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As I have discussed in A Dialogue on Religion, Dogma, Imagination, and Conceptualization and Do Deities Defecate? (among other essays), what people conceptualize as “god” may well be as legitimate an object of conceptualization as “infinity,” “eternity,” and “love.” It may well be as legitimate an object of conceptualization as “consciousness,” which, indeed, it is closely related to.

As humans, we know that we subjectively experience the existence of human “consciousness.” We have minds, which, by and large, are the expression of the functioning of our physical brains, in interaction with one another and our environment. We normally conceptualize this consciousness to be an individual-level phenomenon, each of us having our own, the connection among them being tendrils of communication among separate nodes of consciousness.

But this individual-level conceptualization becomes suspect on closer examination. We think in languages, using concepts, drawing on stories and narratives and sciences and philosophies that we did not individually invent. We wield metaphors and analogies and a wealth of material that preceded our own individual consciousness, with only a very slight individuation of that cognitive material on the margins identifying our own consciousness as unique, as differentiated from the collective consciousness from which it was born and in which it is embedded. (See, for instance, The Fractal Geometry of Social Change, for a vivid description of this collective consciousness.)

So human consciousness, in a sense, is not so much individual as collective, a shared process in which our individual participation provides the robustness and creativity, but in which our collective participation defines the scope and substance. But it is still strictly “human,” right?

Few who have ever had a beloved pet would be in complete agreement with that assessment. Our family dog Buttercup is clearly somewhat “conscious,” aware of our love for her and of hers for us, communicating her desire to play, to go out, to be petted, with ease and determination. She is excited at the prospect of walking to school with my daughter, where she knows she will get to run in the park on the way, and receive affection from the other children upon arrival. She has both human and dog friends that she recognizes and greets and communicates with on a rudimentary level. She clearly possesses some degree of what humans call “consciousness.”

To explore that “lesser degree” of consciousness so clearly evident in large mammals, it’s useful to switch from the cultural (consciousness as a function of language and symbolic communication) to the biological (consciousness as an expression of genetic codes). The human mind, as an artifact of the human brain –which is an anatomical product of an evolutionary process of genetic reproduction, mutation, and competition for reproductive success– is clearly not absolutely unique. Like the individual in a society on the cognitive level, the human mind is the individuation of a biological and genetic theme. We see similarities to it among other large mammals, and even among very different animals, in some ways: when an insect scurries away from danger, the scurrying LOOKS a whole lot like fear, even if it isn’t. But maybe the resemblance isn’t completely irrelevant after all.

What distinguishes humans from all other creatures on Earth (with the possible exception of some large sea mammals) is cognitively complex symbolic communication (i.e., “language,” though the qualifier “cognitively complex” is necessary, due to the complex languages of many other creatures, such as bees, whose intricate dances indicate where the nectar is to be found). And, indeed, it is that cognitively complex language which has created the echo of genetic evolution particular to the anthrosphere: Human History (and the cultural/political/economic/cognitive evolution that defines it).

But that cognitively complex language is the product of a very slight genetic variation. We are genetically barely distinguishable from other large apes, more closely related to Chimpanzees than Chimpanzees are to Gorillas or Orangutans. So while language gives our biologically-based consciousness a particularly robust expression, it does not remove it in essence very far from our nearest biological relatives. They, too, have a nearly equal quantity of the individual-level stuff of consciousness, but merely lack the complex tendrils of communication that launch that consciousness into the societal level of development and expression.

What we see by looking at consciousness both through the lens of a cultural and human historical context, and the lens of a genetic and natural historical context, is that it is neither a particularly individual level phenomenon, nor an exclusively human phenomenon. It is, rather, something that is “out there” in the fabric of nature, finding different degrees and forms of expression in different contexts.

Neither is it any coincidence that these two lenses are both “evolutionary” lenses, one the lens of biological/genetic evolution and its products, and the other cultural/memetic evolution and its products. “Consciousness” as we know it, both in terms of the expression of the functioning of the human brain (a product of biological evolution), and in terms of the expression of the cognitive material accumulated and refined through communication among human brains (a product of cultural evolution), is an expression of evolutionary processes.

What is the exact nature of the connection between “evolution” and “consciousness”? Here’s one surprising suggestion: Both can be defined as the purposeful refinement of behavior and form in response to experience. Evolution is a process driven by the lathe of trial and error, in which the forms and behaviors (those genes in general) of living organisms are refined over time in response to relative reproductive success, preserving those that are most reproductively successful. Human consciousness is a process driven by the lathe of human experience and communication, in which those forms and behaviors (those cognitions in general) that are most copied by others are the ones that are preserved.

