The Role of Story in the Future of the Noosphere

Image by Erowind: “Draconis Colony Major: Modern Day location, 42 Draconas b.”


In The Formation of the Noosphere, Teilhard first delineates its birth, anatomy, and physiology as biological processes—what it is, and how it exists today. He then opens his description of The Phases and Future of the Noosphere thusly:

We have found it possible to express the social totalization which we are undergoing in terms of a clearly identifiable biological process: proceeding from this we may surely look into the future and predict the course of the trajectory we are describing. Once we have accepted that the formation of a collective human organism, a Noosphere, conforms to the general law of recurrence which leads to the heightening of Consciousness in the universe as a function of complexity, a vast prospect opens before us. To what regions and through what phases may we suppose that the extension of the rising curve of hominization will carry us?

Immediately confronting us (indeed, already in progress) we have what may be called a “phase of planetization.”

That phase of planetization has progressed exponentially in the 75 years since Teilhard wrote those words, and currently seems to be proceeding at warp speed. Teilhard was prescient in many ways, anticipating the roles played by telecommunication and computer technology in that process, and other technological advances such as a “planetized humanity…acquiring new physical powers which will enable it to superorganize matter.”

He couldn’t of course anticipate all the changes that have taken place in those ensuing 75 years, such as social media and its impacts, both positive and negative, on the way in which the noosphere is evolving in the modern world. And while our own project — Science of the Noosphere — is primarily intended to place the concept of the noosphere on solid scientific ground, we are also interested, as was Teilhard, in the future prospects of the planetary superorganism that a fully-fledged noosphere would represent.

One way to explore the human future is to ask two writers who specialize in imagining it. In the following conversation, Science of the Noosphere’s David Sloan Wilson explores those ideas with PJ Manney and David Brin, two of the premier authors of science fiction working today. While their work may be classified as fiction, it is firmly grounded in science.

A significant portion of the discussion focuses on the nature of story itself, and the roles new stories, both positive and negative, can play in how the future of the noosphere evolves. One of the central functions of Human Energy is to disseminate the Third Story in a variety of ways—a positive vision of the future that suffuses science with meaning and purpose in the evolution of life.

In one of our earlier conversations, Collective Consciousness Supported by the Web, researcher Francis Heylighen spoke of the need for a positive Third Story at a time when so many are spinning dystopian, apocalyptic tales and preaching catastrophe and doom. Part of the problem is that we live in a VUCA world. He explains that acronym:

We live in a VUCA world. Everything changes all the time. It’s volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. That means people just lose the sense that they understand what’s going on. So you need to again, give them a sense that what’s happening is not random. It’s not just the world coming to an end. It is part of an evolutionary process that may be complex, but that has some kind of a soul. There is some kind of driving direction and this driving direction—that is the Third Story.

Both PJ Manney and David Brin make a strong case that speculative fiction, grounded in science, can provide that sense of direction more effectively than science alone, and that is the role of story in the formation of the noosphere.

The following conversation is presented in three parts. First is the video clip itself, and under each clip is a link to a full downloadable PDF transcript of the conversation. Underneath the transcript link is a description of some of the main points of discussion, with the time they appear in the video.

The Role of Story in the Noosphere’s Future: Part One Transcript

Part One Notes

The conversation begins with general introductions, then at 2:55, DSW asks both authors to comment on any influence Teilhard may have had on their work.

3:38 — PJM discovered Teilhard in the course of researching the merging of humans with technology. The underlying concept of the noosphere has been developing in her own writing for some time: “I understood its existence before it had a name, and what I love about having a framework that pre-exists is that we can have more conversations about it…and I think an interesting aspect to humanity right now is that we’re swimming in it. And like fish, we don’t know we’re in water already.”

6:41 — DB explains “one of the contexts that Teilhard lived in was the growing awareness that human interconnectivity was going to leverage human knowledge.” He relates a brief history of science fiction writing that addressed aspects of the noosphere in that context, from H.G. Wells through Orson Scott Card through Isaac Asimov. Issues of enlightenment vs. authoritarian feudalism, and individual vs. collective. He thinks “We can have the noosphere without surrendering our individuality.”

10:57 — DSW discusses the long tradition of seeing society in terms of organism and the role of the individual within that.

12:13 — PJM “I think the problem with thinking about the superorganism is that people have difficulties with frames of context and reference. They think of themselves as an individual. They don’t think of themselves as a superorganism, which we are. We are superorganisms of superorganisms and each of these frames expands who you include within the frame of context.”

14:08 — DB on governance—top-down authoritarian pyramidal structures vs. flatter democratic societies. James Grier Miller’s living systems theory. How in a developing fetus, growing neurons compete yet the end result is a unitary brain with common goal. Other contexts in which lower level individual competition can successfully support a higher level common goal.

18:30 — DSW gives a capsule account of human origins and evolution from a modern cultural evolutionary point of view—in essence, the central underlying science of the noosphere. Early human groups were already superorganisms of a sort. “They were highly cooperative, much more cooperative than their ape ancestors, and that was thanks to social control and regulation.”

22:35 — PJM explains she’s been introducing these ideas into the science fiction field for some time. Translating complex ideas into appealing narratives is the job of fiction writers like herself and DB Wrapping these ideas in story, plot, and character makes it easier for difficult ideas to go down.

24:58 — DB explains why he thinks cycles of history such as Turchin puts forth can be misleading, and often used in defense of authoritarian ideas. He contrasts the top-down central control of societies typified by the Chinese regime with the expanding circles of inclusion found in western democracies.

30:11 — PJM states that though she agrees with Turchin’s approach more so than DB, she can see how people have used that for not such good ends.

