Chapter Four: Wholeness and Brokenness, the Patterns Fostered by Good and Evil

The evolutionary view of value presents a set of dichotomies that open a path to understanding the reality of “the battle between good and evil.”

At the foundation of the process is the dichotomy at the heart of “natural selection,” i.e. that between life and death. (“Life,” here, meaning not only the survival of the immediate organism but also the perpetuation of that form of life through time.)

As we just saw, out of that dichotomy emerges the dichotomy of value between the good and the not-good, embedded in the experience of creatures that have been crafted to experience as good (fulfilling, pleasurable) what has proven — during the evolutionary process that created them — to be life-serving, and as not-good (painful, unpleasant) what has been associated with a greater likelihood of death.

Just as the good and not-good (at the level of “value”) correspond with life and death (at the level of outcome), so also is there a dichotomy in the structures or patterns that corresponds to the life-serving vs. the life-destroying.

Life is matter and energy that has been intricately structured in certain ways. And the system of life depends upon the transmission of patterns that convey those structures through time. At the biological level of life, that transmission of patterns is accomplished through DNA, which represents a blueprint for recapitulating what has worked (i.e. been good for survival) in the past.

At the level of human life, there is the additional form of transmission through culture: through the generations, cultures transmit highly complex information about how to structure human life.

So the dichotomy in the realm of structure, and in the realm of patterns that transmit those structures from one embodiment to another (e.g. from generation to generation), there is once again a division between the life-serving and creature-fulfilling (and therefore good), and the life-degrading and misery-inducing (and therefore not-good).

We are still a few steps removed from looking at the reality of the “forces of good and evil”– where they came from, how they operate in cultural systems, etc. But it may be recalled that the essential difference between good and evil as I defined them involved a dichotomy in the kinds of patterns they impart onto what they contact.

Both “good” and “evil” are forces, which mean that they work to spread patterns. But the patterns they spread are opposite in their natures. I asserted that the force of the good spreads wholeness, while the force of evil spreads brokenness.

Let us now develop these two concepts more fully.

XXXX Wholeness and Brokenness as Important Categories of Patterns in the Human System XXXX

By favoring life over death, the evolutionary process molds certain kinds of order. It is a reasonable approximation of the truth to say that favoring life over death means favoring order over disorder.

Surely there is a degree of order in the cosmos from the level of the quark up through the level of clusters of galaxies. But with the emergence of life, the level of ordering increases by orders of magnitude. From the organization of the atoms and molecules that make up cells, to the pattern to organizing the cells that comprise a living organism, up through species, communities, ecosystems, and the biosphere, it is of the essence of the living system that it crafts orders of mind-blowing intricacy.

(Just imagine a time-elapse film of the earth from its original lifeless condition, through the course by which, over the past 3.5 billion years, this incredible order of life has unfolded upon this ball of matter suspended in space and orbiting this star.)

The life-serving order that the evolutionary process favors can be said to have the property of “Wholeness.” “Wholeness” can be defined, for starters, in terms of “things fitting together well.” It’s about interconnectedness, about things rightly ordered. Right ordering at all the levels of the living system from smaller than the cell to the global flows of matter and energy.

The connection between “wholeness” and “goodness” follows almost mathematically. If wholeness involves the kind of right ordering that’s at the heart of what the evolution of life tends to create; and if life being selected over death generates the basis for the creature experiencing the fulfillment of its needs as being fulfilled as being of positive value (and their frustration being of negative value); and if such creaturely experience is at the foundation of the reality of values– it is clear how wholeness is intimately connected with the idea of “the good.”

Patterns of wholeness are life-serving.

Brokenness, by contrast, is the opposite. Brokenness involves the absence or destruction of those patterns or structures that serve life and thus serve the fulfillment of living creatures.

Wholeness vs. Brokenness is another way of talking about the same set of realities as life-serving vs. life-degrading or good vs. evil. (With something as subtle and complex as “the battle between good and evil” it is useful to look at the same thing across various dimensions.) It is through the movement and transmission of certain kinds of patterns that we can discern the reality of the forces of good and evil.

Two components of “wholeness” in the systems of life can be called “synergy” and “viability.”

1)SYNERGY Synergy. The evolution of life appears to have operated in a completely opportunistic fashion, without there being a plan or purposefulness in its unfolding. Where there’s a niche that can be occupied by a predator, or a parasite, or pathogen, the opportunistic evolutionary process is likely to fill it.

Nonetheless the tendency of evolution is to create synergistic patterns of interaction among the elements of a living system. In a synergistic interaction, each part functions in a way that tends to enhance the welfare of the other parts as well as its own. Even the relationship between predator and prey evolves over time to serve not only the predator, but the prey as well.

NOTE: [A recent article in SCIENCE NEWS — “Lopped Off: Removal of top predators trickles through the food web,” Science News, 11/5/11, pp. 26-29 — shows how eliminating predators hurts the system as a whole.]

What works, survives. What doesn’t work, gets weeded out. Hence even the antagonistic relationships tend, over time, to operate within a larger context in which the system as a whole can be perpetuated.