In fact, biologists routinely use the language and mathematics of economics to describe evolutionary and ecological phenomena. They refer to “strategies,” and employ the microeconomic tool of analysis known as “game theory” to analyze the evolution of competing biological strategies. Biologists are quick to emphasize that this is a metaphor, that there was no conscious intent behind the evolution of competing reproductive strategies, that they just “resemble” intentional human strategic action, that they just resemble “consciousness.”

But might this not be a bit anthrocentric of us? I am not disputing the recognition that biological evolution is not the intentional product of a centralized mind in the same way that human strategic behavior is (though, as I indicated above, even human strategic behavior, when involving any organization of human beings, has a decentralized element to it as well). But I am bringing into question the sharp conceptual differentiation between a process that we recognize as consciousness because we subjectively experience it, and the process that produced it that appears to be remarkably similar in form.

Might it not make more sense to conceptualize human consciousness, which is the product of evolutionary processes that envelope it and preceded it, as similar to those processes, rather than conceptualizing those preceding and enveloping processes as being similar to human consciousness? If it were not for the fact that we are human beings, subjectively aware of our own consciousness, wouldn’t it be more rational to give priority to the biological and historical progenitor of our consciousness than to its by-product (i.e., human consciousness)?

This conceptual journey began with the human individual, and panned out to identify consciousness as a function of the human collective, and then panned out futher to identify consciousness as a function of the evolutionary ecology of the planet Earth. Can we continue panning out, to see these all as nested levels of a coherent aspect of nature, that is woven into the fabric of the cosmos, and that finds different kinds of expression at different levels of manifestation?

Fritjov Capra, UC-Berkeley Physicist and author of The Tao of Physics, wrote more recently in The Web of Life, that a biological paradigm was replacing a physical one as the fundamental paradigm of Nature. The reason for this, posits Capra, is that the emerging science of complex dynamical systems (best known as “Chaos Theory”) is discovering that the kinds of processes most commonly associated with organic processes, with life, are far more widespread, far more fundamental, far more woven into the fabric of Nature, than we had previously realized. The universe and its subsystems are, in many ways, more like a vast living thing with living things nested within it, than like a dead mechanical device comprised of nested levels of mechanical components.

Even physics itself, moving toward String Theory, a mathematical model of “The Cosmic Symphony,” seems to be increasingly compatible with this view.

If it is more an organic than mechanical universe; if human consciousness can be recognized as a direct “echo” of preceding and enveloping natural processes; and if we step back in yet another way and recognize that the mere existence of human consciousness demonstrates that Nature is somehow inherently capable of producing such a phenomenon, that matter and energy can be arranged in such a way as to become “conscious,” and if we contemplate the mind-bogglingly subtle and complex coherence of the universe and its myriad subsystems, is it such a leap to conceptualize the universe itself as a conscious entity, the fabric of Nature being, in a sense, “consciousness”?

Isn’t it that primal wisdom, that neolithic recognition, that has found expression in the form of God and gods? The error is not in the conceptualization, in the use of the metaphor and the exploration of reality that it facilitates, but rather in our conceptualization of conceptualization itself. We can’t seem to make the move from recognizing that what we hold in our minds and what those thoughts refer to are never identical, that we are always reducing, simplifying reality into forms we can grasp and work with, that reality itself is always more subtle and complex than our conceptualizations of it.

We seem to have fallen into two distinct patterns of error: The religious one, in which the world and universe is conceptualized as intentionally ruled by an anthropomorphic God that thinks and acts suspiciously similar to how a human being thinks and acts; and the atheistic one, in which the world and universe is conceptualized as a dead machine in which random chance produced the otherwise unremarkable isolated phenomenon of human consciousness.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the ancient civilization that was most remarkable for the florescence of rational thought and subtle and insightful natural philosophies was also most remarkable for the incomparably robust and rich mythology that it produced. The ancient Greeks demonstrated that when we are most prolific and innovative in the generation of the products of the human imagination, we are most prolific and innovative in the generation of the products of human reason as well. The two are more intimately related than we sometimes realize.

So, while I believe that literary gods serve us better than literal ones, I also believe that investing in the processes of consciousness serves us better than entrenching ourselves in its ephemeral products (see, e.g., Scholarship v. Ideology, Ideology v. Methodology and An Argument for Reason and Humility). The error is not that our literal gods need to be replaced with an equally off-the-mark recognition of their literal absence, but rather that we need to refine our entire relationship to reality, understanding that our conceptualizations are just that: Conceptualizations. Our own consciousness best articulates with the consciousness of which we are a part when it does so most flexibly, most humbly, and most imaginatively. The gods beckon us to know them better by knowing less and contemplating more.

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Click here to buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards for just $2.99!!!

Brian Arthur’s thesis on the evolution of technology in his book The Nature of Technology (with thanks to Rick Munoz for the gift) dovetails so nicely with my broader paradigm of human social institutional ecology, addressing precisely that aspect which I had mostly left to the side (see, e.g., The Politics of Consciousness, in which I identify “social institutional and technological regimes” as the paradigms into which evolving memes aggregate, but focus on social institutions and ideologies), that this post is largely a synopsis of Arthur’s ideas, extended into and blended with “my own” marginal contribution. (The book is well worth reading; my summary here does not do it justice).

In brief, Arthur’s thesis is that technologies, which are essentially “programmed” natural phenomena, are comprised of assemblies and components, and subassemblies and subcomponents, down to an elemental level, with constant marginal modifications and recombinations of subcomponents, creating technological domains (e.g., digital, electronic, genetic, etc.), thus evolving within the context of these technological ecosystems (an idea I began to address before reading Arthur’s book, in The Evolutionary Ecology of Audio-Visual Entertainment (& the nested & overlapping subsystems of Gaia), Information and Energy: Past, Present, and Future, and The Nature-Mind-Machine Matrix). The entire corpus of technology, in articulation with the evolving economy and legal system, evolves as well, causing cascades of destruction of linkages to technologies made obsolete by innovations, and cascades of new technologies made possible or necessary by other recent innovations.

The key to Arthur’s paradigm is that technologies are purposive programmings of natural phenomena (including human behavioral phenomena), and so both include (along with what is more conventionally visualized as “technology”) those social institutional innovations that are purposive (e.g., currency instruments) and exclude anything that developed haphazardly (e.g., informal social norms), though they both coevolve, adapting to one another. Technological evolution differs from Darwinian biological evolution primarily in the fact that new “species” (i.e., inventions) do not emerge merely as the result of an accretion of incremental changes selected by virtue of their relative reproductive success, but also by virtue of rather sudden new configurations of old technologies, and applications of new principles to old challenges. But these novel forms, whether the small increments of engineers making new applications of old technologies to solve novel problems, or the larger innovations of inventors utilizing new principles to address new or old challenges, are then subjected to that same Darwinian lathe.

Some of the distinguishing characteristics of technologies are that they are recursive (they are comprised of components that are themselves technologies, which in turn are comprised of components that are in turn technologies), modular (comprised of main assemblies performing main functions and subassemblies performing auxiliary functions), programmings of natural phenomena, and constantly evolving from earlier forms, midwifed by human ingenuity, but generated, in a sense, by earlier innovations. Each problem confronted implicates both backward and forward linkages, affecting the components of the technology worked with, and the possibilities with which new problems can be addressed.

Technologies form a kind of language within their domain, which practitioners draw on the way a composer or author draws on the musical or written language that is their medium, expressing a desired objective through recourse to the known phrases and grammars of those languages. It develops according to a combinatorial evolution, with something that developed in another domain for another reason available to those who recognize a novel use for it elsewhere. The memes of technological evolution are free radicals, able to attach to any other group of memes where they may have a particular basis for thriving.

Technology evolves in tandem with science, both the means of scientific discovery (the instruments used) and informed by science (finding the principles on which to base technological advances).

Technology evolves from few to many, from simple to complex, beginning with direct exploitations of natural phenomena (fire, sharp objects, etc.), and growing on the possibilities created by their exploitation, with new technologies and technological domains opening up new opportunities for yet more innovations. This is not unlike the evolution of biological and social institutional forms, which evolved from a single cell into the plethora of life now on Earth, and from more or less homogeneous primate cultures to the great variation of human cultures generated by geographic dispersion and differentiation.

Nor is the winnowing out process particularly different, in which some technologies (species, cultures) become dominant and widespread, eclipsing others, sometimes even eliminating them all together, forming distinct branches where an undifferentiated continuum would otherwise have been.

The processes of innovation rippling through the system (by posing new problems and creating new opportunities, by requiring new auxiliary assemblies, by rendering old ones obsolete, and the linkages that depended wholly on them obsolete as well), sweeping up economic and legal structures with it (creating new needs for new infrastructure, new forms of organization, new legal contexts, etc., while rendering others obsolete and archaic), includes a variety of stages, such as “standard engineering” (adapting an existing technology to varying contexts), adding on (improving performance and addressing problems by tacking on new subsystems), reaching limits and being faced with needs (trying to capture new potentialities that would require some improvement that current technologies can’t yet provide, and seeking a new principle to exploit to provide it), and undergoing a paradigm shift as a result (creating a new technology, that then sets in motion all of the rippling changes new technologies set into motion).

What does this mean for public policy? Public policy is, essentially, the attempt to establish and implement social institutional technologies, based on principles of human behavioral phenomena. From the haphazardly accumulated mass of social institutional materials, the challenge is to find components and assemblies that are usable, to combine and recombine them in fluent ways, in pursuit of specific objectives. One example would be what I have called “Political Market Instruments” (see Deforestation: Losing an Area the Size of England Every Year), which simply adapt the combined technologies of market exchange and regulatory oversight to the goal of increasing the production of a public good or decreasing the production of a public bad. It is an excellent example of Arthur’s modularity in action, since it is the integration of technologies that had not previously been so combined.

