Humanity and the Microbe: A Soul Agreement? | Elisabet Sahtouris and Jim Garrison

Humanity Rising is an initiative of Ubiquity University and 350 partnering organizations worldwide, including Kosmos Journal. Since May 22, Humanity Rising has convened daily live sessions on Zoom to enable people globally to come together to share their experiences of the pandemic, confer on how to increase the strategic effectiveness of those working for a better world, and to promote concrete solutions. Working together in a spirit of radical collaboration, we can transform conversations that matter into actions that make a difference. The dialogue below is taken from one of the Humanity Rising sessions. 

Jim Garrison: Elisabet, you have traversed the world many times and are now living in Hawaii teaching at the university there. When did you start to realize that Gaia was alive and vibrant? Just tell us your story and then we’ll deepen the dialogue. 

Elisabet Sahtouris: Mahalo Jim. Thank you and Aloha mai käkou, as we say in Hawaii. I was born in Athens, New York, in the Hudson Valley. For many years in my life I was free as a child to run in nature and left outdoors all day. Mom had a boarding house and was very busy, and so my two brothers and I got to play in the woods and on the riverbank. I am now in Hawaii, on an ocean so big that all the other land masses of Earth would fit into it—that’s how big the Pacific Ocean is. And the ancient navigators here, the Polynesian navigators, were able to cross these huge oceans in little tiny canoes. And how could they have done that? By knowing the ways of nature so well. Those canoes were never screwed together or glued together; they were lashed in pieces so that they were always flexible and could move with the waves, and did not break.

I was totally immersed in nature growing up. I knew it was alive; I knew it was friendly from the time I was a little kid. And when I said I wanted to study biology, my parents said, “No that’s science, that’s for boys.” So they steered me into art school.

Eventually I did study biology. And then by the time I had a PhD and I was an evolution biologist, I kept feeling there was something wrong with what I’d been taught. It was like a suit that was too tight for me. I was still at the Museum of Natural History doing research and doing animal intelligence studies there in Manhattan, but I was also feeling itchy. And so I decided I was going to move to Greece to explain the human condition to myself, because science just wasn’t answering my big questions. I was on a small island that didn’t have any kind of library, but I managed, and I became an evolution biologist in a whole new way. 

Jim: When did you encounter the Gaia theory and James Lovelock? That must have really been a powerful illumination.

Elisabet: Yes, I read Jim’s first atmospheric analysis paper in which he showed that the earth was alive, as a NASA consultant, by looking at the atmosphere of Earth and showing that there had to be life on the planet to produce that concentration of gases. It helped me a lot. Lynn Margulis was showing the whole early evolution of the microbial world and she partnered, of course, with Jim in their development of the Gaia hypothesis as it was called back then. 

I got to meet Jim and Lynn at Gaia conferences in Cornwall while I lived in Greece. I would go up to England to go to those conferences. I wrote my first version as a children’s book and I sent it to Jim for his review, and he said, “It’s exactly the way I would tell it to my grandchildren.” And then he came to visit me for a whole week in Greece and we had wonderful conversations as you can imagine.

Jim: I understand that the Gaia hypothesis has now been adopted as a Gaia theory, so it’s an understanding of the earth and humanity that is beginning to gain traction. 

Elisabet: Yes, very much so. The “living Earth” is a concept in the same way as a “nonliving Earth” is a concept, and so we call these things theories. But they don’t call the “nonliving Earth” a theory—that’s assumed to be fact by Western science. Everything that humans do, of course, is according to some story of how things are, and science has a very fundamental story of how things are, which we call axioms. There were a set of axioms that gave us a meaningless, purposeless universe, basically running down by entropy. It was about as bleak a worldview as I have ever encountered, especially as I got into working with native peoples and studied ancient Vedic and Taoist science to broaden my horizons. I ended up using the metaphor of a keyboard for the universe because all scientists, even Western scientists, agreed that the basic stuff of the universe is vibrational. And, of course, a keyboard is a set of frequencies.

A keyboard is a small set of frequencies, but imagine it extending at both ends infinitely—and then put matter in the low keys as the densest frequencies in the universe, and energy in the mid keys, and then as you go up into the high keys, you’re moving into mind and soul and consciousness. In the world view I hold now, that single universe of vibrations can also represent you. You are not a body with a mind and maybe a soul if you believe in that, but you are a body/mind/spirit—you are all of those. Taoist science has exactly that same matter/energy/spirit continuum, so this is a handy metaphor.

Western science starts at the matter end, and they have defined reality as anything that’s measurable; otherwise it’s not part of Western science. That’s why they have so much trouble with mind and consciousness. They get stuck halfway up the keyboard because they can measure certain matter and certain aspects of electromagnetic energy, but they can’t perceive with instruments what’s up at the high end of the keyboard.

