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Learning from Extinctions . . . and Life

Paul Grobstein
April 2007


Biologists estimate that more than 90% of the species of organisms that have existed on the Earth have gone extinct. Linguists guess that 3000 of the world's current 6000 languages will disappear by the end of this century. The death of cultures is a prominent characteristic of human history, and continues into the present. And humans themselves? Its a pretty safe guess that very few of the readers of this essay will survive the next hundred years.

Every death is a break, a disruption in the established pattern of things for the survivors - whether they be species or languages or cultures or individual human beings. And they are no less a disruption in the established pattern of things when they go unremarked. Most species probably don't notice if another species goes extent, but they undergo evolutionary changes as a result. The same is true of languages and cultures; neither notices breaks but both are affected by them. Humans though often are not only affected by breaks but often take special notice them, are disturbed by them, made sad or frightened by them, particularly when they involve death or other losses.

Why is that? Why are we so upset by death and other breaks, by losses that produce disruptions of the established pattern of things, when so many other things around us treat them with equanimity, even indifference? And is there something we could learn from the non-human world? Have we things in common with it that might be relevant to our reactions to sudden changes in the established patterns of things, that might ease our distress at them?

One difference, of course, that might account for our unusual reaction to breaks is that we are conscious. Our discomfort is associated with things we experience inside ourselves, with feelings that are almost certainly absent in species, in languages, and in cultures (though they certainly are present in the individuals making up those cultures). But that just redefines the question of why we experience discomfort whereas things around us don't. And it’s a difference from things around us rather than a similarity that might help us.

Is distress at loss and associated disruption inherent in being conscious, in having feelings? Or is there something deeper, something changeable involved? Perhaps we could turn the question around a bit, in light of other things around us. They too are disrupted when something that has been around them disappears. Perhaps it is not actually having feelings, or even the feeling of being disturbed that causes us distress but the feeling of loss that does so? Maybe it’s not "distress at loss and associated disruption" that is the problem but rather a feeling of disruption that in turn produces a sense of loss?
If a feeling of loss is one (at least) of the important elements in our discomfort at breaking, maybe we need to examine that a little more closely. About 65 million years ago, the earth was struck by a large comet or meteor. In the ensuing cataclysm, something in the vicinity of 80% of existing species were lost. Among those that survived were some small, furry animals that had changed little over the preceding million or so years. Following the cataclysm they began to more rapidly evolve and diversify, yielding today's cats and dogs and horses and whales and ... ourselves.

Loss, in the sense of disappearance and disruption, there certainly was 65 millions years ago, on a scale exceeding anything we have ever experienced or could imagine. But in addition to the disappearance and disruption, indeed because of the disappearance and disruption, there was the new potential for creation, an opening for the exploration of new ways of being alive. Moreover, what was lost was lost only in the narrowest sense. The new ways of living, including our own, did not replace older ways but rather built on them, was made possible by them. In a very real sense, including the genetic, organisms today, ourselves included, exist not instead of but because of those that have previously existed. We are the products and contain within ourselves elements of all earlier living organisms.

How did the little fuzzy things feel 65 millions years ago? I don't know if they did. How would we feel if we were there then? Disrupted, certainly. Frightened, certainly. Sad, with a deep sense of loss? Probably, if we were as we are now. But we too evolve, and maybe there are some lessons in what happened 65 million years ago that are relevant for us today.... and tomorrow.

Perhaps a tight coupling of feelings of disruption and feelings of loss made sense in the past, for evolutionary and/or cultural reasons. But maybe we could come to loosen the coupling, in the present and future?  "I am, and I can think, therefore I can change who I am?" Maybe we could evolve so as to see disruption not as a frightening and undesirable intrusion into the way things are (and are supposed to be) but rather as an opportunity to create new ways of being? And maybe we could come to see disappearance not as loss but rather as transformation, an untragic, perhaps even joyful acknowledgement that what has lived beside us now lives inside us?

Maybe it’s time to break with what we have been, and become what we have the wherewithal to become? To recognize that we are, as we have always been, a part with other forms of life of a larger and ongoing experiment in trying out new ways of living? To live in and for the future, rather than the past and present. Then we might see that neither death nor breaking is the tragedy we tend to see it as but rather is often the door to what has not yet been.


