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History of a meme
November 28, 2006 12:24 PM   Subscribe

At the beginning was the noosphere. The existence of a "sphere of ideas", beyond the "sphere of life" (biosphere) and the "sphere of matter" (geosphere) was apparently first postulated by the pioneering Russian-Ukrainian geochemist V.I. Vernadsky. Vernadsky thought not only that the biosphere had entirely reshaped the geosphere, but that the burgeoning noosphere of interconnected thought would ultimately change the biosphere just as much. French jesuit and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin took the concept and ran with it...(more inside)
posted by Skeptic (24 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

Inspired by Vernadsky and the French existentialist Henri Bergson, Teilhard de Chardin postulated in “The Phenomenon of Man” that, not least through communication technology, evolution was turning from an evolution of life into an evolution of ideas, ultimately leading Mankind to convergence into a single thinking noösphere, a “Omega Point” which would mean nothing else than the mystical body of Christ.
Although Teilhard de Chardin was quite famous in life, due to his involvement in the (fake) discovery of Piltdown Man, and (genuine) discovery of Peking Man, the Catholic hierarchy, apart from being less-than-fond of his scientific work in evolutionary biology, found his theological ideas dangerously heterodox, and gagged him, so that “The Phenomenon of Man” couldn’t be published until after Teilhard’s death in 1955.
Once published, however, “The Phenomenon of Man” and its concept of Global Consciousness had a profound impact, not only inspiring much “Age of Aquarius” nonsense, but also the Gaia hypothesis and Marshall McLuhan’s “global village”.
While all this flashy stuff was going on, an entomologist called Edward O. Wilson was quietly studying the role of evolution and genetics in insect societies first, and then in primate societies…culminating in human society. His book “Sociobiology: The New Synthesis”, which sought to explain the evolutionary mechanics behind social behaviour made quite a splash in academic circles, inaugurating what would be later called evolutionary psychology, while attracting the wrath of the left-wingers of “Science for the People”, including, among others, Stephen Jay Gould, who saw it as Social Darwinism under a new name.
Other biologists, however, were rather more receptive to Wilson’s ideas. Chief amongst them, the very vocal Richard Dawkins, who in “The Selfish Gene” formulated the idea that the world of ideas by the natural selection of units of cultural information, or memes. Dawkins famously considers religion as a malignant meme. One wonders what Teilhard de Chardin would make of that…
posted by Skeptic at 12:26 PM on November 28, 2006

Intelligent Design in clerical drag.
posted by meehawl at 12:27 PM on November 28, 2006

(With thanks to Tom Wolfe for his excellent article "Digibabble, Fairy Dust, and the Human Anthill)
posted by Skeptic at 12:29 PM on November 28, 2006

meehawl writes "Intelligent Design in clerical drag."

That's a rather shallow appraisal.
posted by mr_roboto at 12:41 PM on November 28, 2006

This is a excellent post in every respect. Thanks, Skeptic!

A lot of "religionists", fundamentalists, etc would do well to read de Chardin. He struggled with many of the theological issues presented by evolution in a very honest way, as opposed to the outright denial that's it's met with today. for example, he gained notoriety for abandoning a literal interpretation of the Book of Genesis, and suffered the expected recriminations from his church. In this regard he is more akin to Galileo, the difference being related to the less central role of the chruch in de Chardin's time.

The Omega Point idea has worked its way into much of 20th century science fiction as well as 20th century thought. The book/movie 2001 comes to mind, where man evolves into a multidimensional being opf pure thought. Star Trek attached itself to this idea as well, with many of it's more evolved aliens being pure consciousness in the form of tiny points of light. Arthur C. Clarke, who wrote the 2001 novel, also wrote Childhood's End, in which humans evolve into creatures of pure thought.
posted by Pastabagel at 12:44 PM on November 28, 2006

I've always been a huge admirer of de Chardin. Nice work Skeptic.

The "noosphere" and related concepts of Pere Teilhard were also unabashedly adapted in Julian May's series of science fiction novels; The Saga of Pliocene Exiles and the Milieu Trilogy (most notably the latter). The novels are highly recommended.
posted by elendil71 at 1:01 PM on November 28, 2006

How did you get through this well-organized, well-written post without mentioning Hegel?
posted by anotherpanacea at 1:18 PM on November 28, 2006


I've read PTdC's Future of Man, Phenomenon of Man, Divine Milieu, etc. I've immensely enjoyed the Hyperion scifi books. I've listened to UFOrb more than is healthy. To me Vernadsky's developmental theories resemble a mixture of Marxism (or, indeed, Hegel) tinged with Theosphy, and they are a wonderful product of a progressive age.

However, I remain to be convinced that there is any direction, purpose, or teleology to the process of evolution and the ongoing events of the universe. It just seems to me anthorpomorphism and a fear of death writ large.