2) VIABILITY Viability. A system has the second component -– “viability” -— to the extent to which it is able to maintain, without diminution, whatever it is upon which the system’s continued existence depends. A viable system does not eat itself out of house and home, does not foul its own nest, does not contain unsustainable practices.

The tendency of life to foster systemic wholeness – whether that system be a cell or the biosphere – is inseparable from the evolutionary preference (through the selective process) for life over death.

It’s no innovation of mine to connect an idea of “wholeness” to the nature of the systems toward which life strives. The word “health” is etymologically rooted in the idea of “wholeness.” A body can be healthy, or whole, and so can an ecosystem, even up to the global system of life. Life consists of an elaborate order of wholeness, and in medicine many of those things that cause a breakdown of health are called “disorders.”

Clearly, however, there’s nothing perfect about the order that has emerged here on earth. Suffering has been part of life’s domain as long as there have been creatures that feel. The course of life’s development has been marked by waves of extinctions. And then there’s the history of civilized humankind, with all the brokenness it displays.

How are we to understand these major aspects of disorder? How does “brokenness” enter into the system of life, which I’ve said is characterized by the establishment of patterns of “Wholeness.” And how does this brokenness relate to the issue of “evil” as a force that consistently transmits a pattern of brokenness into the human world.

Three main sources of disorder can be identified. And only the third of these is connected with the force I’m calling “evil.”

First, disorder – or brokenness — can enter the system of life from outside the realm of life, i.e. from those workings of the cosmos that preceded life and still lie beyond its control. Life has established a powerful presence on this planet. But life emerged out of a “cold” and (apparently) lifeless universe. That vast non-living world, with its own great forces at work, has by no means disappeared.

For example, a massive object streaming from the cold, lifeless realms of outer space might slam into our planet, devastating major parts of the wholeness of the living system. This seems to be what happened some 65 million years ago, rendering the dinosaurs and much else extinct 65 million years ago.

Nor does the system of life control the movement of the earth’s tectonic plates. And thus some millions of years ago, the two continents of the America’s, floating on the earth’s outer surface, drifted into contact — at the isthmus of Panama – bringing together two previously-separated communities of animal life. The disorder thus created — two communities of life being brought into an interaction for which no evolved order had established a life-serving pattern — rendered many species extinct.

Likewise with the earthquakes and tsunamis that occasionally wreak devastation on particular areas on into our times.

Such forces from outside the living system may be said to impart brokenness to the biological order, but they have nothing to do with what I am calling “evil.” Unlike some who imagined that the catastrophic earthquake that devastated Lisbon in the 18th century was a punitive act of God, I am assuming the validity of the scientific worldview according to which these are just chance, impersonal things that just happen. These kinds of forces involve no systematic “working” to impart brokenness, no exploitation of brokenness in the human world, no malevolent face that accompanies its expression.

This is unlike the force that, as we will see, has arisen from within the human system to spread brokenness onto whatever it touches.

A second source of brokenness — one mentioned above and one that, again, should be differentiated from that force of brokenness called “evil” — is the result of the wholly opportunistic nature of the evolutionary process. The workings of evolution are not, so far as one can see, directed by any benevolent force. It does not create a world where the lion will lie down with the lamb, except to make a dinner of it.

Hence, rather than the wholeness of some utopian vision, this purely opportunistic process will give us predators and parasites living at the expense of other organisms. One creature’s meat is inevitably another creature.

Nonetheless, as was said above, the process of biological evolution works over time to create a synergistic order to contain the conflictual elements within the system within an overarching wholeness. The wolf may be cruel, but when it kills the lamb, the death of the lamb is not an injury to lambkind. It is part of the pattern of survival not only for wolves but for the sheep as well. If there were no wolves, the sheep would overgraze the land, and before long the foundation on which the life of the sheep rests would be undermined.

A pattern of wholeness has evolved over time to serve the perpetuation of the whole.

The American chestnut was virtually obliterated from the North American forests, in which they played so important a role, when the Chinese chestnut was suddenly introduced onto the American continent. The Chinese chestnut carried with it a fungus. While the American variety of the chestnut was devastated by the sudden arrival of that fungus, over millions of years the Chinese version of the chestnut and the fungus had developed a relationship that allowed them to co-exist. In time, that has to happen, because no life form can long survive if it kills off its host.

As the ecologist Gregory Bateson once wrote: “No creature wins against its environment for long.”

So given enough time, the parasitism of the fungus, like the predation of the wolf, gets contained in a larger wholeness.

The system of life is constantly evolving, but the tendency within the whole is to protect the life of the whole and of its parts.

So while it is true at one level that nature is “red in tooth and claw,” and that suffering is inflicted in that natural order, that level’s being embedded in a larger wholeness differentiates it from the kind of brokenness that warrants being called evil.

Where “evil” enters the picture is through another, related property of the evolutionary process. That process proceeds without a plan. And that opens the door for something altogether new to emerge out of the living system that has dangerous long-term implications.

Over the past ten thousand years, humankind has demonstrated the peril that possibility entails.

A creature with the intelligence and adaptability to create culture, and then eventually to utilize that capacity for culture to escape from the niche in which it evolved biologically and create an altogether new way of life –indeed, a new form of life — will inevitably unleash forces that it could not have anticipated and that it could not then control.

Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *