A Unified Evolutionary Approach to the Biosphere and the Technosphere?

In current debates about the technosphere, human agency is often taken as a given: Humans are conceived as creators of the technosphere. Anthropocentrism seems also implicit in the term ‘anthropocene’, as many critics point out. One reason for this human-centred approach is that the evolutionary framework for analysing the technosphere is not well developed. Some authors directly aim at tying the physics of the technosphere with human social systems, thus blanking out what I regard as a crucial intermediary level of theorizing, evolutionary theory. We can switch to this view if we just reflect upon the relationship between the biosphere and the technosphere: Do they follow the same evolutionary principles? How exactly did the technosphere evolve from the biosphere? How does the technosphere impact on the evolution of the biosphere? And so on.

We do not need to invent the wheel anew: Clearly, the rich literature on gene-culture evolution that was launched in the early days of sociobiology (Lumsden and Wilson, Boyd and Richerson, Dawkins and others) is directly relevant because ‘culture’ is approached as a material phenomenon: For example, Dawkin’s ‘memes’ are real entities with causal impact on behaviour, even though they are referred to as ‘mental’. But they are material in the sense of being cultural artefacts, such as certain symbols that are embodied in soundwaves or artwork. Today, we have a rich pool of hypotheses and theories about the relationship between biological and cultural evolution on which an evolutionary approach to the technosphere can build, and which has moved beyond these early attempts, overcoming many of their flaws. This literature has been converging on a universal theory of evolution which discards the dualistic thinking of early co-evolutionary theory. In my view, the core ideas driving this convergence are:

Conceiving ‘evolution’ as a statistical process that is embodied in many and diverse domains and is most generally described by Price’s theory of selection and the Price’s equation, which allows to derive other fundamental principles of evolutionary theory, such as Fisher’s equation. This view has been adopted in some contributions to Evolutionary Economics, which centres analytically on innovation and technological change.

Overcoming the gene-centred view of the ‘Neodarwinian synthesis’ and thinking in terms of multiple forms of heredity of biologically relevant, i.e. adaptive information, such as synthesized in contributions such as Jablonka and Lamb or Mesoudhi. This allows for establishing many links between genetic and cultural evolution, for example, improving our understanding of the biological and cultural forces that drive the evolution of human preferences.

Recognizing the role of the environment as a medium of information transmission, beyond a mere selective force, and adopting a systemic view on evolution that allows for a better understanding of its creative forces, as in evolutionary transitions. Exemplary contributions are niche construction theory or the developmental systems literature. In Ecological Economics, this focuses our view on phenomena like the relationship between human hyper-sociality and the technosphere.

If we put all these ideas together, we can move beyond the naïve idea that humans are creators of the technosphere: Humans are an important factor, but the driver and medium of the technosphere are more general evolutionary processes. As my examples already revealed, I think that the economy is a central domain where such evolutionary processes unfold. In other words, a general evolutionary theory of the technosphere would build on biological evolutionary theory, with the intermediate, though essential layer of the human economy. That would activate the rich literature in Evolutionary Economics for the study of the technosphere.

In addition, in current research on the technosphere, there is a tendency of reducing it to a narrow meaning of ‘materiality’, i.e. just conceiving it as the sum of material artefacts (such as when measuring the ‘mass’ of the technosphere). This blanks out the very advanced state of research on technology which agrees on approaching technology as a complex systemic phenomenon that involves artefacts and human behaviour as governed by rules and institutions. In this sense, technology cannot be separated from humans, but technology is a many-level system involving both, macro and micro phenomena. For example, the shape that the internet technology assumes cannot be separated from the dynamics of market processes that govern it, in turn embedded in a complex set of institutional and organizational phenomena, and the emergence of individual user patterns on a systemic level. As far as human agency is concerned, nobody controls and designs this technological evolution. What is true for the market, should also hold for the technosphere.

How can we build a universal evolutionary theory of the technosphere? In my view, there are several starting points. The first is to approach the technosphere as a phenomenon of niche construction enabled by culture as a biological phenomenon. My hunch is that the domestication of fire is the original event of this evolutionary transition. Fire is one of the simplest, yet essential technologies that drove many evolutionary adaptations of the evolving human species, including somatic changes such as the size and functioning of the digestive system via the diffusion of cooking as a cultural practice. The niche construction view is liberating in many ways, such as including the recognition that the technosphere already includes large parts of the biosphere, i.e. via the dominance of domesticated animals and plants in the biomass of the Earth system. The human niche includes symbiotic relationships in many forms, thus merging biosphere and technosphere.

