Putting the life back in science fiction

Welcome to the Noosphere

To use the high school tactic, if you haven’t heard of a noosphere before, here is Google’s definition: “A postulated sphere or stage of evolutionary development dominated by consciousness, the mind, and interpersonal relationships (frequently with reference to the writings of Teilhard de Chardin)”

This idea crops up a lot in, well, collegiate dorm thinking, and it generally expounds the idea that the world is evolving in stages from inanimate matter towards some grand future where all thinking beings are connected, there’s universal consciousness, the Singularity has happened, or similar versions on the Christian rapture dressed in scientific terminology (Mssr. de Chardin was a Jesuit Priest, so there is a distinct Christian undertone in this whole idea).

I’m going to argue something very different: the noosphere is already here, it’s been growing for over 500 years, and rather than being a rapture of the nerds, it’s becoming quite a pain in the ass, mostly because the sciences it has fostered resolutely refuse to acknowledge its importance.

This whole train of thought was inspired by a quote from William deBuys’ A Great Aridness (Amazon link). In talking about what we learned from Biosphere II, Mr. DeBuys said, “In this respect, Biosphere II proved a true microcosm of Biosphere I, where venality, ideology, self-interest, and other elements of the globe’s political ecology, much more than the workings of the nonhuman world, have generated the greatest obstacles to solving environmental problems, climate change foremost among them.”

There’s that thumbprint of the noosphere: political ecology. Since I’m not a global climate change denier, I see nothing controversial in de Buys’ statement. The “problem” with it is that it lets slip the dirty laundry. Politics matters. Global politics, a signpost of the noosphere of human thought, is now a major factor in the biosphere. Most biologists and ecologists hate this conception, but most would agree that it is nonetheless true. The ecology of politics is another factor to consider, along with the physical world.

Again, there’s nothing new with this idea. The problem is that most scientists want to keep their science somehow pure. Politics happens, certainly, but arguing that politics is integral to a biological study can cause all sorts of problems in fields where nature is considered to exist separately from human thought.

Of course, the noosphere not new. Once Columbus got back from the Indies, human political ecology has been stitching the world together in radical ways (“reknitting the seams of Pangaea” in Charles Manns’ wonderful formulation in 1493). There are whole ethnicities, such as Hispanics, who are the direct result of political ecology. My ancestors have been living in the US since the 17th Century, and my ancestors come from what are now a dozen European countries. National borders (such as the idiotic Border Wall along the Mexican border) now extirpate species (such as the few Baja rose growing in the US), and the most rapidly evolving plants and animals on the planet arguably are pests and crop plants, both of which depend intimately on rapidly changing, human-maintained ecosystems. Political ecology is important.

More subtly and pervasively, the non-human biosphere is dominated by human politics and thought, whether its our effluents causing climate change (“Global Wierding” in deBuys aptformulation), fishing and hunting radically changing ecosystems throughout the world, park boundaries (which turn what used to be huge gradients across which organisms spread into discrete island patches), even concepts of nature which ignore nature outside those park boundaries and guide our actions to favor some species and harm others.

I could go on, and in fact I think it might make a nice book at some point. The problem is that this is a dirty, unromantic conception of the noosphere, one that brings along all the destructive baggage that most of us got into ecology to avoid. It also conflicts with de Chardin’s arguably romantic conception of progress from inanimate nature to a God of pure consciousness. Consciousness (in its human incarnation) is a part of the biosphere now, but the biggest factors right now aren’t our lofty, enlightened thoughts, but rather our worst impulses: “venality, ideology, self-interest, and other elements…”

This is in line with real evolution. While mass extinctions happen (one has been happening for the last 50,000 years or so) major lineages seldom go completely extinct. We add on, rather than proceeding from stage to stage. We’ve still got theropod dinosaurs around (birds), and they’re arguably more common than they used to be. Mammals are an ancient lineage that predates the dinosaurs, and we’re here. So are reptiles and amphibians, along with insects, fish, and so forth. And as Stephen Jay Gould once noted, rather than living in an Age of Mammals, we’re living in an Age of Bacteria, as we have for the last 4.5 billion years. They keep the critical recycling bits of the biosphere working, just as they always have.

What’s wrong is de Chardin’s concept. He saw evolution as progress in stages, from inanimate rock through bacteria, plants, invertebrates, reptiles, mammals, man, then the Noosphere (with celestial, uplifting music, no less). Evolution is more like a compost pile, with new stuff added, often by chance, at irregular intervals, and a pile that continues to churn nonetheless.

So yes, welcome to the noosphere. We were all born here, but we never realized it, did we?


2 Comments so far
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You might find the following of interest, heteromeles, if this is how you define noosphere:
It makes the case for a noosphere that goes back somewhat further in human history than 500 years, although the author and you are thinking along similar lines.

As a Catholic priest, de Chardin was stuck with a teleological scenario. Even so, I doubt that the Church hierarchy at the time had the intellectual foundation for understanding what he was trying to say. It doesn’t seem to have done much better in the ensuing decades.

Comment by Lars

Thanks for the link, Lars. I certainly don’t mind pushing the idea back further than 500 years. 1492 makes a convenient dividing line, if only because the Columbian exchange (Old World plants going to the New World and vice versa) has had such profound ecological consequences). Certainly one can make the case that human cultural impacts are much older than that.

I’m glad I’m not the only one thinking this way. That Man vs. Nature divide makes things more complicated than they need to be, sometimes.

Comment by heteromeles

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