The Rhythms of Life
According to mainstream evolutionary theory, the origin and evolution of life are the result of random physicochemical processes. The first living organisms are said to have arisen by chance in the primeval oceans and to have gradually evolved towards greater complexity and diversity through random genetic mutations, with the least well-adapted variations being weeded out by natural selection. In their latest book, Our Place in the Cosmos: The Unfinished Revolution (J.M. Dent, 1993), cosmologists Fred Holye and Chandra Wickramasinghe comment:
All this is taught nowadays as though it embodied proven unquestionable facts, but in reality it is little more than a dogma, dogma that has come to be fossilized in our educational system. (p. 2)
According to modern science the earth is about 4.6 billion years old. [Theosophy, on the other hand, puts the age of the earth's present embodiment at nearer 2 billion years (The Secret Doctrine 2:68). The radiometric dating methods used by science assume that radioactivity began as soon as the earth formed and that the rate of radioactive decay has always been constant. Theosophically, radioactivity is a sign of etherealization and began in earnest only about 4½ million years ago, at the midpoint of the earth's life-cycle, and will accelerate as time goes on (see G. de Purucker, Studies in Occult Philosophy, pp. 20-1, 638-40; SD 1:439fn, 2:147fn). Prior to that, the overall trend was towards the condensation of matter -- the opposite of radioactivity.] The first unicellular organisms are said to have appeared about 3.8 billion years ago, as soon as the young earth became habitable. If life evolved by accident, it is difficult to see how this could have happened so quickly, given the amazing complexity of organic molecules. For example:
the protein histone-4 has essentially the same chain of l02 amino acids in all life-forms. If you had random shots at assembling this particular chain from a supply of individual amino acids to suit yourself -- one shot for every atom in every star in every galaxy visible in the largest telescopes, your chance of successfully finding histone-4 would be like backing a horse at odds of 5 x 10132 (that is, 5 followed by 132 zeros) to 1 against, and histone-4 is just one of very many critical proteins. (Our Place in the Cosmos, p. 29)
Hoyle and Wickramasinghe take the view that life first evolved in the depths of space and that the earth was seeded with life by comets. They present evidence suggesting that comets and interstellar clouds might contain not only organic molecules but also viruses and freeze-dried bacteria. Bacteria certainly possess remarkable properties which would enable them to survive in space and withstand entry into the earth's atmosphere. For example, they can survive near-zero pressures and temperatures, as well as pressures as high as 10 tons per square centimeter, and flash heating to temperatures of up to 700°C. They can also survive intense doses of radiation. If bacteria evolved in a terrestrial environment it is hard to understand how they have acquired such properties.
Most astronomers believe that the solar system is surrounded by a sphere of some l00 billion cometary nuclei, known as the Oort cloud. From time to time, individual comets are said to be deflected out of this cloud into the inner regions of the solar system by interaction with a passing star or molecular cloud. As a comet approaches the sun its outer layers begin to evaporate, releasing its biological material, some of which could rain down intact onto the surfaces of the planets, including the earth, and provide the genetic building blocks from which life evolved. The earth is perpetually embedded in a halo of material evaporated from short-period comets, and about 1000 tons of this material are swept up by the earth's atmosphere every year, sufficient to supply about 1021 bacteria and 1025 viruses.
In 1976 two space probes, Vikings 1 and 2, were sent to Mars by NASA with experiments on board designed to test for the presence of microorganisms in the Martian soil. Since Mars possesses enough of an atmosphere to permit the soft landing of microorganisms, the experiments should have given a positive result if Hoyle and Wickramasinghe's theory is correct. The official line, however, is that no signs of life were found. In actual fact, this is not true, for while one experiment gave a negative result, the other gave a positive result. NASA, however, claimed that the positive result was probably due to the presence of some strong oxidizing agent in the Martian soil and announced that no life had been found on Mars. The designers of this experiment, G.V. Levin and P.A. Straat, spent nearly 10 years searching for a way of reproducing by nonbiological means the effects obtained on Mars, but without success. Meanwhile, the other experiment was belatedly tested against Antarctic soil -- comparable with the barren soil of Mars -- and failed to detect organic material of biological origin which was known to be there! This experiment was simply many thousands of times less sensitive than the experiment which had given the positive result. Levin and Straat therefore maintain that the Viking experiments did in fact find microbial life on Mars, while NASA continues to deny it.
