Pathway to the Global Brain (part 2/5): Waking Up
By Cadell Last
Previously in the Pathway to the Global Brain blog series:
I hope you enjoy the groundwork for this work. If you want to find out more about this proposed research and/or help, visit Microryza.com.
My contribution to the discussion on the Global Brain is rooted in evolutionary anthropology. Questions about our existence and emergence have fascinated me from the start of my academic career. Specifically I spent the first period of my career focused on solving problems related to the difference between humans and chimpanzees. Now I would like to use the theory of challenge propagation to understand the nature of human metasystem transitions. How do we achieve higher order? And when will we achieve another higher level of order? Hopefully by modeling the patterns of how this has happened in the past we will be able to understand the future of the human system. We will be able to understand what the human system will look like as Global Brain.
Before the Transitions
There have been three major metasystem transitions in human history:
As I have made clear, the next one is likely to be the Global Brain (although the exact name of the next metasystem transition is, to my mind, open to debate that I will mention towards the end of this blog series).
Metasystem transitions lead to a higher level of order and control. Through these transitions I hope to make a few things very clear:
- Cooperation has increased with every transition
A lot of primatologists who study chimpanzees and bonobos often remark that “if only we could get the chimps to cooperate a little more, they would have a cultural revolution.” In fact, cooperation is something chimpanzees do… but they do it very poorly compared to modern humans. And it isn’t their fault. Chimpanzees are very good at being chimpanzees, they just aren’t very good at producing what I call the “new evolutions” which is the production of technoculture.
- Revolutions in quantity and quality of communication lead to revolutions in quantity and quality of transportation.
This pattern has a surprising repetition to it through the metasystem transitions. In fact, the knowledge of this pattern was quite mind blowing and, I believe, insightful regarding the nature of the next metasystem transition.
- Metasystem transitions are fundamentally caused by the evolved exploitation of a more efficient energy source.
This is why all of the metasystem transitions are being labelled after the new energy source acquired (e.g., hunting, agriculture, industry). Hunting enabled an explosion in absolute brain power. Agriculture enabled an explosion in meme power. Industry is enabling us to reach memetic capacity. This is essentially closing a feedback loop that hunting started. The fact that this closes a feedback loop may provide us with the answer to why the next metasystem transition is going to be so massive.
But before we move on to analyze the metasystem transitions, I want to emphasize that with every metasystem transition, fundamental aspects of our social lives are forever altered in predictable ways. This happens because the individual and collective challenge propagation centers displace old ones in a natural selection type of fashion. For example, political life (how we are governed), sexual life (how we procreate), religious life (how we feel about the unknown/supernatural), scientific life (what we think about the natural world), economic life (how we make a living), medical life (how we perceive and treat illness, disease, etc.) are forever changed during every metasystem transition. And the end of this analysis I’ll try and trace these ruptures, find the patterns in them, and make predictions for what form they will take in the Global Brain.
Hunting opened up a new regular energy source. The beginning of our hunting transition marked the first time in the history of life where an organism started hunting with technology. This transition was a slow and gradual process, but it changed everything.
How substantial a modification to the early human diet did hunting make? Well, today we know that humans and chimpanzees are the only two species to hunt with technology on a regular basis. Bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans do not hunt with technology. However, the difference between human and chimpanzee meat consumption is striking. Chimpanzees consume substantially lower amounts of meat than do humans, even though they hunt a wide variety of different animals. Evolutionary biologist Rob Dunn recently compared these patterns in a Scientific American article:
“Most chimps don’t eat [meat] often. Three percent of the average chimp diet comes from meat. On average, nine days a year are meat days for chimps. But because chimps don’t share perfectly, most chimps probably get less than this. Bonobos appear to eat even less meat than chimps. A recent study of the carbon and isotopes in bonobos placed bonobos at a trophic level slightly lower than one antelope species.”
In contrast, studies of 20th century hunters and gatherers has revealed that as much as 65% of energy came from animal meat. That may be an extreme outlier, and I am certainly not proposing that all hunter gatherer groups from the birth of hunting consumed this much meat. Of course there was variation in hunter gatherer meat consumption patterns. But certainly there was an explosion of overall meat consumption, and we can do a relatively good job of predicting when this occurred: ~2 million years ago with the birth of our genus Homo.
