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A quick report from David Sloan Wilson's masterclass ("Science of the Noosphere")
…and a first attempt at putting the Evolved Universe Hypothesis in conversation with Teilhard de Chardin’s concept of the Noösphere, or Noosphere, or noosphere...
A few months back, a good friend of this Substack,, invited me to get involved in a masterclass, to be run by the great evolutionary biologist, David Sloan Wilson. Curse, you, Ken Fricklas, you have robbed me of my sleep! For that masterclass started last month, and has basically taken over my life. In a good way. A very, very good way.
Now, for those of you who have no idea why Ken’s invitation got me so excited (and why the class itself might take over my life): David Sloan Wilson’s official title, these days, is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Biological Sciences and Anthropology at Binghamton University. He co-founded the Evolution Institute (and the spinoff nonprofit, Prosocial World). His best-known books are probably Darwin’s Cathedral and Evolution for Everyone, but he’s also the author and co-author of many other fascinating books, for both academic and general audiences. A hell of a thinker, and writer.
AN INTERESTING, THOUGH IRRELEVANT, ASIDE:
If older readers are now murmuring “Sloan Wilson… Sloan Wilson…” to themselves in a puzzled voice, trying to jog a memory… yes, his dad is the Sloan Wilson who wrote the classic 1950s novel of American corporate alienation, The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit – a runaway bestseller, which was later filmed starring Gregory Peck and Jennifer Jones.
END OF ASIDE…
…NO, WAIT, HERE’S AN EVEN MORE INTERESTING, AND EVEN LESS RELEVANT, ASIDE TO THAT ASIDE:
In 1980, the Harvard-educated former mathematics prodigy and nature-centred anarchist, Ted Kaczynski, hid a bomb inside a copy of one of Sloan Wilson’s novels, Ice Brothers, then posted it to the home of the President of United Airlines, Percy Wood. When Wood opened the book, the bomb went off, injuring him severely. In 1996, an attempt was made to elect Kaczynski, better known by now as the Unabomber, as President of the United States, through write-in votes. The Unabomber Political Action Committee (UNAPACK) was backed by large numbers of hippies, punks, pacifists, militants, eco-socialists, primitivists, the decentralized anarchist collective CrimethInc, and the Church of Euthanasia (slogan: "Save the Planet, Kill Yourself"). He did not become president. Kaczynski instead pled guilty on January 22, 1998 to multiple counts of illegally transporting, mailing, and using bombs, and was jailed for life without the possibility of parole. In 2012, the Harvard Alumni Association got in contact with him, to update his details for the fiftieth reunion of the class of 1962; he listed his occupation, in the alumni directory, as "prisoner" and his eight life sentences as "awards". But, to get back on track, why, of all the books on earth, did he pick Sloan Wilson’s exciting World War II adventure story to hide a bomb in? I have no idea. America, though! What a fascinating country.
END OF THE ASIDE TO THE ASIDE
OK, let’s wander back to the body of the post…
DAVID SLOAN WILSON
David Sloan Wilson is extremely interesting to me, because he is one of the leading figures in the push to get group selection taken seriously. Group selection is… well, let me just quote Wikipedia at this point, because they explain this pretty clearly, and if I faff about trying to explain multi-level selection to you in my own words, this post will end up longer than the Bible, because it’s an endlessly fascinating subject with enormous implications that shoot out in all directions:
“Wilson is a prominent proponent of the concept of group selection (also known as multi-level selection) in evolution. He and Elliott Sober proposed a framework called multilevel selection theory, which challenges the more orthodox approach of gene-level selection and individual selection, in their book Unto Others. This framework argues that natural selection operates on a nested hierarchy of units, such as between genes within individuals, between individuals within groups, between groups within a multi-group population, and even between ecosystems (such as microbiomes) in multi-ecosystem populations. Each level of selection results in adaptations at that level and tends to be undermined by selection at lower levels. Hence the notion of multilevel selection.”
