The secret to our survival

“The Anthropocene, after all, can never replace Gaia as the dominant ecological force on Earth.” Ahead of our upcoming course with Dr. Predrag Slijepcevic, we sit down with the multifaceted bioscientist for an eye-opening conversation about the Gaian mind, bacteria as the primordial civilisation, how our plants and animals engineer their environments in ecological ways, the sentience and consciousness of all living beings, and more.

TAMMY (ADVAYA): Welcome everyone to this pre-recorded conversation that we're having ahead of the course Biocivilisations with Dr. Predrag Slijepcevic. Biocivilisations is an upcoming class starting 6th November. It will be a six week course. And it is titled Biocivilisations: Becoming Citizens of the Biological Multiverse. And in this course, Dr. Slijepcevic will be presenting a novel approach to reconnecting to the natural world, based on his book, Biocivilisations: Biocivilisations: A New Look at the Science of Life. And essentially, this course will be a six-week journey into the idea that we, as humans are a young, ecologically inexperienced species, and that we have much to learn from that which has existed for billions of years.

And so, in this conversation, we will be diving into a few of the topics, themes and ideas and questions around this course and around this book. And this will be kind of a winded conversation, for those of you who haven't listened to advaya conversations before. Our approach is kind of just opening up a can of worms and looking into more questions, and often not finding the answers, but finding that the inquiry is more, I guess, relevant and appropriate for our times than trying to find the answers. And so that's kind of the approach that I'm entering into this conversation.

Before I start into my whole spiel of questions Predrag, and I wondered if you wanted to introduce yourself, your background, and how you found yourself writing the book about biocivilisations, and how you ended up initiating a course I guess, about this as well.

DR. PREDRAG SLIJEPCEVIC: Right. Well, I've been doing sort of biological science, various projects, and research into molecular biology and genetics for maybe about two, three decades. I'm educated as a veterinarian, but then my PhD was about genetics, and cell biology. And over the period of two, three decades, working on various projects, things develop into different directions, and sort of new avenues of thought open. But I always wanted to know more about nature, rather than science can tell us, and at the same time, I studied philosophy. So by combining these two approaches, science and philosophy, you get a different picture, than the only scientific picture. And from that sort of avenue, science combined with philosophy, but also with reading poetry, because many poets are philosophical as well. So combining all these three, you get a completely different sense of what nature is.

I can see that as a scientist, I know, I teach students and I know what I can tell my students about science and biology. There are things that I cannot tell them as a scientist, I can only tell about the things that include philosophy and poetry to an audience that's willing to listen, that's open actually, that has an open mind for this, and I guess this advaya course is aimed at that kind of audience—people who are not restricted to just one side of thing, either science or philosophy only, or poetry only. And the term "biocivilisations" also reflects that, because "civilisation", traditionally, is, you know, only a human thing. We humans think we are the only producers of civilisations, the only civilised species, but once you include into that picture, philosophy and poetry, etc., you realise basically that civilisations actually... a biocivilisation, that everything started with bacteria, four billion years ago, and we are the latest sort of civilised species in a long, long history of biocivilisations. So that's in brief what I meant by this book and why I've written it and why I want to do this course.

TAMMY (ADVAYA): Thank you for that introduction, I was smiling a lot, because I think this is such a beautiful continuation of the themes that we've explored. And I think also for a lot of people who might be new to the course and new to your work, and new to advaya in general, I think they might find it strange to weave together lines of inquiry between science and poetry. And for them, it might seem like they've never been able to enter into a conversation about science or biology, because they only know how to appreciate poetry or the other way around. And the beauty of this course and your work, is that you come from a background that weaves together these two really beautiful things. And I think at their heart, they explore a very similar approach to the world, right? Which is at the heart of it, like a love for life, and the love for the Earth, whether that's expressed through like poems, or science, they're both coming from the same heart. And I'm sure we'll expand a lot into that through this conversation. But it's really nice to know your background. And you introduced a little bit about the term "biocivilisations". I would love for you to tell me a little bit more about whose work that builds upon, and what conversations you're entering into, what ideas you've studied that led you to the term biocivilisations.

DR. PREDRAG SLIJEPCEVIC: I mean, the term is mine. It's a new one. I mean, I sort of surfed the internet, and I found only one time, "biocivilisation", which was a name of a meeting that took place few years ago, but the actual term biocivilisations is a new one, and it reflects what I said earlier.

