Let's begin at the beginning. How did you first develop an interest in
I studied art because my parents thought that science was a boy's
So I had a degree in fine arts before I went into science. Then I did
my Ph.D and did a post-doc at the Museum of Natural History in New
just about the time that Jim Lovelock's first article on the Gaia
came out. I was doing comparative brain research in evolution. But my
questions -- Who are we humans? Where do we come from? What are we
here? Where are we headed? -- remained unanswered. I got very
with science for not answering those big problems. Nobody seemed to
to take the global view, or the universal view, about humanity as a
you begin to realize that traditional science wasn't adequate to
of these great questions?
it was during my postdoctoral fellowship, when I was in Manhattan in
York City and saw so many social problems -- people who were becoming
being evicted, breathing foul air. I caused some unrest at the Museum
Natural History because they had paid a lot of money to do a very
pollution exhibit. This was around 1969. At the same time, the museum
belching black smoke all over northern Manhattan so women couldn't hang
their laundry out in the vicinity. I pointed out the contradiction
their pollution exhibit and what they were doing themselves. So there
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,
can science answer the big questions when it really doesn't pay any
to what is happening in the world. I decided that it was much more
to me to worry about the transition for humanity with some things
down while new alternatives are being developed than to stay in a
doing what had come to seem like trivial research to me.
When I went to
few years after that, I decided I would write novels to explain the
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
about really was something artificial, geometric, abstract, not part of
the messy, organic world. But when I got to the islands in Greece and
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
evolution of the earth within the context of a living, self-creating
and then look at human history within that context -- which I do in
of a quick and dirty way, but I wanted to see rapidly how people
the ages have seen themselves in relation to this larger living system
we depend on.
revolves around the Gaia hypothesis which was developed by James
and Lynn Margulis. How would you characterize this theory?
is an atmospheric scientist from England. He proposed that the earth
a living, self-organizing entity, and called it Gaia after the Greek
of the original goddess of creation who became the earth itself.
I differ a little
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.
me it is a conceptualization of the earth as alive, to replace our
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
life which was proposed by two biologists from South America, Maturana
and Varela, which goes by the name of autopoiesis. Autopoiesis
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
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
thing is always changing, or it's dead.
So, it's a
not a hypothesis or a theory. Within that conceptualization, that
framework, you would propose hypotheses or make theories about how it
Gaia theory or hypothesis is bandied around a lot as a nice "metaphor,"
but is it taken seriously by the scientific community?
the things that happened was that people who get identified as "new
(and that means a lot of things) got very excited about the Gaia
of Jim Lovelock, because intuitively everyone knows that nature is
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
a metaphor," we really have to look at that because all science is
When you say that nature is an array of mechanisms, that's absolutely
metaphorical as saying it's a living entity. There is no way of talking
about anything new without invoking metaphors. All of science is
on metaphor. If you talk about an atom as a little solar system
planets around it, or as whirlpools of energy, in the more recent
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.
it so difficult for us westerners to understand the earth as a living
back to the Cartesian worldview, I think, in which Descartes
that God was a great engineer and his creations were mechanisms. That
that all nature was an array of mechanisms created by God, the
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
that was a rather complete worldview that accounted for
When the scientists
decided that they didn't need God in their worldview, they
God from their Cartesian worldview but kept the idea of an array of
Now how do you explain the origin of mechanisms without a creator? By
a machine cannot exist without a creator. If they are there and
have been assembled on purpose by an intentional creator, the only
is to say they came together by accident. So you got these bizarre
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
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
because it is fundamentally an illogical point of view. The problem was
that they thought you had to choose between God, the purposeful
and accident. We had no theory of self- creation as a perfectly
biological, universal event. Now we do, so we don't have to invoke
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.
fact, holism was the natural way to be for all of the ancient and
people, including those who survive to this day. It's our western
with taking the world apart, putting it in boxes, to separate science
politics, from religion, from the arts, for instance. That was not the
case in other cultures. It helped them therefore to see things
simply because they weren't taking things apart. They, in fact, see
dimensions which we relegate into the realm of religion as part of
reality. They are not obsessed with drawing lines between fact and
That reminds me of a
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
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
in various places that I can understand that myself.
of native cultures, you've added a chapter called "The
Indigenous Way" in the newly expanded edition of your book. Why add
finished the first version of the book, it concluded that if humans
start behaving like a living system within the larger human system we
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
system within a living system, it became obvious to me that
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.
to be a great hunger for tribal wisdom today. It's reflected on the
lists with books like Marlo Morgan's Mutant Message Down Under. There
to be an understanding at some level that indigenous
cultures have something that we have lost.
