Life in the universe evolved over the last 13 billion years. We’ve been shaped by the evolution of all the beings who came before us. Each step in that evolution was an act of creation, and those moments of creation are alive in us now.
Mathematical cosmologist Brian Swimme loves science, but he doesn’t love the path it has taken over the last two centuries, as it has become ever more abstract and more allied with consumer culture. “Scientists have discovered these amazing truths,” he says, “and they have done so, for the most part, within a materialistic mind-set.” Rather than continuing along its current path, he says, science needs to go in the opposite direction: toward direct observation of nature and a more spiritual understanding of the world. The problem is that “we’re so impressed with our human minds for coming up with mathematics and so unimpressed by the marvels of a fern or an ant.”
Though his primary field of research is the evolution of the universe, Swimme’s central concern is the role of human beings within the natural world. He believes that, if scientists and the rest of us could appreciate the magnificence of ordinary existence, we could escape the consumer mentality and learn to delight in our everyday lives. His intuition tells him that understanding the scientific story of the universe could help us achieve that deeper appreciation.
Swimme’s interest in telling the universe story took hold when he met cultural historian Thomas Berry, author of The Dream of the Earth (Sierra Club Books). It was a conversationwith Berry at the Broadway Diner in New York City that inspired Swimme’s first book, The Universe Is a Green Dragon (Bear & Co.). “I was working my way through a Greek salad,” Swimme writes, “when Thomas Berry suddenly said: ‘You scientists have this stupendous story of the universe. . . . [But] you fail to hear its music. That’s what the spiritual traditions can provide. Tell the story, but tell it with a feel for its music.’ ”
The destructiveness of modern culture, Berry theorized, can be attributed to our attempt to understand the world without the help of a spiritual story about its origins. To remedy this, Swimme and Berry went on to cowrite The Universe Story (HarperSanFrancisco), a book celebrating the universe in all its cosmological glory.
Swimme received his doctorate in mathematical cosmology at the University of Oregon and is currently on the graduate faculty of the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco. He is also director of the Center for the Story of the Universe, and in 1998 he founded the international Epic of Evolution Society, a forum for artists, scientists, ecofeminists, ecologists, religious thinkers, and educators interested in the universe story.
Like all exceptional teachers, Swimme is immensely patient, gracious, and utterly in love with his subject. When he lectures, he bounds around, pointing to slides of blue-green algae and supernovae and exclaiming, “This is part of who we are! Can you feel it?” This is a man who experiences the ability to breathe as a miraculous “invention,” the culmination of billions of years of evolution. For him, cosmology is not just an abstract subject to study, but something to experience.
Swimme’s ideas about cosmology have been featured on the BBC production Soul of the Universe. His own video series, Canticle to the Cosmos, was widely acclaimed upon its release in 1990. In his most recent video series, The Earth’s Imagination, he explores the evolutionary nature of the human mind. He is also the author of The Hidden Heart of the Cosmos (Orbis). More information about his work can be found on his website: www. brianswimme.org.
Swimme lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife, Denise, who also teaches. They have two sons who are in college. I interviewed him at the Planetwork Conference, the second annual gathering of environmentalists and scientists to discuss the role of technology in healing the planet. The conference was held on the grounds of the Park Presidio, which was once a military base. Swimme and I sat outside, on the steps of a former barracks, and talked about the origin of the cosmos and what it has to do with our lives today.
Lertzman: What does it mean to have a cosmological perspective in our daily lives?
Swimme: It means to have an experience of deep time. Life in the universe evolved over the last 13 billion years. We’ve been shaped by the evolution of all the beings who came before us. Each step in that evolution was an act of creation, and those moments of creation are alive in us now. We need to become aware of this. Take the experience of breathing. There was a time when no being on earth breathed air, because all life was in the sea. Breathing had to be created. That moment of creation is remembered by us not only genetically, but every time we breathe. If we are conscious of it, we can actually have a cosmological experience simply by taking a breath. That experience is really a memory that is passed down to us over millions of years.