In terms of people who I sort of followed, or whose work I used to base this concept. I mean, there are a few of them. I think I would say that the most influential one is a lady called Lynn Margulis. She's basically one of the authors of this concept Gaia, together with James Lovelock. But Lynn Margulis was a highly original biologist, who has proven the theory of endosymbiosis. And she worked against the tide of scientific opinion. In 1967, when she tried to publish her seminal paper about endosymbiosis, 15 scientific journals rejected the paper, but she was persistent, and eventually this was published in the Journal of Theoretical Biology, and the rest is history. Now we recognise basically endosymbiosis as part of the science, right. Without endosymbiosis, there wouldn't be the story of Gaia. So Lynn Margulis is probably one of the most influential biologists of the 20th century, I would say even, one of the most influential biologists after Darwin and Lamarck.

The other people I followed is Gregory Bateson. He is a biologist by education, but he was involved in the development of cybernetics. He was the only biologist involved in that development that took place maybe around after the Second World War, and he developed the idea of the natural mind—his famous book, Mind and Nature - a Necessary Unity... many scientists would probably challenge his view of the natural mind. But in the book, I tried to follow proper science to test his idea of the natural mind, and I think there are ways to do it scientifically. The other people I would like to mention, I mean, currently living scientist James Shapiro, who's a molecular biologist, and he likes bacteria. He thinks that bacteria are, in many ways, more intelligent than humans. In controlling say, the planetary, you know, biosphere. Another person is Stuart Kauffman, who thinks of nature as the ceaseless creativity. So this opens the avenue for us scientists, actually to think of nature as a creative system. And any creative system is not mechanistic science. It must involve a creative attitude that's more appropriate to say poetry rather than science. And, of course, I have to mention Franz Kafka, a writer that I introduced the book with, and then finished the book with his story of A Report to an Academy. Franz Kafka is a genius writer, but he has written some things that he didn't intend to be... you know, for those, say, short stories to be used in the present context, but we can use them, basically, in his story about an ape that was forced to sort of change into a human being mentally. He presents that in A Report to an Academy, and then through that we see the dangers of believing too much the dogmatic side of science. So in the book, I think I challenge that sort of dogmatism of science. But this is not to say that science is inappropriate—no, science is a perfectly legitimate way of understanding the world, but it has its limits.

TAMMY (ADVAYA): I love that. And I just want to say that I think it's super interesting... I guess, the reason why I asked you about the people who influenced your work in coming up with the term biocivilisations... In this very anthropocentric world that we live in, we have this tendency to believe that any of the work that we create is solely owned by us. And I feel like the best kind of scientists and the best authors, the people, the thinkers that we work with also at advaya and that we platform at advaya, are people who acknowledge that we have original work and we have original ideas, but all of these function as a collaborative, and we produce the best work when we move together, to work with our predecessors, and then producing something original, like the term biocivilisations, which builds upon so many beautiful past strands of science and poetry, as you've mentioned.

And I guess, we can go really swiftly into talking about science. I wanted to start by bringing up this quote that I found really interesting. You opened your book with the fact that biocivilisations "is an acknowledgement of the mystery of life and its deep uncertainty". And you also write that "the bravery here is an act of breaking long held dogmas"—that you also mentioned just now as we were talking about the people who you draw inspiration from—and I want to say that typical scientists, as I mentioned, as well, don't usually approach life this way, and they don't usually say that, like, life is mysterious, and that life is uncertain. And it's kind of almost taboo to say that things are uncertain, that you can't measure them, that there's a mystery... this kind of approach is, I would say, quite novel, and so the kind of scientists who are approaching science in this way, is novel, and it's really exciting, especially with the ones that we've worked with, like Dr. Patricia Kaishian, and Dr. Andreas Weber, who will be talking with as well. And they probably would disagree and also find that the best scientists are the ones that are willing to interrogate dominant paradigms like mechanistic science, and question where those came from and how we can do better. And so I was wondering what your thoughts on those were, and specifically about the idea of approaching science and approaching biology with the idea of going into it with mystery, and going into it with uncertainty. Like what you're intending by saying that? And perhaps, what kind of backlash did you also face in approaching science in thsi way?

DR. PREDRAG SLIJEPCEVIC: Yeah, yes, I think that's a good question.

