Surviving the Anthropocene Part 2: Of Omega Points and Oil

My previous post lamented the flawed presentation of climate change at the David Koch-funded Hall of Human Origins and suggested that a spiritual-scientific ideology, traceable in part to Teilhard de Chardin, infuses the Smithsonian’s Human Origins initiative and related events. In this follow-up, I take a closer look at this ideology and its connection to broader currents in contemporary evolutionary thought and the Anthropocene.

One place to start is with the “noosphere,” an idea that elicits excitement among Teilhard enthusiasts and Anthropocene advocates alike.

The concept of the noosphere, or sphere of mind, was a combined effort of Teilhard de Chardin, Russian naturalist Vladimir Vernadsky, and French philosopher Edouard Le Roy.[1] Some scholars have outlined rough similarities—and important differences—between the noosphere and current ideas about the Anthropocene.[2] Just as the biosphere can be understood as a living layer of the planet, the noosphere comprises a thinking layer, the sphere of human thought and its myriad technological manifestations. It is important to understand that in Teilhard’s vision of “cosmogenesis,” evolutionary processes unfold according to principles of complexity-consciousness and increasing cephalization. That is, these processes show inherent, irreversible tendencies toward ever-more sophisticated forms of consciousness and increased brain size and power.  As the earth’s thinking envelope, the noosphere evolves toward what Teilhard identified as the “Omega Point:” the highest level of material complexity, psycho-spiritual evolution, and consciousness.

Teilhard’s thought has some bearing on the Smithsonian’s presentation of human origins and destiny. His cosmology anticipates evolution toward a profound cultural convergence and global intelligence. This is Teilhard’s widely-celebrated idea of “planetary mind.”  So powerful to some was Teilhard’s dream of a common human culture and shared global intelligence that it inspired grand initiatives like the creation of UNESCO, thanks in part to aggressive campaigning for Teilhard’s ideas by progressive evolutionist Julian Huxley.  Teilhard’s claims about noospheric transformation and the emergence of a global mind lead some to credit him with presaging not just the Anthropocene but the Internet as well. Thus, Anthropocene booster Andrew Revkin, with an approving nod to Teilhard, has coined the term “knowosphere” to describe our current state of global connectivity.

Slide from Wilson lecture

Slide from Wilson lecture

As noted in my previous post, my visit to the human origins exhibit included a lecture by David Sloan Wilson. In it he rejected (as he has elsewhere) the Omega Point as an inevitable outcome of earth processes. All the more reason, as he sees it, for humans to consciously steer evolution toward it! Smithsonian curator Rick Potts also noted in his remarks that modern science discredits Teilhard’s orthogenetic, teleological vision of evolution, though he singled out for praise other aspects of Teilhard’s thought.

Whatever their views of cosmic inevitability, Wilson, Potts, and Mary Evelyn Tucker agree that human flourishing depends on our rallying around a common narrative of what it means to be human. Disseminating a shared Universe Story has been Tucker’s ambition for decades. Potts likewise praises the goal of “embedding [human] heterogeneity in an ethic and narrative of common purpose … a planetary, one humanity narrative.”

To these lofty ideas Wilson adds his own call for a common, global spirituality grounded in the Omega Point. He defines the Omega Point as an emerging phenomenon of global cooperation and solidarity. He discerns in Teilhard’s philosophy an incipient grasp of his own commitment to multilevel selection, altruism, and social-spiritual evolution. Wilson believes that small cooperative units of humans, akin to what Teilhard called grains of thought, can coalesce and scale up to become a global village. Successive scaling up creates a new kind of super-organism and new modes of ultra-sociality.  Humans, as the ultra-social primate, constitute a new evolutionary process, as Teilhard prophesied. Humans alone have the potential to coalesce into a multi-cellular, globally cooperative super-organism. When this occurs at a planetary scale, humans will have reached the Omega Point, Wilson believes.

In his lecture, Wilson predicted that reaching the Omega Point will require humans to “speak a single spiritual language.” Drawing on spiritual gurus Ken Wilbur and Kurt Johnson, he heralds the advent of an “interspiritual age.” The coming interspiritual age comprises a “second tier” of consciousness in which humans move beyond first-tier, quasi-tribal identification with particular religious (or ethnic) categories, such as Judaism, Christianity, or Islam. These ideas resonate broadly with Teilhard’s prediction of a planetary mind. I am also struck by how conveniently these claims about humans’ complex consciousness and unique, transcendent modes of evolution complement The Hall of Human Origin’s repeated refrain about the unique adaptiveness of increasingly complex and sophisticated human brains.

But what exactly does Wilson mean that science is “catching up with” Teilhard’s vision of steering toward the Omega Point? I never located a clear or compelling answer in the lecture itself. Still, it seems that Wilson seeks confirmation of his ideas about human destiny in more concrete (if contested) developments in evolutionary theory. In particular, he promotes the “extended evolutionary synthesis” (EES) as a favorite cause. (EES and related ideas of niche construction have been topics of discussion on this site, for example, here; a brief debate about the merits of EES or lack thereof was hashed out in Nature in 2014.)