Lertzman: That reminds me of the Buddhist practice of mindfulness: when eating an orange, for example, one tries to taste the sunlight, rain, clouds, soil.
Swimme: That’s part of it, but I would add to that the experience of deep time. Most meditations focus on all the interconnections that we are experiencing in this moment. I am saying that we need to go back farther. Right now, as you and I are talking, we are using energy from the fireball that created our universe 13 billion years ago. When you see how that energy was dispersed, then gathered together in our sun, and then passed on through nuclear-fusion reactions to us, you really see yourself as part of the cosmic flow. That is a cosmological experience.
The experience of deep time involves not just the past, but also the future. Contained in this moment are hosts of unborn beings, stretching far, far into the future. They, mysteriously, are here with us, too.
Lertzman: How do you deal with the frustration of living in a society that doesn’t reflect a larger cosmological perspective?
Swimme: I feel less frustration than terror when I see how human beings have mindlessly destroyed beauty for hundreds of thousands of years. One of the things that keeps me from being paralyzed by fear is the belief that something huge has drawn us into its drama. Rather than accepting the horrifying view that humans are in charge, I give myself over to this stunning story.
Lertzman: Is there one overall universe story?
Swimme: I am often asked if there is a universe story. I think there are human attempts to understand how the universe is evolving, and those attempts are necessarily many, because there is no one way to get at it. The universe is too vast, too subtle for that.
Even just within the scientific worldview, there are many variants on the universe story. Scientists generally agree that the universe began approximately 13 billion years ago, in an eruption of particles. We know something about how stars were formed and how the first galaxies began to take shape. But when you start to look closely at scientific cosmology, you realize that there are many areas of disagreement. For example, scientists argue about what it means to say that the universe is expanding, especially because the nature of the expansion is so surprising. If the expansion rate were a little quicker — just a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of 1 percent faster — the universe would have expanded too fast for galaxies to form. You’d have just particles, atoms, dust. And if you went the other direction, if the expansion 13 billion years ago had been slower by that same amount, the universe would have expanded for only about a million years and then collapsed into a massive black hole.
Recently, we discovered that the expansion of the universe is accelerating. Until now, we have always assumed that the expansion was initially fast and gradually slowed down as time went on, the same as if you threw a handful of marbles into the air: they move away, but the speed at which they move eventually slows, and then stops. There is evidence now, however, that objects in the universe move away from each other more quickly as time goes on. There’s a pervasive form of energy in the universe called “quintessence” that may actually be increasing its rate of expansion.
Right now, as you and I are talking, we are using energy from the fireball that created our universe 13 billion years ago. When you see how that energy was dispersed, then gathered together in our sun, and then passed on through nuclear-fusion reactions to us, you really see yourself as part of the cosmic flow. That is a cosmological expenence.
Lertzman: What does that mean for us?
Swimme: We don’t know! [Laughs.] But right now the general consensus is that the universe will expand forever.
Lertzman: To be honest, I’m one of those people who find scientific cosmology — rate of expansion, exploding stars, the origins of life — hard to grasp. It all gets too abstract for me.
Swimme: Let me give you a brief synopsis of how scientists have come to understand the universe:
Centuries ago, we thought the earth was the center of the universe. Then we discovered that the earth was going around the sun, so the sun became the center. Then we found out that the sun is moving around the galaxy, so we thought the Milky Way was the center. When we discovered that there are many galaxies, we came to the conclusion that there is no center. Finally, what we’re discovering now is not that there’s no center, but that every point is a center.
When we look at galaxies through telescopes, we find that they’re moving away from us. No matter which direction we look, they’re moving away at the same rate of speed. Now, that’s kind of strange, because, if everything is moving away from us at the same rate, then we’re at the center of the universe. When Einstein discovered this phenomenon, he couldn’t handle the implications. He changed his equations or ignored the whole thing. But, according to our present understanding, we know that, no matter where you are in the universe, you appear to be at the center of the expansion.