Some examples of social institutional technologies and how they combine include Democracy, the U.S. Constitution, and corporate business organization, resulting in, among other things, constitutionally protected massive funding for commercial-saturated campaign cycles. Many would argue that new technologies are demanded by the problems created through this combination of old ones. Another example is the borrowing from markets to combine its principles to public education in the form of vouchers. These examples point to the fact that while we gain much from our technologies, we also create new problems with them, and need to pick and choose how and when to implement them, always in service to a vision of how to forge our way into the future most in service to human well-being in the fullest sense.

Human social institutional and technological evolution is not something that occurs exclusively “in” the human mind, via the differentially successful reproduction of memes and their aggregation into paradigms (shifting in response to accumulations of anomalies). At least in regards to successful purposive systems, the natural phenomena upon which those memes and paradigms are working are in some ways (as Arthur points out) more the “genetic material” of those evolving forms than the packets of information working them. The programmed phenomena themselves form the alphabet and vocabulary of technological innovation, which the memes order into a grammar.

An example of an obvious human behavioral phenomenon on which the social institutional technologies of markets draw is: People will exchange what they have for something they value more highly. Another one, which allows the shift from barter to currency, is: People will recognize some fungible and generally fairly compact thing of agreed upon value, in large enough supply to serve the purpose but small enough supply to retain its value, as a medium of exchange. Many such social institutional technologies exist, based on how we respond to potential costs and benefits (including hierarchically imposed rewards and punishments and diffusely imposed  social approval and disapproval), how we internalize values, and so on. The need to base social policies on an understanding of these phenomena is critical.

But, in a sense, there are two interwoven currents in our social institutional evolutionary ecology: The evolution of technologies (“purposive systems”), including social institutional technologies, and the haphazard maelstrom of psychologically and emotionally (rather than social systemically and economically) motivated reactions to it. The distinction is similar to the natural landscape around us, from which we have sculpted some architectures of our own. (Both, it might be argued, are evolutionary ecologies, and bear some of the characteristics described by Arthur, since even the haphazardly evolving social institutional landscape can borrow from other cultures or social institutional milieu and combine forms in new ways).

The purposeful and utlilitarian stream is characterized by a relatively high signal-to-noise ratio (see The Signal-To-Noise Ratio), utilizing the grammar of various domains relatively fluently. The psychologically and emotionally unreflective reactions to it are characterized by a relatively low signal-to-noise ratio, speaking internal languages whose correspondence to external reality is less disciplined (see Ideology v. Methodology). Technologies correspond to scientific and legal methodologies, while the evolutionary currents around them correspond to collections of arbitrary or unreflectively formed beliefs and rituals. The latter evolve as well, and may serve many human needs, but with less precision and reliability.

To be sure, sometimes technologies are quite toxic, and cultural rituals are quite benign. But the toxicity of the former can not be nullified by the benign qualities of the latter: It can only be addressed through another purposeful system, another technology, designed with the intention of addressing it. When there is a purpose beyond the inherent value of the thing itself, an architecture is required (such as shelter from the elements); when there is no purpose beyond that inherent value (such as a conversation with a friend or a party), no architecture beyond that which facilitates the event is required.

So the purposeful processes by which technologies emerge and develop, particularly social institutional technologies, and particularly those mediated by government action, slog through the viscous resistance of emotionally and psychologically motivated beliefs and rituals, bludgeoned by Luddites and chased by torch-bearing mobs. The progress of human consciousness (including that portion designed to address the problems caused by other products of the same process) is thus encumbered by those clinging to some sacred tradition and determined to tether all humanity to it.

The result is not stagnation, since change is constant. It is not an avoidance of the pitfalls and dangers of progress, but rather a blindfolding of it, an assurance that though forward progress will be slower and clumsier, it will also more certainly and more heavily be laden with the catastrophes of self-destruction that are inherent to stumbling down unexamined and danger-strewn paths.

Negotiating this evolving ecosystem of social institutions, technologies, and their interactions with both individuals and the natural environment involves more than hammering together a set of purposive systems. It is a vibrant whole, a metabolism, more organic than mechanistic. Understanding how it flows, how changes ripple through it, how its complexity and interconnectedness forms the roiling currents we are riding, is the ultimate art and science of consciously articulating our lives with their context in ways that allow us to fulfil potentials we have only barely begun to imagine. To some extent, these potentials will be realized by technologies, including social institutional technologies. But human consciousness is more than the sum of its parts, and the more our technologies and ideologies flow and undulate with the rhythms of the evolving natural, social institutional, and technological systems within which they are embedded, and with which they articulate, the more fully we will realize the full breadth and depth of our humanity.