Einstein showed in Western science that “energy is matter; matter is energy” through E=mc2 , so we know that the music can be transposed up and down that part of the keyboard. Now imagine being able to do that with the whole keyboard!

Jim: Elizabet, were there any particular ancient traditions that really spoke to you the most powerfully about this unitive nature of reality? 

Elisabet: Yes, the same one that spoke to Fritjof Capra and everybody else, which were the Vedas. In fact, all the founding fathers of quantum science acknowledged getting their basic worldview from the Vedic—Vedanta in India. And the Sufis have a very similar worldview. They all acknowledged that, because of the way consciousness was primary. What the quantum scientists did was, basically, plow through matter into smaller and smaller and smaller vibration realms and found that there was no “thingness” at the bottom, and yet it was still filled with vibration.

The ancient Greeks called scientists filosophias, lovers of wisdom. The purpose of science was to find guidance in human affairs by studying nature. I so resonated with that because that was my original purpose—trying to figure out how to put ecology and economy together, both of which come from the Greek words ecos, or household (and it’s interesting that an Indian grandma in Mexico once said anyone who knows how to run a household knows how to run a world). 

Well the Greeks actually named their big ideas “households” at all levels of holarchy—embeddedness. You know, we have cells in organs and organ systems in our body—that’s a holarchy of embedded entities. And then you have a family, within a community, within an ecosystem, a planet, all the way up to the whole cosmos, always holarchically embedded within each other. And the ancient saying, “as above so below,” meant the same patterns repeat fractally at all these logic levels.

So, we named economy ecos plus nomos, which is “law” in Greek. Actually, nature’s been doing economics all along because—what is economy? It’s about the transformation of things in nature into useful things that are distributed and consumed. So, what I say is our problem today is that we have made ecology subservient to our economy. We have used the ecology as a set of resources for human economics. And if we turn that around and make our economy fit into nature’s economy (which we call “ecology”), then we get an ecosophy—the wise society, the wisdom household. That’s where we’re really headed.

Jim: That’s so crucial because you know what Ken Wilber calls flatland—this scientific reductionism, “if it’s not measurable it’s not real”—has really enslaved science and inhibited that full exchange that you’re talking about that encompasses the whole keyboard. I mean, if you only say that the lower half of the keyboard is real because that’s the only thing you can measure, you, by definition, cut yourself off from the truth.

Elisabet: I like to say to young people who look at what humanity is doing and get suicidal about it, that first of all, that’s probably a mark of your intelligence. And secondly, there’s just one little problem with it. And then they get interested, like “What’s that?” I said, “Well if you give up your body, you can only play in the high keys, like the Angels…you know…and the music isn’t as rich.” You can actually teach yourself to go out of body and keep going back and forth, but if you destroy the body, you’re just stuck up in the high keys.

Jim: This new generation, boy they’re Ground Zero, you know? They’re going to reap the whirlwind. Millennials and Gen Zs—they’re just vibrant at levels of intelligence and capacity that I don’t remember having when we were kids. It seems to be more capacious now, more potentiated because they have a bigger job, and because the situation has gotten urgent. How do you understand what’s happening with this pandemic? What’s your interpretive framework? 

Elisabet: I discovered a maturation cycle in evolution in which species always go through a youthful acquisitive competitive mode, and then end up finding that energy is expensive. And so they work out a cooperative mode. This has happened a number of times in evolution. In fact, we have no idea how many times it’s happened, but very basically half of evolution; from about four billion years to a billion years, the planet was populated only by bacteria. But they got cooperative and built the kind of cells we are made of—the nucleated cells. Actually, colonies of ancient bacteria invented a communication system made of viruses. This is relevant to your question because our medical system does not understand this microbial world very well at all. We’re absolutely dependent on it, you see?

So, you can fast-forward, you know, past the coming out of the oceans onto land and the flowers and the dinosaurs and all the way up to us. And all through that time, occasionally, some cosmic event disrupted life and most of it was wiped out and had to do it all over. So nature also learned that crisis is always opportunity—another lesson we need right now. Every time there was a huge crisis, it made room for an explosion of new creativity. So where are we today? We have been, for some time, in this maturation cycle where you have the gradual meltdown of the caterpillar, the gluttonous caterpillar, into the light-on-the-earth butterfly. 

