The May/June 2015 issue of Orion contains a conversation between Kathleen Dean Moore and Mary Evelyn Tucker, a Yale University professor who’s on a mission to fold together spiritual ideas with new insights about the physical history of the universe. Tucker’s recently released project, Journey of the Universe, is an exploration of how the astonishing beauty of the story of the universe might change the way we humans see ourselves in the world. Below is an excerpt from the conversation; read the full version in the print edition of the May/June 2015 issue.
KATHLEEN: So where does the story start?
MARY EVELYN: At the beginning there is a “great flaring forth”— a roaring force from one unknowable moment, this origin moment. It lights me up to think that from this emerge the first stars, the first galaxies, the first planetary systems. Any one of these alone would inspire a lifetime of meditation. That single moment gives birth over time to the elements —hydrogen, then oxygen, nitrogen, carbon —all from the explosion of supernovae. From the creative processes of galaxies and stars and finally planetary systems over 10 billion years, our sun, our Earth, our moon emerged, and eventually humans were born. This is staggering, indeed mind-boggling, and we are the first humans to begin to understand this.
It took another billion years for the first cell to emerge, and from that cell came all life on the planet. Did it come from the deep-sea vents? Did it come from an asteroid? All we know is that Earth became ignited with life. So we have multicellular life from the bacteria early on and much later with birds and fish and insects—the tree of life not so much branching as exploding outward. At the same time, Earth began its adventure of conscious self-awareness, from a primitive sentience at the cellular level all the way to our own dreaming, meaning-making, symbol-forming selves.
KATHLEEN: The story that you tell, this understanding, this perspective, offers people a new worldview, doesn’t it? I think of a worldview as a set of beliefs that we swim in, so deeply immersed in its assumptions that we don’t often question or even recognize them as assumptions, any more than a fish thinks of water. Worldviews fundamentally shape cultures. Different worldview? Different culture. So cultural transformation often begins when people get a new vision of who they are in the midst of the world. Is that part of what you’re hoping the universe story can do?
MARY EVELYN: Yes. What we are experiencing is a worldview shift of immense import, one where we humans are entering into a fresh understanding that we are part of a developmental universe. If we can see ourselves as coming out of, as birthed from, these dynamic, changing, evolutionary processes—from cosmic beginning to Earth to life to human beings—there will be a huge change of human consciousness and identity. It’s certainly as large as the Copernican Revolution. It’s on that order of magnitude.
The Great Chain of Being was the medieval worldview, drawing on earlier Greek thought, which presumed that animals were arranged in an ascending order from small creatures all the way up to humans at the top of the pyramid, and eventually to God. This put humans at the pinnacle of creation—separate from and superior to all other forms of life, closest to God. Of course, Copernicus transformed that paradigm by observing that even if humans were at the center of the Earth, the Earth is not the center of our planetary solar system.
But now we find ourselves in an unimaginable immensity of time and space. We have remarkable new insights from science of how evolution works and how ecosystems flourish within these evolutionary processes. It’s not a matter of creation from the outside, where humans are just dropped into the process, as in a Biblical mindset. In the Genesis story, God creates Adam and Eve, and a soul is dropped into these early lifeforms, and all of a sudden we have conscious humans. No!
We humans are part of this vast evolutionary journey. The central new idea is cosmogenesis, namely that evolution is an unfolding process that has continuity from its origin moment to the present, an interlinking of the stars and elements and supernovae with all lifeforms, and carbon and me here in New England and you in the Oregon forest. It’s a unity of life from the first cell to all future forms of life. This dynamic and complexifying process is what we are trying to understand.
We are related to the stars and the first cells and the small mammals that survived the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs. We are related to the apes and baboons and orangutans—how thrilling is this journey that we have made! What science is giving us is a glimpse of how something more complex arises from something less complex.
How does this happen? We don’t fully know, but it has to do with self-organizing dynamics and emergent properties. What’s a whirlpool? What are these patterns of a spiral galaxy? What can generate this form? We’re finding ways to talk about how systems organize themselves, how change happens over time.
KATHLEEN: What does this story tell us about what it means to be human?
MARY EVELYN: The stars stun us with their beauty, drawing us into wonder. And this sense of wonder is one of our most valuable guides on this journey into our future as full human beings. The creativity of evolutionary processes and self-organizing dynamics are mirrored in our own creativity, which is birthed from these processes of billions of years. Thus, our creativity is enlivened by being in resonance with a life-generating planet —the flowers, the leaves, the waving grasses, the sunsets, the wind.
Humans desire, more than anything else, to be creative, and we desire to participate in the creative processes, in the future and in life—that’s what having children is about. But we can be life-generating in a variety of ways—creative, participatory, oriented toward something larger than ourselves. What is larger than ourselves that we really care about? It’s Life, as far as I can see.
We are on the verge of knowing how to express comprehensive gratitude, acknowledging that we are dwelling within a living system. This gives rise to a sense of resonance with lifeforms that certainly earlier peoples understood, and native peoples still do. This is a new moment for our awakening to the beauty of life that is now in our hands. And because we are life-giving humans and care about our children and their children and future generations of all species, I think the universe story can sustain us and inspire us in so many ways yet to be fully discovered.