Ironically, the haphazardly formed social institutional landscape from which technology carves out its architectures is approximated again in the ecology of that architecture itself. It is not the escape from that beautiful dance of chaos that holds the greatest promise for humanity, but rather the perfection of the art of dancing to its rhythms.

(See The Evolutionary Ecology of Social Institutions and The Fractal Geometry of Social Change for a continuation of this theme).

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Click here to buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards for just $2.99!!!

Out of many, one. The phrase on the Great Seal of the United States is an explicit reference to the realization of those who are idolized by today’s extreme individualists that we are not ultimately a mere collection of individuals or states, but rather each a part of a greater unity.

Those today who claim to be the standard bearers of the Constitution and of our original national ideology implicitly chant, instead,  “E Unus Pluribum” (Out of the one, many). They constantly denounce recognition of human interdependence, and the responsibilities that come of membership in a society. They claim the Constitution which was drafted to unite us is the authority of division, that all sense of mutual obligation implemented through political agency is a travesty against the anarchy that they imagine is our highest ideal. They return us to the days of Social Darwinists rationalizing indifference to human suffering, and reverence for gross inequalities and injustices. They not only are the preachers of ignorance, but of centuries old ignorance.

But there are wisdoms more ancient than their ignorance. “E Pluribus Unum” is not just a political motto, but also a spiritual one. Hinduism codified the wisdom that individualism is an illusion, that we are each god pretending “he” is the Many, while in fact we all are merely faces of the One. It doesn’t require a deep spiritual revelation, or even enormous reflection, to realize the essential truth of this: We each think in languages, concepts, and forms that are not ours alone, that were produced by the many over time, and that merely combine in marginally unique ways with marginally unique balances to create our individuality very much on the margins of reality, with our commonality being by far the more basic fact of our existence.

The same that is true of us cognitively and culturally is true of us biologically: We are comprised of almost entirely shared genetic material, with only some marginal variation of how that material is combined creating some very marginal biological individuation. We are, biologically as well mentally, far, far, far more similar than we are different.

Our essential, pre-political unity is not just a function of similarity, but also of interdependence. Nature, sometimes misconceptualized as fundamentally an arena of competition, is at least as fundamentally an arena of cooperation, of interdependence, of an ecological unity (even, according to James Lovelock in his book Gaia, a geological/atmospheric/ecological unity).

Nature in general, and humanity in particular, consists of fields of coherence and variance, or individuation, within that coherence. The coherence is both temporal and spatial; there is a continuity of natural history, of human history, of the two in combination; there is a continuity among people in their families and communities, of families and communities in their states and nations; of states and nations in global humanity; and of all of this in the natural contexts (geological, ecological, and physical) in which we are embedded. The One is comprised of many, many elements, but they are all ultimately woven into a single dynamical tapestry in almost unlimited ways, on almost unlimited levels.

Individuation is neither the ultimate goal, nor a mere means to another goal, nor a useless illusion (despite the wisdom of Hindu thought); it is, rather, one small, beautiful, and powerful aspect of a vast coherent reality. We can celebrate it, admire it, enjoy it, utilize it, and analyze it, but we should not reify it, we should not turn it into an ultimate and immutable reality defining the limits of what we are and what we are capable of being.

Like many things in life, the relationship between the One and the Many, between the individual and the society, is a dialectic, with each serving the other, in order that the other may be of better service in return. The individualism of markets is a robust generator of wealth, while the social contract required to frame and regulate markets so that they continue to function both ever-more efficiently and ever-more fairly is our collective commitment both to that robust social institution, and to the individuals that it serves.

When minds gravitate to one extreme or the other, they diminish both their collective wisdom and their collective utility, and both individuals and the collectivity to which they belong suffer. We should neither subordinate individuals to some collective, nor collectives to some unbalanced ideal of individualism: We should instead explore our shared existence, complete with the vibrancy of individual liberty, both as a people and as individuals, working together to enrich all of our lives.

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Click here to buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards for just $2.99!!!

As Fritjov Capra, author of The Tao of Physics and The Web of Life, noted in the latter book, the dominant scientific lens through which to understand the nature of the universe may be shifting from physics to biology. Complex dynamical systems, even non-living ones, bear a stronger resemblance to organic models than to mechanical ones. It is, perhaps, a fundamentally animate universe in which we live. And the progressive patterns of that universe are repeated across levels and forms in a fractal geometry of dynamical systems. (The main contender for dominant emerging physical paradigm, meanwhile, is a mathematical model of “the cosmic symphony.” String Theory postulates that the ultimate and irreducible building blocks of the universe, from which all subatomic particles emanate, are one-dimensional vibrating strings in an 11-dimensional space! Read Brian Green’s The Elegant Universe if that idea resonates with you.)

