An Autopoietic Gaia: biopoetics, creativity, and meaning-making on Earth

Ahead of advaya’s upcoming online course, Biocivilisations, we speak with two scientists and authors who are weaving together the worlds of biology and philosophy to reinvigorate the science of life, and invite us all to reconsider what we think we know about nature, Earth, and the living world around us. We look towards symbiosis as the rule of life, the inherent creativity in all living beings, and the implications of these on how we see the world. What happens if we understood Gaia as autopoietic, enlivened, making meaning?

TAMMY (ADVAYA): Hi everyone officially to those who are joining us live, and also those who are watching this in post, I am Tammy from advaya.

And today we are going to be in conversation—although I will probably be mostly listening—with these wonderful, wonderful guests. The first who is Predrag, who is the host and curator of our upcoming and newest course Biocivilisations. And it is now available to register on our new website, at For those of you who haven't checked out our new website, we have a fancy new website where all of our stuff sits on. And we will get into the themes of Biocivilisations today. But essentially, this is going to be a conversation that strings together a few different spaces and fields. So ecology, biology, philosophy, poetry, among others. And that's the gist of the course, is really to bring those worlds together, and also to fall in love with the world, and to pay more attention to biocivilisations that have been around for much longer than humans have, and to reframe our perspective on nature and Gaia.

And this is also where Andreas comes in. So Andreas, who is the host and curator of our past course Ecology of Love, I'm not sure if any of the people participating in this webinar are past participants of the course. But to anyone who is watching in post, I'm sure there'll be a few... Ecology of Love was one of our very well-received courses, co-curated, also by Hannah Close, who was from advaya. And yeah, so a lot of the topics and themes of both of our guests' work really converse well together. And so I thought it would be nice to bring both of them in conversation today. And so I'm going to pass it over first to allow you guys to introduce yourselves. Maybe we'll start with Predrag? Maybe you want to introduce briefly about your background, about the book. And then Andreas can also go.

DR. PREDRAG SLIJEPCEVIC: Hi everyone. I'm Predrag Slijepcevic and I'm actually a scientist by profession, doing biology, biosciences, molecular biology in particular. But I also studied philosophy. So over sort of a couple of decades or three decades of my working life, I developed interest in the science-philosophy interface. Really asking a simple question: what is life? And this is sort of a long-standing question that we're still searching for an answer. And I wanted to write this book Biocivilisations for a long time. And then eventually I found a publisher, Chelsea Green, and [I'd] written this book in about a few months' time, and it was published in May. So biocivilisations, essentially, I guess, is a new name. But it tells us that nature is much more complex than the human version of it. For example, I find a kind of contradiction between the scientific term, the Anthropocene, which is relatively recent, is a 21st century term, which essentially means that we humans, as a collective, are almost the owners and controllers of the entire life on the planet. That's one side. But on the other side, we have nature that existed for about 4 billion years. Organisms like bacterias, amoebas, plants, fungi, animals, etc., who have been around for much longer than we have. And one of the main arguments in the book is that perhaps we lack this evolutionary experience because we've been around for only maybe 300,000 years, whereas, all other organisms have been there much longer and built this evolutionary experience that we are lacking. So the book is about how to reconcile our sort of attitude that's based on modern science. I call it mechanophilia: love for the machine, and this, essentially, the living world that we are part of, not separate from it, and how to reconcile these two things, which, on the other side is biophilia, the term coined by the great E. O. Wilson. And in the book, I say, perhaps there is a way for us to reconcile these two kinds of love, mechanophilia and biophilia. So the book is about that. But it's much more wide, in a sense, how many examples I provide that are from the natural world, and maybe some lessons for us to learn from bacteria, amoebas, plants, animals, etc. So in brief, that's my introduction.

DR. ANDREAS WEBER: So we have lots of things in common Predrag. Like many things. For example, the publisher, Chelsea Green, which also published one of my books, Matter and Desire: An Erotic Ecology. And also the question, the basic question: what is life? Which I would really identify with, as one of my motivating questions. And we're both biologists and philosophers obviously. So, what do we have not in common? That will be the interesting question for the rest of this noon talk.

So my passion actually, is to try to understand this question, what is life, very much from the inside, so from our experience as living subjects, as living desires, to maintain and bring forth ourselves. And that's more the focus of my work. So I'm working from our own experience as being part of life and our own knowing and intuition and desire, of and in and about this life as means to understand. And this understanding is not necessarily scientific understanding in classical terms, like theory and empirical data, but it's more an understanding in terms of participating with, relating with, immersing in, and also bringing forth. So an understanding of life as being giving of life, maybe something like this. And so my work has become very practical, and I wonder when I will write the next book for all this practice... So I'm holding more and more workshops and retreats in which I really try to somehow facilitate this experience of being life, which is, I think, in the core of our experiencing in the first place of our sensation of being here.

And I think it's something which we all have, which we can all access. We can all access to quite a depth of understanding. But it has been severely underprivileged by our western civilisation. So this experience has somehow totally dropped from the scientific perspective, and this is a huge problem. So the world has become pretty dead in many respects. And as we know, it's a disaster and it's a suffering but it's also a sort of perceptual distortion. If we are part of life and can experience this, and need to experience this, and it's somehow deleted from the official picture, then this is a kind of pathology which makes everyone suffer. So my work is also meant to heal this pathology, in a way.