The presence of microorganisms on Mars does not necessarily prove that Hoyle and Wickramasinghe's theories are correct as other explanations are conceivable. A more crucial test will come in the early years of the next century when the spacecraft ROSETTA will rendezvous with a comet and deploy a probe to take samples of its surface. Their views have so far received little support from other scientists.
Theories of the origin of life tend to take for granted that there is such a thing as dead matter. From a materialistic standpoint, living organisms consist of one or more cells, but while cells are considered to be alive, the atoms of which they are composed are believed to be lifeless, and life is regarded as no more than a by-product of complex physicochemical processes. Reproduction is sometimes cited as one of the essential characteristics of life, yet viruses -- regarded as alive -- cannot reproduce by themselves, but only by taking over a host cell. Other properties of life are said to be complexity, metabolism, and interaction with the environment. But is there anything in nature which does not possess these properties? Even 'fundamental' subatomic particles, for example, far from being simple, structureless points, as most physicists believe them to be, may be just as complex in their own terms as a planet or sun, but their complexity may be obscured by the fact that they are so minuscule and live at such fantastic speeds compared to ourselves.
Theosophy rejects the idea of a sharp division between living and nonliving systems. H.P. Blavatsky writes:
Occultism does not accept anything inorganic in the Kosmos. The expression employed by Science, 'inorganic substance,' means simply that the latent life slumbering in the molecules of so-called 'inert matter' is incognizable. ALL IS LIFE, and every atom of even mineral dust is a LIFE, though beyond our comprehension and perception . . . (Secret Doctrine 1:248)
From one point of view, the distinguishing mark between what is called the organic and the inorganic is the function of nutrition, but if there were no nutrition how could those bodies which are called inorganic undergo change? Even crystals undergo a process of accretion, which for them answers the function of nutrition. In reality, as Occult philosophy teaches us, everything which changes is organic; it has the life principle in it, and it has all the potentiality of the higher lives. (Collected Writings 10:383)
Life and consciousness are universal: everything is alive and conscious, though the degree of manifest life and consciousness varies widely. Physical matter is a crystallized, sleeping form of life-consciousness. More complex physical forms do not create life but merely allow a greater degree of inner vitality to be expressed through the physical form. If 'inorganic' matter seems to possess an innate tendency to self-organize into 'organic' forms, it is because of a creative impulse originating in inner worlds and acting from within outwards. Blavatsky therefore rejected the idea that the first germs of life were brought to earth on a meteor, a theory put forward in her own day by the scientists Helmholtz and Sir W. Thomson (SD 2:158, 719, 730). However, this does not preclude the possibility that the material swept up by the earth on its journey through space might play an important role in physical evolution.
The process of aging ultimately leads to death, but there is no known physical mechanism which controls this process. Theosophically, a physical organism functions as an integrated whole for as long as it is animated and held together by inner energy fields or souls, composed of finer, nonphysical grades of spirit-substance. An organism is born with a certain store of vital energy and, after this energy has been expended, the inner entity withdraws for a period of rest and the physical body dies. Once the individual molecules are freed from the restraint imposed by this coordinating force, they become more active or full of life and go their separate ways, causing the body to decay.
As far as the evolution of living organisms is concerned, the fossil record contradicts the Darwinian belief in a branching evolutionary tree, in which all creatures have descended in small steps from a primitive common ancestor. The tree of life is divided into different levels, beginning with kingdoms (the broadest group), followed by phyla, classes, orders, families, genera, and finally species (the twigs on the tree of life). But it is only at the lowest levels -- genera and species -- that significant fossil evidence of intermediate forms has been found, and even here the links are not nearly as gradual as required by Darwinian theory.