Picture a loaf of raisin bread. If you’re any one raisin, and the loaf is rising, all the other raisins are moving away from you. But no matter which raisin you are, your perception is the same.
This fits with some ancient ideas. For example, the fifteenth-century philosopher and mathematician Nicholas of Cusa said God is “a circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” He understood intuitively that we’re always at the center of things, no matter where we are.
This new discovery in cosmology is important in the other sciences, as well. Take biology: Before this notion of an undefined center, we believed that life progressed from the slime mold, to worms, and so forth, up the evolutionary ladder, until, at the very top, you got human beings — men, in particular. In other words, we believed in a hierarchy of creation in which everything was beneath man.
Now, no matter which species you’re talking about, biologists realize that it is ecologically central in some way. The phytoplankton are giving birth to oxygen. The rotifers are doing something absolutely essential. Every point in the web of life is at the center. This leads to a decentering of the human being and a reconfiguring of the old linear conception of life.
Lertzman: You try to instill in people a sense of awe about the universe. What effect do you hope this will have on them? Is there an awe that can inspire activism, as opposed to a gee-whiz feeling?
Swimme: I think so. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said that awe is the beginning of wisdom. Unless we have a sense of awe, it seems unlikely that we will escape the modernist idea that everything is put here for us to manipulate.
Science-fiction author H.G. Wells, who embodies the nineteenth-century scientific worldview, said that man should interrogate every organism with one question: “Do you satisfy me?” If the answer is no, then we should alter it or eliminate it. That’s still a very common attitude in our contemporary world.
Our present culture lives in the smallest psychic space of any culture in history. We think we know so much, that we’re part of this big, expansive moment, but it’s just the opposite: we’ve closed down the human psyche. We’re very tightly focused on ourselves. In a sense, modern culture is a human-centered echo chamber. We talk only to each other, watch each other’s films, read each other’s books, and so forth. All we hear are echoes of our own voices. Very rarely do we encounter nonhuman species, except for our pets, and they are so domesticated they’ve become reflections of ourselves.
Lertzman: Why do you think that is?
Swimme: It’s a result of our fear of nature and our peculiar Western drive to control it. Thomas Berry traces this fear back to the fourteenth century and the Black Death, when we saw such huge portions of the population die without any apparent reason. This fear of nature is a recoiling from the world: “It’s going to kill us, so let’s take control.” The quest for control is the fundamental impetus for much of science and technology.
The alternative — to really be in touch with the world — brings on feelings of both profound joy and profound sadness. So, in our culture, we opt for the middle ground, where we control the situation but also eliminate our capacity for strong feelings and live somewhat shallow, meaningless lives. We dwell on the surface and deny the degradation around us. On the other hand, to focus only on the loss would be equally ruinous. We couldn’t bear it.
Lertzman: Where is the hope, then?
Swimme: You need to find some aspect of the world that intoxicates you, and then give yourself over to it. It could be a place, such as a glen or a marsh, or a species, such as elephants or whales. Whatever you decide, just give yourself to it. Doing so won’t eliminate the sadness or the sense of loss; it may even increase it. But the vitality and the sense of communion will increase, too.
The global community is yearning for this deeper kind of experience. All of us — human beings and other species, too — just want to be seen. “Here we are!” we cry. “Notice us!” To notice one another is to perceive both the beauty and the terror, the awe and the incredible sadness. But until we have the experience of awe and sadness, the destruction of the planet is going to continue.
Lertzman: How does your own story of the universe differ from the commonly accepted scientific model?
Swimme: My narrative is an attempt to unite all the fundamental wisdom traditions: indigenous spirituality, the classical religious traditions, women’s wisdom, and science, the most recent. I don’t think we can arrive at deep understanding of the universe unless we include all of these.
Lertzman: How do you relate scientific cosmology to indigenous cosmologies? The two are so different.
