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100 Years of Sri Aurobindo on Evolution (complete text with links)
100 Years of Sri Aurobindo on Evolution
As the celebrations of the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origins of Species take place this year, it is easy to overlook the fact that 2009 also marks the 100th anniversary of Sri Aurobindo's first major text on evolution and consciousness. In Process and Evolution and Yoga and Human Evolution (1909) Sri Aurobindo begins to comprehensively articulate his vision of human evolution. Just as Darwin's book became the foundation for a science of evolution, what has been called evolutionary spirituality can be traced back to Sri Aurobindo's work. Many are acknowledging this bicentennial year of Darwin's birth with a reassessment of his work in light of what we now know about evolution it therefore, also seems to be a good time to reassess Sri Aurobindo's vision of human evolution in terms of our contemporary understanding of the phenomena.
To do this in any systematic way requires a consideration of the development of Sri Aurobindo's perspective on biological evolution, human progress, and human unity. Although his view of science and its limits does not seem to have change appreciably during the period from 1909 to 1949, his view of “human progress” seems to have become decidedly less optimistic and chastened over time. While not denying that the “yoga of the divine mother” or “nature's yoga” is still striving to achieve human unity in latter years his tone becomes decidedly anti-humanist as he declares human progress to be most probably an illusion! Even though his view of history is essentially cyclic he starts his consideration of evolution by writing in Yoga and Human Evolution the following:
“ Whether we take the modern scientific or the ancient Hindu standpoint the progress of humanity is a fact.”(Aurobindo 1909)
However, by the early1940s when he is revising the last chapters of The Life Divine he writes:
“the idea of human progress itself is very probably an illusion, for there is no sign that man, once emerged from the animal stage, has radically progressed during his race-history; at most he has advanced in knowledge of the physical world, in Science, in the handling of his surroundings, in his purely external and utilitarian use of the secret laws of Nature “ (Aurobindo 1949 p832)
In his 1949 postscript to The Ideal of Human Unity however, he seems to contradict the last quote in acknowledging the drive of nature toward human unity is inevitable:
“We conclude then that in the conditions of the
world at present, even taking into consideration its most disparaging
features and dangerous possibilities, there is nothing that need
alter the view we have taken of the necessity and inevitability of
some kind of world-union; the drive of Nature, the compulsion of
circumstances and the present and future need of mankind make it
inevitable. “(Aurobindo 1949)
How does one reconcile the idea of an evolution
toward human unity which seems to be progressive with the development of human progress that is in Sri Aurobindo's view circular? This is
one issue that will be explored in this paper which attempts to
reconcile Sri Aurobindo's seemingly contradictory claims that while
nature is propelling human society toward unity that human progress itself at best is circular and probably an illusion.
Before beginning however, it is important is to understand that the language and many of the concepts about evolution Sri Aurobindo employs are borrowed from the early 20th century. If one does not allow for this some serious misunderstandings can arise. For example, although his view of society and civilization is always tempered by the voice of the subaltern, the colonialist subject demanding liberation, it is also true that in his earlier writing Sri Aurobindo's perspective on evolution seem to reflect the Edwardian values of the day. His evolutionary theories at times echo the voice of Herbert Spencer with regards to the progressive advance of civilization and the benefits it bestows on the “backward” races.
This paper seeks to penetrate the language and
concepts Sri Aurobindo employs by making explicit a hermeneutic
approach that attempts to extrapolate his thoughts from the early
20th century to the present. While interpreting Sri Aurobindo's
writing in terms of contemporary theory is wrought with problems, it
is essential if we are to develop a platform for dialog between his
writings and today's complex understanding of evolution.
There are several contemporary perspectives on
evolution that will be compared and contrasted to Sri Aurobindo's
work. The extremes of these positions are the orthodox Darwinian
view that essentially reduces evolution to genes and algorithms and
the theory known as Intelligent Design, that supposes a
transcendental creator stands behind the phenomena of the world.
While orthodox Darwinism has roots in modernism, Intelligent Design,
although borrowing arguments from modern science, finds it
intellectual predecessors in the pre-modern era.
While rejecting that either of these extremes would resonate with Sri Aurobindo other contemporary theories are found to be not so distant. Regards biological evolution we discover that in fact Sri Aurobindo seems to have anticipated recent developments in theories of evolution that concern punctuated equilibrium, symbiosis, complexity and emergence. With respect to his view of evolution, science and society his thoughts do not stray far from the constructionist approach to science that incorporates a dialectical approach to systems theory. One prominent example of this approach to science is called dialectical biology. I find common ground between the two in their understanding of the dialectics between science and culture. In this respect Sri Aurobindo can be shown as having anticipatated some post-modern theories of science.
Although separated by the epistemic gap between
modernism and post-modernism both Sri Aurobindo's dialectic of spirit
and matter and the dialectic of science and culture share a common
attempt to pry open the binary dimensions of whole/part
organism/environment matter/mind. Both appreciate differences then
through observation and experience set about to re-integrate
contraries within a vast web of interconnections. The sense of
interconnectedness is an underpinning of both dialectical approaches to systems theory and
While spirit and matter do not meet in this paper, I believe it is possible to follow a few threads that do intertwine to get at an intelligible scientific account of evolution by reflecting on how spirit and biology both intersect through culture. By referencing dialectic essays on science that highlight the grave problems implicit in the claims of, what can be called, Darwinian fundamentalist which reduce organism to gene, nature to algorithm, culture to analogs of natural selection I believe one can find patterns consistent with the principle social text of Sri Aurobindo to enable the evaluation of today's scientific truth claims in context of a contemporary practice of integral yoga.
I also show that in the way he situates science within the dialectic of history and culture that Sri Aurobindo's perspective remains complex enough to fold within it a contemporary dialog on science and culture given by today's most brilliant theorist. To do this it is indispensable to find common intellectual genealogies both share, these I believe can be traced back to Hegel, Marx and Nietzsche.
The correspondences of the above philosophers with Sri Aurobindo's work I find to be as follows: Hegel with the Ideal of Human Unity, Marx with references to science and culture in the Human Cycle, Nietzsche with his formulation of the Superman in the Life Divine and other texts. Although I do not ignore the qualitative differences between these thinkers the goal of this paper is to find mutual platforms of understanding to begin a wider dialog between Sri Aurobindo's work and contemporary theory.
Although not ignoring the incommensurable dimension of discourse or the gulf that separates the meta-physician from the biologist, the cosmic from the empirical, I will avoid reducing either spiritual or scientific perspectives in terms of one another. That said while being careful to honor and separate the domains of the scientific from the spiritual my hope is that it will be possible to open up a cultural space for dialog between two otherwise "nonoverlapping magisteria".
This paper has six chapters and due to its length
will be serialized on SCIY. These chapters are :
The purpose of this paper is not to determine an ultimate truth. Rather I offer an interpretation based on my own readings and sensibilities. That said I welcome any ideas, beliefs, or comments that can contribute to its project of shedding light of the contemporary relationship between Sri Aurobindo with science and culture.
I personally find it disconcerting that while
thousands claim to be devoted followers of Sri Aurobindo and hail him
as either a spiritual master and tens of thousands more regards him as a major cultural figure in India,
that I have not seen one paper yet that acknowledges this 100th
anniversary of his writing on evolution or any systematic comparative
study between his work and contemporary ideas on the matter. The
relevance of someones cultural legacy after their death is only kept
alive by others who find inspiration in their work. This is
especially true in writings on evolution, a subject that by its very
nature changes over time. If this paper merely serves to begin a
wider dialog on this issue then it will have served its purpose.
I) Why Sri Aurobindo would not believe in Intelligent Design
(Intelligent Design vs. Real-Idea)
While the purpose Sri Aurbindo gives to evolution lends it directionality and transcendence. The fact that he presents a teleology as central to his views does not necessarily mean that his perspective squares with the contemporary theory known as Intelligent Design. Sri Aurobindo's teleology does not square with the fundamentalist view of the religions in the Abrahamic tradition, all of whom have found a common cause in the ideology of intelligent design, and who dismiss evolutionary biology because they find it threatening to their faith.
Before going further it should be stated that in this paper intelligent design will be treated as “creationism” because, even though intelligent design is a theory supposedly put forward by disinterested scientist, it is no small coincidence that many of these scientist are being financed by people and organizations like the Discovery Institute who believe strongly in creationism and support scientific conclusions that bolster their ideology with funding. In the case of the Discovery Institute their primary goal in providing funding to scientist is to support “a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions”.
While Sri Aurobindo does not buy into
its materialist reduction of life, and openly voices his objection
to the chauvinism of science, he does keep open the possibility
that certain Darwinian mechanisms such as natural selection are at
work in evolution, even if they can not by themselves fully account
for it. While acknowledging the limitations of science he certainly
does not seem to find its theories that diverge from his own
threatening, rather he contextualizes them in accordance with his own
integral comprehension of the world. In the following passage in his
essay on Materialism (1915) he defers to science by referencing a
Materialistic science had the courage to look at this universal truth with level eyes, to accept it calmly as a starting point and to inquire whether it was not after all the whole formula of universal being. Physical science must necessarily to its own first view be materialistic, because so long as it deals with the physical, it has for its own truth's sake to be physical both in its standpoint and method”
Unlike religious fundamentalist one can not imagine him leading a fight to ban the teaching of Darwinian evolution in the public schools. Moreover, although one can imagine Sri Aurobindo engaging in civil disputes over the control of educational agendas with religious fundamentalist his work presents even greater metaphysical differences with those religious groups who lobby for intelligent design.
The significant metaphysical problem with intelligent design visa vie Sri Aurobindo’s accounts of evolution is in the implicit dualism that intelligent design raises. Given his appeal to Supermind or Real-Idea to reconcile the dialectic of spirit and matter, in which spirit evolves out of the heart of matter itself, one can reasonably conclude that Sri Aurobindo's metaphysical perspective would not square with anything that could be called intelligent design; at the very least it would have to be called “supra-intelligent design”.
Intelligent design by necessity requires an intelligent designer or the positing of a creator who stands outside of their creation, as an inventor would from her invention. By contrast Sri Aurobindo's envisages evolution as Lila, or play, that seems to place the creator square in the middle of creation; indeed creation is a game of self-finding. By combining evolution with play Sri Aurobindo introduces an element of contingency or uncertainty into the equation of creation that does not mesh with the perfect designs of creationist.
The central theme of evolution that Sri Aurobindo poses, that of the emergence from ignorance to knowledge, intuits a destining of species that is not comprehensible by reference to a designer distinct from the creation being design; as creationist account of intelligent design suggest. While intelligent design narratives maybe consistent with the creation stories of the Abrahamic tradition they do not square well with Sri Aurobindo's view in which evolution is a divine process of self-becoming.
Additionally, while Sri
Aurobindo's metaphysical perspective diverges from that of
intelligent design, one also supposes that his ability to comprehend
what constitutes its ideological social agenda would be as important
a factor in his rejection of it. Given his critical perspective on
religion and society he speaks to in such texts as the The Human
Cycle he would certainly understand the ideological dangers of
embracing current theories associated with intelligent design.
Theories of intelligent design are put forth to support an outright
attempt to further the social agenda of right wing Christian based
Sri Aurobindo who was brought up in England in the midst of a conservative Protestant household would have been very familiar with the the anti-Darwinist agenda of some conservative Christian denominations. Today the social agenda of right wing fundamentalist groups is a political force that has far reaching implications. Many contemporary commentators such as the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Chris Hedges and conservative political theorist Kevin Phillips have made the association between Fascism and the Christian Right. If anything Sri Aurobindo's political writings show no trace of being persuaded by any Fascist argument it should therefore, be safe to assume that he would be suspicious of the agenda of the intelligent design movement.
What follows is a passage from the Human Cycle which demonstrates Sri Aurobindo's perspective on the intolerance of Christianity in its persecution of science”
“The individualistic age of Europe was in its beginning a revolt of reason, in its culmination a triumphal progress of physical Science. Such an evolution was historically inevitable. The dawn of individualism is always a questioning, a denial. The individual finds a religion imposed upon him which does not base its dogma and practice upon a living sense of ever verifiable spiritual Truth, but on the letter of an ancient book, the infallible dictum of a Pope, the tradition of a Church, the learned casuistry of schoolmen and Pundits, conclaves of ecclesiastics, heads of monastic orders, doctors of all sorts, all of them unquestionable tribunals whose sole function is to judge and pronounce, but none of whom seems to think it necessary or even allowable to search, test, prove, inquire, discover. He finds that, as is inevitable under such a regime, true science and knowledge are either banned, punished and persecuted or else rendered obsolete by the habit of blind reliance on fixed authorities; even what is true in old authorities is no longer of any value, because its words are learnedly or ignorantly repeated but its real sense is no longer lived except at most by a few. In politics he finds everywhere divine rights, established privileges, sanctified tyrannies which are evidently armed with an oppressive power and justify themselves by long prescription, but seem to have no real claim or title to exist. “(Aurobindo 1972 p16)
As previously stated so called scientific theories of intelligent design often simply present a facade for creationist teaching. Although some Christian organizations have called on scientist not affiliated with their religious faith to discount evolutionary biology these scientist certainly represent a minority view in the scientific community at large. For instance, the faith based Discovery Institute, who is on the forefront of arguing that creationism be taught in American public school, has chosen to employ several scientist, some of whom claim to be atheist, to argue in support of their position.
In all likelihood the Discovery
Institute has chosen such scientist with special intent because
matters of faith notwithstanding, the very fact that they are
marketed as “objective scientist” lends them a certain
credibility with secular law makers. The Christian Right who are well
skilled at playing politics are certainly savvy enough to know it is
best to turn science and its inevitable conflicting theories back
upon themselves when these conflicts can serve their socio political
Finally, a distinction should be made between intelligent design and the anthropic principle: the theory that the presence of life on earth places limits on the many ways the universe could have developed. While the anthropic principle can be used by the intelligent design movement to support its cause it can equally be employed by non-religious scientist as a way to explain the structure of our universe from first principles. A belief in the anthropic principle does not require one to posit a theological creator and many credible scientist entertain it. In short, one can believe in the anthropic principle while rejecting intelligent design.
