Globalization as a Natural Evolutionary Process

by Elisabet Sahtouris, Ph.D.

(for the 3rd. issue of The Bridge)

Globalization, from the perspective of an evolution biologist, is the natural, inevitable, and even desirable process by which humanity matures as a species, shifting from the competitive, acquisitive mode of a juvenile species to the cooperative, sharing mode of a mature species.

In any case, globalization is already well on its way and is not a reversible process. Some aspects of it beautifully demonstrate our ability to cooperate. For example, our global telephone, postal, shipping and air travel systems are highly cooperative, but the most central and vital aspect of globalization, its economy, is currently practiced in a manner so antithetical to a healthy living system that it threatens the demise of our whole civilization.

To see why the current course of economic globalization cannot continue and must be changed to a healthier one, we need to look at the inherent contradictions between what we have euphemistically called "free market capitalism" (in fact an incipient global totalitarian capitalism) and what we should have: a democratic and ecologically sound economic system. I want to discuss this fundamental contradiction from a biological perspective.

New biological information on nucleated cells, multi-cellular bodies and mature ecosystems as cooperative enterprises challenge our ingrained view of antagonistic competition as the sole driving force of evolution, which was adopted as the rationale for capitalist competition. But, as George Soros says, "there is something wrong with making the survival of the fittest a guiding principle of civilized society. This social Darwinism is based on an outmoded theory of evolution." (Soros, The Capitalist Threat, cover article of the February1997 Atlantic Monthly)

Take the living system most intimately familiar to all of us: the human body. We've long known that a body behaves as a community of cells. It has a governing nervous system in service to the whole (as good government should be), continually monitoring all its parts and functions, ever making intelligent decisions that serve the interest of the whole enterprise, and an immune system to protect its integrity and health against unfamiliar intruders.

More recently, microbiology has revealed the relative autonomy of individual cells in exquisite detail: every cell constantly making its own decisions, for example, of what to filter in and out through its membrane, and which segments of DNA to retrieve and copy from its nuclear gene library for use in maintaining its cellular functions and well being. Hardly the automatons we had thought cells to be!

It is abundantly clear that the needs and self-interest of individual cells, of organ "communities" and of the whole body must be continually negotiated to achieve their dynamic equilibrium. Cancer is an example of what happens when this balance is lost, with the self-interest of certain wildly proliferating cells running roughshod over the needs of the whole body and no longer containable. It is also clear that one or a few organs with the power to exploit the body’s resources for their own benefit, at the expense of the rest of the body, would quickly kill us!

It is high time we recognized our global human family as a living system, just as we do our personal families and our individual bodies. We can see more clearly what is going on if we understand the individual, the community, the nation and global human society as living systems embedded within each other, just as our cells are embedded within our tissues, organs, organ systems and bodies. Arthur Koestler had an elegant terminology for this concept: holons in holarchies (Janus: A Summing Up, Pan Books, London 1978).

The fundamental flaw in both communist and capitalist systems is that they subjugate the interests of local holons (individuals and communities) to the interests of national and global holons, however much we in the West were ideologically taught that our individual well being was primary and our democracy good for our communities. Around the world now, however, many people recognize and protest that personal and communal values and interests have been overridden in a dangerous process that sets vast profits for a tiny human minority above all other human interests.

Nature’s evolutionary process, endlessly repeated from the most ancient times till now at all levels from microbial to ecosystemic, always passes through aggressive competitive phases on the way to maturity. Only at maturity (as in Type III ecosystems) are individual, communal and ecosystemic interests met simultaneously and reasonably harmoniously. This is an aspect of biological evolution which has unfortunately not yet gained prominence, but my purpose is to help put it there, for we humans are inescapably biological creatures and could benefit greatly from the lessons already learned by countless species in the four and a half billion year improvisational dance we call evolution (Sahtouris, EarthDance: Living Systems in Evolution).

Many critics of market-driven capitalism, including some among those who have gained the greatest wealth from it, such as James Goldsmith and George Soros, are aware that, since the fall of communism, market capitalism has become the greatest danger to human well being. The measure of human success must shift from money to well being for all humans and all species. To do this, individual and communal human values must be reclaimed and acted upon in a way that ensures a balance of local and global interests. And the World Trade Organization will have to recognize that strengthening local economies to the point where they can effectively express their self interest is critical to its ownsuccess.

Soros is very clear about this in saying: "Market values served to undermine traditional values." Further, "Unless [self-interest] is tempered by the recognition of a common interest that ought to take precedence over particular interests, our present system—which, however imperfect, qualifies as an open society—is liable to break down." Clearly he espouses communal values, and there is more: "Unsure of what they stand for, people increasingly rely on money as the criterion of value... What used to be a medium of exchange has usurped the place of fundamental values."

Historian Arnold Toynbee studied twenty-one past civilizations, looking for common factors in their demise. The two most important ones, it seems, were the extreme concentration of wealth and inflexibility in the face of changing conditions within and around them. We cannot go on playing Monopoly when a cooperative game is called for by our new and obvious global problems.

The evolutionary dance is energized by the self-interest of every part and level of Holarchy; it is choreographed by compromises made in the tacit knowledge that no level may be sacrificed without killing the whole. At its best it becomes elegant, harmonious, beautiful in its dynamics of non-antagonistic counterpoint and resolution. My hope for humanity lies in the fact that life is resilient and that the greatest catastrophes in our planet's life history have spawned the greatest creativity.

Mark Twain tells the story of a young man returning from his first forays out into the world, amazed at all his father has learned while he was gone. It is of course a characterization of budding maturity: the ability to listen to an elder's accumulated wisdom. When we humans, after all a very new species, drop our adolescent arrogance of thinking we know it all and read the wisdom in our parent planet's accumulated experience, we too will mature as a species, to our own benefit and that of all other species, as well as the planet itself.

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Posted July 21, 2001