Swimme: Indigenous peoples are very diverse, but they all share a conviction that life’s fundamental story has to do with the cosmos as a whole, in contrast to the modern focus on the individual. In many ways, their thinking is ahead of ours. For example, scientists are only beginning to understand the delicate balance between the expansion of the universe and the gravitational force that draws objects together. Yet the Haida Indians of Canada’s southwest coast have always believed that the universe “moves along the edge of a knife,” balancing perfectly on that fine and dangerous line. A number of indigenous cosmologies use the notion of gambling and cosmic games of chance. From a scientific perspective, we would call this a deep, intuitive recognition that — contrary to what Einstein said — God does play dice.
Modern culture is a human-centered echo chamber. We talk only to each other, watch each other’s films, read each other’s books, and so forth. All we hear are echoes of our own voices. Very rarely do we encounter nonhuman spec1es, except for our pets, and they are so domesticated they’ve become reflections of ourselves.
Lertzman: So Einstein was wrong?
Swimme: Einstein had a difficult time with this idea because it was extremely challenging to his philosophical beliefs. He was the principal architect of quantum cosmology, but also philosophically committed to the concept of the universe as deterministic — the result of a grand design.
Lertzman: What about the other wisdom traditions you mentioned — the classical religions and women’s wisdom? How do they mesh with scientific findings?
Swimme: We see parallels there, too. The Buddhist insight that emptiness is form and form is emptiness resonates with the scientific discovery of the quantum vacuum: what we once thought of as an empty void has turned out to be seething with particles and energy fluctuations. And the supernova explosion could be a cosmological analogue to the Christian notion that Christ sacrificed himself to enable us to be — that is to say that stars, when they blow up, are sacrificing themselves so that the universe can continue.
The Neolithic, matrifocal cultures saw the entire universe in the female form: the female as universe, the universe as female. This parallels the scientific understanding that the female of the species nurtures life. If you look at the evolution of vertebrates over the last 6 million years, you find that the first bond to develop was between mother and offspring; later, you see bonds developing between the parents, and among the offspring themselves. So the maternal bonding instinct has been spreading out among the vertebrates. In this way, the universe is expressing the maternal impulse.
Lertzman: I think blurring the lines between religious and scientific cosmologies is a tricky undertaking. I tend to shy away from scientific conceptions of spirituality.
Swimme: That’s an appropriate response. But it’s also important that we reinvent science as a wisdom tradition. The reason religious thinkers have had to reject the science of the modern period is because of its reductionist and mechanistic form. Lately, however, people have begun to find their way beyond that one-dimensional approach.
Lertzman: How did you develop your inclination to “think big”?
Swimme: I was raised Catholic and was introduced to the writings of Jesuit philosopher and paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin in high school. Teilhard thought in terms of the “big picture” — the whole evolution of the earth. I was fascinated by that, and my foray into science arose from that fascination.
For Teilhard, the nature of the universe is to move from matter, to life, to thought, to God, but at the same time, he regarded matter as synonymous with God. God is implicitly present from the beginning, he said. The hidden treasures of matter simply express themselves more and more as the matter complexifies.
Lertzman: How has Thomas Berry’s work been important to you?
Swimme: When I first encountered Thomas, he was writing about the scientific discovery of the origins of the universe, calling it one of the great spiritual moments of the twentieth century. I was struck by this observation because I had been thinking the same thing, but was unable to put it into words. We each had half the story: his focus was entirely on the humanities, and mine was on the sciences. It became clear that, together, we had the chance to create something. We wanted to tell a universe story in which poetry and sacred scripture mattered as much as mathematical equations.
Lertzman: Did you have moments of epiphany on your way to developing a more cosmological, evolutionary perspective?
Swimme: Yes, one Halloween, my wife and I took our two sons trick-or-treating. The boys were toddlers and could barely make it around the neighborhood, so it was taking forever. My back started to bother me, and I let my wife and sons go on by themselves while I just sort of crouched down in the street to take the pressure off my back. It had rained recently, and I was staring down at the wet asphalt when a little insect crawled by. Its wet wings were sort of plastered to the road, and it occurred to me that insects have been around for 400 million years, and for all but the last century or so have never had to deal with asphalt and automobiles. Evolutionarily speaking, all of civilization had been thrown up overnight, without any regard whatsoever for that creature, or any other nonhuman species.