It used to be claimed that there was a fairly complete sequence of fossils showing how the modern, one-toed horse had evolved from a horse the size of a dog, with four toes on the forefeet and three on the hindfeet. Even if this were true, it would merely show that a particular kind of creature can evolve into a similar kind of creature. Nowadays, however, it is generally admitted that this picture of straight-line evolution is far from accurate. Instead of gradual change, fossils of each intermediate species of horse appear fully formed, persist unchanged, and then become extinct, with no transitional forms. What's more, three-toed and one-toed horses appear to have lived side by side. Horses and bears belong to different orders of mammals and supposedly descended from a common ancestor, yet there is no fossil evidence whatsoever of ancestral creatures that were part-bear, part-horse. This is just one of countless 'missing links', and the stock excuse that they are missing due to the imperfection of the fossil record is wearing increasingly thin.
Hoyle and Wickramasinghe argue that species can adapt only within very narrow limits by internal means alone, and that to produce large distinctions extending to orders and classes, species must acquire a sudden input of new genetic information from outside themselves. In their view, this input is provided by viruses from comets which, as well as causing diseases, might occasionally add useful new genes to an organism or trigger dormant genes into activity. But is the random injection of genes from outside the earth any more likely to produce the incredible beauty, ingenuity, and diversity of contemporary life forms than the slow accumulation of random genetic mutations?
Theosophy holds that evolution is driven not so much by the influx of organic matter from outer space as by nonphysical influences acting from inner space: evolution is guided by spiritual, intelligent, and semi-intelligent forces acting from planes transcending the physical. An increasing number of biologists recognize the need to invoke some kind of organizing principle or force to explain the purposiveness of evolution. Few, however, are prepared to go as far as the nineteenth century naturalist A.R. Wallace, who helped to develop the theory of natural selection, but differed from Darwin in believing that human beings could not have evolved without the guidance of higher intelligences.
Far from being characterized by slow and steady progress, evolution on earth has been punctuated by mass extinctions and the sudden appearance of new species. The first multicellular organisms (or metazoans) appeared in the fossil record about 600 million years ago, according to conventional dating, but they are relatively few compared to the incredible proliferation of such organisms that occurred some 530 million years ago, in the early Cambrian. Since the 'Cambrian explosion' not a single new basic anatomical design (or phylum) has appeared in the animal world; in fact the number has declined from about 49 to 28, and the overall trend has been towards an increasing number of species based on fewer and fewer basic body plans. For instance, there are about a million species of insects alive today, but only three basic arthropod designs, compared with over twenty in the mid-Cambrian. The cause of the Cambrian explosion has not been satisfactorily explained. According to Hoyle and Wickramasinghe, it resulted from the earth being bombarded by a swarm of cometary bodies, which contained not only bacteria and viruses but also the frozen eggs of metazoan creatures, which could have developed within huge aqueous lakes in large comets.
Theosophy sheds a different light on this subject. The globe we live on is said to be the most material of twelve globes that together make up the earth planetary chain; the other globes are situated on more ethereal and spiritual planes and are therefore invisible to us. The different life-waves or kingdoms of nature -- from elemental to human to spiritual -- form the globes of a planetary chain, and on each one the monads or consciousness-centers which compose the life-waves embody in suitable forms and pass through different stages of evolutionary development. On any globe, at any time, one kingdom dominates, and the bulk of its monads embody on that globe. Each kingdom stays on a globe for many millions of years, and passes seven times through all the globes in succession during each embodiment of a planetary chain. When a life-wave departs from a globe, it leaves behind its most advanced representatives (often referred to by the Sanskrit term shishtas, meaning 'remainders'). When it returns to that globe in the next round, the monads reawaken these ethereal seeds of life or astral root-types, which begin to materialize and differentiate into a variety of stocks appropriate to that kingdom's evolution.