Well, what I meant by mystery... I think there are two sides of that mystery. Let me start with the one that's much closer to every single human. And again, you know, science has its own way of dealing with things. But that's not the only way of knowing. And again, I have to incorporate poetry and I have to perhaps use the words of one famous writer, you can call him a poet as well—Vladimir Nabokov, he was one of the most controversial 20th century writers, but a very clever one. He was unique in a sense that he was not only an artist or a writer, he was also a scientist. He studied zoology and he was basically studying butterflies. And he was an expert on butterflies. And he proposed a hypothesis, a theory, that during his life working at the Harvard Museum of Natural History, that no one cared about... it was about the migration of one butterfly species and how it came from Asia, say, to America, and after he died, molecular biologists actually proven that he was right. So he was well ahead of molecular biology! Decades! So he had a kind of Shamanic knowledge that was actually over above science. So when I say mystery, I'd like to read two sentences basically, that Vladimir Nabokov started his autobiography called, Speak, Memory, with. So I'll just read these two sentences.

"The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. Although the two are identical twins, man, as a rule, views the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one he is heading for (at some forty-five hundred heartbeats an hour)." End of quote. So the mystery here basically, is that all of us, every single human being will die. So that the mystery of death, you don't know that, I mean, the science cannot tell us much about it. And to go back to Nabokov, he was known as chronophobiac. Chronophobiac means someone who was against the concept of time. So we really don't know what will happen when we die. So that's one side of mystery, which is deeply humane. And science cannot tell us about it. But we can use, you know, words or poems of Nabokov, or what the other philosophers have written about that. So that's one side of understanding mystery.

The other one is more scientific. What I really meant by mystery in the book, is that we cannot predict life, and I'm not talking about the human scale of time—human scale of time is 70, 80 years. That's the average human life. But the time scale of life is millions or billions of years. And nature, say, Gaia... Gaia, who's basically an entity that produces life, Gaia really cannot predict its next product. It's completely unpredictable. So Gaia, in a sense, is more of an artist, rather than a scientist, if I can use this analogy—I know that many scientists will dispute that. But a scientist who is close to that side of thing is Stuart Kauffman, who says that nature is the ceaseless creativity. So something we can't predict, really. So that's what I meant by mystery. But I really don't... I mean, those scientists, the people you quoted, I agree with them. Because when we stay within the realm of science, we have to use the rules of science and try to answer questions using those rules, but we also must also keep in mind that science has its limits.

TAMMY (ADVAYA): Yeah, and actually, I hope you don't mind me moving around the questions a little bit, based on what you brought up, I guess moving to talk about science and how it needs to shift and adjust in the face of biocivilisations. And if we, as a world, as a scientific community, take the concept of biocivilisation very seriously, that means, as you suggest in the book as well, that science as a whole and science-doing, as a process, needs to shift and needs to change. And it's not of course, as you said, that we abandon science... in fact, there's so much utility and so much really that comes out, and actual important things come out of science, as we all know. So it's not about abandoning science, but it's about adjusting it according to the insights that we have about Gaia, about the living planet.

And so, I want to quote something that you wrote, you said that: The Anthropocene, after all, can never replace Gaia as the dominant ecological force on Earth.” And you say that “modern science is entirely based on mechanistic cybernetic models, and largely ignorant of autopoiesis,” and that we have to give autopoietic models a chance. So what does it mean to shift the scientific models in the direction of recognising Earth as a dominant force? What does it mean to take seriously that humans, our cybernetic models, have their limits? And how do we, as you say, move beyond the limits that science has put itself in, the boxes that it's put itself in? I guess you could share a bit more about the ideas that you explored in the book as well.

DR. PREDRAG SLIJEPCEVIC: Okay, so I'm a scientist basically. So, everything that I have written in the book is based on science. But some things are, of course, not based on mainstream science. And the challenge to the cybernetic models, of nature... I can quote a theoretical biologist or mathematician, Robert Rosen, who has written quite a lot about [the] anti-mechanistic attitude of biology. He has written a few books, many research papers, and he used mathematics really, to prove that organisms are different from machines. So machine—something that we humans produce—and say, cells, or plants, or animals, or us, are completely different, fundamentally different products. And life and mechanics are different categories of logic. So this is, to some extent, contrary to the mechanistic attitude of science, if you look at the structure of science, I explore that in one of the chapters of the book, science is entirely based on physics. Physics is the fundamental science and physics has a tendency to mechanise everything. And Robert Rosen was saying, we can't mechanise life. And according to him, the primary science for us should be biology, not physics.

