From Mechanics to Organics:
An Interview with Elisabet Sahtouris
Santa Barbara, California, August 1996. [Abridged]
Go to:  Indigenous Way | Redefining God | Proceedings of UN Policy

In the early 1960s, historian of science Thomas Kuhn introduced the concept of a paradigm to describe a conceptual model or set of assumptions about reality. A paradigm, he suggested, allows scientists to interpret data, elaborate theories and solve problems. It can be as all-encompassing as Newtonian physics, or as specific as the notion that life exists only on earth. The trouble, he said, is that paradigms are resistant to change. They are like closed systems in which all new data tend to confirm what is already known. As a result, the history of science is punctuated by violent upheavals in which one paradigm overthrows another.

Many scientists feel that we are on the cusp of such a revolution today. There is a growing recognition that the old mechanistic paradigm... does not work very well in addressing the pressing questions of modern science. This is reflected in the emergence of chaos, complexity and other radically interdisciplinary "new" sciences. 
Geobiologist Elisabet Sahtouris belongs to a handful of innovative scientists who are rethinking the classical model and advancing fresh new perspectives. She believes the task of modern science is to shift "from mechanics to organics" and embrace a more holistic, systems-based approach. 

Scott London: Let's begin at the beginning. How did you first develop an interest in science?
Elisabet Sahtouris: I studied art because my parents thought that science was a boy's subject. So I had a degree in fine arts before I went into science. Then I did get my Ph.D and did a post-doc at the Museum of Natural History in New York, just about the time that Jim Lovelock's first article on the Gaia hypothesis came out. I was doing comparative brain research in evolution. But my big questions -- Who are we humans? Where do we come from? What are we doing here? Where are we headed? -- remained unanswered. I got very discouraged with science for not answering those big problems. Nobody seemed to want to take the global view, or the universal view, about humanity as a species.

London: When did you begin to realize that traditional science wasn't adequate to answer some of these great questions?
Sahtouris: I think it was during my postdoctoral fellowship, when I was in Manhattan in New York City and saw so many social problems -- people who were becoming homeless, being evicted, breathing foul air. I caused some unrest at the Museum of Natural History because they had paid a lot of money to do a very expensive pollution exhibit. This was around 1969. At the same time, the museum was belching black smoke all over northern Manhattan so women couldn't hang their laundry out in the vicinity. I pointed out the contradiction between their pollution exhibit and what they were doing themselves. So there were many little lessons in seeing that science has such blinders on that it does not relate itself to the larger society.
So I began to think, how can science answer the big questions when it really doesn't pay any attention to what is happening in the world. I decided that it was much more important to me to worry about the transition for humanity with some things breaking down while new alternatives are being developed than to stay in a laboratory doing what had come to seem like trivial research to me. 
When I went to Greece a few years after that, I decided I would write novels to explain the human condition to myself. I had become friends with Henry Miller. I came to understand why Henry said he hated the straight line. What he was talking about really was something artificial, geometric, abstract, not part of the messy, organic world. But when I got to the islands in Greece and was living there in the woods and on the water with the fishermen, the same old questions came back to me. I wanted to know who we were within this natural context. I wanted a scientific explanation that was better than the ones I was taught. So I set myself the task of trying to describe the evolution of the earth within the context of a living, self-creating cosmos, and then look at human history within that context -- which I do in kind of a quick and dirty way, but I wanted to see rapidly how people through the ages have seen themselves in relation to this larger living system we depend on. 

London: Your book revolves around the Gaia hypothesis which was developed by James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis. How would you characterize this theory? 
Sahtouris: Jim Lovelock is an atmospheric scientist from England. He proposed that the earth was a living, self-organizing entity, and called it Gaia after the Greek name of the original goddess of creation who became the earth itself. 
I differ a little bit from Lovelock and Margulis in how I talk about Gaia because I never call it either a hypothesis (which is what they first called it) or a theory. To me it is a conceptualization of the earth as alive, to replace our conceptualization of the earth as an array of mechanisms. It's part of the transition in general from a mechanical worldview to an organic worldview, to see the world as alive. For me it's alive by definition. 
I use the definition of life which was proposed by two biologists from South America, Maturana and Varela, which goes by the name of autopoiesis. Autopoiesis is a Greek word, of course, meaning literally "self-creation." The definition goes: A living entity is any entity that constantly creates itself. This really distinguishes it from a mechanism, because a machine is not constantly creating itself. In fact, if it changes itself at all it's probably broken and you would rather it didn't do that; while a living thing is always changing, or it's dead. 
So, it's a conceptualization, not a hypothesis or a theory. Within that conceptualization, that scientific framework, you would propose hypotheses or make theories about how it functions. 