Insects have an awesome intelligence, but I knew that at any minute a car could come along and squash this one. It was as if this creature were asking something of me, almost as if the universe were saying, “You have to do something about all this.” For a brief second, I stopped being a “dad,” a “Californian,” a “Democrat,” even a “human be ing.” I was just a suffering creature there with another suffering creature.
I was seeing, through this insect, all the creatures that were suffering, and all the species that were disappearing. And, for some reason, I was seeing the situation from their point of view. It was like stepping inside this amazing universe story. I realized that I could have been that insect. Or I could have been born in the bush of Africa a million years ago. I could have surfaced anywhere in the flow of creation. That realization became a source of connection and compassion for me. It redefined what it means to be human.
I continue to experience this sadness and compassion around the loss of species and the loss of cultures — and the loss of childhood, when I see what is happening to our children in our consumer-driven society. But I’m not sad all the time. I am also regularly thrilled.
Lertzman: In The Hidden Heart of the Cosmos, you write about advertising and its effects on children’s perception of the world.
Swimme: Yes, advertising is a vicious assault on children’s sense of awe. It delivers the message that we are here to make and get commodities. In the future, I predict, we will look back in disbelief at how heartless and stupid this process was. Think of the energy we put into making children consumers, as opposed to bringing them into an expansive relationship with the communities of the earth.
Teilhard was very concerned about the loss of our evolutionary drive. The word he used was zest. He said that we are worried about how to power our cars, when we should be worried about our sources of psychic energy. We need ways to “deepen zest,” he said.
That zest is what cosmogenesis — Teilhard’s word for the ongoing creation of the universe — is all about. Most environmentalists and activists who hear the universe story tell me they experience a sense of empowerment from it. It’s a way to draw on deeper realms of energy.
Some indigenous people say that we live in an ocean of energy. The oldest way for humans to access that energy is telling stories of how the world began. I once read about a group of Indians in South America who say that, in order to be fully human, you have to have a sense of the immensity of the universe. Without it, you just collapse into a superficial, day-to-day existence. To me, that is what cosmology is all about.
Remember the example about the expansion of the universe: how, if the rate were slightly slower or faster, there wouldn’t be this universe, but a black hole or a boring universe of uniformly distributed matter? That means that there’s a profound connection between the dynamics at the universe’s beginning and our existence at this moment. It doesn’t necessarily mean that human beings had to happen, but it does mean that our existence is closely connected to the universe’s beginning.
The universe story isn’t just about human beings, but also about trees, for example. You can’t fully understand trees if you understand only their hundred-year life cycle. You’ve got to go back to the very beginning of the universe. Now, that’s what I mean by cosmology as empowerment. When we realize that the world we live in today is a creation of an energy and power that is that deep and that old, it helps us get away from the idea that we’re the managers of the planet and know all about what’s going on here.
No matter which species you’re talking about, biologists realize that it is ecologically central in some way. The phytoplankton are giving birth to oxygen. The rotifers are doing something absolutely essential. Every point in the web of life is at the center. This leads to a decentering of the human being and a reconfiguring of the old linear conception of life.
Lertzman: Yes, but haven’t you also said that we are the key decision-makers; that, with the revolution in genetics, humans are driving evolution?
Swimme: Not driving, but influencing, shaping. That is the terrifying thing: that this power has been handed over to us. My hope is that we would enter into such endeavors with humility, as opposed to thinking that we’re above it all, making the decisions from on high.
Lertzman: I’ve heard you say that, to become an ecologically sustainable society, we need to push toward greater levels of complexity and complex thinking. This contrasts with the image of ecological living as a “going back” to simpler times, when human beings were more in harmony with natural systems.
Swimme: Yes, I think that is a romanticized image. If you look at the hunter-gatherers of the past, you find that some of them lived very harmoniously with their environment, but others didn’t. A few of them were horrendous. And even if you look only at the groups that were ecologically sensitive, most of their social designs can’t be used today. With our megacities, the challenges we face are qualitatively different from those that confronted the earlier peoples of the world.