DR. PREDRAG SLIJEPCEVIC: I mean, it hasn't been always like that. Traditional societies, people living, 10,000, 20,000, 30,000 years ago had different views, and they are more integrated into nature. And I know of an example. Basically, another author that published a book with Chelsea Green, he has given a perfect example of—Lapland, that's North Europe. And these are people that are a traditional society, that had their own version of science. And basically, how do we call this long period in the North Pole when the daylight is... they have their own term, it's guovsahas in that, but it's, you know, those long polar nights. It's called Aurora Borealis! That's the scientific term. And all physicists know about that. And there was a question asked by a reader of a scientific popular magazine in Sweden, whether this aurora borealis or guovsahas produced any noise. And, the traditional science of Lapland says yes, it's quite noisy. But then, in this Swedish magazine, a professional scientist responded to this reader and said, no, there is no sound. It's basically, these people are fooling themselves. It's just a superstition. That was about 2004, or 2005, I think, very recently, maybe 15 years ago. And then there was a physicist from Finland, I've forgotten his name. And he was quite interested, he's interested in acoustics. And he went on to investigate. And he has proven that basically, aurora borealis produces a kind of crackling noise. So it does have a noise. And then all the media announced that. BBC, New Scientists, etc., but none of them acknowledged the traditional knowledge of these people. And so I think science is, in a sense, if it's too mechanical, is separating us from nature. So maybe what we need to do is to try to reconcile science with the traditional views.

TAMMY (ADVAYA): Lots of interesting ideas already. I will probably, as usual, go off the script, and maybe ask a few questions out of curiosity here and there based on what comes up. But it seems to make sense to go to the second question now about life, since we are coming to that question of: what is life? My question... Predrag, in Biocivilisations, you write, "organisms are constantly searching for meaning." And that, "life is a meaning making phenomenon". And Andreas, I've heard, probably read, versions of this in your many books, and many essays and interviews of yours. So this is kind of the same words. And Predrag, you were beginning to talk about this also a little bit, the paradigm of viewing organisms as machines. And so in the spirit of moving away from that, I would love to unpack the idea of life as a meaning making phenomenon, which, I guess to some people might sound quite simple, but to others sounds a bit abstract and poetic and almost non-scientific. But of course, I wouldn't say that's the case. But I would love to hear both of your thoughts on that a little bit. And also, specifically referencing Gregory Bateson, whom you both have quoted extensively as well, the idea of "the difference that makes a difference". So I would love for you to respond to this very open-ended question in relation to what we were getting at earlier.

DR. PREDRAG SLIJEPCEVIC: My own view is that biology or the science of life, the main quality of that science of life, or the main quality of life, actually, is cognition. The capacity to know things. And the huge difference between living and non-living is... the machines we're trying to produce—they don't know, they can't understand, they're simply programmed to do what we ask them to do. But living organisms... All living organisms, irrespective whether these are single cells, like bacteria, or amoebas, or multi-cell organisms, like plants or animals, they all have the same feature and that sentience, and consciousness... this is not only my own view, but this is actually becoming a scientific view, in a small grouping of people, including myself and a few of my collaborators. So we together now are writing a new book, still searching for a publisher, we want to basically select not Chelsea Green, but the science publisher like Oxford University Press.

So the key thing of life is sentience and consciousness. So sentience means capacity to feel, capacity to sense the world. Consciousness is something perhaps bigger, maybe the sense of subjectivity, having the capacity to feel its own body and the external world. But then cognition emerges when the organisms, bacteria, amoebas, plants, start interacting with their surroundings, with their environment. So the interactions between organisms and the environment are cognitive interactions. And that's where this meaning making process starts. And I really sort of liked what Bateson has written, he had a great book, Mind and Nature - a Necessary Unity, and in my book, the epigraph for the first chapter in Biocivilisations is just a simple sentence from Bateson. "Mind is the essence of being alive." And he didn't publish that in any book. I think he has given that sentence in an interview, by Fritjof Capra. Fritjof Capra is a physicist by education, but then he has published quite a lot of ecological books. And he interviewed Bateson. Bateson died a long time ago, but he interviewed him around 1977. And he sort of written that sentence, and he put it in his own book, Fritjof Capra, so it's: "Mind is the essence of being alive." So basically, the quality of life is cognition. And for this reason, I think that all organisms have the capacity to learn not only about the environment, but about themselves. And only few scientists picked up this idea. One of the rare scientists who picked up this idea was Robert Rosen, he was a theoretical biologist and mathematician. And he used mathematics—Category theory—to prove really, that organisms are fundamentally different from machines. He called them anticipatory systems. And that's the idea that really is compatible with Bateson's views, with views of Maturana and Varela, I'm sure we'll talk about them later, but with some obviously differences. And we do not need to agree about every single thing, but if we have sort of a common view, then things could progress. But at the moment science is quite mechanistic. And we are sort of trapped in this mechanised view of life. And whether we will be able to get out of it difficult to say, but I think we have to try.

DR. ANDREAS WEBER: That was very interesting, and I generally concur. And I'll add some little raisins into the dough, maybe. I remember when I was an undergraduate student in the 90s, early 90s. 1990s. That was already my question: what is life? and I remember... well I was studying biology, and we had a teacher, a geneticist, he gave a seminar, he taught a seminar called Philosophy of Biology, or something. And I ran there, I was thinking, Wow, this is great. This needs to be great. And it was hugely disappointing somehow, because we didn't really affront this question. But we also read some nice poetry, which wasn't really related to biology, but it was nice. So it somehow left a nice impression. And I asked him, actually, I asked him, what is life? And he said, compartmentalisation—building little compartments. And that was all. And I wouldn't say it's wrong, but it's kind of like, somehow incomplete... like vastly incomplete. And I remember that I just couldn't get this answer from any biologist in charge. So nobody would really talk about it.