Of course, this hunting metasystem transition is supported by more empirical evidence than just human and chimpanzee comparisons. There is paleoanthropological evidence that early Homo had started to systematically hunt larger game on a regular basis (from their tools and refuse from their camp sites). We also we have evidence that humans had started to regularly control fire around 1.7 million years ago. The control of fire may have been a pressure stimulated by the need to cook larger quantities of raw meat. I don’t think I am wrong in assuming cooking was the initial main function of controlled fire. Studies of all animals that currently use technology have revealed that the initial cause of the development of early technology is always food related. There are only a few odd outliers in this respect (i.e., octopuses and elephants). Although the control of fire obviously had the added benefit of functioning for protection and warmth.
Either way, before a substantial portion of our diet was meat – basically before we were adept hunters (and cookers) – brain growth was slow in coming. But as we became better and better hunters, more and more energy could be dedicated to encephalization. Our intelligence powerhouse is expensive. In turn, the larger our brains became the better we became at coordinated hunting efforts.
The significance of this exploited energy source is definitely the evolution of complex language. It is early language that allowed the first members of our genus to solve new problems and explore new opportunities.
Only the effects of language fossilize. The symbolic structure of language creatures a culture code, or a memetic code, analogous to how amino acid structure of DNA creates a genetic code. Obviously from studies of a number of different animals, including the great apes, we know that technoculture is possible without a codified linguistic structure. However, one of the biggest scientific achievements, to my mind, over the past decade has been the quite thoroughly researched fact that humans alone posses what evolutionary psychologist Michael Tomasello calls the cultural ratchet. That is, technoculture that requires multiple generations of improvement. This type of technoculture almost certainly requires a culture code, and hence, some type of language. You cannot get substantial improvement in technocultural complexity without a method to encode and transfer such information. And we see ratcheting culture emerge and accelerate with the genus Homo.
Remember I said that metasystem transitions follow a predictable ordering of events? First a new communication medium develops with the exploitation of a new energy source, and then there is a transportation revolution. Well, right after hunting improves with the development of early language, we also see an explosion of migration and travel potential. The culture code allowed Homo erectus to adapt to environments that hominids had never experienced before. They exploded into central Eurasia, South Asia, East Asia, the islands of Southeast Asia, and even southern Europe. And this was a real evolutionary explosion. In total, it may have only taken 200-300 thousand years.
It really mattered that thoughts could for the first time be faithfully transmitted with greater efficiency than they could with previous communication systems. Before language, animals did not have the medium necessary for symbolic and abstract thought. And abstract thought allowed better “time travel” (i.e., better future predicting) and consequently range expansion into new territories, where they could now solve new problems quicker and more efficiently than could their predecessors, the australopithecines. They also had more opportunities (i.e., explore new environments, eat new foods, experience qualitatively and quantitatively new thoughts and social relationships).
So on the pathway to the Global Brain, we can see this metasystem transition being analogous to the Global Brain’s neurons “waking up”. Early humans were developing what we would call a primitive consciousness. Language provided a true global workspace where individuals could compare the information about their worlds to more agents (quantity), but also in new ways (quality). With the ability to communicate to more agents in the system in new ways, more complex problems could be relaxed (i.e., How do we better coordinate our hunting strategies? How can we design better technology to kill larger game? Or can we establish a new settlement several kilometers away where I have heard from others that there are large herds of animals?)
The sentences wouldn’t be that well structured. It is possible that questions were not even being asked yet. But they don’t have to be. It could have been said as simply as this:
“Water hole – 3 days journey – lots of buffalo – spring time – big tools – kill.”
Such thoughts are exceptionally difficult for chimpanzees to communicate, and it is not entirely clear that chimpanzees even attempt to communicate this information because it requires imagining a future that doesn’t exist. And it is hard to imagine a future that doesn’t exist without language. As I said, this was also presumably the case for the australopithcines. Either way, we certainly don’t see the type of hunting excursions or range expansions that characterized the life of early species in the genus Homo). These are problems that extant chimpanzees and extinct australopithecines simply could not relax.
