By Alan Honick
In my role as a chronicler of Human Energy’s role in researching the noosphere’s evolution, and relating that information by telling the Third Story in various ways, I am privileged to have a front seat on the leading edge research that Human Energy is sponsoring.
I first met Michael Jacob in regard to an earlier research project he was engaged in, about the emergence of a global brain via the Internet. When Ben Kacyra told me about the new line of research Michael was engaged in, and the paper he was about to publish, my interest was sparked in a whole new way.
The paper — you can find a PDF of the preprint here — is titled “The Organon: A model of interdependence between energy, information and knowledge from cells to the noosphere”. While that title may seem like a mouthful, and the paper itself is a deep dive into the subject, it’s a wonderful read — at least for a noosphere nerd such as myself. Passages such as this one from the abstract struck home:
“The functional coupling between knowledge, energy and information has ancient origins, enabling the original, cellular “biotechnology,” and the streams of evolutionary creativity in biochemical products and forms. Cellular biotechnology also enabled the nesting of specialized cells into multicellular organisms. This nested organismal hierarchy extends to a planetary scale that includes the biosphere and noosphere.”
However Ben — who proposed the research project as a branch of the larger “Mapping the Noosphere” initiative — asked if I could try to make some of the ideas more accessible to a general audience. I thought the best way to do that would be to engage Michael in a conversation about the research — not just this paper that discusses his early results, but where he hopes to take it in the next steps.
Michael came to Human Energy through a somewhat circuitous path. He first became entranced by the structure of DNA in a high school biology class. He was hooked, and from that time forward, biochemistry exerted an inspiring effect that has shaped the course of his life. He worked in medicinal plant garden, and became interested in the use of plant and pharmaceutical products to treat disease.
When he began doing academic research at the University of California in Santa Barbara, he focused on neurodegenerative diseases, which sparked his interest in studying the brain. He became involved in a program where researchers were able to record the activities of single neurons, and correlate those activities with behaviors.
Neuroscience led him to pursue medical school, and though he originally thought he’d be a neurologist, he realized he really wanted to work with other humans at the level of their mental life. So he became a psychiatrist, and entered a residency program at the University of California in San Francisco.
During his undergraduate studies Michael had taken a course in evolutionary anthropology from Terrence Deacon, a member of Human Energy’s Science Advisory Board. During his residency — near the beginning of the pandemic — he reconnected with Terry. Terry told him that Ben was looking for someone with a neuroscience background to undertake a study of the global brain.
However, the current research paper about the Organon stems more from another interest that Terry and Michael share — the origin of life, our understanding of what life is, and our understanding of the concept of organism.
My conversation with Michael about this fascinating research project is below.
Alan Honick: How did this project come about? Why did you undertake this research?
Michael Jacob: It really began, I think, as a question from Ben Kacyra. It was earlier this year, 2022. Ben wanted someone in the group to come up with an atlas of the anatomy and physiology of the Noosphere. I think his vision was something like a Gray’s Anatomy or a basic biology textbook where anyone could just look at it and get it – like how we get the idea from looking at the cover of our textbooks. And we had the added goal of developing something that a scientist could dive into and derive in greater detail, and work from. And so when I first heard him propose this, I thought it was an absurd idea because the Noosphere in my mind is not really just a biology science project. It’s everything, from sociology, to economics, cultural studies, technology, and religion. And so I thought, I don’t see how this could work, but I have a penchant for things that are kind of crazy-sounding.
So I figured there was something about this that still intrigued me. I think the interdisciplinary aspect of it — is it even possible to find a way to start to bring some of these ideas together? And so over the course of some conversations, we came to this idea that we might be able to build a model, some sort of model of the noosphere that has similarities to a cell or the human body. And we might even compare these things. Over a series of initial conversations I would go to Parham (Parham Pourdavood, Michael’s collaborator on the project) to get some feedback, to ask him, “Is this totally crazy? Could we turn this into something that might be used in a simulation, for example? Or could we build more complicated models out of it?” And that’s really where it all began.