And if you look at biology textbooks, you don't find anything about this, interestingly. So there is this tradition in biology to not talk about the elephant in the room, what is life—you will find details like, okay, life is compartments, or genes, or self-motility, or receptivity, or nerves, or whatever... whatever, these things, but we won't have a definition or an answer, which somehow tries to outline something general. And this is still the situation, with some notable exceptions—like Predrag, for example, here, and, of course, Bateson and of course, Maturana, and Varela, who was my teacher in Paris. And I want to just throw in his definition, because he gave a definition of life. And I remember when I came to his place, to his lab in Paris, and I started to read his own papers, which I hadn't seen so far. It was nice. I was in Paris, and I was in this half-underground lab. And I could just look at his papers. He said, yeah, here are my papers, this is my library, you can look at them, it was very nice. So he sat at his desk, and I kneeled on the floor and I'm pulling out these papers, and taking them in my little flat and reading them. Actually, I'm in Paris right now. So I'm kind of reconnecting to this time in 1999, quite a long time ago.

And then he had this definition, and I was thinking, like, oh, my god, wow, this is so incredible! There's a guy who gives a definition. And it even makes sense! So his definition was in a 1997 paper... "Life is a process of creating an identity." Life is a process of creating an identity. It sounds very abstract, and that's the great thing of it. It is very abstract. So, that means that, and he built on his previous work, together with Maturana, where they said life is actually a self-creating mechanism, or machine. And he says life is a process of creating an identity. And what does he mean? I'll try to keep it very short, he means that an organism creates itself, builds itself, materially, but it not only builds itself materially, it also builds itself as a self, as a standpoint, from which it somehow experiences what comes along, what is there, what encounters it, and from the standpoint of self, everything becomes meaningful. And from the standpoint of self, this own identity is that which needs to be somehow conserved, protected, rebuilt. And the great thing is that, if you use this very abstract definition: first, it's open to like any form of self-creation of an identity, it doesn't need to be biology, and second, it includes the experience of meaning, because if you self-create your identity and something disturbs your creation of an identity you have a problem, and if you have a problem, it is bad. And if you find something which is great, then it is nice.

So built into this definition is this fundamental phenomenon Predrag was talking about… of experience, of feeling. It has to do with this desire to self-construct our identities. So when I saw this definition, in this basement, of building on this hospital area, where he had his lab in Paris, I was thinking... that was one of these moments where I was thinking, oh my god, so sentience is built into this abstract definition. [The] world is meaningful because there is the creation of a perspective. And then his further work, Varela was very clear that we have to understand living organisms as selves, like ourselves, as perspectives, as meaningful, existential experiences. And that's where I then started my work, and we even published a paper on this. And so feeling is not something, some sweet flavour, added from the outside... but it's a constitution. It's the constitution of life, of organism, and it's inevitable, you can't take it away. It's right in the middle. And, that's very interesting. So, when you ask what is life, and you have this embodied process, you have this identity creation process, but you have a concern, you have an emotional horizon, you have an emotional dimension, you have the dimension of felt subjectivity right in its middle. So we see, this world seen from this standpoint, is full of inner experience, this whole living world is one huge multiform, inner experience. And that is what is missing in the picture of science so far, and that is what needs to be reintroduced. And then science, of course, will be very different. Because it can't act in a neutral world anymore, if there's so much sentience, and so much concern, and self-experience. But it's there from the beginning, and it's not something added from our observation standpoint, but it's right there constitutionally, in the centre of life.

DR. PREDRAG SLIJEPCEVIC: You mentioned poetics, and I think that's essential in poetry. Sometimes great poets, or great writers, have this capacity to, again, I'll use this word—"feel", much more deeper than scientists. I mean, a typical example is my favourite writer Vladimir Nabokov, who was actually... I mean, he had some biology education because he was interested in butterflies. And he worked at the Natural History Museum at Harvard, during the Second World War, and he was classifying butterflies, basically. He was so successful, I think he published eight scientific papers on the classification of so called blues... very, very famous butterfly species. And he actually, in those papers, proposed a theory as to how these butterflies came from... I can't remember exactly which part of the world to which part of the world, but it was a hypothesis, properly formulated scientific hypothesis, about the origin of this butterfly species. And during his life—Nabokov died towards the end of the 20th century—no one was able to test this hypothesis.

But curiously, only a few years ago, there was a great molecular biology and genetics investigation into the hypothesis. Someone wanted to probe that. And actually, Nabokov was proven right. And a series of commentators then, people who had sort of a poetic understanding of merging science, poetry and philosophy, they commented that people like Nabokov, and they used also another example, Lynn Margulis—biologist—they had sort of a deep understanding, almost shamanic understanding of nature, that goes in many respects, deeper than science and they're not scared to propose new hypothesis, even though they may sound silly to scientists. And actually... they both, I mean, Lynn Margulis, for example, she was interested in poetry, I think her favourite poet was Emily Dickinson, and she frequently quoted poetry in her writings. So, you know, sometimes you need to merge different threads of thoughts, and poetry is a great example, and Nabokov, I think, with his own understanding of biology through poetry... And he was a professor of literature. And he was saying to his students at Cornell, I think, in a sort of work of art, two things sort of combined together... He called that precision of poetry, and the excitement of science. And that's actually true. I mean, another example of a great poet or writer was Borges, he was a great poet or writer, and then he was deeply interested in science. So there is a way for science to reconcile with nature, and maybe not only philosophy, but also poetry, and that's your idea, Andreas.