What interests (and worries) me is how the EES platform speaks to Teilhardian ideas of conscious evolution, according to which humans evolve to direct evolutionary processes. The idea here—as Potts succinctly puts it–is that humans live in the world by altering it. And we do so in an iterative way: we change the world and then adapt to the world as we have dramatically altered it.  A good example of this—should we manage to pull it off—would be surviving and adapting to climate change. The Hall of Human Origins promotes the idea that humans’ past adaptability to a fluctuating climate bodes well for our future ability to do so. But now, we must take control of this adaptive process, evolving consciously and deliberately “toward a better Anthropocene,” in Erle Ellis’ phrase. There is no “going back to nature,” Ellis warns. Or as Potts would have it, we need to get over “mourning” for an obsolete notion of nature. The future is in our hands, like it or not.

I confess that just how much some people like this idea can keep me up at night. Multibillionaire David Koch appears to be among them. On a related note, an interesting facet of EES is the unprecedented amount of money it recently garnered from the Templeton Foundation, well known for pumping large sums into “big questions” at the heart of religion and science. When the debate over EES appeared in Nature, Templeton approached a team of EES researchers and encouraged them to apply for grant money. They did, with great success.

But what is the “religious” angle of EES that attracts Templeton? It has been suggested–not without hostility in some quarters—that a vaguely “numinous” quality lurks at the heart of EES. Some may detect in EES the idea of nonrandom, guiding forces in evolution, something to attract theological and spiritual interest. This je ne sai quoi aspect of EES “resonates” with theological/spiritual commitments, as theologian Celia Deane-Drummond observes.  Indeed, for some there might even be something about EES that seems vaguely … Teihardian. Especially when applied to super-organismic, ultra-social, complexly conscious and highly cephalized species like ourselves.

I suspect that the researchers who received this generous funding—some employed by my university–are not altogether comfortable wearing this mantle of numinosity. After all, the funded research is not even focused on human evolution—though it may be, down the line. Excited responses to this work by Teilhardians like Wilson suggests that he too sees affinities between EES and his own speculations about interspirituality, global cooperation, and his cherished idea that non-genetic forms of inheritance—directed cultural and social evolution—will usher in an Omega scenario.

Of course, my point is not to impede or disparage these live debates in current evolutionary science, which will play out one way or another, as well they should. But we, the “public,” should remain alert to the spiritual and ethical assumptions embedded in what is too often presented as the past and future of human evolution, or the story of what it means to be a member of our species.

Hall of Human Origins video of humans speaking the words “We are all one species” in a variety of languages.

Hall of Human Origins video of humans speaking the words “We are all one species” in a variety of languages.

The Smithsonian Hall of Human Origins, and the thinkers and ideas it supports, offer a case in point. The narratives they present encourage or preclude certain ethical attitudes and outcomes—especially in the realm of environmental ethics. Should we give up so easily on “nature” as a meaningful concept? What are the risks, for us and other species, of flirting with visions of humans as directors of their own evolution, and that of the planet? Are there limits to how we can and should engineer the environment? How will we discover them?

As Anthropocene critics have usefully pointed out, the narrative of “one humanity” or “one spiritual language” is not simply a scientific story, but a political and moral one. And above all, there is this problem: The evolutionary story of brainy humans mastering the planet, as told by the Hall of Human Origins, meshes all too seamlessly with a “don’t-worry, be-happy,” Koch-funded message of climate complacency. This is no coincidence, and it should give us pause.

[All photographs taken by the author at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Washington, D.C.]


[1] For a good discussion of the history of the noosphere concept, see Paul R. Samson and David Pitt, eds., The Biosphere and Noosphere Reader: Global Environment, Society, and Change. 1999. New York: Routledge.

[2] Clive Hamilton and Jacques Grinevald, for example, consider (but ultimately reject) the noosphere as a precursor idea to the Anthropocene. See “Was the Anthropocene Anticipated?The Anthropocene Review, Vol 2 (1), 2015, 59-72. See also Will Steffen, Jacques Grinevald, Paul Crutzen, and John McNeill. 2011. “The Anthropocene: Conceptual and Historical Perspectives.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A 369(1938): 842-867.

4 thoughts on “Surviving the Anthropocene Part 2: Of Omega Points and Oil

  1. Thanks for your posts this week, Lisa! Just a note to readers: Lisa links to Erle Ellis’ post on Future Earth; that post summarizes his paper “Ecology in an Anthropogenic Biosphere,” which was the subject of a series on our blog earlier this year. Some of the posts in that series touched on aspects of the ESS Lisa discusses.

