Tyson Yunkaporta is the author of Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World. His short bio explains that “his work focuses on applying Indigenous methods of inquiry to resolve complex issues and explore global crises.” He is married to Megan Kelleher, who “is investigating whether blockchain technology can interface with an Indigenous knowledge system – and conversely whether an Indigenous knowledge system can be used to guide the coordination of processes within a blockchain system.”
Why a focus on indigenous issues and knowledge? In describing the phases and future of the noosphere, Teilhard explains that the first phase of its development occurred in small groups, the sort that paleoanthropologists and ethnologists believe are similar in behavior and governance to the few remaining indigenous groups today. He wrote:
“Let us glance over the main stages of this long history of aggregation. First, in the depths of the past, we find a thin scattering of hunting groups spread here and there throughout the Ancient World. At a later stage, some fifteen thousand years ago, we see a second scattering, very much more dense and clearly defined: that of agricultural groups installed in fertile valleys—centers of social life where man, arrived at a state of stability, achieved the expansive powers which were to enable him to invade the New World. Then, 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.”
What can we learn about the evolution of the noosphere — its increase in scale and complexity — from hunter-gatherers, to agricultural settlements, to civilizations, to empires, and a world of increasingly connected nation-states today?
Interestingly, one lesson is the role of conflict. One of the aboriginal myths that Tyson relates in his book is about Emu, who represents a selfish, disruptive entity within an otherwise cooperative group. On one hand the story is about how cooperative members need governance structures that keep the conflict-causing Emu-like members under control, and prevent them from destroying the cohesion of the group as a whole. On the other hand, Tyson makes the point that:
“Emu in that creation story is not a bad guy. That was important because…otherwise, the pattern will keep replicating the same way over and over and over again in this collective utopia. And what happens to that from an evolutionary perspective? You’re going to get entropy. You’re going to get a very sick, slow, stupid system arising from that, that cannot last. You actually need those little disruptions…that’s part of the force multiplier that creates these massive evolutionary leaps.”
In other words, conflict is a necessary ingredient for the scale and complexity of the noosphere to evolve. Why? One answer is provided in another conversation in our series by evolutionary biologist Rick Michod, who studies the transition from single-celled to multicellular forms of life. He observes that conflict between the lower-level entities — single cells within a multicellular group — is necessary in the same way. Importantly, he notes that “a lot of the mechanisms that mediate conflict would not be there unless there was conflict.” It is in fact those conflict mediation mechanisms that form the higher-level regulatory systems that in turn enable ever more complex forms of multicellular life to evolve.
This correspondence between the role of conflict mediation in indigenous communities and the transition to multicellular life is only one of the insights to be gained from this conversation between Tyson, Megan, and David Sloan Wilson — another valuable contribution to the Science of the Noosphere.