2007 - 2022

Cell Biology, Sacred Anarchy & Self-Determination in Scotland

Riding home on a Saturday night train from Edinburgh last weekend was an adventure. The train was jam packed and I walked down to the furthest carriage in the vain hope of quiet.

It turns out this was the one occupied by a man, dubbed Pavarati by his friends, singing operatic tenor at full volume. He was very good and on another occasion, I might have enjoyed it even more.

It was also a striking contrast to the peaceful day I’d been having at an event called Sacred Anarchy: Re-wild your Heart.

We’d been discussing (and experiencing) how spiritual practices, like meditation, yoga, and spending quiet time in nature, can help us find the inner strength and gentleness necessary to practice the art of relating freely as equals (my favourite definition of anarchy).

I carried on to a quiet dinner with friends where the conversation continued in a new form. Interesting, then, that I find myself afterwards catapulted into something more like what most people consider anarchy – drunken & boisterous singing, many people unmasked and jammed close together during a pandemic, booing at police when they arrive to take a large bottle of spirits off our beloved carriage entertainer Pav.

Protection or Growth?

Near the end of the journey, I found myself talking with a young man about Scottish Independence. He liked the idea, but wasn’t sure it was the right time. We’ve been through so much, he said. Maybe we should wait.

Afterwards, I found myself reflecting on cell biology, as you do. Bruce Lipton is a great scientist who dedicated many years of his life researching stem cells long before most of us had heard of them.

He observed that biological systems have two mutually exclusive states – protection and growth. If you put a cell in a hostile environment, it walls itself off to stay safe.

And if you put a cell into a healthy environment, it puts all of its energy into life’s primary function which is evolution and growth.

Through his work he began to see that these two states are not limited to cells but apply to us as individuals as well. Not only that, the environment, he came to understand, includes our mental environment.

So if we think we’re in a hostile situation (i.e., we’re afraid) our whole system goes into protection mode. And if we are focused on what resources and nourishment are available in our current place and time, we can enjoy the benefits of growth and healing.

Human Evolution

We could see Lipton as a modern day Peter Kropotkin who made similar observations about the evolutionary value of cooperation (growth) over competition (protection). Kropotkin was one of the great luminaries of the European anarchist tradition as well as a renowned biologist, naturalist and geographer.

In his time, Kropotkin was of course deeply controversial, going against the popular Empire-driven interpretation of Darwin’s work. Cooperation is now widely understood by biologists as fundamental to evolution, though Kropotkin is rarely credited for his genius outside of anarchist circles.

Both Kropotkin and Lipton recognise these patterns also apply on a societal level. We might ask ourselves, what kind of Scotland do we want to live in? Is it one based in protection, competition and fear or a nation of communities grounded in vibrant growth, cooperation and love?

Fear, of course, is a wonderful function of biology. If there really is a threat, a burst of adrenaline can help us get out of the situation through quick thinking or quick action.

But in our modern society, we are encouraged to live in fear much of the time. People in protective mode are easy to manipulate.

Of course, when someone is manipulative, we can know they are also afraid, trying to protect their wealth, identity, sense of power or entitlement, etc. When we see that people are trying to control others (and themselves) out of their own fear, it can become easier to have compassion for them.

Having compassion for ourselves at the same time, we can say no thank you!

I suspect this is why we’ve seen a greater uptake of self care in Scotland around Covid-19 than we have in England. Nicola Sturgeon openly talks about love and solidarity and seems to really mean it. We might feel the consistency of the message.

Covid care is not about control – it’s a kindness that supports our collective and individual wellbeing. Meanwhile, Boris Johnson & Co … well, nevermind.

Self-Determination & Self-Care

Regardless of who seems to be in leadership, we can all contribute to a vibrant, healthy and self-determined Scotland by nourishing these qualities in ourselves and in each other. Each of us will have our own unique way of doing so.

As the great anarchist Emma Goldman once wrote, “The individual is the heart of society, conserving the essence of social life; society is the lungs which are distributing the element to keep the life essence — that is, the individual — pure and strong.”

Goldman was clear she’s not promoting the rugged individualism idealised by capitalist (i.e., fear-based) thinking, but rather a creative individuality which recognises that each of us has our own particular gifts to offer.

Only by being properly nourished and nurtured, can we each shine in our own way. Perhaps it is this kind of Scotland we would like to live in.