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Breaking Project Author/Creator: 
Paul Grobstein


Serendip Visitor's picture


"Maybe we could evolve so as to see disruption not as a frightening and undesirable intrusion into the way things are (and are supposed to be) but rather as an opportunity to create new ways of being?"
I really like this line. It makes me look at my relationships and choices differently. I spent half of my (admittedly short) life trying to be a perfect granddaughter for my crazy grandmother and the other half rebelling so that she would notice me. Recently, I decided to just break away from that relationship and not let the things she say bother me. I stay away from her toxicity and essentially treat her as if she doesn't exist. Now, I am much happier and less worried about what she thinks. I don't change who I am in order to receive attention from the woman. I exist happily because I broke away from her influence on me. At the time I didn't know what I was doing. I was so tired and couldn't deal with her issues anymore. Now I know that I broke away from her in order to create a "new way of being" that allowed me to enjoy life.

Serendip Visitor's picture

"You can't make an omelet without breaking eggs"

by Karunya
I wanted to share this piece (In the Field) by Joseph Campbell that also talks about destruction before creation.

The privelege of a lifetime is being who you are.

What you have to do, you do with play.

Life is without meaning.
You bring the meaning to it.

The meaning of life is whatever you ascribe it to be.

Being alive is the meaning.

The warrior's approach is to say "yes" to life: "yea" to it all.

Participate joyfully is the sorrows of the world.

We cannot cure the world of sorrows, but we can choose to live in joy.

When we talk about settling the world's problems, we're barking up the wrong tree.
The world is perfect. It's a mess. It has always been a mess.
We are not going to change it.
Our job is to straighten out our own lives.

We must be willing to get rid of the life we've planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.
The old skin has to be shed before the new one can come.
If we fix on the old, we get stuck. When we hang onto any form, we are in danger of putrefaction.
Hell is life drying up.
The Hoarder, the one in us that wants to keep, to hold on, must be killed.
If we are hanging onto the form now, we're not going to have the form next.
You can't make an omelet without breaking eggs.

Destruction before creation.

Out of perfection nothing can be made.
Every process involves breaking something up.
The earth must be broken to bring forth life.
If the seed does not die, there is no plant.
Bread results from the death of wheat.

Life lives on lives.

Our own life lives on the acts of other people.
If you are lifeworthy, you can take it.
What we are really living for is the experience of life, both the pain and the pleasure.
The world is a match for us.
We are a match for the world.

Opportunities to find deeper powers with ourselves come when life seems most challenging.
Negativism to the pain and ferocity of life is negativism to life.
We are not there until we can say "yea" to it all.
To take a righteous attitude toward anything is to denigrate it.
Awe is what moves us forward.
As you proceed through life, following your own path, birds will shit on you. Don't bother to brush it off.
Getting a comedic view of your situation gives you spiritual distance. Having a sense of humor saves you.

Eternity is a dimension of here and now.
The divine lives within you.

Live from your own center.

Your real duty is to go away from the community to find your bliss.

The society is the enemy when it imposes its structures on the individual.
On the dragon there are many scales. Every one of them says "Thou Shalt."
Kill the dragon "Thou Shalt."
When one has killed that dragon, one has become The Child.

Breaking out is following your bliss pattern, quitting the old place, starting your hero journey, following your bliss.
You throw off yesterday as the snake sheds its skin.

Follow your bliss.
The heroic life is living the individual adventure.

There is no security in following the call to adventure.

Nothing is exciting if you know what the outcome is going to be.

To refuse the call means stagnation.
What you don't experience positively you will experience negatively.

You enter the forest at the darkest point, where there is no path.
Where there is a way or path, it is someone else's path. You are not on your own path.
If you follow someone else's way, you are not going to realize your potential.
(note: this is what the Holy Grail is all about... not some cup --dv)
The goal of the hero trip down to the jewel point is to find those levels in the psyche that open, open, open, and finally open to the mystery of your Self being Buddha consciousness or the Christ.
That's the journey.

It is all about finding that still point in your mind where commitment drops away.

It is by going down into the abyss that we recover the treasures of life.
Where you stumble, there lies your treasure.
THe very cave you are afraid to enter turns out to be the source of what you are looking for. The damned thing in the cave that was so dreaded has become the center.

You find the jewel, and it draws you off.

In loving the spiritual, you cannot despise the earthly.

The purpose of the journey is compassion.
When you have come past the pairs of opposites, you have reached compassion.