While it is quite possible that Sri Aurobindo might have been sympathetic to arguments for the anthropic principle, its also possible that he would have validated the principal by stating the argument that because humans exists we observe a universe consistent with our existence; perhaps he would have argued for both.
While Sri Aurobindo undoubtedly believed that human life on Earth was special, I will only add that even if we are to believe that our universal environment is uncannily adapted to evolve life, specifically human life on Earth, any specific metaphysical conclusions do not necessarily follow. The anthropic principle in itself would still not mean we humans are necessarily special in any way or signal that life on Earth was one of a kind. Why? Because science also posits an infinity of universes and we have no way of knowing what goes on in all of these. If there were life everywhere in the universe would it follow that life on Earth was necessarily special? Moreover, String Theory tell us there are multiple dimensions and one would have to first chart all these in detail to lend life on Earth any special status.
his part, as I understand it, Sri Aurobindo believes the Earth to be
unique in the special evolutionary role of the psychic being.
But even if it were found that life on our planet is special in some sense, humans share the Earth was a myriad of other life forms. If conditions on Earth make human life ideal, how much more so does it support the life of the cockroach, who has existed on it way longer than human beings. So if the anthropic principle merely argues that conditions are inexplicably favorable to support of life on Earth since we don't really have a cockroach metaphysics - other than perhaps in Kafka- it would be hard to know which forms of life our universe really favor.
As far as Sri Aurobindo is concerned the Earth is unique in the evolutionary role of the soul or psychic being.
Good scientific theories usually have the following things:
And I would add to this:
* lead to reproducible experiments that can empirically verify the claims it makes.
For the purposes of this paper however, although not suggesting that his is an entirely fail safe system, I will use Karl Popper's falsifiability criterion as a standard for verifying truth claims. Popper put forward this criterion as a critique and replacement for the “verifiability criterion” of logical-positivism. It will be used as a method to separate what we suppose to be “good science” from “bad science” or mere ideology. To the extent that an evolutionary narrative can be considered scientific is to the extent it can be falsified or “the logical possibility that an assertion can be shown false by an observation or a physical experiment a.k.a through common experience of it”
For Kipling, the elephant got its trunk because a crocodile pulled on it. Does this mean that elephant trunks occurred as an adaptation due to hungry crocodiles? Maybe, maybe not because it is a hypothesis that cant be proven. It is “just so”.
Evolutionary psychology seizes on a
given trait in members of contemporary society and make up a just so
story using analogs to Darwinian mechanisms -that inevitably concern
survival - . So language evolves as follows:‘ We talk by making
noises and not by waving our hands because hunter-gatherers living in
the Savannah would have had trouble seeing one another in the tall
grass.’ There is no way to falsify the above statement.
The mechanism of natural selection to explain environmental adaptation has held up remarkably well over the past 150 years. Even the claim by creationist that one can not falsify the fossil record on which Neo-Darwinism depends is not wholly true. The fossil record is constantly under interrogation and paradigm shifts do occur. The Cambrian Explosion in which the most complex forms of animal life seem to have appeared 530 million years ago has caused much scientific debate and was thought by Darwin as the single biggest objection to his gradualist theory of evolutionary descent. Since then there have been many theories that have been proposed to account for the rapid explosion of life. Recently the theory of punctuated equilibrium developed in the early 1970s proposed a view that evolution over long intervals is nearly static and "punctuated" by short periods of rapid change.
This theory has forced many scientist to adopt more complex ways of conceiving evolution than simple reductive narratives would allow. Its must not follow that all scientist will agree on a single paradigm and in this instance the debate between reductionist and constructionist perspectives of evolution has been one of the most lively in science. Most notably, Daniel Dennet representing the former and Stephen Jay Gould the latter. However most scientist no longer view evolutionary descent as reducible to the simple selection at the genetic level.
Recently the finding of the fossil remains of the hobbit man on an island east of Bali has forced anthropologist and paleontologist to rethink human history from the relatively short span of time from ten to fifteen thousand years ago. Although there is no doubt that the paradigms that establish what Thomas Kuhn called “Normal Science” are so ideologically and professionally entrenched on the Universities as to make them hard to displace most paradigms and scientific theories do eventual fade away. This is in fact is considered the strength of science, its singular ability to demonstrate over time ever increasing understanding of phenomena.
Although there is a huge philosophical chasm that separates Gould as a scientist who denies teleology from Sri Aurobindo's spiritual teleology, just the fact that he constructs a theory that integrates consideration of both organism with environment into it, would seem a vision of evolution closer to an integral view than the reductionist strategies of what Gould calls Darwinian Fundamentalism.
To understand the difference between the pluralist approach of Stephen Gould and his colleague Richard Lewontin and the reductionist accounts of Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins is important if one wishes to know some of the stark differences between scientist who study evolution. What follows is a short but important history of the feud between Gould and Dennet in which Gould responded to Dennett in an article written for the New York Review of Books called the Pleasures of Pluralism (aka non-reductionism) and accused both Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins of being Darwinian Fundamentalist.
“Dennett had earlier written a
feisty attack on theories of Gould, Lewontin, Noam Chomsky, and
Stuart Kauffman, who reject a strict selectionist account of
evolution and the origin of mind and language. Dennett, in his NYR,
letter speaks of Gould's "non-revolutions," claiming that
Gould's alternatives to genic selectionism are empty. Gould claims
that speciation (the rise of new species) differs in its mechanism
from the sort of gradualistic changes observed in the genetics
laboratory. Gould also claims that macroevolution, the major main
trends evolution, depends in large part of species selection rather
than individual or genic selection, thus operating at a different
level from the microevolution or the sort observed with breeding
fruit-flies. Furthermore, Gould denies selectionism, claiming that
many traits have not been selected for and are not particularly
adaptive, and coins the term "exaptation" to characterize
the functioning of a trait which was not previously selected for or
adaptive. He claims this is different from the previous, orthodox
neo-Darwinist claim of "preadaptation" where a trait
previously selected for one function or adapted to one environment is
later selected for another function in a different environment.
Dennett denies exaptation differs from preadaptation and accuses
Gould of tooting his own horn by inventing a new term for a
well-known idea. Gould claims that exaptive traits were not
previously selected for, and that preadapted traits were so selected
for some other function. (Dusek)
These are the four main points that Stephen Jay Gould makes to dispute the reductionist arguments for natural selection.
Here is part of a response made by Stephen Jay Gould to Daniel Dennett in a well publicized letter that followed the article that was well publicized in The New York Review of Books:
So if natural selection builds all of evolution, without the interposition of auxiliary processes or intermediary complexities, then I suppose that evolution is algorithmic too. But—and here we encounter Dennett's disabling error once again—evolution includes so much more than natural selection that it cannot be algorithmic in Dennett's simple calculational sense. Yet Dennett yearns to subsume all the phenomenology of nature under the limited aegis of adaptation as an algorithmic result of natural selection. He writes: "Here, then, is Darwin's dangerous idea: the algorithmic level is the level that best accounts for the speed of the antelope, the wing of the eagle, the shape of the orchid, the diversity of species, and all the other occasions for wonder in the world of nature" (Dennett's italics). I will grant the antelope's run, the eagle's wing, and much of the orchid's shape—for these are adaptations, produced by natural selection, and therefore legitimately in the algorithmic domain. But can Dennett really believe his own imperialistic extensions? Is the diversity of species no more than a calculational consequence of natural selection? Can anyone really believe, beyond the hype of rhetoric, that "all the other occasions for wonder in the world of nature" flow from adaptation? (Gould 1997)
Gould and Dennett's battle notwithstanding on how much of evolution can be solely attributed to natural selection, the state of the art in contemporary molecular biology that concerns the actual mechanisms that cause mutations in genetic evolution is called evo-devo and combines studies of species evolution -evo– with studies of individual development -devo-.
An excellent overview of Evo-Devo is to be found in an article written by Israel Rosenfield and Edward Ziff. entitled Evolving Evolution which is a review of two recent books on the subject by Sean Carroll, Marc Kirschner and John Gerhart. What follows are a few excerpts from this article:
In 1894, the English biologist William Bateson challenged Darwin's view that evolution was gradual. He published Materials for the Study of Variation, a catalog of abnormalities he had observed in insects and animals in which one body part was replaced with another. He described, for example, a mutant fly with a leg instead of an antenna on its head, and mutant frogs and humans with extra vertebrae. The abnormalities Bateson discovered resisted explanation for much of the twentieth century. But in the late 1970s, studies by Edward Lewis at the California Institute of Technology, Christiana Nüsslein-Vollhard and Eric Wieschaus in Germany, and others began to reveal that the abnormalities were caused by mutations of a special set of genes in fruit fly embryos that controlled development of the fly's body and the distribution of its attached appendages. Very similar genes, exercising similar controls, were subsequently found in nematodes, flies, fish, mice, and human beings.
What they and others discovered were genes that regulate the development of the embryo and exert control over other genes by mechanisms analogous to that of the repressor molecule studied by Monod and Jacob. Eight of these controlling genes, called Hox genes, are found in virtually all animals—worms, mice, and human beings—and they have existed for more than half a billion years. Fruit flies and worms have only one set of eight Hox genes; fish and mammals (including mice, elephants, and humans) have four sets. Each set of Hox genes in fish and mammals is remarkably similar to the eight Hox genes found in fruit flies and worms. This discovery showed that very similar genes control both embryological and later development in virtually all insects and animals...............
According to this theory, the mutations, or variations, needed to drive evolutionary change can occur with little disruption either to the basic organization of an organism or to the core processes that make its cells function.” (Rosenfield Ziff 2006)
A common set of genes that is shared by all life forms that would seem responsible for all mutations and embryological morphology would in itself not be inconsistent with a perspective favoring an integral view of life.
The next section of this paper demonstrates that, in his own way, Sri Aurobindo anticipated some of today's predominate scientific theories on biological evolution as well as presented a view about the meaning of human evolution that in its secular aspects is consistent with contemporary social theory.
III) Anticipating Science & Society
One thing that can be said
non-metaphorically about that the way Sri Aurobindo practiced yoga
was that it was scientific. The perfection of his sadhana was a feat
that required experimentation and one in which he sought demonstrable
results. It should reasonably follow that his perspective on science
would be one in which its truth claims were open to critical
interrogation, just as were his experiments in yoga.
If we take the above the quotation
regards the collapse of the “materialistic statement” as
envisaging a future of science we have to equally understand the
respect he accorded it in his own day:
His prophecy concerning the collapse of a materialistic science seems to clearly not to have come to pass some eighty four years after his forecast. This is especially true if one regards the reductionist formulas of evolutionary biology and most traditional neo-Darwinian accounts of evolution as paradigmatic. In fact, some may argue after reading the works of Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett that we may now be farther away from a non-material science than when Sri Aurobindo penned his prophecy. In fact, we maybe farther away from the logical proof that begins the Life Divine, then when he wrote:.
“We speak of the evolution of Life in Matter, the evolution of Mind in Matter; but evolution is a word which merely states the phenomenon without explaining it. For there seems to be no reason why Life should evolve out of material elements or Mind out of living form, unless we accept the Vedantic solution that Life is already involved in Matter and Mind in Life because in essence Matter is a form of veiled Life, Life a form of veiled Consciousness. And then there seems to be little objection to a farther step in the series and the admission that mental consciousness may itself be only a form and a veil of higher states which are beyond Mind.” (Aurobindo 1949 p3)
Indeed the most recent contemporary
narratives that scientific tells points back to materialism as its
first and final cause. But things might be changing.
Reductionism is no longer the only scientific game in town and
in fact other evolutionary narratives are being written that move in
an opposite direction, from simple reductionism to principles of
complexity and emergence to help explain nature. Such narratives can
be gathered from the new science of complexity.
An analysis of complexity theory is
beyond the scope of this paper although it will prove useful in
helping to conceptualize Sri Aurobindo's later thoughts on the
process of physical and vital evolution, which will be done in the
next section of this paper..Before getting into complexity theory
however, lets consider his thoughts on the mechanisms of evolutionary
biology and in so doing we will discover that in fact he seems to
have anticipated some of the more recent developments in our current
understanding of evolution.
it could be interpreted to reference the role culture has come to play in human evolution. Because it is certainly true that cultural processes of development -the passing on of cultural heritage from one generation to the next-are Lamarckian, especially if one considers the exponential developments of science that builds rapidly on past scientific knowledge.
But of course one can not decouple
Sri Aurobindo's perspective of physical evolution (visible) from the
evolution of the soul through rebirth (invisible) and he writes in
the same essay on evolution: “Heredity is only a material shadow
of soul-reproduction, of the rebirth of Life and Mind into new
When Sri Aurobindo references what he calls “invisible evolution” his view of the matter are incommensurable with any empirical discipline of science. Confronted with this incommensurable way of knowing the world one could decide either to leave the matter here, if one wishes to satisfy oneself solely with a spiritual perspective (invisible evolution) and make a religion of his teaching or, if one wishes to understand him in a more integral manner could simply restate Sri Aurobindo's assertion from the same year in his essay on Materialism (1915) that to understand (visible) evolution science by necessity must:
For example, Sri Aurobindo’s
view of evolution does not suffer from the positivist gradualism of
his day in which Darwinian evolution is ordered. He protests the
materialist theory supposes a rigid chain of material necessity; each
previous condition is a co-ordination of so many manifest forces and
conditions; each resulting condition is its manifest result”
the simple “one way transmission of heredity” (1915) If
anything the progression of species proceeds by broken symmetry
He also seems to anticipate a view of species evolution which first became articulated in the scientific literature of Ernest Mayr's, peripatric speciation in 1954 but which only gained widespread recognition in the 1970s in the theory of punctuated equilibrium in the pioneering work of Stephen J Gould, and Niles Eldridge in 1971.