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
in our urban environments. Once you begin to develop those intuitive
of profound respect for nature, of love for nature, I think everyone
to the conclusion that maybe we should go and look at indigenous
that haven't separated themselves from it the way we have for that
I use the Hopi story
in teaching in which the great spirit father and the earth mother give
two different assignments to their children -- the red brother and the
I like that as a
story because it says that technology is a good thing provided it's
in the context of wisdom about the natural living systems we're
in and depend on. ... Nowadays we call that appropriate technology.
is exactly what we need to look at. How can we develop our technology
ways that are harmless to nature and maybe even supports it, which is a
book you also talk about the Kogi indians. They have some similarities
with the Hopi people.
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
Aluna as being the creatrix of the world and say that before she
the world, she lived through all possible worlds through great mental
Therefore she is called memory and possibility, which I think is just a
quite insulated from civilization for some 500 years, then?
so. According to the documentary, they are the last survivors of the
cultures. But that is not, in fact, true. I went to visit a village
has never been visited by anyone, even an archeologist, in all this
I had the opportunity when some of them walked back to Cuzco to show
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
to their Runa (or, as the Spanish called it, Quechua language) that
too were survivors of pre-Columbian culture.
you learned from traveling back and forth between our society and
the interesting things about that difference I could illustrate by
about a friend named Sarah James who is a gwich'in indian in the
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
by flapping the flaps of her skin-hut. She talked about how very
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
for them and bring them into the modern world." Sarah says, "They
us savages," and as she beats her drum she says "Well, let's keep
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
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
defined as being primitive, backward, poor. Today we are truly poor
we've been impoverished by the things the white man brought to us" --
illnesses to inappropriate housing to tinned foods to lack of
to alcohol and other drugs. These are the things that impoverish native
people who were once self-sufficient.
the arrival of the white man in Alaska. The
global village we live in has brought a great deal of suffering to
a doubt. We have extinguished half the languages that were spoken on
earth already, and we are rapidly extinguishing the ones that remain.
fail to recognize that the cultural treasures
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.
wisdom and the outlook, the worldview, of these diverse cultures is so
important. The number one lesson of nature is diversity. Nature
like monocultures. The tragedy of our agriculture is
tragedy of our culture is that we think we want to clone ourselves,
monoculture ourselves, and we don't respect the various ethnic groups
we have available to ourselves in this country, for example. If you
to plan the future of the world, invite people of every possible hue
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
to share the creative ideas of people who speak different languages and
therefore see the world differently.
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
we are either their descendants or their construction [laughs]. Lewis
who wrote Lives of a Cell and other wonderful books of essays,
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
of this story of cooperation of the cells that we are made of, which
nucleated cells. In the world two billion years ago there were only
The shift from a very exploitative, destructive lifestyle to this
of cooperation among bacteria is a wonderful parallel to what is going
on in the human world today...
So what are we? If
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.
discussing the Gaia hypothesis and the idea of metaphors in science.
of the enduring metaphors of our scientific worldview has been Darwin's
principles of natural selection and survival of the fittest.
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.
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
earlier about explaining a natural world of machinery by accidental
- so that notion was around). Then the "accidental" variations in the
material is shaped by the environment, which Darwin saw as a kind of
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
it would die out, it would be inappropriate.
It occurred to me
seemed to be much too intelligent to proceed in its evolution by
I kind of stuck my neck out ten years ago by saying that. I thought
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
becoming aware of this at a microscopic level. We can look at what is
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
by design. And, as I said in my book, the nucleus is really a giant
of genes accumulated throughout evolution which can be drawn on under
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
very well although other species have gone on with totally different
of evolution). In other words, life changes itself only when it needs
It knows how to conserve what works well and change what doesn't work
That is why you get very uneven evolution, not as in Darwinian theory
would predict a very even rate of accident and even rate of evolution
all species. We certainly know that that is not true and no geneticist
today would uphold the ideas of Darwin completely.
