Both human development and the evolution of life share another significant trend – a journey towards greater freedom from physical constraints.
Some early evolutionary examples of increasing degrees of freedom are the processes by which living systems obtained energy. Evolutionary biologists believe that early living cells used simple fermentation. These bacteria broke sugar molecules down into smaller molecules such as carbon dioxide and water, taking for their own use the energy which bound these molecules together.
This process was limited by the availability of these sugars and certain acids, and after a while (a billion years or so) supplies began to run low. Some bacteria escaped from this constraint by developing a new way of obtaining food, photosynthesis. Using the energy of sunlight, they converted carbon dioxide, water, and minerals into energy-rich organic compounds. Since these simpler molecules were much more abundant than the sugars needed for fermentation, the new cells could survive in a greater variety of territories. A new degree of freedom had been established.
But this process had its own drawbacks. It produced oxygen as a waste product. To us oxygen might seem a most beneficial gas, yet it is a very reactive chemical. Combining readily with many other substances, it can destroy many of the complex molecules on which life depends. To the cells of the time it was poisonous pollution.
After several hundred million years, so much oxygen had accumulated in the atmosphere that it threatened life on Earth. Nature’s response was to exploit oxygen’s destructive qualities and capture the energy released as oxygen reduced larger molecules to smaller components.
This new process of obtaining energy – called respiration – was far more efficient than either fermentation or photosynthesis, and greatly expanded the range of resources at life’s disposal. With respiration, organisms were not limited to sugars and minerals for food, they could extract energy from the more complex molecules that fermentation and photosynthesis created. Life could now feed off the products of other living systems. A major new branch of evolution had emerged – the animal kingdom.
The animals that first colonized the land were amphibians. But they could never roam far from water. Even toads, who spend most of their life on land, have to return to water in order to reproduce, since tadpoles — their larval stage – must live in water. Reptiles overcame this hurdle by developing tough shells for their eggs, encapsulating a watery environment for the growing embryo. Their eggs could be laid on dry land, miles from any water. Another degree of freedom.
Another step towards greater freedom was warm blood. Since heat speeds up chemical reactions, the rate at which an organism can convert food into energy is a function of its temperature. Cold-blooded animals like snakes and lizards rely largely on the Sun for warmth, absorbing its heat directly into their bodies. When there is no sun to bask in, these creatures become quite sluggish.
Warm-blooded animals – namely, birds and mammals – have overcome this handicap, by developing an internal heating system that keeps the whole body at the optimum temperature for its metabolism. Being less dependent on the temperature of their surroundings, has given them a new degree of freedom. They can be active in a wide variety of conditions and can inhabit regions too cold for reptiles.
The Freeing of Humanity
With human beings came many new degrees of freedom. Speech freed us from the limitation of learning only from our individual experience. Our ability to deliberate upon the future has given us a certain freedom of will; we can choose those actions that offer us better chances of survival or that enhance our comfort and well-being.
Walking on two legs rather than four, meant that our hands were free to do many new and useful things. We did not have to chase after our prey, we could set traps for it. Being able to create clothes and shelter freed us to live in cooler climates. The wheel further enhanced our freedom of movement, giving us the means to transport heavy loads with much less effort. Agriculture brought us other liberties, enabling us to raise our own animals, grow our own crops, and store the harvest for later use.
As we settled in communities, individuals took on differing responsibilities. Some caught the food, others prepared it. Some made the clothes, some collected water, others built new shelters. This increasing specialization brought greater efficiency, and with it yet greater emancipation from the constraints of the physical world. We were free to take on other activities such as pottery, smelting, forging, tanning, spinning, weaving, carving, healing, teaching, writing, painting, sculpture, and music-making.
Yet more liberation came with the Industrial Revolution. No longer did we have to spend most of our life tilling the land; we were free to improve the quality of life in many ways. The steam engine freed us from a dependence on sheer muscle power. Machinery of all kinds increased the efficiency of production, resulting in a plethora of material goods that allowed us to do more tasks and achieve grander goals.
Sturdier ships, railways, and later automobiles and planes, gave us far greater freedom of movement, and allowed industry to use resources from around the globe. Medical discoveries relieved us of from the scourge of many diseases, freed us from much physical pain, and helped us recover from physical injury. In these and other ways, the Industrial Revolution, liberated us from many of the constraints of our bodies and from many of the limits imposed by our environment.
Today information technology is leading to an emancipation from work itself. Automated factories produce cars, electric motors, television sets, radios, cameras, computers, and digital watches with almost no input of human energy. In banks, offices, warehouses, and supermarkets information technology is increasingly taking over functions previously performed by people. Accountants, lawyers, pilots, architects, draftsmen, doctors, engineers, secretaries, and others are being released from many of their routine tasks.