Another important question is the role of the technosphere in inheriting adaptive information. One consequence of the increasing recognition of non-genetic channels of evolution in biology is that we realize that evolution evolves, that is, evolution includes the emergence of new evolutionary mechanisms. In which sense is the technosphere a ‘new stage’ in the evolution of evolution? I can only hint at some possibilities. One is that we need to realize that the technosphere grounds in the evolution of culture: Hence, perhaps what counts is not the direct emergence of technosphere from biosphere, but more specifically, the emergence of the technosphere from cultural evolution. For example, the technosphere may overcome certain limitations on cultural information transmission via embodying culture in artefacts. In that view, technology may be interpreted as an extended memory system for enacting culture.

Perhaps to open our mind for this way of thinking about the technosphere, we need to delink it from debates about the Anthropocene and the ‘Great Acceleration’, which narrows our mind on most recent forms of technology. If we were to approach fire as the common ancestor of human technology, the conceptual link between technosphere and Anthropocene would suggest that the Anthropocene would have begun at a time when homo sapiens sapiens was not yet on Earth, which would certainly be nonsense. But that would suggest an outrageous thought: Did the technosphere emerge earlier than us, and are we modern humans a product of the co-evolution of biosphere and technosphere?

3 Replies to “A Unified Evolutionary Approach to the Biosphere and the Technosphere?”

  1. Of course technology predates humans. Nature is riddled with technology. My favourite example is ‘control’, which has become is so central to the operation of human systems and might typify many features of what we call the technosphere. Engineers didn’t invent control, but rather they discovered and developed it. Biology had beaten them to it billions of years before Watt’ governor, when for example bacteria attempted to solve the tricky problem of tracking down food sources in an uncertain world. And of course engineers are now scrambling back to nature to get further technological inspiration. If we believe Lovelock, even planets can stumble across regulatory technology.

    This all kind of makes a nonsense of technology as a uniquely human thing, and calls into question a narrative that supposes the geologically recent emergence of something novel and discrete. This is just humans struggling with complexity through imposing artificial classification schemes.

    So no, not an “outrageous” thought at all.

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  2. Does that mean that all technology is bionics? The problem is that there is a fundamental difference between life and technological artefacts: Life is self-reproducing. Stuart Kauffman speaks of ‘autonomous agents’. The question is whether technology involves autonomous agents. My approach is like this: Both life and technology fulfill functions (ultimately, adapative functions) that serve reproduction. As Peter Haff pointed out, too, the problem with our conventional view on technology is that we equate human purposes with technological functions. We can reverse the perspective, as some philosophers of technology had already done (Simondon, I think) and ask whether our purposes actually fulfill a function in the reproduction of technology. To which extent are we like the machinery of the cell that interprets genetic information in creating the individual forms of life that reproduce that information – reproducing individual forms of technology in interpreting the information that it embodies? That’s my hunch: There is an ontological continuity of the flow of information in biosphere and technosphere, only the vehicles of reproduction and heredity have changed.

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  3. Thanks for this, Carsten! Your suggestion that ‘the domestication of fire is the original event of this evolutionary transition’ of niche construction enabled by culture makes me think of Olivia Judson’s work on the five energy revolutions – geochemical energy, sunlight, oxygen, flesh, fire (http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/s41559-017-0138). Judson’s work is important because compared with Lenton et al she is less concerned with the quantity of energy being captured and used than with qualitative leaps that make new complexity possible.
    I think it would be good to keep the focus on evolution that you initiate with this post – it’s something we need to talk more about. It would be great if you had another read of this paper of mine (http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/2053019616670676), as it might help us get into a more detailed discussion of evolutionary approaches to technology. In that paper, my approach to the technosphere is through the lens of biology and evolution, but in particular ways (we can set the astrobiological angle aside for now – that could be another post!).

    Firstly, I draw on the work of Simondon and Arthur to help us interpret the history of technology, and thus to describe the particular ‘major transitions’ through which the emerging technosphere seems to have passed. And I try to see if there are any general laws of technosphere development that we can learn from this redescribed story.

    But also I draw on the work of Maynard-Smith and Szathmary, and also Carl Simpson, to argue that that the body–technology relation in the technosphere is both like and unlike modes of symbiogenesis in earlier transitions (e.g. the origin of eukaryotic cells or multicellular organisms). Both the human individuals and the technologies that make up the technosphere are becoming more dependent on niche-relations in the technosphere to for their reproduction. But they are not exactly combining into a new higher-level individual unit of selection (though maybe me and my smart-phone …). Things are more fluid and interesting.

    By the way, have you heard Manfred Laublicher talk about evolutionary transitions as always involving the arrival of a new platform (with analogy to the platform capitalism of Facebook, Amazon, Google etc), on which new possibility spaces are built? As far as I can see he hasn’t published this work yet. I am not totally persuaded the analogy will hold up, but it’s an interesting intervention, which relates to my idea of ‘gratuities’, new relations of arbitrariness that can open up within phenomena and enable new possibility spaces and positive feedbacks.

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