DR. ANDREAS WEBER: I also would like to add some more ingredients to this growing cake now, because it's brilliant. Thank you, for bringing Nabokov. As I love him very much for his work on butterflies and for his love for butterflies. And as I love him for his literary work. And he was actually... I mean, it's very interesting, he was an eminent butterfly scientist. So he was somebody who...

DR. PREDRAG SLIJEPCEVIC: He was a lepidopterist!

DR. ANDREAS WEBER: Yeah, exactly. And as it goes, with these insect subgroups. They are very often people who have most knowledge, who are not scientists, studied biologists, at universities, but who are these incredible lovers of these forms. So Nabokov made huge contributions to that, but he also wrote about butterflies from the standpoint of a poet. And that's very interesting. You know, that's normally what the biologists in collections at museums don't do, or they don't do publicly and I want to read you something. I have to translate it from German, because I quoted him in an article I wrote about insect collectors some years ago. And he says, I quote, I translate on the go, mostly, I enjoy the timelessness, when I stand among rare butterflies and their foraging plants. This is ecstasy, and behind the ecstasy, there's something else difficult to explain. It is like a short vacuum, in which everything flows, what I love, a feeling of unity, with sun, and stone.

DR. ANDREAS WEBER: So what we have here is a poetic description of a mystical experience. It's a mystical experience—a feeling of unity with sun and stone, a vacuum which is difficult to describe. So you see, he is stepping right through the experience, the connection with butterflies, into an experience of pure aliveness. Like aliveness as such, which then becomes this feeling of unity, which somehow is aliveness, in its, let's say, non-material, non-localised form. And he goes there through the butterflies, and this is so interesting, because actually, in many cultures, butterflies have this role of somehow guiding us to the sole aspect of reality. And I know this from a Mexican, Indigenous culture, the Rarámuri culture, which is beautiful described in an Indigenous scientists' work, Enrique Salmón, famous article about kincentric ecology, and there the butterfly is actually the embodiment of the creative power of the universe, and it is also the form in which the souls of the dead fly to the stars. That's the butterfly.

But we don't need to go to Mexico. We can... From Europe, I'm in Europe right now. We can go to ancient Greek, and look at the word for butterfly. Which is psyche. And it means soul, as well. And it means breath. It also means breath. Butterfly is breath. And we can talk a lot about breath, maybe we will... as what actually breath is, and what it does and what it shows about our connectedness and about our interiority, but I don't want to do it right now, I just want to, again say that it's very important to integrate this: the perspective from the own experience on the level of my felt aliveness into a description of aliveness. And that's the example of Nabokov. And you can see, I think, you can see where this leads us. So we have vastly different ideas about the living world. And if we cut short and say no, no, no no subjectivity at all. We are objective scientists. This is just fancy dreaming, whatever. So it was really, really helpful. And yeah, thank you. We could invite other poets probably. And, ah, that's one thing I wanted to mention. I so much agree with this, that one of my books is even called... the title is Biopoetics. So it's a little suggestion for how we could go, and biopoetics is about what I named the poetic space, which is this zone where life comes from. And yeah, I think that's important.

DR. PREDRAG SLIJEPCEVIC: The word poetry, basically, it comes from the Greek word poiesis, which means making. But yeah, Nabokov is a great example. And I think in his autobiography called Speak, Memory, he says, our life is just a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness, one before us and one after us. But then, later on, he says, in a sort of mystical way: I rebel against this state of affairs. So essentially: life is greater than science wants us to believe.

DR. ANDREAS WEBER: And that's very important to keep in mind, because the problem of this, let's say, ideological use of some of the ideals of science to cut away experience, is that we become totally depressed. Because if all life is a little flash of light between two endless darknesses, then we are basically in a world where we need to book the last cruise as quick as possible, because we have to enjoy everything, because we know then it is over, and the light will go out and there will be nothing left. And this makes us to [become] avid consumers who need to take everything in as quick as possible. So it's a really depressing worldview, and I think it is completely wrong. It is completely wrong. And it's completely wrong, and it is enough to meet one butterfly, to understand that it is completely wrong! And we are actually included on the pattern of the butterfly's wings and taken into the evening sky. And this is very, very different.

DR. PREDRAG SLIJEPCEVIC: In my book, I use the metaphor based on the Dead Parrot sketch: famous Monty Python sketch. You all know what that Parrot sketch is about?

DR. ANDREAS WEBER: Yeah, yeah, the Norwegian Blue.

DR. PREDRAG SLIJEPCEVIC: Norwegian Blue, exactly, yes. And in my metaphor, basically, the science was Michael Palin telling: Ah, look! It's alive, but actually, it's dead. So science is trying to present life as a dead matter, which is completely wrong.

TAMMY (ADVAYA): I'm going to interject here and like, not moving away from where we're at, but I think just moving into a topic that this conversation is naturally leading to: which is the story of evolution, we've been talking a little bit about, like... Andreas, you were saying that we just look at the butterfly, and we see ourselves in it. That everything is different. I feel like that's the kind of effect that I have when I think about the story of evolution, and how we've kind of got it all wrong. Predrag, you talk about this in your book as well. And in short, we were saying that the idea that it's a story of natural selection, it's a story of genetics... I mean, maybe saying it's wrong is misleading, but it's certainly not the full picture. And the real story—the wider story of evolution, involves that poetic space, and also involves the idea of Gaia as a living force on its own that has an inherent sense of creativity. This is a bit of a ramble, but I wanted to bring the conversation there and probe, either of you... I mean, we'll go into a little bit of a conversation about it, but I would love to hear your thoughts. I know Andreas, you've written a lot about this—specifically I've read an essay of yours quite a long time ago, I think, and maybe it was 2014, about the other narrative of evolution. So maybe we'll start with you, Andreas. What are your thoughts?