London: Today the Gaia theory or hypothesis is bandied around a lot as a nice "metaphor," but is it taken seriously by the scientific community? 
Sahtouris: One of the things that happened was that people who get identified as "new age" (and that means a lot of things) got very excited about the Gaia hypothesis of Jim Lovelock, because intuitively everyone knows that nature is alive, that the earth is alive. In fact, our western industrial culture is the only one in history that has not known that the earth is alive.
When people say it's "just a metaphor," we really have to look at that because all science is metaphor. When you say that nature is an array of mechanisms, that's absolutely as metaphorical as saying it's a living entity. There is no way of talking about anything new without invoking metaphors. All of science is based on metaphor. If you talk about an atom as a little solar system with planets around it, or as whirlpools of energy, in the more recent descriptions, these are all metaphors. Metaphor simply means that you take something that is familiar to you and use it as a pictograph or an image of what you are trying to describe that you don't yet understand well.

London: Why is it so difficult for us westerners to understand the earth as a living system?
Sahtouris: It goes back to the Cartesian worldview, I think, in which Descartes proposed that God was a great engineer and his creations were mechanisms. That meant that all nature was an array of mechanisms created by God, the engineer, who then put a piece of his God-mind into his favorite robot -- man -- so that he, too, could create machinery. Now, whether you like it or not, that was a rather complete worldview that accounted for everything. 
When the scientists decided that they didn't need God in their worldview, they eliminated God from their Cartesian worldview but kept the idea of an array of mechanisms. Now how do you explain the origin of mechanisms without a creator? By definition, a machine cannot exist without a creator. If they are there and couldn't have been assembled on purpose by an intentional creator, the only alternative is to say they came together by accident. So you got these bizarre theories that literally say that if enough parts of a Boeing 747 blow around in a whirlwind in a junkyard eventually one will assemble itself. This is going to appear to us as perhaps the most bizarre and perhaps harebrained concepts of how things work that has ever been proposed in the history of the world. And I think it will be seen that way in the very near future, because it is fundamentally an illogical point of view. The problem was that they thought you had to choose between God, the purposeful inventor, and accident. We had no theory of self- creation as a perfectly natural, biological, universal event. Now we do, so we don't have to invoke either hypothesis. 

London: Some anthropologists and historians are now reconsidering some of the early evidence from as far back as the Paleolithic age and discovering that many cultures had a more holistic worldview back then. 
Sahtouris: Yes. In fact, holism was the natural way to be for all of the ancient and indigenous people, including those who survive to this day. It's our western obsession with taking the world apart, putting it in boxes, to separate science from politics, from religion, from the arts, for instance. That was not the case in other cultures. It helped them therefore to see things holistically simply because they weren't taking things apart. They, in fact, see other dimensions which we relegate into the realm of religion as part of ordinary reality. They are not obsessed with drawing lines between fact and fiction. 
That reminds me of a conversation I had with David Abram about his experiences in Indonesia working with medicine people there. David had got a grant to go as a sleight-of-hand magician on the grounds that this talent and practice of his would help him to get into the world of medicine people there. In fact, it did work. He was saying that all medicine people know some sleight-of-hand. So I was pressing him, where was the line between sleight-of-hand magic and reality in their world. And David kept saying to me, there is no line between magic and reality. Nature is profoundly magical at heart. It took me a long time to really grasp and understand what he meant by that. It is only though my years of living with indigenous people in various places that I can understand that myself.

