The Growth of the Noosphere

When describing the conditions that gave rise to the Noosphere, Teilhard focused on two central connected qualities that defined humanity at its birth. One was the capacity for self-reflection, that coevolved with symbolic language and thought. He wrote:

“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.”

The other key quality undergirding the emergence of the Noosphere was the human propensity for forming ultra-cooperative, highly cohesive groups, made possible by communicating symbolic thoughts through spoken language:

“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 the nascent Noosphere, the novel attributes Teilhard enumerated—freedom of choice, foresight, the ability to plan and construct—were expressed through the collective consciousness of small hunter-gatherer groups. This in turn enabled collective action at a level of complexity the planet had never before seen. The small nomadic bands that our ancestors lived in for hundreds of thousands of years attained the status of superorganisms. They spread across the entire planet, adapting to virtually every available environment on earth, through the power of collective minds:

“Viewed in this aspect, entirely borne out by experience, the collective human organism which the economists so hazily envisage emerges decisively from the mists of speculation to take its place and assume the brilliance of a clearly defined star of the first magnitude in the zoological sky.”

Though Teilhard didn’t designate them as such, in a very real sense those small-scale hunter-gatherer bands were mini-noospheres of a sort, with collective consciousness focused on the good of the group. As groups proliferated and spread across the globe, they developed ever more complex cultural practices and increasingly sophisticated technologies. Group size—the functional dimensions of Noospheric organization—remained roughly the same until human innovation led to agriculture.

The scale and complexity of human societies—the collective human organism—has of course grown significantly since then. From groups of 25-50 individuals using stone-age technology, we’ve evolved into a global-scale, electronically connected, technological civilization taking its first bold steps into space.

How did we get from here to there, and where are we going, as a species, from this point forward? Teilhard addressed those questions in the fourth section of his essay on the Noosphere’s formation, titled The Phases and Future of the Noosphere:

“… only seven or eight thousand years ago, there came the first civilizations, each covering a large part of a continent. These were succeeded by the real empires. And so on … patches of humanity growing steadily larger, overlapping, often absorbing one another, thereafter to break apart and again reform in still larger patches. As we view this process, the spreading, thickening and irresistible coalescence, can we fail to perceive its eventual outcome? The last blank spaces have vanished from the map of mankind. There is contact everywhere, and how close it has become! Today, embedded in the economic and psychic network which I have described, two great human blocks alone remain confronting one another. Is it not inevitable that in one way or another these two will eventually coalesce?”

He completed The Formation of the Noosphere in 1947, so we can assume the “two great human blocks” he referred to in that passage were the Soviet empire and Western democracies. When the Soviet empire collapsed three decades ago, many predicted that a global coalescence under democratic governance was inevitable. While economic and digital globalization has continued apace, political and social coalescence has failed, so far, to take place.

While Teilhard believed that the continued coalescence of humanity into a planetary superorganism was inevitable, he thought it might take a very long time—in one passage he suggested it may take several million years—we who live in the rapidly evolving global community of the early 21st century are hoping for greater unanimity among the people of the planet much sooner.

Central to our mission at Science of the Noosphere is an exploration of the modern scientific perspective on how the Noosphere grew, from its origins in small ancestral human groups to our global civilization today. That exploration was the subject of a conversation with two experts from different fields, who approach these questions in interestingly complementary ways.

One is Peter Turchin, who invented the field of Cliodynamics, which uses mathematical modeling of long-term historical processes to look at human history from a more rigorous scientific point of view. It enables more systematic investigation of phenomena such as the rise and fall of empires, population booms and busts, and the spread of religions. Peter was also instrumental in launching Seshat, the global history databank, “founded in 2011 to bring together the most current and comprehensive body of knowledge about human history in one place.” That databank is used to “systematically collects what is currently known about the social and political organization of human societies and how civilizations have evolved over time.”

The other is Daron Acemoglu, an economist who focuses on the role of institutions in human life. The field of institutional economics acknowledges that while individuals can be seen as rational actors, several factors—such as information asymmetries, economic externalities, and difficulties with trust—can distort the workings of the neoclassical economics icon, the “invisible hand”. These factors must be taken into consideration to understand how society and the economy really work.

Teilhard thought that seeing the Noosphere as a biological phenomenon—which was fundamental to his philosophy—confirmed the view that human institutions are organic. Teilhard’s view seems consistent with the core ideas of institutional economics, since the invisible hand alone can’t account for the evolution of cooperation in the biosphere, which has been central to the evolution of complexity in life.

David Sloan Wilson discussed the Noosphere’s evolution with Peter and Daron. Their conversation is presented below, in three parts.

The Growth of the Noosphere–Peter Turchin and Daron Acemoglu: Part One Transcript

Summary of Part One

David establishes the framework for the conversation: the evolutionary process that began with our hunter-gatherer ancestors represented a new phenomenon, that is, cultural evolution. While it began at that small-scale, those primal groups coalesced over time into larger and larger cultural units. “And extrapolating into the future, he (Teilhard) envisioned the entire earth as a kind of superorganism with a global consciousness.”