Sri Aurobindo writes in his essay on
In society and politics it has led to the substitution of the evolutionary for the moral idea of progress and the consequent materialization of social ideas and social progress, the victory of the economic man over the idealist. The scientific dogma of heredity, the theory of the recent emergence of the thinking human animal, the popular notion of the all-pervading struggle for life and the aid it has given to an exaggerated development of the competitive instinct”, (1915)
yet, he also knows
that the metaphor could be as easily invoked by Communist to imagine
the ideal state
the idea of the social organism and the aid it has given to the contrary development of economic socialism and the increasing victory of the organized Sate or community over the free individual, - all these are outflowings from the same source.” (1915)
the most striking similarities between Sri Aurobindo's view of
evolution and contemporary science are perhaps to be found in the
field known as complexity theory. The following section will
introduce Sri Aurobindo's ideas of inner (invisible) and outer
(visible evolution) while drawing analogies with the current science
of complexity theory.
IV) Complexity and the Dialectics of the Visible and Invisible
As Sri Aurobindo tells us spiritual (invisible) evolution will never entirely match contemporary scientific narratives (visible) of the same phenomena because “ a theory of spiritual evolution is not identical with a scientific theory of form-evolution and physical evolution: it must stand on its inherent justification (LD 835) and because all good scientist “must only trace things back as far as material causes allow” (M. 1915). The evolution of soul, less its rebirth can be verified by a discipline that relies on empirical measurement as its method.
Historically, science has made a distinction between what Galileo first referred to as primary qualities and what he called secondary qualities. Galilean science has followed on this premise. Primary qualities are those independent of an observer. They are objective and are of solidity, spatial extension, motion, number, and figure. Primary qualities are said to be facts “in themselves” and are independent of a subjective apprehension of them. Secondary qualities are those that produce sensations in a subject. Secondary qualities include color, taste, smell, and sound. If we could refer to primary qualities as the machinery of nature, secondary qualities could be referred to as the machinery of subjectivity.
Secondary qualities in themselves can not be measured. At best subjective sensations can be correlated with physiological or behavioral responses. The affect of sensations on the consciousness of the subject has only begun to be studied using scientific inquiry. Cognitive science is one branch of science that would study the affect of sensations on a human subject. To study sensations however, still requires that they first be converted in terms of primary qualities to produce data that can be measured. For example, sound would be studied in terms of those algorithmic processes within the ear that convert sonic energy to mechanical energy to nerve impulse to neuronal firing in the brain. These measurements can then be quantified in terms of data. But to gather any idea of the feelings that the sensations invoke in the subject, the affect of the sensation, one would have to rely on her self-report. Sensation itself can never be decoupled from a subject.
If science has only begun to scrutinize secondary sensations it is not likely that in the near future it will seriously entertain research into what maybe called 3rd order experience. That is experiences not associated with an object or even a sensation but, with an ineffable eidetic field that requires an organ of perception veiled to the five senses that are the focal point of a liberal education. Science knows little if anything of these things now and when it does study them it calls them paranormal phenomena or extra-sensory perception. It does not appear that at any time soon an attempt to synthesize scientific (visible) and spiritual (invisible) accounts of evolution will bear fruit. However, if we honor the tension of the encounter between the visible and invisible without reducing either in terms of one or the other, some interesting results may emerge.
The chapter of the Life Divine entitled Man in the Evolution, is one of the last ones rewritten by Sri Aurobindo and as such demonstrates some of his final thoughts on human evolution. In this chapter he weaves a fascinating web of complex associations of those cybernetic processes governing the dialectics of spirit and matter.
“This terrestrial evolutionary working of Nature from Matter to Mind and beyond it has a double process: there is an outward visible process of physical evolution with birth as its machinery, -- for each evolved form of body housing its own evolved power of consciousness is maintained and kept in continuity by heredity; there is, at the same time, an invisible process of soul evolution with rebirth into ascending grades of form and consciousness as Its machinery”. (Aurobindo 1949 p825)
Sri Aurobindo challenges those Darwinian narratives of evolution that constraint it within linear pathways of causality, the arrow of progress and time pointing forever forward., or as he puts it, a one way transmission of heredity by selection. His own description suggests the non-linearity of evolutionary processes comprised by the forces of the seen and unseen. He doubts gradualist narratives of the evolution of species, or of one species following another neatly in an evolutionary series. The only neat succession of evolutionary appearances he seems to admit are at the macro-level from matter to life to mind. Ultimately, Sri Aurobindo posits two different ways human evolution could have happened:
There are here two possibilities; either there was the sudden appearance of a human body and consciousness in the earth-nature, an abrupt creation or independent automatic manifestation of reasoning mentality in the material world intervening upon a previous similar manifestation of subconscious life-forms and of living conscious bodies in Matter, or else there was an evolution of humanity out of animal being, slow perhaps in its preparation and in its stages of development, but with strong leaps of change at the decisive points of the transition.
Its hard to imagine a sudden appearance of a human body and consciousness on the earth, as an “abrupt creation” unless perhaps if our origins are extra-terrestrial. If we could not imagine that scenario then Sri Aurobindo would have us accept an evolution of humanity emerging from animality. Sri Aurobindo develops this narrative and references sources from Indian mythology and spirituality such as the Vishnu Purana, Tantra and Upanishads as supporting the theory that animal forms preceded human ones.
He also debates various morphological theories of how the human may have descended, considering both the proto-human as a unique non ape-like species as well as our descent from an ancestry of primates He seems finally to support a view consistent with the following:
“If the appearance in animal being of a type similar in some respects to the ape-kind but already from the beginning endowed with the elements of humanity was the method of the human evolution, the appearance in the human being of a spiritual type resembling mental-animal humanity but already with the stamp of the spiritual aspiration on it would be the obvious method of Nature for the evolutionary production of the spiritual and supramental being. “
But he decries linearity, a gradualist serialization of species and references forces other than hereditary variation as playing an important role in evolution:
“but all this need not mean that the types developed one from another in an evolutionary series. Other forces than hereditary variation have been at work in bringing about the appearance of new characteristics; there are physical forces such as food, light-rays and others that we are only beginning to know, there are surely others which we do not yet know; there are at work invisible life-forces and obscure psychological forces. For these subtler powers have to be admitted even in the physical evolutionary theory to account for natural selection;”
Although Sri Aurobindo is referring to these subtle forces as invisible, we should also recall one of the three laws of the future that Arthur C. Clark's has defined, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. This law is so ingrained in us, now that we can fly the globe or surf the web, that Gehm's Corollary to Clarke's Third Law cynically puts it, "Any technology distinguishable from magic is insufficiently advanced." or even more to the point Marge Simpson states "We can do anything now that scientists have invented magic,"
We are now able to parse matter almost magically to a degree that would have surpassed the understanding of Sri Aurobindo's age. His work was written before the discovery of the dna molecule. One does not really know how he would assess the biological sciences today. For instance, how would he conceive of evolution in light of genomics and bioinformatics? How would he assess the discovery of the cybernetic process that now govern bio-chemistry? How would he apprehend a paradigm of life not in vitalistic terms but in terms of information? Would he regard the application of precise cybernetic principles to biology as making visible the invisible life forces he was referring to when he wrote the above passage, in the early 1940s, when Shannon, Von Neumann, Wiener and others were just defining the new paradigm of information (cybernetics)?
Given his emphasis on the incarnation of the spirit into flesh, of soul into matter, of the divinization of cells, would he privilege information over embodiment as does the science of cybernetics? Whatever suspicions he may have held regards the cybernetic paradigm that governs our current biological understanding, is its possible that the networks of bio-technology that have exponentially arisen since the 1940s, have advanced in such a way as to have converted what he would have considered occult knowledge back then into what we view today as natural processes, that have become transparent to us through our senses extended in technology?
And what about our psychological condition? The working of the mind has undoubtedly also become more transparent to science since the time that Sri Aurobindo penned the above passage. At the time of Sri Aurobindo's passing the science of mind was still prescribing such savage procedures as lobotomy for curative treatment. When Sri Aurobindo was writing there was no brain imaging technology. Whereas our minds can be now be made visible through images that correlate psychological phenomena to physiological brain states.
So how he would he view recent developments in the biological and cognitive sciences? Would he have viewed the ability to make transparent those unseen evolutionary forces by the extension of our sense in technology as a process of occult revelation?
“if the occult or subconscious energy in some types answers to the need of the environment, in others remains unresponsive and unable to survive, this is clearly the sign of a varying life-energy and psychology, of a consciousness and a force other than the physical at work making for variation in Nature. The problem of the method of operation is still too full of obscure and unknown factors for any present possible structure of theory to be definitive. “(832)
But while keeping in mind his rejection of eugenics in his 1915 essay on Evolution Sri Aurobindo does seem to have enough foresight into history as to extrapolate from what he knew already about bio-technology the possibility that human biological/spiritual evolution may preceded through the intervention of its own sciences; in other words that our minds may operate upon biology to produce new genetic mutations in organisms: “It has been noted that the human mind has already shown a capacity to aid Nature in the evolution of new types of plant and animal: it as created new forms of environment, developed by knowledge and considerable changes in its mentality. It is not an impossibility that man should aid nature consciously also in its own physical and spiritual evolution and transformation.” (844)
But is it possible that science will develop explanations that are consistent with spiritual narratives? Like most scientist today Sri Aurobindo does seems rather skeptical that a linkage can be made between the dialectic of spirit and matter of internal (karma/rebirth) and external (matter/spirit) in a scientific theory. It is quite possible the twain of metaphysics/physics may never met:
“A theory of spiritual evolution is not identical with a scientific theory of form-evolution and physical life-evolution; it must stand on its own inherent justification: it may accept the scientific account of physical evolution as a support or an element, but the support is not indispensable. “
Aware of what science does he would know that most theories if they are truly scientific eventually grow old and die to be reborn as still other theories:
“The scientific theory is concerned only with the outward and visible machinery and process, with the detail of Nature's execution, with the physical development of things in Matter and the law of development of Life and Mind in Matter; its account of the process may have to be considerably changed or may be dropped altogether in the light of new discovery,”
In the course of this passage he switches back to a focus on inner spiritual evolution and when he does this his metaphors oddly mirror those of the self-organization processes referred to in complexity theory. In Sri Aurobindo the organization of form charts a trajectory along a graduated scale of increasingly complex orders of being. He continues:
“but that will not affect the self-evident fact of a spiritual evolution, an evolution of Consciousness, a progression of the soul's manifestation in material existence. In its outward aspects this is what the theory of evolution comes to, -- there is in the scale of terrestrial existence a development of forms, of bodies, a progressively complex and competent organization of Matter, of Life in Matter, of Consciousness in living Matter; in this scale, the better organized the form, the more it is capable of housing a better organized, a more complex and capable, a more developed or evolved Life and Consciousness.
While he does not discount some claims made by Neo-Darwinians he does not entirely reject Lamarckian evolution, which is not surprising for Lamarck also charts an evolution according to a ascending scale of ever more complex organisms. He also departs from justifying his theory of evolution by appeal to scientific empirical proofs “exact genealogy” in favor of logical demonstration of truth claims that reference “a developing plan” .
Once the evolutionary hypothesis is put forward and the facts supporting it are marshaled, this aspect of the terrestrial existence becomes so striking as to appear indisputable. The precise machinery by which this is done or the exact genealogy or chronological succession of types of being is a secondary, though in itself an interesting and important question; the development of one form of life out of a precedent less evolved form, natural selection, the struggle for life, the survival of acquired characteristics may or may not be accepted, but the fact of a successive creation with a developing plan in it is the one conclusion which is of primary consequence.
Evolution commences when the spirit enters into matter, so begins “nature's yoga”
“At first she houses herself in forms of Matter which appear to be altogether unconscious, then struggles towards mentality in the guise of living Matter and attains to it imperfectly in the conscious animal. This consciousness is at first rudimentary, mostly a half subconscious or just conscious instinct; it develops slowly till in more organized forms of living Matter it reaches its climax of intelligence and exceeds itself in Man, the thinking animal who develops into the reasoning mental being “ (825)
As this passage continues instead of a theory of Intelligent Design, he posits Real-Idea:
“if it be asked, how then did all these various gradations and types of being come into existence, it can be answered that, fundamentally, they were manifested in Matter by the Consciousness-Force in it, by the power of the Real-Idea building its own significant forms and types for the indwelling Spirit's cosmic existence”
He then adds that due to its complexity this process does not necessarily lend itself to measurement, although it may become transparent by similarity. The process he adds is also non-linear:
“the practical or physical method might vary considerably in different grades or stages, although a basic similarity of line may be visible; the creative Power might use not one but many processes or set many forces to act together.”
He then describes the very complex operations by which Real-Idea works in Matter :
“In Matter the process is a creation of infinitesimals charged with an immense energy, their association by design and number, the manifestation of larger infinitesimals on that primary basis, the grouping and association of these together to found the appearance of sensible objects, earth, water, minerals, metals, the whole material kingdom. “
The manner in which matter self-organizes into more complex forms in an odd way seems to anticipate contemporary narratives of some scientist at the Santa Fe Institute who intuit the novel emergence of greater wholes from the organization of increasing magnitudes of complexity in matter. Here is Sri Aurobinodo:
“In Life also the Consciousness-Force begins with infinitesimal forms of vegetable life and infinitesimal animalcules; it creates an original plasm and multiplies it, creates the living cell as a unit, creates other kinds of minute biological apparatus like the seed or the gene, uses always the same method of grouping and association so as to build by a various operation various living organisms....”
Then jumping a bit ahead in the text we learn:
In its outward aspects this is what the theory of evolution comes to, -- there is in the scale of terrestrial existence a development of forms, of bodies, a progressively complex and competent organization of Matter, of Life in Matter, of Consciousness in living Matter; in this scale, the better organized the form, the more it is capable of housing a better organized, a more complex and capable, a more developed or evolved Life and Consciousness.
Stuart Kauffman’s evolutionary theory is interesting in that instead of reducing nature to processes of natural selection and the particles of physics, he posits the emergence of phenomena from increasing orders of complexity. Unlike scientist such as physicist Steven Weinberg who claim that all explanatory arrows point downward from society to biology to chemistry to physics, Kauffman protest this as an impoverished claim that resist the failure of physicist to reason upward from physical laws to larger scale events in the universe.