–Wikipedia, David Sloan Wilson
Nicely done, Wikipedia! A lot packed into that paragraph. I shan’t unpack it here, though I am tempted.
Actually if you want that boiled down even further, into a pithy quote, David Sloan Wilson has done that for you too, in a paper he wrote with that other great evolutionary Wilson, E. O.:
"Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary".
–From "Rethinking the Theoretical Foundation of Sociobiology", by David Sloan Wilson and E. O. Wilson
So, go and play around with that idea for a while, as you observe the worlds of birds and animals, bacteria and plants, history and politics, men and women. You will find it fruitful.
OK… no, I said I wouldn’t, but I do have to blow off a little steam here, because there are mainstream biologists still arguing against the importance of group selection, or against agency as a factor in evolution, or against culture as a factor in evolution, in reproductive success.
A POSSIBLY ILL-ADVISED RANT ON THE TRICKY SUBJECT OF EVOLUTION
Of course group selection is possible. And of course our behaviour, and our agency and what we actually choose to do feeds back into our reproductive success. THE UNBELIEVABLE BULLSHIT THAT DAWKINS TALKS, trying to make it exclusively a matter of genes. I love him, he’s wonderful, he’s great on genes (read The Selfish Gene! Read The Extended Phenotype, even if it is slightly bananas!), but he’s also completely blind to so much else that is going on, at so many other levels.
There are eight billion of us because we developed language, and used that language to develop our culture, and knowledge, and then developed ways of storing and transmitting that knowledge, and of making ever-more-advanced tools using that knowledge. We had pretty recent ancestors, almost identical to us genetically, who nearly died out because they had a far smaller quantity of that non-genetic, extra, linguistic and cultural and technological stuff!
Take fire, for instance. Every bunch of humans, for hundreds of thousands of years, has known how to use fire. No other animal can control fire. Fire is a superpower, and it isn't passed on genetically. Human babies are not born knowing how to strike flint stones together to create sparks to fall onto dried moss; to blow on the dried moss until it bursts into flames; to add some dried leaves, then some small dried twigs...
Yet every single human group has known how to do that for hundreds of thousands of years, and it has made a huge difference to their chances of survival. To their evolutionary fitness.
We know how to plant food, tend it, and harvest it.
We know how to read, and write.
We know how to make tools, and improve them, again and again, until suddenly we have have aircraft and spaceships and atom bombs and vaccines and the screen you are reading this on.
On and on, none of it strictly genetic. (Though obviously there is a genetic baseline it has built on; rabbits or roundworms aren’t suddenly going to do all this.)
An ever-increasing amount of what makes human beings reproductively successful is external to our physical bodies at this point, is nothing to do directly with our genes. Indeed, our physical bodies can get, in some senses, less fit, without reproductive cost, as those other factors take over in importance. (My eyesight is terrible: I’d have been dead decades ago, before getting any chance to reproduce, in any early hunter-gatherer society.)
OK, that released some steam. Back to David.
Basically, David Sloan Wilson is a fan of, and a power behind, the extended evolutionary synthesis, which has attempted to broaden the collective mind of biology, and wean it off its absolute obsession with genes at the expense of everything else involved in evolution. The extended evolutionary synthesis argues for the importance of a whole bunch of things that get sidelined by the (by now pretty old) “modern synthesis”: not just multilevel selection, but also epigenetics, niche construction, evolvability, and on and on. (AAAAARGHHHH I want to talk more about all of those… hold me back, lads! Hold me back!)
Anyway, I’m with biologist Eugene Koonin on this. As he wrote in 2009:
“…the new developments in evolutionary biology by no account should be viewed as refutation of Darwin. On the contrary, they are widening the trails that Darwin blazed 150 years ago and reveal the extraordinary fertility of his thinking."
So, the chance to get involved in a free, ten-week masterclass taught by David Sloan Wilson? Yes please.
