Biocivilisations is an acknowledgement of the mystery of life. Modern philosophical, technological and scientific developments have led us to see the world through a lens of materialism, dualism and rationalism, causing many of us to turn away from the natural wisdom that regulates relationships between organisms in ecosystems. But human survival and thriving does not depend on what we’ve made, and what we think we know—it depends on our relationship with the natural world we are part of. Can we turn anthropocentrism on its head and re-embed ourselves in the web of life?
This course aims to teach you how to be a student of the natural living world: to reconnect with it, and to respect it, so that we as humans may live in harmony with all life on Earth, as has been the case in many indigenous cultures. During this course, you will release the dogmas of mechanistic science and embrace a paradigm shift towards a different kind of science: one that balances biophilia and mechanophilia.
Appreciate the autopoietic nature of the biosphere, marvel at the dynamics of Gaia, and recognise the intelligence of our multispecies kin. This is the novel approach presented in Dr. Predrag Slijepcevic’s book, Biocivilisations: A New Look at the Science of Life (2023) that forms the basis of this online course.
In the world of biocivilisations, we allow bacteria, amoebas, plants, insects, birds, whales, elephants and countless other species that have existed for billions and millions of years to lead the way. We turn to numerous other creatures around us, species that are more civilised, in the ecological sense, than we are, to learn important lessons towards biodiverse flourishing.
Through this journey with Dr. Predrag Slijepcevic, we will see how civilisational skills we humans associate exclusively with our own species—languages, engineering, science, medicine, art, and agriculture—have existed for billions and millions of years in biocivilisations shaped by our more-than-human kin.
Bacteria, the first forms of life on Earth, changed the game of communication, exchanging chemical messages, ‘talking’ their way to creating the bacteriosphere, the first form of Gaia. There are natural languages across all kingdoms of life too: sperm whales have a language coded in sound patterns consisting of clicks; plants release volatile organic compounds to ‘talk’ amongst themselves and even to other kingdoms—viruses, nematodes, insects; in the past few decades, scientists have even found that the underground network of fungi and bacteria are connected to the above ground forests through a web of interconnection. Through listening, we will come to realise that in a world that speaks in their own languages, humans remain supporting actors.
Humans are also not the only engineers: here we turn to Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela’s term autopoiesis, describing how organisms are self-producing, self-organising and self-maintaining agents. They sense environments, respond to environmental stimuli, and build accordingly, as seen by the complex metropolises of bacteria and insects such asants and termites. Likewise, forests are one of the most sophisticated ecological communities on the planet. Trees cooperate with fungi and bacteria through symbiosis and integrate information from the soil obtained through their root systems to adjust their root thickness, resulting in the emergence of more resilient biomes. These autopoeitic relationships ought to inspire us, humans obsessed with analytical planning and building, to support life rather than take it, as we build and inhabit the world.
We usually think that science is an exclusively human invention. While it is a human concept, new research shows that in nature, there is a version of science: natural problem-solving. Human-invented machine learning is a world of interpreting information as messages without meaning; in contrast, learning and problem-solving in nature involves organisms that are constantly searching for meaning, tapping into biological information, the “difference that makes a difference”, as Gregory Bateson would say. We cannot underestimate the science of organisms: amoebas, for example, have such remarkable problem-solving skills ranging from finding the shortest route to food in a maze to reconstructing the railway network around Tokyo. More broadly, the Gaian system as a whole practices science too: a science Dr. Predrag Slijepcevic calls “hyperthought”, a decentralised trial-and-error problem-solving. As he says, “the Anthropocene, after all, can never replace Gaia as the dominant ecological force on Earth.”
Medicine, art, and agriculture
And what about medicine: the set of skills aimed at body preservation? If organisms on Earth did not have self-preserving capacities, evolution would be chaotic. Species would last only for a few generations and the tree of life would not be a tree at all, but a morass of short-lived biogenic monsters. Ants practice surgery, bacterias fight viral infections and animals have self-medicated for 400 million years (zoo-pharmacognosy): we find the roots of human medicine in evolutionary history.
Art and aesthetics are, too, integral parts of all living processes. Females of some bird and fish species use their artistic flair to choose males by assessing the beauty of male-produced love nets—evolution is, in part, a game of evaluating beauty. In this way, Gaia the biosystem is influenced, perhaps, dominated, by biotic art. Life is characterised by a creative freedom, and Gaia is also a sculptor herself, autopoiesis being her technique of choice, but can we see it through the lens of science?
Finally, many organisms from fungi to ants have developed skills for massive food production, better known as agriculture. Ants chew leaves into mulch, depositing them in gardens where they seed fungi, fungi turn the mulch into food for entire ant colonies. Some species of fungi farm bacteria the same way insects farm fungi. Ants also practice animal husbandry by herding greenflies and ‘milking’ their honeydew. Why do some farming practices, of insects for example, last for millions of years without putting undue pressure on resources, whereas human agriculture—by way of corporatised monoculture and mass agribusiness—currently appears to be posing an existential threat?
Biocivilisations will weave all the above threads to teach us to swim in the river of life, to democratise, ecologically, Earth again, humbling the Anthropos species into one of many, in reverence of Gaia. As Lynn Margulis wrote: “Life is a planetary-level phenomenon and Earth’s surface has been alive for at least 3,000 million years. To me, the human move to take responsibility for the living Earth is laughable – the rhetoric of the powerless. The planet takes care of us, not we of it.” Throughout this course, you will learn from the manifold intelligence of our planetmates, open your mind to the idea of nature as a creative system without the constraints of fixed laws, recognise Gaia as a system composed of interacting, agential parts—at a scale that deserve to be compared, at least, to human ingenuity, and see life as a process of ceaseless creativity that carries all organisms, including us, in its flow.
Building on the intellectual legacies, groundbreaking science, and far-sighted visions of Lynn Margulis, Gregory Bateson, Robert Rosen, Humberto Maturana, Francisco Varela, James Shapiro, Eshel Ben-Jacob and Sorin Sonea, Dr. Predrag Slijepcevic will bring you on a journey through science, art, life, creativity, and nature: one that will tap into and grow the instinct we are all born with: to love anything that lives, and ultimately to love Gaia as the unifier of all living forms. This is biophilia, and you will learn to balance it with a love for the antithetical world. Balancing and intertwining these loves, as you will see, is the secret to human flourishing in this shared natural living world.
Praise for Biocivilisations:
“Biocivilisations shows us how we can learn from bacteria and fungi to create ecological civilisations, in harmony with all beings on Earth. Predrag Slijepčević reveals the intelligence, creativity, autopoiesis and self-organisation of all living organisms. He invites us to shed anthropic arrogance and adopt ecological humility.
Microbes and plants have been around much longer that we have. They are our elders in the art of living. Their biocivilisations can teach us how to make the transition and paradigm shift we must make, for our future as a species and the future of life on Earth.”
Dr. Vandana Shiva