London: Speaking of native cultures, you've added a chapter called "The Indigenous Way" in the newly expanded edition of your book. Why add this chapter?
Sahtouris: When I finished the first version of the book, it concluded that if humans don't start behaving like a living system within the larger human system we call nature or the planet or the cosmos, then we are going to go extinct in short order. Once having decided that our task was to live like a living system within a living system, it became obvious to me that indigenous people know more about that than our western culture does. Our western culture has made a point of separating itself from the rest of nature, looking at it (we think at least) objectively, and controlling it. 

London: There seems to be a great hunger for tribal wisdom today. It's reflected on the bestseller lists with books like Marlo Morgan's Mutant Message Down Under. There seems to be an understanding at some level that indigenous cultures have something that we have lost.
Sahtouris: Yes. I think the ecology movement led us into it because it made us more aware of nature and how we had walled ourselves off from it as much as possible in our urban environments. Once you begin to develop those intuitive feelings of profound respect for nature, of love for nature, I think everyone comes to the conclusion that maybe we should go and look at indigenous cultures that haven't separated themselves from it the way we have for that wisdom. 
I use the Hopi story a lot in teaching in which the great spirit father and the earth mother give two different assignments to their children -- the red brother and the white brother....
I like that as a teaching story because it says that technology is a good thing provided it's done in the context of wisdom about the natural living systems we're imbedded in and depend on. ... Nowadays we call that appropriate technology. That is exactly what we need to look at. How can we develop our technology in ways that are harmless to nature and maybe even supports it, which is a possibility. 

London: In your book you also talk about the Kogi indians. They have some similarities with the Hopi people. 
Sahtouris: Yes. The Kogi are known to many people through Alan Ereira's documentary called Message from the Heart of the World: The Elder Brother Speaks. They talk about Aluna as being the creatrix of the world and say that before she created the world, she lived through all possible worlds through great mental anguish. Therefore she is called memory and possibility, which I think is just a beautiful phrase.

London: They lived quite insulated from civilization for some 500 years, then?
Sahtouris: Very much so. According to the documentary, they are the last survivors of the pre-Columbian cultures. But that is not, in fact, true. I went to visit a village that has never been visited by anyone, even an archeologist, in all this time. I had the opportunity when some of them walked back to Cuzco to show them this Kogi film. Most of them fell asleep because they had never sat on couches before watching a video. I was very aware as I watched it with them and heard them make comments about how the Kogi language seemed similar to their Runa (or, as the Spanish called it, Quechua language) that they too were survivors of pre-Columbian culture.

London: What have you learned from traveling back and forth between our society and indigenous cultures?
Sahtouris: One of the interesting things about that difference I could illustrate by talking about a friend named Sarah James who is a gwich'in indian in the northernmost town in Alaska. Sarah was down at the earth conference in Rio in 1992, beating her great big caribou- skin drum and talking about welcoming people by flapping the flaps of her skin-hut. She talked about how very wealthy her culture was, how rich it was, before the white man came...When the white man came he saw these people and said, "These poor people living in forty degrees below zero with virtually nothing, we've got to do something for them and bring them into the modern world." Sarah says, "They called us savages," and as she beats her drum she says "Well, let's keep Alaska savage!" She was expressing the fact that their self-perception was one of great wealth. She said, "We had warm houses and clothing, we had plenty of food, we had time for our families and our culture, we had songs and stories and a beautiful religion, and we were a happy people. Then we were defined as being primitive, backward, poor. Today we are truly poor because we've been impoverished by the things the white man brought to us" -- from illnesses to inappropriate housing to tinned foods to lack of opportunity to alcohol and other drugs. These are the things that impoverish native people who were once self-sufficient. 

London: You mentioned the arrival of the white man in Alaska. The new global village we live in has brought a great deal of suffering to native peoples.
Sahtouris: Without a doubt. We have extinguished half the languages that were spoken on the earth already, and we are rapidly extinguishing the ones that remain. People fail to recognize that the cultural treasures of all these different indigenous nations and smaller groups are being lost at a much higher cost than when you lose a pyramid or a temple. The wisdom and the outlook, the worldview, of these diverse cultures is so important. The number one lesson of nature is diversity. Nature doesn't like monocultures. The tragedy of our agriculture is monoculture. The tragedy of our culture is that we think we want to clone ourselves, monoculture ourselves, and we don't respect the various ethnic groups that we have available to ourselves in this country, for example. If you want to plan the future of the world, invite people of every possible hue and geographic location to your meeting that you possibly can, because the discussion will be much, much richer than if you are all white, middle class people from North America. It's just absolutely essential for us to share the creative ideas of people who speak different languages and therefore see the world differently.