DR. ANDREAS WEBER: So... well, maybe one thing first is... evolution happens in terms of the continuous variation and change of life forms and species, and relationships and habitats happen. And it happens from itself, from alone, and through itself, from the inside, through this dance of unfolding desire for interaction, and for relationships. So that is very important: to see that this is real. What I would be critical about is the idea of natural selection in its strong form, which over-emphasises the role of competition, and which over-emphasises the meaning of the need for efficiency, and which actually somehow paints, I can say, a picture of the biological world, since Darwin has introduced it, and even probably much more than Charles Darwin himself would have loved to understand it, but we don't know. We know that in his first version, when he presented his big book about evolution, about selection, he used a quote from a Swiss botanist, as a motto, which says all nature is at war. That was the quote, and that's the metaphor, which I think is basically flawed, and it's a projection from human society.

So what we have to see is that when biological evolutionary theory was developed in the mid-19th century, we were in Victorian England, with a totally bleak social situation. We had poverty, we had these impoverished people in poor dwellings who needed to work as industry workers, including children, we had a super high mortality rate, we had a ruling upper class who didn't care of this. So we had the bleakest form of capitalism, and this was the scenario in which this evolutionary theory was born. So there was Charles Darwin, profoundly fascinated by life, really somebody loving of life, really a lover of living beings, and who saw the continued variation of life forms, and he wanted to find something which was better than the idea of everything of this was created 3000 years ago by the act, by the hand of an almighty God. And then he needed the mechanism for it. And while he didn't know what could be the mechanism for, let's say, enticing developing species into certain directions, into certain manifestations of how they look like, how their bodies are built, he read an economist.

He read Thomas Robert Malthus, and Thomas Robert Malthus wrote about... he wrote actually about humans. His idea was there are so many poor people born, which don't have a chance, that only the fittest survive. So this is an idea from the economy from Victorian times. That's actually a description of the horrible state of society, which Darwin read, and he was thinking, Oh, also in nature, they're always offspring, than finally [those who] come to the reproductive age. So, this is it, and I take this, and it made much sense, but it made much sense in the eyes of the Victorian public, which was educated in the way that society functioned. And this was why this idea that competition and efficiency and fighting and war is so important, became so ingrained in biology because it was the social, the cultural situation, and we're headed to our day... now it is more in the flavour of how to maximise resource efficiency. So it sounds more like modern capitalism, but we have this discourse, still, in biology.

And to my eyes, it overestimates the role of competition, and it doesn't see so much the role of reciprocity, the role of the fact that every life form is always relational to others, and that domination is actually self-extinction because of the dependence on which I feed... it underestimates the role of symbiosis, Tammy, you used the word Gaia, so we know the work by Lynn Margulis, who found that our body cells are actually symbiotic organisms who took in through evolution... cells who took in, through evolution, other cells, and build a new sort of cell, which then became our body cells. And this is not war—this is cooperation. This is symbiosis. This is something which we could call mutual transformation. And so there are all these relational events, and there are all these co-desires, and there are all these paradoxes of realising myself, only through the possibility that also you realise yourself, which don't really have a place in the theoretical concept of biology. Which then means that biology, evolutionary biology, is pulled to the side of competition or efficiency in a way, which is far too much over emphasised.

It's much more like a play, in which forms slowly shift to a certain side, but not because those who have some traits, which are disadvantages, [which] are mowed down, like in a war event, just because there's a tiny, slighter chance that they will have offspring—but it's not relevant on the individual level. So it's a sort of dance. Or, my teacher, Varela, called it natural drift. It's more like the movement of waves, or the movement of clouds on the sky. And it's very much about expression of possibilities, I'd say, and less so about slavery to efficiency. And if we—if our culture—could see this beautiful freedom and reciprocity in natural history more, we would have a totally different feeling, because many people educated by popular magazines, who kind of, reboil, and recook this ancient idea of competition and efficiency, people are educated in this way of seeing this world as a bleak place of warfare, where you have to prevail and to win and then again, you're in ego mode, and you're in, I'll have to book my last cruise, mode, because otherwise somebody else would book it, and it's wrong! And we would be really better off if we saw life as a dance with partners. And I think that's actually what it is. And maybe we can work on this cultural metaphor, if we change our culture, or this metaphor will change our culture, if we work on it.

DR. PREDRAG SLIJEPCEVIC: Yeah, thanks, Andreas. It's a great introduction to this topic of evolution. I mean, for me, basically, life is... I call it communal living. Basically, life is not about single species, but co-existence of multiple species. And Gaia, which is basically all life... I mean, the Gaia or the biosphere, basically, is not an organism, it's just a huge system that encompasses this communal living, and I compare it with a kind of natural democracy... in the democracy of the biosphere, there are no privileged species: every species is equal. So where modern science brought us to, is to the point that we sort of separated ourselves completely from nature. We want to own it, we want to control it, and everyone else is just our slave. And that, by the way, is not true. This natural system, the biosphere, we know again from Maturana and Varela, it's autopoietic, it has its own way of arranging things. So if we continue along this route, the biosphere will find its own way to regulate things.