The goal is to bring the jewel back to the world, to join the two things together.

The seperateness apparent in the world is secondary.
Beyond that world of opposites is an unseen, but experienced, unity and identity in us all.

Today, the planet is the only proper "in group."

You must return with the bliss and integrate it.

THe return is seeing the radiance everywhere.

Sri Ramakrishna said: "Do not seek illumination unless you seek it as a man whose hair is on fire seeks a pond."

If you want the whole thing, the gods will give it to you. But you must be ready for it.

The goal is to live with godlike composure on the full rush of energy, like Dionysus riding the leopard, without being torn to pieces.

A bit of advice given to a young Native American at the time of his initiation:
"As you go the way of life, you will see a great chasm.
It is not as wide as you think."

refer to

mcclark's picture

People should learn to celebrate breaks rather than fear them



                     Recently the nation of Egypt underwent a peaceful regime change.  However, this movement that culminated in such joy for the Egyptian people was met with begrudged scenarios by many western nations.  The coverage of the Egyptian revolution quickly turned from awe of one nation’s ability to act as one to fear of global consequences. Most televised debates on the matter forecasted a nation controlled by terrorist groups.  Few focused on the triumph of the Egyptian people.  Individuals, specifically those from western nations, developed in countries with consistent global standings that allowed their families flourish.  However, what these individuals fail to realize is that the blanket the U.S.A or hegemon provides maybe regularly but it is far from perfect.  The chasm that separates nations causes the human race to be segmented and unable to envision collective progression. In “Learning from Extinctions . . . and Life,” the author, Paul Grobstein, asserts that it is time, “To recognize that we are, as we have always been, a part… of a larger and ongoing experiment in trying out new ways of living.” If the human race can truly become one entity working towards a common good by frequently remodeling society there is no telling how utopian life could become.

ntapal's picture

Humans can learn important lessons from the nonhuman world

Humans are blessed with the capacity to observe, tolerate, accept and learn other ways of being. We are natural. Science, in terms of evolution and biology, has reminded modern societies about the feature of survival and the inevitable need to adapt. Though we are superior to animals and fauna in our capacity of conscience and feelings like faith, love, and compassion, it is clear that animals follow a pattern—a clear sense of logic embodies them in surviving. They obey the cycle of Nature. Humans on other hand have a couple problems obeying Nature. We get so caught up in our problems, ambitions or complexes (due to free will to some extent) that we can become either ignorant or indifferent about our surroundings and the best path by which to survive. Even unconsciously, we give ourselves this unapproved sense of power, which, allows us to create allusions about other behaviors according to our feelings. We forget the simple parts of life that are evident in the truth, which is in the nonhuman world in nature.

Van Le's picture

Human can learn from the non-human world (doubt)

“That tree’s singing.”, said my father quietly after grandma’s funeral, out of the blue, out of place. I followed his eye line and caught his thought, his longing.  Consciousness can sometimes be too much a burden to take on, and somewhere down the line we wish to shed it, to throw it away, to lose our mind, to be anything but human. In the face of pain all we may wish is to be anaesthetized. What an irrational, improbable desire!- which makes things all the more tragic-the fact that we can never run away from ourselves, that we are trapped within our immediate locale and never able to transcend it, to look at loss as part of a  grand scheme that may thousand years from now be reciprocated, be redeemed, which does not matter to us at all.

Can human learn from the non-human world? I’d say yes, but only as an extension of their desire to visualize an alternative way of life, an alternative system of meanings, as a metaphor for an idea that we nourish. Human project their wisdom onto the non-human world and admire its shape, its beauty- as we see our philosophy incarnate. There are no lesson hidden, waiting to be unfolded and absorbed. 

akosansky's picture

The best thing about life is

The best thing about life is that it is uncertain. There is always an opportunity for things to grow and exceeded your expectations. Every time you take a step forward, turn your head another way, or say good bye to another being, your reality is shifting. Time forces us to move, grow and change as human beings. This is a positive thing for otherwise we would always stay the same, and nothing would grow. If you fear the idea of breaking then you are fearing life because every second you live, you are breaking into the unknown of your future. The joy of being human and being conscious is that we always have the ability to believe in the possibility of a better world, a perfect world. If we didn’t have breaks in our lives then we would never have the possibility of finding the joy and perfection we strive towards. Life is beautiful because it is always changing. You can never reach tomorrow because what was once tomorrow is now today and yesterday is every day you have lived and remembered. 