But whatever metaphor you use, it’s been obvious for some time now that humanity is at this very critical time when we have created a perfect storm of crises and have to navigate them all at once, whether they’re ecological crises, or health crises, or economic crises, or political crises—you name it, they’re all here now. If you look at the COVID crisis from the matter-end of the keyboard, that’s where you see the science. We identify a virus, we analyze it, we check it out. We look at how it’s transmitted and we try to figure out where it came from, how fast is it spreading. We deal with hospitals and masks and respirators and medications and vaccine development—all those things are part of the material world’s response to this crisis. 

Now, if you go up the keyboard into energy, you see massive grief and massive fear—these very strong emotions associated with this crisis. Yet, the lockdown has had some very wonderful effects on the planet. Within days, we discovered that the earth can heal when her humans are locked up. With remarkable speed the skies clear when the airplanes stop flying, and the animals come out of hiding, and all of the things that we were told that are absolutely impossible. “There’s not enough money for a green economy”; suddenly there’s trillions of dollars coming out of thin air.

Now, go up to the other end of the keyboard with me and try something:

Suppose we made a mass agreement of souls to lock ourselves up because it would be the only way for us to get the necessary breather to make a real shift. For the maturation to happen at a global level, we had to do the lockdown globally, and the health crisis was the only way to do it. So we created a soul-level agreement about this pandemic and we locked ourselves up; and look what we did very quickly.

We had a whole new view of what heroism is, who we look up to as role models. And they were the caregivers: the doctors, the nurses, the ambulance drivers, the mask-makers, everybody who was caring.

We have to go universally as humans into caring and sharing, into understanding our oneness and that the crisis affects all of us equally. And the first thing that took us into a different kind of “new” was recognizing that racism had to end, that we are all one, that it is ridiculous to fight each other.

We are finally learning the lessons. This wake-up can come suddenly.

You know, we’ve just learned about our gut bacteria—that we have 10 times as many gut bacteria as those 50 to 100 trillion nucleated cells. All multicelled creatures—plant/animal/fungus—have a contingent of viruses and bacteria that keep them healthy. Our gut bacteria run our immune systems. We know that now, but it’s new information. We have to grab onto it quickly, and we have to learn to make friends with viruses.

Yes, they can kill. So can a lot of other things. We have as many people dying of cancer and other diseases—the same heart-wrenching grief and fear goes on all over the world because we are so out of balance.

When you sterilize everything, when you’re killing all the bacteria and viruses on the surface, you never get them all. Which ones do you think are gonna survive that chemical warfare, that genocide? The hardiest ones maybe? The nastiest ones? So, are we really doing ourselves a favor or shooting ourselves in the foot? It’s not clear.

Jim: Every time you take an antibiotic you know you’re killing bacteria in your gut, and then you have to eat yogurt and replenish that and so forth. So, you’re right—at war with yourself.

Elisabet: The microbial world is so fascinating, and it’s most of evolution, and it’s with us, and we’re totally dependent on it, and we need to get back to a real health care system rather than a very profitable sickness care system which is benefited the more sick you are. Look at the ads on TV. They control our media so you’re only getting one story about this virus on your news. 

I’m not saying the virus isn’t real—it is, but we’re gonna have pandemic after pandemic if we don’t change the system to a real health care system. And of course, we have a lot of alternative health care—we have the yoga, we have the Ayurvedic medicine, we have the naturopaths, the osteopath, and more and more people are putting their money into those kinds of health care. And there are things that our current health care system does well. They’re pretty good at carpentry—they can replace joints and do all kinds of things like that. They’re still having a lot of trouble with diseases like cancer.

Jim: Let me let me circle back to something you were saying. As you look at evolution, you’ve seen this pattern of species emerging, going through youthful exuberance shall we say, and then finally realizing that the only way to get some kind of longevity is through collaboration. I juxtapose that with a statistic I’ve read in several places that in the history of planet Earth, 95 percent of all the species that have arisen are now extinct, and there’s about five percent that have really made it through. How does that square, Elisabet, with your notion of cycles? If 95 percent of the species in the end don’t make it, where does it happen where they opt out; I mean, is our species at that statistically predictable moment where we go extinct because that’s what 95 percent of the species do? Are we an exception in some way? 

Elisabet: A lot of my colleague scientists have pretty much given up on humanity, and extinction is a possibility. I happen to have a very broad world view in which it’s possible for there to be multiple outcomes for Earth. The “many-worlds hypothesis” is now given very serious attention in the world of physics. I hold multiple stories at the same time about who humans are. We have the potential for making it through, and it’s been a long investment in linear physical world-time in building our species from those ancient bacteria buddies of ours, so I don’t want to see the experiment fail. I’m stepping into that world in which we do get it right. I have only a few more years—I’m 84 you know—and I’m not looking for longevity. I’m a recycler. And if it comes to the point where I can do more good from the other side, as I know many of our dear departed colleagues and friends are doing right now, helping us from the other side, then I’ll join them and we’ll go on with this process—and there it is.

