Organism and Purpose

Teilhard de Chardin traces the birth of the Noosphere back to the earliest awakening of self-reflective human consciousness. In Chapter 10 of The Future of Man, he follows it from that point forward as manifested in the anatomy, physiology, and development of the Noosphere’s parts:

“I have already attempted a sort of anatomy of the major organs of the Noosphere. It remains for me to show that these separate parts, planetary in their dimensions, are not designed to remain in a state of rest. The formidable wheels turn, and in their combined action hidden forces are engendered which circulate throughout the gigantic system. What goes on around us in the human mass is not merely a flurry of disordered movement, as in a gas; something is purposefully stirring, as in a living being.”

The idea of a purposeful or directed component in evolution has long been controversial. While it’s indisputable that life has evolved from simpler to more complex forms over the last 4 billion years, some of the simplest organisms—such as bacteria and viruses—remain among the most persistent, ubiquitous, and thus successful in a very real sense. Thus many scientists and philosophers question the validity of ideas such as purpose, directionality, and progress in describing the evolution of life.

Yet it is also obvious that we humans are driven by a sense of purpose and a search for meaning in our own lives. Without those drives we would never have achieved the cultural and technological wonders that have given rise to the noosphere that, while as yet incomplete, powerfully connects humanity as a global species across the planet today. How have we gotten to this point, and what it will take to complete our journey? Can that completion be considered a purpose or goal, in any sense? Are these even questions that can be addressed from a scientific perspective? Since the focus of our own project is to understand the science that underpins the evolution of the noosphere, grappling with the question of purpose is clearly central to that.

While the human sense of purpose and meaning is unique to our species, Teilhard believed we should view the noosphere and its organs as fully biological phenomena—not simply metaphors or analogies. This applied even if the organs themselves—such as our transportation systems, communication systems, cities, and educational institutions—are artifacts that evolved through cultural rather than biological processes. If a cultural artifact—such as the Internet connecting human brains around the planet—has evolutionary precursors such as the nervous system connecting the cells of a body, might the human sense of purpose have evolutionary precursors as well?

Though he doesn’t state it in these terms, Terrence Deacon thinks there is a sense in which the concept of purpose is intimately connected with how we define organism. In his conversation with David Sloan Wilson, divided into 7 segments, he explains that connection early on when David asks him one of the central questions of our project: “How would you define the concept of organism in a way that’s sufficiently general, that it refers to more than just you and me bounded by our skins?” Terry responds:

“I think that’s been one of the big problems in the history of biology. We really don’t have a very solid definition of what an organism is, and it’s one of the reasons why the notion of a superorganism can become confused. So for example, when we compare ourselves as societies of cells, we realize that each cell is like an organism, and yet I’m also an organism, and a social group has some organism-like features. The struggle was what determines the individuation, what makes an individual so to speak. And something I’ve been pursuing over the years, trying to make sense of it in the broadest sense of the terms. I could begin to see why you might even consider viruses organisms, even though we oftentimes don’t even consider them alive.

“It has to do with this capacity of an individual to repair itself, to maintain itself, to persist, as a whole unified individual with lots of parts. Then the question is, how does it do that? How do organisms do that? The other thing about organisms that’s interesting is they have something that in ancient philosophy, they would call a telos. There’s a goal, an end, they have purposes—we talk about functions. We don’t talk about that when we talk about molecules or rocks and things, they don’t have functions, but organisms do.”

Terry is a polymath whose Wikipedia page describes him as a neuroanthropologist—a scientist who studies the relationship between culture and the brain—which, while it only partially suffices, is as good a one-word description of his wide-ranging work and interests as any. One of his most popular books is The Symbolic Species, in which he explores the co-evolution of human language and the brain. His more recent book, Incomplete Nature —subtitled How Mind Emerged From Matter—takes these ideas much more deeply into our evolutionary past, as the subtitle implies.

Nearly all of Terry’s pursuits are in some way relevant to the topics at hand. While he and David only have a brief chance to explore their many shared interests in the following audio clips, one idea that recurs throughout their conversation is purpose. One thing they explore is how the scientific view of purpose in evolution has changed over time.

Segment One: Organisms, Superorganisms, Function, and Purpose

In the first audio clip, David begins by questioning Terry about his interest in Teilhard, then they move on to a definition of an organism, which is a recurrent theme that runs through our entire inquiry. Terry explains that because organisms are all social groups of other organisms, such a definition is no simple task.

Purpose in relationship to the definition of organism quickly comes up. A key distinction between living organisms and the nonliving world, in Terry’s view, is that organisms are capable of self-directed action to maintain themselves and persist as an individual—in other words, to survive. In terms of the classical Greek philosophers, they have telos, which the nonliving world of rocks and minerals does not. Also, rocks don’t have functions; organisms do.

