Nondual Ecology

John McClellan

The Evolution of Non-DNA Life-systems

The whole biological kingdom—all the animals, plants, microbes, etc.—is made up of "morphs," or bodies, built according to the information codes contained in the DNA molecule. Until recently no information codes sufficiently complex to build bodies or shape behaviors existed on this planet outside of DNA. Nothing else could hold the complex data required to build a functioning object that could consume fuel, dissipate heat waste, maintain and repair itself, and copy, or replicate, its own precious life-giving information code. Not the clouds, not the air, not the sunshine or the heat in the earth, not water or mud, not the rocks, not even the silicates and crystals—in all the vast world of the four elements, i.e., the material universe, all was dead, inert, subject to entropy. Only DNA was negentropic.

So four billion years of DNA-driven evolution went peacefully by, age after age of dreamy biologies. Finally one of the morphs, or body types (humans), developed an incomprehensibly large brain, capable itself of independently storing and manipulating information structures complex enough to generate morphs or bodies of their own. At last, a new copying system! Human brains set loose the powerful symbolic systems of language, alphabets, mathematics, engineering, arts and crafts, religions, belief systems, social customs, and so on, and the world of technology and culture was born.

With the tremendous symbolic activity that our brains allowed, information codes had suddenly jumped out of their ancient amino acid cradle and began to pursue "their" own evolutionary destiny. A torrent of new morphologies and behaviors were loosed on our innocent, unsuspecting planet. New tools, new hunting, new farming and herding behaviors, new buildings, new forms of social organization—collectively referred to as technology, culture, or civilization. In a blinding flash, as seen from the evolutionary time frame, the planet has been transformed. A wildly unpredictable, radically new form of evolution is unfolding here. Information codes are free to form morphs and replicate in any way they wish or are able.

So who are we now? Are we still pure biological creatures? Is it even possible to conceive of technology, machines and information systems, etc., as a separate class of existence from humans? I think not. We have become technobionts, symbiotic members of this new life-form that has taken over the planet. Our "human" nature has merged with the new morphologies to become technobiotic nature. Humans are not in control of this process; we are merely a part of it. It is happening to us, and in spite of us, as well as because of us. In this case we are the host organism, the medium in which technobiotic life forces are finding their fertile soil. We humans, with our obsolete bodies, easily exploitable emotional drives, and fabulous brains, are the primeval soup our symbiotic partners have come to live in.

Like it or not, biological evolution is no longer the main focus of life on this planet. Biological evolution has become a subplot, relegated in its wild forms to out-of-the-way comers, to empty lots, roadsides, to cracks in the sidewalks of civilization. It's been built over, on top of, subsumed, in the best evolutionary style, by the technobiota. We cannot stop this process; we cannot even guide or shape it very well. We are locked into an unfolding dynamic that has its own evolutionary momentum. We and it are out of control together in a stupendous Becoming that stands proudly beside any evolutionary step ever seen before in this part of our galaxy.

So in any discussion of ecology, whenever one refers to rocks, clouds, rivers and mountains, microbes, animals and plants, one should include kitchen tables, cars and computers, stuffed animals, and nuclear reactors, as well as abstract symbolic systems such as mathematics and music, and belief or behavioral morphologies, including social systems, religions, culture, etc. These are all valid forms of life, if we and rocks and clouds are.

Sentient Being Is Inconceivable

Sentient beings may be precious, but they are also unthinkably numerous, inexhaustible, existing abundantly in the past, present, and future in every possible kind of world. Their existence is beyond conception and takes place in a sacred manner: it needs no protection, and is vulnerable to no threat. It is vajra, indestructible. This magical quality is its supreme protection and must be grasped properly before we can have a good relationship with the world of beings we live among.

