Brian Goodwin 

Floris Books, 2007, 188 pp., £14.99 p/b – ISBN 978 086315 596 3

This remarkable book is Brian Goodwin’s biological testament, summing up the work he has been doing throughout his career since the 1960s along with the many major scientific advances since that period.  It follows up his earlier book, How the Leopard Changed its Spots. Brian’s starting point is that our way of knowing and relating to the world has reached its limits; he might also have added that the mechanistic metaphor has reached its corresponding limits. Even in 1972 he realised prophetically that science had largely opted to pursue the course of manipulation and power, ‘drawing us inevitably into a Faustian crisis which arises from the irreconcilability of manipulation and wisdom.’   He now comments: ‘ the opportunity presents itself of breaking out of the limitations and expanding our ways of knowing in a manner that encompasses broader perspectives, including the ways of knowing of other cultures.’ In this new vision, nature and culture ‘are understood to be one continuous and unified creative process.’ Our crisis is in fact an evolutionary learning opportunity.

As a way of illustrating the continuity of nature and culture, Brian uses a number of stories and parables where we can draw human lessons from natural processes.  This process is also embodied in the learning journeys incorporated in the pioneering MSc in Holistic Science established by Brian at Schumacher College. Here the approach is experiential and aligned with the methodology elaborated by Goethe and Rudolf Steiner, which is explained later in the book. Brian also brings in his own experience, especially the synchronicity of talking about ventricular fibrillation and suddenly finding it happening to himself. His subsequent visionary experiences in hospital gave him a new understanding of the collective power of love and community, which literally opened his heart.

The periods he spent at the Santa Fe Institute gave him a deeper understanding of many of the new developments in science, which he so eloquently describes.  With his unusual knowledge of physics and mathematics, Brian is in a much better position than most other biologists to formulate a broader understanding of his discipline. Most of his colleagues remain embedded within a molecular and mechanical understanding of life processes that prevents them from seeing the larger picture not only in biology, but also with respect to agriculture and health. Meanwhile, they continue down the path of manipulation and control, without realising the limits of this methodology in the unpredictable responses of living organisms. Many also still regard consciousness, qualities and animism as more or less taboo.

The chapter on health brings together coherence with meaning, pointing out that dynamic and healthy ecosystems are necessary both in nature and within the human body. He proposes a new metaphor of health as a strange attractor, commenting more generally that chaos is a source of adaptive novelty and creativity – mirroring the larger challenge of our time.  Later in the book he proposes the relevance of the Orphic trinity of Chaos, Gaia and Eros as speaking to our condition. Cancer is seen not so much in terms of simple causes, but rather as a ‘disturbance in the complex network of relationships within cells and with the body that calls for more holistic understanding and intervention.’ In this respect, healing may result from both meaning and relationship, reflecting ‘a direct connection between molecular networks in the body and our emotions.’ As one would expect, Brian is sceptical about both industrial agriculture and biotechnology, defining the latter as ‘industrialised agriculture plus ownership’ – and unsustainable path in the long-term since it is highly dependent on fossil fuels and large amounts of water.

The next three chapters consider science with qualities, evolution of meaning and the life of form and the form of life. Science has developed on a mathematical and quantitative basis, which has left large gaps in the qualitative and subjective approach. Brian shows how objectivity can be extended to qualities and how movement and intention are primary in perception. He also highlights the importance of feelings so that ‘organisms are sentient beings that create new worlds by exercise of intention and skill in which feelings are genuinely emergent aspects of nature.’ This line of thought is further pursued when he suggests that we now need to feel rather than think our way out of problems, since many of our problems arise precisely from our current way of thinking and relating. This in turn corresponds to the organic philosophy of Whitehead and the scientific method of Goethe.

Brian suggests that we should not be asking about the meaning of life, but rather about the life of meaning, proposing that ‘the task before us now is to rethink our place in the stream of creative emergence on this planet in terms of the deeper understanding of the living process that is now taking form.  The life of form, of which we are a part, unfolds towards patterns of beauty and efficiency that satisfy both qualitative and quantitative needs in such a way as to maintain diversity of species, cultures, languages, and styles of living.  Organisms provide us with the models, the touchstones, whereby we can measure our cultural achievements.’ He adds that ‘unless and until we managed to reduce our footprint on the planet to the level achieved by organisms, and simultaneously enhance the beauty of this blue planet in the way they have done, we have failed to engage with our proper destiny.’

The final chapter builds on these insights with a number of pointers.  Brian returns to the importance of new ways of knowing, which have been explored not only at Schumacher College but in the International Futures Forum, of which both Brian and I are members.  There is a new understanding of Gaia, and a realisation that local action must reflect universal principles grounded in a process whereby coherence arises.  Correspondingly, we will need a new economics and new principles in architecture, as proposed by Christopher Alexander, whose books I have reviewed here over the last couple of years. We cannot and must not accept a future based on the politics and economics of war and terrorism fed by fear, which Brian contends destroys our capacity for sensible action. He is an optimist in believing that ‘we can go through the transition as an expression of a continually creative emergence of organic form that is the essence of living process in which we participate.’ Here, as the reader can appreciate, biological and cultural understanding are one.  In understanding the nature more deeply, we understand ourselves more profoundly.  This book is a brilliant articulation of this process, pointing to the emergence of a new culture of co-operation and harmony.




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