Towards an Emergent Ontogenesis with the Cosmos
The future is not some place we are going to but one we are creating. The paths to it are not found but made, and the activity of making them changes both the maker and the destination(Schaar, 1993 in Hempel 1996, p 5).
Just as there has been a time in life when the human was not yet embodied on the earth, the higher planes of consciousness may be waiting their time to become a part of our present embodied reality. The human body in sympoiesis with Nature and Cosmos provides coherent ontology for an emergent ontogenesis with the cosmos. This unifying view sees the world of human, Nature and Cosmos as one interwoven primordial reality where higher and higher forms of consciousness emerge out of a process of involution and evolution at different planes of multiplicity. This is the next stage of development for the entire planet if we are to survive the fragile condition we find ourselves in.
As we approach the age of ecological collapse, the human must now shift towards new strategies for survival. We can no longer be sustained by an ontology of separation. We must find new ways to re-constitute ourselves within the community of life-systems that shaped us.
This community of life-systems includes bacteria and viruses, which are by far the largest gene repository known on the planet. The importance of these entities in replicating and evolving all living organisms pervades any other process on earth. Their innovative seeding of all life in the biosphere can be likened to a process of ontogeneis or cosmogenesis. “Cosmogenesis” is a term used by Teilhard (1959) to refer to a process of increasing complexity, self-organization and self-awareness of the cosmos.
The New Biology
Right now, our knowledge about the human body is going such through a deep renaissance that it is challenging most of what we knew just a few decades ago. At its center is the realization that our human genome is interwoven with the genetic remnants of multiple bacteria, viruses and other parasites, most of which are more ancient than our human genome. What’s more, we have 150 times more DNA in our bodies that belong to other species (mainly bacteria), than our own. Not only are we a human species composed of cells, genes, tissues and organs, but living in us and on us, are numerous colonies of microbes that influence everything from our immune system to our digestion, to our ability to break down toxins, and so much more. In fact if you take away the trillions of viruses, bacteria and fungi that coexist with our human cells, we would not survive. At our most fundamental level, our human life is deeply interwoven with the greater web of microbial life that informs and sustains it. In grasping this scientific reality, we realize that we can no longer conceive of genes, organisms, viruses, human beings or ecological systems separately. We are one body of life in the biosphere.
This major shift in our scientific understanding has vast implications for expanding the notion of what we call a human body, towards what we call a planetary, or even cosmic body. Adding to this notion is the idea of phenotypic plasticity, our biological capacity to reshape the current fragmented ontology, which has become a developmental constraint. We modern day humans have developed apart from other species and as a result, we no longer identify with the web of life that shaped us. As human activities continue to disturb the Earth’s climate, biota, and entire ecosystems at unprecedented rates, the need to explore biological complexity and the processes of life makes itself clear.
For the first ever time in human history we have a scientific understanding of the importance of the morphological and genomic processes that underlie our evolutionary relationship with the Earth. With this new understanding we can take hold of the current deviation away from our species development and realign ourselves within the creative dynamics of a self-organizing, self-generating universe. This can be likened to a path of cosmogenesis or “becoming with” Nature. Sympoiesis is a term that Donna Haraway (2016) uses to describe our completely interwoven nature with other beings in the biosphere, most of which are microbes.
Sympoietic systems are evolutionary because they are always building upon the possible web of relations that can be realized (Dempster, 2000). This is similar to the concept of endosymbiosis, or DNA recombination, which is now recognized as an important source of novelty in evolution (Deacon, 2013; Capra & Luisi, 2014). Notably, ‘the discovery of DNA recombination and the trading of genes ranks as one of the most important discoveries of modern biology” (Capra & Luisi, 2014, p. 193). In view of these new discoveries in science, we could say that collaborating with Nature may well be the next paradigmatic turn for unrealized human potential, a potential that can transform the mechanistic reductionist worldview into one of creative collaboration with the Natural world.
In sum, the new biology, which is influenced by quantum physics, microbiology and complexity science, is striving towards a new species. This species will require that the boundaries of our present human understanding change. Even the boundaries within the human body have to change so that so there is continuity between the human body and the living processes of the Earth. This will require a major transformation that cannot be forged on a dualistic model alone. This challenge will require an emergent ontology that is capable of holding things together as they dissolve and come together in a new way. A process akin to metamorphosis, ontogenesis, morphogenesis and embryogenesis—all transformational processes that involve the transfiguration of something already given. And unique to all these processes is the inexhaustible plasticity that drives the continuous shaping and reshaping of the genetic material (genotype and phenotype) into new forms. It is in this continuous reshaping of the genetic material that we create new levels of tissue, cellular, and genetic interaction and complexity that would not arise otherwise. This is the ultimate definition of creative mutation. From this place, you could say the human participates in his or her own conscious practice of self-directed biological transformation.