Sentient beings are inconceivable, so only inconceivable methods can help them. Ordinary methods are of no use here—they do not need to be saved in a museum on a shelf or in a zoo, in a park or wildlife refuge or biosphere, in a hospital, school, or jail, in low-cost housing or refugee camps, in books, photographs, or nature videos. Living in all times indiscriminately, they are not separate from the rest of the cosmos. They cannot be saved or even conceived of as separate parts. The entire cosmos is saved, or lost, as one integral principle. Consider the Diamond Sutra on this:

The Integral Principle

Subhuti, if a good man or a good woman ground an infinite number of galaxies of worlds to dust, would the resulting minute particles be many?

Subhuti replied: Many indeed, World Honored One! Wherefore? Because if such were really minute particles, Buddha would not have spoken of them as minute particles. For as to this, Buddha has declared that they are not really such. "Minute particles" is just the name given to them. Also, World Honored One, when the Tathagata speaks of galaxies of worlds these are not worlds; for if reality could be predicated of a world it would be a self-existent cosmos and the Tathagata teaches that there is really no such thing. "Cosmos" (or, "life bearing planet") is merely a figure of speech.

Then Buddha said: Subhuti, words cannot explain the real nature of a cosmos (or "living planet"). Only common people fettered with desire make use of this arbitrary method.

(Chapter XXX)

This is not an easy emptiness "exit" from the tragic plight of our earth, a cheap shortcut to a "higher view" to avoid grieving for what is lost, to erase or escape from the sorrow and joy of the vast birthing and dying that is taking place on our planet today. The sorrow is true and should be tasted fully. But it helps to shift one's grip a bit, to avoid getting clutched up on a fixed version of reality—Mother Gaia isn't like that. She didn't get where she is today by clinging to fixed versions. She doesn't favor any of her innumerable children over any other.

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andrewf's picture

I like this article. I agree with much of it. I too struggle with a biocentric view which fails to completely understand the evolution of humans. I love nature more then most anything, but am inclined to throw the people part out, at least the way it is evolving now. I think there is very little that has to be done. Many cultures had the act of living figured out long ago. What most needs to be done, and what most cultures perceived as the continued evolution of themselves (once basic survival was taken care of), is our "awakening" into our world, inside and out - our enlightenment. Everything else is regurgitation, wheel spinning, boredom, selfishness, and most of all, fixing problems we have created in our toying with perfection. But awakening does not mean accepting all this and the destruction it has created and letting it run its course, it means fully perceiving it and acting on it, which I assume most environmentalist do. There is a middle way for everything, which is what nature displays best, extremes are quickly balanced out, as we will be someday soon. Yes, ecology tells us 99% of what we need to know about the world, and Buddhism, the awakening, the other 1%. I find Buddhism to be very exceptional, ecology too. And fundamentally they are the same. But we have to be self-centered just enough to be enlightened AND active in the face of destruction.

tinalear's picture

John McClellan, you have spoken something I've thought for years but never really known it. Till I read your words. A big question arises me, though. If I really go with the idea that the world is "in perfect balance," and I become aware (as I recently have) of the horrors of factory I just see it as part of the overall balance of the world and continue eating meat? Isn't that gross rationalization, or denial, or unconscionable lack of compassion? I don't want to ever eat another animal of any kind that has been subjected to that kind of cruelty. Is that me disrespecting the *balance*, by somehow setting myself apart from it?

sanghadass's picture

NO... KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON. The only danger is the possibility of obsession. I have met vegans who filter everything through the vegan mind-set. It is wonderful what you r doing. Try to step out of the vegan frame of reference - on occasion - to see if there are other important vantage points from which to look at things. There are! Do not reify your identity as anything at all. There is no need to be anyone - in particular. xxoo

michaelgarfield's picture

Huge thanks to John McClellan for voicing this perspective! As a former paleontologist and someone currently deep in the conversation about technological evolution, I cannot adequately express my appreciation for having such an eloquent voice to cite when I want to evoke this middle way meta-perspective. Here are a couple of related pieces I have published in the last few months about this very issue, from slightly different angles:

Anyone interested in more of this stuff, please contact me. I will never tire of this discussion.