The ‘Santiago Theory of Cognition’ proposed by the Chilean biologists and neuroscientists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela offers a scientific way of understanding the process by which living systems engage in ‘autopoiesis’ (self-creating or self-generating) through entering into relationships that distinguish self from other but without losing their fundamental interconnectedness with their environment.
The act of ‘structural coupling’ — or relating to other — enables the living system to define itself in relationship to its environment as separate yet connected. Importantly, the environment that is defined by the initial act of distinction of self and other triggers changes in the living system which the system itself specifies as triggers of internal changes.
Maturana and Varela argue that this is basically an act of cognition (which does not require a nervous system and is thus possible for all life-forms). Cognition is not a representation of an independently existing world, but rather the act of bringing forth a world through the processes of living as relating. From this perspective, cognition is the basic process of life.
In The Tree of Knowledge, Maturana and Varela suggest that as we are beginning to understand how we know, we have to realize that “the world everyone sees is not the world but a world which we bring forth with others”. The world-as-we-know-it emerges out of the way we relate to each other and the wider natural process. This led Maturana and Varela to the obvious conclusion “that the world will be different only if we live differently” (Maturana & Varela, 1987: 245). In Biology of Love Maturana writes:
Love is our natural condition, and it is the denial of love what [sic] requires all our rational efforts, but what for, when life is so much better in love than in aggression? Love needs not to be learned, it can be allowed to be or it can be denied, but needs not to be learned, because it is our biological fundament and the only basis for the conservation of our human beingness as well as our well being.
— Humberto Maturana & Gerda Verden-Zoller (1996) 33
Is our ability to love what makes humanity worth sustaining? We are not the pinnacle of evolution but participants in its processes — conscious participants capable of self- reflection. We are only just beginning to understand consciousness and in the process are becoming aware of our intimate communion and entanglement with all there is. Every living being reflects the whole, the evolving and transforming universe, back onto itself in its own unique way.
Some theories of consciousness suggest that only human beings are capable of self-awareness and self-reflection. We are neither aware of any other species writing poetry or composing music to reflect the unifying emotion we call love, nor do we know what the passing of the seasons feels like to a sequoia tree, or how an emperor penguin subjectively experiences the first rays of sunlight after the Antarctic winter. But is there not something worth sustaining in a species that can ask such questions? Love and empathy widen our circles of compassion.
The evolution of consciousness is both a personal journey that we are all capable of experiencing through our lifetimes, and a journey at the collective level. We are on a journey from the ‘original participation’ of indigenous tribes that perceives everything as alive and meaningful relations, to the ‘separation of self and world’ (nature and culture) that brought us the Enlightenment and the multiple benefits of science and technology based on analytical reasoning; the next step is towards a new kind of “final participation” — as Owen Barfield called it (1988: 133–134) — which expresses a synthesis of both perspectives.
We are part and parcel of nature and we have evolved to self-reflective consciousness and free will, which gives us the choice to participate in life’s processes in a destructive or a creatively supportive (regenerative) way.
Creating a regenerative culture
There is nothing less at stake than the future of our species, much of the diversity of life, and the continued evolution of consciousness. If we achieve this ‘momentous leap’ (Graves, 1974) in human self-awareness, what lies ahead of us is the promise of a truly regenerative, collaborative, just, peaceful and equitable human civilization that flourishes and thrives in its diverse cultural and artistic expressions while restoring ecosystems and regenerating resilience locally and globally.
The best of our music, art, poetry and technology will be elegant expression of the symbiotic unity of nature and culture. We are capable of reflecting on the ‘universe story’ as our own story, the story of life evolving. Individually and collectively we are waking up to find out that the world knows and loves itself through our eyes and our hearts. What kind of culture will we create to express this wisdom? Becoming conscious of our interbeing with the world reminds us of our communion with all life as a reflection of our larger being. As conscious relational beings, love for life is our natural state.
The evolutionary biologist E.O. Wilson (1986), inspired by the psychologist Erich Fromm (1956), suggested that human beings as expressions of the process of life have an innate tendency to be attracted to all living beings. He called this love for life and attraction towards other life forms biophilia.
The ‘deep ecology’ movement initiated by the Norwegian philosopher Arne Næss (1988) calls the realization of our own self as a relational reflection of the larger community of life ‘our ecological self’ and sees in it the basis for responsible action out of enlightened self-interest.
We bring forth a world in relationship to ‘other’ and without that ‘other’ — which is a reflection of our larger self — we could not exist. The ‘Santiago Theory of Cognition’, as we have seen, reframes dualistic categories like self and world as polarities of an interconnected whole which takes form by distinction without separation.
As another esteemed mentor and friend of mine, Satish Kumar — editor of Resurgence and co-founder of Schumacher College — has put it: “You are, therefore I am” (2002). Or in the words of a Grateful Dead song : “Wake up to find out that you are the eyes of the world!”
In regenerative cultures, personal development and the evolution of consciousness will accelerate. As we cease to be paralyzed by the fear-driven cycle of separation, scarcity and the struggle for control and power, we will begin to unfold the potential of a compassionate, empathic and collaborative culture of creativity and shared abundance, driven by biophilia — our innate love for all of life.
The narrative of separation from the rest of life and alienation from nature’s wisdom is beginning to give way to a narrative that celebrates our communion with nature as the very essence of our being. Our subjective conscious awareness of the transforming whole (limited as it may be) is an important and valid reflection of that whole getting to know itself through all of us and as all of us. By living the questions together, we can learn to appreciate multiple perspectives and gain a shared understanding of our participation in that wholeness.
So far, most evidence of the healthy evolution of human consciousness and personal development (e.g. Graves, 1974; Wilber, 2001) indicates that nobody is born with a holistic and planetary consciousness and full awareness of the co-arising of self and world. So all present and past states and stages of consciousness (see Combs, 2002 & 2009) have to be welcome as they form the stepping stones of personal development in individuals, as well as being expressions of the evolution of consciousness of our species.
A regenerative culture will have to facilitate the healthy personal development of a human being from ego-centric, to socio-centric, to species-centric, to bio-centric, and cosmos-centric perspectives of self. This means paying attention to how our culture and education system shape our worldview and value system. We need to encourage life-long learning and personal development through supportive community processes and ongoing dialogue, guided by questions rather than answers. We need to live these questions individually and collectively to co-create a new narrative.
As the multiple converging crises we face are creating an accelerated climate of transformation, where change is no longer a possibility to entertain but an inevitable consequence of our collective actions, we are called to switch out of the mindset that created these crises in the first place. In doing so, we undergo a species-level rite of passage that offers us a new and more mature perspective on our intimacy with, and responsibility for, all of life. We are “coming home” (Kelly, 2010).
The creation of diverse, regenerative cultures collaboratively united in a regenerative civilization is the only viable future open to us as we move into the ‘planetary era’. Our collective challenge is to create cultures capable of continuous learning in the face of complexity, not-knowing and constant change.
We have the creative opportunity to give birth to a human culture that is mature enough to express the insight that life creates conditions conducive to life in all its designs, systems and processes. We can co-create a world that works for all of humanity and all of life. We are capable of vibrant and diverse cultural expressions of the profoundly transformative insight that we are the eyes of the world.
[This is an excerpt of a subchapter from Designing Regenerative Cultures, published by Triarchy Press, 2016.]
Dr. Daniel Christian Wahl - Glocal educator, activist and consultant, generalized in whole systems design and transformative innovation for regenenerative cultures