I’ve in the last week picked up a copy of a book composed by Timothy Leary and associates back in 1994, two years before Leary’s death in 1996, and around the time when I was imbedded in the post-psychedelic New Age culture of art and speculation that nested in and around Santa Fe, New Mexico. I’d actually passed by Doctor Tim in person as he toured as guest speaker and celebrity for some sort of exploratory consciousness fair that took place at the city’s main Convention Center.

I am certainly no stranger to Leary’s thought and his writings. From the time when he was advocating from an eminent platform at Harvard for boundary breaking explorations of consciousness via LSD and Psylocibn, to the time when I spent days trying to process my own headlong perceptual journeys out to the boundaries of consciousness and beyond. I travelled along parallel paths while Leary made his way through prison and exile and paranoia and the trials that came along with pop stardom and self deification.

When I walked into my dormitory room at Case Western Reserve one night, getting off on some form of chemically induced revery I heard Leary’s voice come over the radio, telling me to, “Sit down Ralph.” He then took me on a guided verbal tour of my brain, the universe and the whole history of human DNA. It turns out that the ‘Ralph’ in the recording, played that night over the student station was of Leary at Harvard conducting an LSD session with one of his grad students, Ralph Metzner. I didn’t learn this until years later, and in the meanwhile carried it around with me like the inner knowledge of some secret synchronistic initiation, a mystery for which I sought no further solution.

The book I’m reading is one I wasn’t particularly familiar with, lent to me by a friend. It’s called “Chaos & Cyber Culture.” By 1994 Leary as visionary prophet had been largely discredited by both popular and serious academic culture. He had spent time in prison, in Europe and in North Africa, in flight from the American police, hobnobbing with revolutionary elites and movie stars and science fiction writers, hounded by governments and ideologues of the Left and the Right. The 60’s dream of storming the barricades of capitalist/consumer culture had long ago faded or been absorbed and replaced by the high octane quest for new meaning and new wealth accelerated by revolutions in technology and communication.

Society was itself going through the initial stages of the sort of destabilization one encounters on an acid trip. Timothy Leary, along with many former prophets and outlaws and explorers were now mere flotsam in massively circulating currents of change. He was gone before the currents would peak and then break into fading fragments after September of 2001.

The book is a collection of words and images splattered across pages designed in the mode of a psychedelic version of The Whole Earth Catalog. There are dozens of typefaces in all sizes floating in the form of giant quotes and poster graphics and images from the past and the future. There are interviews and conversations with the likes of William Gibson and William Burroughs and David Byrne and all sorts of artifacts assembled around a political documentary and summary of sorts of Leary’s broad visions of past, present and possible future.

Other than in worlds of extreme science fiction I haven’t read anything like this in years. Drawing on history, art, mysticism, biology, psychology, computer science and literature, framed with over-the-top optimism regarding the future of civilization and human consciousness, Leary’s vision has no boundaries, and in reading I grow increasingly aware of how much my vision and that of my culture has narrowed over these past four decades. As a nation and as a world we’ve become increasingly ruled by fear and apprehension, which by nature is a narrowing of consciousness to the primitive state of flight or fight that responds robotically to a wider and wider range of stimuli.

We sit in our cocoons of political power and economic anxiety and anticipate the worst. We are a shell-shocked population with eyes and ears open to more and more information but with less ability to integrate it into something that makes sense. We live in a world of chaos, awaiting signs of the next real ‘strange attractor’ that we hope can assemble all of this mess into meaning. We’ve entered a historic and geological period where the shocks come in accelerating waves of war, recession, natural disasters and forced migrations, and our response is to reach out to the person who promises to protect us and shield us and make it all right. Increasingly we realize that the future can’t be controlled by any power wielded by the few for the supposed welfare of the many. Individually we awake once again to the knowledge that the portraits we perceive of the world around us are painted mostly by ourselves.

At first this makes us all feel incredibly alone, until we make an effort to explore and find new ways to make contact with one another, not as crowds or constituents or mobs or armies, but as fully responsible human beings. Our challenge always, is to create entirely new realities for ourselves, through our storytelling and our imagining, that are fluid and adaptable enough to deal with the constant change that our world throws at us. We have the tools to do it, and our task is to awake to our possibilities and to summon the courage to face and dismiss those who would build walls out of our fear.