It is a brilliant post though:
YouTube Index: 0.
Apple Index: 0.
Creative Commons Index: 0.
Zombies Index: 0.
Google Index: 0.
posted by meehawl at 1:49 PM on November 28, 2006

The noosphere also plays a crucial part in Daniel Pinchbeck's work.
posted by muckster at 1:57 PM on November 28, 2006

As an aside, here is the official Vatican "monitum " on Chardin:
It is sufficiently clear that the above-mentioned works abound in such ambiguities and indeed even serious errors, as to offend Catholic doctrine. For this reason, the most eminent and most revered Fathers of the Holy Office exhort all Ordinaries as well as the superiors of Religious institutes, rectors of seminaries and presidents of universities, effectively to protect the minds, particularly of the youth, against the dangers presented by the works of Fr. Teilhard de Chardin and of his followers.

Won't somebody think of the children!

Finally, the Christian Church also decided (after a long period of nodding familiarity) that it didn't really approve of the similar mystical ideas of Origen either. His theory of Apocatastasis was a bit too Matrix.
posted by meehawl at 2:02 PM on November 28, 2006

The idea that there is a teleology to evolution, in the form of the godhead, is just as heterodox to the scientific understanding of evolution as it is to Christianity. In this respect, it's as if Chardin was trying to synthesize two unmixable ideas, and wound up with a metaphysics akin to Tycho's astronomy. All that said, and despite being an agnostic or atheist (depending on how you define your terms), I have occasionally wondered if there could be some kind of emergent epiphenomenon coming out of interconnected human consciousness.

Aside: saying that anything is like "intelligent design in clerical drag" is kind of like saying "a preacher in clerical drag": redundant.
posted by adamrice at 2:25 PM on November 28, 2006

Are we still giving away money for good posts? Cos, this is a good post. Crazy good.
posted by absalom at 2:40 PM on November 28, 2006

I'm delighted to know of Vernadsky; for a sense of the depth of Chardin's debt to him, look at this roster of conditions which will mark the emergence of the Noosphere:

# peopling of all the Earth;
# abrupt transformation of the means of communication and commerce between different countries;
# establishment of political and other ties between all the states of the Earth;
# predominance of the geological role of man over other processes which take placein the biosphere;
# expansion of the fontiers of the biosphere and the man's exit into the Cosmos;
# industrial exploitation of new sources of energy;
# equality of the people of all races and religions;
# increase in the role of people's masses in the decisions on the questions of internal and foreign policy;
# freedom of scientific thought and scientific search from the pressure of religious, philosophical and political considerations, and the creation of the conditions, favorable for the free scientific thought, in social and state structure;
# rise of the well-being of the world's people. Creation of a real possibility to exclude malnutrition, hunger, misery and to weaken the influence of the diseases;
# rational transformation of the original nature of the Earth, with the purpose to make it capable to satisfy all material, aesthetic and spiritual demands of the mankind;
# exclusion of wars from the life of society.

From Skeptic's second link. When this was published in 1944, it must have seemed as subversive in Stalin's Russia as it would've anywhere else in the world, and I think we must acquit him of any charge of doctrinaire Marxism, much less Russian Communism.

If evolution was ever innocent of "teleology" (I would deny even this), it fell from that graceless state the moment the first woman decided to have sex with some man because she wished to bring their children into the world.

That is all that is necessary to establish a degree of concious control of the process of evolution.
posted by jamjam at 2:51 PM on November 28, 2006

meehawl writes "I've read..."

Your understanding may very well be deep; the facile comparison to the joke that is Intelligent design is, however, rather shallow.
posted by mr_roboto at 3:18 PM on November 28, 2006

If evolution was ever innocent of "teleology" (I would deny even this), it fell from that graceless state the moment the first woman decided to have sex with some man because she wished to bring their children into the world.

That's like saying there's a hidden plan guiding election results just because people choose how they'll vote.

Billions of individual choices aren't the same thing as a coherent purpose; a pattern that emerges from the bottom up isn't the same as one imposed from the top down.
posted by nebulawindphone at 3:26 PM on November 28, 2006

concious control of the process of evolution

Conscious control over breeding has turned wolves into poodles and other dogs, and also created several breeds ("races") of humans. Breeds of dogs have come and gone (and occasionally returned) and I suspect that human racial types will exhibit similar patterns. Trifling cosmetic specialisation is a long way from godhead. And I'd question whether such selection could maintain a consistent direction over long durations. I think it would resemble a stochastic process, a random walk shuffling cosmetic factors. Like genetic drift, in a small enough population this could prove maladaptive. Again, a long way from godhead. We are not controlling evolution, we are controlling a fun box of cosmetics.

One of the last significant evolutionary events in humans was the spread of lactase persistence in several populations. I don't see how this could have been selected for intentionally or unintentionally by mating partners, except through the usual constrains of population dynamics.

I predict the arrival of preachy singularitarians very soon now.
posted by meehawl at 3:33 PM on November 28, 2006

The noosphere is a lie, your educators have corrupted you. The Timecube is the answer!
posted by illuminatus at 3:37 PM on November 28, 2006

I have always felt that a direction in evolution towards greater complexity to be a fine idea. Not quite sure if its gonna be godhead, but it would be a heck of party!

