A Secular Flagellum
Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela liken evolution, in their book, “The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding”, to a sculptor with wanderlust: the sculptor collects a stray thread here, a piece of wood there.“ And so, as he wanders about, intricate forms are being produced; they are composed of harmoniously interconnected parts that are a product not of design but of natural drift.” The authors use a concept called chemotaxis to explain how life can evolve and sustain itself through the interaction between the organism and the environment. Chemotaxis is the phenomenon whereby organisms direct their movements according to the presence of certain chemicals in the environment. For example, some single-cell bacteria have a structure called a flagellum that remains fixed on the bacterium’s base and rotates like a propeller which results in either a clear-cut movement of the bacterium or a tumbling motion. The tumbling can however be stopped if the bacterium is placed in an environment where a cube of sugar has been placed in a corner. In this case, the flagellum propels in such a way that the organism heads towards the zone of greatest sugar concentration. As explained by Maturana and Varela, this happens because in the bacteria’s membrane there are special molecules that interact with the sugar, so that as there is a difference of concentration in a small area around the bacterium and this differential makes the flagellum rotate in a different reaction. There is thus an on-going interaction between the organism and the environment with each influencing and changing the other, apparently with no need for the involvement of any other external agent.
This book is hence an argument, at one level, for doing away with a designer, for making god redundant. The central idea of this book is that cognition is not a representation of the world ‘out there’, but a “bringing forth of the world through the process of living itself”. Cognition is akin to dance between the organism and the environment which entails great synchrony between the two players and from which both derive fulfillment. The authors view the animal and the environment also as two sides of the same coin, “knower and known mutually specified,” somewhat similar to the observer and the observed in quantum physics. This relationship underscores the interconnectedness of life because, as Maturana and Varela observe, “With no law other than the conservation of identity and the capacity to reproduce, we have all emerged. It is what interconnects us to all things in what is fundamental to us: the five-petal rose, to the shrimp in the bay, or to the executive in New York City.”
This is so uncannily similar to Gregory Bateson’s observation in “Mind and Nature”: “What pattern connects the crab to the lobster and the orchid to the primrose and all four of them to me?” Arthur Schopenhauer also alluded to this relationship when he noted that “it is as though our lives were the features of the one great dream of a single dreamer in which all the dream characters dream, too; so that everything links to everything else, moved by the one will lead to life which is the universal will in nature.” Interconnectedness (or pratitya samutpada, which in Sanskrit means “to be by co-emergence”) is a central tenet also in Buddhism. Buddhism does not deny that phenomena do occur: but they are “dependent” and do not exist independently. As Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk and scholar, explains, “Any given thing in our world can appear only because it’s connected, conditioned and in turn conditioning, co-present and co-operating in constant transformation.”
If life is essentially an emergent phenomenon and can sustain itself through the common thread of interconnectedness, is the belief in a designer and faith in a personal god a pre-requisite still for the continuance of this cosmic interplay? It would appear that it is more (or at least equally) important that we – as equal (but not exalted) participants in this universal tableau – realize this interdependence of life’s different components and show respect and understanding for all other beings around us, irrespective of what we believe in, or choose not to believe in. Daniel Dennett, renowned scientist and philosopher of the mind, thinks for instance that it is time to ask tough questions about religion being assumed to be the only arbiter of the moral high ground. Dennett stresses that we need to consider “and make sure that the answers we get aren’t just plausible and reassuring but true” such questions as whether religion makes people better morally. Does it encourage more honesty, less violence, more sympathy, more charity? Would secular institutions perform as well as religions in this area? One of the articles on “the god issue” in “New Scientist” in March 2012 asserts that this may actually be the case.
As the article notes, “recently some societies have succeeded in sustaining cooperation [through] institutions such as courts, police and mechanisms for enforcing contracts. In some parts of the world, especially Scandinavia, these institutions have precipitated religion’s decline by usurping its community-building functions. These societies have climbed the religion’s ladder and kicked it away.” Nonetheless, what is worth considering is: is this a stray phenomenon, is it workable and sustainable far into the future.
This is the longer version of one of my recent postings to a discussion on “Reason and Rationality” in a group called “A Forum for Carnatic Music, Indian Heritage & Philosophy” on Linkedin – see link below):
 P: 117.
 P: 149.
 Ibid, p: 253.
 P: 117.
 In Joseph Campbell, “The Power of Myth”, p: 284.
 In “Quantum and the Lotus”, p: 63.
 “The idea that launched a thousand civilizations” by Ara Norenzayan, in “New Scientist”, 17 March 2012, p:44.
By Venkat Ramanan