Evolution to variation selection is not limited to biological species, but that any system—physical, psychological, cultural—undergoes variation selection.
This world wide web has a structure that is kind of brain-like. Because what do you have in the brain? You have neurons connected by synapses. Or, if you look at it at a higher level, you have concepts that are collected by associations. That was also part of the inspiration of Tim Berners-Lee: hyperlinks are associations between texts. So the web is a little bit kind of like a nervous system.
Actually, this world wide web may turn into what I eventually called the global brain. So there you get this very nice idea of some kind of a supra-human structure that interconnects all the people, that has a brain-like structure, but that actually also is not just the brain, there’s also an anatomy, a physiology in there. So the superorganism idea then became more concrete.
All living systems (by which he meant not only biological systems, but also social systems) have these different kinds of sub-systems or critical functions—critical functions like digestion, storage, memory, transport, distribution, et cetera—and these have obvious analogs in society. So the superorganism idea became pretty clear to me. The global brain idea was then the information-processing part of the superorganism.
In terms of global coordination, I think the best example is science. It’s not just the pandemic at this moment, but the whole of science (already since at least half a century) is fully global, fully international. There isn’t something like a Chinese science, and a Russian science, and an American science. There is just science.
That’s also one of the lessons of the complex adaptive systems: that no agent knows the whole system, but the agent knows its local environment, it knows that if it performs certain actions in that local environment it will get in trouble with other agents, and therefore it experiments until it finds a way that doesn’t create trouble in its local environment. But the same applies to all the other agents in that environment. They all try to find a way of dealing that doesn’t get them in trouble with their local environment. But if you take the local environments of all these agents, you have the whole environment because you go from agent to agent. And what’s my neighbor is for you your second neighbor, and is for another one a third neighbor. But in the end, if all the neighbors adapt to each other, the whole system is adapted. Now, I don’t think that this mechanism will always avoid the global problems, but it’s a mechanism that is most commonly used in nature; this local adaptation that then propagates to the global level.
We can’t just optimize the complex system in some top-down controlling engineering sense. And the way I would put the way to do it would be: constant experimentation. Because the whole system is so complex, basically, you have to try out experimenting with the component interactions. But then you always have to be assessing it at the whole-system level. So there’s some process in which your selection of the lower-level processes has to be based on its effects on the whole system. There has to be some system-level criteria for what you select or for what gets selected at the lower levels.
Why do we need a third story? It’s because the second story of science, it’s not meaningful in the sense that it tells you that the universe just follows some laws that just happened to be there. We don’t know why. And it’s all like a clockwork: it’s just running and you don’t have anything to do with it, it doesn’t go anywhere particular. Or, in the newer versions of the scientific worldview, it’s all very random and unpredictable and chaotic. So there is no sense of direction. And what the third story should do is give us this sense of direction. And the sense of direction—we don’t want to go back to the first story where the first story is the traditional religious story where God has some kind of purpose for the universe, and the story is that we are just fulfilling God’s design. We don’t want to go to that either. We want to go to a worldview where there’s both this sense of direction but there’s no predetermination.
If you go up in evolution to more and more sophisticated organisms, and then you look at the horizon in space and time—that’s to say: the things that they can either remember or imagine or perceive to be things that have happened or could be happening—as you go from a bacterium to a multicellular organism, to a simple animal, to a human, that horizon expands. So we become more and more aware of things that are happening or maybe happening not in our immediate spatial-temporal neighborhood. We become more and more aware of things that may be far removed in time and space. And that could be a simple interpretation of this law of growth of complexity.
I think this view of the superorganism is telling us that we should expand our horizon of consciousness from the individual human to the level of humanity as a whole.
Yes, it’s good to show you’re adapted to your environment. But since the environment anyway is variable, the more adaptability you have at the moment, the better you are. So there is a tendency to evolve into systems that can adapt to a wide range of things. If they can adapt only to a particular range of things, they are likely to be eliminated by the next change in the environment.
There is, you might say, a selective pressure for living systems to increase the variety of things they can do. And increasing the things they can do, that means on the one hand getting the physiological anatomical features to do these things—which means increasing complexity—but it also means a kind of a cognitive increase: an increase in the number of things that they can sense and the amount of knowledge they have to know “How do I deal with these circumstances?” So the selective pressure is to increase the range of challenges you can deal with, and that is a progressive evolution. There is no doubt about that.
Evolution is progressive. We learn to deal with a wider range of situations. We expand our consciousness to a wider range of challenges and opportunities.
If we want the Earth to function as a whole system, we really have to be very deliberative about what we select with the whole system in mind.