The concept of humanity merging with technology to form a global superorganism began to take shape in Gregory Stock’s mind in the 1960s, though his book Metaman wasn’t published until 1993. He was unaware of Teilhard’s writings on the Noosphere until he was well along in development of his own ideas, but when he did read Teilhard, Gregory was impressed at his prescience.
The concept of a superorganism has an even deeper history. The term was first used by geologist and naturalist James Hutton in 1789, though in the context of geophysiology. Hutton was also one of the first scientists to think about the basic principles of natural selection, and influenced Darwin’s work. Hutton’s ideas about a geophysical superorganism also influenced James Lovelock’s development of the Gaia Hypothesis. His co-developer of the Gaia Hypothesis, Lynn Margulis, is famous for her groundbreaking work on endosymbiosis, the evolution of a superorganism on a much smaller scale—the coming together of prokaryotes to form the first eukaryotic cells.
However, what most powerfully unites Gregory’s vision of Metaman and Teilhard’s of the Noosphere is the integral role played by technology in the global consciousness that would emerge. Teilhard described the coevolving biological, social, and technological components of the Noosphere in terms of its anatomy and physiology. Gregory describes Metaman’s anatomy and physiology in Chapter One of his book:
Today humankind is increasingly bound together by a dense network of communications links and trade systems. We are joined not only by obvious physical pathways such as highways, railways, and phone lines, but by a myriad of hidden connections as well. Without noticing, we walk above pipes and cables, beneath airplane flight corridors and satellite broadcasts, through radio and television transmissions…
…just as the activities of an animal’s individual cells mesh to serve the needs of the animal as a whole, human activity has organized itself into large functional patterns that join to sustain the entirety of Metaman. This superorganism has many of the same basic needs an animal has: finding and consuming food, circulating energy and nutrients, replacing damaged and worn-out parts, regulating its internal environment, and sensing and responding to changes in its surroundings. Needing nourishment, Metaman extends itself over the planet’s surface, consumes what it finds, and circulates these vital materials using transportation systems akin to the human body’s arteries and veins. At a thousand sites Metaman gnaws the land to devour iron and other minerals, digs down miles to gulp oil, drinks rivers dry, and scoops up animals and plants. Metaman may be unlike any other living thing, but nonetheless it is feeding, moving, growing, and rapidly evolving. Metaman is even likely to reproduce one day — by moving beyond the Earth, out into space.
Gregory wrote Metaman several decades after Teilhard wrote The Formation of the Noosphere. While social and technological change accelerated steadily between the 1940s and 1990s, the rapid transformation of human biology, society, and technology in the early 2020s seems to generate whole new fields of research and new kinds of institutions overnight. As a biotechnologist intensely involved in the human future, Gregory has a hand in all three.
Given our mission, it seemed clear that Gregory needed to play a part in our research. We wanted to not only understand how he came to write Metaman, but about his other related interests too. We wondered if anything that has occurred in the ensuing 30 years has changed how he sees Metaman’s evolution taking place.
The conversation between Gregory Stock and Science of the Noosphere’s David Sloan Wilson is presented below. Underneath the video is a link to a downloadable PDF transcript of the conversation. Underneath the transcript link are notes, with timings, of some of the main points.
David asks Gregory to provide some of his personal background, and explain how he came to focus on the evolution of Metaman.
1:02 — Gregory explains he was well along in his own development of the Metaman concept before he learned about Teilhard’s noosphere ideas, which were extraordinary given the era when Teilhard wrote. He describes his educational background, why he began thinking in terms of macroevolution, and introduces the basic idea of major evolutionary transitions (METs).
4:30 — He continues with the current major transition “a new, higher level organism, which I dubbed Metaman at the time, because humans represented the transitional catalyst that had allowed that coming together to occur… I began to realize that this is not a metaphor, that this is reality, and that this is really a superorganism.” He describes his early exploration of the superorganism concept.
6:22 — David says that it’s not surprising Gregory was late in discovering Teilhard, given the scientific community’s turn toward genetic evolution exclusively. He asks how Metaman was originally received. Gregory turns the discussion toward a book he’d published previously, The Book of Questions.
8:18 — He explains how he came to write The Book of Questions, and the nature of the questions it asks. “It became an international bestseller. No one had just posed questions and not given any answers, and done it in a very neutral, open-ended way…there were several books in that series that sold about 5 million copies and were translated into 25 languages…I did about 1,000 radio and television shows.” On the strength of that success, he published Metaman.
13:27 — Metaman was well received but a more modest success. “It had a significant impact on people that I admired, who read it and really were moved by that, by the detailed presentation of human society as a biological organism, and placing it in the larger context of meta evolution, which was something that I was very engaged with at that time.” He remarks on the potential for taking control of our own biological evolution: “We’re at the very early stages of beginning to tinker and re-engineer life itself. And of course, it’s turning this technology back on our own selves that has such extraordinary implications for the human as a species, as a biological entity.”