Going back to Darwin and Lynn Margulis... Lynn Margulis was riding on a long wave of biological thought from continental Europe, starting in Germany and Switzerland... the idea of symbiosis means living together. And this idea was basically ridiculed by the mainstream science throughout the 19th century, throughout the 20th century, until Lynn Margulis published her paper in 1967, after about 15 attempts. So it was rejected, rejected, rejected, then, finally, a journal called Journal of Theoretical Biology accepted that paper and it became a classic. And now the idea of endosymbiosis is part of biology. So, life is about living together. So we are all interconnected, if you look at our own bodies, we are basically, as Lynn Margulis used to say, societies of microbes, it's not only that bacteria live in our guts, bacteria are essential for our development. The most recent research suggests that our brains cannot develop without certain bacteria, and there is now a term psychobiome—bacteria that actually are required for the human embryonic development to lead the development of the brain in the right direction. So actually, we cannot think without bacteria.

And, again, mentioning Darwin, before Darwin, the greatest theoretician of evolution was Lamarck. And Lamarck was much more closer to the idea of life as a communal force. And even Darwin himself recognised that, and I think Bateson revived Lamarckism. He said that the greatest biologist in the Western tradition was Lamarck, not Darwin, because Lamarck was a sort of proponent of this idea that life is coexistence, even though his idea of inheritance of acquired characteristics was wrong in the context of animals and plants, but actually, new research suggests that it's not wrong in the context of bacteria and single cell organisms that lived for about 2 billion years before... amoebas, for example, emerged 3 billion years before plants and animals. So, Lamarck, and that idea of coexistence is basically in some biological circles now quite attractive, and a well-developed idea, and people are now trying to reconcile Lamarckism and Darwinism, but there is still strong resistance to this, because the mainstream thinking is still influenced by people like Richard Dawkins.

And this is called Neo Darwinism. They simply took this idea of natural selection, combined that idea with genes, and now genes are the most powerful agents in biology. And genes, basically, when you analyse them properly, they can't do anything without cells. So cells have the capacity to feel, to be conscious. And we are built of cells, trillions of cells, we're conglomerates of cells, and therefore, evolution basically, is not about natural [selection]. Natural selection is just one facet. What makes creativity? Well, you know, the way how new organisms are brought about, since when two bacteria, or bacteria and archaea, joined together to produce amoeba about 2 billion years ago... Ever since then, life is just symbiosis basically: merging together organisms of different kinds, and communal living. And I quoted in my book, Lynn Margulis, who said, and her son, Dorian Sagan, in one of their books, they said, actually, that natural selection is an editor, but not the creator. Creator is something completely different—symbiosis or something else. This communal living brings new experiences and new forms of life. And by the way, we even don't know how many species exist in nature. I mean, the current estimates go between a few million to a few billion, if we include all the bacteria and all microorganisms, there could be about a few billion species in the current biosphere.

DR. ANDREAS WEBER: So I thank you for the psychobiome—I didn't know that. That's very interesting. And I mean, immediately to me, it seems immediately evident. And so again, you see, coming back to Varela's definition of life as a process of creating an identity, creating an identity happens through, somehow, creating coherence among difference or through difference or with difference. So it's not a surprise in a way that we say, well, actually, we need bacteria to think. It could be somehow sounding strange, but actually, this is just the gist of it... life is that which creates coherence from an underlying otherness, from an underlying diversity. And, I think it's very important to see, or let's say it differently: to me, it's very important, to see that there is this fundamental paradoxical action of performativity in life, which actually gave rise to these misunderstandings either on the one side, or on the other side. So one might see only difference and say, well, it's all about competition and difference, and the other sees symbiosis and says, it's all about symbiosis, but it is, to my eyes, about something like unity from difference, or dividuation or mutual transformation. So that actually, self is somehow always other, or is always about others. So actually, this self interested self is world, which from a certain perspective, is interested in itself. So we keep this paradoxical difference in ourselves and live it, and run into the problems this creates, but then can overcome them by, let's say, reimagination of how to live unity and difference.

I would even say by the way that that would be one definition for poetry: it's unity and difference. It's a whole which is made from parts which somehow rub against another, which somehow are not really resolvable in a coherent sentence, because then you would write prose, but you write poetry. So there remains something unclear. But in the poetic expression, in the poetic moment, it makes sense. And that's how life functions, I would say. And I wanted to talk about my favourite example: breath, a little bit in showing how this community in difference actually functions. Like in every moment, because in every moment, we somehow breathe and take a breath. And when we breathe, we breathe out ourselves. Everybody who knows my work somehow knows that I'm obsessed with breath, with this function of breath... that while we breathe our bodies out, because we breathe out CO2, and the C, the carbon in the CO2 is the carbon from our body, we breathe it out... And then it's breathed in by other bodies, namely plants and blue green algae and trees in the Paris streets, and then it becomes their bodies. So we already have in this fundamental, physiological cycle, we have this communality how you call it, which I like.

DR. PREDRAG SLIJEPCEVIC: I call it bio-democracy.

DR. ANDREAS WEBER: Yeah, lovely, lovely! Because this also builds other bridges. So we have this fundamental entanglement, which we cannot evade at all. You see, if we are living in a commonwealth of breath, it doesn't make sense to subscribe to theory of natural history, which paints a picture of every being at war against the other. It just doesn't make sense at all. It's completely illogical. And what again, what was the word you used?

