The technosphere as a ‘major transition’?

John Maynard-Smith and Eörs Szathmáry (Maynard Smith and Szathmáry 1995; Szathmáry and Maynard Smith 1995) famously argued that evolution has undergone highly significant ‘major transitions’ in the very units of evolution and the mechanisms by which evolution proceeds. Incorporating the technosphere fully within their schema of ‘major transitions’ would involve expanding the definition of the latter away from its emphasis on the biological organism. Nevertheless, it is possible, with care, to use the analysis of earlier transitions to shed light on the technosphere.[1]

Here I want to focus on one feature shared by many major transitions: the combination of formerly distinct individuals into stable new evolutionary and ecological individuals. The clearest examples of these are the enclosure of replicating molecules within a membrane, the fusion of unrelated prokaryotes into the eukaryotic cell, and the organisation and specialisation of genetically identical cells into multi-cellular plants, fungi and animals. Can we regard the emergence of the technosphere as a major transition to a new kind of stable association, even though it is neither a functional and evolutionary ‘individual’ itself, nor composed of stable individual cyborgs, but a continuously shifting coupling of organic and inorganic matter? To help us here, we need to move to a more dynamic understanding of hierarchical structure in complex systems.

Peter Haff (2014a) argues that the entities that make up any system can be described as organised into three strata – Stratum I, Stratum II and Stratum III – each of which contains entities which are progressively larger and at higher organisational levels than the previous stratum.  In Haff’s terminology, an evolutionary individual is composed of a number of Stratum I units such as cells, but is itself a Stratum II entity that associates with other Stratum II entities (whether belonging to the same genetic lineage or not) in Stratum III structures such as societies, symbioses and ecosystems. But as Carl Simpson (2011) and others argue, hierarchies in living systems are not static but themselves evolve.  In such ‘transitions in individuality’, evolutionary fitness passes from the Stratum II entities to the Stratum III structures, which become a new kind of evolutionary individual.

Crucially, for each such transition in individuality to become permanent, mechanisms must emerge which prevent the new, higher-level individuals reverting to their constituent parts. In Haff’s language, the new individuals must find new methods of enforcing his ‘six rules’, especially the ‘rule of performance’ which ensures that each constituent unit supports the functioning of the whole. For example, in the eukaryotic cell, the energy-giving mitochondria, once free-living eukaryotes, are now completely dependent on the wider cell architecture for their reproduction.  Similarly, in multicellular animals a division of labour between germ and soma cells prevents any cell from defecting back to solitary living by ensuring that no cell possesses both the capacity for independent metabolism and that of reproduction (Michod and Roze 1997; Simpson 2012).

Against this background, the balance of mutual dependency concerning both metabolism and reproduction in the evolving association between humans and technology seems to be shifting in interesting ways.

Firstly, the individual components of the technosphere – both humans and technologies – are increasingly dependent on their membership of the technosphere.  Haff (2014a; 2014b) has drawn attention to how humans find it increasingly hard to leave the technosphere; but technologies too are becoming more tied in, both metabolically (for example in terms of their energy needs) and reproductively (in complex networks of manufacturing and innovation).  In this sense, the evolution of the technosphere seems to follow the pattern of earlier macroevolutionary transitions on the Earth.

Secondly, however, there is also a shifting distribution of powers between the human and technical components of the technosphere, and here the pattern is rather different.  If indeed technologies are moving towards ‘general intelligence’ and self-replication, then it rather appears that, unlike for example the prokaryotes which became the mitochondria within the eukaryotic cell, technologies are being granted the powers of reproduction and independent teleonomic purpose rather than having them taken away.  Placed in the light of evolutionary biology, contemporary concerns about the technological singularity and impending human obsolescence (Bostrom 2013; Shanahan 2015) start to feel like the latest twist in a story that is almost as old as the Earth itself.

Notes

[1] For more on this argument, see (Szerszynski 2016).

References

Bostrom, Nick (2013) Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Haff, Peter K. (2014a) ‘Humans and technology in the Anthropocene: six rules,’ The Anthropocene Review, 1(2), pp. 126-36.

Haff, Peter K. (2014b) ‘Technology as a geological phenomenon: implications for human well-being,’ Geological Society, London, Special Publications, 395(1), pp. 301-9.

Maynard Smith, John and Eörs Szathmáry (1995) The Major Transitions in Evolution, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Michod, Richard E. and Denis Roze (1997) ‘Transitions in individuality,’ Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 264(1383), pp. 853-7.

Shanahan, Murray (2015) The Technological Singularity, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Simpson, Carl (2011) ‘How many levels are there? How insights from evolutionary transitions in individuality help measure the hierarchical complexity of life,’ in The Major Transitions in Evolution Revisited, ed. Brett Calcott and Kim Sterelny, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, pp. 200-25.

Simpson, Carl (2012) ‘The evolutionary history of division of labour,’ Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences, 279(1726), pp. 116-21.

Szathmáry, Eörs and John Maynard Smith (1995) ‘The major evolutionary transitions,’ Nature, 374(6519), pp. 227-32.

Szerszynski, Bronislaw (2016) ‘Viewing the technosphere in an interplanetary light,’ The Anthropocene Review, 4(2), pp. 92-102.