And it has exceeded my expectations. He has brought in an extraordinary selection of scientists to take part in this masterclass: Terrence Deacon, Richard Michod, Paul Rainey, Michael Levin, Athena Aktipis, Bruce Damer, Brian Swimme, Clément Vidal, Garriy Shteynberg, on and on…
(Again, I yearn to expand on each of those names… but click away on the links if you want to know more.)
The title of the class is Science of the Noosphere: some of you will recognise that peculiar word (originally, and sometimes still, written Noösphere; I tend to still type it with the umlaut intact, purely because I use a German keyboard and it’s easy, with the Ö just sitting there).
OOOOH, TELL ME ABOUT THE NOÖSPHERE, JULIAN
The Noösphere, or Noosphere, or simply noosphere, is a rich, fruitful concept put forward by the Jesuit palaeontologist, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, in his writings, starting around the 1920s, and ending in his posthumously published book The Phenomenon of Man in 1955. (Shades of Galileo, and Bruno, again: The Vatican, deeply uneasy about the book’s emphasis on evolution as the driver of all things, refused him permission to publish it in his lifetime, and he had to take extraordinary steps to ensure it would be published after his death.) The term Noosphere also deserves its own post, but in brief, de Chardin said we should pay attention to
…a particular biological entity such as has never before existed on earth—the growth, outside and above the biosphere, of an added planetary layer, an envelope of thinking substance, to which, for the sake of convenience and symmetry, I have given the name of the Noosphere.
–Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
The term comes from the Greek νόος ("nous", "mind", "reason") and σφαῖρα ("sphere”); it is meant to be analogous to the geosphere, and the biosphere. (Bear in mind that the term “biosphere” was only minted in 1875, by the Austrian geologist Edward Suess. This entire way of thinking about the world is still so new!) Just as the biosphere transformed the geosphere, the noosphere is in the process of transforming the biosphere and geosphere, both.
Put another way: Just as life transformed the merely material world into a living world, mind is now transforming the merely living world into a thinking world.
Let’s give Wikipedia a go:
“For de Chardin, the noosphere emerges through and is constituted by the interaction of human minds. The noosphere has grown in step with the organization of the human mass in relation to itself as it populates the Earth. As mankind organizes itself in more complex social networks, the higher the noosphere will grow in awareness.”
–Wikipedia, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
Yep. In fact, later descriptions of the noosphere by de Chardin sound like astonishingly confident and accurate predictions of the internet and World Wide Web…
OK, enough on the Noösphere/Noosphere/noosphere (for now)! I want to get this post up before the weekend.
I’ll end with something I wrote yesterday for the masterclass. It’s a pitch I made, suggesting we discuss the Evolved Universe Hypothesis, and how it can complement the idea of the Noösphere. I’ve included some comments by another member of the masterclass, the delightful Eric Damboise, as his questions and my replies deepen the conversation. (I will indent us both, and italicise Eric.) In a way, in this brief piece, I am simply recapping the overall theme of the Egg and the Rock, yet again: but I find that, as I try to explain the concept to different groups, coming from different backgrounds, I constantly refine and improve the description. So this might be of interest or use to some of you.
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BRINGING THE EVOLVED UNIVERSE HYPOTHESIS INTO CONVERSATION WITH TEILHARD DE CHARDIN’S NOOSPHERE…
REQUEST TO NOMINATE A TOPIC FOR BREAKOUT ROOM DISCUSSION
Oh blast, didn't see this till now. Is it too late to nominate a topic? (I'm on Berlin time.) If not, I would like to nominate an exploration of the idea of the universe itself as an evolved entity. Let's call it the Evolved Universe Hypothesis. I think that's the missing ingredient in a full understanding of the extraordinarily directional nature of the development of our universe, and more specifically the development of the Noösphere. We know now that the universe as a whole complexifies relentlessly, from the undifferentiated hot gas of the Big Bang onward (even before the development of DNA-based life). And evolution is the only mechanism we know of that can generate such hyper-complexifying entities.
