Opinion

From the Primordial Flaring Forth to the Ecozoic Era — a celebration of the unfolding of the cosmos by Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry

The universe story

‘There is eventually only one story, the story of the universe. Every form of being is integral with this comprehensive story. Nothing is itself without everything else.’ (Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry, The Universe Story, p268)

Architects eager to give deeper meaning to their work will find extraordinary inspiration in this book. Designers concerned with sustainability will expand their awareness on the evolutionary relevance of the human transition towards what the authors call the Ecozoic era. Architecture students, not yet subjected to the standardising pressure of marketing, can extend the domain of their design enquiry to the wider framework of cosmos, life and culture. More generally, this is a book everyone with the slightest interest in the evolution and meaning of humanity on Earth should read. From high-school students struggling to grasp how different subjects can possibly fit together, to middle-aged readers sailing through the rising tides of a mid-life existentialist swell, all the way to the reading pleasures of retirement, The Universe Story will expand the awareness of different readers on multiple levels and at multiple depths.

The Universe Story, by Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry, New York, HarperCollins, 1994

‘In the modern period, we are without a comprehensive story of the universe […] In this context we have fractured our educational system into its scientific and its humanistic aspects, as though these were somehow independent of each other.’ (p1)

The ‘distorted mode of human presence upon the Earth’ has split our understanding of the cosmos into smaller and smaller, allegedly self-contained, subdomains and also impoverished our existential cognition, ignoring the spiritual and physical reverb of the universe in our daily lives. Modern culture, representative of this ‘distorted mode of human presence’, is deaf and blind to the wider interdependencies of the universe, adopting a dangerously narrow perspective. The specialisation of cultural subdomains, typical of modernity, has long lost the cosmological insight of ancient civilisations. The Universe Story entwines science and myth into an escape route from a human-centric paradigm and a bridge towards a cosmo-centric awareness for our agency on Earth.

‘The goal is not to read a book; the goal is to read the story taking place all around us. The urgency of our time is that the story become functionally effective.’ (p3)

The narrative flow, effortlessly combining extraordinary polymathic accuracy with genuine spiritual energy, gives the overarching perspective of a semi-divine observer, travelling through time, space, energy and matter and embracing the transformative awareness of cosmic interdependence. The content could have been conveyed by mathematical formulas, chemical reactions or digital modelling. Yet Swimme and Berry – a mathematical cosmologist and a historian of cultures – explicitly choose to distil and enrich their language through poetic prose and powerfully evocative metaphors.

While strictly scientific and technical language might be more accurate, it would also drag the reader into the unacknowledged bias of mechanistic sciences, failing to grasp the deeper sense of mutuality shared by all matter and energy in the universe. This universal mutuality finds scientific support in Albert Einstein’s Cosmological Principle, in essence that every point in the universe is the same as every other point. This is further developed by Swimme and Berry into the Cosmogenetic Principle, by which the evolutionary dynamics across the entire universe are the same. This cannot be proved but can be assumed, so advancing analytical enquiry. The Cosmogenetic Principle encapsulates the foundational creativity of reality and the basal intentionality of existence. From it, three fundamental patterns emerge: differentiation (to be unique), communion (to be related) and autopoiesis (to be a centre of creativity) as features shared by all entities and processes unfolding in the universe. These ‘cosmological orderings of the creative display of energy everywhere and at any time throughout the history of the universe’ (p72) provide a line of enquiry through 13 dense yet clear, multidisciplinary chapters and engaging characterisations. They also provide a powerful metaphorical key to unlock the existential and spiritual meaning of highly technical disciplines such as quantum physics and evolutionary biology.

The story starts with the Primordial Flaring Forth, the beginning of time and space. The scale and magnitude of this event is powerfully rendered, something not easily grasped by readers unfamiliar with astronomy and astrophysics. As the universe congeals into galactic clouds, the primal stars appear and the first elements are forged by their internal pressures, at once destructive and creative. Following on from the opening act of the Primordial Flaring Forth, key cosmogenetic and biological events are captured through the narrative device of several fictional characters, epically depicted to merge science and myth into a new story. Tiamat, the massive first-generation star floating in the Orion Arm of the Milky Way, turns into a supernova, like the heroine of a mythical self-sacrifice explosion, allowing all elements composing the Solar System to emerge. Earth, with its specific mass, chemical composition and orbital relationship with the Sun, brings forth an atmosphere, oceans and continents. Evolution brings forth the story of Aries, the first prokaryotic cell, of Promethio, the first photosynthetic cell, of Prospero, the first procaryote able to deal with oxygen at Earth’s 21 per cent concentration, the story of Vikengla, the first eukaryotic cell, Kronos, the first heterotrophic cell, and Sappho, the first sexually reproducing cell.