The consequence is plain to see. The more developed nations are no longer heading towards full employment but towards ever-increasing unemployment. Unemployment is usually seen as undesirable, both personally and socially, and something to be fought against at all costs. Yet, somewhat ironically, it is the very thing we have been striving for.
From the dawn of civilization people have been seeking to work less – not more. To this end we have invented a wealth of labor-saving equipment – plows, windmills, water-wheels, pumps, weaving looms, milking-machines, combine harvesters, lawn-mowers, elevators, washing-machines, food-processors, microwave ovens, power drills, vacuum cleaners, electric pencil sharpeners, automatic car-washes, and motorized golf-carts to name just a few.
The intention behind almost every technological development from the first stone axe to the automated bank-teller has been to reduce the time and energy we spend in physical toil. Yet, now that we are finally seeing the fruits of our labor-saving efforts, we are holding on fiercely to the very thing we have tried for so long to leave behind.
On the one hand we love work for what it brings – security, self-esteem, comforts, human contact, challenge. On the other hand we resent it for what it demands of us – the time we have to spend at it, the energy and freedom it seems to take from us. How many of us, if given the money we now receive from work, would still choose to spend our time in an office, a truck, a store, a print-shop or a coal-mine? The majority want what work gives, not the work itself.
We fear unemployment not because we fear the loss of work itself, but because we fear insecurity, uncertainty, loss of self-esteem, material discomfort and possibly hunger – all things that work has helped us avoid. In addition, since our economies are based on the input of human labor (human time is the principal component of any price, the natural resources being intrinsically free), wide-scale unemployment can spell disaster for a nation’s economic well-being.
The question we should be asking is not how to maintain employment, but how to create an economic system that can distribute resources and enhance our well-being, while at the same time fulfilling our age-old wish to be free from unwanted toil.
Freedom for What?
Freedom from toil is not the only freedom we have sought. We have fought to be free from oppression; fought to overthrow dictators and tyrants; fought for the freedom to vote for the government of our choice. Nations have battled to gain independence from other nations, erected statues to proclaim their liberty, and stamped it on their money. We have struggled for freedom from slavery, freedom from prejudice, and freedom from persecution. For the freedom to say what we believe, to live where we wish, and to worship as we choose.
But what is all this freedom for?
Our underlying motivation, as ever, is to move away from pain and suffering towards greater joy, and contentment. This is the underlying freedom for which we have worked and fought. To be free from all that seems to stop us from finding peace and fulfillment.
To an extent we have been successful. We have eliminated or reduced many sources of suffering. We have found ways to satisfy most of our body’s needs. We have increased our standard of living. We have been able to fulfill many of our desires. But are we really any happier?
In 1955, a study was conducted to find out how many people in America were happy with what they had in life. At that time 30% of those polled felt they were happy with their lot. The same study was repeated in 1992. Over the intervening 37 years the material standard of living had improved considerably: per capita income and consumption had both doubled, average house size had doubled, the number of cars per family had nearly tripled, the number of TV stations had increased by a factor of twenty or more, plus the picture had gone from black-and-white to color. Yet the number of people who were happy with their lot was exactly the same – 30%.
Two conclusions can be drawn from this. First, material well-being does not equate with inner well-being. Second, the percentage of the population who know how to be happy has not changed at all. We have done almost nothing to educate people in one of the basic wisdoms of life. In this respect we are still far from free.
The Freedom to be Free
A mind that is caught up in the past is not free – no more free than a mind caught up in concerns about what may or may not happen in the future. A person worried about the opinions of others or anxious for security is not really free. We are not free if imagined fears drive our perception and our decisions. Nor is our thinking free if we judge someone on the basis of their race, dress, profession, accent, or beliefs.
We saw earlier that we already possess most of the understanding and technology necessary to avert environmental catastrophe. And we have the money. What we do not have is the will to do what we know is needed. Free will requires a free mind, not a mind caught up in worry and concern.
To be truly free we need to move beyond our cultural conditioning. We need to release ourselves from our attachments; from our concern for past and future times. We need to be free of our illusions. Free from unnecessary fear. The freedom we now need is the inner freedom that allows us to think more intelligently. The freedom to draw more deeply upon our creativity and use it in ways that are in our true best interests. The freedom to follow our vision, and find that which we truly seek.
This is the opportunity that our many physical freedoms are opening us to – self-liberation. The freeing of our minds so that we may be our true, authentic selves.
This new freedom requires a new kind of work – work on ourselves. In this respect we have not reached the end of work at all. There has merely been a shift in the arena of work from outer to inner. A shift to the next phase in human evolution.
For more information please visit the author’s website: Peter Russell
It will look like this: Freedom – Emancipation from Matter