The What of Life (2)

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I want to like you, she thought, loudly.

Please don’t spoil it by picking on science in a stupid, fluffy way… but don’t stop challenging, either… find the villains…

She listened, intently, as he talked about the need to ‘see’ it all differently – Life, biological life, not separated from spirituality, but part of a bigger whole that encompassed them both…

“There is something in the human soul that formed and forms an angry and energetic response to reductionism: that the answers are to be found in the dissected, colourless and cold parts…”

He was right… so right. And biology had become the hidden champion of that. Late to the party, having spent a century emulating a physics-derived worldview from which physics was already trying to escape…

The problem was something called emergence. The beautiful patterns of a snowflake, seen under a microscope, were an example of emergence, but there were thousands more. Biologists were used to something ‘higher’ than the dissected bit emerging in front of their gazes. To the classical physicist, this was anathema. Everything, they said, could be solved by the bits… But even physics was changing, as the power of emergent forms began to grow in evidence and presence; but sadly not in time to prevent the widespread adoption of the ‘reductionist mindset’ in education, science in general and in life.

Seized upon by materialists, they used it to savage any example of the ‘mystical’ that dared say it was of the truth… And it took a hundred years before the ‘reductionist fundamentalists’ came to see that their own disciplines were, in this respect, crumbling beneath them. When that day came, the world of biological ‘form’ – the shapes and organisation that life takes, were seen to be a paramount example of how the whole was much greater than the sum of its parts… and this gave a new dimension to what was driving life along its mysterious road.

“Science’s models of how evolution works are incomplete,” said the speaker. “Or rather, the reductionist view of it – not the nonsense of Creationism – though, at the human level, we can understand the need for a compassionate view of our place in the universe, and the person who gives that away is a fool, for we – the human mind – invented that quest for understanding…..”

Dead right, she thought. Okay, I like you… Now, go where I haven’t … don’t blow it….

The session broke for coffee. She sat there, deep in thought, unaware that she was alone, until the woman in the red hat came over and gently touched her shoulder.


Darwin’s theory of evolution was and is brilliant, but it is only half of a ‘ruling dynamic’ that plays the music against which our slow dance of evolution proceeds. The powerful idea of ‘natural selection’ destroyed much of religious thought – but not completely. Within us all, there is a burning need to reinforce our sense of belonging with the natural world – teacher and exterminator that it is.

With ‘reductionist’ thought, which seeks answers by breaking things into their smallest parts, we have trees – but no forests… The reductionists found they had no language to describe them, so, metaphorically, they cut them down…

The ecosystem of the forest is as much a guiding principle as the tree. The huge advances in microbiology have shown the brilliance and the limitation of the reductionist view. So it is with the ‘natural selection’ model of evolution, which threw away any idea of a determining principle beyond random mutation of genes, resulting in a new creature that beat its competitors to the bed-chamber. Nature became a thrower of dice…

But then there were the gaps in the fossils, in the timeline, where entire species came into existence ‘overnight’. Eventually, these became impossible to ignore and it became apparent that something was working alongside selection to change life.

But, before we look at that something, we need to admire what microbiology found in the small, the ‘atomic’, the reduced. What it discovered was the cell, the glorious ‘bubble’ of organic life in which the entire blueprint of the organism was written. This inner code was the gene: both ‘plan’ and ‘means of delivering the plan’ – gene and expression of gene.

Deep in those life-cradling ocean vents, where the gradient of heat to cold was so intense that something that became organic life had the energy to come into being, we find that the core principle behind what became life was ‘born. That ‘living’ principle was persistence.

Life does nothing if it cannot persist. ‘We’ persist – and yet we change, constantly. Something within us – related to and harvesting our experience of the world – stays ‘me’. This is true at the organic level and at the psychological level. Some ‘pattern’ that is me moves forward in time, with persistence. Imagine waking up each day and thinking we were a new-born.

We are vastly more complex than the first containers of life. We have memory and therefore identity. Yet the same principles are seen to apply. In the oceanic depths, there were no cells, only chemicals: atoms and atoms grouped into molecules. The forerunners of cellular life were chemical chains of proteins that could self-replicate. With self-replication, they could persist .

The fundamental principle of life had been established, but this was just the beginning. Our self-replicating molecules were still part of their environment. To become more ‘complex’ – more organised, they had to begin to separate themselves from the world around them – yet still feed from it… Next week we will look at the birth of a world within a world; as mysticism calls it, a ‘microcosm within the macrocosm’. In terms of organisation and complexity, two of the building blocks of the new picture of life were about to come into existence…

Other parts of this series:

Part One,

©️Stephen Tanham

Stephen Tanham is a director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit organisation that helps people find a personal path to a deeper place within their internal and external lives.

The Silent Eye provides home-based, practical courses which are low-cost and personally supervised. The course materials and corresponding supervision are provided month by month without further commitment.

Steve’s personal blog, Sun in Gemini, is at stevetanham.wordpress.com.

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