And over the course of a few months it evolved into something. It looked like it might actually be possible to bridge some of these disciplines — not in every detail on the first pass, but to look at some of the similar structures and processes between different phenomena and see where they interface. And it gave us enough confidence that maybe this would be possible. So that’s the origin of the project.
AH: How is this interdisciplinary approach — looking at cells, multicellular organisms like humans, and the noosphere, by building this model of the Organon, a kind of all encompassing model — how is this interdisciplinary approach unusual?
MJ: It’s unusual in that it’s much easier to do science by developing expertise within a particular domain, and to become fluent in a particular language and vocabulary, and work with colleagues who speak that same language and have the same models. And some researchers might be studying the same topic but have totally different language and models for it, based on the differences in their disciplines. That can sometimes lead people to overlook really important shared phenomena, if they’re stuck in their silos. That’s important of course, but for the noosphere, we’re dealing with something where we don’t even really know where to begin, in some sense. Because there’s no scientific model or consensus to begin with.
People could come from a religious perspective or a biological perspective and try to lay claim, and say “Oh, this is a language problem. I’m going to study linguistics and sociology.” Or, “No, this is really a biology problem. We should study that, and the neuroscience of the brain.” So I think when there’s no clear roadmap of where to begin, I think stepping back as much as possible to get the big picture, so we don’t miss something, is really important.
One of the inspirations for this project is David Sloan Wilson and the work you’ve been doing with him on the interviews for the Science of the Noosphere project. So if you see the people who were interviewed for that range of topics, they span so many different disciplines. And so it becomes pretty clear that none of us can become experts in every single one of those domains. Nonetheless, we might start to ask, what are the shared relationships? Where are things that are similar? And start to use that as our guide, and then to help build collaborations out of that. Build the team, right?
I think that’s one of the major goals for Human Energy at this stage is to find the team and the collaborators who have the expertise, so we can meet around these ideas.
AH: For me, one of the values of the noosphere is that it integrates so much of what we think of as the sciences and what it means to be alive, what it means to be human. Whereas we really want to take a rigorous scientific approach to understanding the noosphere and its role in human life, there’s a larger inspirational and integrative sense of what the noosphere brings to science that’s important to communicate as well. And I struggle myself with how to communicate those integrative ideas, but it seems like this model is really rooted in that attempt as well.
MJ: Yeah, I think that’s spot on. And that is one of the stated aims of this project. It has both scientific and educational goals, in terms of how we can communicate about the noosphere. So the scientific goal is what we were just discussing is about building a framework or a model that can bring together interdisciplinary researchers and start to find where these common interfaces are, between the disciplines, all under the larger heading of the noosphere. And to make those interfaces even more explicit. For example, as I was listening to the Science of the Noosphere interviews, many of these themes are discussed — the major evolutionary transitions, complex systems, information processing, theories of emergence. And what I really felt I wanted as I was going through that was a map.I wanted a concept map, an associative map of all these ideas.
So that’s a scientific goal of the project. But that also serves the educational goal. So if you have somewhat of a simpler map, I think it’s easier to explain. It’s easier to teach others about the idea. And so even though a cell is extremely complex and the human body is extremely complex, the average person knows what that is. We go through basic education. We live in our bodies. We know about them. And so the idea is that if we could paint the noosphere in terms that might be related to that, then it would be easier for people to digest and much more understandable. So that’s part of the educational piece.
And then the last piece, the goals for the project, which I think is worth mentioning, is that I think it also makes noosphere a little bit more practical. There’s this growing movement to think about how do we utilize this to bring people together, in a social-political sense, perhaps? And one of the key ideas, at least from my eyes, among the concepts, is that everything’s sort of interdependent and interconnected. And I think we often say that in a way that’s almost like lip service. Yeah, we’re all connected to each other. And I think that’s true. And if we had perhaps a little bit more of a rigorous scientific model, we might be able to say how and where all those interdependencies and connections are, how they work, how operate, what are their processes, things like that. And then it might, in the long run, make this make the science, its practical arm, more realizable in that sense. So that’s a goal of course, more of a long term goal.