And from this metasystem transition comes a complete restructuring of our challenge propagation centers. It is here where we see the rise of phenomena we believe to be “uniquely human”. In The Symbolic Species by Terrance Deacon, the significance of this transition is explained in a way in accordance with contemporary evidence (and therefore also in accordance with my perspective):
“The near synchrony in human prehistory of the first increase in brain size, the first appearance of stone tools for hunting and butchery, and a considerable reduction in sexual dimorphism is not a coincidence. These changes are interdependent. All are symptoms of a fundamental restructuring of hominid adaptation, which resulted in a significant change in feeding ecology, a radical change in social structure, and an unprecedented (indeed, revolutionary) change in representational abilities. The very first symbol ever thought, or acted out, or uttered on the face of the earth grew out of this socio-economic dilemma, and so they might not have been very much like speech… Marriage is not the same as mating, and not the same as a pair bond. Unlike what is found in the animal world, it is a symbolic relationship… Symbolic culture was a response to a reproductive problem that only symbols could solve: the imperative of representing a social contract… The symbol construction that occurs in these ceremonies is not just a matter of demonstrating certain symbolic relationships, but actually involves the use of the individuals and actions as symbol tokens.”
What Deacon is describing are fundamental ruptures characteristic of human metasystem transitions. The socio-sexual dynamics completely changed. They likely evolved from a more chimpanzee-like (or a more bonobo-like) socio-sexual system to one with increased pair bonding (that was selected for functionally because it took ever longer periods of time to raise offspring with ever larger brains dependent on language for survival).
What Deacon did not describe in that quote is how our political, religious, medical, and scientific challenge propagation centers changed over this short stretch of time (by evolutionary standards). From the knowledge that a primitive linguistic medium was emerging, we can say that more and more complex cultural thoughts were being experienced. We can say that important phenomena were becoming “symbolized”. The group leader was now not just recognized behaviourally, but was also symbolically represented for example. Basically, more and more symbols were being created and applied to natural phenomena. This led to the rudimentary beginnings of concepts like death, medicine, and perhaps even explanation. Of course, it is very difficult to know the exact emergence of the concept of death, but we know that great apes don’t understanding it, and late Homo did. And we also know that language is a tool that helps us think deeper into the future, and in more abstract ways. So as language was evolving it is fairly safe to say (I believe) that primitive feelings about death were starting to emerge here with early Homo erectus. This likely sparked the first “religious” type of thought. I say this because understanding your own mortality is itself very traumatic, and creating infinity is a natural response to it. It is also likely that explanation emerged here since group sizes increased and more complex ranging and hunting patterns were being explored. Such behaviour must have been exhibited because they were starting to explain the seasons, the migration patterns of animals, the art of fire control, how and why the weather changed, and perhaps they even touched on some deeper questions. But of course, just like the emergence of death, it is difficult to accurately know the real nature of the origin of explanation. We are left to theory, and scarce indirect evidence from the archaeological records.
Either way, the exploitation of a new energy source had fundamentally ruptured our challenge propagation centers. They left a mark on our bodies (i.e., socio-sexual rupture) and our minds (i.e., a deeper understanding of nature and death). Our species was starting… just starting… to break away from the rest of the animal kingdom. Yet, they could not have had any clue of the cosmic significance of their new technocultural experiences. They could not have known that the outsourcing of their thoughts to speech were going to set in motion processes that would lead to a Global Brain.
Eventually this behaviour, first expressed by Homo erectus, became more pronounced in species like Homo heidelbergensis and Homo neanderthalensis (and potential the currently mysterious Denisovan man from Siberia). But in a sense, the full expression of the hunting metasystem transition takes hold with the emergence of our species. In a relatively short span of time we take control of the biosphere and colonize every continent except for Antarctica. Even if we take conservative estimates on our colonization rate, it only took us ~70,000 years to travel from Ethiopia to Cape Horn. And with our species all of the individual and small group propagation centers related to political, religious, scientific, sexual, and medical life had become more fully expressed. The metasystem transition had run its course. But notice that all of these challenge propagation centers were still very primitive and small scale. No order or complexity of modern magnitude could be achieved. No societies. No structures. Only small bands no larger than 500 or so individuals. Competition would be too strong in a group of that size. There was no communication medium to transfer the requisite information fast enough to stabilize a group of that size. In fact, no order or complexity of even ancient world magnitude could be achieved. From the archaeological record, it was like a complexity flat line that lasted hundreds of thousands of years.