And actually, he had support from some physicist, in that attitude, a physicist called Walter Elsasser, he's written a book about that shift, how we can shift science in order to understand ourselves and life better, than physics can tell us. And actually, the physics itself is split into sort of mechanistic, and quantum. Quantum is still a mystery for physicists. I mean, Roger Penrose, a famous physicist who received a Nobel Prize few years ago, he says, whatever life is, whatever consciousness is, is not based on computation. So he's a physicist actually, who thinks similarly to Rosen. So we have to... I mean, the purpose of science is to challenge itself. Science must not stay dogmatic. If it stays dogmatic, it becomes an ideology. So we have to challenge. We have to. So in the book, it says that, I think, we have to really accept this notion of Robert Rosen, that life cannot be understood through mechanistic science.

And I have a colleague called Sergio Rubin. He's a scientist who follows Rosen, who follows this Gaia theory, and with his colleagues, he published a paper two years ago, in which he compared how basically cybernetic models will work. It was a theoretical paper—as opposed to these autopoietic models. And the conclusion of this paper is that if we think we can control nature, Gaia, through cybernetic models, we are actually wrong. And he has proven in the paper that Gaia is a biological system, that it has its own rules called autopoietic rules, and if we try to impose the human way of thinking on it, it won't work. So as simple as that. And in the book, I say, okay, we can still continue with our mechanistic science, but we have to have an alternative option. And that alternative option is autopoietic, Gaian science. We have to have something that indicates our mechanistic model do not work. We simply use these autopoietic models to try to resolve existential problems that we are already facing, and those problems will become more acute, in decades to come.

TAMMY (ADVAYA): And this is off the script, but I would love for you to talk a little bit more about... maybe a concrete example of an autopoietic model. And a good example would be climate change, right? Talking about approaching climate change with a mechanistic, scientific approach, versus approaching it with one that has the considerations of how Gaia works in mind. So could you talk a little bit more about what your ideal approach would be like, that's not cybernetic, that's not mechanistic engineering...

DR. PREDRAG SLIJEPCEVIC: Just to give you a concrete example, it comes from my colleague, Sergio Rubin. He toyed with the idea, I mean... they produced a theoretical scientific model. And one scientific idea as to how to tackle global warming is to release huge amount of a gas into the atmosphere that could sort of cool it down. To produce albedo. Albedo is an effect of cooling the planet. So if you rely on cybernetic models, cybernetic models will tell you, yes, that could work, we simply pump a gas into the atmosphere that would reduce CO2, etc., and eventually we'll be able to reduce the temperature by one degree, two degrees, any desired temperature. But then Sergio Rubin and his colleagues actually produced a model to test that, whether that would work. But of course, they used the autopoietic nature of Gaia, and they use proper science, chemistry, etc., to input into their models, and their autopoietic model says, Yes, we can do that, but then Gaia will simply eliminate all those things, and do their own way to deal with that. And Gaia's way, and human way, are not the same. So essentially, the message of this model is that if we try to do that, to sort of engineer the atmosphere, we could exacerbate the global warming or climate change, and we could do more harm than good.

And for that reason, I think we need to have alternative ways. We don't know how Gaia will respond. And it will definitely respond, because it's a global system, a system that's much older... I think the first form of Gaia emerged probably 3 billion years ago. And it was based entirely on bacteria, and bacteria produced oxygen, etc. And everything produced the system in which humans can live, other animals can live, plants can live. And that system has its own mind. And our, basically, task, as scientists is to probe, as to how we can understand that mind. Whether we can understand it fully, probably not, but at least we can understand it to an extent to help us survive the existential challenges we created.

TAMMY (ADVAYA): Yeah, it's amazing. And what I'm hearing is that the advice—that feels almost still anthropocentric, but you know—listening to and observing through science how the Earth works tell us a very simple truth, which is that instead of trying to engineer our way out of this crisis, and out of these problems, the solution is to listen and to observe and to try and work with, rather than trying to impose our own solutions on it, because the Earth, in itself, with all of its ecosystems, and all of its agential parts, have very intricate and detailed ways of working that have been developing for billions of years, before we even existed. And you brought in a great segue for the next question, which is about bacteria.

