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.
During the first metasystem transition, everything that we think of as “uniquely human” first developed. There may always be unknown mysteries associated with this transition, like the specific nature of the emergence of language. But either way, the hunting transition certainly acted as restructuring event for our species and followed a specific and knowable pattern. The communication revolution of language evolved with the exploitation of a new energy source, which facilitated a transportation explosion across the planet. But after the hunting transition we don’t see much significant change for a substantial period of time. Hunters and gatherers lived for hundreds of thousands of years where nothing appeared to be changing at all, which is why many hunter gatherer cultures conceptualized time as cyclical. In reality, change was happening faster but it was still happening on scales of hundreds of thousands of years in the Paleolithic.
Cue the agricultural revolution.
The hunting transition likely had many centers. The transition fluctuated over an incredibly long duration of 100,000 years or more before getting off the ground and becoming the dominant mode of sustenance for all humans. With agriculture we can make a far more definitive assessment of how the transition occurred, the speed of it, the diffusion of it, and the evolutionary logic behind it.
Whereas hunting was the explosion of a moving energy source (e.g., animals); agriculture was the domestication of that moving energy source so that we didn’t have to spend our entire existence chasing our energy around. And it is important to remember that modern humans like you and I remained hunting and gathering for ~190,000 years before a few populations started the transition to sedentary life.
To illustrate this I want to discuss Omo. Omo is the first known biological modern human and he lived 200,000 years ago. If he had been born today he could have been any number of things that we deem to be highly intelligent, but Omo probably spent his entire life chasing around animals. For Omo, finding a way to have a constant and reliable source of energy was a challenge that just couldn’t be relaxed. And in that sense, Omo was unable to focus on challenges other than challenges that had consumed the “minds” of all organisms since the dawn of life. That is the important thing to know about Omo. Hunting is primitive in the sense that it is the most ancestral occupation. But what is important about hunting for a living is that you are fundamentally dedicating your time and energy to something all animals dedicate their time and energy to.
Energy and Control
But with the agricultural revolution, as I stated, an energy source is controlled. This allows humans to, for the first time, produce an energy surplus. And it is really the first time in the history of life where a stable energy surplus is achieved for a prolonged period of time. In fact, that prolonged period of time can extend all the way to the present moment.
Now by the time of the agricultural revolution humans inhabit every continent except Antarctica, and had for some time. The reason why the agricultural revolution happened in the areas it did are connected intimately with:
A) The distribution of flora and fauna at the timing of the past interglacial (20,000-10,000 years ago)
B) The orientation of the continental axis for diffusion of domesticated flora and fauna
The important thing to note here is that the transition from hunting to agriculture probably happened much quicker than did the transition to hunting. In full, the transition to agriculture has been ongoing for the past 10,000 years. Because of the nature of metasystem transitions, it is not officially over until everyone is “non-hunting”, so we can say that it pretty much finished towards the end of the 20th century. In short, the diffusion of this transition was fast compared to hunting, but still slow enough to have several independent centers.
We have a really interesting opportunity in cybernetics to learn about metasystem transitions from the agricultural revolution because we can see that they have an evolutionary logic to them. In essence, even though agriculture developed independently, essentially the same thing happened in the same order, for every independent center. This was elaborated on by archaeologist Ian Morris:
“Not only did similar things happen in both East and West, but they also happened in more or less the same order. Developments came first in the West, followed about two thousand years later by the East. This strongly suggests that developments in the East and West shared a cultural logic; the same causes had the same consequences at both ends of Eurasia. The only real difference is that the process started two thousand years earlier in the West.”