The paradigm shift involved in thinking of our universe as an evolved organism, which has evolved to generate (among much else) the conditions for DNA evolution, changes everything, philosophically and scientifically, while keeping, intact and valued, everything we have learned from reductionist materialism. (If our universe evolved from earlier universes, then fundamental particles evolved. Chemistry evolved. Evolution itself evolved: DNA evolution is nested within universe-level evolution.) It would mean that life, and we humans in particular, are not a freakish accident but an important developmental step – an organ of the universe’s self-knowledge and developmental growth. Such a new worldview would help us enormously in guiding and building the Noösphere.
I should clarify that I’m talking about straightforward Darwinian evolution here, at the level of universes – with reproduction (through black holes/big bangs), variation (of the basic parameters of matter; the basic forces, masses, and laws), and heritability (with offspring universes varying slightly in those parameters, and thus varying in their production of black holes, and thus reproductive success).
It is in some senses an old idea (back in the 19th century, the great scientist, logician and philosopher Charles Peirce, the "father of pragmatism", wondered if the laws of nature could perhaps be the result of an evolutionary process), but the physicist Lee Smolin gave it a potential mechanism, with his idea of cosmological natural selection. And the James Webb Space Telescope is now, over just the past year, showing us an early universe full of startlingly rapid, startlingly early galaxy formation (with remarkably large, and early, supermassive black holes at their hearts, driving galactic development) – exactly as an evolved universe theory would predict.
I do think this idea deeply enriches de Chardin’s vision of evolution as the driving force behind everything. Indeed, I believe he would have adopted it, had he known what we know now. Sadly, he died before the clinching evidence came in for the Big Bang (the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation, etc), and so his work assumes a single, infinitely old universe. Had de Chardin known of the Big Bang, the relative youth of our universe, and its rapid development/complexification, I think he would have leaped at the idea of evolution at the level of universes. It gives us a mechanism to explain the otherwise inexplicable movement from ultra-simplicity to hyper-complexity in our universe, and the fine-tuning of its basic parameters.
Anyway, that’s my suggestion!
To which Eric Damboise replied:
Fascinating! I'm already joining another group, but in my opinion, the most important question you raised was how "Such a new worldview would help us ... in guiding and building the Noösphere." I would love to somehow see the details of a discussion around this!
And I replied in turn:
Oh, thanks Eric. Yes, I think the evolved universe hypothesis gives us a strong, clear explanation for how and why the universe might be undergoing a highly directional developmental process, with the Noösphere as the next logical step in that process – and it gives that explanation INSIDE reductionist materialism. It's just evolution applied to the universe; two things we already know exist, and which we understand relatively well. No added woo-woo. I think that such a shift in viewpoint, to universe-as-evolved-organism, could help hugely in getting many mainstream people aboard the project.
Ah, so not necessarily much to inform the guiding and building, more the motivation for getting people on board to start the building. I love it as an inspirational story that sticks to materialism for sure!
And I expanded:
Well, it may well provide both functions. I certainly see its potential as a bridge between the secular/materialist/reductionist camp and the spiritual/religious/mystical camp as being of crucial importance. It gives them a common language in which to talk of meaning, direction, agency, at the level of the universe; a language which simply hasn't existed before. (We, as conscious matter, of course, are part of that agency; we are the sense organs of the universe, the universe coming to know itself and act on itself.) But once the two groups have a common language – or put another, more provocative way, once we have a theoretical framework, and explanatory mechanism, which allows both camps to speak of the universe as Teilhard de Chardin did, as, essentially, "God coming into being", but without that astonishing statement requiring any religious content – then I think many, many more individuals will be able to conceptualise a Noösphere, and thus move towards that future with more agency, with more thoughtfulness. So, yes, both.
And last word to Eric…
Well said! I'm on board! Onward towards the theoretical framework! :)
(SPOILER ALERT: My suggested topic was chosen. I hosted a lively discussion last night, which went well. We are setting up a sub-group to continue the discussion. I will report back on it. Have a great weekend!)