A complexity flatline because of a continual failure to build larger challenge propagation centers via weighted cooperating agent links. What are the implications of this? Well, as in the first post, I will use my personal experience to demonstrate. Remember that I am trying to solve a problem right now (discussed in the first post). In order to solve this problem I need you, an intelligent agent, to view my writing as an opportunity worthy of your time. In my “propagation network” I have over 1,700+ intelligent agents on Facebook, ~600 intelligent agents on Twitter (personal account and site account), ~250 agents on Hubski, etc. That means when I post or tweet an article I have access to over 2,000 agents, just within my own personal network that are not geographically dependent. This network has people in the United States, Latin America, Europe, Africa, Australia, Asia, etc. There are probably more agents in North America than other regions because we are still a civilization that has yet to eliminate “space” or “geography” as a barrier to challenge propagation (but geography is dying and will be dead in the Global Brain). Either way, when I “propagate a challenge” (i.e., try to solve a problem by getting you to view this as an opportunity), I am able to effortlessly distribute this challenge to a far larger network than any hunter gatherer could have dreamed. Not only in quantity, but also in quality. I can translate and encode my speech into writing. And my writing exists within a medium that is global, free, and infinitely replicable. Not only that, but all of the intelligent agents in my challenge propagation network are also (I’m assuming) removed from strong pressures of natural selection so that they too can solve problems and explore opportunities unrelated to finding food (like read and comment on my article). Hunter gatherers were only ever propagating challenges with A) a small group, B) a geographically dependent group, and C) with agents unable to solve problems unrelated to natural selection. So complexity, unsurprisingly, flatlined. Whereas I am free to spend my waking hours propagating complex challenges and, with the help of my network, can build technoculture of more sophistication than would have been possible to dream about in Paleolithic times.
Now, before I end this section, I want to be clear about previous comments I made regarding pre-historic challenge propagation centers like “science” and “religion”. When I mentioned these centers I am talking about very rudimentary forms of their modern equivalent. I refer to these concepts as a primatologist would when studying chimpanzees. By science I mean the ability to explain the natural world. And by religion I mean conceptualizing something supernatural. When I say these phenomena emerged during the hunting metasystem transition, I am meaning that the ability to have the thought to explain the natural world and dream of the supernatural world, first arose during this time. The forms of both of these things would have been very primitive throughout the entire hunting transition.
But either way, after the hunting metasystem transition, nothing much changed for hundreds of thousands of years (for reasons explained above). Everything was relatively static. Certainly for the humans alive, it would seem as if life was an endless cycle of life and death, with no discernible arrow or trajectory. Their world would seem like the Twilight Zone to us. But this was their existence.
That is, until agriculture. And that changed everything…
The Metasystem Pattern
The important thing to take away from this first step on the pathway to the Global Brain is that our challenge propagation centers change, but they only change after the exploitation of a new energy source. The reason they only change when a new energy source is acquired is because a new energy source allows for the stabilization of a more efficient communication medium, which in turn allows for the stabilization of a more efficient transportation network. Such developments seem to deeply rupture the way our challenge propagation centers are structured (i.e., how we solve problems and explore opportunities). This take home message from the first step will become more obviously important the closer we get to the Global Brain. Another important take home message, which I will start to explore more thoroughly in part 3, is that the timing and diffusion of metasystem transition start to get faster. As we continue on our journey, keep in mind that the hunting transition took hundreds of thousands of years. Its full maturation required the death and emergence of multiple human species. Biological evolution was still very relevant to the production of new information. Technoculture had emerged, but it was yet to dominate information storage (and thus change) for our system.
Stay with me as we continue the path to the Global Brain. Parts 3-5 will be released soon.
If you missed it, remember to read part 1 of the blog series:
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“Cadell Last is a science writer and evolutionary theorist. He is currently working on a animated science channel with PBS Digital Studios and attempting to merge evolutionary anthropology and cybernetic theory. You can contact him on Twitter @cadelllast or Facebook fb.com/TheAdvancedApes”