Imaginal Cells, Metamorphosis and Emergence
Rebecca Solnit’s longread in the Guardian about the Corona virus’ impact on the world, for a brief moment, brought into the forefront of public consciousness, the miraculous transformation of the caterpillar into a butterfly. She highlights the critical role that imaginal cells or discs play in catalysing this transmogrification. This article in Scientific American offers a slightly more descriptive version of the process. Solnit suggests that this biological occurrence might be analogous to our current global COVID19 circumstances, others view the story as a metaphor for human emergence. It is my intention in this article to suggest that, whilst the story maybe useful as an analogy or metaphor, that this embedded natural pattern contains, useful spiritual truths, codes and archetypes of emergence that carry profound meaning for this moment in human evolutionary history.
Those of us, who have been sensing the urgent necessity of global transformation of consciousness and culture for many years, have long been fascinated by the description of the metamorphosis of the caterpillar larva into a butterfly. The element of the story that has most strongly resonated, is involvement of the seemingly magical imaginal cells or discs. These catalytic microorganisms enable and activate the the grosser form of the caterpillar to mutate into the butterfly. These discs of initially dormant DNA , are activated in the chrysalis when the caterpillar starts dissolving into a primeval ooze. At first these cells are attacked by the immune system of the caterpillar as a foreign body. Yet the imaginal cells combine and cooperate in this genetic soup and utilise it as nutrients, to transmute and form all the apparatus and organs required, to create a fully formed butterfly. I initially heard this story told by evolutionary biologist Elisabet Sahtouris in 2003 and have heard it, or versions of it, oft repeated since.
If you subscribe to the idea that our human species is undergoing its own evolutionary journey of metamorphosis, then this analogy or metaphor might be describing our current pre-emergent life conditions to a tee. The life cycle of the caterpillar before becoming cocooned in the chrysalis, necessitates it to devour 27,000 times it’s own body weight, in fact consumed by it’s own appetites before having to isolate itself. This is yet another interesting correlation with our current Covid19 stage of human evolution. For those of us, who are changemakers endeavouring to catalyse the more beautiful world, the story of the butterfly imparts a feel good factor, a hope for the future that, the deeply chaotic times in which we live, are an opportunity for something unprecedented to occur. Thus the tale of butterfly’s transmutation appears to be a prophetic foretelling of the possibility, of a startlingly beautiful and incredible emergence, from the seemingly hopeless tumultuous ooze or times within which we now exist.
Story Metaphor or Analogy?
This metamorphosis story is both miraculous and assuaging. Thus I think it is incumbent upon those of us that resonate with the story and specifically the role of the imaginal cells, not just to leave the story as it stands as a metaphor or analogy and merely hope that it portends a better future. To me there is a seed of truth, a code here that resonates with the currently dormant potential of human emergence. If one believes, or subconsciously senses that there is far greater potential to be awakened in human consciousness, then this explains why the role of the imaginal cells, resonates so strongly and provides a confirmation of the instinct, that light may still yet, emerge out of the darkness of our disrupted age. So those humans who lean toward playing the role of an imaginal cell, are maybe following the prompting of their heart, to awaken the dormant capacities and catalyse our collective human imagination to restore the earth, regenerate our living systems and move forward into a radically fairer, ecologically balanced and refreshingly sane future
For human imaginal discs, in the form of changemakers, regenerative agents, global transformers to realise the promise of the story, there is a missing piece to me, that requires further explication. Our human metamorphosis requires conscious action, it necessitates a paradigm jump, a momentous leap, that is instigated through human volition. In the chrysalis pre-butterfly state, the dynamics described above are blindly driven, by evolutionary habit through biological and genetic mutation. However human imaginal discs are homo sapiens sapiens, we know that we know and as such are called, to consciously catalyse emergence and consequently species maturation, stewarding, restoring nature to a thriving bountiful unburdened earth system.
Current global life systems breakdown, Covid19, climate change, species extinction and more, are life conditions which are challenging humans to evolve consciously, rather than solely rely upon the random result or effect of evolutionarily programmed genetic biochemistry. This is a quantum jump, which requires development of new capacities, of conscious cooperation between human cells systems and cultures at an unparallelled degree. One that is so much more than following the golden rule, helping each other out or being kind, or being more empathic or compassionate. To meet the challenge of the times, current life conditions seem to require an unprecedented form of human cooperation and collaboration founded upon the indivisible interdependence at the root of human existence.
This unprecedented leap in my view, needs to happen initially in the imagination, in the consciousness of individual humans! The fate of the race to me, arguably depends on the ability to imagine a radically different future. Whilst the details now may be fuzzy and even inconceivable, unless human our imagination is catalysed by a taste, a sense, an experience, of a previously unimagined possibility, what possibly could the human imaginal cells be activating?
Some characterise our times as a crisis of the imagination, understandable given the onslaught of negativity, fear, panic and eschatologically informed messaging, about the anthropocene age, the climate crisis, the current Covid19 pandemic and even a possible sixth mass extinction. These themes are mostly imparted by conventional and alternative media outlets. Thus an act of imagination now appears as a revolutionary act. An heroic attempt to swim upstream against the impending doom, of a species rapidly hurtling towards extinction. This tsunami of adverse life conditions, only highlights the individual human cell’s and hence our civilisational lack of imaginative capacity. Our visionary ability is impaired arguably, by over dependence on cognition, combined with a huge a mostly unconscious bias toward materialism, thus the best that mainstream imaginations can propose are technological solutions, bio-engineering, digital fixes and artificial intelligence, none of which change the underlying paradigms of thought that caused these global problems in the first place.
My proposition in this blog-piece that a radically different future can be enacted and envisaged right now. It is critical that the imaginal human cells do start to actually dream, sense, envisage, intuit, or almost taste the unprecedented possibilities that might be emerging in the near or distant future. There is no need to wait; these intuitions can be lived into now. It is in the realm of possibilities, the future is still in potential, the capacity to consciously imagine, to make space for yet to be realized capacities, in fact a collective social dreaming of a more beautiful world.
The alternative is, no matter how progressive, how seemingly concerned or panicked about current planetary circumstances, without consciously developing these imaginative capacities, individual human cells are in more danger of acting out the role of the immune system, in the flux of this chrysalis-like evolutionary moment. History has proven our species inoculates itself against and is often immune to change, take for instance the climate crisis. Thus new possibilities are often perceived as a threat. So an imaginative eye, an intuitive leap to me, are first steps in transforming the mutability of the moment, into the undreamt of, the seemingly unrealisable impossible future.
What if our highest collective human potential activates the possibility of the planetary system renewing itself, aided by the very best of human regenerative wisdom practice, creating new moral, ethical, philosophical and economic framework that is characterised by a care for and stewarding of, our political, creative and ecological commons? It all begins in the imagination and is seeded into possibility by speaking, writing and expressing this new world before rushing into technological fixes.
Imagination an uniquely human heritage
Brian Swimme the evolutionary cosmologist eloquently describes how the curiosity and imagination of our prehistoric ancestors enabled them to move toward fire rather than flee. This simple act of wonder, eventually enabled them to harness its basic properties, the first step on the long road towards civilisation. It is now time for those that resonate with the role of the imaginal cells and sense the awakening of dormant human potential, to exemplify, articulate, consciously dream and enact that unimaginable future into being.
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About the author Dave Pendle; I am synthesising almost 30 years experience in non profit enterprises with over 40 years of deep personal development experience. Passionate about enabling others’ sense of fulfillment, impact and trust, to engage wholeheartedly with inspiration and commitment to 21st century work and life. Longing to hear the authentic voice of the emerging future paradigm.