15:41 — A discussion of the state of healthcare and technology, focusing on the gathering of tons of data and using that to “take all this data, gather it. You’re going to analyze it really deeply. And then you’re going to feed back insights that are going to be very valuable in preventing disease, in maintaining wellness and health.” Gregory became somewhat disillusioned with that approach. “I began to realize that that was fantasy, in that this idea that we’re going to be able to conclude, get insights that we didn’t already know, and then act upon them in order to somehow deepen our sense of wellbeing in our lives, I began to realize that that was wrong because, actually, we know what’s wrong with ourselves, often, in terms of the health issues. We’re socially isolated, we don’t get exercise, we’re not eating well.”
19:17 — David turns the subject toward technology and Metaman, observing “ it seems as if you discovered for yourself that at least certain forms of technology are not the solution to this. Speak a little bit about your stance towards technology in the formation of Metaman or the noosphere, or basically a global superorganism. What’s the downside, the two-edged sword of technology?
20:23 — Gregory on the relationship between the superorganism and individuals: “There are aspects of technology that don’t really contribute to our sense of wellbeing, other ones that really do. But certainly, technology’s absolutely central to the formation of this global superorganism. Couldn’t exist without it.”
21:42 — David agrees, and Gregory continues to explain how he sees Metaman’s evolution from an objective standpoint, an inevitable process that is taking place, whatever its impact on contemporary society. “I think it is something that is not fragile in any way. It is a transition that is setting the foundation for life, millions and millions of years, or tens of millions of years into the future. This is one of the fundamental transitions in the history of life. Now its impact on us is another story, and that’s where I was going with the other information about human health, wellbeing, and then about The Book of Questions as well.”
25:06 — David brings in the topic of micro-evolution, contrasting it with the macro-evolutionary story through the concepts of a global superorganism are often told. He thinks this is important for understanding the challenges of governance at any level. “whenever you look at anything in nature or in human life that counts as cooperative or good governance, or prosocial, or basically oriented towards others or the system within which you reside, then those traits are in a Darwinian contest with other traits that we regard as disruptive and self-serving.” He illustrates the point with the example of cancer, and explains why good governance is necessary for successful, functional organizations of any kind.
29:33 — Gregory counters that even totalitarian societies could be considered good governance in that sense. “By definition, it’s that there’s government that is capable of maintaining a large, a higher level organization. And it has nothing to do with whether the individuals within that framework are satisfied or comfortable with that…It’s just functional government…Am I correct there, that’s what you mean? It can actually handle that level of association and synergistic interaction of larger numbers of parts?
30:56 — David answers, yes and no. He explains the core design principles for cooperative groups, and ends by explaining his “yes and no”— “When these groups work well, you can see that they have equity and moral equality built into them…they’re enormously satisfying for the members of their group. It’s not the case that the group worked well independently of the welfare of the individuals. There’s quite a strong alignment between the group working well and the welfare of the individuals within the groups, as you would hope.”
34:26 — Gregory responds “That doesn’t sync with my understanding of group superorganism phenomena, in that if you were to look at insect colonies, for example, you would see many where you would look at it, and from our point of view, you would say, “Well, no, there isn’t any equity there.”…If there’s an organizational structure, whether it’s fair or not, it is very powerful and is dominant, and is able to spread. It’s obviously a good in the sense that a functional, a powerful, a competitive system of organization.”
35:50 — David acknowledges the rightness of Gregory’s point. Gregory observes “there’s an attraction for the totalitarian kinds of organizational structures that are well represented by what’s going on in China today, and the use of powerful technologies for surveillance, for organization, for control, versus the chaotic situation in the West, that many would say is spinning out of control because of the advent of communications technologies that is creating mob-like aggregations of people that are communicating at levels we’re relatively unadapted for, as biological creatures that are components, sub components of this larger collective.” He is trying to understand these phenomena objectively.
37:00 — David agrees that we need to look at them objectively, but also ethically, “as to what kind of society we want to work towards.” He delves into that historically with the example of classical Greece, and ends, “you look at what’s making that work well, then these democratic principles actually are what makes the group work well. So there’s some sense in this very complex moral terrain, there’s some sense in that what we value morally, which many of us value morally, is in fact what works well.”
39:37 — Gregory speculates on the future of humanity and technology. He explains his idea that it’s not just a matter of using genetic engineering to change our own biology, but “whether in fact, we are at a watershed moment in which the very substance of life is going to shift, that…the evolutionary progression…occurring within the non-organic realm within silicon and its ilk is going to continue and proceed, and create cognitive, conscious living beings who are not biological.”
41:05 — He discusses the idea of a largely technological superorganism emerging from the underpinnings of humanity’s biological and cognitive evolution: “we’re at this strange moment between these two levels where we can see ourselves in ways because of the shadows of the superorganism, the meta structure. And yet we can only, very dimly, perceive its workings and where it’s going.”