By making reference to biological phenomena such as preadaptations -in which an organism uses a preexisting anatomical structure inherited from an ancestor for a potentially unrelated purpose. (an example being the preadaptation of dinosaurs who first developed feathers for their insulation properties and only later used them to assist in flight) Kauffman argues that biology can not be reduced to physics (aka atoms or particles) but rather to selective conditions in the evolution of the organism that can only be explained by emergent properties.
Specifically, emergence refers to the process by which complex systems and patterns arise out of a multiplicity of relatively simple interactions and also to an unpredictable yet definite system which arises from the interactions within a limited and defined space.
In his book Reinventing the Sacred in which he attempts to discredit the methodology of Galilean Science that would reduce nature solely in terms of primary qualities Kauffman argues: “the biosphere is a co-constructing emergent whole that evolves persistently. Organisms and the abiotic world create niches for new organisms, in an ongoing open textured exploration of possible organisms. There is a physical basis of this “open texture” in the non-ergodic universe....
At a still higher level, the human economy cannot be reduced to physics. The way the diversity of the economy has grown from perhaps a hundred to a thousand goods and services ﬁfty thousand years ago to tens of billions of goods and services today, in what I call an expanding economic web, depends on the very structure of that web, how it creates new economic niches for ever new goods and services that drive economic growth. This growth in turn drives the further expansion of the web itself by the persistent invention of still newer goods and services. Like the biosphere, the global economy is a self-consistently co-constructing, ever evolving, emergent whole. All these phenomena are beyond physics and not reducible to it. “(Kauffman 2008 p4)
In short, Kauffman claims biology is emergent with respect to physics, just as life, agency, value, meaning have all emerged from the evolution of the biosphere (Kauffman 2008 p43) In other words biology emerges from physics but can not be explained by it -aka biology can not be reduced to physics- and similarly consciousness emerges from biology but can not be explained by reducing it to biological terms.
While being careful not to confuse scientific explanations with what are essentially spiritually oriented ones the idea of biology emerging from yet, not reducible to physics and consciousness emerging from yet, not reducible to biology, does not conflict with the Vedantic suggestion that begins The Life Divine:
“Life is already involved in Matter and Mind in Life because in essence Matter is a form of veiled Life, Life a form of veiled Consciousness. (Aurobindo 1949 p3)
And when Sri Aurobindo adds:
And then there seems to be
little objection to a farther step in the series and the admission
that mental consciousness may itself be only a form and a veil of
higher states which are beyond Mind.”
Kauffman would agree with Sri Aurobindo to the extent that reason itself does not represent the pinnacle of human development and we must go beyond reason if we are truly to find wholeness:
“Because of this ceaseless creativity, we typically do not and cannot know what will happen. We live our lives forward, as Kierkegaard said. We live as if we knew, as Nietzsche said. We live our lives forward into mystery, and do so with faith and courage, for that is the mandate of life itself. But the fact that we must live our lives forward into a ceaseless creativity that we cannot fully understand means that reason alone is an insufficient guide to living our lives. Reason, the center of the Enlightenment, is but one of the evolved, fully human means we use to live our lives. Reason itself has ﬁnally led us to see the inadequacy of reason. We must therefore reunite our full humanity. We must see ourselves whole, living in a creative world we can never fully know. The Enlightenment’s reliance on reason is too narrow a view of how we ﬂourish or ﬂounder.” (Kauffman 2008 p.xi)
Some complexity theorist take the emergent view of life to even suggest a creativity in nature that assumes a natural teleology:
Discussions of the origin of life usually assume that there is a specific event, however improbable, by which dead matter became a living entity. Naturalistic accounts, although in seeming opposition to theistic explanations of the apparent design of even the simplest cells, often share the assumption that there is a specific line to be crossed. If the problem is recast as one of a process of emergence of biochemistry from protobiochemistry, which in turn emerged from the organic chemistry and geochemistry of primitive earth, the resources of the new sciences of complex systems dynamics can provide a more robust conceptual framework within which to explore the possible pathways of chemical complexification leading to life. In such a view the emergence of life is the result of deep natural laws (the outlines of which we are only beginning to perceive) and reflects a degree of holism in those systems that led to life. Further, there is the possibility of developing a more general theory of biology and of natural organization from such an approach. The emergence of life may thus be seen as an instance of the broader innate creativity of nature and consistent with a possible natural teleology. (Weber)
Kauffman further makes the claim that his view of evolutionary emergence will again endow science with meaning: once one gets beyond reductionism, it leads to a radically new scientific world view, which changes our place in the universe as human beings. We are not meaningless chunks of particles spinning around in space. We are organisms with meaning in our lives, and the way the biosphere will evolve is ceaselessly creative. (Kauffman)
Kauffman however, is still a scientist,
and a very respected one at that, whose scientific world view only
allows him to seek natural rather than supernatural causes. So
although he even uses the word God, his God is a fully natural one
and he even makes a distinction between an immanent God within nature
and God being nature itself:
“I'm saying God is the sacredness of nature. And you can go a step beyond that. You can say that God is nature. That's the God of Spinoza. That's the God that Einstein believed in. But their view of the universe was deterministic. The new view is that evolution of the universe is partially lawless and ceaselessly creative. We are the children of that creativity. One either does or does not take the step of saying God is the creativity of the universe. I do. Or you say there is divinity in the creativity in the universe....(kauffman/)
and he concludes his book by stating:
The God we discuss then might be God as the unfolding of Nature itself. We may wish to broaden our sense of God from the creativity in nature to all of nature law governed and partially beyond natural law. Then all unfolding of Nature is God, a fully natural God. And such a natural God is not far from an old idea of God in nature, an immanent god, found in the unfolding of Nature. Whether God is immanent in nature's magnificent unfolding of nature itself in its magnificent unfolding and persistent becoming is God the is an essential difference. We do not need to believe in or have faith in a God as the unfolding of Nature. This God is real. The split between reason and faith is healed.(Kauffman 2008 p288)
Sri Aurobindo's metaphysics are much more complex than Kauffman's. His view of God has three poises transcendent, cosmic, and immanent. Kauffman would reject the first two poises as supernatural, and would even seem to reject the view of an immanent God; if that God was purely a supernatural one. It is unclear whether Sri Aurobindo's immanent poise of God can be regarded as entirely supernatural. While at times he does seem to resort to narratives in which there is a clear dualism between prakriti (nature) and purusha (soul) he ultimately suggest that matter is secret God. This later view -so long as this Nature is seen also as fully Divine- would seem to partially unite the narratives told by the spiritual sage and complexity scientist. In fact, Sri Aurobindo's term “natures yoga” that imparts to nature a principle of emergence in which it become ever more fully conscious, while not identical to an emergent view of nature whose creativity endows it with a natural teleology, certainly is similar enough to suggest a dialog between the two perspectives may prove fruitful.
The view of
evolution that sees the increasing complexity of nature as central to
its narrative also raises the question as to whether increasing
complexity should be seen in terms of progress. In the next section
we will explore ideas of evolution and progress with regards to
society, but we will close here with a short examination of how
biological evolution relates to progress.
The idea of biological progress itself need not relate to a specific teleological but its an interesting question and one as usual that is disputed by scientist. For example, Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould disagreed as to whether we should view the evolution of the brain as progressive or not.
Richard Dawkins notes that on a short evolutionary time scale it can be demonstrated that the brain has over the course of the past three million years grown larger; that is until about fifth thousand years ago when its growth seems to have ceased. But he views the period from three million years ago to fifty thousand years ago as suggesting progress: “It looks, in a general way, as though there are some progressive changes running through this series. Our brain case is nearly twice the size of erectus's; and erectus's brain case, in turn, is about twice the size of that of Australopithecus afarensis.” (Dawkins)
But just how relevant this fact is for valuing biological evolution in terms of progress is made problematic by Stephen Jay Gould who argues that statistically this has little relevance when arguing for directionality in evolution:
Gould 'showed then that apparent trends in the sizes of foraminiferans and the brains of mammals are better viewed as expanding variance with a fixed lower limit of size, rather than as trends of increasing size. Since then others have joined him in refusing to see evolution as steady progress.” (http://www.newscientist.com)
Gould and others suggest that biological evolution results not solely in an increase in complexity but in decreases in complexity as well:
“Gould tells us how Bruce McFadden in 1988 analyzed the history of the horses and found a complex pattern of branching with many reversals of direction. He describes how Dan McShea, in a series of papers since 1992, has found no consistent trend to complexity in the evolution of backbones. He also describes what is perhaps the most telling of these examples— G. Boyajian and T. Lutz's analysis in 1992 of the evolution of ammonite shells. These have sutures that make simple curves in the earliest fossils, but became on average increasingly complex as evolution progressed. Boyajian and Lutz used fractal dimension as an objective measure of complexity, and compared ancestors with their identified descendants. Rather than a general trend to increased complexity, they found a tangled web of lines in which complexity decreased as often as it rose, with simple-sutured shells present throughout. If the starting point is the simplest possible structure, evolution will result in increasing mean complexity even if lines of descent are random walks. (New Scientist)
increasing complexity can be equated with progress than Gould's account
of its increases and decreases or advance and reversals seem comparable
to Sri Aurobindo's accounts of human progress in which:
"It may be conceded that what man has up till now principally done is to act within the circle of his nature, on a spiral of nature-movement, sometimes descending, sometimes ascending, -- there has been no straight line of progress" (LD 841)
Finally, what progress has actually occurred in the recent evolution of the human body? Recent studies such as those cited in the book the 10,000 Year Explosion (Cochran and Harpending 2009) have suggested that the human body is still evolving. The book disputes Stephen Jay Gould’s claim that Homo sapiens have not biologically changed for the past 40,000 years. The authors cite recent studies that suggest that human beings are still evolving genetically and perhaps faster than ever. These studies are based largely on the recent massive amount of information that has accumulated through the global genome project.
The more dramatic claims that Cochran and Harpending cite in their book however are controversial, such as that the brain of ethnic groups like Ashkenanzi Jews have evolved to make them more intelligent than average. These claims are difficult to prove and the reasoning behind such assertions appear to be similar to Kipling's just-so stories. The explanation is given that around 800 A.D. Ashkenazi Jews were prohibited by religion from agricultural professions and so began to make a living in banking and money lending that forced them to become adapt at mathematical calculations and statistical data thus sharpening their brains. One can not however, interview people of that period to gathered the evidence to support or falsify these claims.
These stories of recent genetic mutations involving the brain and human consciousness ultimately can only make assumptions about populations in the poorly documented period before recorded human history. Therefore, it is not surprising that most claims for natural selection and genetic variation in humans beings over the past 40,000 years have been challenged. The claims however, that have gained wide acceptance concern the mutation of genes involved in resistance to malaria, coding for lighter skin color and the digestion of novel food.
So if we are still changing genetically does this represent biological progress?
Of course biological progress and the emergence of complex social systems from biology are two different phenomena and in the next section the question will be poses as to whether the evolution of human societies should be viewed as progressive.
V)The Illusion of Human Progress and the Ideal of Human Unity
Sri Aurobindo's view of history may
best be described as a hybrid of both Indian and European
perspectives. His central narrative marries a cyclic view of history
with a progressive evolution of society that culminates in a world
state governed by the ideal of human unity. To synthesize the
contradictory demands of recurring cycles of history with the
progressive advance of humanity he introduces the idea of ever
widening circles of history. “The
wheel of Brahma rotates forever but it does not turn in the same
place; its rotations carry it forward.”
To get a sense of how Sri Aurobindo develops his historical perspective it is important to allow him to speak in his own voice. Here is how he begins his first major thesis on yoga and human evolution (1909):
“The whole burden of our human progress has been an attempt to escape from the bondage to the body and the vital impulses. According to the scientific theory, the human being began as the animal, developed through the savage and consummated in the modern civilized man. The Indian theory is different. God created the world by developing the many out of the One and the material out of the spiritual. From the beginning, the objects which compose the physical world were arranged by Him in their causes, developed under the law of their being in the subtle or psychical world and then manifested in the gross or material world.
From karana to sukshma, from sukshma to sthula, and back again, that is the formula. Once manifested in matter the world proceeds by laws which do not change, from age to age, by a regular succession, until it is all withdrawn back again into the source from which it came. The material goes back into the psychical and the psychical is involved in its cause or seed. It is again put out when the period of expansion recurs and runs its course on similar lines but with different details till the period of contraction is due. (1909)
This piece was written in what has been called Sri Aurobindo's Hindu period (Heehs 2006) in which he strongly identified himself as a Hindu. During this time right after his release from prison on charges of sedition against the British Raj, Sri Aurobindo often expressed the desire for India's freedom and self-determination by giving voice to it through the subcontinent's Vedic traditions. It is therefore not surprising that he places the European scientific narrative of evolution within the context of an Indian conception of history. In doing this Sri Aurobindo's view of evolution furnishes what perhaps can be called a redemption narrative of the Kali Yuga, in which the last turn of the cycle of History -that in the traditional narrative represents its final degenerate stage- takes on new spiritual possibilities:
Hinduism regards the world as a recurrent series of phenomena of which the terms vary but the general formula abides the same. The theory is only acceptable if we recognize the truth of the conception formulated in the Vishnu Purana of the world as vijñana-vijrimbhitani, developments of ideas in the Universal Intelligence which lies at the root of all material phenomena and by its indwelling force shapes the growth of the tree and the evolution of the clod as well as the development of living creatures and the progress of mankind.
Whichever theory we take, the laws of the material world are not affected. From aeon to aeon, from kalpa to kalpa Narayan manifests himself in an ever-evolving humanity which grows in experience by a series of expansions and contractions towards its destined self-realization in God. That evolution is not denied by the Hindu theory of yugas.
Each age in the Hindu system has its own line of moral and spiritual evolution and the decline of the dharma or established law of conduct from the Satya to the Kaliyuga is not in reality a deterioration but a detrition of the outward forms and props of spirituality in order to prepare a deeper spiritual intensity within the heart.
In each Kaliyuga mankind gains something in essential spirituality. Whether we take the modern scientific or the ancient Hindu standpoint the progress of humanity is a fact. The wheel of Brahma rotates for ever but it does not turn in the same place; its rotations carry it forward.