London: I would like to return to some of the ideas in your books. You make the rather startling assertion that we have descended from bacteria. Is that true? 
Sahtouris: Well, we are either their descendants or their construction [laughs]. Lewis Thomas, who wrote Lives of a Cell and other wonderful books of essays, once proposed that we are giant taxis that bacteria built to get themselves around in safely. It is true that each one of our cells is a collective of ancient formerly living bacterial types. Lynn Margulis has traced most of this story of cooperation of the cells that we are made of, which are nucleated cells. In the world two billion years ago there were only bacteria. The shift from a very exploitative, destructive lifestyle to this lifestyle of cooperation among bacteria is a wonderful parallel to what is going on in the human world today...
So what are we? If we are communities of bacteria that found a better lifestyle by joining forces with each other, then perhaps we are, as Lewis Thomas says, giant taxis for them to get around safely in.

London: We were discussing the Gaia hypothesis and the idea of metaphors in science. One of the enduring metaphors of our scientific worldview has been Darwin's principles of natural selection and survival of the fittest. Darwinism has had a monumental impact on the way we think about evolution and our place in nature. Yet you believe we need to reassess Darwin's theories.
Sahtouris: Yes, I think Darwin's theory was good for its time, but remember that its time was within a mechanical worldview framework. To me Darwin's theory is a very mechanical one in which you have "accidents" occur (remember, we talked earlier about explaining a natural world of machinery by accidental development - so that notion was around). Then the "accidental" variations in the genetic material is shaped by the environment, which Darwin saw as a kind of template. If the cogs of these accidents fit into the wheels of the environment, then it would survive and the machine would run on; and if it didn't then it would die out, it would be inappropriate. 
It occurred to me that life seemed to be much too intelligent to proceed in its evolution by accident. I kind of stuck my neck out ten years ago by saying that. I thought that probably genetic errors were repaired. Arthur Koestler had some similar ideas, I believe, he was one of my sources for these ideas. 
Now the geneticists are becoming aware of this at a microscopic level. We can look at what is happening with the relationship of proteins and genes and cell membranes and all that, and it looks very much as if life does not proceed by accident but by design. And, as I said in my book, the nucleus is really a giant library of genes accumulated throughout evolution which can be drawn on under stress. Creatures such as sharks or cockroaches are very well-adapted and don't need to change (I call them bicycles in a jet-age because they still function very well although other species have gone on with totally different paths of evolution). In other words, life changes itself only when it needs to. It knows how to conserve what works well and change what doesn't work well. That is why you get very uneven evolution, not as in Darwinian theory which would predict a very even rate of accident and even rate of evolution for all species. We certainly know that that is not true and no geneticist today would uphold the ideas of Darwin completely. 

London: There are movements in science that are now beginning to question some of the fundamental assumptions. Chaos theory comes to mind. Have you been following the emergence of the-"new sciences"?
Sahtouris: Yes, I have. I think it's all part of our shift, as I call it, from mechanics to organics. It's well along for many, many scientists. Certainly all the ones at the leading edge are aware that we are talking about living nature and that what we want to understand are the dynamics of living systems rather than the structure and function of mechanism. So our mathematics are becoming much more creative with people like Ralph Abraham doing dynamics theory and doing it ways that can be understood by ordinary people; and all of the repercussions of chaos theory which is about self-organizing living systems. 
From my point of view, the concept of living systems should be the overarching concept for all of our educational institutions. In other words, we should be teaching the politics of living systems, the economics of living systems, the science of living systems. All of these things would be united by that central concept. This is what would help us as humans to form healthy living systems. 
I used to think that the mechanical world view had imposed on us mechanical structures and that our societies are really built like machines. But the fact is that you can't turn living things into machinery. You can try to force them to behave like machinery but they will not be machinery. That is exactly why our economists can't predict anymore and our politics is falling apart. We don't understand them as unhealthy living systems. We're trying to fix them like machines. It's very different to cure a person and to fix a machine. 

