A New Relationship with the Living Earth

Abstract from a talk by Dr Rupert Sheldrake at the Gaia Foundation, June 2007. Written by Stephen Frank.

Dr Rupert Sheldrake is a biologist who studied natural sciences at Cambridge and philosophy at Harvard where he was a Frank Knox Fellow. He is the author of nine books and more than 75 technical papers. His most recent book is The Sense of Being Stared At and Other Aspects of the Extended Mind (Hutchinson, 2003). Rupert Sheldrake is the current Perrot-Warrick Scholar and a Fellow of the Institute of Noetic Science, San Francisco.

In the Middle Ages the belief that nature was alive still prevailed throughout Europe. This belief began to disappear during the eighteenth century Enlightenment when people started thinking that reason, based on empirical observation, was the only accurate tool for judgments about reality; science and its experimental method prevailed. Today, Dr Rupert Sheldrake thinks that science is returning to the understanding that we're all part of a living earth.

The Enlightenment understood God as a creator, external to his creation. With reason in the driving seat, nature was seen to be ruled by a rigid determinism, with everything, in principle, predictable. The Earth was just a rock hurtling around the sun in accordance with Newton's laws of motion. The creation was a giant clockwork machine inexorably going through its predestined motions. The machine was the dominant metaphor of science and anything not seen like this was regarded as unscientific: the eye was a camera, the heart a pump, and later, the brain was seen as a computer. The basis of nineteenth century rationalism was that nature could be fully known by science and that we would finally understand everything. Paradoxically, against this background, human progress was taken for granted by all enlightened intellectuals. Similarly today, secular humanists believe we represent the only form of consciousness in the universe (although some say that cats, dogs and dolphins have a little too!) This presupposes that everything in the universe, apart from us, is unconscious.

At the beginning of the twentieth century many scientist were then deeply shocked when it was discovered that at atomic and subatomic levels you simply cannot predict with accuracy what will happen. Things seem to happen spontaneously within a range of possibilities. For instance, you cannot predict when a particular atom of Uranium will decay - it may be in a thousand years, a million years, or in the next second; it is not at all determined. Even the idea that nature is made up of solid atoms - little bits of matter that endure forever - has been overthrown. Atoms are now seen to be vibratory structures of activity in ceaseless motion within fields of energy- pulsating nuclei surrounded by electron clouds. Energy and vibrations - you simply can't precisely determine where anything is.

In the course of the twentieth century, it became clear that most of nature is like this. The weather, waves breaking on a shore, the turbulence of flowing water in rivers - none can be accurately described by deterministic science. There seems to be a level of spontaneity, indeterminism and creativity at every level and not the unfolding of a rigidly determined plan. The only predictable things in nature are man-made machines, and even they aren't always predictable, as we know to our cost! Karl Popper said that through modern science materialism has transcended itself, because matter is no longer its fundamental explanatory principle. Fields and energy are. Science itself is leading us away from a mechanical view of nature towards a much more organic view of a living world. Nature is alive, living, organic.

Like the ancient myth of the hatching of the cosmic egg, the theory of the Big Bang also demonstrates something very different to the mechanistic idea of the universe. Starting extremely small, the universe has been growing ever since its beginning. As it grows, it cools down. As it cools, new forms of organisation and patterns come into being, including atoms, molecules, stars, galaxies, elements, crystals and biological life. This is more like an embryo than a machine - no machine starts out tiny, grows, and forms new structures. The idea that the earth was an inert ball of rock hurtling around the sun is being replaced with the idea of Gaia. We now have an organic cosmology of a growing, evolving universe. Evolution implies creativity - new things constantly happen as evolution unfolds. Science is recovering the sense of living nature that includes a view of freedom, indeterminism and spontaneity on every level. We are rediscovering Mother Earth. The Gaia Hypothesis tells us what we've really known all along.

Dr Rupert Sheldrake believes that many ancient archetypal themes were driven into the unconscious by the rationalism of the Enlightenment and that these need to be brought back into consciousness again to establish a new relationship with a living earth. For instance, he understands our western materialism - the cult of consumerism, consumption and money - as an unconscious cult of the Great Mother. Mater, Latin for mother, and 'material', have common roots; the word 'economy', on which everything depends in the modern world, comes from the Greek, oeconomia, meaning 'household management' - again, the realm of the feminine. The economy is driven by supply and demand: the only organ in the body that also adheres to this principle is the breasts. Money too was originally seen in many ancient traditions as an aspect of the Great Mother - the pouring out of the riches of the earth: Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth, is often depicted as holding two vases like enormous breasts, out of which gold coins pour. Nature is often referred to as Mother Nature and the word 'nature' itself - the source of all life - comes from the Latin, natus, meaning birth, to be born. Nature is ever giving birth.

Another area that Sheldrake suggests resurrecting from the unconscious is pilgrimage, which he thinks has been replaced by tourism. Most tourist destinations are, in fact, ancient sacred sites: Stonehenge, the Great Pyramid, temples and cathedrals. The problem is, as tourists, we don't know what to do when we get there. As post-Enlightenment intellectuals we are supposed to be interested in facts and figures, and so guides appear telling us how many tons of stone there are, when it was built and which kings reigned - information that goes in one ear and out the other because that's not really why we are there. We are there because it's a sacred place. But what to do? Say a prayer? Most of us can't do that. We are modern enlightened rational people who have risen above superstition. And so we are left unsatisfied. In the paradigm shift that is happening now we might begin to consider that when we travel we are seeking the experience of pilgrimage. Of course in these days of Global Warming we need less tourism, not more, but we could have higher quality travelling, if we travelled in the spirit of pilgrimage.

All religions relate us to the Earth and Heavens. Each reminds us that we are part of something larger than ourselves. All stem from direct mystical insights of a greater form of consciousness beyond our own. Religions are about our place in the world, our relationship to other people, and our relationship to the whole of creation. Every religion has something within it that touches on our concern with nature. This relationship with nature is being re-examined within many religions in an attempt to help change people's attitude to the environment. This ties in to the movement to re-assess the relationship indigenous traditions have to nature and to bring this out in a modern context. The idea that we could, through our own activity, transform our relationship to the earth, was not something that crossed the minds of even the most scientifically educated people until a few decades ago. We have always taken the fullness of the earth and its continuity more or less for granted. This is a new situation for scientists, religious people, traditional cultures and modern scientific ones. Sheldrake believes we do need science, we need reason, but they're not enough on their own.

The more we recover a sense of the sacredness of the earth and the universe, the more we can see that our own activities, based on consumerism, competitiveness and greed are not the way to continue. We really don't need as much as we think we do. Becoming conscious again of the numerous archetypal patterns that have always been there in our relationship to our earth - albeit hidden in the unconscious for many centuries - would surely facilitate this paradigm shift we're all experiencing.

Dr Rupert Sheldrake's website is www.sheldrake.org