The above passages demonstrate Sri Aurobindo's distinctive view of evolution as an attempt to synthesize an Indian conception of History with the scientific theory of evolution. This fact should be remembered when he is speaking in a voice that seems to extrapolate human evolution in terms borrowed from European social theorist such as Herbert Spencer. In this regard whenever Sri Aurobindo appears to be simply stating a premise it needs to be remembered that there is always something more complex going on. While at times he certainly appears to be voicing ideas of progressive evolution that derive from Spencer, he never discards the voice of the subaltern, the colonialist subject who understand all to well the implications of European imperialism and its associated racial superiority complex.
Before going further it is also important to understand the language issues one faces when comparing historical perspectives separated by almost a century in which social values have changed significantly enough to suggest an epistemic rupture. In this case we are comparing cross-cultural writing in the early twentieth century with contemporary discourse on society and science that has fully assimilated critical theory and the linguistic turn in philosophy. To be able to excavate appropriate meaning will require the ability to parse language and trace back concepts through epistemic changes in order to divine authorial intention. In short, given the passage of almost a century it is essential to understand changes in culture and language that make any one to one correspondence between certain concepts and words spoken long ago with identical meanings today problematic.
For example, in Synthesis of Yoga Sri Aurobindo writes: “that even the racial type considered by us the lowest, the Negro fresh from the Barbarism of Central Africa is capable , without admixture of blood, without waiting for future generations, of the intellectual culture, if not yet of the intellectual accomplishment of the dominant European”. (Sri Aurobindo Synthesis of Yoga 9/10 circa 1915)
One can not of course imagine any serious scholar let alone someone expanding on spiritual philosophy today to make a similar statement. Today one might encounter such speech in the voice of fascist media personalities, such as Rush Limbaugh on his reactionary talk radio show, expressing a racist view of American xenophobia. Indeed, this one statement has been taken by some academics writing from a left of center social orientation as proof that Sri Aurobindo was a racist.
Such interpretations however, stray far from the mark for on closer inspection of the text one finds that Sri Aurobindo means no gross disrespect for the African. His speech is certainly not on par with the reactionary talk radio show host. A closer reading of the text reveals that here as elsewhere the subaltern voice always backgrounds the European historical narratives told. Elsewhere he will speak of Africans not as comprising the lower rungs of an evolutionary ladder of cultural ascent but rather as the remnants of a historically distant civilization far advanced from the late Edwardian period in which he pens this text. Moreover, in expressing his ideas on historical development Sri Aurobindo goes beyond the prejudices of the day by even having the audacity to suggest that the Central African can eventually reach the level of the European. Most Europeans of that day never even considered the peoples of Southern Lands to be capable of reaching European stature at all except by virtue of becoming wholly colonized by European values and Christianized by its religion.
But even so his observations and word choice inevitably reflect the values of England where he was raised and the Victorian era in which he was educated. The conventions of language governing the day define the limitations of the concepts he is trying to express. Similarly, when he applies terms to evolution such a “progressive” he is using a concept whose genealogy can be traced back to Herbert Spencer, and that carries with it the overtones of race and class issues raised by Social Darwinism.
The following statement from Synthesis of Yoga is instructive regards the influences on Sri Aurobindo
of early 20th century European thought that credits science with the advance of civilization that bestows its benefits to the “backward races” :
“the whole trend of modern thought and modern endeavor reveals itself with an observant eye to a large conscious effort of nature in man to effect a general level of intellectual equipment , capacity and further possibility by universalizing the opportunities modern civilization affords for the mental life Even the preoccupations of the European intellect the protagonist tendency, with material nature and externalities is a necessary part of the effort. It seeks to prepare a sufficient basis in mans physical being and vital energies in his material environment for his full mental possibilities By the spread of education to , by the advance of the backward races, by the elevation of the depressed classes, by the multiplication of labor saving devices (aka technology) , by the movement toward ideal social and economic conditions by the labor of Science toward improved health , longevity and sound physique in civilized humanity , the sense and drift of this vast movement translates itself into intelligible signs. ,,,'' (Sri Aurobindo SOY p10 circa 1915)
The reference to backward races would now seem racist if one did not understand the complexity of Sri Aurobindo's voice. If one did not anticipate the reintroduction of the subaltern perspective one would be tempted to simply pass off the preceding statements off as Eurocentic, one that extols the benefits of the European Enlightenment to the backward races, but as has been noted, Sri Aurobindo's writing always resists any simple interpretation. In fact, he begins the paragraph previous to the one above with the conjecture that "We may perhaps, if we consider all the circumstances, come to this conclusion that mental life, far from being a recent appearance in man, is the swift repetition in him of a previous appearance from which the Energy in the race had undergone one of her deplorable recoils...." and a few paragraphs later he will observe that Indian tradition asserts that this which is to be manifested is not a new term in human experience, but has been developed before and has even governed humanity in certain periods of its development...And if since then Nature has sunk back from her achievement, the reason must always be found in some unrealized harmony, some insufficiency of the intellectual and material basis.
In the above passage things become more complex if we pay attention to the embolden words above because he makes the claim that it is the effort of nature in man, responsible for the progression of the particular mental acumen that results in western science being perfected in Europe. We will come back to the meaning of this phrase shortly.
But even when we understand the complexity of Sri Aurobindo's text in reading his words today, the concept he employs that refers to progressive evolution in context of a hierarchy of intelligence still pose difficulty in entirely freeing itself from conjuring up ideas of European superiority over the backward races and by invoking the memory of those racist ideologies that have also appropriated this narrative.
The idea of progress coupled to phenomena of evolution has been throughly interrogation since the end of the First and Second World Wars that between them nearly destroyed civilization, as Europe marched progressively forward. The progress of society or civilization in the post-war era has been found to be problematic especially in the context of cross-cultural studies. For instance, the “fact” that Columbus brought progress to the New World has been taught to American school children for generations but it is only within the past several decades, that the narratives of indigenous people, who were here in pre-Columbian times, have been given a voice to tell their story of the genocide perpetrated by Europeans that destroyed any chance they may have had for the progressive development of their own cultures. Progress has been demonstrated to be a value judgment that when the referent is culture always couches the cultural values and aspirations of those making the reference.
The progress of science and industry spoken of in the early 20th century tragically gave us the weapons of mass destruction that threatened to put an end to human evolution once and for all. Progress rather than signaling the triumph of European civilization at the start of the 20th century has been exposed to be simply an ideology to justify colonial expansion and subjugation of indigenous populations.
From its European context the quote from Sri Aurobindo on the Central African reflects this image of progress. In this context progress can be seen as a social ideology that corresponds to other hijacked evolutionary ideologies reflected in the German Idealism of “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny”, and Herbert Spencer's “progressive evolution”. All the above ideas at one time or another have been utilized by those with couched power agendas for their use value in aligning different races and cultures along a scale of graduated being in which the European was seen to be the most highly evolved. A close reading of Sri Aurobindo however, will show that he had no such agenda. This fact should be understood properly before moving on to consider Sri Aurobindo's view of human progress.
Although in many ways Sri Aurobindo was certainly a visionary in his view of history he did not claim to be a prophet. The impossible burden of proof placed on prophecy is not lost on him. Even the future of poetry it seems can not be anticipated twenty five years years hence:
“ The gods of life and still more the gods of mind are so incalculably self-creative that even when we can distinguish the main lines of which the working runs or has so far run, we are still unable to foresee with any certainty what turn they will take or of what new thing they are the labor. It is therefore impossible to predict what the future poetry will actually be like. We can see where we stand today but we cannot see where we shall stand a quarter century hence” (Sri Aurobindo Future Poety p.1972)
If this be the case with the life gods of poetry how much more is this so with the gods governing human history. Indeed how could one expect him to anticipate the developments in subsequent years when he wrote this optimistic assessment of the future in his 1909 essay Process and Evolution:
"It is not likely that the immediate future of the democratic tendency will satisfy the utmost dreams of the lover of liberty who seeks an anarchist freedom, or of the lover of equality who tries to establish a socialistic dead level, or of the lover of fraternity who dreams of a world-embracing communism. But some harmonization of this great ideal is undoubtedly the immediate future of the human race. Once the old forces of despotism, inequality and unbridled competition, after they have been once more overthrown, a process of gradual samyama will be performed by which what has remained of them will be regarded as the disappearing vestiges of a dead reality and without any further violent coercion be transformed slowly and steadily out of existence.”
Of course what followed were the two great wars that almost destroyed civilizations and the partition of his beloved India. It seems like a harmonization in the immediate future was not to be in the cards dealt by history. The old forces of despotism, inequality, and unbridled competition have proven too entrenched in human nature to be easily discarded. But of course he realized this too and as such his ideas on human progress appear to have shifted over time.
Sri Aurobindo did not ever naively conceive of progress in human terms without acknowledging the reversals of history and the practice of power for domination. In his essay Processes of Evolution he states (1909):
“But the forces of the old world, the forces of despotism, the forces of traditional privilege and selfish exploitation, the forces of unfraternal strife and passionate self-regarding competition are always struggling to reseat themselves on the thrones of the earth. A determined movement of reaction is evident in many parts of the world and nowhere perhaps more than in England which was once one of the self-styled champions of progress and liberty. The attempt to go back to the old spirit is one of those necessary returns without which it cannot be so utterly exhausted as to be blotted out from the evolution. It rises only to be defeated and crushed again. On the other hand the force of the democratic tendency is not a force which is spent but one which has not yet arrived, not a force which has had the greater part of its enjoyment but one which is still vigorous, unsatisfied and eager for fulfillment. “
Sri Aurobindo also understood that danger of concepts which attempt to liberate one from history only to end in totalitarian ideologies, quipping here:
“Every attempt to coerce it in the past reacted eventually on the coercing force and brought back the democratic spirit fierce, hungry and unsatisfied, joining to its fair motto of "Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity" the terrible addition "or Death".
Nevertheless in 1909 his assessment of human progress is optimistic, he write: “ Whether we take the modern scientific or the ancient Hindu standpoint the progress of humanity is a fact.” But by 1949 however, after two world two world wars and partition, his views on human unity (harmonization) have taken on a distinctly anti-humanist flair. Perhaps in having witnessed the cataclysms of history he recognizes that it may only be through the further devastation of a Third World War that Nature will be able to propel humanity toward his ideal of human unity:
But the two wars that have come and gone have not prevented the formation of the first and second considerable efforts towards the beginning of an attempt at union and the practical formation of a concrete body, an organized instrument with that object: rather they have caused and hastened this new creation. The League of Nations came into being as a direct consequence of the first war, the U.N.O. similarly as a consequence of the second world-wide conflict. If the third war which is regarded by many if not by most as inevitable does come, it is likely to precipitate as inevitably a further step and perhaps the final outcome of this great world-endeavor Nature uses such means, apparently opposed and dangerous to her intended purpose, to bring about the fruition of that purpose. “
Whereas in 1909 Sri Aurobindo viewed the harmonization of the human race in terms of human progress and seemed to imply simply that the overturning of a few despotic regimes, the universal declaration of human rights, and the reform of hyper-capitalism, (all of which are still would be worthy goals today) would be enough to accomplish the task, by 1949 the advance of human unity follows rather, on the jagannath of Rudra, god of destruction. In the above passage Sri Aurobindo seems to say that human unity will be achieved in spite of and not, because of human intention. If human unity is to be achieved it will be by the will of Nature by the process “nature's yoga”. Before exploring “nature's yoga” further however, it would be best first to assess human progress in terms of the toll it has taken already on nature itself.
In his book a Short History of Progress anthropologist Ronald Wright describes how civilizations collapse due to what he calls “progress traps”. In his book Wright details how four civilizations, Easter Island, Sumer, the Maya and Rome self-destructed from a combination of lack of foresight and poor choices that eventually would lead to overpopulation and irreparable environmental damage. From his reading of the "flight recorders in the wreckage of crashed civilizations" (Wright 2004 p. 129) he follows the persistent concern that "each time history repeats itself, the price goes up". He finds this history instructive for our global civilization believing that we have much to learn to make our experiment with civilizations sustainable today especially in light of global climate change.
In analyzing these four instances, Wright notes that Easter Island and Sumer failed due to depletion of natural resources: "their ecologies were unable to regenerate". Whereas the Maya and Rome failed in their heartlands, "where ecological demand was highest," but left remnant populations that survived.
It is only by virtue of natural regeneration and human migration (Wright 2004 p. 102) that the overall experiment of civilization done so well.
“Wright labels cultural beliefs and interests that act against sustainability — and hence civilizational survivability as a whole — the very worst kind of "ideological pathology"
“Wright argues that progress, as an ideology is merely a myth. Humans see their own progress and advancement in the rapid transition from an industrial economy to information based one, while the reality is that – the food technology of the late Stone Age is the only one we cannot live without. The crops of about a dozen ancient people feed the 6 billion people of the world today. Despite more than two centuries of scientific crop breeding, the so-called green revolution of the 60’s and the genetic engineering of the 90’s, not one new staple has been added to our repertoire of crops since prehistoric times. However, the invention of agriculture is itself “a runaway train”, as it led to the expansion of populations, but which, seldom solved the food problem because of two inevitable consequences: One, biological, the population grows until it hits the bounds of the food supply. Two, social: all civilizations become hierarchical; the upward concentration of wealth ensures that there can never be enough to go around – another progress trap. “
Wright observes that since the
Chinese invented gunpowder, there has been great progress in
the making of “bangs”: from the firecracker to the cannon, to the
petard to the high explosive shell. Just when high explosives were
reaching a state of perfection, “progress” found the infinitely
bigger “bang” in the atom. He muses, when the “bang” we make
can blow up our world, we have made rather too much progress.