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
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
ones at the leading edge are aware that we are talking about living
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
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
From my point of
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
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
I used to think that
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
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
some of the social and political ramifications of this shift from
mechanics to organics?
a little model for children to show why the economics we do in the
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
living systems obey the same principles. They have some fundamental
in common in their organization and function.
Now if you were
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
the body, and they are swept up to these northern industrial organs --
the heart-lung system -- where the blood is purified and oxygen is
and you now have a useful product. So the heart distribution center
that the body price for blood today is so much, who wants? And the
is shipped off to those organs that can afford it, and you chuck the
out as surplus. You have to ask, is this a viable economics for a
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
(which now might be bottled until the price goes up) would now be
and dying off. This is exactly what you see, of course, in the human
We exploit some parts of humanity to the benefit of other parts. That
work in a living system...
No one in nature
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
or a radical. You have to have both in nature. It is the source
of all creativity -- this tension between the individual and the
the part and the whole. It is the fact that their interests are
at odds that fires the creativity toward solutions. And then again
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
communism that was practiced in the Soviet Union and some other
So we are going to
a lot of chaos in this country as we begin to regroup, begin to
living systems better, and begin to obey the principles of living
as we develop an alternative society for the future.
said that America needs its own perestroika, like that of the
Soviet Union. What did you mean by that?
think we have to become aware that we need a
real overhaul of our system. For one thing, it is not a
system, as was shown in a very recent poll, done by both the
and the Republicans. It showed that 76 percent of the American
do not have faith in their government and in fact think it's up to no
That is revolution proportions. It's unprecedented in history.
Most people don't
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
There are a lot of
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
the citizenship responsibility to do something about it, to
it, to say, "I don't want to play monopoly, I want to play some game
fairer." We have a money system that is designed to funnel the wealth
the poor to the rich, and we are sitting down and taking it. Jacques
wrote a very good book about this called Debt Virus: A Compelling
to the World's Debt Problems. The information is available, but I
people have very little time to look at the larger picture, to say,
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?
you keep your spirits up considering the enormous ecological,
and political problems that confront us today?
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
be any ozone at the current rate of destruction -- without adding to
current problem. And we all know about the polluted oceans and the
forests and the poisoned rivers and air and soil and so forth, the
in desert land when we really need more agricultural land. These are
terrible statistics, but what do we do about them?
There is no time in
future at which we have to turn things around. Things are already
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,
education systems. These are all the new forms of the future...
It isn't that you
thing and then start another. So everybody engaged in recycling, in
projects, in communal living, in developing healthier systems for
and each other is engaged in building the new world while the old
collapses. Its collapse is inevitable. There is no way around
We must, for
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,
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
It's possible to do
healthy agriculture that's more productive than green revolution
and far, far more energy efficient and far, far less destructive.
So that is a place,
where our technology has been used totally inappropriately and purely
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,
technology is vital, so that we can connect self-sufficient living
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
in the bioregions working in healthy, organic community.
often talk about positive changes like recycling, solar energy, or
farming as if these are passing fads, the whims of a small minority of
people at the fringes of our culture.
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,
is only going to be labeled a "fad" by those whose interests it
It will never be labeled a fad by those who get to eat the food
in that way.
It's the same as
the idea of Gaia off as "just" a metaphor, when all
science is based on metaphor. Food production is done either in a
way or an unhealthy way. We know now that there are huge interests at
in producing food in unhealthy ways. Our television sets now tell us
one third of the chickens in Los Angeles are contaminated and yet
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
much more expensive to produce than organic food. But it's subsidized
the government. Again, we are not taking on the responsibility of
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
tell me something about what you are working on at the moment.
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
and good for people. Their natural-dyed weavings and arts, the wisdom
their elders, their language, these are all things we are trying to
I think that the world at large would benefit very much from learning
them. The Incas social organization was a kind of paternalistic welfare
state that guaranteed food and housing and jobs and didn't overwork
There are some positive things we can learn from that.
So I'm trying 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.
Tibetan lamas are coming there saying that there is a shift in energy
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
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
and ways of having people exchange information, music, and other
of culture around the globe as rapidly as possible toward
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
in the world, for example.
is the author of EarthDance: Living Systems in Evolution, Biology
Revisioned (co-authored with Willis Harman) and A Walk Through
(co-authored with Brian Swimme). She is a consultant expert on
peoples for the United Nations, a Findhorn fellow, and serves on the
board of the Institute for Sustainable Development and Alternative