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The poison of materialism and the elixir of spirituality
Blog by Arthur Lyon Dahl
An interview by Rowan Hooper with forest ecologist Suzanne Simard in the New Scientist (1 May 2021) triggered a deep reflection on an underlying theme between all my current interests, while helping to explain the disintegration and integration so visible in the world today, and what we need to do to respond.
Simard discovered what is popularly known as the wood wide web, the fact that forest trees share and trade food via fungal networks that connect their roots. Her recent research shows that this network is like a brain and can communicate information throughout the entire forest. Modern forestry practices like clear-cutting destroy the forest, while with lighter logging, forests can heal themselves. Trees are connected by fungi in a physical network where they trade, collaborate and interact as a cohesive, holistic society. Western thinking has seen plants as solitary, competing for as many resources as possible to increase their fitness. Yet Darwin wrote about the importance for natural selection of collaboration in communities, with interactions and relationships between species and with the environment. Simard says that Western science separates humanity from nature, mind from body, spirit from intellect, where the world can be dissected and its parts understood in a deterministic way. Mainstream science initially rejected James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis of the biosphere as a self-regulating system, and Lynn Margulis with her endosymbiotic theory that eucaryotic cells evolved by the engulfment and collaboration between procaryotic cells. Simard felt similar rejection initially.
Simard’s research shows that conifers have kin recognition, where a mother plant transfers food to kin siblings but not to strangers, changing their chemistry, nutrition and response to disease. The largest “mother trees” in a forest are the hubs of communication, protection and sentience, nurturing their own offspring and providing information to help generations of trees to survive. The forest is a connected, nurturing, healing place, and the more mother trees there are, the more diverse and abundant is natural regeneration. The fungal mycorrhizal networks are biological neural networks like the brain, designed for efficient transfer of information and resources for the health of the full community, even using chemicals like glutamate which is one of the dominant neurotransmitters in brains. The networks have the hallmarks of intelligence with a shape and biological chemistry that suggests they were wired and designed for wisdom. Plants are responsive to disturbance or injury, and might be said to be aware of humans as the dominant disturbing agent in forests. She also contrasts the Western view of separation from nature with that of indigenous communities with a world view that sees everything as connected and nurturing each other, world views which we have ignored, ridiculed and destroyed because they are mystical and spiritual. She has used science to demonstrate that these holistic connections exist. We are unfortunately still destroying old forests, pushing the system to collapse, with the resulting impacts on climate change and loss of biodiversity. She calls for a charter for trees comparable to animal rights or human rights.
This immediately resonated with my own work on cooperation and reciprocity in coral reef ecosystems, also now threatened by collapse. It touched on my work with indigenous world views and value systems of wholeness with nature in the Pacific. My recent work on sustainability has shown how an economy focused on individual enrichment or corporate profit rather than human wellbeing is leading to catastrophe. In developing proposals for global governance, we show the limitations of national sovereignty and the need for a cooperative multilateral approach to build a single world system.
What is common to all of this is a systems view of the importance of values as the rules by which we relate to each other, and our real purpose as human beings. We are all born with an animal reality, our physical body, as well as a rational or intellectual reality that we create with our wonderful minds. But we also have, at least in potential, a spiritual reality that we associate with the higher human qualities we can acquire throughout life, and that are the foundation for our capacity for cooperation and reciprocity upon which human societies are built. A healthy path of human development goes from the self-centred baby through social education for cooperation in childhood to an increasingly other-centred adulthood, raising a family and increasingly sharing and detaching as we decline in old age. This can be seen as the universal human spectrum from negative to positive, material to spiritual, egoist to altruist, self to other, competition to cooperation. The discovery that a healthy forest shows cooperation and other-centred characteristics shows how universal this perspective is of systems evolving to higher levels of integration and perfection.
Our problems today can be traced almost entirely to our failure individually and collectively to advance along this trajectory. Even in science, the materialistic reductionist perspective has led to the rejection or slow adoption by many of the science of complex systems and the importance of cooperation and reciprocity. We are stuck with greedy, power-hungry leaders, the increasing concentration of wealth by a few, corporations and investors driven by maximizing short-term returns with the end justifying any means, and a massive spread of crime and corruption. The values of competition and the survival of the fittest, with the invisible hand of self-interest, are rooted in our neocapitalist economic system and incorporated in our institutions, but this is a distortion of nineteenth century science, not the view of complex systems we have today. Darwin and Adam Smith would be shocked. What it demonstrates is how we select the ideology that resonates with and confirms our inner values, often called confirmation bias. If we are stuck at the stage of being the bully in the schoolyard, we confirm this by giving priority to the struggle to the top of the pile, to materialistic values, to greed, and even to violence and war, with whatever ideological label seems to fit. This could be called the poison of materialism, from which our society is sick today.
What, then, is it that pushes us up the trajectory towards higher values and reinforces cooperation and reciprocity? What can tame the animal side of our nature and help us to blossom as a spiritual being? It is religion, a word unpopular in many intellectual circles because it is associated with ancient traditions that have too often been corrupted by those at the animal end of the human spectrum. The true essence of religion is to give us the tools to struggle with the self within us, to learn to turn outward towards others, to love something greater that ourselves that is unknown and unknowable but represents the perfection towards which it is our purpose to evolve. This gives us the capacity to explore and develop our own unknown capacities, to appreciate the unknown we find in others, to explore the unknown in the universe through science. This is, at the human level, how the qualities that lead to cooperation and reciprocity are built. As a Baha’i, which I see as the highest and purest form of religion today, we understand that it is the loss of belief in God and in a higher divine purpose in life that has dragged so much of society to this low level. The more we can rebuild communities founded on unity in diversity, working on their transformation from a materialist to a spiritual civilization, the more we can emerge from the present forces of disintegration, and begin to rebuild a human system more like that primeval forest or coral reef. We need the elixir of spirituality to save us from self destruction.
Reference: Hooper, Rowan. 2021. The wisdom of the woods. New Scientist 250(3332):39-43. 1 May 2021.
Last updated 21 May 2021