And I would love to talk a little bit about that, because I find the story so fascinating. You detailed it so beautifully in your book—which again, highly recommend everyone go check it out. You will also get, through the Chelsea Green publishing team, a 50% percent off to the hardcopy, as well as the audiobook on the course, also a plug for the book there. But in the book, you talk really beautifully about the story of bacteria, and how it was essentially the first civilisation, how it spontaneously developed cross-kingdom communication, which then exploded a bunch of relationships, types of relationships that include mutualism and parasitism, predation and competition. So from bacteria, I kind of want to say... that it made everything else come alive. And I'm wondering... maybe you can tell us a bit more about the story, because I'm obviously summarising it in a very coarse way, I would love for you to explain it in your words, and tell us a bit about the implications of this story, if we take seriously that bacteria... coming back to the idea that bacteria is the most intelligent, and that bacteria will outlive us all, that you write in your book as well... What are the implications of this idea? And if we follow it to the end of the line, what would we really do?

DR. PREDRAG SLIJEPCEVIC: Yes, again, I'll answer this question as a scientist, basically. And I'll start with quoting James Shapiro, he's a professor of microbiology at Chicago University, and a great expert on bacteria. In one of his papers, he says that, in many respects, bacteria are more intelligent than humans. What he means by... and I agree with that, entirely. What he means by that is that, essentially, bacteria are founders of Gaia. Founders of entire life on the planet. Life started with bacteria, roughly 4 billion years ago. But Gaia as a planetary system... it took about a billion years for bacteria to build this planetary system and the first form of Gaia probably emerged about 3 billion years ago, in the form of bacteriosphere, meaning that the planet is entirely inhabited by bacteria. And bacteria produced a system that essentially enabled the life of all other organisms. So the only way we can do productively, as scientists, life scientists, even physicists, is to learn from the primordial system, the system that started life.

It's not an easy task for us, because science led us into a different direction. And that direction is perhaps, generated by the European culture maybe 400 years ago, at the time of Renaissance and the Enlightenment. And this was a great development in Europe. But the final product of that was that the human species, in the extreme form, is the most intelligent species in the history of life. And the Enlightenment tells us that everything starts with humans. Everything should be judged by human standards. But what Shapiro and bacteriologists are telling us is: that's wrong. We can't start from the product that appeared 4 billion years after the initiation of life. That's just the most recent product. But what matters is this product that started life and these are bacteria. So in the book I spent quite a lot of time trying to help readers understand, say that, how we see the world... you know, eyes?

Eyes are basically a bacterial product. The first form of eye was a bacterial eye. How bacteria respond to light. And this is proven now by science. So our sense of vision is basically rooted in the so-called bacterial eye. Everything else, how we sense the world, comes from bacteria, how we hear the world, again, comes from bacteria. And this is a huge gap, huge abyss, that we need to cover. Whether that's possible, whether scientists will accept that, I don't know. But there are colleagues like Dr. Shapiro, and I have three colleagues that we are now writing book together, all scientists, we try to basically tell everyone, the scientific community, proof that all living beings are sentient and conscious, and sentience and consciousness started with the first living beings, with bacteria. So the humans have a different form of consciousness and sentience. But we inherited everything from bacteria. So what I'm trying to say, is that we have a huge task of trying to learn, or to cover this abyss, that the Enlightenment, which was good, a good product in Europe, 400 years ago, but things move moved on, and we have to challenge some of those conclusions. And I hope the book can help in that regard.

TAMMY (ADVAYA): Yeah. And definitely, you spend quite a bit of time illuminating it. And as someone who has heard the story, in very brief iterations before from previous thinkers that we've interacted with, lots of people in this space that we talked to, are really interested in bacteria, and so I've heard this story, but it's the first time I've read it in such detail. And so I appreciate you putting a lot of that very complex science that probably most people will never get into, and never be able to understand, because it's so coded in a lot of scientific language, but putting it into a book form, and putting it into a story form makes it so much easier to understand the story of the primordial civilisation. And it's really interesting to go so far back into into history, history of science, and going into that. So anyway, I could nerd out about that story for a long time. But we have limited time. So I'm moving into my next question.

I would love to touch on the chapter on engineering, in which you talk about how bacteria and fungi and plants and animals don't have the human capacity to produce engineering blueprints, which is quite obvious to everyone, because they don't have engineering blueprints like we do. But that the "lack of analytical planning skills frees non-human species from forming autocratic relationships with their environments." And that: "The relationships they form with local environments are instead autopoietic". And you say they sense different cues that help them to orient themselves to the world in an autopoietic way, and you then conclude to say that: "In the case of modern humans, the blueprint is in our heads, oriented to the world by the instrumental essence of technology."