AH: That brings to mind one of the first projects I worked on for Human Energy. It was literally called “Mapping the Noosphere”, a Human Energy initiative that uses Google Earth platform to interactively map the elements and systems of the Noosphere on the globe. It’s still in development. What’s the relationship of your work to that literal “map” of the noosphere that Human Energy is building?
MJ: It’s a great question, because all along we’ve thought, “Oh, boy. This is a mapping project.” But then, “really, is this a mapping project?” What is it? So I think it’s a conceptual mapping project. It’s the view of the noosphere from 20,000 feet. And the map that you need at any given moment in time depends on what you want to do with it. And so I would say we’re not quite ready for the expedition into the noosphere. In some sense, we’re still at the planning stages. What gear do we bring on the expedition? What does the terrain look like? We don’t even know that, so the conceptual map can start to give us a sense of that terrain, which then I think in the long run help take the detailed parts of the map that Human Energy has been working on, that cover the growth of the Internet and other aspects of the noosphere using Google Earth. It gives them a place to scaffold or structure them into the conceptual map. In the long run, I don’t know how that will go. So the first pass of our map is probably like those Eurocentric maps of the Americas from 500 years ago. It’ll be really distorted, but it’s just the first step trying to figure that out.
I think it might help to explain that this is a derived map. So this is not a map of the noosphere. This is a first step. And our realization in working on this, especially as we’re thinking a lot more about the organism concept, the superorganism concept. One of the reasons that we needed a map is that if you read Teilhard, what you’ll see is that he uses a lot of language to describe the noosphere, things like organism, superorganism, global brain, that are very evocative. But then again, it’s language and it’s not entirely clear how all those things relate. And so the superorganism part in particular was a big question for me coming out of the Science of the Noosphere interviews.
So it’s important to mention that an inspiration for this project is, can we relate the superorganism to the global brain, to the noosphere? How do these terms come together? And so the map is in some sense an answer to that as well. So I think that preface is important. And in the process of doing that, what we realized is that not only is superorganism hard to define, but organism itself is really hard to define. So if you open an Intro to Biology 101 textbook, you’ll see a list of properties perhaps, and it evolves over time. Like, in medicine we do things that way when we want to define something but we don’t understand the underlying process. We define your disease based on all of the list of characteristics, but we don’t know what holds them all together.
So our goal here is to take the organism idea to come up with a model of an organism that then we can apply across all the spatial scales from the cell, to the human body, to the noospheric super organism. And so that’s where we’re going with this first image, and the background about why we needed to develop this.
AH: So let’s talk a little bit about the model. Can you describe what we’re seeing in this graphic?
MJ: The graphic is meant to delineate, in visual terms, the five core processes we were interested in studying, and that we’ve identified as being central to an organism. So these are: metabolism in red, communication in blue, production in orange, knowledge in the center labeled in purple, and then body down at the bottom is in green. And so right off the bat that sounds like a list of things. And some of these terms are probably familiar in a biological sense. But our goal here was to map the specific conceptual linkages between these processes.
So, for example, we start with something like metabolism. That’s how material processing or matter is brought into the system for energetic purposes, but also literally you need that material in order to make your body, and that’s the metabolism process. And then that process is directed by communication. There’s information that an organism uses to determine how to utilize that matter and energy. And so that is what we’re generically calling communication processes. That’s the matter in which the organism interprets data or information in the environment, and how that information is used by metabolism. So one of the points is that communication and metabolism are really two sides of the same coin. And if you think about it, metabolism provides information in and of itself, life or death kind of stuff, right? Do you have the energy you need to survive? That’s information to the organism.