For Sri Aurobindo the question of human progress is, as almost everything he wrote about, complex. While he believes in 1909 that human progress is the agent of change and writes: “ Whether we take the modern scientific or the ancient Hindu standpoint the progress of humanity is a fact.”(Aurobindo 1909) by the early 1940s his view seems to have notably altered and he writes:
“the idea of human progress itself is very probably an illusion, for there is no sign that man, once emerged from the animal stage, has radically progressed during his race-history; at most he has advanced in knowledge of the physical world, in Science, in the handling of his surroundings, in his purely external and utilitarian use of the secret laws of Nature. But otherwise he is what he always was in the early beginnings of civilization: he continues to manifest the same capacities, the same qualities and defects, the same efforts, blunders, achievements, frustrations. If progress there has been, it is in a circle, at most perhaps in a widening circle. Man today is not wiser than the ancient seers and sages and thinkers, not more spiritual than the great seekers of old, the first mighty mystics, not superior in arts and crafts to the ancient artists and craftsmen; the old races that have disappeared showed as potent an intrinsic originality, invention, capacity of dealing with life and, if modern man in this respect has gone a little farther, not by any essential progress but in degree, scope, abundance, it is because he has inherited the achievements of his forerunners. Nothing warrants the idea that he will ever hew his way out of the half-knowledge half-ignorance which is the stamp of his land, or, even if he develops a higher knowledge, that he can break out of the utmost boundary of the mental circle.” (Aurobindo 1949 p832)
No longer optimistic about the inevitable triumph of human progress, the evolutionary transcendence of the human race he suggests will be facilitated only by a few special individuals.
“if a superior creation is intended, then, certainly, it is not out of man that the new grade, type or pattern can develop; for in that case there would be some race or kind or make of human beings that has already the material of the superman in it, just as the peculiar animal being that developed into humanity had the essential elements of human nature already potential or present in it: there is no such race, kind or type, at most there are only spiritualised mental beings who are seeking to escape out of the terrestrial creation. If by any occult law of Nature such a human development of the supramental being is intended, it could only be by a few in humanity detaching themselves from the race so as to become a first foundation for this new pattern of being. There is no reason to suppose that the whole race could develop this perfection; it cannot be a possibility generalized in the human creature.” “(831/832)
In the above passage what is notable is the use of the word “if”, as in “if a supramental creation is intended”. One finds in his text that even when his statements suggest an inevitability that “if “ is implicitly never far away. If his mature conclusions regarding human progress are no longer optimistic he does not discount some forms of human progress, if not in developing new skills and traits then marked by an increase in subtly, complexity, and variety of development:
“It cannot truly be said that there has been no such thing as human progress since man's appearance or even in his recent ascertainable history; for however great the ancients, however supreme some of their achievements and creations, however impressive their powers of spirituality, of intellect or of character, there has been in later developments an increasing subtlety, complexity, manifold development of knowledge and possibility in man's achievements, in his politics, society, life, science, metaphysics, knowledge of all kinds, art, literature; even in his spiritual endeavor, less surprisingly lofty and less massive in power of spirituality than that of the ancients, there has been this increasing subtlety, plasticity, sounding of depths, extension of seeking.” (841)
Although he even issues a caveat here, prefixing the above statement with the following:
“it may be conceded that what man has up till now principally done is to act within the circle of his nature, on a spiral of nature-movement, sometimes descending, sometimes ascending, -- there has been no straight line of progress, no indisputable, fundamental or radical exceeding of his past nature: “
Therefore, Sri Aurobindo concludes that the mere refining of skills by the Modern has done nothing to facilitate the transformation of humanity that is the aim of his yoga to accomplish:
“his progress has not indeed carried the race beyond itself, into a self-exceeding, a transformation of the mental being. But that was not to be expected; for the action of evolutionary Nature in a type of being and consciousness is first to develop the type to its utmost capacity by just such a subtilisation and increasing complexity till it is ready for her bursting of the shell, the ripened decisive emergence, reversal, turning over of consciousness on itself that constitutes a new stage in the evolution”(841)
When Sri Aurobindo says that human progress is probably an illusion he is stating that there is no unending linear human progress as was the type envisioned in the European Enlightenment. In the European post-Enlightenment view of progress, humanity follows a steady path of evolutionary advance. In contrast Sri Aurobindo views human progress as defined by advances and then by sudden reversals in fortune that result in it following a curved rather than a straight lines. In this respect Sri Aurobindo's view of human progress is fairly consistent with the views of Ronald Wright who states that human progress, as an ideology is merely a myth. The path of progress is beset by a myriad of traps and snares that ultimately lead human kind to circle back on itself.
But if there is nothing in collective human progress that is being perfected to prepare for an inevitable descent of what Sri Aurobindo calls the “supramental manifestation” then what is it that is preparing for the appearance of the superman? A careful reading of Sri Aurobindo reveals that the deliverance of the new race is not dependent on human progress but by the force he has already described in the Synthesis of Yoga “the effort of nature in man” or “nature's yoga”.
But what does this exactly mean that the evolution of human consciousness is not the result of human progress but is a product of nature? In the following passage Debashish Banerji elaborates:
“Mankind has not evolved as a
species, there is no such thing as "human progress."
In other words, Homo sapeins is a vehicle, the conduit in the dialectic between spirit and matter, that is under pressure from the Supermind (shakti) to create ever more complex orders of being. Human nature (prakriti) itself need not change, just facilitate the initial conditions in a few special individuals for the novel emergence of the superman. In other words, for what Sri Aurobindo calls the supramental manifestation to occur "nature's yoga" requires only its facilitation by a few special individuals as it perfects itself in them through the evolution of their psychic being (soul). The psychic being then facilitates the preparation in these individuals for the grace and descent of Supermind.
In contrast to Teilhard De Chardin's view of evolution in which it is the collectivization of human consciousness advancing toward a noosphere that facilitates the omega point of species, Sri Aurobindo invest his hope in the individual as the unit of evolutionary selection. In so doing the Aurobindian superman on closer inspection shares many similar traits with the Nietzschean overman. A brief comparison between the way the two construct their concept of the super/overman would be useful here.
Nietzsche's view of human evolution contrast with Sri Aurobindo in that he sees evolution as leading not to the creation of the overman but rather, to the triumph of the herd. He views natural selection as breding inferior forms of life; if humanity is evolving he believes that it is evolving toward a common mediocrity. The creative force facilitating the creation of the overman in Nietzsche's view is not collective human progress but rather, an expression of nature's life force manifesting in individual self-affirmation that he calls “will to power”. The meanings Nietzsche ascribes to this will are complex and stated a bit differently in his various texts, what follows is a brief synopsis of its fourfold variation:
“It is a dynamic vision of life
that values life in its aspect of Becoming. It is the kind of home
wherein the Overman can live. Here the world of Becoming gets
interpreted as a dynamic unfolding of preservation and enhancement
conditions which elicit the approval of the Overman. This, then, is
the unity within the four major demarcations of the Will in
Nietzsche's thought. (1) The Primal Will which equals Becoming. (2)
The Will in the theory of Will to Power which equals the dynamic
unfolding of quantities of power under the conditions of preservation
and enhancement. (3) The Will in the notion of Will to Power which
equals the power of positing values i.e., the creating of horizons
through form-creating interpretations. And (4) the Will of the child
which equals the ability to affirm life as it is, i.e., to see the
self as ground for valuation. But this is to say that the self sees
itself as Will to Power and in seeing itself as Will to Power it sees
itself as an interpreting activity. The Will of the child as a
self-propelling wheel will ultimately will its own most
interpretation, for in that interpretation it wills itself. In this
sense the theory is an interpretation of Becoming which requires a
Both Nietzsche's overman and Sri Aurobindo's superman affirm life in the world, both also come into being through the aspirations of extraordinary individuals rather than the by the actions of the masses. Just as Nietzsche champions nature's underlying creative will as the vehicle of transformation that takes man to overman Sri Aurobindo affirm nature's underlying occult action that he calls “nature's yoga ” as that primal evolutionary force driving the transformation of man to superman.
Sri Aurobindo however, develops his ideas on the subject by tracing a genealogy that leads back to ancient India, and so contextualizes it within the tradition of Indian spirituality. By contrast Nietzsche's view of the overman can be traced back to ancient Greece and so he contextualizes the creation of a superior being within the European philosophical tradition. Among other things the move toward Indian spirituality results in Sri Aurobindo developing a concept that is not only of an immanent god in nature but also of a Godhead with a cosmic and transcendental poise. Although Nietzsche views the “will to power” as a metaphysical force underlying the primal forces of nature and claims the "world is the will to power -- and nothing besides" he would disdained the association of this will with a supernatural god. Moreover, Nietzsche views “will to power” purely in terms of its Becoming in the world whereas Sri Aurobindo views natures yoga not only in terms of Becoming but also in terms of Being.
But for these qualitative differences that result largely from their cross cultural encounter, Sri Aurobindo's view mirrors Nietzsche's in conceiving of a metaphysical will/force as driving creation of a new superior being and in suggesting that it is not collective human progress but the extraordinary individual who will facilitate the creation of the superman. Moreover, both Sri Aurobindo and Nietzsche agree that the morality of the superman (overman) will transcend conventional ideas of good and evil therefore, one should not be surprised in their rhetorical styles of affinity. For example, in the prologue to "Thus Spake Zarathustra" (1885) Nietzsche declares the following:
"I teach you the Superman. Man is something that shall be overcome. What have you done to overcome him? - The superman is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the superman shall be the meaning of the earth! - Man is a rope, tied between beast and superman - a rope over an abyss - What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not an end: what can be loved in man is that he is an overture and a going under...” -
The notion of humanity as a bridge between the animal and the Superman is in fact almost identical to Sri Aurobindo's view of man the transitional being. He says: “Man is a transitional being; he is not final. For in man and high beyond him ascend the radiant degrees that climb to a divine supermanhood. There lies our destiny and the liberating key to our aspiring but troubled and limited mundane existence”. In eschewing collective progress in favor of an occult force of nature operating in extrodinary individuals who act in a world according to standards that would defy conventional morality Sri Aurobindo's view like Nietzsche's is also categorized by an profoundly anti-humanist tone. This anti-humanist tone also characterizes his thoughts on the advance of human societies toward human unity, although this part of Sri Aurobindo's philosophy is more reminiscent of Georg Hegel than Friedrich Nietzsche.
As already mentioned, the premises that undergird what Sri Aurobindo calls the supramental manifestation are often qualified by “if” statements in his writing as in “if “ this manifestation is to occur it will not be due to human effort but rather by “the effort of nature in man”. Similarly, he believes that the advance toward human unity will also be driven by the occult action of nature's effort in man although he seems to view the success of this collective project as inevitable; at least that is
“if “ the human race survives! In other words, although human history can be viewed as a progressive advance toward unity it is not human progress per say that drives mankind toward unity but, it is “the effort of nature in man” that is responsible.
In conceiving of this effort of nature in man as an unfolding of Spirit within the dialectic processes of human history in which humanity progressively moves toward an idealized synthesis marked by a teleology that results in the triumph of the Spirit, Sri Aurobindo demonstrates a perspective on historical processes that can be called Hegelian. In Hegel's view of history he focuses on a dialectic interchange between the binary forces he calls thesis and antithesis that progressively move humanity toward a synthesis and historical omega point. Here is a synopsis of how Hegel sizes up human history:
“This model begins with an
existing element, or thesis, with contradictions inherent to its
structure. These contradictions unwittingly create the thesis' direct
opposite, or antithesis, bringing about a period of conflict between
the two. The new element, or synthesis, that emerges from this
conflict then discovers its own internal contradictions, and starts
the process anew. The reason the Hegelian dialectic is termed
"progressive" is because each new thesis represents an
advance over the previous thesis, continually until an endpoint (or
final goal) is reached. To specifically apply this model Hegel's view
of world history, it represents the manner in which the Spirit
develops gradually into its purest form, ultimately recognizing its
own essential freedom. To Hegel, "world history is thus the
unfolding of Spirit in time, as nature is the unfolding of the Idea
in space." The dialectical process thus virtually defines the
meaning of history for Hegel.” (Burrell)
Although the comparisons that are stated above between Sri Aurobindo and Hegel are striking and it is tempting simply to go no farther than in accepting their similarities of historical vision, a closer examination of their work reveals important differences as well. For example, Hegel derives his ideas of from the European Enlightenment and his conception of history therefore remains a rational one, whereas Sri Aurobindo expression of Real-Idea as that force evolving from ignorance to gnosis is defined by its supra-rational perspective. In the following passage Debashish Banerji elaborates on the constrating perspectives between Sri Aurobindo and Hegel:
“One may say Sri Aurobindo seems to rub shoulders with Hegel and other philosophers of evolution who see Consciousness involved in earth and evolving through history. But this resemblance again is partial. Whereas the Hegelian Idea works out its inexorable syntheses using nature and humanity deterministically as instruments, with no occult process of the aspiration of Ignorance from below and the response of a self-existent Knowledge above or of the resistance of a conscious denial in the Ignorance, what one may call Falsehood, rendering the emergence of consciousness precarious, Sri Aurobindo’s philosophy of evolution uncovers the arduous agency of becoming in the Ignorance and particularly in the human individual. Moreover, the Hegelian Idea remains rational, a post-Enlightenment notion of consciousness reaching its full expression and its identity of being in collective human “understanding” and therein reaching the “end of history; while for Sri Aurobindo, the Idea involved in the processes of history is what he terms the “Real-Idea” of Supermind, a faculty and operation of consciousness from which Mind is derived and whose properties of infinite freedom and wholeness mind aspires to but can never experientially comprehend, except through its self-transcendence.” (Banerji 2008) http://www.sciy.org/blog/_archives/2008/8/8/3830554.html
is interesting to assess Sri Aurobindo's culminating vision of
history's progressive march toward Human Unity with these comparisons
and contrasts to Hegel in mind. In an earlier passage taken
from the text which we will now again reference, Sri Aurobindo has
conceded the anti-humanist point that it may even take the specter of
a final horrible war to achieve the inevitable ends of Human Unity.
In other words, human unity might be gained in spite of, and not
because of any humanist effort. In this concluding paragraph in his
postscript to the Ideal of Human Unity (1949), he sums up his final
word on the matter::
The final lines of this passage are staggering in their implications for human agency because even when Human Unity is achieved, the fate of mankind will ultimately still reside with the gods and whatever use they may have for humanity.
