Two cardinal principles of universal existence, competition, and cooperation, have intersected and oscillated in strength like yin-yang ever since the Big Bang. Physical scientists typically avoid the terms we use above. However, in this essay, extracted from our recent book, The Fractal Self, we suggest the universe, as it emerged out of simplicity, adopted a modus operandi that we call the cooperativeconstant, initially manifested in primordial physical forces of attraction such as gravity. This auspicious beginning was progressively complemented by chemistry in which elements developed bonding tendencies to build complex structure and generate further chemical reactivity. Ultimately catalysts that fostered “intimate” molecular connections would evolve, weaving their influence within ever more advanced biochemical manifestations to quicken the coming of organic complexity. From an evolutionary point of view, an emergent cooperative potential, an affinity of self for other — which becomes a sine qua non for the evolution of life — is characteristic of matter on every scale and now found at the heart of the most progressive systems of which we are aware.
Since Darwin, competition has largely dominated evolutionary thinking on the origin and workings of Earth’s biosphere. Nevertheless, through the twentieth century major biological insights emerged, such as the meaning of sexual recombination, discoveries of vast holistic consequences of endo- and exo-mutualisms, and new models of interaction in sociobiology. Scientists such as Lynn Margulis, Stuart Kauffman, Edward O. Wilson, and Martin Nowak, among others, have recently confirmed the power of cooperation in building the richness and diversity of life on Earth.
In considering the idea of a “constant” for universal evolution we postulated that in net effect cooperation has maintained a slight edge over competition. In our view, sustained, aggressive competition entrenches simplicity, throttles diversity, and eliminates evolutionary options. Cooperation tends to promote richness in natural systems, and especially enables emergence, defined as holistic change in a complex system of cooperating elements that cannot be predicted from measurements of those elements. Thus, we do not envision a classic quantitative constant or convenient equation-balancing factor, but rather a general principle, a kind of constructive “butterfly effect”, whose influence extends across scale. Such outcomes may trigger emergent leaps and persist over billions of years. Thus, we suggest, cooperation writ large — attracting, binding, bonding, catalysing, mating, merging, facilitating self with other — appears responsible for the span of complexity, from atomic and molecular structure to galaxies and from microbial mats to human society. Only in the latest instant of universal history has this essential participatory impetus inhabited a conscious vector, and the tension between cooperation and competition across our planet has reached a point of existential decision.
The metaphor of intimacy in our thesis stems from Thomas Kasulis’s usage that refers to strong cultural cohesion and interdependence of individuals. In Intimacy or Integrity: Philosophy and Cultural Difference, Kasulis focuses on a spectrum of social behaviour extending between polar manifestations of integrity, with its emphasis on individuality, and intimacy, which seeks cooperative relationships.
NOT MAN APART
Our ancestors adopted ideas of an intimate, participatory universe well before we began to articulate worldviews in formal philosophic or scientific terms. Recorded in myths and oral histories, these ideas constitute foundations of our cultural understandings of intimate connection to the natural world. Children upon their first outdoor explorations commonly begin to think of themselves as embedded in nature, and, as a species, we passed through a sapient childhood. A universe of indifference (eventually interpreted in Darwinian terms of struggle for existence) was most likely a later construct. Without philosophy and science in those early times, the only recourse — to explain why something instead of nothing and where the incipient self belonged in the world — lay in the art of telling intimate mythic stories of origins with humans embedded in nature. Above all a deep sense of the need for sustainability of the living Earth emerges from many of those stories.
From these beginnings many ancestral cultures developed an individual prototype we call a fractal self. In our metaphorical usage this term reflects one’s deep seamless continuity and connectedness vis-à-vis nature and society. Examples from our formative times include master builders, engineers, and artists, visionary inclusive tribal leaders, and respected shamans. Today this kind of person may be anyone drawn to some walk of life, vocation, or avocation, who begins to realise a participatory ethos as a “natural” or an “adept” with growing sensitivity, adaptation, knowledge, and expertise. And such a self, embracing his or her affinitive realm, contributes creative complexity that may lead to emergence.
The fractal self, conveying human catalytic potential and facilitation in coexistence with others, appears well-represented in ancient Chinese religion and philosophy where all participate in a wide web of being, joined by qi, the inherent divinity of all things. Ancestral Daoism bequeathed to us a compelling counterpoint to the Western deity-directed cosmic view that envisions a supernatural realm, a transcendent god, and an immortal soul setting humans apart from the rest of nature.