43:35 — David brings up the natural environment, something that “often gets lost in these kinds of conversations because they’re so human centered and technology centered”. Teilhard had speculated on a future where the earth was home to only people with their domesticated animals and plants. He asks if Gregory thinks that’s what his vision of a global superorganism portends.
44:58 — Gregory observes that we already are in the midst of a mass extinction. Speculating on the future, he thinks “it’s going to be a much weedier environment…where you get various kinds of species that are very successful and spread very broadly…the domesticated animals and plants are ones that are thriving because of their relationship with humans and human society.”
46:04 — He cautions that such a system is fragile, and if technological methods are invented to replace the natural systems more efficiently, “they will disappear as well.” He wonders where it might lead as we begin “to alter and change the fundamental drivers of our biology, when we can edit DNA, the way that we are rapidly developing the capabilities of doing, then it’s almost like the traditional diversity is very limited compared to the future diversity that will be possible, as the guardrails on life forms and the requirements for them begin to melt away, as you begin to have merging of technology and biology, in all sorts of unfamiliar and unusual combinations.
47:40 — Gregory discusses the risks and consequences of how we manage the major transition we’re going through right now, and our role as agents of the process. “We’re at the heart of what is occurring, which is why people feel such guilt and such concern about degrading of the natural environment, or do we have the wisdom? Is there the wisdom not to do something that will have awful consequences, where we destroy the capability of sustaining life on the planet at all?”
48:59 — He speculates on the longer term prospects. Will we “create a transition to a very stable structure that then moves out towards the stars? Or does it implode upon itself in a relatively short order? The answer is not clear on that yet, but certainly, it would be reassuring if we had encountered some other form of life in the universe.” He discusses the Fermi Paradox, the possibility that technological civilizations tend to extinguish themselves.
50:30 — David comments on several ways that a global superorganism could evolve, for good or ill. Only some would qualify as Metaman. “Ethically, we need to work towards some of these outcomes and try to prevent others. When does this come down to policy?”
52:22 — Gregory thinks issues like biodiversity and global warming are “very low on the list of disrupting this robust system that I look at as a superorganism, and that I think is very robust and powerful. I think that the chances of it going awry and essentially extinguishing itself in some broader way is going to come out of the technology itself.”
53:10 — He discusses how technology could make things go awry. “with the development of social media and broad communications technologies that exist today, we’re in the process of creating an extraordinarily divisive and dysfunctional society within the United States.” He sees a different but disturbing trend in the “totalitarian regime of control that’s emerging within China”.
55:36 — David asks about climate change. Gregory explains that technology can help us adapt, and “I don’t think that would derail this human-centered endeavor of this superorganism.” But he is talking about long time frames, hundreds or thousands of years. He’s more worried today about “very dysfunctional societies that very rapidly can descend into chaos. Look what happened in Lebanon, or in the Middle East”.
57:50 — David asks “What if the whole world became like that?” Gregory explains that while dysfunctional societies are threatening, even more concerning is what happens if we actually “develop conscious, inorganic awareness, and living systems that essentially transcend biology…they don’t really care at all about the nurturing environment that supports biological life.”
59:07 — He finds reassurance in the knowledge that when major transitions have occurred in the past, “the prior levels have been incorporated and supported by, and protected at the higher level, because that organizational level arises in order to create homeostasis that can support and sustain the prior levels. And I think that that’s much more likely to occur. I’m very optimistic.”
1:01:02 — David asks if there’s anything about Metaman Gregory would change if he wrote it today. He explains that the biological aspects would not change much. He’s thinking more about our relationship with technology, and “how we maintain our quality of life within this evolutionary transition that’s occurring? And how can we nudge this evolution, this transition in ways that support our wellbeing?”
1:03:06 — A key concern about technology is that “our social isolation and lack of understanding of one another” is fragmenting society in very negative ways. “I think we need to come back and find ways to reengage, to make these more humane, to feed our biology, rather than think that we’re going to deny our nature as flesh and blood, as creatures, and plug into some metaverse, and that this is going to be a happy outcome for humans.”
1:03:51 — David agrees, and describes social baseline theory, and how it supports Gregory’s key concern about what technology is doing to us. He suggests a low-tech prescription for the concern Gregory expressed “is to get individuals functioning in the context of highly cooperative and nurturing groups whenever possible. The small, highly cooperative group is a cell of multicellular society. That’s the missing link.”
1:06:01 — Gregory says that’s in alignment with his thinking, and adds, “if we really want to preserve and enhance human wellbeing, protect it, essentially, it has to be very aligned with these very powerful dynamics of this evolutionary transition that’s occurring. We’re not going to divorce ourselves from technology. It becomes irrelevant, anything that does that. In other words, this has very powerful dynamics that are outside of our easy control. But what we can do is develop mechanisms that tie us together in larger ways and at scale, and that really bring together our humanity, our human qualities with the technologies, and allow those technologies to serve us.”