And perhaps these Gods may not look so benevolently on humanity if a fundamental shift in human consciousness does not follow the achievement of nature's drive toward world union. In the final chapter of the Life Divine Sri Aurobindo view on the future of the human race becomes at times most pessimistic when he considers what can happen if the evolutionary pressures of mind working upon life in humanity do not prove able to support it due to a lack of “inner” human progress:
In short, Sri Aurobindo conceives his ideal of human unity driven by the effort of nature in man as inevitable, but only if the human race survives to witness it!
I would like to conclude this section by offering up one possibility as to why Sri Aurobindo's perspective on human progress seems to have shifted during the course of his lifetime by referencing his original text on Yoga and Human Evolution from 1909, in which he writes:
“The progress of mankind has been placed by many predominately in the development of the human intellect, and intellectual development is no doubt essential to self-conquest. The animal and the savage are bound by the body because the ideas of the animal or the ideas of the savage are mostly limited to those sensations and associations which are connected with the body. The development of intellect enables a man to find the deeper self within and partially replace what our philosophy calls the dehatmaka-buddhi, the sum of ideas and sensations which make us think of the body as ourself, by another set of ideas which reach beyond the body, and, existing for their own delight and substituting intellectual and moral satisfaction as the chief objects of life, master, if they cannot entirely silence, the clamor of the lower sensual desires......
But it is not only through the intellect that man rises. If the clarified intellect is not supported by purified emotions, the intellect tends to be dominated once more by the body and to put itself at its service and the lordship of the body over the whole man becomes more dangerous than in the natural state because the innocence of the natural state is lost. The power of knowledge is placed at the disposal of the senses, sattva serves tamas, the god in us becomes the slave of the brute. The disservice which scientific Materialism is unintentionally doing the world is to encourage a return to this condition; the suddenly awakened masses of men, unaccustomed to deal intellectually with ideas, able to grasp the broad attractive innovations of free thought but unable to appreciate its delicate reservations, verge towards that reeling back into the beast, that relapse into barbarism which was the condition of the Roman Empire at a high stage of material civilization and intellectual culture and which a distinguished British statesman declared the other day to be the condition to which all Europe approached. The development of the emotions is therefore the first condition of a sound human evolution. Unless the feelings tend away from the body and the love of others takes increasingly the place of the brute love of self, there can be no progress upward....”
In reading the above passage it is clear that Sri Aurobindo insisted that the transformation of intellectual capabilities must be supported by the purification of the emotions that provides the platform for human progress.
Although his perspective on human progress may simply have changed because he further refined his ideas about it, in separating it out from “the effort of nature in man,” one can also imagine another contributing factor for his shift in perspective as well.
Over the course of his lifetime having witnessing the horrors of two world wars, the degradations of colonialism and the myriad of other travesties that took place during the period in which he lived, he certainly could have come to the conclusion that the advance of mankind's intellectual capabilities, of science, technology, and industrialism only exacerbated human cruelty and magnified mankind's propensity for evil. It was the hardening of the heart rather than the purification of emotions that supported the intellectual advance of the 20th century. Could this decoupling of mental from vital, of intellectual from emotional evolution led him to eschew the idea of human progress as he envisioned it in 1909?
If this suggestion can be
admitted then Sri Aurobindo would have come to the same conclusion as
most intellectuals of that era who early in the 20th
century believed in unending human progress, but by mid-century came
to despair at drawing any comparisons between human harmony with
VI) The Dialectics of Biology and
Culture: science, ecology & economics
The previous sections of this paper explored the relationship of contemporary scientific and social perspectives on evolution with those of Sri Aurobindo in marking the one hundredth anniversary of the publication of his first essays on Yoga and Evolution. This final section concludes by exploring the relationship of science and society itself. The comparison given here will be between Sri Aurobindo's thoughts on this relationship and the perspective given in a constructionist approach to science and society that applies a dialectical methodology. The hope is to facilitate a dialogic platform which allows Sri Aurobindo to converse with several of today's most brilliant scientist and philosophers of science.
Perhaps it is best if the twain between science and religion do not meet. Trying to engage science and spirituality in a dialog has a long and troubled history. The incommensurable narratives of matter and spirit they both tell have proven time and time again troublesome for reaching any common understanding. In fact, if science and spirituality do share something in common it is that they all too often accuse the other of totalizing a universal narrative that usurps all ways of looking at the world that are inconsistent with their own.
Religion and science each have their own fundamentalist practitioners who would reduce the world solely to accounts told in their holy books or biology text books. One can not easily imagine an encounter between science and religion in which some violent reaction would not be triggered. Worse perhaps then the violent confrontation between science and religion is when either one appropriates the narratives of the other for the purpose of furthering their own ideological concerns. In the case of religion one example would be in their use of science to justify creationism, while in the case of science such appropriation usually results in one of the just-so stories of origins or cultural analogs of natural selection that Neo-Darwinism tells.
At their most extreme both religion and science utilize the authority vested in them by the church or the academy to suppress dissent. While religion has by far proven the worst offender of the two in expressing intolerance toward non-believers, science also has its methods of purging radicals from its ranks, who would dared to question the dominant scientific paradigm of the day. While not so extreme as to burn its dissidents at the stake the church of science often uses more subtle methods to show displeasure with its heretics, denying those who challenge the consensus view of normal science entrance into its congregation. This is done by passing over candidates for academic tenure or by the refusal of professional journals to publish research.
Given the polarization of science and religion and the heavy handed tactics the authorities of both constituencies have been known to employ against dissenters a direct confrontation between the two perhaps is not advisable. If we wish to get anywhere in trying to integrate the stories of science and spirit it would perhaps be better to hold their incommensurable narratives in a creative tension than to observe them engage in battle or superficially explain away the other in terms of their own ideology .
In spite of the unbridgeable gap between science and spirituality however, both do share one undeniable trait in common; both science and religion are embedded in culture. If the twain between science and spirituality does meet it is that they both perform their functions within a shared platform of society and culture. A dialog between science and spirituality may therefore best be facilitated by appealing to their shared communicative platform of culture.
This holds true also for any dialog one would wish to begin between integral yoga and science. It would perhaps be best to begin such a dialog by first exploring Sri Aurobindo's dialectic between yoga and culture and then to look for resonances with narratives told by credible scientist regards the dialectics of science and culture. Better yet, in Sri Aurobindo's own work one finds him at times also critically exploring the dialectic between science and culture. It would therefore seem best to arrive at a dialogic platform to engage science and integral yoga using their diffusion in the semi-permeable membrane of culture, rather then by a direct confrontation as a means to begin the conversation.
When one examines how Sri Aurobindos views the relationship between science and society one is struck by its resonance with constructionist narratives of science and society that applies both a dialectical method and systems theory. One such scientific approach is called Dialectical Biology a term coined by Richard Levins and Richard Lewontin of Harvard University. While systems theory can be defined as a way of knowing that:
Rather than reducing an entity (e.g. the human body) to the properties of its parts or elements (e.g. organs or cells), .... focuses on the arrangement of and relations between the parts which connect them into a whole (cf. holism). (Heylighen and Joslyn) Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy
Applying a dialectical method to systems theory provides the additional insight that eliminates some of the problems involved in constructing a mental model often designed by systems theorist:
A dialectical approach to systems theory recognizes that the system is an intellectual construct designed to elucidate some aspects of reality but necessarily ignoring and even distorting others. The dialect method adds value by asking: what the consequences would be of different ways of formulating a problem and of bounding an object of interest (Levins p122)
While systems theory is heavily dependent on quantitative mathematical analysis, of pregiven variables within an abstract system, a dialectic understanding of processes embeds the system within the opposing forces acting upon it in the environment to develop a qualitative understanding of the phenomena. In other words a dialectical methods helep facilitate a way in which systems can be viewed
in their interaction with the environment. As such systems “acquire qualitatively new properties through emergence, resulting in continual evolution”. (Heylighen and Joslyn)
For instance in a study of the economy, systems theory may construct a model based on production, prices and profits in an attempt to explain their relationship and trajectory. While it may do this successfully it is still incomplete because it neglects to comprehend the social relations intrinsic to economics.”Systems theory quantifies the dynamics of the elements of the system, while dialectics translates the the results into qualitative language that leads to a holistic understanding” (Levins p122)
With regards to the theory of evolution:
Whereas the ultra-Darwinian view of evolution focuses nearly exclusively on the external (while Darwin himself was somewhat more pluralistic), modern geneticists analyzing the developmental processes of individual organisms (ontogeny) often focus nearly exclusively on the internal in their acceptance of genetic determinism. Counter to this genetic determinism (and narrow reductionism), Levins and Lewontin, in The Dialectical Biologist, explain:
An organism does not compute itself from its DNA. The organism is the consequence of a historical process that goes on from the moment of conception until the moment of death; at every moment gene, environment, chance, and the organism as a whole are all participating....Natural selection is not a consequence of how well the organism solves a set of fixed problems posed by the environment; on the contrary, the environment and the organism actively codetermine each other. (89)
A dialectical relationship exists between a subject, such as an organism, or even human society, and the environment. They exist as one (in tension), given that an organism is part of nature. The former is dependent upon the latter for its existence, and both realms are transformed throughout their relationship, but “do not completely determine each other” (Lewontin/Levins in York and Clark ).
Notwithstanding the knowledge by identity that is peculiar to Sri Aurobindo's way of knowing the world, in comparing Sri Aurobindo discourse to the scientific approach of dialectical biology one finds that both employ an epistemology that follows the particular through to its countless interconnections in the whole (world.) Both agree about the importance of appreciating difference (multiplicity) while simultaneously apprehending holism (unity). Both share an integrative view of organism and environment, science and culture, individual and society, whole and part. Both are suspicious of uncritical notions of human progress. Both agree that when the economic function of science is exploited by the marketplace the impact on human societies can be devastating. In so doing both share a certain symmetry in thinking about the role of economics and science with Karl Marx.
Like Marx both view the practice of science as mediated in society by its economic function. “Marx’s treatment of scientific progress is consistent with his broader historical materialism. Just as the economic sphere and the requirements of the productive process shape man’s political and social institutions, so do they also shape his scientific activity at all stages of history. Science does not grow or develop in response to forces internal to science or the scientific community. It is not an autonomous sphere of human activity. Rather, science needs to be understood as a social activity which is responsive to economic forces” (Rosenberg)
Before going further it should be clarified that although Sri Aurobindo perspective converges with Marxist thought in considering the impact of economics on science they diverge radically in how they perceive the roots of the problem and its ultimate solution. Moreover, both Marx and the biologist examined here employ a dialectical method and while Sri Aurobindo's view in many ways reflects a dialectical approach to spirit and matter, his method of resolving the relationship between the two can more properly be called integral. If one wishes to read an exhaustive comparison between Sri Aurobindo and Marx one should read Sri Aurobindo and Karl Marx by Debi Prasad Chattopadhyaya who remarks that one fundamental agreements between the two is that: they expressed their profound and studied concern from the alienated man in an age dominated by matter, machine and money (Chattopahhayaya 1988 p13).
In Sri Aurobindo's view the impact of economics on science becomes problematic when it is appropriated for the self-aggrandizement of the titans of capitalism. Sri Aurobindo, never afraid to call a spade a spade, refers to this appropriation of science by the titans of capitalism as economic barbarism. He states the case that science solely in the service of the machinery of titanic capitalism poses a threat to human life itself. He goes so far as to state that when science is exploited by the vital power demands of the capitalist it threatens to collapse not only the common good but poses a risk to life itself. This dangerous dialectic here is between the quest for knowledge and a vulgar will to power. Here is Sri Aurobindo:
“But if science has thus prepared us for an age of wider and deeper culture and if in spite of and even partly by its materialism it has rendered impossible the return of the true materialism, that of the barbarian mentality, it has encouraged more or less indirectly both by its attitude to life and its discoveries another kind of barbarism, —for it can be called by no other name,— that of the industrial, the commercial, the economic age which is now progressing to its culmination and its close. This economic barbarism is essentially that of the vital man who mistakes the vital being for the self and accepts its satisfaction as the first aim in life. and aim, so the vitalistic or economic barbarian makes the satisfaction of wants and desires and the accumulation of possessions his standard and aim. His ideal man is not the cultured or noble or thoughtful or moral or religious, but the successful man. To arrive, to succeed, to produce, to accumulate, to possess.. He values education for its utility in fitting a man for success in a competitive or, it may be, a socialized industrial existence, science for the useful inventions and knowledge, the comforts, conveniences, machinery of production with which it arms him, its power for organization, regulation, stimulus to production. The opulent plutocrat and the successful mammoth capitalist and organizer of industry are the supermen of the commercial age and the true, if often occult rulers of its society. (Sri Aurobindo Human Cycle 1972)
The essential barbarism in all this is the pursuit of unfettered accumulation, possession, enjoyment, as the enlarged vital being replaces the soul of man. This results is the colonization of the environment by the desiring machine of hyper-capitalism. He continues:
Therefore in a commercial age with its ideal, vulgar and barbarous, of success, vitalistic satisfaction, productiveness and possession the soul of man may linger a while for certain gains and experiences, but cannot permanently rest. If it persisted too long, Life would become clogged and perish of its own plethora or burst in its straining to a gross expansion. Like the too massive Titan it will collapse by its own mass, mole ruit sua. (Sri Aurobindo Human Cycle 1972)
While this warning given between 1916-1918 in the Human Cycle was dire when written, the passage of time seems to have done nothing to mitigate Sri Aurobindo's concerns. He wrote the following lines in the 1940s in the last chapter of The Life Divine. If anything it appears that his perspective seems to have hardened. In a passage quoted also in the previous section he expresses his concerns for the survival of the human race because the pettiness of the human personality can not accomplish the changes required of it to positively assimilate the “colossal forces” co-extensive with the huge mechanical organization of life and scientific knowledge which it has evolved.