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Comments (39)

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  1. Colin Robinson says:

    ‘Cooperation is now widely understood by biologists as fundamental to evolution…’

    It’s not, actually. It’s the unstable chemistry of cell division during sexual reproduction that orthodox biologists since Darwin understand as fundamental to the evolution of life by natural selection. It’s this ‘anarchy’ of unstable chemistry that gives rise to the innumerable deviance and chance variation within species that provides the grist for the mill of natural selection.

    Kropotkin et al were bourgeois humanists; they thought humanity was above all that crude materialism. They still laboured under the presumption of the so-called ‘transcendental pretense’; the presumption that life in its current human form has some sort of special moral purpose higher than the ‘mere’ reproduction of life itself; that there’s more to being human than that we’re born, f*ck, then die.

    1. Time, the Deer says:

      I’m sorry that your disappointing experience of life has made you so cynical, Andrew. Better luck next time.

      1. Colin Robinson says:

        You disagree, Time?

      2. Colin Robinson says:

        Also, it’s my cynicism (the abandonment of the transcendental pretense) that liberates me from dukkha and puts my wheel back on its axle (sukha).

        For these are the four noble truths: life’s disappointing; it’s disappointing because we crave a transcendent meaning that life (birth, f*ck*ng, and death) doesn’t have; to cure our disappointment we need to let go of that craving; the eightfold path of philosophy is the way by which we break its bonds.

        I weep for your suffering.

        1. Time, the Deer says:

          I don’t follow your religion Andrew, as in my experience I have *not* found life to be inherently disappointing – quite the opposite. I have no need for your tears.

          As I said, better luck next time – maybe you’ll be reincarnated as a Gaelic-speaker! Sending hugs and hope your way, a charaid xx

          1. Colin Robinson says:

            And yet we all seem dissatisfied with the state of the world, Deer, which is why we lurk here, doing what we do in the shadows of internet fora, airing our various grudges and grievances. Our very presence here bespeaks an irksome disappointment with life, a Buddhistic suffering.

          2. Vishwam says:

            Hi Colin, my understanding is the Buddhism is supporting us to become free from suffering through deep meditation and the practice of kindness … Do you see it differently?

            I’m here on Bella Caledonia to offer some hope, inspiration and support to anyone in need. And in my experience, there is so much more to life than simple physical survival and pleasure. There is a great joy within us and our cynicism (our protective armour) shields us from joy just as much as it shields us from pain. Letting our armour drop away is what brings freedom, in my experience.

            Wishing you well in all ways,
            Vishwam x

          3. Colin Robinson says:

            My understanding of Buddhism, Vishwam, is a) that it groups a wide range of claims that are purported by their claimants to explain both the brokenness of the world and how we can sort it, b) that this grouping is based on a perceived family resemblance and, reciprocally, forms the basis of a community of interest, and c) that, as such, it’s susceptible like all ideologies and their institutions to immanent critique.

        2. Time, the Deer says:

          Having opinions about the state of the world is not the same as being disappointed with life – often quite the opposite. If your satisfaction with your own life is dependent on the outside world being exactly as you want it to be, I quite believe you’ll never be happy. I’d also say you’ve probably then missed the point of Buddhism somewhat.

          1. Colin Robinson says:

            That’s right, Time, which is why the eightfold path teaches detachment from the world.

          2. Time, the Deer says:

            It’s just a matter of not being a narcissist Andrew – some of us don’t need a religion to teach us that. I see you’re doing that arguing-in-circles, ‘ah but that’s what I was saying all along’ thing that you have become known for. Perhaps if you didn’t waste so much time on pointless circular arguments online, you’d be less disappointed with your life. Go for a walk! Just an idea… Anyway over and out – best of luck to you.

          3. Colin Robinson says:

            But narcissism is no small matter, Time; and it’s certainly not to be used as a term of abuse. It’s a recognised mental illness, an involuntary disorder. You wouldn’t call me a ‘spastic’ or a ‘mongol’ or a ‘schizo’, would you?

          4. SleepingDog says:

            @ Colin Robinson, I would call you the Mons Meg of the Bella comments section. Bombastic, fixed, loud, defending an establishment status quo that should have died out centuries ago with enduring obsolescence.
            At least you might become a popular tourist attraction.

          5. Mons Meg says:

            ‘Mons Meg’. I like it. And it’s time to retire dear old Colin.

  2. Dougie Blackwood says:

    An interesting and illuminating essay and an enjoyable read. The basis is exactly right; yes we should all help each other and not be worried about what is coming round the corner or where our next meal is coming from. The capitalist idea of devil take the hindmost is destructive and punishing on those that are least able and least confident, inspiring fear and negative actions for those affected and for others.

    1. Vishwam says:

      Thank you, Dougie. I’m glad the article was helpful and inspiring for you.