Notwithstanding Chris Matthew’s comments this week referring to Republicans who believe in Creationism as Troglodytes” (a view with which I share some sympathy) the arguments waged between biologists about the true nature of evolutionary processes are vastly more intriguing (and relevant) than the abstract arguments between science and religion. In some ways the disputes between biologists resemble the friction between religious factions, but in more important ways they represent the very manner in which science progresses toward new conclusions, which then lead to new discoveries and new arguments, ad infinitum. 

One of the most important arguments being waged is between the selfish gene theories of neo-Darwinists like Richard Dawkins and theories of symbiogenesis pioneered by Lynn Margulis and James Lovelock. It is important because it challenges scientists to think beyond the conventional linear boundaries of simple cause and effect and to embrace much wider possibilities of complex systems involving interactions on a multitude of levels where cause and effect become so enmeshed as to be indistinguishable. This view requires that our approach to knowledge comes against traditional boundaries between disciplines and thus it has met resistance from those who hold those boundaries sacred.
A recent essay discussing the life and work of Lynn Margulis appears in the Lindisfarne Cafe section of The Wild Rivers Review. An eminent biologist and wife of the late Carl Sagan, her theories and experiments into the mysteries of life’s origins challenge the conventional views of natural selection. She died on November 22, 2011.
From the essay: 

Lean Forward, Stand Back:

The Worldview of Lynn Margulis (Scientist)

by Andre Khalil 


Many neo-Darwinist concerns circled nervously around words like “Gaia” and “cooperation” (which Margulis did not like to use). They were, perhaps rightly, concerned that these terms were ripe for religious appropriation. But Margulis herself was outspoken against such mishandling of her research.

Some new-agers love to grasp symbiosis as signifying “altruism” between organisms. But it’s much more complex than that—there is something “in it” for every symbiont, just as a state beneficial in some way arises out of each symbiosis.  Terms like “altruism” had no scientific value, because they are too single-minded to describe the phenomenon.

New age thinkers also use Gaia as a blanket term. They’ve appropriated it to mean that the Earth is a living organism. Or they refer to Gaia as a “goddess.” This turns Gaia into a sort of Stepford planet by containing its complexity in a simple and inadequate metaphor. This no more grasps reality than “selfishness” does our genes.

Margulis expressed her solution to the error once by saying, “Gaia is not merely an organism.”

The Earth is beyond stale conception. It is more magnificent and active than we can imagine. Gaia is object and process. Gaia houses volcanos and every book, every word on volcanos ever written, and at the same time is those volcanos. It is where our greatest loves live, and where every human heartbeat has ever rhythmically pulsed.  In this new understanding, that something can pulse with life and yet be beyond our concepts of living, those concepts begin to change.

If Gaia is conscious, it possesses a consciousness of a different magnitude, probably of a different order all together.

Richard Dawkins and his pre-cursors like John Maynard Smith, as well as other neo-Darwinist thinkers, could not and cannot understand this lesson: this complexity is impossible to incorporate in a linear and reductive understanding.

Part of their failure lies in a misunderstood version of cause and effect that plagues science.  At a certain level of complexity, somewhere just above a billiard ball clanking into a another billiard ball, cause and effect begins to change its shape.  This change may be real—that is, it may actually shift in its laws and patterns in nature—or it may be imagined. In other words, it may demand a different sort of thinking.  Effectively it doesn’t matter, since we need to contend with the shift in our thinking. To encompass complex systems with our thinking, we must imagine a model that is less like “cause-effect” more like “being-manifestation.”  That is, multiple layers and numerous agents of forces unconsciously conspire together, and their conspiring is so intermingled, that it is simultaneously cause and effect, and thus beyond both.  For example, the being, or process of Gaia manifests itself as an unstable, constantly correcting level of oceanic salinity.  One cannot be said to cause the other, since the oceanic salinity interacts so deeply with the beings and environs from which it arises. Symbiosis and biological forms demand the same sort of thought.




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