“because the burden which is being laid on mankind is too great for the present littleness of the human personality and its petty mind and small life-instincts, because it cannot operate the needed change, because it is using this new apparatus and organization to serve the old infraspiritual and infrarational life-self of humanity, the destiny of the race seems to be heading dangerously, as if impatiently and in spite of itself, under the drive of the vital ego seized by colossal forces which are on the same scale as the huge mechanical organization of life and scientific knowledge which it has evolved, a scale too large for its reason and will to handle, into a prolonged confusion and perilous crisis and darkness of violent shifting incertitude. Even if this turns out to be a passing phase or appearance and a tolerable structural accommodation is found which will enable mankind to proceed less catastrophically on its uncertain journey, this can only be a respite. For the problem is fundamental and in putting it evolutionary Nature in man is confronting herself with a critical choice which must one day be solved in the true sense if the race is to arrive or even to survive. " (1949 p1054/55)
One can not help to see that part of the problem is the nature of the hyper-capitalist economy, the unregulated marketplace where a vital struggle of competition of all against all takes place. We do not know how Sri Aurobindo would view today's global capitalism, but from his writings above it is clear that he would not approve of unfettered free markets in which nature, life, and labor were exploited by the the vital will of the opulent plutocrat, the successful mammoth capitalist and organizer of industry. In all likelihood therefore, he would view science in the service of today's unregulated free markets as bound to end with mixed results for the common good.
In fact, contemporary science in service of the neo-liberal economy has been thoroughly critiqued in post-modern scholarship and stands accused of exploiting the common good for its own financial gain. In Marxist terms the inability of science to fully serve the common good is an inevitable result of the inequalities that govern class based societies. If anything the inequality of society has only been exacerbated since Sri Aurobindo concluded the Life Divine.
In the book Biology Under the Influence, a collection of dialectical essays on ecology, agriculture and health by Richard Lewontin and Richard Levins, Levins asks straight forwardly: Is Capitalism a Disease? In the essay Levins demonstrates that the best facilitator of disease is poverty:
“Rates of death and other harmful outcomes increase with the level of poverty in illness like coronary heart disease, cancer of all forms, obesity, growth retardation in children unplanned pregnancies and maternal mortality.”(Levins 2006)
In fact, in determining the epidemiology of many illnesses economic conditions often can not be separated from biological causality. For example, Levins asks: Is tuberculosis cause by Mycobacterium tuberculosis or by the conditions of poverty and lack of sanitation in which these germs breed?
The impact of class on mental health is also dramatic. Recent Harvard studies have shown that among groups of teenagers from high school all of whom did equally well academically, working class kids showed prolonged rises in the hormone “cortisol” under any kind of stress while upper class kids showed a quick rise and then decline.
Moreover the phenomena of economic globalization can also make us ill:
Reductionist science would state the cause of cholera is the byproduct of the cholera bacteria, but cholera live among plankton along the coast. The plankton blooms when the sea get warm and when runoff from sewage and from agricultural fertilizers feed the algae. The products of world trade are carried in freighters that use seawater as ballast that is discharged before coming to port, along with beat that live in the ballast water. The small crustaceans eat the algae, the fish eat the crustaceans, and the cholera bacterium meets the fish eaters.. Finally, if the public health system has been gutted by structural adjustments to the economy then the full explanation of the epidemic is jointly, Vibro cholera and the World Bank (Levins 2006 p21,22)
Levins deconstruction of the relationship between organism/environment, class/health, culture/biology
all demonstrate those condition under which “Life would become clogged and perish of its own plethora or burst in its straining to a gross expansion” In some ways the revelation Levins makes regards public health in an era of hyper-capitalism and neo-liberal global markets extends Sri Auorbindo's critique of the exploitation of the life-world by the titans of capitalism in an industrialist economy.
Another critique of science that is shared by Sri Aurobindo and dialectical biology is of its myopic reductionist view of the world that reduces life to a series of narrow material causes. Although Sri Aurobindo may understand the reason science pursues this particular epistemology he does not look favorably on its ability to diagnosis the true source of societal ills. While not introducing spirituality into their consideration Lewontin and Levins also despair at the ability of reductionist science to diagnosis problems plaguing society.
Levins extensive critique of the public health system challenges not only the manner it has been ill served by the inequalities fostered by unregulated capitalism but also calls into question the ideological manner in which science often frames problems. Among other things this scientific ideology focuses too narrowly on biological causes while often neglecting proper consideration of the wider natural ecology and historical processes that it is embedded within. When one frames the challenges posed by this neglect of the wider ecology the resultant feedback loop calls into question the notion of scientific progress itself. The reductionist method employed by science that focuses too narrowly on the cause of disease creates blind spots that fails to anticipate others diseases.
In his study, Levins considers the failure of traditional scientific epistemology to anticipate the wider sweep of the dangers to public health. In doing this Lewontin and Levins reveals the mixed results science has had in its successes in extending human life expectancy while simultaneously failing to anticipate the outbreak of infectious diseases:
The scientific tradition of the "West," of Europe and North America, has had its greatest success when it has dealt with what we have come to think of as the central questions of scientific inquiry: "What is this made of?" and "How does this work?" Over the centuries, we have developed more and more sophisticated ways of answering these questions. We can cut things open, slice them thin, stain them, and answer what they are made of. We have made great achievements in these relatively simple areas, but have had dramatic failures in attempts to deal with more complex systems. We see this especially when we ask questions about health. When we look at the changing patterns of health over the last century or so, we have both cause for celebration and for dismay. Human life expectancy has increased by perhaps thirty years since the beginning of the twentieth century and the incidence of some of the classical deadly diseases has declined and almost disappeared. Smallpox presumably has been eradicated; leprosy is very rare; and polio has nearly vanished from most regions of the world. Scientific technologies have advanced to the point where we can give very sophisticated diagnoses, distinguishing between kinds of germs that are very similar to each other.(Lewontin, Levins 2006)
And below they continue by considering the failures of the public health system in coping with diseases that mostly impact the poor:
“But the growing gap between rich and poor make many technical advances irrelevant to most of the world's people. Public health authorities were caught by surprise by the emergence of new diseases and the reappearance of diseases believed to be eradicated. In the 1970s, it was common to hear that infectious disease as an area of research was dying. In principle, infection had been licked; the health problems of the future would be degenerative diseases, problems of aging and chronic diseases. We now know this was a monumental error. The public health establishment was caught short by the return of malaria, cholera, tuberculosis, dengue, and other classical diseases. But it was also surprised by the appearance of apparently new infectious diseases: the most threatening of which is AIDS, but also Legionnaire's disease, Ebola virus, toxic shock syndrome, multiple drug resistant tuberculosi, arid many others. Not only was infectious disease not on the way out , but old diseases have come back with increased virulence and totally new ones have emerged.” (Levins 2006)
The failure to take a longer view of human history and the impact that environmental changes have had on human health they conclude is a major part of this problem:
So what was wrong with our epidemiological assumptions? We need to recognize that the historical mindset in medicine and related sciences was dangerously--and ideologically--limited. Nearly all who engaged in public health prediction took too narrow a view, both geographically and temporally. Typically, they looked only at a century or two instead of the whole sweep of human history. Had they looked at a wider time-frame, they would have recognized that diseases come and go when there are major changes in social relations, population, the kinds of food we eat, and land use. When we change our relations with nature, we also change epidemiology and the opportunities for infection.
In considering the dialectic relationship between the natural environment, culture and disease Levins weaves a complex web of associations that often escape the consideration of the problem solving techniques employed by scientific reductionism:
Waves of European conquest spread plague, small pox, tuberculosis, Deforestation exposes us to mosquito borne, tick borne, rodent carried diseases. Giant Hydroelectric projects and their accompanying irrigation canals spread snails that carry liver flukes and allow mosquitoes to breed. Monocultures of grain are mouse food , and if owls and jaguars and snakes that eat mice are exterminated the mouse population erupts with its own reservoirs of diseases. New environments such as warm chlorinated circulating water in hotels allow Legionnaires bacteria to prosper. It is.... usually rare because it is a poor competitor, but it tolerates heat better than most, and it can invade the larger but still microscopic protozoa to avoid chlorine. Finally, modern spray showers provide bacterium with droplets that can reach the furthest corners of our lungs (Levins 2006)
In their book both Richard Levins and Richard Lewontin seem to be saying that advances in medicine and bio-technology may not so much result in “scientific progress ' as they do in shifting disease and other human ills to other locations in the environment or human body.
Levins and Lewontin share a view of society and biology that is not only dialectic but holistic as well. Here again convergences can be found with Sri Aurobindo writing. Whatever divergence there may be that separate Levins/Lewontin from Sri Aurobindo, epistemological, historical, experiential, or belief all these seem to shrink in their systemic apprehension of the relationship between society, science and economics.
The similarities of Lewontin and Levins with Sri Aurobindo's social thought regards it symmetry with Marx, is of Marxism in its most idealized form. For example, Levins views a Marxist practice of health science as an attempt to integrate the insights of ecosystem health, environmental justice, health care for all, and alternative medicine. Although Sri Aurobindo would no doubt add an integration of spiritual practices as well into the above equation it is hard to see him disagreeing with Levin's idealized view of the health sciences.
Moreover, in a move that makes possible
a dialog with non-western epistemology, Lewontin and Levins rather
than attempting to colonize indigenous knowledge forms with
scientific ways of knowing, do as good constructionist do and credit
experience as the true source of knowledge. Anchoring knowledge in
experience leads them to construct a world view that does not
privilege any particular European understanding of the world, nor
attempts to reduce mind to mere genetic predisposition or to explain
away culture using analogs of Darwinian natural selection. It also
allows them to appreciate the diversity of knowledge that can be
gained through the worlds indigenous traditions. Below Richard
Lewontin considers the similarities between intuitive and scientific
goes on to explain how the methods of indigenous medical practices
mirror those of Western medicine:
It is not only just similarities in social thought that Sri Aurobindo shares with dialectical biology but there is a philosophical resonance as well. In what only can be called an integral move Lewontin expresses an epistemology that assesses wholes in terms of difference yet simultaneously views difference through a holistic interconnectedness. He does this however, by avoiding the historical traps that have been set by previous attempts to order Holism into hierarchical systems and teleology. “Dialectics appreciates the prereductionist kind of Holism (Hegel) but not its static quality, its hierarchical structures with a place for everything and everything in its place, nor the a priori imposition of purposefulness that may or may not be there, Thus it negates the materialist reduction's negation of the earlier holism, a negation of a negation. (Lewontin 2006)
The holism Lewontin advocates for can be demonstrated by natural ecology:
Ecology has brought to pubic consciousness the realization that all things are inter-connectedness in theworld The powerful impact of the realization that things are connected sometimes leads to claims that we can not separate body from mind, economics from culture, the physical from the biological, of the biological from the social. Much creative research has gone into showing the connectedness of all phenomena that are usually treated as separate. It is said that because of this interconnectedness they are all “One” an important element of mystical sensibility that asserts oneness with the Universe.
Holism so seen follows a process of deconstruction and reconstruction:
(but) Of course you can separate the intellectual constructs “body” from “mind” “physical” from “biological” from “social”.We do so all the time as soon as we label them. We have to in order to recognize and investigate the world. But it is not sufficient. After separating them we have to join them again, show their interpenetration, their mutual determination, their entwined evolution, and yet also their distinctness; “
The manner in which Lewinton present a picture of the whole by first appreciating it differences through disentangling part from whole, and then reintegrating them in a way that makes their interpenetration explicit, their mutual determination transparent, their evolution entwined, is similar to the way Sri Aurobindo formulates integrality in his work and is apparent in the dialectical method he often uses to argue for it.
It is apparent that in their systemic view of science and culture that both the dialectical methods of scientist who take a constructionist rather than a reductionist view of the world and Sri Aurobindo integral perspective on science and culture have notable points of convergences.
I would suggest it is at these points of convergence that we may find a common platform to harmonize, otherwise diametric poles of experience that science and spirituality represent. To totalize either spirituality or science or privilege one over the other in a conversation would be to reduce
our experience to all too narrow terms and collapse the multi-dimensional perspective in which we experience the world to a singular linear vision of causality.
It is true constructionist accounts of science such as those given by dialectical biology do not reference metaphysical teleology nor do they attempt to explain origins by invoking the idea of God. However, unlike the reductionist narratives of Darwinian Fundamentalist they do not automatically dismiss spirituality as irrelevant. Although they do share an aversion to Creationism and its “scientific models” of intelligent design, they do not denounce spirituality or privilege science in terms of human experience. They would grant both sovereign rule over their own domains of experience and meaning. This perspective can perhaps best be expressed in the words of Stephen Jay Gould - a scientist strongly influenced by dialectical biology- who in granting science and spirituality equal value in telling narratives that covered their respective fields of experience nevertheless viewed science and religion as two “Nonoverlapping Magisteria” .
This view honors spirituality and science as distinct ways of making sense of the world. A peaceful coexistence between faith and science is thought possible as long as one domain does not intrude on or try to colonialize the other.
While the agnosticism of Gould and others who share his view would not accept a spiritual narrative as an ultimate cause of things but still see spirituality as serving a meaningful function in society so too Sri Aurobindo -who accepts a spiritual narrative of the world- expresses a similar regard for the materialistic outlook of science:
“ Physical science must necessarily to its own first view be materialistic, because so long as it deals with the physical, it has for its own truth's sake to be physical both in its standpoint and method” (1915)
So although science and spirituality may not directly enjoin in an intimate embrace, if we accept the validity of both approaches for making sense of the world it is possible to facilitate their peaceful coexistence in culture. But is it possible that in the future that the twain between science and spirituality will meet?
Whether science will come to parse the subtle realms of consciousness that are non-physical or occult to us now and open its narratives to things that express the mystery of spirit or will retain its materialist view of the world forever, is hard to know with certainty, as Richard Levins reminds us.
“Science is often wrong because we study the known by making believe it is the known. Physicist in the late 1930s were lamenting the end of the atomic physics. All the fundamental properties were known – the electron, the neutron , and the proton had been measures- What more was there ? Then came neutrinos, positrons, mesons, antimatter, quarks, and strings. And each time the end was declared” (Levins 2006)
It is hard to determine to what ends science may lead us, the jury it seems will forever be out to lunch and no final verdict may ever be reached.
(thank you for indulging these perspectives)
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