DR. PREDRAG SLIJEPCEVIC: I simply use the word democracy in the context of the biosphere. I mean, the meaning of that is that there are no privileged species. All species are equal. And that leads to the idea of biological democracy. And you can say that biological elections are run now, and then maybe every few thousand years, the biosphere needs to assess its state, so maybe next time, they'll kick us out. Who knows?

DR. ANDREAS WEBER: Yeah, it looks very much like the human government is on its way out, actually.

DR. PREDRAG SLIJEPCEVIC: And I just want to bring here, just one more quotation. Basically, a scientist, I mean, probably a biologist that no one heard of, his name is, he's still alive, he's over 100 years old now. Antonio Lima-de-Faria—he's Portuguese, but he was a professor in Sweden somewhere. And he was a great biologist, but retired now. And he has written a great book. And I've talked to him a few times. He's an example of a scientist who thinks the way we think. And he defined life as... he says, life is a mirror, through which [the] universe looks at itself. And then basically, I added in my book, [that] this is a composite mirror, containing billions and billions of smaller mirrors, and basically what unifies us is our diversity. We're all different, but this is what makes life unique. It's unity in diversity. If we go and promote our own selfish anthropocentric view of life, basically, we'll die, as a species, maybe not in 100 years, but 200, maybe 500 years, whatever. So this is anti sort of life movement that we are in, at the moment.

TAMMY (ADVAYA): I will try to summarise the question, it's a little long, but I'll just read it out. And so they say that: I resonate with these understandings of material and biological relations and interconnectivity, but explaining it to others is a challenge. I wonder if, from your experiences, you could speak to strategies that you have found generative, when it comes to helping to basically pass this on, pass this kind of wisdom and perspective on, and also if there any practical ways that you find helpful for inviting people who seem to be enclosed in, and suffering from, the hegemony of individualism, or Western scientific perspective, to be open to poetic relationality with the world? And this person also asked if there's a good gateway question. And, how do you get people out of this bleak way of viewing life as competition? Which is a great question. I would say, briefly, read both of our guests' books and essays. That's one way. And also read some poetry, I guess? But I would like to hear what you guys would say, in response to this person.

DR. ANDREAS WEBER: Yeah, it's one of these questions, or well, it's actually the question... which always comes is: Hey, how can we apply this to make things better? Just posed a little bit differently. And as you, as we... all know, it's a difficult question to answer... because if we had a great answer, things [would] already [be] better. So it's a bit tricky. I'll try. I'll try by joking first. I mean, of course, you should give them Predrag's and my books. So that would be very helpful. Maybe that's already enough.

But speaking seriously. At this point, I would always refer to practical experience. I would actually not bother with explaining, because then you're very much in this head zone where you'll put judgement against judgement. So you're in the war of arguments and you won't convince, I think, but if you're open, invite into opening, into experience, then it could be very different. So I would, if I had this person with me, I would say, Hey, why don't we go and have a little walk in the meadow at the forest fringe at sunset and just sit there and just wait, and just, let's see what happens. Just, let's just go there and sit, and then have a little sit spot exercise, just be there, or a little meditation or just sniff the flowers or watch the butterflies or lay on the grass and caress the stroke, the bark of the trees. So I would do this, because I think this is actually the only access, and if it leaves something, then it's good, and if it doesn't leave anything, then you would not, not for nothing in the world, be able to convince this person through arguments.

DR. PREDRAG SLIJEPCEVIC: My answer is similar in a sense that, the question is really difficult... no one can give... there is no magical answer to it. But what we can do, just to give a practical advice... And actually, science, if you look at the science of ecology, is quite practical, and actually realised that the western science of ecology, the modern science, actually cannot resolve some important ecological problems. They encounter a big ecological problem, apply artificial intelligence, various models, and they can't do anything. And they recognise that. And paradoxically, they talk to Native peoples, North American Indians or some other communities. And actually, they have [the] solution to this. And this is now called traditional ecological knowledge. Science calls this traditional ecological knowledge and actually asks for advice from them. Actually, conferences invite these Native peoples to share experiences with them. And one of the biggest science publishers, Cambridge University Press, they published a book called Traditional Ecological Knowledge, knowledge written by the community of North American Indians—all of them have some sort of understanding of science. Some of them are professors, but they also have Native understanding of nature.

And in my book, I said, if we want to continue mechanistic science, okay, that's fine. If everyone wants that, they can do that, but at least we could have a reserve option. And that reserve option, in the case say mechanistic models fail, is to use traditional ecological knowledge combined, and I said that with autopoietic understanding of life, Maturana, Varela, Bateson, Margulis, and my colleague—I just want to mention my colleague, I'm not sure whether you heard of him Andreas, Sergio Rubin, he's working now in Brussels, and he published a paper in 2021, scientific paper in which in that paper, he clearly showed, using mathematics and physics and chemistry, that our models, mechanistic models trying to basically move the biosphere in one direction, would never work, because the biosphere is autopoietic, it has its own ways of regulating things, regulating itself, and that is through trying to basically... you know, all of us are different. And unity in diversity, whereas our own scientific approach only sees the human way of things, in many respects, limited—I wouldn't say wrong, but limited.