We need complex thinking to solve complex problems. I love to see the way our minds complexify as we start to think about something as intricate as ecological design. That, to me, is an indication of how we are evolving. So far, we have been shaped by biology and evolution, which have led us to focus on the short-term. But we’ve got to start thinking in terms of ten thousand years. No culture has thought ten thousand years ahead, but there are some individuals who can, and they are the true geniuses of our time.
Lertzman: But what about the rest of us, who aren’t geniuses? Can a society as a whole think on a ten-thousand-year time scale?
Swimme: I think concepts that are hard for us now will become easier in the future. At one time, very few people understood relativity; now I can teach it to undergraduates. One day, all of us will become geniuses by today’s standards, capable of thinking outside our own interests and with a deep sense of time.
The moral issues are more difficult, though, and more essential. It all comes down to imagination. It’s easy to use science and technology, but developing our imagination so that we can understand what other peoples and other creatures are feeling — that is hard.
Lertzman: How does your understanding of the uni verse shape your day-to-day life?
Swimme: What I often experience is a flickering back and forth between the microcosm and the macrocosm. I’ll be sitting in a restaurant, say, and I’ll be overcome by the simple realization that the whole, vast evolutionary process has burst into self-awareness through this bipedal moron (me) eating asparagus! I’ll perceive my mouthful of asparagus as a gift from hundreds of millions of years ago, and at that moment, I’ll sort of disappear, such that it’s not me but the universe eating the asparagus. Then someone will talk about politics or some such thing, and I’ll be back in the small space of myself, having dinner.
Lertzman: You say that having a sense of the vastness of the universe is empowering, but doesn’t the concept of infinite time and space also have a tendency to make us feel small and insignificant?
Swimme: The current model of the universe says that nothing less than 13 billion years of creativity could produce a human being. We have to understand that our existence requires all that has come before it. Then we’ll start to realize that we are a part of the big picture. I could sit at home and ask, “What does it matter to me? I’m just one little root hair on this vast, vast oak tree.” But I want to be part of that tree. I want my life to have meaning for the whole. So we’re not insignificant. But neither are we all that matters. We are not the crown of creation.
Some indigenous people say that we live in an ocean of energy. The oldest way for humans to access that energy is telling stories of how the world began. I once read about a group of lndians in South America who say that, in order to be fully human, you have to have a sense of the immensity of the universe. Without it, you just collapse into a superficial, day-to-day existence. To me, that is what cosmology is all about.
Lertzman: How can understanding cosmogenesis, ultimately, help get me through the day?
Swimme: To me, it shapes one’s fundamental sense of meaning in the universe. Traditionally, this is the territory of religion, and in America we have two dominant religions: Christianity and accumulation. If you believe that the world is just a stage for our redemption and doesn’t have any intrinsic value, then the destruction of the planet is going to con tinue. Or, if you believe that we’re here only to make and sell commodities and accumulate wealth, then the destruction is going to continue.
There’s room for argument, of course, within those two worldviews, and I admit I’m presenting a superficial version of each. I don’t want to dismiss them so much as I want to float a third point of view: that, as human beings alive in this universe, we’re involved in something immensely important. We don’t really understand its full significance, but we’re part of it, and that’s a thrill. There are three ways you can respond to this: One, you can continue the destruction, either consciously or unconsciously. Two, you can lead a life that’s irrelevant to the main action. Or three, you can find a way to participate in the healing and rejuvenation. No matter where you are, those choices are available to you. So many decisions are going to be made on the basis of how your fundamental worldview — or cosmology, or religion, or whatever addresses those choices.
The challenge facing us today is to realize that we are a part of the entire earth community. We already understand that we are individuals — we’ve got that down pat here in America — but we’re also a part of the whole. Universal powers have brought about conscious self-awareness here on earth. These powers are not just trying to raise our standard of living, but to create something beautiful — and that beauty won’t emerge fully without our deep participation in living systems.