When the Vertical World Turns Horizontal

on February 1, 2010

In the last few years before the 1960’s counterculture found its voice, a dawning sense of the universe as an all-embracing whole was already bubbling up into consciousness. It was still nothing that could be put into words but it was present on an intuitive level, and in 1963-64 it was being expressed more clearly in the music than anywhere else.

Surf music may have been the first to tap into the new holistic awareness, but a similar message was present in Phil Spector’s “wall of sound” — a technique epitomized by the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” (1963) — and in the harmonies of early Beatles songs. (Not surprisingly, in 1966 the Beach Boys would fuse the wall of sound with surf rock in their groundbreaking Pet Sounds.)

By 1965, a recognition of the latent power in the music had inspired even Bob Dylan to go electric. But the new awareness was not yet accessible to everyone. The outraged folkies who thought Dylan had betrayed them didn’t get it — and neither did the clueless Time magazine intern whose interview of Dylan just before his first electric performance is believed to have inspired the classic line, “Something’s happening here but you don’t know what it is, do you Mr. Jones?”

Right now, at the start of 2010, we’re coming close to the equivalent of that “Mr. Jones” moment, but we’re not quite there. Amazing things are about to happen, there is a sense of almost intolerable imminence — but they haven’t happened yet. And this time, of course, the primary vision will be not chaos but holism, which is in the process of moving away from an alignment with the failed democracy vision — and its model of progress through political reform — and into an alignment with the next social vision.

I’ve been referring to that emerging vision as “multiculturalism,” but I don’t know if it’s really the proper term. Relying on it may be as partial and one-sided as it would have been to think of holism in 1964 as “the ecology vision.” But multiculturalism is the aspect of the new vision that is most visible at the moment, so it’s the name I’ll be using until something better comes along.

The primary assumptions of multiculturalism all go back to at least the 1960’s. One is a sense that our world has become too culturally homogeneous — blue jeans and Coca Cola as far as the eye can see — and that we need to preserve a rich web of cultural diversity as the planet grows more tightly integrated. A second is an innate respect for the values of cultural minorities, whether ancient and ethnic or contemporary and lifestyle-based. A third is an awareness of Jane Jacobs’ lesson that a city composed of unique neighborhoods is stronger and more vibrant than one in which all the differences have been smoothed away.

But there is something in the new vision that is higher and more transcendent than any of these principles, something that has appeared only in the last few years and is still lurking at the edges of perception. And though the name of that larger transcendence is not yet apparent, it has already begun to find artistic expression.

I’ve been realizing, for example, that I underestimated the significance of Avatar when I dismissed it as merely recycling the same old ecological cliches of the last forty years. That may be true of its conscious, rational surface — but the movie has something to say on the experiential level that is far more profound.

The closest I can come to that larger statement, using only the clumsy language of 2010, is that the Na’vi are totally integrated into their environment, and the audience finds itself drawn into that integration as well. This idea that human beings could be part of a complete symbiotic system is not new — there have been hints of it in science fiction going back to the 1940’s — but it has never before been promoted this seriously or this seductively.

Even the most passionate adherents of the holism vision have tended to see human beings as alien to all other life on earth, intruders and despoilers who pollute everything they touch. But that is changing now, and the difference will be as enormous as the gulf between the hipsters and the hippies.

One indication of this radical new way of perceiving our place in the universe can be found in an extraordinary article, titled “Horizontal and vertical: The evolution of evolution,” which appeared last week in New Scientist.

It begins:

Just suppose that Darwin’s ideas were only a part of the story of evolution. Suppose that a process he never wrote about, and never even imagined, has been controlling the evolution of life throughout most of the Earth’s history. It may sound preposterous, but this is exactly what microbiologist Carl Woese and physicist Nigel Goldenfeld, both at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, believe. Darwin’s explanation of evolution, they argue, even in its sophisticated modern form, applies only to a recent phase of life on Earth.

At the root of this idea is overwhelming recent evidence for horizontal gene transfer – in which organisms acquire genetic material “horizontally” from other organisms around them, rather than vertically from their parents or ancestors. The donor organisms may not even be the same species. This mechanism is already known to play a huge role in the evolution of microbial genomes, but its consequences have hardly been explored. According to Woese and Goldenfeld, they are profound, and horizontal gene transfer alters the evolutionary process itself.