Serendip Visitor's picture

Culture should help people learn to celebrate breaks.

Culture should help people learn to celebrate breaks.

Doubt: When we see the present as a tiny spot in the long history and have the perspective that what we seem as a loss now may become a benefit finally, we need to use the power of culture to help people learn to celebrate breaks in avoid of the distress. However, the problem is how far can it go? I think that distress from breaks is not only inherent in feeling loss but also inherent in feeling the uncertainty. We are uncertain about what we are exactly connecting with, once we make changes. And I believe this kind of fearfulness is human nature, which is difficult to change.


I believe that culture should help people learn to celebrate breaks. The power of culture is strong and the fear and distress usually have bad influence on people’s lives in a way. Fear and distress will not give us courage in keep going the road we choose. What’s more, as it is stated in passage, when we put ourselves in a long history, we may learn that what seems to a be a great loss now turns out to be a good thing finally.

RClark's picture

People should learn to celebrate breaks rather than fear them:

  1. People should celebrate the breaks in their lives. Some breaks are exceptionally painful to deal with, such as the death of a loved one. While death is a tragic break, there are many other breaks we face that are not as trying. Many people develop fear or anxiety towards these breaks.  For example, diving into a pool from the high dive terrifies many people; they have to physically part ways with something that is stable beneath their feet. Once they take the leap, they crash into the water. At once, they feel the exhilaration, and fear bursts like a balloon. Abruptly, jumping from the high dive becomes easier and a source of amusement. People should celebrate breaking because of moments like this when something that we fear surprisingly becomes something that we love. Breaking changes our preconceptions, which may actually be misconceptions. People should celebrate breaking to promote discovery about themselves and the world around them. If we celebrate breaking, perhaps we could make it easier to do. Breaking is a freeing experience that seems to lead us to happier lives in the long run. Breaks are challenging, but if we are always of afraid of them, we end up with a list of regrets for never taking the breaks we should have.
  2. People shouldn’t learn to celebrate breaks. People are meant to be anxious of breaks so they can be warned of them and try to avoid them. Breaks will inevitably happen, but they need to be overcome with time and a difficult journey, not passed by like a tourist attraction. There are more lessons to be learned and more appreciation to be developed for something that causes fear or pain. Death, for example, should not be happily celebrated. That would encourage us to be shallow and quickly forget those we have lost. Individuals and communities need to feel anxious of breaks as a rite of passage; they need to feel the disruption caused by them so they can comprehend the new change as a result of the break.  People should resist them.  Living more conservatively keeps people safer and more confident in life. Death is one break that cannot be ignored, but maybe people can avoid some unnecessary tragedies along the way.





mmacdougall's picture


-       People should learn to celebrate breaks rather than fear and resist them


Breaks are the only way for the world to change, continue, and grow better. A chick must break his egg in order to emerge into the world. We must break from bad customs and habits in order to garner new, more beneficial ones. If we do not embrace breaks, they will only cause us pain and suffering. However, if we celebrate breaks, we can find joy in the moving on, the changes that we all must go through to become our own individual persons. If we resist breaking, we cannot develop to our full potential. We get caught up in a cycle that we are scared to break. We get trapped behind walls we are afraid to knock down. Breaking is what allows advancement. Water will not flow through a wall until it builds up enough to break it down. If we resist breaking too hard for too long, the situation will build up like water and eventually come crashing through the walls of resistance we have thrown up. The break will come. It will bring pain. It will flood our lives with a mess that we cannot easily clean up. We will be devastated. However, if we embrace and celebrate the process of breaking, it becomes much easier to cope with. We find less problems we cannot overcome. We, as a whole, become more equipped to deal with the natural, necessary process of breaking.

rebeccal062894's picture

1.     Humans can learn

  1. 1.     Humans can learn important life lessons from the non-human world

I do think that humans can learn important life lessons from the non-human world. Just by observing them, one can learn a lot of how the non-human world works. We aren’t that different if you really think about it. However, I do think that animals are far more truthful than human beings, as they live with their natural instincts. But an important life lesson that humans can learn from the non-human world is the way to survive. In the non-human world, everything is much simpler and straightforward than our world. The stronger ones live and the weaker ones die. Maybe this seems too brutal to some people, but it is the truth. You have to become stronger than others, if you want to be on the top. So this kind of teaches us a way to survive in society. In some sense, you always have to be stronger than others. You’ll have to be able to compete with others, and therefore, the better you are at something, the bigger an advantage you have. The non-human world also teaches us to look forward and move on. Death, is a very common thing in the non-human world, it’s a part of nature. However, it’s like when a mother lion sees her cub get killed; of course she’s sad and upset, because that’s her own child. Yet, she still has to move on, because their world is just like that, if you don’t get up fast enough, you’ll lose your chance to live. 