David sees this conversation as an academic coalescence, as Peter and Daron approach these issues from different disciplinary backgrounds. He asks Daron and Peter to comment on their own backgrounds, how they came to specialize in their own disciplines, how that affects their perspectives on these ideas.

They do so at some length, and then David returns to the main theme of the conversation—the past, present, and future of the evolution of the Noosphere.

Peter begins the main thread of the discussion with the observation that during the Holocene, the scale of human society has grown astronomically, by several orders of magnitude, but that the change was not a gradual process but punctuated by periods of rapid growth and periods of relative stagnation. Another point he makes is that other aspects of human experience, such as equality and wellbeing, have been on a roller coaster. He and David discuss how the quantitative evidence that is central to Peter’s work confirms these observations.

Peter explains the “Z curve of egalitarianism”—the idea is that our ape ancestors lived in despotic social hierarchies, and the first human groups reversed that process and became quite democratic instead, and likely remained that way as long as they lived in small nomadic groups. The process reversed once again after the advent of agriculture, when humans begin living in large settled groups, which led to complex chiefdoms and eventually archaic states, which were highly unequal. Then after several thousand years of highly unequal states, the Z curve took one more zag, back in the direction of more equal and more democratic states.

The Growth of the Noosphere–Peter Turchin and Daron Acemoglu: Part Two Transcript

Summary of Part Two

David asks Daron to provide his perspective on the egalitarianism of early human societies, and how that changed with the increase of social group size and complexity after agriculture.
Daron begins by commenting on the amazing diversity of human social organizations, in contrast to all other species who have much more constricted ways of solving social and environmental problems. That translates into institutional diversity, because institutions are the way we deal with each other and these problems.

He agrees with Peter about the egalitarianism of small scale groups, and that institutions began to become less egalitarian and more hierarchical as the ability to accumulate assets increased. Settled societies with asset accumulation opened up new possibilities for institutional innovation. Sometimes those institutions bring out the hierarchical aspects of society, sometimes they suppress it. The different institutional solutions that we see in the same general region during the Axial Age, such as the Spartans, Athenians, Macedonians, and Persians. They all faced similar environmental conditions, but human agency led to different institutional solutions.

David asks Peter to respond to what Daron has said about institutional diversity in the face of similar conditions, noting that it supplies the variation component of cultural evolution.
Peter is 100% in agreement with Daron on the role of institutional diversity, which he sees as central to cultural evolution. Institutions are a cultural trait. They exhibit variation, selection, and inheritance, such as when the United States inherited some of the institutions of Great Britain. Different institutions are more or less successful, and are influential in determining the traits of societies.

Daron thinks it’s important to consider three levels of cultural evolution—individual, that is the social meaning that individuals adopt, the group level that Peter and David emphasize in their work, but the third is distributional. By that he means that some institutions favor some actors in a society at the expense of others. He explains that after the advent of agriculture, institutions that benefited some members of society at the expense of others became more common.

David comments that group size is an important consideration—that there is less variability between larger size groups. However, when you consider those groups as complex systems, small differences between even large groups can cause them to become more diverse and variable. He discusses how this affects selection and heredity in cultural evolution. He comments that Teilhard saw human cultural evolution as a phylogenetic group.

He mentions that this departs from the evolutionary psychologist view of a universal human nature, where culture is just a thin veneer over that. The cultural evolutionary perspective places much more emphasis on the role of cultural differences affecting the course of human evolution.

David asks Peter to talk about the Axial Age a bit more.

Peter begins by picking up where Daron left off, and comments about the inequality that evolved in early complex societies. He discusses the role of warfare in multilevel selection. He explains why in the absence of external competition, inequality will continue to grow. Then he comes back to David’s question about the Axial Age. He discusses the role of horses and iron metallurgy in warfare, and how that led to the scaling up of societies, and eventually the creation of empires.

David adds that this is also where diversity comes in, with different religions.

Daron agrees with Peter’s account of the Axial Age, and also with David about the role of diversity in the solutions that different societies came up with. While they were all trying to regulate conflict, the way each society regulated conflict varied significantly. Because he thinks the institutional diversity is so important, he disagrees with Peter that societies, in the absence of external competition, will always gravitate toward greater inequality. For this reason he thinks that institutional adaptations alone can put a break on inequality.

Peter doesn’t disagree with Daron’s position on this; he sees internal checks on individuals as playing an important role. He does think inter-polity competition can still be important even if it’s not warfare, but other kinds. One of things he and colleagues are doing is trying to resolve the question regarding what conditions lead to fairer and more egalitarian institutions. Daron and Peter have a short exchange about that, and Peter ends the section with a comment about how internal Athenian democracy was driven by intense external competition in the form of almost constant warfare.

The Growth of the Noosphere–Peter Turchin and Daron Acemoglu: Part Three Transcript

Summary of Part Three

David begins by bringing in the idea of complexity in the form of attractors as regimes that are stable, though they could be either egalitarian or despotic in nature. Then he segues to a discussion of the present day, and asks Daron about the basic thesis of the book he coauthored with James Robinson, Why Nations Fail–the contrast between extractive and inclusive institutions.