London: What are some of the social and political ramifications of this shift from mechanics to organics?
Sahtouris: I devised a little model for children to show why the economics we do in the world today are not appropriate for living systems. I often refer people back to our own bodies which are a perfectly good example of a living system. All living systems obey the same principles. They have some fundamental things in common in their organization and function.
Now if you were going to do world politics in your body, it would look something like this: You have raw material blood cells coming up in the marrow of bones throughout the body, and they are swept up to these northern industrial organs -- the heart-lung system -- where the blood is purified and oxygen is added and you now have a useful product. So the heart distribution center announces that the body price for blood today is so much, who wants? And the blood is shipped off to those organs that can afford it, and you chuck the rest out as surplus. You have to ask, is this a viable economics for a living system? You can see that it would kill the body to do economics in that way because some of the parts of the body that couldn't afford the blood (which now might be bottled until the price goes up) would now be starving and dying off. This is exactly what you see, of course, in the human world. We exploit some parts of humanity to the benefit of other parts. That cannot work in a living system...
No one in nature asks anyone to make a decision between personal interest or communal interest. You don't decide whether to be on the left or the right, whether to be a conservative or a radical. You have to have both in nature. It is the source of all creativity -- this tension between the individual and the collective, the part and the whole. It is the fact that their interests are somewhat at odds that fires the creativity toward solutions. And then again there is always another imbalance in the system that has to be resolved. This is the great driving force of all creativity. We are never going to be able to reach perfection, and we are never going to be in total chaos. We are always going to operate between those two. We have to recognize the value of both sides. Capitalism is inherently no more viable than the communism that was practiced in the Soviet Union and some other places...
So we are going to find a lot of chaos in this country as we begin to regroup, begin to understand living systems better, and begin to obey the principles of living systems as we develop an alternative society for the future. 

London: You once said that America needs its own perestroika, like that of the old Soviet Union. What did you mean by that?
Sahtouris: Yes, I think we have to become aware that we need a real overhaul of our system. For one thing, it is not a democratic system, as was shown in a very recent poll, done by both the Democrats and the Republicans. It showed that 76 percent of the American people do not have faith in their government and in fact think it's up to no good. That is revolution proportions. It's unprecedented in history. 
Most people don't know that our Constitution was written so that there would be no personal income tax and so that only Congress could coin money -- this right was given away by Congress in, I believe, 1913 so that private banks are issuing money now, even if the press, the Xerox machine, is in the hands of the government. 
There are a lot of things that have been eroded since our Constitution was written. We are all duped by television sets and with material playthings, not recognizing that we don't live in a democracy any more, and not taking the citizenship responsibility to do something about it, to complain about it, to say, "I don't want to play monopoly, I want to play some game that's fairer." We have a money system that is designed to funnel the wealth from the poor to the rich, and we are sitting down and taking it. Jacques Jaikaran wrote a very good book about this called Debt Virus: A Compelling Solution to the World's Debt Problems. The information is available, but I think people have very little time to look at the larger picture, to say, Things are falling apart in the world and we're all the players in the game -- why are we playing this game? Is this the one we want to play? Or do we want to play a healthier one?