And so I found that super fascinating, because it points to this very simple idea that if we don't have our human brain switched on, in the way that plants and animals and fungi, they don't have the human brain, instead, they rely on the cues from the environment, and so they engineer based on the environment, but we have a different aim and goal, right? And then we engineer in ecologically destructive ways. And so there's a lot to learn from plants and animals. And I would love for you to expand a little bit more about that, maybe give us a few examples, or one or two examples about engineering that is not human, and how that could inform a different approach of how we build our civilisation, which is a very crude way of saying it, but how we build our civilisation in ways that might be ecologically restorative and regenerative instead of the current way that we're on right now.

DR. PREDRAG SLIJEPCEVIC: Yeah, I think that's probably one of the most challenging parts of science: how to build, how to engineer—the human way—how to engineer, so that this is a productive thing, that this is not a destructive thing. I mean, to some extent, we humans and our technologies, we have to basically do some destruction, to kill some species. That's the nature of life. But where our modern technologies brought us to, is we're essentially making harm to ourselves, and we sort of risk being completely self-destructed. So how to move from this self-destructive, into a more productive way of engineering nature... I think that's a big challenge for us. Whether we can achieve it, I don't know. I would like to hope that we can. And I think that the only way for us to do that is to understand really, the way nature engineers things.

And how things work in nature are... collaborative way. Just to give you an example, and I talk about that, in the book, an example of ants. Ants are species that are very close to humans in social terms. There is something in biology known as eusociality. This is the highest form of sociality in nature. And the eusocial species are ants, termites, honey bees, and humans. And eusocial species tend to expand all over the planet, and then engineer things for themselves. An example I want to use are so-called leaf-cutter ants that live in South and Central America. They actually take leaves from trees and do agriculture. They cut leaves, feed this leaf biomass to fungi, and fungi then produce food for them. So that's the ant agriculture. In order to accommodate that agriculture, they build huge underground construction. So I call them plant cities. Say a typical ant city, the underground one in South America would be about eight metres wide, and four metres deep. That's huge. Because ants are a million times smaller than us. And in this city, they do agriculture, and consume quite a lot of biomass leaves, etc. And if there are no natural forces to stop them destroying all the biomass, they will do that. They would simply go on and destroy the Amazon forest.

But the nature is organised in a way that all these species are ecologically intertwined. So in forest, there are predators who eat ants, and through eating, these are not only other insects, but also birds, some plants etc. And through those relationships, an ecological balance is formed. And in that balance, then ants become central parts, they simply have to sort of follow these rules, they can't rebel against those, because there are predators who would eat them, that would stop them from acting as maniacs. And that's fine. That worked beautifully for 50 million years. So ants actually conquered the planet, and they sort of worked in the ecological balance. But we humans learned that if these ants are imported from, say, South America to North America, this happened by chance. These ants have been moved through human transport from South America to North America. And they basically establish their colonies there—no natural predators for these ants, and they really become maniacs. They actually destroy everything. They destroy gardens, industrial agriculture. Humans tried to stop them using insecticides, chemicals, nothing works.

So essentially, this is telling us that nature has its own way that is still impenetrable to us to understand. And for us, the only way to produce long-term models that can keep us live in harmony with nature is really try to learn. There is no other way. If we pursue our own aims only, following our mechanised technologies, we will end up as these ants that moved from control area into uncontrolled area, become maniacs, and then self-destruct. Many scientists are now saying that humanity is on the way of self-destruction. And the job of science is how to prevent that. And science has to be open to other non-mechanical models. And one of those is just to try to learn from those species that lived in harmony for 50 million years, like ants. We humans, on the other hand, exist only for about 300,000 years. So we are very inexperienced ecologically. So I think we have to use this as a strong argument, for us to force ourselves to the path of learning, because we lack that experience that many other species have simply because the Gaia tested their capacities, because they lived for millions of years. Where, for us, actually, to pass that test of Gaia, we need to live as a species, maybe million years, whether we can... we don't know.

