Groups as Organisms: Psychology of the Noosphere

In The Formation of the Noosphere, Teilhard defines the key psychological feature that underlies the noosphere’s birth:

It is generally accepted that what distinguishes man psychologically from other living creatures is the power acquired by his consciousness of turning in upon itself. The animal knows, it has been said; but only man, among animals, knows that he knows. This faculty has given birth to a host of new attributes in men—freedom of choice, foresight, the ability to plan and to construct, and many others. So much is clear to everyone. But what has perhaps not been sufficiently noted is that, still by virtue of this power of Reflection, living hominized elements become capable (indeed are under an irresistible compulsion) of drawing close to one another, of communicating, finally of uniting.

In that passage, Teilhard elucidates a key component of humanity—our simultaneous sense of individual autonomy that coexists with our “irresistible compulsion” to communicate and cooperate to form adaptable, functional groups. Our amazing ability to cooperate so effectively has driven human cultural evolution for millions of years.

Yet unlike single cells that are part of a multicellular body, or neurons that make up a brain, humans in groups maintain their autonomy and individuality. One of the greatest points of concern when encountering the concept of a global-scale, noospheric superorganism is the loss of our freedom as individuals. Teilhard countered that concern with the argument that our freedom is actually enhanced, rather than constrained, by joining together in groups:

I know very well that by a kind of innate obsession we cannot rid ourselves of the idea that we become most masters of ourselves by being as isolated as possible. But is not this the reverse of the truth? We must not forget that in each of us, by our very nature, everything is in an elemental state, including our freedom of action. We can only achieve a wider degree of freedom by joining and associating with others in an appropriate way.

To explore the psychological aspects of the noosphere from a biological perspective—in keeping with Teilhard’s “biological interpretation of human history”—it is essential to understand human groups as organisms as well.

It turns out that Science of the Noosphere’s David Sloan Wilson recently collaborated with Jim Coan, one of the participants in this conversation. Titled Groups as organisms: Implications for therapy and training, here is an excerpt from its abstract:

The intellectual tradition of individualism treats the individual person as the fundamental unit of analysis and reduces all things social to the motives and actions of individuals…Multilevel selection theory offers an alternative to individualism in which individuals become part of something larger than themselves that qualifies as an organism in its own right. Seeing individuals as parts of social organisms provides a new perspective with numerous implications for improving wellbeing at all scales, from individuals to the planet.

The other participant in this conversation is Garriy Shteynberg, who describes his academic focus thusly: “I seek to understand how and why humans socially share their worlds and minds with one another.” One of his papers is titled Agency and Identity in the Collective Self. Below is an excerpt from its abstract:

Contemporary research on human sociality is heavily influenced by the social identity approach, positioning social categorization as the primary mechanism governing social life. Building on the distinction between agency and identity in the individual self (“I” vs. “Me”), we emphasize the analogous importance of distinguishing collective agency from collective identity (“We” vs. “Us”). While collective identity is anchored in the unique characteristics of group members, collective agency involves the adoption of a shared subjectivity that is directed toward some object of our attention, desire, emotion, belief, or action.

Understanding the noospheric implications of groups as organisms and collective agency are only two of the fascinating areas explored in the course of the following conversation. It’s presented in two parts. Under each is a link to a full transcript of the conversation. Beneath that is a description of some of the main discussion points, along with the time they appear in the video.

Groups as Organisms: Psychology of the Noosphere – Part One Transcript

Part One Notes

David begins by introducing the focus of the discussion—exploring the nature of group mind and collective intelligence. He points out that this runs counter to much of the traditional approach psychological science over the last 70 years. “ we’ve just been steeped in the belief that the individual person is the fundamental unit. When in fact we got that wrong, there’s a sense in which the group and the small group is a fundamental unit of human psychology, of human mentality, and that’s what Garriy and Jim are experts on.” He asks Garriy and Jim to introduce themselves.

2:45 — Garriy introduces himself, both personal and professional background, and how he came to focus on his particular psychological field.

4:56 — Jim introduces himself and his journey through a range of academic disciplines.

6:45 — Jim narrates an experience with a clinical psychology patient that taught him the transformative effect of handholding and led to his field of study today, “the whole evolution and neuroscience of social relationships.”

10:04 — David narrates some of the history of social psychology, providing more detail on the conflict between a focus on the individual and a focus on groups. He asks Garriy and Jim to comment on that history.

12:46 — Garriy explains how he came to realize that “psychologists have something really important to say about how the mind interacts socially and represents the social sphere. And then I went back to social psychology and I did not find that.”

15:35 — Jim explains that he’s not a social psychologist, but a clinical one, and that field is in a worse situation than social psychology. He explains some of the problems the field faces, such as measurement of subjective states of mind. Because of that, it got stuck in looking at individual minds primarily through a behaviorist lens. He realized, however, that “when you marry the reality of humans as animals to some of these behavioral principles, and you realize that the human animal requires a social network to do everything, to do all the things that Skinner worried about eat, sleep, get air, but also to think, to remember, to learn, to develop then things really changed.” He mentions that despite the realization of the role of a social network, most interventions still consist of a therapist sitting down with a client.