The present or fourth round on earth began with the Laurentian period (which preceded the Cambrian), about 640 million years ago (320 million according to theosophy, SD 2:710, 715fn). The appearance of metazoans 600 million years ago, and their sudden proliferation 530 million years ago resulted from the reawakening of the astral root-types by the monads arriving on our globe from the preceding globe -- their numbers being relatively few to start with but swelling rapidly as time went on. From the start of the fourth round until the midpoint of the planetary life cycle, some 4½ million years ago, the evolutionary trend was downwards into matter, resulting in a profusion of new species, which developed the fundamental designs activated at the start of the round into a variety of specialized forms. However, the middle of the cycle marked the beginning of the ascending arc towards spirit, and henceforth more and more animal monads will tend to pass into nirvanic rest as they will not be able to evolve sufficiently along psychological and spiritual lines.
The purpose of evolution is the unfoldment of the latent faculties and capabilities, the slumbering divine potential, locked up in each monad, through the building of ever fitter vehicles for self-expression. Changes within a species take place in response to internal as well as environmental stimuli, and build up on the astral plane until they are able to burst into physical manifestation as a sudden 'mutation'. When a new type of physical vehicle is required for a monad's development, a suitable prototype is provided by the patterns from previous cycles of evolution stored in the earth's memory field or astral light (what Rupert Sheldrake calls the morphic field of Gaia). On the other hand, if a particular species of plant or animal is no longer needed as a vehicle for evolutionary experience, monads no longer embody in it and it eventually dies out and becomes extinct. This process may be accelerated by environmental changes brought about by natural catastrophes such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and comet and asteroid impacts.
The largest known extinction occurred at the end of the Permian period, some 245 million years ago (44 million according to theosophy), when 96 percent of marine species were wiped out. Another mass extinction took place at the end of the Cretaceous period and the beginning of the Tertiary (the K-T boundary), about 65 million years ago (less than 8 million according to theosophy); it wiped out half of all the genera of animals, and every species of animal weighing more than about 25 kilograms (55 pounds), including the dinosaurs. The most popular explanation is that the earth was struck by an asteroid or comet, generating a huge dust cloud which blocked out sunlight and led to the collapse of the food chain. However, the extinctions began many millions of years before the K-T boundary, and other scientists believe that the main causes were a long period of intense global volcanism, related climatic changes, and changes in sea-level or land elevation (see 'The great dinosaur extinction controversy'). Hoyle and Wickramasinghe believe that infection with lethal viruses was involved, since the extinctions were not confined to large animals but went all the way down to microorganisms, and occurred in every kind of habitat, including the bottom of the sea. Whatever its cause or causes, this extinction was followed by the rapid diversification and rise to dominance of the mammals.
Hoyle and Wickramasinghe say that their book is intended to provide 'a doorway leading to a different landscape which it will be the privilege of the next generation, or generations, to explore' (p. 181). But while they present many challenges to orthodox scientific thinking and open up interesting avenues for further research, they are still working from within a materialistic framework (though in earlier books Hoyle proposes that there is an overriding intelligence at work in the universe -- see The Intelligent Universe). Interestingly, they also state that since Buddhism sees life and consciousness as cosmic phenomena, inextricably linked with the universe as a whole, the ancient Buddhist traditions provide a suitable framework for freeing science from its remaining medieval fetters. The Buddha departed this life with the following message, which, they say, provides excellent advice for prospective young scientists, and -- one might add -- for all human beings:
Be as lamps unto yourselves. Hold fast to the lamp of Truth. Take refuge only in Truth. Look not for refuge to anyone besides yourself . . . And those who now in my time or afterwards live thus, they will reach greatness if they are desirous of knowledge. (Mahaparinibbana Sutta, 2.33, 35)
Last revised: November 1999. Original article published in Sunrise, June/July 1994.