London: How do you keep your spirits up considering the enormous ecological, social, and political problems that confront us today? 
Sahtouris: I try to remain optimistic in the face of terrible statistics. The ozone hole is growing by leaps and bounds. Some say that by the year 2012 there won't be any ozone at the current rate of destruction -- without adding to the current problem. And we all know about the polluted oceans and the dying forests and the poisoned rivers and air and soil and so forth, the increase in desert land when we really need more agricultural land. These are all terrible statistics, but what do we do about them? 
There is no time in the future at which we have to turn things around. Things are already turning around in the sense that a lot of alternative ways of living have been developed around the world, whether people are creating their own money systems, or developing communal agriculture, or organic agriculture, alternative education systems. These are all the new forms of the future...
It isn't that you end one thing and then start another. So everybody engaged in recycling, in alternative projects, in communal living, in developing healthier systems for themselves and each other is engaged in building the new world while the old one collapses. Its collapse is inevitable. There is no way around that. 
We must, for example, shift to organic agriculture. There is so much unemployment in the world that it's very feasible. It can now be done with computers on the farms, with culture coming in, and with farm sitters, as in Denmark that permit the farmer to go to the city for a while. There are many ways to do it. Indigenous cultures show us that it can be done much more simply, much more efficiently.
It's possible to do really healthy agriculture that's more productive than green revolution agriculture, and far, far more energy efficient and far, far less destructive. 
So that is a place, agriculture, where our technology has been used totally inappropriately and purely for the sake of profits for a handful of people. It's inhuman to perpetrate that kind of agriculture in the face of the starvation it brings. 
On the other hand, our communications technology is vital, so that we can connect self-sufficient living communities with each other into a global web. So I think this is where we integrate native techniques and modern technology -- that we have the have the communications system to share the way we work at the local level in the bioregions working in healthy, organic community. 

London: Journalists often talk about positive changes like recycling, solar energy, or organic farming as if these are passing fads, the whims of a small minority of people at the fringes of our culture.
Sahtouris: There is nothing more fundamental than food and air and water. If people are demonstrating that food can be produced not only more efficiently, more healthfully, less destructively, but also cheaper, in organic ways, that is only going to be labeled a "fad" by those whose interests it opposes. It will never be labeled a fad by those who get to eat the food produced in that way. 
It's the same as writing the idea of Gaia off as "just" a metaphor, when all science is based on metaphor. Food production is done either in a healthy way or an unhealthy way. We know now that there are huge interests at stake in producing food in unhealthy ways. Our television sets now tell us that one third of the chickens in Los Angeles are contaminated and yet people continue to walk away from the television set and buy them. They don't realize that the supermarket food which is often so contaminated, is often much more expensive to produce than organic food. But it's subsidized by the government. Again, we are not taking on the responsibility of democracy. We are not saying, Why is the government subsidizing the production of unhealthy food when it could be subsidizing organic farmers and keeping us healthy? Why can't Clinton change the health system? What is going on in Washington? 

London: In closing, tell me something about what you are working on at the moment.
Sahtouris: I'm trying to help the five indigenous groups I work with in the Andes to develop a cultural center that will revive and promote Andean culture with its wonderful agriculture -- the most intensive and productive experiments in history were done in the Andes, and over half the food eaten in the world today traces back to the Andes. Their music is very healthy and alive and good for people. Their natural-dyed weavings and arts, the wisdom of their elders, their language, these are all things we are trying to preserve. I think that the world at large would benefit very much from learning about them. The Incas social organization was a kind of paternalistic welfare state that guaranteed food and housing and jobs and didn't overwork people. There are some positive things we can learn from that. 
So I'm trying to help to promote this ancient culture to the world at large as well as preserve and protect it for its own descendants in the Andes. I think the Andes are a very important place in the world, spiritually and physically. Many Tibetan lamas are coming there saying that there is a shift in energy from the Himalayas to the Andes. We hope that is true and that great lessons can be learned from that source. 
I'm also working on some music festivals to try to connect Andean music with other parts of the world. I'm beginning to work on the Internet. I'm interested in cyberfests and ways of having people exchange information, music, and other aspects of culture around the globe as rapidly as possible toward transformation. The Internet itself is a giant self-organizing living system that is a bit chaotic at present but has the potential for being the first real democracy in the world, for example.

Sahtouris is the author of EarthDance: Living Systems in Evolution, Biology Revisioned (co-authored with Willis Harman) and A Walk Through Time (co-authored with Brian Swimme). She is a consultant expert on indigenous peoples for the United Nations, a Findhorn fellow, and serves on the advisory board of the Institute for Sustainable Development and Alternative Futures. 

This interview was adapted from the radio series Insight & Outlook, hosted by Scott London. A translation of the interview appeared in the February 1999 issue of Thot, a Brazilian journal. 
Copyright 1996 by Scott London. All rights reserved.