Daron begins with the role of technology, both military and industrial. He makes the point that “today, we live in the age of industrial technology, and I think a critical aspect of both domestic economy and politics and international relations is how you leverage and develop that industrial technology.” He thinks inclusive economic institutions that provide opportunities across sectors of society can develop technologies more effectively. Extractive institutions keep the opportunities within a small group, and so can’t benefit from different approaches and diversity.

He thinks industrial technology is the fruit of collective knowledge, and so its success depends on deploying that collective knowledge. Inclusive economic institutions that do a better job of that need to be supported by inclusive political institutions as well. He goes on to give several examples of how different kinds of societies have used extractive and inclusive models throughout history.

He explains why the small-scale, inclusive, egalitarian societies that characterized the long hunter-gatherer phase of humanity’s evolution can’t work at a large scale. You need different institutions to create inclusivity in modern societies, and that’s where he thinks democratic institutions come in. Building democratic institutions to deal with the global scale and complexity of societies with digital technologies such as artificial intelligence is a challenge for the future and today.

David asks Daron to comment on his account of early America in his book Why Nations Fail.

He comments on how the struggle between egalitarian and hierarchical institutions played out, and how it defined the character of American democracy for the next several hundred years.

David then asks him about a different way colonial settlement played out in countries of Central America. Daron explains how different kinds of institutional solutions arose, with Guatemala and Costa Rica as examples.

David then asks Peter to describe the thesis of his book, Ages of Discord, and how America has cycled between extremes of extractive and inclusive institutions.

Peter begins by agreeing with Daron about the nature of competition between societies today, and thinks this is a hopeful sign because it shows that warfare is not the only way societies compete. He grew up in the Soviet Union, which doesn’t exist anymore, not because of warfare, but that it lost the support of citizens. Another example of citizens demanding better governance was the Arab spring.

Peter then explains the causes of the fluctuations between more and less equal economic and political institutions in America over time. One of the key factors was the degree of external competition, such as the period after WWII when competition with the Soviet Union during the Cold War caused a more egalitarian society to evolve. He ends by observing that it agrees with what Daron’s thesis about extractive and inclusive institutions, but from a very dynamical approach.

Daron agrees that external competition has been shown to be very important in stimulating the evolution of cooperative, inclusive economic and political institutions, using South Korea and Taiwan as examples. He also thinks institutional innovation, adaptation, and power dynamics play roles.

He explains how neoliberal economics changed the way we think about these issues beginning in the 1970s. Globalization and technology have also influenced the change in how we structure market economies. He thinks internal dynamics are important to consider along with external competition.

He observes that unlike the Cold War, external competition with China doesn’t seem to be making the U.S. more cohesive. Instead it seems to bring out the worst in both political and economic interests. It’s hard for him to be completely optimistic in regard to how we confront global challenges such as climate change, pandemics, dealing with inequalities and new technologies.

Peter thinks one possibility is that the United States will fragment, and whatever arises after that we’ll learn from. The U.S. and China are two different ways of organizing states, and unfortunately China has shown itself to be the more functional state recently. Daron thinks the gap between the U.S. and China is much smaller than the gap between the U.S. and Soviet Union was, so while in some sense there might be more room for cooperation, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Peter comments that the Soviet Union he grew up in was more like one big firm controlled by the party, so no internal competition, which is important. It was more state capitalism than communism as envisioned by Marx.

David then asks both of them to be as optimistic as possible in terms of how we work towards some kind of global governance worth wanting. But we need the scary story as well as the optimistic story.

Daron thinks we need to weave in the optimism and pessimism, because they’re inseparable. On the optimistic side, he thinks technology holds immense promise for improving health and productivity, as well as solving problems like climate change. But when he looks at politics and the institutional framework today, he doesn’t see any way but to be pessimistic.

Because of the lack of global cooperation, he fears we’re not up to the challenge of dealing with climate change. And he’s concerned that though digital technologies promise to bring improved welfare, because they’re currently in the hands of large companies and governments, they’re being used to suppress people and increase inequality. And all of that data and power in the hands of a few is creating a different kind of politics than we’ve had for hundreds of years that is inconsistent with democratic institutions, and we don’t yet have the collective wisdom to deal with that.

Peter is by nature an optimist, but more so in the long term. In the short run he thinks we may be in for a rough decade particularly in the U.S. and Western Europe. He sees political polarization and growing inequality, along with poor leadership, as the main problems.

His first source of optimism comes from realization that ages of discord end, and are followed by new ages of prosperity. His second source of optimism comes from his own work. The enormous body of data they’ve been gathering through the Seshat project indicate that over time, humans are learning something. He thinks the institutions we’ve been evolving of thousands of years are working better and better over time.

David’s source of optimism begins with his understanding of the Athenians, and how consciously they built democratic institutions. He thinks that we need to become similarly conscious that democracy must take place at a global scale. Part of that involves eliminating the concept of the invisible hand as a profound untruth. That would enable us to work towards effective solutions.

They end the conversation with a brief discussion of David’s comment about the need for democratic governance at a global scale.