Now, I’m even tempted to go beyond what Morris is saying here because there were other centers of the agricultural revolution outside of Eurasia, most notably in West Africa and the Americas. And the same logic of the transition occurred. The same ordering of events. Namely:
- The domestication of dogs
- Cultivation of plants
- Domestication of large farm animals
- “Full farming”
- Big villages
- Big towns with fortressed walls
- Elaborate buildings related to politics/death
To take this further, I am even tempted to say that not only is there one way to have an agricultural revolution, but that this may be the only to build towards a Global Brain, no matter what the intelligent species, no matter where in the universe. Now this is a leap that I don’t even fully commit to, mostly because we don’t know if an aquatic species could evolve high intelligence and build towards a Global Brain. But just consider eusocial insects. Many eusocial insects practice agriculture of a type and build the same types of structures that humans started building, with the important difference being that the structures that humans started building, with the important difference being that the structures built by insects were built without mind (i.e., biochemical pathways), and the structures built by humans were built with mind (i.e., technocultural pathways). Because human structures are built via technocultural pathways, they are fundamentally different in their origin and evolution, but the structure is the same. Could this be the case for life no matter where or when it is in the universe? Perhaps this is a question that cybernetics could start to answer. For example, are agricultural revolution part of a fundamental cosmic evolutionary process towards a Global Brain?
Of course, I admit that structural similarities and my own inability to imagine a different pathway is not evidence that this is the case, but certainly current evidence suggest it’s a possibility. I mean, there are only so many ways that you can achieve a stable energy surplus, and exploiting the living biosphere around you seems to me to be the only possible first step.
Most importantly, the agricultural revolution allowed us to start using the brain hunting gave us, in a novel way (i.e., the accumulation of socio-cultural information and the production of more and more technology). The more the agricultural revolution advanced and diffused, the more people could focus on something other than food production. The first non-food occupations tended to be political, religious, and scientific; often with little distinction between the three. When I say political, religious, and scientific I mean that they were focused on things related to A) governing people, B) contemplating the supernatural, and C) explaining nature. And at least at the beginning of this process, the role usually included all three. Most early agricultural states made no real distinction between the supernatural and the natural. And the people with the most political control usually dictated what was to be believed about both.
The communication revolution caused by the agricultural revolution was writing. Writing took spoken language and it solidified it. This improves the transfer of information in both time and space, by which I mean that for the first time you can acquire information from someone that is not immediately present either temporally or spatially. This allowed people to improve upon previous cultural practices and technological developments. Technoculture can further “get off the ground” or accelerate and as a result we see the literal explosion of new professions (e.g., engineers, architects, historians, philosophers, teachers, scientists, etc.).
These new professions were caused by new individual and collective challenge propagation centers. Individuals that have the problem of food considerably relaxed (i.e, they don’t have to hunt or farm) start to tackle qualitatively different challenges and can collaborate with more people in order to achieve their goal state. For example, the problem of how to irrigate a society was a new problem that was a non-problem in hunter-gatherer systems. Or the problem of disseminating large amounts of philosophical, scientific, and religious knowledge effectively was a new problem that was a non-problem in hunter-gatherer systems.
From these new individual challenges, collective intelligence emerges in a real way and this is the cause of institutions. Institutions are challenge propagation centers of large groups and they allowed (and still allow) humans to achieve things on a larger scale than individual humans or small groups can. Each institution has an initial state and a goal state just like individuals do and they achieve their goal state in the same way individuals do, by attempting to get the right information to the right agents in the system. An institutions success will be based on how well it can do this relative to the institutions it is competing with the system.
Remember the picture of cities from space (from part 1/5)? Societies have the same structure as neurons when photographed from space because institutions are essentially a social technology that we use to achieve goals that we can’t do without assistance. As I hope to demonstrate towards the end of this series, the existence of institutions may not be necessary in the Global Brain.
But back to the agricultural transition itself. Large institutions were fundamentally what ensured hunters and gatherers were on their way out and that the transition would continue to the end. In a hunter gatherer society, challenge propagation systems are not only mostly individual or within small groups, but also mostly focused on problems related to natural selection (e.g., finding food). Agriculturally-based systems can have specialized intelligences dealing with problems unrelated directly to natural selection. The result is that hunter gatherer systems are, sooner or later, subsumed within agricultural systems.
The main difference with institutions is a quantitative one. What I mean by this is simply that institutions are the collective action of individuals, and in fact, their existence is dependent on individual interest. Institutions allowed humans to deal with problems on a larger geographic scale (e.g., instead of a raid led by a couple individuals, a military institution can collectively aggregate hundreds of thousands to engage in a war; or instead of simply being an individual in awe of supernatural, a religious institution can codify through writing some larger belief structure that everyone can agree to (or largely agree to)). This is a degree of cooperation that is only seen in eusocial insects like ants and termites, but again, is fundamentally different for evolutionary reasons I’ve already touched on briefly.
In this sense, the thoughts of institutions can sort of be seen as the collective thoughts of society (i.e., what society “believes”). This is why we can be collectively “proud” or “embarrassed” of our government or our religious institutions. And this makes the balance between what the collective believes and what the institutions actually do a really delicate balance. This is because, even though humans cooperate to a high degree, we are at base selfish organisms, like all other organisms. As a result, if any individual gains too much power, the institution itself can become dangerous to the collective.
The more centralized the institution is, meaning the fewer agents have any real control over the function of the institution, the less intelligently it will behave (e.g., because it starts to “suffocate” the “neurons” in the system). By less intelligent I specifically mean that the more centralized an institution, the less problems it will be able to solve. As a result of this, there is always a natural selection towards ever more decentralized institutions, but they require metasystem transitions to fundamentally change.
A good example of this type of institution decentralization comes from comparing political institutions in early agricultural civilizations to political institutions in old agricultural civilizations. In Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia (for example) the political leaders were literally seen to be Gods with all power. Early political structures were completely centralized. They were able to behave however they wanted, even if it meant enslaving a large proportion of their own people to build structures that were ultimately for a selfish purpose, as opposed to a collective purpose.
They were able to do this because of the information transfer rate. Although the information transfer rate was much higher than in hunter gatherer systems, it was still too poor in early agricultural systems to diffuse the best information accurately throughout the entire society. Societies with such a restrictive information transfer system can’t really exist today because we have highly advanced mediums for communication. When such societies do exist (e.g., North Korea) they can only exist by blocking information from the populous. But as a result of blocking information from the populous they can’t exert any real power over any other territory because their challenge propagation centers are too centralized. Eventually, North Korea will be “naturally selected” away and replaced with 21st century challenge propagation centers that are far more decentralized (and obviously the sooner this happens the better for the sake of the individuals in North Korea).
Before the beginning of the third metasystem transition (e.g., the industrial revolution), we see the emergence of political institutions that can most popularly be described as “constitutional monarchies”. This first happened in England in 1688 (about 50-60 years before the industrial revolution) and it marked the beginning of a transition from absolute monarchies, which are political entities where the most powerful agents are almost completely unaccountable to the collective they are governing, to a political institution that must at least be partially accountable via the construction of a semi-democratically constructed set of rules (i.e., a constitution). This started to happen before the third metasystem transition because the communication revolution of the industrial revolution had already started with the development and diffusion of the printing press. The printing press dramatically increased the information transfer rate, and made it obvious to a large proportion of society that absolute monarchies were unjust.
The industrial revolution is widely accepted to have started around the year 1750 in Britain. Like previous metasystem transitions, it was largely enabled by the growing communication revolution made possible by the printing press. And keeping in line with previous metasystem transition trends, the industrial revolution occurs and diffuses faster than the agricultural transition. In fact, it occurs and diffuses so fast that it has only one diffusion center, whereas the agricultural revolution had 4-5 centers. Again, the transition is stimulated by the exploitation of new energy sources like steam, coal, and eventually oil.
However, unlike the agricultural revolution, there are no other biological systems known to have exploited this form of energy to stabilize their population. Does this mean that technocultural pathways are the only way to exploit the ancient biosphere (e.g., fossil fuels)? At least we can say that biochemical pathways are insufficient considering eusocial insects have been around for tens of millions of years unchanged.