As I wrote about in The Politics of Consciousness and Information and Energy: Past, Present, and Future, the evolutionary process of genes reproducing, occasionally mutating, and competing for reproductive success is echoed in the dynamics of human history, in which “memes” (cognitions) also reproduce (more rapidly than genes), mutate (more frequently and affirmatively than genes), and compete for reproductive success. And that pattern may be reproduced (and accelerated) yet again, in a new form, as the spawn of the spawn of Nature, human information technologies, acquire the ability to reproduce algorithmically adaptive packets of digital information that compete among themselves for reproductive success. Just as human cultural evolution is an accelerated version of the biological evolution, human autonomous technological evolution based on the digital transmission and processing of information is a yet more accelerated process. Thus humans are an intermediate ripple of consciousness in a series of accelerating inferior incarnations.

But it is the reintegration of these distinct ecologies and sub-ecologies which is perhaps most fascinating of all. It is clear that we humans will have to adapt our technologies and social institutions to the ecological context of the planet if we want to continue to have a planet on which to live (ignoring for the moment the possibility of extraterrestrial colonization). Not only did the Earth’s evolutionary ecology create us, but it also challenged us to imitate and integrate with it ever more perfectly and completely (like Bellerophon mounted on Pegasis, aspiring to reach Olympian heights, increasingly risking being thrown to our destruction for our hubris).

Both our technologies and our social institutions are bound to develop in directions that more closely mimic nature, not just in underlying dynamics and functions, but also in form, becoming softer and more “biodegradable,” creating more microtechnologies that scavenge the obsolete hulks of larger orga…, uh, “machines,” recycling them into the production processes. Such organic technologies are likely to utilize more flexible and viscous couplings, aspiring to and copying the natural machinery that remains far more sophisticated than human technologies. A computer that is more like a brain with synapses that are as agile as the brain’s can capture the advantages of both. An economy that is more like an ecosystem can produce less waste, utilize more resources, and recycle everything.

It is, at all levels –nature, mind, and machine– forms of consciousness and derivative consciousness we are talking about. “God” did indeed make “man” in “His” image, because the consciousness that is biological evolution created an echo of itself in the form of the human (or mammalian) mind, and that mind created an echo in turn, in the form of computers. So similar is nature’s “mind” to our own, that we use the language and mathematical tools of intentionality, designed for the study of human behavior, to study evolutionary ecology. Species develop “strategies” for reproductive success, that appear to us to be remarkably intentional: Disguises, defenses, weapons, colonies, divisions of labor; technologies and social institutions remarkably like our own.

Biologists are quick to admonish, “though we use the metaphor of intentionality, anatomical and genetically hard-wired adaptive strategies are not intentionally produced. It’s just a function of trial and error. Nature only resembles us in that way.” Remarkably enough, in one way in which religious faith hit the nail more squarely on the head than scientific scepticism, those biologists got it backwards: It is we that resemble Nature, not vice versa. The consciousness of Evolutionary Ecology precedes and produced us, the fact that it is a function of trial and error notwithstanding. While we have pitted God and Darwin at odds with one another, in reality, what Darwin described is simply one of God’s “mysterious ways”  (or “avatars,” to be more precise). Just as we refer to what we have created in our own image as “artificial (human) intelligence,” we ourselves are really just “artificial (natural) intelligence.”

Nature had its own “collective consciousness” before humans were here to give it a name. It musn’t be confused with human consciousness, just as human consciousness shouldn’t be confused with whatever computer consciousness might emerge (or already exists). Nature’s consciousness is diffuse, not self-reflective, not imbued with an ego or corporeal integrity. It is not the function of a human brain, and therefore is hard to conceptualize, always reduced to that which is most familiar. But it is the Intelligent Being that designed us, as (or perhaps more) similar to the godless mechanisms of an atheistic scientist as it is to the Judeo-Christian God. And it did indeed “make us in its own image.”

Just as we have now made something in ours. It was inevitable that we would “play god,” because “God” made us in “His” image, not in the superficial sense, but in the substantive sense of being designed to “play God.” We cannot help but to create our own monster, just as “God” created “His.” The story of Frankenstein is the Story of Creation, told from “God’s” perspective, with “God’s” horror at what “He” had done. (You might recall that Dr. Frankenstein didn’t fare well in the end, a fate with which we ourselves threaten Gaia, if not Jehovah).

The concept of “collective consciousness,” and the study of the epidemiology of cognitions, predate the invention of the internet, but they gain new significance in a new age of accelerated, geographically liberated network communications. Before this creation of ours becomes an autonomous evolutionary ecology of its own, it has augmented ours, accelerating the communication and analysis of information, and thus accelerating the cultural evolutionary process.