David probes further into the role of function in an organism. A discussion ensues regarding the difference between function in a nonliving machine and function in a living organism.

The discussion of function and purpose in organisms leads to a question about applying those ideas to the idea of superorganisms, both in biological superorganisms such as social insect colonies, and cultural superorganisms such as human societies. Terry stresses the importance of getting the analogies right when drawing inferences from the functioning of different kinds of groups.

David introduces the concept of convergent evolution, and explains why, in addition to analogy, convergent evolution is a useful tool for comparing different kinds of organisms and superorganisms. This leads to a brief discussion of the difference between development and evolution, and Terry ends by commenting that the link between the principles of development and selection might be key to getting the Noosphere right.

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Segment Two: Intragenerational Evolution and Brain Development

This segment is a brief but fascinating discussion that begins with David asking about Darwinian evolution that takes place within rather than between generations during the development process. He asks specifically about brain development, one of Terry’s prime areas of interest.

Terry explains how the sections of the genomes in mice and humans that encode the information for developing brains are almost identical, even though the fully-formed human brain is obviously much larger and considerably more complex. Because a huge amount of additional information is necessary for the development of a human brain as opposed to a mouse brain, the question is: Where does that additional information come from, if it’s not directly encoded in the genome?

He explains that this vast amount of additional information is generated during development, on the fly, in what he calls “a micro-evolutionary contest”. A competitive process takes place that enables the neural connections that provide the best fit with their “adaptive environment”—the evolving organism as a whole—to succeed in that contest, and become part of the fully-formed brain.

We can’t help but wonder how this might provide an intriguing analogy with the evolution of the noosphere. Might some similar sort of contest-based developmental process be at play—among individual humans and/or cultural groups—as the collective consciousness of a global brain takes shape?

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Segment Three: Human Distinctiveness

While analogies with transitions that came earlier in life’s history provide interesting and instructive comparisons, humans are unique. Understanding how humans became unique and how that has led to the noosphere’s rapid and accelerating growth is a central focus of both Terry’s and David’s work.

Terry begins with a core aspect of our uniqueness—our ability to share complex experience through symbolic language. This is sometimes called intersubjectivity, but more colloquially, it’s our ability to get inside each other’s heads. There’s a brief discussion of the limited success in efforts to train other species to communicate symbolically.

They move on to the meat of the discussion, so to speak; David asks about the environmental context that led to the evolution of language in the human lineage, and Terry offers the hypothetical scenario of cooperative scavenging on animal carcasses killed by large predators. Exploiting this new food source in an environment demanded new social strategies that required not just cooperation but trust. It was a new way to distribute control more equitably in a group, a critical breakthrough in human evolution. Groups of individuals with different interests could organize collective action around a common interests in ways that simply wouldn’t have been possible without language. They mention that researchers Pete Richerson and Robert Boyd had earlier referred to these early human groups as “crude superorganisms”.

They discuss associated aspects of this early stage of noospheric group formation, such as division of labor and collective punishment. Terry concludes the discussion with an explanation of the role he believes ritual must have played in the evolution of early human groups.

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Segment Four: Fairness, Democracy, and the Evolution of Prosociality

David begins with the observation that the transition to a noospheric human superorganism will need to be based on equitable and democratic governance. He explains this is in turn based on major evolutionary transitions that have taken place earlier in life’s history, including the first small-scale human societies. He suggests that when Teilhard wrote of the “pearl beyond price, our personal being”, he was indicating that he didn’t anticipate a superorganism of the totalitarian variety.

Terry agrees, and draws a distinction between the roles of altruistic behavior and prosocial organizations in maintaining social cohesiveness. He explains that in order to build a higher level of organization, the lower level of organization it relies on has to be stable, and in order to achieve that stability, the organization at the lower level has to be fair. He suggests that fairness to stabilize lower-level organizations in order to build larger and larger cooperatives has been a challenge throughout history.

David introduces the role of reputation in prosocial behavior, and prosociality in terms of distributed networks where individuals aren’t necessarily consciously aware of their part in the process. He mentions the democratic processes that emerge naturally in honeybee colonies.

Terry agrees that the key to cooperative success at a higher level of organization is distributed control, and that noosphere development may be dependent on how distributed control evolves. He emphasizes that developing common interests are a critical component for that to happen.

The segment concludes with a discussion of gossip as a method of social regulation, and the need for symbolic language to maintain cooperation in that way.

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Segment Five: Teleology, Causality, Progress, and Direction in Evolution

In this segment of the conversation, David and Terry return to their discussion of purpose—specifically, the shifting perceptions of purposefulness over time. David observes that the idea of blind evolution that became more dominant after Darwin was unsettling, and that many in addition to Teilhard, sought a theoretical framework in which evolution can be seen as purposeful.