Excellent Post!
posted by BillJenkins at 3:47 PM on November 28, 2006

the facile comparison to the joke that is Intelligent design is, however, rather shallow

Honestly, they both seem like very similar concepts to me, a strong and a weak version. One posits an intelligence located somewhere in the deep past (which may or may not have acted since then or be active now), while the other posits an intelligence in the far future (which may or may not have acted already, may be acting now, and may act at some time in the future).

Please explain how ID is different, expecially insofar as it argues for the existence of a guiding intelligence or drive because of the evident and increasing complexity of adapted forms.
Aquinas:if everything can not-be, then at one time there was nothing in existence. Now if this were true, even now there would be nothing in existence, because that which does not exist begins to exist only through something already existing. Therefore, if at one time nothing was in existence, it would have been impossible for anything to have begun to exist; and thus even now nothing would be in existence - which is absurd. Therefore, not all beings are merely possible, but there must exist something the existence of which is necessary. But every necessary thing either has its necessity caused by another, or not. Now it is impossible to go on to infinity in necessary things which have their necessity caused by another, as has already been proved in regard to efficient causes. Therefore, we cannot but admit the existence of some being having of itself its own necessity, and not receiving it from another, but rather causing in others their necessity. This all men speak of as God.

People keep having this idea over and over again. I suspect that is because we all experience life as helpless, mindless infants and then develop personalities under the tutelage of parental figures. That leaves a deep imprint on our minds. Hinduism pushes this idea, as does its offshoots such as Jainism and Buddhism.

The idea that humans exhibit form, consciousness and will as a reflection and development towards a central godhead was fundamental to classical Islamic metaphysics. One of my favourite exponents (and mean poets) of this idea was the 10th century Uzbek Islamic neo-Platonic philosopher, Ibn Sina:
For an essence to be realised within time (as an existence), the existence must be rendered necessary by the essence itself. This particular relationship of cause and effect is due to an inherent property of the essence, that it is non-contingent. For existence in general to be possible, there must exist a necessary essence, itself uncaused - a being or God to begin a process of emanation.

This view has a profound impact on the monotheistic concept of creation. Existence is not seen by Avicenna as the work of a capricious deity, but of a divine, self-causing thought process. The movement from this to existence is necessary, and not an act of will per se. The world emanates from God by virtue of his abundant intellect.

I'm pretty sure that Aquinas and the other Scholastics pinched a lot of their teleology from the Arabs, but they would never admit to it in public.
posted by meehawl at 4:02 PM on November 28, 2006

The "noosphere" and related concepts of Pere Teilhard were also unabashedly adapted in Julian May's series of science fiction novels; The Saga of Pliocene Exiles and the Milieu Trilogy (most notably the latter). The novels are highly recommended.

Yes, but for a direct relationship, I'd suggest Dan Simmons' Hyperion books, where followers of Teilhard's works take a pivotal role in the modern church of the time.
posted by thanotopsis at 5:16 PM on November 28, 2006

Arthur C Clarke's "Childhood's End" also seems like a riff on this idea, and the character of Jane in Orson Scott Card's Ender series reminds me vaguely of this as well.
posted by adamrice at 5:34 PM on November 28, 2006

He believed in the strength of the human reason and supposed that the team scientific thought will overcome the negative results of the technogenesis and will secure, in future, the rational transformation (and not annihilation) of the natural components of the biosphere.... This future evolutionary stage of the biosphere of the Earth was designated by V.I.Vernadsky noosphere....

This would be a good time to begin to "overcome the negative results of the technogenesis". Now that the quality of the leadership we've been suffering has become clear to anyone with his head out of the sand.
posted by Twang at 6:00 PM on November 28, 2006

it didn't really approve of the similar mystical ideas of Origen either

Neatly sidestepped with privatio boni, a sort of theological version of "nature abhors a vacuum".

Going in that direction, if a quantum of good is observed, does that disturb its position or its momentum?
posted by Twang at 6:11 PM on November 28, 2006 [1 favorite]

I've always thought that Mormonism was quite similar to classical Islam, especially in its pronounced monotheism relative to trinitarian Christianity. Similar to classical Islam and early Christian theosis, Mormon Exalation, or Eternal Progression, holds forth that people's souls can evolve to a state of godhead and final union or commingling so that they become able to create their own future universes.
Then shall they be gods, because they have no end; therefore shall they be from aeverlasting to everlasting, because they continue; then shall they be above all, because all things are subject unto them. Then shall they be bgods, because they have call power, and the angels are subject unto them.

So I guess the takeaway message is that you really don't need to pinpoint the idea of the noosphere to some Russian progressivist ideology, but instead see it as a strand of thought stretching back millenia in human religious and cultural stories.
posted by meehawl at 7:41 AM on November 29, 2006

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