This is a revolutionary stuff — and though Woese and Goldenfeld are arguing only that “horizontal evolution” dominated the early history of life on earth before giving way to Darwinian survival of the fittest, it is not hard to anticipate their paradigm expanding and the role of Darwinism shrinking to a very minor footnote.

I say this in part because Darwinism has been associated so closely with the democracy vision, which is now undergoing meltdown. Darwin’s model of competition leading to elimination of the unfit has been used to justify both electoral politics and the free market, but as we acknowledge the extent to which both have failed us, we are likely to conclude that it is survival of the fittest itself which has led us astray.

Woese and Goldenfeld, meanwhile, are offering something very different:

In the past few years, a host of genome studies have demonstrated that DNA flows readily between the chromosomes of microbes and the external world. Typically around 10 per cent of the genes in many bacterial genomes seem to have been acquired from other organisms in this way, though the proportion can be several times that. So an individual microbe may have access to the genes found in the entire microbial population around it, including those of other microbe species. “It’s natural to wonder if the very concept of an organism in isolation is still valid at this level,” says Goldenfeld. …

In the Darwinian model, evolutionary change occurs because individuals with genes associated with successful traits are more likely to pass these on to the next generation. In horizontal gene transfer, by contrast, change is not a function of the individual or of changes from generation to generation, but of all the microbes able to share genetic material. Evolution takes place within a complex, dynamic system of many interacting parts, say Woese and Goldenfeld, and understanding it demands a detailed exploration of the self-organising potential of such a system. …

Goldenfeld admits that pinning down the details of that early process remains a difficult task. However the simulations suggest that horizontal gene transfer allowed life in general to acquire a unified genetic machinery, thereby making the sharing of innovations easier. Hence, the researchers now suspect that early evolution may have proceeded through a series of stages before the Darwinian form emerged, with the first stage leading to the emergence of a universal genetic code. “It would have acted as an innovation-sharing protocol,” says Goldenfeld, “greatly enhancing the ability of organisms to share genetic innovations that were beneficial.” Following this, a second stage of evolution would have involved rampant horizontal gene transfer, made possible by the shared genetic machinery, and leading to a rapid, exponential rise in the complexity of organisms.

The question of whether horizontal evolution is still at work in multicelled organisms such as ourselves — and whether all life on earth truly does comprise one single organism — has yet to be worked out. But even setting biology aside, it is clear that the new paradigm implies human societies can progress more quickly and towards a more optimal end result through horizontal exchanges of knowledge than by way of Darwinian competition.

And that paradigm shift may be just what is needed to bring the transcendent aspect of multiculturalism into full consciousness, kick holism up a level, and provide the burst of inspiration that will set off the next counterculture.

The title of the New Scientist article, by the way, has particular resonance for me, because in 1972, Alexei and I wrote a story called “When the Vertical World Becomes Horizontal.” It was a strange little story, and I can’t say we fully understood it ourselves. But in retrospect, it was clearly an attempt to convey our best understanding of both holism and the hints of multiculturalism that were popping up in the early 1970’s.

In a very real sense, that story was a specific prediction of our current moment. It was about what it feels like when everything changes all at once. And it was also about how nothing at all can change until even the most clueless “Mr. Jones” among us finally gets the message and joins the dance.


A listing of all my posts on the cycle of visions can be found here.

A general overview of the areas of interest covered at this blog can be found here.

A chronological listing of all entries at this blog, with brief descriptions, can be found here.

A simple list of all the visions can be found here.

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Read the Previous Entry: The Alchemical Marriage of Chaos and Holism
Read the Next Entry: Everything Changes

2 Responses to “When the Vertical World Turns Horizontal”

  1. Gus says:

    When you and Alexei enter the great elongation you must leave some genetic material behind for study, because I can’t explain how so much vision and strength can come from two individuals.

    I suspect genetic transfer.

  2. Evelyn Vanderhoop says:

    Have you and Alexei put the essays you blog, into a book?? A book with the historical to the present could be the enzyme to motivate humanity into the next human vision.
    I have just read a few of your essays and they relate to this May/June issue articles of Scientific American MIND. There is an article: Fatal Attraction, Wow!! The physiological biology referred to in the article by Christof Koch really makes me rethink free thought. Could our random thoughts, you know the ones that come from out of the blue, be triggered by a protozoa residing in our brains. Are these one cell entities our deities, our visions, our gods. What a shattering concept. Cheers, Evelyn

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