Now few fundamentally new institutions arise during the industrial revolution, but no major institutions whose origins were during the agricultural revolution escape fundamental changes during the industrial revolution. Like other metasystem transitions this is caused by the combination of a newly exploited energy source and the widespread diffusion of literature. The printing press dramatically increased literacy, and also dramatically increased the amount any one person could read. It also set forth a revolution in media and journalism. In fact, the roots of our modern media and journalism institutions have their beginning in the Industrial Revolution.
Political institutions, which were formerly governed by religiously privileged blood-lines begin to be replaced by democratically elected leaders (even though the democratic process is still largely exclusionary). This is best demonstrated in the examples of the American Revolution in 1776 and the French Revolution of 1789-1799. Both of these revolutions were fundamentally against the idea of political institutions that had been developing and proliferating since the agricultural revolution. The center of the Industrial Revolution did not undergo a similar revolution because of the Glorious Revolution of 1688 (which I already mentioned above), that had stripped monarchies of their absolute power.
Today, we see both the American and French revolutions as perhaps the most important political developments in human history. They established a strong modern belief in democracy, secular government, and individual rights; even if both governments have not completely functioned how they should have functioned in theory.
And as the Industrial Revolution spread, so too did democracy. Due to the exploitationary nature of the globalization process and colonialism, such developments diffused throughout non-Western regions much slower than they did throughout the Western regions. Colonial powers in the 19th and early 20th century began the painful transition to largely democratically elected, secular institutions, with an emphasis on the Enlightenment belief that the individual was important and deserved certain rights and freedoms. And in that sense, it is the Enlightenment philosophy that lays down the intellectual architecture necessary for the accelerated growth of our system into a Global Brain. Individual rights over everything. Nothing is more important than ensuring that we maximize the happiness and experience of every human consciousness.
Of course, there were industrialized western nations that struggled in this transition, but it was always reactionary. Germany and Russia come to mind as examples of this. Germany and Russia decided to centralize as a response to the enormous wealth England and America acquired via overseas colonialism. But what is important is that the industrial revolution ignited democracy, not fascism or centralized communism. Fascism and centralized communism are the outliers, democracy is the trend. And both Germany and Russia today are democratic states, not fascist centralized states.
Before I move on, I want to make it clear that I’m not saying that history could have occurred otherwise. In an alternative history that had witnessed the Third Reich and the Axis of Evil triumphing over the West, we would have simply seen the world descend into a post-modern dark age. The Third Reich was a military expansionist state built on perpetual war and exclusion. A state like that couldn’t exist for long with the degree of information available during the Industrial Revolution. But if history had gone otherwise, as I said, we wouldn’t be on the pathway to the Global Brain because cooperation wouldn’t have increased, competition would have. The birth of a Global Brain could have been delayed by centuries. However, I contend that regardless of who won World War II, it wouldn’t have mattered on the scales of deep time. What is going to happen this century would have happened eventually.
Finally, once non-Western regions earned their independence from the European metropoles post World War II, large projects to “industrialize” and establish “Western-style” democracies accelerated, and this process is still developing today. At first most non-Western states fell into political structures that can best be described as autocracies, which are essentially dictatorships (modern monarchies). But as more and more information diffused via better and better information transfer systems, the transition to democracy has accelerated. This process is happening slower that would be ideal in the Middle East and Africa (for important reasons), but it is coming, and will come, because democracy is the stable strategy. But if industrial institutions do not diffuse throughout the entire world by the 2040s, then these regions will transfer from agricultural institutions to Global Brain institutions, and just by-pass industrial institutions.
So far I have focused on how the Industrial Revolution established a new political environment. But the same can be done for religious, economic, scientific, sexual, and medical institutions as well. Religious institutions have been transformed from ultimate authorities on pretty much everything to increasingly marginalized and often ridiculed institutions that, without tax exemption, would likely collapse entirely within decades. In the 21st century developed world, tax exemption maintains the illusion that these institutions are stable and influential.