 

7 Replies to “The technosphere as a ‘major transition’?”

  1. The transitions topic is crucial. I think that many treatments of the technosphere overlook the role of culture as the major transition in which the technosphere is embodied. Cultural evolution is today recognized as a new mode of evolution, so what is the relationship between culture and technosphere? I think that what is missing in technosphere analysis is the micro-analytical part: People talk about the ‘sphere’ as a mega-system, but do not specify how exactly technology and humans connect. And this must be via the medium of culture. In my previous post on evolution, I mentioned fire not only because of the energetics, but because the evolution of fire as a technology went along with substantial somatic adaptations of humans. Now, it is an old idea that technology is a somatic extension. But I think, again, that this argument overlooks culture as a form of symbolic evolution that stores and transmits adaptively relevant information. Thus, the question is how technology assumes a similar role. In understanding this, we should not introduce an artificial boundary between the domain of artefacts and us. Technology is not simply objects ‘out there’, but an assemblage of practices and artefacts, and, most basically, not just a new form of acting in the world, but also ‘seeing’ and knowing it. Therefore, I argue in my work that we should combine the evolutionary account of the technosphere with recent developments in the field of distributed cognition. That applies for even the simplest technological artefacts: A hammer is a way to see and feel the world, and using a hammer is not just acting on the world, but learning, for example, about the structure of materials on which we act. The hammer connects via our practices via the affordances it embodies, thus inducing our actions. Of course, different from fire our genetically shaped body did not adapt to hammers, but it makes sense to ask how cultural evolution adapted to hammers, i.e. our collectively stored cultural heritage, that, for instance, guides our individual learning the usage of hammers. What I said about hammers applies with a vengeance for more complex technologies, such as, after all, all technologies that embody and manipulate symbols, like writing.

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    1. One of the interesting conclusions of niche construction theory, is that the environment can serve as an additional channel of information transfer for biological evolutionary processes. If we are looking at the technosphere as an emergent and new evolutionary entity, then does human culture also serve as a new channel for the transmission of information? We typically think of cultural communication and evolution being bounded – memes as discrete packets of cultural genetic material – cultural allels and cultural evolution being the change in the frequency and distribution of these alleles. What if culture was an effective channel for the transmission of technosphere information? There would be information transfer in biological organisms, environment, and culture. Reminds me a little of Lewontin’s Tripple Helix.

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  2. Thus far I’m not convinved with Haff’s use of the Stratum concept. I can’t exactly say where my problem is. I think it’s my interpretation of it in that is seems to apply to individuals. Individuals are limited in the ability to interact with different entities across strata. But it’s not the agency of indiviudals we are primarily interested in, rather then the collective agency of potentially large numbers of humans. So I’m not convinced this concept really addresses the key issue of agency. That said, I remain to convinced otherwise!

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    1. Yes I had wondered how Haff’s stratum approach might accommodate collective agency. First we need a theory of collective agency, involving emergence – and it may be that in the case of humans and society this works differently than it does with say molecules and gas, so that dynamics on the two strata are not always so isolated.

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  3. The way I see it, M-S and S’s concept of major transitions combined two ideas: (i) the idea that the mode transmission of information between generations of entities has evolved, allowing for more information to be passed, and via multiple routes and (ii) the idea of individuality transitions: crudely, changes in the unit of selection, where what were individual entities become combined in a higher-level entity. The comments by Carsten and James make some interesting observations about (i), but my contribution was more focused on (ii) – exploring how earlier individuality transitions can illuminate features of the specific evolutionary path taken by technology.

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    1. This is a significant and inspiring discussion! Bron is right in pointing to the distinction of the two aspects. In fact, we can look at the technosphere from the angle of niche construction theory, or from the angle of ‘extended phenotype’ à la Dawkins. In the latter perspective, one would diagnose the emergence of new types of biological individuals that combine with external artefacts, just in the same way as our individual organisms are in fact ecosystems that include millions of other organisms such as bacteria in the intestinal tract. But I think that there is still a fundamental difference regarding the information transmission aspect. The evolutionary transition account retains a fundamental ontological continuity across the levels in terms of the information that is transmitted. Dawkin’s concept of ‘meme’, however, suggested a fundamental rupture: Memes are not genes and establish a separate evolutionary domain. If we see the technosphere as an ‘extended phenotype’, we would probably think that ontological continuity is preserved, but if we approach it in analogy to ‘memes’, there is the possibility of ontological autonomy.

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  4. This discussion about a potentially shifting unit of selection (and reproduction) brings up some very interesting points. It cannot be viewed as the emergence of individual, self-reproducing cyborgs on the “Stratum II” level (as the technological aspects stem from some kind of “Stratum III” process, the production processes are way too dispersed to be aligned with any individual). However, the humans involved in it are clearly mostly reproducing on the “Stratum II” level. Whether this will remain to be the case is in the realm of speculation, I don’t think that current occurences of gene screening and “designer babies” really suffice to extrapolate a clear trend here.
    So, it’s rather a blurring of the strata concept, an interaction between the levels of organization that we’re witnessing here. If there’s a unit of selection that’s about to form, it either violates Haff’s distinction or first needs to overcome some more hurdles. Maybe it turns out to be really a multilevel process, and will remain that way. If the genetic disposition of the involved humans doesn’t matter (that much), as long as there are humans, then this might be more of a coevolution than a merging of these dynamics. This tackles more of the questions discussed in the field of trans- and posthumanism. So helpful insight might be found there.

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