  2. Thanks Lisa for these fascinating reflections so far. As someone who has been moving in and out of the same religion and ecology circles that you and Mary Evelyn Tucker have also been engaging with, it strikes me as fascinating–but also a bit worrisome at times–that there seems to be this strong desire to come up with a grand meta-narrative that ties in all spiritual and religious traditions with various accepted–as well as some fringe–scientific ideas and theories. It seems in part, at least on my reading, to be a desire to show that we really can create some happy New World Order that is grounded in this “new story”–whether we call it the Universe Story or a new cosmic narrative or whatever–and that somewhere in the reconciliation of science and religion (some like Tucker would add ecology here too) lies our future salvation. In a weird way, it is a bit like the human ingenuity/mastery story that the Ellis/Kareiva/Rifkin/Nordhaus & Shellenberger crew have been peddling in relation to the “good Anthropocene” mythos and the purported wonders of human mastery if we would just drop our cynical skepticism.

    I’ve never found the whole Teilhardin line of argument especially convincing, although I will admit I think Thomas Berry was a fairly well reasons advocate for some of these shared ideas–the dream of the Earth being perhaps the most compelling to me. But I also wonder why we would not follow a line such as the one suggested a few years ago by Latour in his Gifford Lectures and trace out the political implications of science and religion and politics of the Anthropocene through a Schmittian or Lovelockian lens. To me, the partisan politics of Schmitt and the Earthbound people as Latour draws them out, or the Gaia theory and Earth System science in relation to the Anthropocene and the idea of Planetary Boundaries, seem far more practical and productive lines of inquiry for enviro scholars, than once again trying to rehash some idealized vision of a global village holding hands and singing “kumbaya” while these enlightened interests somehow magically solve climate change and the other myriad issues facing our world today.

    Perhaps it is just my own political thinking on the Anthropocene and political ecology issues in general, but I worry that this incessant focus on the global or the cosmic makes it too easy to miss the messy local politics that we need to be dealing with, and which are far more pressing for most people than the abstract issue of climate change. And I worry that it also helps to facilitate exactly the kind of arguments and presentations you are documenting here in the Smithsonian, as well as in the many other venues it has shown up.

    So I would be very curious to hear more from you on this issue of scale in relation to the Anthropocene, and if you see any risk of a depoliticization of the Anthropocene by a focus on this meta level cosmic/noosphere thinking?

  3. Chris, Thank you for your reflections on my reflections! I think you spell out very well just what is worrisome about these (renewed) attempts at a grand narrative. I have come to see these ‘new story’ approaches as, essentially, Anthropocene narratives, and ‘good Anthropocene’ narratives to boot, (along the ecomodernist lines you mention above). Or at least something moving in that problematic direction. I find peculiar the assumption that turning to the cosmic scale is the appropriate move for reconnecting people to the natural world, especially since the express goal of these approaches is to create an affective connection (wonder, intimacy, love). Wouldn’t the right scale be something more local, something in which we are intimately enmeshed in ways we can actually experience? But this move seems very much in vogue (again? it seems to go in and out of fashion), whether emanating from someone like Neil DeGrasse Tyson or Mary Evelyn Tucker–or going back a few decades, to people like Stewart Brand (Whole Earth Catalog) or Buckminster Fuller, who believed that the vision of the earth from space was the ticket to a new environmental consciousness. It’s also interesting that a certain kind of technophilia runs through many of these cosmic approaches, whether it’s Stewart Brand’s getting-back-to-nature-through-technology (interesting that Brand is now an ecomodernist) or Teilhard de Chardin, who has a great following among technophiles, transhumanists, and futurists today. In other words, it’s no coincidence that “whole earth” consciousness given birth, though by a complex route, to an ecomodernist manifesto.

    So there is something about the turn to the cosmic scale that, I think, inspires the wrong kind of environmentalism, a heady, sometimes hubristic and even techo-optimistic kind. It lends itself to this earth-management role for the human. I also agree that Thomas Berry was more attuned to these dangers, far more so than Teilhard, though even Berry was in thrall to the idea of humans as earth managers in an Ecozoic era. If you’re interested in some of my thoughts about this, there is an essay called “To Know the Story is to Love it” about this longing for cosmic connection, posted on my academia site (in draft form). Finally, I also agree there there is a lot of potential in Latour’s Earthbound approach–I see him as doing something anti-universe story. Though I still worry about how stubbornly anthropocentric even ideas like planetary boundaries remains (and in general, so much anthropocene discourse,whether ‘good’ or ‘bad’ anthropocene). A “safe operating space for humanity’ isn’t enough. What about the more than human world? Even in Latour, for all the emphasis on distributed agency and animism, the focus is too exclusively on humans.

    Anyway, those are a few off-the-cuff thoughts about your comments. I hope to continue this conversation in one way or another.

  4. Pingback: Lisa Sideris: Genesis 2.0 – Cosmologics Magazine

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.