Noosphere as a Transition Threshold

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Markus Lindholm:

"Human altruism means more than warm feelings for our kin (Wilson, 2015). Humans live and take potentially part in any other existence by means of huge cognitive regimes of intensions, reciprocal understanding and shared meaning.The French paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1959) considered this pan-human reservoir of shared meaning of such significance that it deserved its own term. In addition to the lithosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere and biosphere, he identified the noosphere (nous = reason, meaning). The Ukrainian geochemist Vladimir Vernadsky (1945) considered the noosphere, despite its invisible nature, to have substantial impact on the other spheres, through houses, constructions, roads and railways, and through farmlands, roads, quarries, and other landscape deforming enterprises. It manifests physically as "the sphere of the earth system or its subsystems where human activities constitute a significant source of change through the use and subsequent transformation of natural resources, as well as through the deposition of waste and emissions" (Kuhn & Heckelei, 2010, p. 282). Two generations after de Chardin and Vernadsky, the footprints of the noosphere is recognizable to everyone. Even if all of humanity disappeared, future paleontologists would easily recognize that, during a geological blink of an eye, one species caused profound physically and biogeochemical alterations of the spheres on earth. For this reason, geologists increasingly consider the metabolic impacts of the noosphere as a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene. The noosphere gained an evolutionary dimension through the work of John Maynard-Smith and Eörs Szathmáry, in what they identified as the major evolutionary transitions (1995, 1999; Szathmáry, 2015). The history of the biosphere involves a series of transition thresholds, associated with new levels of collaborative 'altruistic' behavior.

An early transition occurred in the Precambrian, as one bacteria cell managed to inhabit another, without getting engulfed or digested. The two cells overcame their inherent tendency of selfish behavior, and instead developed a collaborative, symbiotic bond. This collaborative fusion became the advent of large and complex eukaryote cells, characterized by extensive division of cellular functions, with mitochondria for energy metabolism and chloroplasts for effective photosynthesis. This novelty enabled the biosphere to extend into new space, and thereby to alter patterns and dynamics of biogeochemical cycles. During the early Cambrian period, a new level of collaboration emerged, as some eukaryote cells formed cellular colonies. Again, instead of pursuing genomic selfishness, cells established functional common equilibria, resulting in a novel biological unit: Tissue, which soon assembled into larger collaborative complexes, such as leaves, stem, cones and cambium, or blood vessels, nerves and skin, and enabled the emergence of large and complex organisms. Again, the biosphere went through a transition of 'physiological altruism' into its present mode. During the Cretaceous, certain insects socialized into superorganisms, where each member partly serves as independent organism, but nonetheless are functional units of a larger communal organism – anthills, beehives, or wasp nests.

The noosphere flags a new transition, where the mental isolation, which up to this point had dominated the biosphere, is complemented by the sharing of meaning, conveyed by symbolic signs. We are the last major evolutionary transition (Wilson, 2015). The human community, based on shared meaning, which already puzzled Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, inaugurates a web of cognitive interactions, which allow us to alter, reorganize, deteriorate, and even possibly destroy our environment. "Due to social care (including medicine) and agriculture, the biology of humans has become gradually de-Darwinized" (Szathmáry, 2015, p. 10110). For the same reason, Joseph Henrich considers Homo sapiens as a principally novel existence on the planet: "humans are at the beginning of a major biological transition, the formation of a new kind of animal. In our species, the extent and sophistication of our technical repertoire – and our ecological dominance – depends on the size and interconnectedness of our collective brains" (Henrich 2016, p. 318). We are witnessing a new major transition going on right in front of us, and each of us is part of it. Without understanding the concept of the noosphere and how it relates to the major evolutionary transitions, the environmental crisis will remain inexplicable.

The major evolutionary transition that the reader is part of right now, through conceiving these thoughts of mine, depends on socialization of the minds. The minds, which so far were limited to single organisms, extend into a cognitive community of shared symbolic signs and meaning, independent of the environment. The noosphere involves similar features as the previous transitions, where singular and isolated units managed to overcome their egocentric isolation without engulfing their fellow organisms. The 'we' invokes a capacity for common action so far unseen in the biosphere: A shared cognitive space independent of the adaptive demands of the ecological niche, and instead adapting to the noosphere, with all its new challenges, fears and possibilities (Gillings et al., 2016)