Phenotypic plasticity is not just a concept, but an actual somatic method that we can engage in to shift biological complexity across many levels of organization including the mental, molecular, physiological, chemical, genetic, and neurological. When we shift biological density, we are driving tissues, cells, genes, and microbial populations to interact and link in different ways. This happens through a multitude of feedback loops and networks that are biological as well as ecological resulting in a wide variety of complexity to arise. We are in a genesis with ourselves. The biological and physical importance of phenotypic plasticity is clear. It enhances the communication and interaction of many different cells, tissues, and genes at different scales. This is critical for the evolution and divergence of our species.
The Collapse of our Ontogenetic Niche
For most of our evolutionary history as a species, our ancestors were embedded within the living matrix of the Natural world. It was a way of life that kept the human in close proximity to the Natural world, as resources were often scarce and difficult to obtain. Land, animals and human were tightly woven, and behavior towards Nature was based on a reciprocity (mutual exchange) that reflected the interdependence of both human and Nature. There was a deep reverence for the Natural world that guided humans to care for and protect the land, air, water and animal life. It was a dynamic and interactive co-existence that shaped our human body and genome.
In early modern Europe, between 1500 and 1700 AD, humanity’s relationship with the Earth began to shift toward a mechanistic or Cartesian worldview. It was this shift in particular that created a division between body and mind, and altered our relationship to the Earth. With the establishment of the Cartesian model of reductionism, all aspects of Nature, including the human body began to be perceived from a mechanistic point of view, like machines reduced to their segmented parts. This, along with other socio-economic forces, allowed individuals to grow more and more identified with their mind, which was seen as superior to the world of matter and Nature. Confusion and disagreements over why and how Nature and humans were linked and how to honor those linkages thus ensued. This confusion eventually ossified into a dismembering dualism, which resulted in a body-mind and Nature divide.
In the 18th century, the Industrial Revolution emerged altering the course of human history and the Earth’s environment more rapidly and profoundly than any other previous cultural transformation. The notion of a limitless machine-driven world allowed humans to surpass their biophysical limits and put them on a trajectory to thinking they were superior to Nature. Nature thus became an object or commodity that we could dominate and exploit for economic purposes. At the same time the Industrial Revolution profoundly altered the way we related to our body as machines and began to infiltrate and take over every aspect of human life at home. With machines, the natural rhythms of our body and its vital connection to the Earth became increasingly minimized or ignored. How we lived our lives was taken over with machines run by electric power. In short, the Industrial Revolution was a combination of technological, economic, scientific, and biosocial transformation that rapidly and radically altered the course of human history, and reconfigured our relationship to the human body, and the Earth. No longer in touch with our developmental constraints as a species, we were free to impress our will upon the world.
The turn of the nineteenth–twentieth century brought the Second Industrial Revolution marked by universal electrification, mass production and the birth of the global world market. In other words, the biosphere became the “technosphere” (Haff, 2014). To paraphrase Haff (2014), the technosphere generates its own living tissue, thus replacing biology. This is accomplished by devising a virtual world devoid of any kind of interactive relationship with the body or the Natural world. We barely notice or care anymore that the separation from our bodily selves is constant, insidious, and potentially dangerous as we constantly interact with machines.
After hundreds of thousands of years living in close proximity to the Earth, we have ineffectively become an indoor, mechanistic species. This is in strong contrast to the ‘ontogenetic niche’ that shaped and sustained our human genome. This radical change coupled with overuse of antibiotics, vaccines, and the mass spraying of synthetic pesticides, has brought untold ecological carnage, the greatest threat of which is to our bodily selves.
As future narratives of artificial life and colonization of space emerge, the body and its evolutionary relationship with the Earth is erased. From this perspective, we could say that the entire human race now faces a single collective challenge. We have evolved a way of life that is direct conflict with the inherent needs of our genetic coding. This genetic coding requires other species of life that have helped shape us and in part evolve us. The task therefore is to support the body in its ontological primacy. This means recognizing that human bodies have their own specific ontology, which is distinct from society, culture, and technology. This ontology requires a relationship with the Natural world, which is critical for the flow of genetic as well as environmental information and influence.
The Need for Radical Life Making
The human body is the product of an interaction between a unique genetic endowment (genotype and phenotype) and the Natural world. In this case Nature represents our genealogy as well as our primary environment of adaptive evolution. As individuals spend unprecedented amounts of time in front of computer screens or embedded in other forms of cyberspace, our bodies are intrinsically bound up in technology, which directly impinge as feedback. This process is then further intensified as a direct result of technological culture, both individual and large-scale. Thus, the body finds itself in a circular feedback loop with the machine (cyborg) instead of Nature. This causes inner states of dissonance, which may affect the body’s capacity to self–reference or self-correct. Said another way, contrary to the way a machine functions, the body needs feedback from the Natural world in the form of genomic and environmental information to stay ahead of entropy.
So the question becomes, how do we sustain biological coherence with the Natural world in the midst of increasing environmental dissonance and estrangement? How do we guide the development of our next species within the constraints of our genetic coding? In this case, human/ creature agency is absolutely crucial for seeding, constituting and complexifying our human genome. It implies having the agency to source ourselves in a way that runs counter to the way our modern culture runs now. It is about using our free will along with the fullness of our genetic material (genes and somatic environment) to re-align ourselves with the cosmic unfolding. Such a possibility offers a conscious exercise of ontogenesis with the universe.