Terry begins with an explanation of Aristotle’s four kinds of causality—material, formal, efficient, and final. Final causality is the kind that’s associated with intentionality and purpose. Terry takes us on a journey from Aristotle up through the Enlightenment and beyond, commenting on the progression of human thought regarding a purposeful component in evolutionary change—including the differing perspectives of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace.

By the 1920s and 30s, when Teilhard did much of his writing on these ideas, there was still a lively debate over the idea of directionality in evolution. A large amount of fossil evidence had been collected by then that showed a clear increase in life’s complexity over hundreds of millions of years, but was that directional asymmetry the same as progress or purpose? The debate continued.

David asks about a conscious component in evolution, and the distinction between teleology and teleonomy—the latter term used to describe effects that appear to be purposeful, but in fact are the result of selection.

Terry begins his answer by returning to a theme he introduced at the beginning of the discussion, that life itself is purposeful in the most basic sense—all organisms function toward the purpose of maintaining and reproducing themselves. David agrees that this fundamental kind of purposefulness separates living organisms from nonliving, purely physical processes. Terry suggests that this is where the idea of teleonomy may come in, a term that began to be used in the early 1950s for anything that appeared to be end-directed, even designed systems such as heat-seeking missiles or thermostats. While they appear to have purpose, their purpose is actually that of the humans who design and build them.

The discussion ends with Terry’s observation that while evolution itself is certainly not teleological in the way that human minds are—or even the basic sense that all living organisms are—evolution does have asymmetry, and therefore direction of a sort.

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Segment Six: Artificial Selection

David continues the discussion of conscious evolution from the last segment by introducing the idea of artificial selection into the mix. In that process—that played a role in Darwin’s own thinking about natural selection—the target of selection is the conscious choice of a human agent, but it remains an evolutionary process using variation, heredity, and replication.

Terry qualifies it with the observation that it differs from a natural evolutionary process in that a human selectively breeding some species to maximize a specific trait might be unintentionally dragging along undesirable traits, that may have deleterious effects on the offspring. In the natural world, selection is taking place at the integrated organism as a whole, because to reproduce in the natural world, everything has to be working.

David explains that doesn’t interfere with his main point, that artificial selection is a conscious evolutionary process, with humans acting as the agents selecting the traits. He makes the case for cultural evolution itself bears a similarity with artificial selection in that sense—that humans have conscious cultural targets of selection that they work toward through variation, selection, and replication, the basic elements of any evolutionary process. Thus, though cultural evolution also has a blind component, it has a purposeful one as well. He thinks perhaps that is part of what Teilhard was getting at when he wrote of evolution reflecting on itself.

Terry returns to the theme of the potential problems that can result from focusing on the evolution of particular traits, rather than the organism or system as a whole. David doesn’t disagree, but thinks that can occur even in a system of natural selection. He suggests that a whole systems view will be important in the modern context of designing something like smart cities. They end with agreement that whenever attempting to consciously manage an evolutionary process, it’s critical to consider the system as a whole.

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Segment Seven: Gene Duplication, Shared Interests, and Moving to Higher Levels of Selection

The final segment addresses the process of moving between levels of selection, and what such a transition in the target of selection requires. This is of course central to our understanding of what the noosphere is, and how a fully-formed Noosphere may evolve.

David begins by explaining his own “iron law”—that adaptation at any level requires a process of selection, at that level. Terry agrees, and explains that his own interest is mostly in how you move between levels—how a whole organism, or a whole insect colony transitions from being a collection of parts to being a fully integrated and cohesive unit.

Terry introduces ideas from thermodynamics as a comparison—how thermodynamic systems can move from near-equilibrium states that are relatively stable to destabilized states when they’re perturbed, such as by adding energy to the system, which can propagate into new regularities at a higher level. The key understanding is that you can’t get to that higher level regularity without perturbing and destabilizing the system first.

To illustrate how this process functions in a biological system, Terry explains his theory of how primates evolved the need to acquire vitamin C from our diet instead of producing it internally, as our ancestors can do. It’s a fascinating story of why and how a single gene that coded for the synthesis of vitamin C was supplanted by a complex, interdependent set of sensory, behavioral, and digestive traits that enabled us to find, identify, and consume fruit. Whereas that single gene was the target of selection in our non-fruit-eating ancestors, all of those traits are selected as a co-dependent suite of genes in primates.

It is shared interests and interdependence that Terry thinks adds the robustness necessary for stability at any level of selection, and that some analogous process must accompany every move from a lower to a higher level. He thinks a similar story can be told about the coevolution of language and the human brain.

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