Collective consciousness, and the human cognition which comprises it, is less about the discovery of an objective reality than about the forging over time of an evolving way of interfacing with it. Our conceptualizations of reality are not reality, but rather representations of reality, nested and overlapping metaphors that we use to map an almost infinitely more complex terrain. We argue over individual or sub-group variations in that map, over whether this representation or that more accurately and usefully describes the elusive reality we are mapping; sometimes, in essence, arguing whether it should be topographic or political, whether it should be more detailed (and thus more difficult to use) or simplified.

The construction of our maps is what has been called “the social construction of reality.” It is a shared reality, but with distributed and punctuated variation, with variation both within and between groups, but group coalescences at various levels around shared aspects of individual cognitive maps (and group coalescences reproducing shared aspects of individual cognitive maps). We have religions and denominations, political ideologies and factions within them, scientific disciplines comprised of competing schools of thought. The field of human consciousness is characterized by a combination of commonality and variation,  constantly evolving, with patterns shifting according to extraordinarily complex algoriths that determine the patterns of change.

One model with which to understand this involves a tool called “cellular automata.” Cellular automata are a matrix of cells in which each can trigger changes in the state of neighboring (or otherwise interconnected) cells according to some algorithm. So, for instance, a simple cellular automata model might involve colors as states, with each cell being converted to the color that the majority of cells on which it borders has. Soon, a stable pattern of colors would emerge, perhaps all cells being a single color, or areas of particular colors emerging with sharp borders between them, But cellular automata can be far more complex than that, involving incessantly changing states rippling throughout the matrix, forming constantly shifting patterns.

Consider now cellular automata in which the shifting patterns themselves alter the algorithm by which they shift. Such is the human world. As our technologies and social institutions evolve, the speed of our communications and processing of information accelerates, and the patterns that are formed change at an accelerating rate, and according to shifting algorithms. As our tool (computers and the internet) becomes an autonomous ecology of its own, it both mimics and feeds back into the human ecology. 

How these three levels of ecology continue to co-evolve, diverging from, threatening, reinforcing, and reintegrating with one another remains to be seen. Humans will undoubtedly continue the progression of how “plugged in” we are to the technologically enhanced network that binds us together, moving from desk top to lap top computers, to hand held and then handless devices, eventually, perhaps, to implants that can be accessed with a thought, and, beyond that, possibly even some technology that involves genetic engineering which moves our internet technology in a more biological direction. A human far future of organically and remotely interconnected and augmented human consciousness (a technologically accomplished mass telepathic network) is a distinct possibility.

As our technologies become more organic, not only does the process of their integration into the human ecology accelerate, but they also become the medium through which the human ecology reintegrates with the natural ecology. The acceleration of information processing and communication will inevitably be increasingly applied to the challenge of economic sustainability, which means, in effect, reintegration of human and natural technologies, reducing their incompatability and increasing their mutual reinforcement. And the increasing use of more organic technologies and social institutions may well be a major aspect of what that reintegration looks like.

It can even take on an extraterrestrial aspect, if we use genetic engineering to adapt ourselves to extraterrestrial colonization, completing the reintegration loop, our creature altering that which created us. Here on Earth, meanwhile, the reintegration of these three evolutionary ecologies holds a promise for humanity that tantalizes the imagination, as we continue to transcend limitations that we once thought untranscendable, and continue to become an ever-more conscious aspect of a larger consciousness.

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This is a very specific, almost arbitrary, example of the systemic nature of the reality in which we live, and an illustration of the coherence of systems across levels and disciplines. The relevance, for me (other than exercising the sense of wonder that I believe should be driving us), is to draw attention once again to the ways in which we can better understand the context within which we live, both “human” and “natural” (it’s all natural, really), and, by doing so, can be better equipped to interact with that context wisely and productively. It stands in opposition to the movement advocating self-governance by shallow platitude, and in support of the movement that insists we are conscious entities, forever summoned to cope with the challenges and opportunities of a complex and subtle world.

The October 11 issue of Time Magazine has an article in it about Blockbuster’s “failure at failing” (i.e., its failure to manage its demise in shareholders’ best interests), which made me think of what an excellent example audio-visual entertainment is of the parallels between economics and evolutionary ecology, with the distinction (among others) of far more cross-over synthesis  involved in the flow of innovations (like “breeding” of genetically dissimilar species to produce dramatically different ones). It is a story of dominant successors displacing eclipsed predecessors, combining with other dominant successors from other distinct lines of evolutionary descendance

Like a whole new species emerging from the combination of photographs (flipped in rapid succession) and, eventually, phonographs, first silent movies and then talkies spread like Eucalyptus trees in California. Movies shown at movie theaters became a dominant form of entertainment. Breaking this down a little, silent movies were the Neanderthals to the Homo Sapiens Sapiens of talkies, a dominant sub-species either displacing or interbreeding with the “inferior” one, driving it into extinction.