TAMMY (ADVAYA): The last bit there really opened up a lot of questions for me in my head, which I'm not going to expand upon, because I think that's what the course is for. But some of them was definitely to really think about... I mean, to really, really sit with the idea of the fact that humans are—and I think a lot of us like to say that—we humans are a blip in the history of the world. And to really sit with the idea is truly life changing, to think about how our entire society has to shift and the way that we moved through the world has to change if we really recognise that we as humans are the least tested, in the grand scheme of all the species that exists in the world. As you said, all these other species that we are looking at, even the smaller ones that we can't see, they've been around for much longer than we have. And so then really the ask of us is to really turn to, as you said, other species, and think about what we can learn from them, think about learning from the repeated tests that we've been going through on this planet, and how we can also humble ourselves in that way, and to prepare ourselves for that kind of test, and to not assume that just because we have all the language to our science and all the results that we like to base the strength of our civilisation on... those things are small in comparison to the science that the Earth has been doing for far longer than we have. That's just kind of a ramble in response to the the thoughts that you shared. But I really appreciate opening those lines of inquiry, and I hope that people are drawn to it and would like to think more about it on the course, with us. And I'm aware that on the course we will be doing lecture based sessions, and then after the opening up with problems and discussions. And I'm really excited to see what kind of fruitful discussions and vigorous questions come out of that, in the spirit of real science.

DR. PREDRAG SLIJEPCEVIC: Can I just interrupt you here? And say that what you call real science is something more modern... I think science in the modern form is probably not older than 300 years, the Enlightenment, Galileo, Darwin, etc. So that's what we mean by science. But actually, science exists in nature. I mean, all species practice science. I'll explore that in the course. But just looking at us humans, there is a form of science called Native science. So Native science is something that's practiced by traditional societies and modern science started acknowledging that only very recently, because there are ecological problems that professional ecologists cannot resolve. But they see that traditional societies—because simply they understand nature, better, in more detail—have solutions for this. So they started inviting representatives of these Native societies to scientific meetings, to share their views with them.

So a typical traditional ecological knowledge, this Native science, views nature completely differently. Just to give you an example, there was a book published in 2018, published by the leading science publisher, Cambridge University Press, there was a professor of ecology somewhere in America, who comes from the background of Native American Indians, belongs to one of the tribes, but she's a professor there at one of the American universities, and she took the lead, together with their colleagues and traditional knowledge, they have written this book. And there is a beautiful part of the book in which they say, traditional philosophy of ecology recognises plants as different people. Can you imagine that? I mean, plants as different people that we can learn from. And then they applied science and compared the modern, industrialised agriculture, with the agriculture from traditional knowledge. And they compare the ecological impact. And using scientific methods, they concluded that traditional ecological knowledge is actually ecologically friendly, whereas modern agriculture is destructive. I mean, Vandana Shiva, who has written the introduction to my book, she's one of those clever people who argues against the attitude of industrialised agriculture, that is so destructive. So I just wanted to say that, apart from this science, we call science, modern one, Native societies have their own science that was ecologically friendly.

TAMMY (ADVAYA): Yeah, and I was frantically trying to search... I can't remember his name now. But he is an Indigenous author, who I remember being in conversation with Gavin Van Horn, from Center for Humans and Nature, we were talking about, or I might have been reading something one of his essays talking about... what is his name, I will write it down in the description of this video when it's posted... But this Indigenous author essentially talks about that whole concept of plants as people, and how that is a kind of Indigenous idea that has been around for so long, and that real, mainstream science is only finally beginning to accept it.

PS: The idea of plants as people is explored in Enrique Salmon's work. He is an anthropologist and professor of American Indian Studies at California State University East Bay. Read more here.

DR. PREDRAG SLIJEPCEVIC: Absolutely! Yeah. And I mean, my colleagues, I have three colleagues that I collaborate with and we're trying to write a new book. One of those, I mean, I'll give you their names. Frantisek Baluska, he's a botanist, Professor of Botany at the University of Bonn in Germany. The other one is Arthur Reber. He's a cognitive psychologist from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. And third one is a physician, William Miller Jr., who's a physician, independent scientist. And myself, we're trying to write a new book, in which we are going to argue that plants, bacteria, every single form of life is conscious. So saying that plants are different people is actually scientifically correct. If we want to put metaphors and poetry into science. So there's nothing wrong with that. And maybe mainstream science is wrong, if it does not recognise that isn't it?

TAMMY (ADVAYA): Yeah, I love that. And I'm gonna leave that kind of there for people to explore some more. This conversation will of course be captioned and now I'll add all the resources that we've been talking about in that transcript. And I'm also conscious of the time so I wanting to move to the very last question. A little bit of a long one, but we've also talked about it a little bit. But I would love to end on this note...