32:13 — DSW says Turchin is part of one of the conversations in this series, and got his start as a population biologist, where part of his work was studying cycles in nonhuman animal populations. He thinks that cycles are indeed present in human history, though it’s complex. He offers as one example the peaks and valleys of egalitarianism in American history.

33:17 — DB acknowledges those cycles are present, but offers the concept of attractors as a better explanation. He thinks the fundamental attractor in agricultural societies has been feudalism along with the pyramidal power structures he discussed earlier. He thinks modern humanity is finding a new attractor state, one with a widening circle of inclusion. This new attractor is “bringing in the noosphere at a completely different level”. He ends this segment by stating that rather than science fiction, their genre should be named “speculative history”, because it’s more about extending history than about any “scientific gimmick”.

The Role of Story in the Noosphere’s Future: Part Two Transcript

Part Two Notes

DSW begins by observing that much is in play scientifically at this moment in history. The more literate people become about these new developments the better, including the storytellers of the world. He asks about kinds of storytelling, non-fiction and fiction. Can factual information be presented in ways that qualify as story, and ways that do not.

1:00 — PJM suggests causality is what separates non-story from story. Whether fact or fiction, a story follows a logical causal path.

3:27 — DSW presses PJM on the point of what’s story and what’s not. She replies that “not story is a pile of data”, and reiterates that once you arrange facts along logical lines of causality, you’ve got story.

4:05 — DB suggests a novel can be more fair than non-fiction, in the sense that it offers the opportunity to include characters that have opposing points of view, and thus question the story’s premises. He thinks speculative fiction has helped to keep civilization alive with cautionary stories that contributed to such movements as preventing nuclear war and recruiting people to the environmental movement.

6:36 — PJM discusses a paper she wrote called “Yucky Gets Yummy: How Speculative Fiction Creates Society”, about the changing nature of heroes in myths and stories across human history.

8:30 — DSW introduces relevant scientific concepts from dual inheritance theory, including the ideas of genotypes that influence outward manifestations as phenotypes, in comparison to symbotypes that influence outward manifestations of our individual personalities and societies. Much of our existence is socially constructed.

9:50 — PJM makes the point this is consistent with seeing story as empathy creation—a way of discovering common values in our common humanity.

10:13 — DB describes a mode of science-fiction storytelling in Hollywood films with four elements in common: suspicion of authority, tolerance, diversity, and the individual eccentricity of a central character, which helps the audience bond with them. He explains how this formula threatens conventional pyramidal power structures, and how older science fiction writing often isn’t given sufficient credit for being a leading voice in positive social change.

13:31 — PJM agrees that speculative fiction, and all fiction for that matter, has the ability to advance the conversation over social change. She cites Uncle Tom’s Cabin as a conventional fiction example that advanced societal change. She suggests that a problem with the kind of formulaic fiction in which the goal is to restore the status quo fails to provide a more progressive vision of positive change.

16:45 — DSW discusses the manner in which a diversity of story types reflects the diversity of cultural DNA, and each culture’s ecological situation. These include those stories whose intent is to restore a disrupted social fabric to its normal state.

17:56 — PJM agrees in a qualified way, adding that in science fiction or fantasy, return to a traditional sense of purpose isn’t necessarily a goal.

18:24 — DB and PJM begin a discussion of the superhero genre that has become so dominant in popular culture. PJM again discusses the changing nature of the hero, within that genre. The discussion expands into the more general topic of storytelling style.

20:50 — PJM makes the point that we need to explore new kinds of stories “that might guide our future activities toward something like a positive future”, and expounds on that.

21:54 — DB ends this segment with an analysis of the climate of social and political change that stories exist in today. He contrasts the Star Wars universe— where individual heroes dominate change—with the Star Trek universe where the crews on starships collaborate for the good of the Federation.

The Role of Story in the Noosphere’s Future: Part Three Transcript

Part Three Notes

DSW begins the last segment with the observation that stories “create a moral worldview that motivates action, much more than a dry scientific account. Science tells you what is. It doesn’t tell you what to do without adding values, but stories add those values and emotions”. He supports that with the example of an indigenous story from Australia intended to control bullies, and in doing so restore society’s balance.

2:42 — DB observes that the need to control bullies is an age old problem that we still suffer from in modern societies, and there wouldn’t be tales about it from indigenous societies if they didn’t have to deal with the problem on a regular basis as well. DSW agrees, and suggests this conforms with DB’s earlier observations about the threat of authoritarianism in the modern world. DB agrees.

6:19 — PJM describes a group she created on Facebook called the New Mythos. It’s a site for discussion of a variety of topics, including history, sociology, psychology, and economics as they apply to telling “new stories of a future that will benefit us all”.

8:45 — DB describes his young adult series focused on a positive future vision as well. He also brings up two destructive messages that are opposed to the “four positive messages of Hollywood Sci-Fi, suspicion of authority, tolerance, diversity, and eccentricity” that he described earlier. The two destructive messages are “No institution can ever function, and your neighbors are all sheep”.

11:48 — DSW introduces a final line of discussion: How to make the modern advances in evolutionary science available more widely to the current generation of science fiction storytellers?

13:28 — PJM responds by explaining why for her, “all culture actually comes from the arts and humanities, in that how we communicate the science, how we communicate what reality is, is what makes the impact.” She ends by suggesting that the third story comes from a “synthesis of where do we find value and meaning, and where do we find the hopefulness to drive us to a better future.”

15:39 — DB agrees with PJM, adding that the accessibility of knowledge in the Internet Age has the potential to support that. He thinks it’s good that scientists are talking “to people outside their field more than they ever did before.” He encourages everyone “everyone to not feel limited” — because of the wide availability and accessibility of knowledge — but cautions that we need to pay attention to what experts have to say. He ends by agreeing with PJM that it’s all about story.