It is beyond our imagination to conceive of a single form of life that exists alone and independent, unattached to other forms.
If youre a survivor of multiple failed relationships, you may wonder why you keep trying. I can assure you that you dont persist just for the (sometimes short-lived) good times. And you dont persist because of TV ads featuring loving couples on tropical islands. You persist, despite your track record and despite dismal divorce statistics, because you are designed to bond. Human beings are not meant to live alone.
There is a fundamental biological imperative that propels you and every organism on this planet to be in a community, to be in relationship with other organisms. Whether youre thinking about it consciously or not, your biology is pushing you to bond. In fact, the coming together of individuals in community (starting with two) is a principle force that drives biological evolution, a phenomenon I call spontaneous evolution, which I cover in depth in the book of the same name.
There are, of course, additional biological imperatives designed to ensure individual and species survival: the drive for food, for sex, for growth, for protection, and the ferocious, inexplicable drive to fight for life. We dont know where or how the will to live is programmed into cells, but it is a fact that no organism will readily give up its life. Try to kill the most primitive of organisms and that bacterium doesnt say, Okay, Ill wait until you kill me. Instead, it will make every evasive maneuver in its power to sustain its survival.
Thats a tall order, I know, but we have at hand an extremely successful model for creating healing relationships that will ultimately lead to the healing of our planet. As the ancient mystics have said, The answers lie within. The nature and power of harmonious relationships can be seen in the community of the trillions of cells that cooperate to form every human being. This might at first seem strange to you because when you look in the mirror, you might logically conclude that you are a single entity. But that is a major misperception! A human being is actually a community made up of 50 trillion sentient cells within a skin-covered Petri dish, a surprising insight Ill explain further in Chapter 3.
I grant you that single-celled organisms, which were the first life forms on this planet, spent a lot of timealmost three billion yearsfiguring out how to bond with one another. Even I didnt take that long! And when they did start coming together to create multicellular life forms, they initially organized as loose communities or colonies of single-celled organisms. But the evolutionary advantage of living in a community (more awareness of the environment and a shared work load) soon led to highly structured organisms composed of millions, billions, and then trillions of socially interactive single cells.
These multicellular communities range in size from the microscopic to those easily seen by the naked eye: a bacterium, an amoeba, an ant, a dog, a human being, and so on. Yes, even bacteria do not live alone; they form dispersed communities that keep in constant communication via chemical signals and viruses.
Once cells figured out a way to work together to create organisms of all sizes and shapes, the newly evolved multicellular organisms also started to assemble into communities themselves. For example, on the macro level, the aspen tree (Populus tremuloides) forms a super organism made up of large stands of genetically identical trees (technically, stems) connected by a single underground root system. The largest known, fully connected aspen is a 106-acre grove in Utah nicknamed Pando that some experts contend is the largest organism in the world.
The social nature of harmonious multiorganism societies can provide fundamental insights directly applicable to human civilization. One great example is an ant, which, like a human being, is a multicellular social organism; when you take an ant out of its community it will die. In fact, an individual ant is really a suborganism; the true organism is actually represented by the ant colony. Lewis Thomas described ants this way: Ants are so much like human beings as to be an embarrassment. They farm fungi, raise aphids as livestock, launch armies into war, use chemical sprays to alarm and confuse enemies, capture slaves, engage in child labor, exchange information ceaselessly. They do everything but watch television.
Natures drive to form community is also easy to observe in mammalian species, such as horses. Rambunctious colts run around and irritate their parents just as human children can. To get the colts in line, their parents nip their offspring as a form of negative reinforcement. If those little bites dont work, the parents move on to the most effective punishment of allthey force the misbehaving colt out of the group and do not let it return to the community. That turns out to be the ultimate punishment for even the friskiest, least controllable colt, which will do anything in its behavioral capacity to rejoin the community.
As for human communities, we can fend for ourselves as individuals longer than a single ant can, but were likely to go crazy in the process. Im reminded of the movie Cast Away in which Tom Hanks plays a man who is marooned on an island in the South Pacific. He uses his own bloody hand to imprint a face on a Wilson Sporting Goods volleyball he calls Wilson so he can have someone to talk to. Finally, after four years, he takes the risky step of venturing off the island in a makeshift raft because hed rather die trying to find someone to communicate with than stay by himself on the island, even though he has figured out how to secure food and drinkthat is, how to survive.
Most people think that the drive to propagate is the most fundamental biological imperative for humans, and theres no doubt that reproduction of the individual is fundamental to species survival. Thats why for most of us sex is so pleasurableNature wanted to ensure that humans have the desire to procreate and sustain the species. But Hanks doesnt venture off the island to propagate; he ventures off the island to communicate with someone other than a volleyball.
For humans, coming together in pairs (biologists call it pair coupling) is about more than sex for propagation. In a lecture entitled The Uniqueness of Humans, neurobiologist and primatologist Robert M. Sapolsky explains how unique humans are in this regard:
“Some of the time, though, the challenge is were dealing with something where we are simply uniquethere is no precedent out there in the animal world. Let me give you an example of this. A shocking one. Okay. You have a couple. They come home at the end of the day. They talk. They eat dinner. They talk. They go to bed. They have sex. They talk some more. They go to sleep. The next day they do the same exact thing. They come home from work. They talk. They eat. They talk. They go to bed. They have sex. They talk. They fall asleep. They do this every day for 30 days running. A giraffe would be repulsed by this. Hardly anybody out there has non-reproductive sex day after day and nobody talks about it afterward.”