In 1982, in The Fractal Geometry of Nature, Benoit Mandelbrot confirmed with elegant mathematical simplicity that nature organised itself and created structure across scale in a continuum of dimensionality, a state he defined as fractal. Nevertheless, early Chinese philosophers, with apparent intuition of fractal continuity, were the first to maintain that seamless dimensionality in nature is the definitive characteristic of dao — the way the world is formed and how it behaves as it evolves. Among all major philosophical traditions, Daoism most clearly recognises and embraces how natural systems flourish and diminish and how patterns emerge from the various interactive components of the natural world. The emphasis of Daoist thinkers is on the natural qualities of dao (道) that arise from the principle of self-organisation and the synergy of cooperation. Dao happens, but its happenings move in subtle ways that appear to be without purpose: “The Tao constitutes the regulating structure of nature” (as translated in 1977 by Young and Ames from Chen Guying’s 1972 classic Lao Tzu: Text, Notes, and Comments).
Envisioning a tendency to cooperate among entities across scale, the Daoist concept “wuwei” (無為) emphasises the orderly becoming of nature through natural, unconscious, and non-coercive action; it describes the flow of the world (proceeding out of its seamless structure), which is dao in action, or “way-making” in Roger T. Ames’s translation of the Daodejng.The shaping of dao then is understood as wuwei: in its self-organising fashion, dao “really does things non-coercively, yet everything gets done” [and] “Were the nobles and kings able to respect this, All things (wanwu) would be able to develop along their own lines”.
Thus wuwei manifests itself in the adaptive integration of the interacting parts or units of a complex system. The cooperation of those components facilitates the functioning of the system on its new holistic level. Moreover, wuwei integrates human beings into the systems of the world as cooperators with nature and nourishes those roots of human nature, deeply embedded in evolutionary history, which now constitute elements of culture to apply in sustaining our planet.
Daoism’s vision of nature places humanity on the inside of the unfolding of the universe. This relationship is a hopeful one that suggests human beings have a potential for vastly extended participation in the future. As the Zhuangzi states, “The Way comes about as we walk it” (as found in Chuang Tzu: The Inner Chapters by A.C. Graham), that is, with human interaction and participation. Traditionally, the process of dao must be preserved by the shèngrén (聖人), the sage who, we maintain, is the mature life-stage of a fractal self. The sage moves effortlessly and accomplishes tasks with ease and assiduity because he or she has reached an understanding of the world and its way making. Not only does the sage know the world, such a person becomes a part of it.
“Within yourself, no fixed positions:
Things as they take shape disclose themselves.
Moving, be like water,
Still, be like a mirror,
Respond like an echo.”
Daoism explored the self’s becoming progressively more adept and naturally connected to the world. This same self, who may evolve to a sage, is also indispensable to the Buddhists’ approach to understanding the truth of connectivity of all things.
THE PERSPECTIVE OF ALL-SELF
The founders of Chinese Huayen Buddhism (Kegon in Japan and Hwaeom in Korea) focused on the interdependent tendencies of nature and human nature. They would especially make use of the classic Indian imagery of universal cooperation depicted in Indra’s Net because it so vividly represents key Buddhist ideas such as interdependent arising, the non-dual nature of reality, anatman or no-self, and the interconnectedness and relatedness of all things. Anything done to one part of the whole affects everything else since all things are ultimately linked. If we pluck a jewel from a portion of the net, a hole ensues leaving the rest of the net debilitated.
Buddhism’s analysis of reality, with its strongest expression in Chan (Zen), emphasises the world of pure experience, which is a direct participation in all of nature. The adept Chan practitioner (like the Daoist sage) enters into direct communion with the objects and processes of reality that compose the flowing, shifting, complex systems in nature. Breaking this unity leads to the dualistic view of self/world, subject/object, and is at the root of many of our contemporary problems such as the environmental crisis, economic disparity, sexism, homophobia, and our predispositions to perpetuate violence against others.
