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.

 

Agere and gerere – on ‘action’ in the critical zone

What does it mean to be an agent in the ‘critical zone’, the near-surface environment of the Earth where most living things reside and have evolved?  This is a complex, dense, folded world, a commons where the powers of each entity – abiotic, living or technological – are dependent on those around it. The character of the critical zone does not just distribute agency but alters its very condition of possibility.  I want to unpack this a little by reference to two Latin verbs, agere and gerere, the influence on European thought of which can be traced in our thinking about agency.

Hannah Arendt in The Human Condition points out how in ancient Greek and Latin there are two words with which to designate the verb ‘to act’.  In Latin there is agere,[i] ‘to set into motion’ (from which we get the words ‘agent’, ‘act’ and ‘action’) but also gerere , ‘to bear’ or ‘to sustain’ (Arendt 1958: 189).[ii]  Here, she says, we can see a crucial split occurring in European thought about agency and action, a split as consequential as that between nature and culture that Latour (1993) describes as the modern constitution. This is the division between a beginning made by a single person, and the achievement in which many join by ‘bearing’ and ‘finishing’ the enterprise, by seeing it through; between the one who leads and the others that follow.  Because of this diremption of spirit, agere came to mean ‘to lead’, giving us the Western masculinist political imaginary of a ruler who rules alone, who rules because he is alone, who rules through his own isolation and is isolated because he rules.  The ruler, Arendt says interestingly, is ‘isolated against others by his force’ (Arendt 1958: 189).

In the same book Arendt also gave us the wonderful idea of ‘acting into nature’ – that with modern technology our struggle with nature comes to take on the unpredictability and fragility exhibited by action and speech in the human sphere, so prone to misinterpretation and ironic consequences (Arendt 1958: 231).  And this invites us to apply her genealogy of political rule to the human relation with nature as a whole.  Thinking of ‘making’ in a hylomorphic way – as simply imposing an imagined and desired form on passive matter (Galarraga and Szerszynski 2012) – is to imagine the agent as isolated by their striving: to imagine that humans can ‘act’, and non-humans will simply ‘bear’ or ‘sustain’ the effects of their action.

Yet this isolation is always an illusion, as it was in the case of Prince Kutuzov in War and Peace (Tolstoy 1889).  As Arendt puts it, ‘the actor always moves among and in relation to other acting beings … he is never merely a ‘doer’ but always and at the same time a sufferer’ (Arendt 1958: 190).

Goya
Riña a garrotazos, Francisco Goya, c. 1820-23

Here one thinks of Michel Serres’ reflection in The Natural Contract (1995) on Goya’s Fighters with Clubs – that in the painting, nature is not just a backdrop for the human agon but an actor, one that is threatening to envelop the human pair. The club fighters in Goya’s painting are both actors and bearers – they suffer in the agon of battle, they are in agony, but are also somehow ‘carrying out’ something where their wills have been subsumed within a wider story of humans and nature.  Perhaps we should call the painting Clavigers, so that we can use this word for ‘club-bearers’ to smuggle in the verb gerere.[iii]

Amongst the multiple agencies of the critical zone, there is no simple division between initiator and bearer, between leader and follower, active and passive.  We need to find new ways of talking about action in the grammatical ‘middle voice’, that don’t make a simplistic division between things that simply act and things that simply bear or carry through the results of those actions (Szerszynski 2019).

References

Arendt, Hannah (1958) The Human Condition, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Galarraga, Maialen and Bronislaw Szerszynski (2012) ‘Making climates: solar radiation management and the ethics of fabrication,’ in Engineering the Climate: The Ethics of Solar Radiation Management, ed. Christopher Preston, Lexington, MA: Lexington, pp. 211-25.

Latour, Bruno (1993) We Have Never Been Modern, tr. Catherine Porter, Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf.

Serres, Michel (1995) The Natural Contract, tr. Elizabeth MacArthur and William  Paulson, Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Szerszynski, Bronislaw (2019) ‘Drift as a planetary phenomenon,’ Performance Research, 23(7), pp. 136-44.

Tolstoy, Leo (1889) War and Peace, tr. Nathan Haskell Dole, New York: T.Y. Crowell & Co.

Notes

[i] Gk agein, from the PIE root ag- – to drive, to move or to draw out.

[ii] Gerere gives us words such as gestate (to carry), suggest (to carry or bring up) and jest or gest (to perform).

[iii] Claviger, from clava ‘club, knotty branch’ + stem of gerere ‘to bear’.