Now remember that institutions are challenge propagation centers established to accomplish things that individuals and small groups can’t do on their own. So as more and more information became available within our system, institutions were forced to actually start serving and/or respecting people’s individual interests more and more because they were more well read. It has become increasingly unstable for institutions to exist if the most powerful agents within the institution do not behave altruistically. Our system has too much information to be exploited to the degree that people were during the agricultural metasystem transition. A political leader can’t just by himself decide that he is going to send thousands of people into war just because he is bored (monarchs could do this). So in this sense, our institutions are now inherently more cooperative than they were, although of course we still get exploited. And some regions suffer due to this exploitation more than others. As we will see, we need a Global Brain to solve that exploitation.
But also, because institutions function as challenge propagation centers, with more information they have become better at solving problems. Monarchies just can’t solve the number of problems that a secular democracy can because decisions are more decentralized, which is the inherent nature of intelligence. Likewise, institutions that were not solving the right problems, like religion when it came to understanding nature, were marginalized and replaced by fully secular scientific institutions that were much better at discovering things about nature, because of science’s decentralized nature. If science has a motto it is “there are no authorities”. The exact anti-thesis of religion. Religious institutions are set up in the least intelligent way. There are a few authorities and everyone else is told to sit in whatever worship structure that is culturally promoted to shut their brain off. Science is set up so that as many people can participate as would like to. As many brains are allowed to join the conversation, propose a new hypothesis, test a previous study to ensure that it is correct. And every scientist uses the same methodology so that a scientist in India can replicate an experiment done by a scientist in England or China.
All of this, whether it be politics, religion, or science, allows for everyone in the system to have more opportunities. Democracy has allowed for more freedom of expression and belief. In principle, you should be able to do anything you want in a democracy as long as you are not directly harming another human. This is why Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden are heroes and not enemies of the state. That is why the Internet loves them, and centralized government officials hate them. Centralized government officials in America are operating within a system that does not encourage them to behave altruistically. But as we will see in the next transition, industrial political institutions do not have a bright future.
As the metasystem transitions progress, we don’t just get institutions that solve more problems, we also get institutions that can enable more opportunities. Since the Industrial Revolution, science has enabled an uncountable number of opportunities. You now have the opportunity to live longer, eat healthier, be less diseased, communicate with anyone, travel almost everywhere, not be lynched because of your pigmentation, not be discriminated against because of your sexuality, you can read about everything we know about the universe for free and understand how we exist. All of this because of the challenge propagation centers of science. Nothing else.
Remember all of this started with a communication revolution, followed by a transportation revolution. The transportation revolution started with better ships and steam engines, before exponentially exploding into the diffusion of automobiles and planes (and maybe a hyperloop soon?!). And it is important to note that the transportation revolution really got off the ground post World War II (post colonialism), which is really the period where we see the metasystem transition “went global”.
Before we enter the Global Brain, let’s not forget about the enormous increase in standard of living, caused directly by the industrial metasystem transition. Matt Ridley summarized this brilliantly in The Rational Optmist:
“How long would you have to work to earn an hour of reading light… say, the light of an 18-watt compact flourescent light bulb burning for an hour. Today it will have cost you less than half a second of your working time if you are on the average wage: half a second of work for an hour of light. In 1950, with a conventional filament lamp and the then wage, you would have had to work for eight seconds to get the same amount of light. Had you been using a kerosene lamp in the 1880s, you would have had to work for about fifteen minutes to get the same amount of light. A tallow candle in the 1800s: over six hours work. And to get that much light from a sesame-oil lamp in Babylon in 1750 B.C.E. would have cost you more than fifty hours of work. From six hours to half a second… a 43,200-fold improvement… for an hours of lighting: that is how much better off you are than your ancestor was in 1800, using the currency that counts, your time.”
Alright, we have travelled through approximately 2 million years of human evolution and history. Are you ready for the future?
Next we dive straight into the Global Brain…
And if you missed it, you can read parts 1 and 2 of the series below:
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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”