Jim: What counsel, Elizabet, would you give people who are in lockdown, who may not have worked for a couple of months, who are feeling more isolated than probably anything right now? They have fears of being affected, they’re wearing masks when they go out. You’re talking about a “soul agreement” on the pandemic. I’d love to have you comment on that, just to give that a little bit more texture. Because we have a soul agreement to do the pandemic, we can also have a soul agreement to survive?

Elisabet: Yes. I think the soul agreement has worked very well—elevating careers to heroism status; recognizing our oneness, our common vulnerabilities; seeing the earth clear its atmosphere and, somewhat, its waters. 

Now, we know that we can’t stay locked up forever. We have to get back into friendly relations with the microbial world. Above all, we have to let children go back to trading microbes and so first things first—eat right. 

Eat the healthiest food you can—whether it’s a Mediterranean diet or a vegan diet—the purer your food, the better. Get those supplements in minerals that aren’t in the soil anymore; get all those into your body and then figure out what is your heart’s passion—what do you love doing the most? Whether it’s playing the piano, composing, or organic gardening; whether it’s repairing electronics; or whether it’s writing poetry, preaching, voter registration, you name it—all of those things are necessary components for bringing everything about our economy back into balance with nature. 

Discern without judging. Learn by standing tall in your canoe, as the Polynesian sailor said when all the signs of nature fail and you still can’t figure out how to get to the land. Raise your consciousness up high until you can see the land! And then find what you love doing and figure out how to work it into what other people are doing to make a better world. Because if you love doing it, you’ll become an attractor. People will say, “Oh she’s having fun—let’s see what that’s all about.” 

There are so many things to do. I don’t know why the UN and the World Economic Forum, if they want to make a better world, aren’t training people and sending them into every refugee camp in the world to grow their own food. In a matter of weeks, people can feed themselves healthy food.

There are examples all over the world of building an economy based on loving, human relationships. I think the biggest wonderful task now is the racism challenge; if we can erase that one—if we can start truly seeing each other as equals, as brothers and sisters—then it’s a big step. We’re going to have to get back in touch with each other. 

And if we have strong immune systems, as I said, the numbers will go down. By the time this one’s over, there’ll be another one. We really have to start asking ourselves if vaccine the best way to go. Is it possible to make a vaccine for viruses that are constantly changing or should we all build strong immune systems and stop wrecking our ecosystems?

Jim: Beautiful. Elizabet, you’ve been a tour de force. I want to applaud you; I mean, you’ve got one strong immune system. Your vitality just oozes from every cell in your body and it’s beautiful to see, Elizabet, just truly inspiring. I want to really thank you.

Elisabet: You know we are co-creators of our world, whether we like it or not. Everything in our world, other than raw nature, is something we have created. We can do this. The bigger the crisis, the bigger the opportunity. Rumi said, “There are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the earth.” I say, everyone has something that makes their heart sing. We need you all.

Jim: Thank you Elisabet, and thank you everyone. This has been a beautiful session and I want to just applaud everything that has been shared. It’s been a feast of food for thought at every level.


Internationally known as a dynamic speaker, Dr. Sahtouris is an evolution biologist, futurist, professor, author, and consultant on Living Systems Design. She shows the relevance of biological systems to organizational design in business, government, and globalization. She is a Fellow of the World Business Academy, an advisor to and the Masters in Business program at Schumacher College, also affiliated with the Bainbridge Graduate Institute’s MBA program for sustainable business.


Jim Garrison has had a lifetime of social and political activism beginning in the 1960s with the anti-war, anti-nuclear, citizen diplomacy, and environmental movements. He founded Ubiquity University having served as President of Wisdom University from 2005–2012, which was acquired by Ubiquity in 2013. He has spent his entire professional life in executive leadership, including as co-founder and president of the Gorbachev Foundation/USA (1992–1995) and State of the World Forum (1995–2004) with Mikhail Gorbachev serving as convening chairman. Jim received his BA in History from the University of Santa Clara; MA in History of Religion from Harvard University; and PhD in Philosophical Theology from the University of Cambridge. He has written numerous books, including The Plutonium CultureThe Darkness of God: Theology after Hiroshima, The Russian ThreatCitizens’ Diplomacy, Civilization and The Transformation of Power, and America as Empire. Jim teaches a range of courses at Ubiquity in philosophy, history, and global affairs, including the core courses, The Great Books and Wisdom and Civilization.

Originally published in Kosmos Journal, Autumn Edition 2020 and republished here with kind permission.

Header Photo by Jelle de Gier on Unsplash