19:36 — David and Jim discuss the role of therapists. Jim explains that he thinks therapy works best when it develops into a “a three-way interaction where they’re both looking at the same goal instead of just each other. That’s a type of social interaction that is absolutely vital. We think of social interaction is you and me conversing like we are in this situation, but a more common social interaction is you and me walking through the world, looking at the same stuff, orienting our minds towards the same goals and joining together as a larger organism with the same hands and feet.”

20:41 — David asks Jim to describe “how can we think about small scale social interaction as a…micro-noosphere, this mental dimension of human society that Teilhard talked about, shrink that down and think about it at a small scale for every human cognitive process, memory, perception, decision-making all of that as fundamentally a group process.” That is, Jim’s social baseline theory.

22:07 — Jim describes social baseline theory, “the proposition that every human perception is in reference to social resources.” He cites some supportive research. He also discusses how small groups are organized efficiently, like single brains.

24:27 — Jim continues with additional evidence in support of social baseline theory, stating “that the self is a process, a verb, not a noun, that draws on materials to build itself. And one of the core materials that the self draws on is the social milieu in which you operate so that you construct yourself based on your social relationships.” He gives some examples.

27:07 — David asks if the physical act of touching is the key. Jim explains that touching is a “low cost” way to signal social proximity. While touching is not essential, “hand-holding is the easiest way for our brains to know that we’re in the presence of another person, it’s the least ambiguous. And so it requires the least specific kind of processing of perceptual information.”

29:05 — David comments on “distributed memory, how much scenarios of human cultural evolution…places an emphasis on just that. And that the need for an increase in the scale of society…just to hold the information that’s required for the culture.” They discuss real world implications of that idea.

30:56 — Garriy thinks Jim’s and his research are complementary “because my interest is how human minds represent their reality.” He describes a perspective where the mind is “representing the self in relation to the world. It’s representing the agent in relation to the world, where am I looking at? What is he thinking? And so on, so it’s an amazing feat. And some would say this is the seat of consciousness, or maybe a type of reflective consciousness is right there.”

33:01 — Garriy describes how this works at the level of a group. “We can also consider and represent the collective self as an agent in a given situation…We are looking at X, we have the goal of Y. It is still happening within an individual mind, just like the representation of the I, but it’s a different kind of representation. It’s a collective unitary representation. And my work has really been about, first of all, describing this sort of phenomenon, talking about why it’s relevant for human cognition and groups, and then, telling a theoretical story about its place in human cognition and groups.”

34:58 — Garriy explains how when groups of people interact the group itself becomes a third “collective agent”. That third collective agent is “just as psychologically real” as the individual members. The collective agent binds actions of the others. “Had I not been prioritizing the collective agent’s point of view there’d be less ability to understand one another.”

36:41 — Discussion of the effects of mutually experiencing something in absolute synchrony vs. slightly asynchronous experience. He thinks even slightly asynchronous experience can impair the “representation of a collective self knowing something.”


Groups as Organisms: Psychology of the Noosphere – Part Two Transcript

Part Two Notes

David introduces the concept of religion and spirituality—regarding “something as sacred, something that you place above you and wish to become part of something larger than yourself.” He observes that the ritual practices associated with religions contribute to functioning as members of a group. He asks Garriy to respond to this idea from the perspective of the collective self.

1:50 — Garriy describe’s Wegner’s theory of transactive memory, “The idea that if I remember X, and you remember Y, and somebody else remembers Z, and if we all know where all these memories reside, we can then collaborate and have a much greater store of memory.” But how do we know who knows what? And some knowledge can’t be subdivided. “You can not subdivide, for example, the knowledge of English across agents, if English is your spoken language in the group. It’s an obvious thing, right?”

2:56 — Garriy explains the need for a common store of information. “The question is, how do we create this common store of information? Because it’s critical to the operation of the transactive system. And so the argument being that collective agency, having experiences, having emotions, watching behaviors from the standpoint of a we. Which is a self…not an individual self, but it is a collective self.”

4:56 — Garriy explains why this is different than social identity or categorization theory, which doesn’t consider the role of an agent. “Because human cognition is not simply categorization. It’s also the representation of the agent themselves in respect to the categories.”

6:32 — David comments on how this conversation points out that much of what we associate with the Internet is quite old in respect to distributed knowledge and its relationship to common knowledge. Language and symbolic thought were common, and enabled us to engage in division of cognitive labor. “There’s amazing continuity between what we think of now as the Noosphere at some large scale all the way back to the origin of human consciousness as a kind of a micro-noosphere.”