DR. ANDREAS WEBER: I'd just go back to the amazing Enrique Salmón, our colleague, the anthropologist with indigenous roots, and I know him a little bit and I invited him for a seminar I was teaching in Berlin, and he's talking about also, he's teaching a seminar at I think University of California, in Oakland, where he is or he was, until his retirement, and this seminar is Indigenous science. It's called Indigenous science, just to show that it's not that Westerners have a monopoly on science. And you know what? The basic exercise in the Indigenous science seminar for the students is to sit outside at a certain location for one hour every day, either in the morning or in the evening, and just to sit there, do nothing and sit there, and this is part of Indigenous science, and I just wanted to connect to what you said Predrag, about the urgent and necessary role of Indigenous cultures to help Western global culture heal from this one-sidedness and lend these practices, which seems so simple, but then are super profound. I mean, I can imagine these students saying like, Oh, my God, I have to do this as part of the seminar, I have to write something and I have to sign it, otherwise, I won't get my credit. And then they sit there and then suddenly, the world unfolds and starts to speak to them, and then they realise that they have an organ of understanding, which they didn't even know about, and everything changes and everything becomes different.

And in my work, I have been heavily orienting versus these animistic cultures and their ways to do, and I've also started to cooperate with Indigenous actors and Indigenous scientists. And there's an amazing group in Australia, which I'm connected to, which is this mix of Aboriginal scientists and Aboriginal actors and activists and agents and Anglo Australian scientists, which is just amazing. And they have started actually, just to tell you one thing, they have started to incorporate country as a co-author in their papers—country in Australian means the living place you're speaking from, or you're speaking as, you're speaking of, so they have country, this particular country—Bawaka country, I think, and it's first author in the papers, isn't this amazing? And of course, it's science, and I can really invite everyone to look at these papers, I'm in a special issue where there's some of this stuff right now in a journal, and publish something, and it's really heartwarming to see how this can change. I mean, 10 years ago, it wouldn't have been thinkable that a journal, which is part of Cambridge University Press, by the way, accepts that the first author is Bawaka country, but it can happen, it does happen. And this is wonderful, that science is able to open up to this first-person experience of life itself.

DR. PREDRAG SLIJEPCEVIC: Yeah, that's a great example, in my book, I've given another one which is more related to medicine. I mean, the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2020, was awarded for discovery of the method called CRISPR. Two ladies got this Nobel Prize. CRISPR is a method for sort of editing the human genome, for eradicating genetic diseases. And I commented, together with one microbiologist James Shapiro, who's a great scientist, by the way, that we should have acknowledged bacteria, because bacteria discovered this 3 billion years ago, so we simply sort of plagiarised the bacterial discovery and used it for the human purpose. And by the way, in this book, Traditional Ecological Knowledge, they call this traditional science, they call it Native science. So Native science is the oldest form of science we humans know of, it's basically maybe, 50,000 years old or more, whereas the modern science is only about 300, 400 years old.

TAMMY (ADVAYA): Wonderful.

For now, I will point everyone to the upcoming course Biocivilisations with Predrag, which is a six-week course, all about biocivilisations, and will be an expansion of his book, and also an invitation to dialogue, about the themes and topics and ideas in that book. And also with our new website, I also want to point people to the fact that if you join as a member of advaya, you can also get access to a lot of on-demand courses, including Andreas' Ecology of Love, and also on the many sessions that he's spoken on, on various courses in the past. So if you're interested to learn more, you can also now access Andreas' course in post, which means you can watch all of the recordings and get all the resources as well. So the learning can continue there. But otherwise, there's also a lot of free resources, interviews and essays from both of our guests, so you can go ahead and start with that if you would like to dive more into all of this. And yeah, so really appreciating everyone who is joining us live, everyone who listened in to this conversation. Thank you so much for spending your time with us today. And I will allow you both to leave us with a parting thought, before I close officially, maybe Andreas you want to go first, and share a parting thought for us for the rest of the day, and then Predrag can go and then we can close. No pressure—it can be something really small also.

DR. ANDREAS WEBER: Yeah, well, you know, one of my spiritual teachers always said, Is there anything more fantastic than to be totally without thought? And you just caught me in this moment. So I was just immersed in being alive. No, no, I'm joking. So actually, I'm really happy. Just want to express my gratitude to have been in this, and thank you, Predrag for this wonderful, reciprocal baking of this cake of life. And I'm actually very curious to look at your work. And it's very nice to see that this is going on and unfolding. And when I started in the 90s as a disciple of Varela, it looked like this would grow but then it didn't really, and it's still somehow in its infancy. But I really feel that now the paradigm shift in biological thinking can come and can happen. And today gave me really a very optimistic feeling. And it was beautiful to be part of this. And this also goes to every one of you in the audience because we have been in this space together. So thanks. Thanks to everyone here.

DR. PREDRAG SLIJEPCEVIC: Thanks, Andreas. I mean, my summary or a kind of message, perhaps, just remember Bateson's words: mind is the essence of being alive. But also, there was another great writer, Arthur Koestler, who has written also some popular science books. He said that the brain is the only organ we don't know how to use, and he called that unwanted evolutionary gift. So brain is not the only organ that gives us experience and I completely agree with Andreas: just go to nature and feel it. Feel it without brain, so then rewards come not through credits, but through your own body and well, being your own body.

TAMMY (ADVAYA): Thank you so much Andreas and Predrag, and thank you to everyone in the audience. Thank you to everyone else also watching in post. Yeah, we will be here doing courses, conversations and events in this space. Have a great day everyone. Thank you so much.


Dr Andreas Weber

Andreas is a Berlin based author & independent scholar. He has degrees in Marine Biology & Cultural Studies, having collaborated with theoretical biologist Francisco Varela in Paris.

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Dr. Predrag Slijepcevic

Dr. Predrag Slijepcevic is a senior lecturer at Brunel University London with 25 years teaching experience and a bioscientist investigating the cognitive side of the living world.

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Tammy Gan

Tammy (she/her) leads on content and storytelling at advaya.

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