And on the other side, communication processes are highly dependent upon metabolism. In order to carry out the information process, you need energy. In our preprint paper, we provide a lot of examples of this dual role between metabolism and communication. So there’s things like intracellular signals like ATP. We think of that as the energy currency of the cell. But if you just make a slight modification to ATP to make it cyclic AMP, then it’s a chemical messenger, sending a communication signal. So it has a dual functionality in both communication and metabolism. And it should make some sense that the organisms would be attuned that way, that their ability to communicate would be dependent upon the energy that’s available to them. But this extends all the way up throughout the organism – including hormones that serve communicative and metabolic roles, and the bundling of neural tissue (for communication) with the circulatory system (to provide energy).
These things are intertwined. So those are just a few examples of communication and metabolism being both networked and intertwined processes. And then all of that is directed towards something. And what we’re calling that generically — what it’s directed toward — is production. So this should be pretty clear for something like metabolism. You’re generating metabolic products, literally some proteins or carbohydrates that are necessary for the cells or tissues. But the communication processes actually produce something as well. They produce particular behaviors and actions that the cell or organism might need to take. And that production process is what sustains the body, keeps it going.
And so there’s the first four core processes, metabolism, production, communication, and the body, maintaining the body’s form. That also fits a general model of something called autopoiesis, which is fairly well studied in the theoretical biology community, but this is how organisms self-make themselves. Autopoiesis, self-making. And in the course of our work, and reviewing the work of others, there’s a growing recognition that just being able to make oneself isn’t enough to really capture what it means to be alive in an organismal sense, particularly if you’re looking to adapt or evolve to new environments. And that’s where the knowledge system comes in here in the center, in purple. And it’s really knowledge of self, the organism’s self. And so organisms need to represent or model themselves, to know who they are, to then guide their behavior or to know how to make themselves in the particular way that they need to create their forms.
The prototypical knowledge system in an organism, in a cell, would be the genome. It contains the model, if you will, of the entire cell, and in multicellular organisms, the entire organism. And it’s in dynamic interaction with the sort of communication and metabolic networks, that’s how the cell knows what to do. It also provides a context for that knowledge system to evolve. So mutations within that system can lead to novel forms and behaviors, and we’re increasingly appreciating that those mutations within the knowledge system are not random. They’re generically directed, that certain generic regions of the genome are hot, that there needs to be more mutation in order to make more rapid change and adaptation. And I think this same general process thing I think is true for the brain. The brain is also a knowledge center for the entire multicellular organism. The brain and the genome serve as a model of the whole. There’s this part-whole relationship that’s really critical, that’s unique I think to organisms, where they have a map of the whole, but it’s a part of the whole. And logically, there’s a violation there, but I think critically important. So that’s why we drew this knowledge circle on the inside, which is a mirror in some sense of the larger whole of the organism. And that’s the core model: metabolism, production, communication, knowledge, body, these are things ideally we could apply across multiple spatial scales from a cell to a human body and up to the noosphere, and that’s really what we’ve been attempting to do.
AH: What are the next steps in your research? Where are you going to take this in the next stage?
MJ: This links back to our conversation about metaphor from earlier, in some sense. You’re starting to straddle more and more not only in biology but deeper questions, some that might be thought of as even religious or spiritual in some sense. I think it’s worth just acknowledging that, that is what Teilhard was interested in — the recognition that science and that deeper spiritual vision could be aligned. And I think it’s a question about life. So that’s one of the things I wanted to make sure we discussed. Teilhard talks about this idea of what he calls zest for living.
We often talk about our lives in terms of zest for living, zest for life. We don’t have any problems doing this. But we would have a little bit of difficulty with scientists who say, “Well, the cell has a zest for life, or that zest is what is helping the cell evolve.” It starts to be evocative, of élan vital, or vitalism ideas, right? And so I think this is really important because you can have something that could be alive in the biological sense and also alive in the metaphorical sense of being animated or spirited or cutting edge, or evolving or dynamic, etc. And what I’m about to say is more speculative, but I think the Noosphere is where the biological and the metaphorical converge.
To explain that a little bit more, my hunch is that the metaphorical aliveness of human flourishing, if you will, is the place where the noosphere is most likely to be alive and evolving in the biological sense.