Phenotypic Plasticity: The Somatic Environment
The body is always in a process of becoming and plasticity is key to this constant becoming. All we need to do is look at the developing embryo to understand this power. Without precise instructions from the genes, the embryo brings forth its entire body through the mechanism of folding, bending, layering, and refolding. Following this logic, it becomes clear why plasticity is the medium of emergent forms. Plasticity is critical for emergent forms because what is formed may have to dissolve, re-organize, complexify, while also communicating from the inside to the outside. This means that biology is always receiving and responding to genomic and environmental input on the inside as well as on the outside. And plasticity is key to this receptivity and responsivity.
If we look at the human form throughout the evolution of our species, it was plasticity that allowed our very earliest human ancestors to diverge from the apes and to become upright bipeds (Lieberman, 2014). Once bipedalism evolved, it created new conditions for anatomic changes in the hands, feet, and pelvis, which improved abilities to hunt and use tools (Lieberman, 2014). From this perspective you could say that plasticity is the basis for all anatomical change as well as evolutionary change. I believe that as our consciousness expands from a dualistic ontology to a more universal ontology our tissue structure will organize itself quite differently. Just as our ancestors underwent stunning biophysical conversions as they evolved, we too may be on the verge of a whole new conversion of our biophysical system. That is why it is so important that we prepare our somatic environment to receive it. Our full genetic material includes the somatic environment (phenotype) as well as the genes (genotype). We now know that the effects of genes depend as much on the receptivity of the somatic environment (phenotypic plasticity) as they do on the specificity of the genes themselves.
Phenotypic Plasticity is a somatic characteristic that we can easily cultivate to serve our physiology in a way that is life enhancing rather than life alienating. Using conscious movement that is slow and intentional, we can dissolve the mechanistic mindset and consciously enfold the living environment into ourselves. Layers of being and becoming that cannot be included in a dualistic ontology arise in the creative dimensions of stretching, folding, shaping and bending. The boundaries of self, world, culture and Nature fall away and we are resting in the elemental kinship between the body and the Earth. When we cultivate phenotypic plasticity, alienated parts of ourselves are nourished by a whole new set of relationships and inter-connections. Ever-changing cross linkages of being and becoming are fed as our movement becomes a constituting principle within the Natural world. Like the unfolding embryo we give ourselves fully to the life yearning to be born. We are home in ourselves and in the universe.
We are Already Becoming Something Else
Of course, it is impossible to know what a body is capable of. And it is important to acknowledge that biology is in a renaissance. What it means to be human has already changed with complexity science. We are one body of life in the biosphere. In grasping this scientific reality, we realize that we need the full force of our species wisdom to meet the challenges of our time. This species wisdom includes other species of life that have helped shape us and in part evolve us. Anything less is to deny the planetary forces that shaped us.
The promise of the new biology is certainly inspiring and could open us up to all kinds of possibilities beyond any rational or logical sense. However, tuning into our morphological agency (phenotypic plasticity) launches the human into an intimate relationship with his/her creative agency. From this place, the human participates in his/her ongoing transition to something else. This supports a shift in consciousness away from what is conditioned, rational, and separate, towards what is ever-evolving and interconnected to all of life.
Self-organization, phenotypic plasticity and multispecies interactions arise naturally in Nature, and pervade the Universe. The human is no exception. In fact, at critical transitions and times of crisis throughout history, quantum leaps in evolution required these exact complex dynamics. We are at one of those critical thresholds now. As I write this, a novel corona virus has stopped the world. We are already becoming something else. The best we can hope for is to be willing participants in it. What I am proposing opens up an entirely new anatomy of human being and becoming along with new ways of being human that go beyond our present thinking and behavior. And this will be the mark of the coming planetary age; the individual’s awareness of the formative processes that unites him or her with Nature and Cosmos. We can no longer evolve apart from Nature and cosmos. In thinking that we can, we have become dangerous to ourselves and all other species on the planet.
Capra, F., & Luisi, P. (2014). The systems view of life: A unifying vision. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
Deacon, T. (2013). Incomplete nature: How mind emerged from matter. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company.
Dempster, B. (2000). Sympoietic and autopoietic systems: A new distinction for self-organizing systems in Proceedings of the World Congress of the Systems Sciences and ISSS 2000. J.K. Allen and J. Wilby, (Eds.), Presented at the International Society for Systems Studies Annual Conference, Toronto, Canada, July 2000.
Haff, P.K. (2014). The technosphere concept. In C.N., Waters, J.A. Zalasiewicz, M. Williams, M. Ellis, & A.M. Snelling (Eds.), A stratigraphical basis for the anthropocene (pp. 301-310). London, UK: The Geographical Society
Haraway, D. (2016). Staying with the trouble: Making kin in the chthulucene. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
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