Book Review

The Cooperative Universe

By I. M. Oderberg 

The universe exhibits a remarkable capacity to foster and sustain life forms. Even the deserts of our globe and the ocean floor, where heat bubbles up from the magma, provide homes for a surprising range of entities. When we pass flowers in a garden and feel drawn to one freshly opened, we pause and perhaps cup it between fingers, looking into its face: do we ever feel something we cannot name, a sense of wonder? Is it a delicate awareness of the innate cosmic urge to express beauty in growth? or the outflowing of consciousness that is the heart of the universe itself? Indeed, what is consciousness?

One of the new approaches to universal life and consciousness is that of Dr. George Greenstein, professor of astronomy at Amherst College, whose scientific expertise is presented with truly poetic feeling. In his recent book The Symbiotic Universe: Life and Mind in the Cosmos [William Morrow and company, Inc., New York, 1988; line drawings by Dolores R. Santoliquidi, 271 pages.], he examines his insight that "nature's extraordinary fitness for life must be sought . . . in the realm of existence itself." He explains that

in the fitness of the environment we are witnessing the effects of a gigantic symbiosis at work in the universe. Symbiosis, the mutual interdependency of two organisms, is widely known in biology, but the symbiosis envisaged here is different. The first partner in this new relationship is not an organism at all, but rather an inanimate structure: the physical universe as a whole. As for the second, it is alive but it is not any single organism. It is all organisms -- life itself.
And between the two there is a union. There is a great metaphysical dance by which each supports the other. How did it come to pass that against all odds the cosmos succeeded in bringing forth life? It had to. It had to in order to exist. -- p. 28

The idea of symbiosis has been known for a long time. Indeed, today study in this area is replacing the Darwinian concept taken from Whewell of competition or "survival of the fittest." Only recently has research begun to focus attention on what it is that organizes complex structures from simple, otherwise autonomous components. For instance, Lancelot L. Whyte in his Internal Factors in Evolution (1965) states that "an internal selection process acts directly on mutations, mainly at the molecular, chromosomal, and cellular levels, in terms not of struggle and competition, but of the system's capacity for coordinated activity" (p. 14). Professor Greenstein writes:

Even the simplest of organisms, a mite, an amoeba, or a bacterium, turns out to possess an enormous wealth of detail when examined carefully. There are no uncomplicated living beings. -- p. 34

Under the most stringent conditions plants and simple as well as complex forms of animal life have modified their original characteristics enabling them to transmit traits to succeeding generations. Instead of a long line of "provocative coincidences" to account for life forms of so multifarious a nature as are perceived, he examines what is called the Anthropic Principle [A term coined in 1974 by the British physicist Brandon Carter (from the Greek word anthropos, "man"). Dr. Greenstein explains: "anthropic studies are those aimed at elucidating the conditions required for mankind to arise within the universe" (p. 23).].

The only things that can be known are those compatible with the existence of knowers. That is the Anthropic Principle in its purest form. . . .
It involves a pretty trick of logic. Raise up your hand and look at it; you are observing yourself. But you are part of the universe -- as you look, the very cosmos is observing itself. -- pp. 47-8

This concept has caused controversy. It suggests that the adaptability of entities which makes existence possible is too wide-ranging to be attributable to mere coincidence, or to physical causes alone. Many of the harsh conditions out of which various entities seem to emerge could not conceivably provide an environment in which a series of coincidences could achieve the orderly growth and changes that are evident.

Among the many "provocative coincidences" Dr. Greenstein mentions, he points out that life as we see it needs elements that are heavier than hydrogen and helium. The requisite heavy elements are formed by nuclear processes in the core of stars, needing two separate "coincidental" resonances between the nuclei of helium and beryllium (pp. 41-4). And, also "coincidentally," precisely opposite charges of electrons and protons are necessary, or the imbalances in the overall electrical charge would result in the explosion of every object. Even the sun that is so essential to life on earth, depends upon the neutron particle outweighing the proton by a mere fraction of one percent! Yet this process involving the neutrons enables the stars to shine for immense periods of time!

In the vegetable kingdom of our globe, the chlorophyll on land and sea resonates with solar energy enabling the production of oxygen, a vital element. If the temperatures varied or were different than they are, the biochemical reactions needed for the manifestations of present life forms on earth would not be possible. The number of "coincidences" could be extended. They simply show us a universe fantastically hospitable to life.