And so more speculatively, maybe we could use the tools of our model to delineate how that comes together. It’s a little bit of a nod to Teilhard’s juxtaposition in both scientific and religious or spiritual concepts, in that clearly the biological definition is science. But in my eyes, the metaphorical definition of being alive is a religious or spiritual definition in some sense, and that although these are two different endeavors, they utilize different methods, they must be pointing to the same reality.
I think this is also where the study of consciousness becomes necessary. It would be a huge oversight, to study the noosphere and not think about consciousness. In fact, it’s been on our minds the entire time. But it felt really important to have this organism model as a starting point for that. Let’s just say that we’re starting from an assumption, as we do in our research, that life and consciousness are pretty closely related phenomena, somehow. And so the biology felt like an easier first target for us, and if we felt good about our biology, then we might think about consciousness in that sense? And so the specific way that we are interested in exploring this is thinking about consciousness of self, meta consciousness, knowing that you know. How does that evolve? How does that develop?
To me, that’s an important first investigation for the noosphere, because of what it means for you and I in this conversation. Our own identity, my sense of self, where do I start to include you in my sense of self or Parham? Or others? Or the entire noosphere? What are the biological supports for that? But also recognizing that’s not just exclusively a biological problem. That’s sort of where this goes, but we haven’t gone all the way yet.
AH: Can this model you’re developing of the noosphere — a universal model of living organization — help people make sense of what’s happening in this chaotic time in the world? Can your model help bring a sense of meaning and understanding to what’s happening?
MJ: I think this relates to what we’re just talking about in terms of this metaphor, about what it means to be alive, and alive in a metaphorical sense versus alive in a biological sense. And I think we can examine our assumptions as scientists and as human beings and as a culture, and we can assume a world and a universe that is basically a lifeless mechanistic process. I think that’s kind of the dominant mainstream view in which life still has to be seen — though most scientists would deny it, myself included — as sort of a miracle.
How is it that the properties of the universe were aligned that not only made life possible, the anthropic principle in physics, and that somehow meaning has to come out of that? And that’s tough. I don’t have an answer. Just as a thought experiment, you could take a different approach. You could assume a world and a universe that is alive and communicating. But it still leaves us with the question of, how that helps us delineate the living from the “non-living”? But perhaps we are being misled by our outdated definition of an organism. And so I don’t think it’s a surprise that at the same time you have fields like bio-cosmology that are beginning to try to really seriously think about this question, both the emergence of life, how is the universe set up for that, and the impact of life on the universe perhaps?
Then to really ask as a question, is biology woven into the fabric of the universe, in a manner we really haven’t begun to appreciate yet? And so I’m trying to be open to that, as big of a possible picture as I can, even if it means throwing away the metaphysical assumptions that I was born into in our culture. And for me, it’s not meaningful merely an intellectual sense, but it’s meaningful in how I live my life. So I think those are implications for the noosphere, and this project.
AH: Is there anything that we’ve left out that you’d like to address?
MJ: There’s one thing I mentioned early on that I could elaborate on. As we were developing the model, in the back of our mind we wanted something that we could start to simulate in a computer, something that we could experiment with, in a more rigorous theoretical sense, even if it was just a simulation. And of course all the caveats, knowing that there’s certain things that computational models can’t capture, but nonetheless simulations of certain biological and even social processes can give us a lot of information. So we’ve been doing some of that. And Parham has been taking the lead on that project.
So the first step in that has been to modify existing models that look at relationships between information processing and energy use, largely modeled after how the brain works, and to integrate that with models of evolution in cells and genetics. And so what we started to do is to take at least the three central processes in the model, communication, knowledge, and metabolism, and build a simulation where we might start to see how novel creative ideas come into the knowledge system and how those affect communication and metabolism. And so Parham has been doing some of that, and that’s part of current work, but also that’s a lot of our future work — how to build a full simulation of the processes that we’re interested in.