  3. Graham Ennis says:

    Well, actually, there has been a 150 year long experiment in Scandinavia, called liberal social democracy, with a strong state, good public services, solid social progress and steadily evolving collective social ideas. it has been working, with great efficency, and has delivered solid results. Its chief power is its open and public debate on where and how its social agenda is going, vigerous debate, and a highly educated population, with a high cultural level. The UK Right will never talk about this, unless its to spout invective, lies, and general right wing darkness.
    Scotland would need a bout 20 years to transition to such an equalatarian state. It took Ireland almost a hundred years, a civil war, a war of national liberation, and the destruction of the Church (A proven case of suicide). But we got there. The right offers only fear and hatred, and selfisihness.
    I am astounded that half of the UK parliament is under the control of a feudal aristocracy, that its radical parties, have been crushed and sidelined, and that people there voted for BREXIT. In Russia, its multi-stranded factions of socialism were crushed by Stalin. Now that the sort of liberated social democracy proposed by the radical irish republicans, crushed and its leaders executed, has been finally established, it is now in the Republic one of the most prosperous, progressive and intereesting countries in Europe. Its also a neutral EU state, and has finally achieved most of the objectives of a country that first had to suffer 500 years of bloodshed and oppression. Also it heps that the Irish are fond of booze, and revert to syndicalist anarchism after a few jars of Guinesss. I say all of this to compare it with the situation in Scotland, with its feudal land laws, social system where feudal aristocrats hold still to some of their power, etc. Having said that, Scotland today is where Scandinavia was around 1920. A radical party with radical policies, and politics, is the only means of making the transformations required. This of course, all under the shadow of a feudal monarchy that incredibly, has powers in Scotland. I would solomnly describe the Scottish nobility as the last vestiges of Classical Tsarism in Europe. I kid you not. Personally, I am astonished that the Tories still cling to a few seats in the parliament, that Labour have gone very unionist, and that there are only two parties now solidly committed to national liberation. (No, I am not being funny, I believe in calling a spade a spade. ). Until there is a scottish legal act that breaks for all time the power of the Lairds and there hangers on, and the unionist cretins of the Tory party, by making external funding of parties from outwith the Country illegal. Much else, but put very simply, these are my thoughts. Discuss!!.

    1. Vishwam says:

      Thank you, Graham, for these thoughts. I can see the appeal of the Scandinavian model, of course. It’s established, recognisable, financially successful and easily fits in with the modern world. We might also want to ask if the norms of the modern world are the way we want to continue. Like you, I’m concerned that so much of Scotland and the whole of the UK is seemingly controlled by landed gentry. This deep inequality is unhealthy for all. I’m actually friends with some of those landed gentry and see how much the whole process of boarding school, inheritance feuds and the desire to hold on to wealth causes great suffering for them. And for those of us who are currently struggling to find a home when land is made into a scarce ‘resource’, who are living on low incomes, etc are also finding this inequality deeply painful.

      My question for you and for the Scandinavian model is how much do you value equality? While Scandinavian countries might have less inequality than the UK, they are still working on an economic model that creates inequality. Also, here in Scotland where the indigenous culture has been actively suppressed for centuries, we might not want to emulate countries who are similarly oppressing the indigenous minority of their own far north. “Liberating Sapmi: Indigenous Resistance in Europe’s Far North” by Gabriel Kuhn is an illuminating and inspiring read on this subject.

      We might also note that it is the lack of environmental consciousness in the Sweden government that led to Greta Thunberg calling for radical, direct action to address climate change. While we might thank the Swedish government for this, we may not want to emulate their focus on growth and denial of the actual planet which is our home. Perhaps if the indigenous wisdom of the Sami were included in a substantive way, things would be different in the Scandanavian countries. Perhaps that will come in time.

      It seems to me that not by trying to be modern, normal and fit in with the world … but by listening deeply to the needs of our plant, our populations (human and otherwise) and our selves can we find a way forward that actually serves all.

      Thank you again for commenting, Graham, and I wish you all the best in all ways.

    2. Joe says:

      100% Graham, and very well expressed. Thanks.

  4. Daniel Raphael says:


    1. Vishwam says:

      Thank you, Daniel.