7:58 — Jim wonders where the self goes when we are part of a collective. “Does our self dissolve or does our self expand and grow? I think it does both. When we are we, part of the reason that we become ecstatic is because we realize access to the resources that are so much larger than our own body.” He also comments on transactive memory, that it’s not essential to know precisely who knows what, “we still settle into an efficient distribution of who knows what.”

10:58 — Jim discusses concepts of God and religion. He doesn’t think “that rituals and artifacts and belief in a larger God, is something qualitatively different than just being a person in a group of people.” Rather, humans are “hyperactive agency detectors”. He gives examples, such as how we can even imbue cars with agency. “So we have the capacity for magic right out of the gate.” He muses more on Garriy’s discussion of the “third person we”, and the implications of all this for religion.

15:01 — David discusses “meaning systems” in a more general sense. “All normal humans must have a meaning system or cultural meaning system. There’s great diversity in how those meaning systems are constructed. All of them are essential for organizing our experience, ultimately leading to action.”

16:23 — David states that he wants to turn the final part of the discussion toward the more practical issue of scale, “because one of the things that’s I think highlighted by this conversation is that when we talk about the noosphere it’s not just expanding something to the global scale…it needs to operate and to be maintained at all scales from the micro-scale of the small groups that we live in or should be living in… and then finally up to the global scale, which obviously needs to be brought into existence more than it currently is.” He puts forth multilevel selection as an an approach to understanding this.

17:38 — David discusses Prosocial World and the core design principles.

18:54 — David relates an aboriginal myth about the tension between individualism and community. He ends by asking Garriy and Jim to comment on the noosphere at both global scale and multiple levels underneath.

20:34 — Garriy has only given that limited thought. He begins by talking about the natural desire to create a “collective perspective”, and we want to do that by creating larger groups with whom to share. “What could be part of this we, how broad can it go? And what is stopping it from expanding?” He suggests our institutions technology have been limiting forces, but now technology is removing those limits. “I’m of two minds on it. My one thought is that it’s of course a good if it can be done peacefully.”

22:52 — Garriy discusses the dark side of collective expansion. “Social media and modern technology have been…the biggest sea change in our lives in terms of this. And it’s been used mostly for purposes that do not elevate, let’s say, human engagement. And of course, it’s because it’s motivated by making money.”

24:14 — Garriy thinks technology has potential, “If used for good to connect people across the globe in productive ways. Part of social media that’s so pernicious is that it engages all our basic sociality—collective agency, perspective taking and so on, but it doesn’t take it to its natural intended purpose, which is co-action and collaboration. It stops before it starts, it stops the conversation. Because Facebook doesn’t need us to produce things. It just needs our attention. It just needs us to be on there.”

25:17 — Jim first mentions a negative aspect of technology: “Here we are in the modern culture of surveillance capitalism, where we are all marching in lockstep because the agent that is drawing our attention is collective outrage and provocation.” Then he tells of an intervention that David and he wrote about recently, among workers on oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. The problem was a “tough guy” culture that resulted in frequent accidents, injuries, and deaths.

27:20 — Jim describes the intervention, essentially changing the culture by changing the incentives, or selection criteria for behaviors. By reinforcing more vulnerable behaviors that allowed workers to safely share mistakes, the accident, injury, and death rates were dramatically reduced. The point he makes at the end was that it wouldn’t have made “sense to intervene at the individual level. Individuals weren’t the problem, the group was the problem.”

29:38 — Garriy explains how he sees the difficulty in this work lies in seeing patterns at the multigroup level. We’re used to dealing with differences between individuals, but less so at the level of differences between groups, because it’s harder to take that perspective.

30:45 — Jim tells about a new effort of his own at UVA, “to try to change the culture of teaching and pedagogy here by creating a new curriculum and changing how we evaluate students.” He wants to try to make group-level changes in tradition-heavy organization. He also discusses that the “the canonical example that everybody would turn to (as an instance of uniting at the level of a large group) is World War II. We suddenly have this common enemy or this common threat.” He suggests “that the kind of scaling that you’re talking about David is possible.” But he cautions that “it’s really going to require a careful analysis of how that scaling happens if we’re going to make it happen in a way that isn’t just surveillance capitalism via Facebook, because we know that that can work.”

33:43 — Garriy suggests that “we have an institution like that…I think science is that sort of institution where there’s a pluralism, there’s an openness, there’s a collective narrative and collective attention. It requires quite a bit of education to engage in this kind of noosphere.” However, we’ve failed at expanding it sufficiently, leading to such problematic issues as rejection of vaccines, failing democratic institutions, and conspiracy theories. He thinks “it shows is that lots of the population has not been integrated into that collective narrative and they feel perhaps resentful of not being included.

35:14 — David agrees about science, and posits that what Garriy was describing earlier was a process of managed cultural evolution, which David explains here. It has to happen at multiple scales, and ultimately the whole earth. He suggests that what we need to develop is a “science-based meaning system. That really once you step into that, when that becomes your world, then you see yourself as first and foremost human beings and citizens of the world.” He ends with his own optimistic prognosis for the noosphere.