I'm really personally fascinated by the idea of the Gaian mind. And I recognise that it's quite, still, a contentious concept, for a lot of scientists in the mainstream space, in the mainstream academic space, to recognise the Gaian mind. I would love for you to explain a little bit about what that actually means, for people who have never come across the idea of the Gaian mind before, and talk a little bit about how, as you in your book, demonstrate that there is proof that Gaia as a system, as a mind, is real, and that the Gaian mind can be compared, as you say, at the very least, to human engineering. And that struck me as a very contentious quote, not to me personally, but I think to mainstream scientists, and to people who can never consider this idea. And so I would love to hear a little bit more about how you feel about the Gaian mind and whether you have the same fascination with it, as I do. Yeah, I would just love to pick your brain about it to close this conversation.

DR. PREDRAG SLIJEPCEVIC: Yeah, I mean, the idea of the mind of nature, or mind of Gaia comes from Gregory Bateson, as I said. And he had six criteria for testing the natural mind. And those criteria, basically all scientifically testable. So it would be difficult for me now to go into the details of those criteria. But a simple thing to understand is that a system that exists for 3 billion years cannot be stupid. It must have its own mind. In other words, whenever that system is faced with the existential challenges, it has its own ingenuity to overcome them, greater ingenuity than the human ingenuity.

Let me give you an example. We're all familiar with dinosaurs, we're fascinated with dinosaurs, those species that died 66 million years ago. The current scientific understanding of the disappearance of dinosaurs is that the asteroid hit the planet, somewhere in the area of today's Mexico, a huge one. And this released a huge amount of energy that killed many, many species, including dinosaurs. But the system survived, Gaia survived. And just to give you the extent of that catastrophe. I mean, we humans, the most destructive things we produce are nuclear weapons. So today, there are several countries that have those—United States and Russia are the superpowers, they each have about 6000 nuclear warheads, etc.—so, when you put all the nuclear weapons that we humans have, and explode them, we think that could destroy life. And maybe that's right, to some extent. But the scientists calculated that this asteroid hit produced the amount of energy that's 1 billion times greater than the energy of all human nuclear weapons. And what happened? Nothing. Gaia survived. It was just a blip. Gaia swallowed that huge nuclear bomb, a billion times greater than our bombs, and continued living after that. Life thrived after the dinosaurs died. And in many episodes of past... Gaia was exposed to existential challenges greater than this, over the period of 3 billion years, and overcome them all. And I would say, because it has its own mind. And you know, I can't persuade my colleague scientists that nature has mind but the only thing I can do is to basically say read Gregory Bateson, and if you want to read my book, perhaps, that will clarify things.

TAMMY (ADVAYA): And so, on that note, I would love to close this wonderful conversation. It's been almost an hour, I really have a lot more thoughts than when I first came in with all these questions. And I'm really excited to explore these more over the course, and in discussion with other participants. And to to those people who are listening right now, who are considering taking the course, please, I hope this conversation enlightened, or opened the topics for exploration for you. And hope that if you feel inspired to come on this shared inquiry with us and Predrag, led by him and his book, and so pointing everyone back to the course, which is on, and will be linked in the description of this video. And I hope that people feel called to participate, and called to read this book, and share the wisdom that's been shared with us through the book. And Predrag, thank you so much for this really interesting conversation. Interesting is a terrible word to describe it. But at the moment, that's all I've got. But it was really a conversation that opened up a lot of new thoughts for me. And I was wondering if you had any final words to people who are prospective students of this course who are considering taking this course.. If you have any final words to say to them before we close...

DR. PREDRAG SLIJEPCEVIC: Yeah, yes, I think the only way to learn is to learn together. I mean, I'm not saying I know everything, or I'm right. But we can learn together, you can challenge me in the course, and we can perhaps correct some of my misunderstandings or your misunderstandings, because learning is a sort of exercise that's communal. And, to quote a great American. Now I can't remember his name. I will probably remember later. He was a famous professor. He had many PhD students who later on got Nobel Prizes for physics. I think his name was John Archibald Wheeler. And he said, universities or, any places of education exists for professors to get educated—not only for students, but for professors. And he was prompted to think that way because he learned of the term black hole. We all know what black holes are. And he's an expert on black holes. But he learned about black holes, not from his colleague scientists, but from a student. So essentially, education is a two way, three way, multi-way exercise, and it's only communal. And say, humanity as a collective must learn those techniques in order to survive.


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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