  5. Squigglypen says:

    Don’t need to discuss Graham…you are spot on.
    When I watch people turn up at 6am to wave a flag ( won’t be the Lion Rampant because it belongs to ‘that wee fat German wumman up at the palace’ – you have to get permission to wave it- in writing)… to the great and good( Randy Andy and co.) as they sweep past the peasants,
    I want to bash my head on a wall..or perhaps bash the heads of those who sweep by?..now which one….. difficult decision…I’ll go with the latter. There that wasn’t so difficult Scotland……hope springs eternal…

  6. Paula Becker says:

    The section attempting to contrast Nicola Sturgeon’s Covid response with Boris Johnson’s is way off the mark – their responses were basically one and the same.
    Both England and Scotland ditched their pandemic planning and instead went with Lockdown – following China and later Italy.
    They then introduced a tiers system – with slightly different numbering systems but essentially the same approach.
    Both touted Vaccines as the solution to getting out of lockdowns and tiers. They exaggerated the efficacy of the vaccines, suppressed information on already existing treatments, and played down the natural immunity within our population due to previous exposure to coronaviruses.
    They shut down gyms, swimming pools and sport centres despite a clear link between obesity and serious Covid illness.
    They denied strenuously that they were going to introduce vaccine passports. They have now, within days of each other, announced the introduction of vaccine passports.
    They both insisted they were following the science. Then, when the JCVI announce that 12 – 15 year old children should not be vaccinated due to safety concerns, they immediately say they will consult their Chief Medical and Science officers, and look set to overturn the JCVI decision.
    I strongly recommend the book ‘A State of Fear – how the UK government weaponised fear during the Covid 19 pandemic’ by Laura Dodsworth to the author of this article and Bella readers.

    1. Tom Ultuous says:

      NS consistently locked down before and opened up after BJ. Had Westminster followed the Scottish govt’s policy on airport arrivals there would be no Delta variant in this country. There was a point where the Scottish govt made every arrival from any country self isolate in a hotel. At the time Westminster only applied that to “red list” countries. Despite the fact the Delta variant was rampant in India BJ resisted adding it to the red list for 19 days because he was planning a visit there. People coming from India to the Scotland therefore only needed to land in England and then travel to Scotland to avoid the hotel self isolation. The Scottish govt will rightfully have questions to answer on the pandemic but sharing an open border with a country run by clowns tied their hands to a large degree.

      PS You’ll notice BJ has not followed NS’s timeline on a public pandemic enquiry.

    2. Colin Robinson says:

      Yep, scaremongering and then weaponising the fear thus generated is a widespread strategy in politics. It’s everywhere, from stories of ‘fascist’ hordes marauding through Glasgow’s streets, to end-times prophecies, to rumours of dark conspiracies against our liberty and democracy in relation to things like the media, referendums, general elections, and public health, etc. That’s the political environment we must negotiate our ways through life as best we can. Scepticism is the best form of resistance, I find.

      1. Colin Robinson says:

        PS Laura Dodsworth does indeed have some interesting things to say in her latest book on the behavioural psychology of fear and how it’s deployed to manipulate and control people. It’s well worth a read.

  7. Tom Ultuous says:

    Great article Vishwam and some great posts.

    1. Vishwam says:

      Thank you, Tom.

  8. Niemand says:

    ‘I suspect this is why we’ve seen a greater uptake of self care in Scotland around Covid-19 than we have in England.’

    What does ‘self care’ mean and what is the evidence for Scotland’s ‘greater uptake’ of it?

    1. Vishwam Heckert says:

      Thank you for asking, Niemand. I would say self care is all the ways we look after ourselves and each other, including boosting our immune systems and taking action to inhibit the spread of Covid 19. We’ve seen radically different transmission rates in England and Scotland, which I realise is related to population density. Having recently moved from England back to Scotland (hooray!) there’s a palpable difference in the culture around Covid and care.

      1. Colin Robinson says:

        I wonder why the Scots are so exceptional in this respect.

        Who cares? It’s something else at which we’re better than the English.

        Wha’s like us, eh?

      2. Niemand says:

        Thanks for the reply Vishwam. Can’t say I have any detailed knowledge about transmission rates, but I’ll take your word for it! I think Scotland does have a good civic mentality, perhaps better than England but then again there are many Englands – it is very diverse place. What I would say in terms of self care generally, is that the Scottish diet and general attitude to a healthy lifestyle is pretty bad is it not? My personal experience would say that is better in England.

        1. Vishwam Heckert says:

          Niemand, it’s true! There are many Englands and many Scotlands. Both are such rich and diverse countries in so many ways. And certainly both countries could benefit greatly from a culture that supports more self care for everyone. We can all contribute to that wherever we are.

          And Colin, thank you for seeing how what I wrote could be interpreted as some kind of Scottish superiority. I didn’t mean it like that at all — simply observing differences in current governance and culture. I’m sorry to say but nationality is just a concept, really. We’re all human. All beautiful.