Dr. Greenstein wonders where and when "seeds of life" originate, as the requirements for life are stringent both as to space and time. The centers of galaxies exhibit "complex, violent activity and tightly packed stars" but our solar system lies on the outskirts of a galaxy, the Milky Way, in a niche that favors life. He reflects:

High upon a mountain ridge, tiny white fluffs are blown before the wind. One passes close to me; grabbing it in my hand I find it is a tangle of fine white threads. From its base dangles a tiny seed.
Most of these seeds are scattered by the wind across the barren rock face. There they lodge, ultimately to wither away and die. One, however, by chance is blown into a tiny cleft between the boulders, a cleft in which some soil has accumulated. There that seed comes to rest. Several months later, were I to return this way, I'd find a flower there.
That is how the flower finds its niche. That is why it grows there. There's a question, though. If the Earth as a whole can be thought of as a niche, a niche in the solar system, a niche in the Milky Way Galaxy -- how did life find this out? If "now" is a niche, how did biological organization arise at the right time? What are the seeds, not just of flowers, but of life itself? How did they get there? -- p. 81

Along the lines of what is called "panspermia," a theory of the Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius that spores float among the stars and some landed on earth, Greenstein suggests that matter and energy are the "seeds of life." As matter and energy are everywhere, the seeds were here all along.

He reflects on the murmur of surf, the breezes, the warmth brought by sunrise, and other experiences and sensations gained from "this immense good Earth," and concludes that our "entire planet might be considered a seed, a single gigantic seed that has borne fruit" (p. 82).

The train of thought moves on from there to "a mystery, a great and profound mystery, . . . and one of immense significance: the utterly unexpected habitability of the cosmos."

What matters is that niches exist -- and this is the mystery. The habitability of an environment is compounded of two parts. The first, included under the aegis of the weak Anthropic Principle, has to do with being in the right place, and although certainly important there is nothing particularly remarkable about this. It is within the second of these two parts, covered by the stronger form of the Anthropic Principle, that the problem arises: with the existence of niches. -- pp. 84-5

These niches are the conditions that enable life's growth.

After considering space and the dimensions we associate with it, the author points to the remarkable properties of the three-dimensional pattern that seems the rule of orderliness. The orbits of planets would be unstable if there were more than three dimensions, while anything less than three would scramble the orderly communication so crucial to living beings. Reality chose the ideal number.

How did the universe do it? Physicists have not the slightest idea. No theory known to science comes close to explaining the mystery of space itself. Is space even subject to natural laws? Or is it an accident? If so, if reality chose the number three randomly, pulled it out of a hat, so to speak, it did so from an infinite range of possibilities. And the odds of doing that successfully are zero. -- pp. 15-16

The search for new data is constant, leading to new insights. Perhaps what we need is to look at the data already accumulated, with fresh insight or from a new viewpoint. We have so far perceived only the outer skin of the universe, for indeed the phenomena filling our perceptions arise from invisible causes. In a sense, what we see and reflect upon represents the automatic side of life-activity: the human heartbeats but replicate on the small scale the rhythmic pulsations of the solar entity. Heisenberg and more recent physicists have drawn attention to the possibility that the universe operates through one energy rather than many. Modern theosophy and ancient tradition suggest that what appear to be many energies are actually variations of one adapting to local conditions rather like variations on a theme in music.

Dr. Greenstein tells us that

Magnificent ideas are in the offing, and profound insights. For the first time in history a modern, scientific theory proclaiming the underlying unity of all things may be within reach. Connections are being drawn between the structure of elementary particles on the one hand and that of the universe on the other, between the ultimate nature of matter and the moment of creation itself. -- p. 179

Some scientists are looking again at the concept of that moment of creation, the Big Bang, and are facing the issue of preceding conditions: what natural laws operated before the event that caused creation to take the shape we assume it did, as we study present conditions and try to penetrate into events hidden in the remote past beyond imagination. One thing is certain: all Earth's inhabitants are part and parcel of a great river of lives that animate the cosmos, even the most material particles pulsating with life as they have their being in larger organisms.

(From Sunrise magazine, August/September 1989; copyright © 1989 Theosophical University Press)

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