The Buddhist original insight of pratītya-samutpāda, interdependent arising, teaches the cooperative inter-being of all things and thus denies the ontological status of any separate, isolated, or distinct being, defined in independent terms. Rather, everything participates in intermeshing systems that shift in their qualities and manifestations of structure and behaviour — moment by moment like cloud patterns in the sky, or through eons like microbes in the primordial seas. Thus, Buddhist life is steeped in intimacy. All Being is inter-being. Even the human self is not really a self from this perspective; it is a not-self? (anatman), a being that of necessity emerges from and is conditioned constantly by other beings in the field of all inter-being.
Pratītya-samutpāda ultimately means that everything is impermanent and inevitably changing with the sense of endless possibilities of emergence at any given moment. From the Buddhist perspective, the false affirmation of a separate reality of individual identity — whatever condenses out of our conceptualising after immediate experience — is the greatest illusion. This illusory way of being in the world is a cause of dukkha, or suffering. Affirming anatman as an inter-being emerging and evolving is to eliminate dukkha and enrich one’s life. A healthy, progressive self embraces the complexities of nature and culture. Our cooperation tends to induce and sustain natural diversity that has always fostered emergence.
Thus, a Buddhist sense of self becomes the paradigmatic model for what constitutes a self of intimacy. To continue seeking our place in the universe, and especially to secure it on our planet, is the affinitive task of Buddhist sages, priests, and masters. Such identification with nature for the Buddhist could end here in some romantic mystical union with the world. But the Buddha was unmistakable and unwavering that the appropriate way of living needed to reach out to others as the self extended out to the world. This reaching out necessarily includes compassion for all other selves, human and non-human.
“To Inter-be, or not to be” is the real challenge, for as the Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh writes in his Peace Is Every Step:
“The essence of love and compassion is understanding, the ability to recognize the physical, material, and psychological suffering of others, to put ourselves ‘inside the skin’ of the other. We ‘go inside’ their body, feelings, and mental formations, and witness for ourselves their suffering. Shallow observation as an outsider is not enough to see their suffering. We must become one with the object of our observation. When we are in contact with another’s suffering, a feeling of compassion is born in us. Compassion means, literally, ‘to suffer with’.
OUR PLANET, OURSELVES, OUR CHOICE
We believe it has become urgent to revise the classic concept of free will as metaphysical libertarianism, meaning the appearance of freedom given to humans by an omnipotent God who supposedly allowed individuals to be agents of choice. Our sense of free will comes closer to what Thich Nhat Hanh has suggested: “Freedom is not given to us by anyone; we have to cultivate it ourselves. It is a daily practice… No one can prevent you from being aware of each step you take or each breath in and breath out.” Cultivating awareness beyond our bodies and insular thoughts inevitably leads us into Indra’s Net, where we find the freedom of the fractal self and the compassionate catalytic power of the sage. We still have the choice of where we dwell on the spectrum of intimacy and integrity. When we reapply ancient Daoist and Buddhist wisdom, reflection instantly tells us intimacy will take us so much farther.
To follow consciously the evolutionary-emergent path of the cooperative constant empowers our potential to form sustaining partnerships. To choose the opposite is to practice the ways of strong integrity, aggressive competition, and systemic domination of other species and members of our own. It is the path of unsustainable consumption, exploitation of the other, and fundamentalist religious practice. At this tipping point in history it may be the path toward our own extinction. No other species has ever had this choice. Either way, we are destined to make an earthly difference, almost surely one that is enormously significant.
Recently ecologists and philosophers have recognised a new mass extinction of life on Earth. This “sixth extinction” could rival the worst of such former cataclysms that have been uncovered in the geological record, and we will have caused it. Knowingly ruining our rarest of planets and drastically diminishing its life would be a performance of evil unique in the history of our species. And if we ourselves should fail in the end, the failure is deeper if, through mass destruction of other life forms and complex realms of the biosphere, we compromise or prolong some future emergence of a new eusocial consciousness. This would stand as perhaps the ultimate crime against “the other” and, as an “original sin,” against our emergent universe.
Now, at this crucial crossroad in our evolutionary journey, we make our choice. Ahead of us, the continuing main route of intimacy extends far beyond our field of vision. Behind us we know that it has always led through organic ascendance. Now, our very survival may depend on whether we continue on that road. Beyond survival, our species’ ultimate success depends on whether we will favour in our lives and societies the cooperative constant that has brought us to such a stunning threshold, the most significant milestone in 3.5 billion years of life’s evolution: making creation, in every way, a conscious process for the first time.