          1. Colin Robinson says:

            Nae bother. But I took you to be asserting Scottish exceptionality (that there’s been a greater uptake of self-care in Scotland than in England) rather than Scottish superiority (that, for that reason, we’re better than the English). I was just wondering how this exceptionality (the greater uptake) is to be explained.

            You find a lot of Scottish exceptionalism and chauvinism here. It’s one of the chief justifications for independence. We Scots are more democratic than the English, less xenophobic, more compassionate, less gullible. ‘We’ lead the world in this, that, and the next thing, while ‘their’ empire is on the wane and is dragging ‘us’ down. ‘They’re villainous and pursue evil policies; ‘we’re’ virtuous and don’t. ‘They’ vote Tory, FFS, but ‘we’ never do (and yet ‘we’ always end up with a Tory government). ‘We’ care about the environment and the future of mankind; ‘they’ don’t. ‘We’ve’ been behaving more responsibly than ‘they’ have during this pandemic Wha’s like us, eh?

            And ‘nationality’, like all biological groupings (‘sex’, ‘race’, ‘species’, ‘humanity’, etc.), is indeed a social construct. But it’s no less real (operative) for being so and can’t be so easily dismissed. ‘We’re all Jock Tamson’s bairns’ is all well and good. But Jock Tamson, you’ll notice, is a ‘Scot’.

  9. SleepingDog says:

    Hmmm. I remember Richard Adams’ description of rabbits in Watership Down as a species particularly prone to fear, and yet they breed like, well, rabbits. Probably a bit unsafe to generalize from single cells up to complex, multicellular, social mammals. Extremophiles only exist because their ancestors reproduced in hostile environments. Some organisms may reproduce on the point of death, and have evolved to do so. But you would expect varied responses, because otherwise life would have died out in various ecosystems.

    1. Colin Robinson says:

      No, extremophiles survive because the environments in which they reproduce their lives aren’t hostile to their survival. That’s the nub of natural selection: forms life survive and replicate themselves only because they’re not extinguished by the environment in which they must survive and replicate; that is, they survive only because the environment in which they do survive ISN’T hostile to their survival.

      So-called ‘hostile’ environments are only hostile to us. In saying that extremophiles only exist because their ancestors reproduced in ‘hostile’ environments, you’re projecting your own special needs onto other forms of life. That’s a form of anthropomorphism.

    2. Vishwam says:

      Hi SleepingDog, thanks for your comment! I believe Watership Down was an allegory about fascism and how fear fuels it… In real life, rabbits in the wild are very relaxed until they need to dash. Then they relax again. They don’t stay stressed out like we humans seem to … until we unlearn the habit and remember our natural human state of peace.

  10. Gashty McGonnard says:

    Interesting piece.

    As you rightly point out, the same basic, dualistic principle applies to all life – at the level of cells, organisms and societies: innards good; outtards (?!) food. It worked for a billion generations of ancestors, so we take it as read. Cherish all within your skin or city wall. Anything external is either food, foe or the other eff. Some say the only reason we have two hemispheres of brain is to maintain both viewpoints – the narrow defensive/acquisitive and the broader caring/open/global one – at the same time.

    The tragedy we face as a civilisation/species is that this basic and natural approach fails when you saturate your environment. If you go all out on the enemy they nuke you right back. If you consume resources competitively you die on a dead planet. When things get too grim the body politic eats itself.

    Can we downregulate our left hemispheres fast enough to survive? I doubt it, we’re looking quite doomed.

    In the meantime, mindfulness, cooperation, reading Prince Kropotkin and drunken operatics sounds like a good way to enjoy the end times. Don’t have nightmares.

    1. Colin Robinson says:

      Trouble is that the basic dualistic principle that can be applied to all life is also an anthropomorphism; it’s a human principle that we invented in the service of our will to power, viz. our desire to comprehend or ‘master’ life and ultimately to overcome death. In applying this principle of alienation to cells, organisms, societies, we’re comprehending or ‘mastering’ life by realising it as a projection of our own will. This ‘humanising’ of life is the essence of humanism and, for deep ecologists, contains the seeds of humanity’s own extinction. The anthropomorphism of your basic dualistic principle is thus part of the ‘problem’.

      Only it isn’t a ‘problem’’. It’s just life and its evolutionary process by which its various forms come and go, the process by which life lives, the process of life itself. Whether our species survives or not is of no ultimate consequence whatsoever. Life will go on with or without us. God is dead. We live in an indifferent universe. Which is reassuring in a sense. ‘O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?’

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