From Earth’s formation 4.  billion years ago, the evolutionary saga passed the first Ice Age 2.3 billion years ago and introduced Argos, the first multicellular animal, appearing 700 million years ago. The Proterozoic Eon finishes with the Cambrian extinctions when 80 to 90 per cent of all living species were eliminated. The beat of geological eras provides the rhythmic base for the emergence of other mythologically depicted creatures such as Capaneus, the first organism that ventured ashore from the sea 425 million years ago during the Silurian age. The patterns of differentiation, communion and autopoiesis manifest in biological evolution within mutation, natural selection and niche creation. Trees appear 370 million years ago and reptiles emerge 313 million years ago; yet, once again, 75 to 95 per cent of all species are eliminated during the Permian extinctions 245 million years ago. Throughout the Mesozoic Era, dinosaurs, mammals and birds evolve until the appearance of the early primates and the catastrophic Cretaceous extinction 67 million years ago.

Following the pattern of destruction and creativity, life on Earth enters the Cenozoic Era, the period of biological and thermodynamic balance ended by humans in the last two hundred years with the combustion of fossilised organisms. When Homo habilis first developed stone tools and increasingly complex social systems, their ecological settings had so evolved and life was so abundant as to resemble, in the authors’ prose, paradise on Earth. The development of Homo sapiens, with advanced tool-making skills and predisposition towards language, marked the emergence of cosmic consciousness itself, first brought to modern-day awareness through the cave paintings of the Magdalenian period and Neolithic burial rituals. The spectacular rise of mankind is staged through the acts of the Neolithic Village (from 12,000 to 3,500 years ago), Classical Civilisations (from 3,500 BCE to   BCE) and the Rise of Nations (from 1600 BCE to modern times).

With the Rise of Nations, specific attention is given to the dawn of scientific culture. The Modern Revelation begins with the Copernican Revolution, continues with the discoveries of Johannes Kepler, Galileo Galilei, Francis Bacon, René Descartes, Isaac Newton, Georges-Louis Buffon, Carolus Linnaeus, Immanuel Kant, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, Georges Cuvier, Charles Lyell, Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, Werner Heisenberg, Edwin Hubble, Hans Albrecht Bethe, Rachel Carson, until the work of Robert Wilson and Arno Penzias on the evidence of the origin of the universe.

The breathtaking scientific-humanistic marathon is ultimately framed in the context of the evolution of human culture in the epilogue,‘Celebration’. ‘We belong to this community of Earth and share in its spectacular self-expression. This is the setting that seems to be implicit in the movements toward ecological integrity in this late twentieth century. It is also the ideal that we find articulated in the earliest efforts of the various tribal cultures as well as in the earliest efforts towards the more complex cultures.’ (p264)

Architecture, as a cultural artefact, must represent and celebrate human identity as belonging to the community of Earth. ‘In architecture especially human structures have consistently been aligned with the mythic forces of the universe in their physical manifestation. The orienting point is taken from the point of the rising sun, and the various directions of north and south, east and west are not simply complementary differences they are rather qualitatively different. These heavenly forces of the stars are understood as determining human efforts in a very direct manner.’ (p265)

Modern anthropocentrism has eclipsed the cosmological intuition of ancient civilisations, while techno-scientism has flattened the metaphorical precision of the spiritual dimension of knowledge. The crisis of anthropocene is the effect of an ecocidal drift humanity has taken, misled – as we all are – by a disconnected cultural narrative. ‘Nothing is itself without everything else’, in the words of Swimme and Berry. To re-align humanity with the biosphere our culture must evolve forwards and upwards. This means embracing a deeper awareness of the universe’s workings through the dimensions of differentiation, communion and autopoiesis.

Celebrating the universe story returns to culture the fundamental ontological unity of cosmogenesis and evolution. From nanotechnology to contemporary dance, from nuclear physics to religion, and from biology to architecture, the application of human intelligence must be redefined within the all-encompassing paradigm of energy, matter and their creative spiritual bond.

A question for architects emerges: how should architecture evolve to best pursue culture’s role in the celebration of the universe story?

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