SMarrie's picture


1.  I do believe that humans could learn many important life lessons from the non-human world. I suppose that the world as depicted in one’s near-death experience could count as such a world since it is a world of spirits. I have read about many people that were once not very good people learn to be better human beings after they had their NDEs. One woman was inspired to appreciate her friend more after seeing her in heaven and making up with her after they had a fight right before she was run over by a bus. I suppose we could also learn important lessons form the animal world as well. For example, we humans learn from the mourning rituals of certain birds that we are not the only ones that grieve for our lost ones. Furthermore, such rituals teach us that we should focus on what makes us similar to rather than different from animals in order to understand ourselves better. Humans and animals might have more in common than we think, you see. Most animal species will not murder one of their own, and supposedly animals have no morals! I do not think it is always easy or even possibly to learn something from a source that you cannot perceive. After all, we cannot talk to animals and we cannot guarantee that there is actually a spirit world or anything beyond our ordinary human existence. Instead, we can only guess what might be beyond our perception of things.

2. I do believe that people should not just fear and resists breaks, but see if such breaks could result in something good. Breaking from convention and trying out new things is a great way to live, even if one does make mistakes along the way. It enables one to grow and flourish creatively. While I can understand fearing breaks such as “death” and the “loss of a loved one,” I am curious to hear about any good breaks. I almost never hear about such things, so I wonder what good could come out of a change in schedule. For example, is death really such a bad thing if there is such thing as a heaven? Does everything really stop after death, or does a new life begin? I remember that Mexicans seem to celebrate death with “The Day of the Dead” and laugh in Death’s face to show that they do not grieve. Do we really lose our loved ones forever or can we still be with them, but in different ways? But why do I not hear very much about breaks other than those related with death? I ask this because most of my readings on “what is breaking” seem to relate back to death and its effect on us? I would like to know just how we could celebrate or look more closely into breaks since I do not know of many as of now. It will be difficult for some people to want to celebrate breaking, though. Entire societies, such as Japan, see the status quo as a preservation of harmony, and such people do not wish to disrupt it.


Serendip Visitor's picture

esem response

Culture should help people celebrate breaks.
Cultures should be shaped around the breaks in society. In fact they are shaped from the downfall of the culture they preceded. These cultures apply earlier knowledge that led to the downfall and hope to curb their own civilizations downfall. America celebrates the separation or break from Great Britain every July 4th. Our current culture specializes in celebrating events that have changed and shaped individuals and societies breaks. Culture plays direct influence on breaks. Some cultures are more open to certain events, while others are more reserved or have different traditions. We should uphold and hope that cultures begin to and or continue the celebration of breaking because each break little or small impacts the individual citizen’s life. Depending on the culture one grows up in how they perceive breaks are different. For example, the breaking of skin, getting your ears pierced, for many young girls in America marks their ascent into their early teens or in their view adulthood. However, in some cultures such as Indian, young children get their ears pierced extremely early on in childhood. Some children even get their ears pierced when they are still babies. It is necessary for a culture to celebrate breaks to encourage life’s progression. Culture thrives of these breaks, or in turn breaks and collapses. By celebrating and accepting different breaks to the individual and society a culture becomes stronger and more prominent. People learn to accept and move on but also remember and learn from the experience they previously had.

Serendip Visitor's picture

Learning from extinctions

Fear and the sense of loss are essential to our survival. We cannot afford the levity of being comfortable with change, especially cataclysmic changes.

Serendip Visitor's picture

Memes Live Forever

Ubi sunt qui ante nos in mundo fuere?

Memes may outlive genes. "No man is an island..."

"Imagination is more important than knowledge.". "If I have seen further than others, it is because
I have stood on the shoulders of giants."

Gaudeamus igitur