Then, by improving and adapting the technology of broadcasting signals encoded with sound (radio) to this form of entertainment, incorporating moving images as well, a new ecological niche was formed, one that would prove to be immensely robust: Television, in one’s own home (again, television being the dominant successor to radio, with the synthesis of audio-visual entertainment with broadcast technology being its genesis). The various species (audio recordings, radio, movies, and television) have found different ecological niches ever since, sometimes competing at one another’s expense, sometimes contributing to one another’s reproductive success. Silent movies were the only species from these various braided lines of development to go (virtually) completely extinct.

Within the television industry, various micro-ecologies evolved, with three major networks in the United States swallowing up and revitalizing local stations, forming a very robust symbiosis. Different content formats were tried and evolved: Talk shows, variety shows, news broadcasts (all off-spring of radio predecessors in form). Sit-coms, courtroom dramas, cop shows, and other archetypical forms, emerged and evolved, and occasionally blended into new forms (Ally McBeal and Boston Legal  each blending comedy and courtroom drama, for instance).

Meanwhile, movies evolved as well, with special effects, and various genres, and various motifs developing and cross-breeding and displacing predecessors in a variety of ways. And some cross-breeding occurred between movies and television (and novels), with mini-series briefly enjoying a heyday (though short-lived due to the expense of production, a species-killer, at least in television, at least thus-far).

Enter video cassettes, a technology cross-pollinator of movies and TV. Now movies produced for cinemas could be watched at home on television sets. This seemed to threaten the survival of the movie industry for awhile, reducing box office revenues dramatically, until the movie industry adapted, and found that home rentals and sales could be every bit as lucrative.

Then the separate evolutionary thread that produced the computer revolution cross-fertilized with these, as with virtually all other evolutionary threads, producing compact disks, and, eventually, streaming video (as well as downloadable songs and i-pods, and downloadable movies).

Blockbuster was an innovative business piggybacking on the invention of video cassettes, which made more sense to rent than to buy. It was a niche waiting to be filled. But like ostentatious displays such as huge antlers on elk or bright plumage on peacocks, signalling to potential mates a surplus of male prowess, few qualities contribute more to reproductive success of products sold in the modern market than increased convenience. So, with the invention of the compact disk (and more manageable postage rates associated with smaller size), Netflix swept in to occupy that niche, ultimately spelling doom for the far larger and richer Blockbuster.

Netflix itself had to adapt to streaming or downloaded video via computer, or it would have been displaced by dominant successors just as it had displaced Blockbuster (which failed to adapt in time, though it might now). In fact, Netflix faces stiff competition from others eager to fill the streaming and downloadable video niche, including Amazon and Apple. And a separate niche exists for supermarket and store based CD rental vending machines, in which Redbox enjoys an early dominance.

I’ve traced above just one set of strands of a far vaster and more complicated net, with, for instance, the evolution of audio recording devices (phonographs to reel-to-reel tape to cassettes to digital, with the various forms of vinyl recordings evolving alongside of magnetic tapes); different filming and projecting technologies and types (as well as production styles); television sets (from small black-and-white to slightly larger, then color, then much larger, then projection, then plasma screen); different television signal delivery technologies (local over-air broadcast, cable, satellite, digital, which catalyzed a proliferation of channels and networks); and, of course, evolving computer hardware and software intertwined with all the others.

Any aspect of the “anthrosphere” (human social institutions, technologies, products and constructions, and cultural motifs) can similarly be zeroed in on as one aspect of the evolutionary process discussed in “The Politics of Consciousness ,” and “Information and Energy: Past, Present, and Future.” We can trace building construction, or aviation, or land transportation, or clothing, or medicine, or money, or markets, or warfare, or farming, or mining, or law, or political forms, or religion, or any other aspect of the human-produced sphere of our existence, in exactly the same way as audio-visual entertainment, and then trace the linkages and cross-fertilization’s among them. By understanding the anthrosphere in these terms, and contextualizing those human systems within the similar biological evolutionary ecological systems (the “biosphere”) that they mimic and echo, all within the framework of other natural systems (e.g., the hydrosphere, atmosphere, and lithosphere), we have a single, coherent paradigm within which to understand the entire global system, applying complex dynamical systems analysis adapted to the particular forms of analysis evolved to address various subsystems, focusing on different aspects in different ways, zooming in more tightly or panning out more broadly, but not arbitrarily divorcing any one branch from the others with which it is ultimately interconnected.

(see also Adaptation & Social Systemic Fluidity, The Evolutionary Ecology of Social Institutions, The Fractal Geometry of Social Change, The Evolutionary Ecology of Human Technology, The Fractal Geometry of Law (and Government), and The Nature-Mind-Machine Matrix for more on this general theme).

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