For humans, sex for propagation is crucial until a population stabilizes. When human populations reach a state of balance and security, sex for propagation decreases. In the United States, where most parents expect their children to survive and also expect that they themselves wont be out on the streets with a cup when theyre old, the average number of offspring per family is less than two. However, any population that is threatened will initiate reproduction earlier and reproduce moretheyre unconsciously doing the calculation that some of their children are not going to survive and that theyll need more than two children to share the load of helping to support them when theyre old. In India, for example, though the fertility rate dropped 19% in a decade to 2.2, in the poorest areas where families face tremendous challenges to survive, the rate can be three times higher.
But even in societies where the drive to reproduce is curtailed, there is still an incentive for coupling because the drive to bond trumps the drive to procreate. Couples who dont have children can create wonderful relationships and many make a conscious decision not to have children. In Two Is Enough: A Couples Guide to Living Childless by Choice, author Laura S. Scott explores why some forgo the experience. Scott starts off the book with a conversation with a friends husband, who was at the time a new dad:
So why did you get married if you didnt want kids? Huh? Love . . . companionship, I blurted. His question startled me, rendering me uncharacteristically short of words . . . He cocked his head and waited for more, his curiosity genuine. In that moment, I recognized just how strange I must have seemed to him. Here was a person who could not imagine life without kids trying to understand a person who could not imagine a life with kids.
Scott started researching the subject and found that according to a 2000 Current Population Survey, 30 million married couples in the United States do not have children and that the United States Census Bureau predicted that married couples with children would account for only 20 percent of households by 2010. Scott also did her own survey of couples who are childless by choice and found that one important motive for not having children was how much the couples valued their relationships. Said one of the surveyed husbands, We have a happy, loving, fulfilling relationship as we are now. Its reassuring to think that the dynamic of my relationship with my wife wont change.
Perhaps if more people realized that coupling in higher organisms is fundamentally about bonding, not only about the drive to reproduce, there would be less prejudice against homosexuality. In fact, homosexuality is natural and common in the animal kingdom. In a 2009 review of the scientific literature, University of California at Riverside biologists Nathan W. Bailey and Marlene Zuk, who advocate more study about the evolutionary impetus for homosexual behavior, state, The variety and ubiquity of same-sex sexual behavior in animals is impressive; many thousands of instances of same-sex courtship, pair bonding and copulation have been observed in a wide range of species, including mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, insects, mollusks and nematodes.7 One example is silver gulls; 21 percent of female silver gulls pair with another female at least once in their lifetimes and 10 percent are exclusively lesbian.
Since were driven to form bonds, whether they are homosexual or heterosexual, we need to understand how Nature intended us to bond, which is the topic of this book. Until we successfully learn how to couple, how can we follow the example of cells to create larger cooperative communities? Until we successfully learn how to couple better, the next stage of our evolution, wherein humans assemble to form the larger superorganism humanity, is stalled. If ants can do it, so can we humans!
The good news is that the story of evolution is not only a story of the survival of cooperative communities but also a story of repeating patterns that can be understood through geometry, the mathematics of putting structure into space. Humans didnt create geometrythey derived it from studying the structure of the Universe because it provides a way of understanding the organization of Nature. As Plato wrote, Geometry existed before creation.
The repeating patterns of the new geometry, fractal geometry, reveal a surprising insight into the nature of the Universes structure. Even though we know in the pit of our stomach that we are at a crisis point, fractal geometry makes it clear, as Ill explain later, that the planet has been in dire straits before. Each time, though there were casualties along the way (most notoriously dinosaurs), something better emerged out of the crisis.
The mathematical computations involved in fractal geometry are actually quite simple; equations use only multiplication, addition, and subtraction. When one of these equations is solved, the answer is reinserted into the original equation and solved again. This recursive pattern can be repeated infinitely. When fractal equations are repeatedly solved over a million times (computations made possible by the advent of powerful computers), visual geometric patterns emerge. It turns out that an inherent characteristic of fractal geometry is the creation of ever-repeating, self-similar patterns nested within one another. The traditional Russian matryoshka doll provides a great image for understanding fractal patterns. A symbol of motherhood and fertility, the doll is actually a set of wooden dolls of decreasing size that nest into each other. Each doll is a miniature though not necessarily exact replica of the larger ones.
Just like Russian nesting dolls, the repeating patterns in Nature make its fractal organization clear. For example, the pattern of twigs on a tree branch resembles the pattern of limbs branching off the trunk. The pattern of a major river is similar to the patterns of its smaller tributaries. In the human lung, the pattern of branching along the large bronchus airway is repeated in the smaller bronchioles. No matter how complicated organisms are, they display repetitive patterns.
These iterative patterns help make the natural world more comprehensible. Despite the evolution of increasing complexity in the structure of cooperative multicellular communities, the amazing fact is that in the physiology of humansthe organisms that are presumably at the top of the evolutionary ladderthere are no new functions that arent already present in simple cells at the bottom of the evolutionary ladder. Digestive, excretory, cardiovascular, nervous, and even immune systems are present in virtually all of the single cells that comprise our bodies. Show me a function in your human body and Ill show you where it originally arose in the single cell. These repeating fractal patterns mean that everything we learn from Natures simple organisms applies to more complex organisms as well as to us humans. So if you want to understand the nature of the Universe, you dont have to take on the whole thingyou can study its components as I did when I was a cell biologist. Fractal geometrys repeating patterns provide a scientific framework for the principle that mystics call as above, so below. We are clearly part of the Universe, not an add-on afterthought whose job is to conquer Nature.
A biosphere built on the repetitive patterns of fractal geometry also offers an opportunity to predict the future of evolution by looking back on its history. In contrast, conventional Darwinian theory holds that evolution is initiated by random mutations, genetic accidents, which implies that we cannot predict the future. But following in the footsteps of cells, our future should be one of more and more cooperation and more and more harmony so that humans (starting with pair-bonded twos) can learn to cooperate to form the larger evolved communal organism defined as humanity.
Image by coolcal2111, courtesy of Creative Commons licensing.