our own society, and using them as an alternative way for humanity to organize itself, is one that we’ll return to.
We’ve uncovered how some of the most pervasive assumptions about the nature of reality are, in fact, myths that arose centuries ago in Europe and have since been repeated so incessantly that most of us grow up accepting them as core truths. We’ve seen how the reductionist view of the cosmos needs to be augmented by one that recognizes the importance of self-organized patterns connecting things in nonlinear ways. And we’ve seen how nature developed its own forms of connection that enabled it to generate life in complex abundance. Now, as we launch our investigation into the question of ‘What am I?’ we’ll find that, by applying the insights of self-organization to how life evolved on Earth, we’ll gain an appreciation into life’s own purpose and direction, taking us to the outer reaches of where life itself might be heading.
Author Jeremy Lent
Jeremy Lent is an author whose writings investigate the patterns of thought that have led our civilization to its current crisis of sustainability. Born in London, England, Lent received a BA in English Literature from Cambridge University, an MBA from the University of Chicago, and was a former internet company CEO. His award-winning book, The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity's Search for Meaning, explores the way humans have made meaning from the cosmos from hunter-gatherer times to the present day. He is founder of the non-profit Liology Institute, dedicated to fostering an integrated, life-affirming worldview that could enable humanity to thrive sustainably on Earth. He lives with his partner in Berkeley, California.