The Technium

The Ninth Transition of Evolution

Many folks responded to my inquiry about evidence of a global super-organism. Among the most detailed and well-considered was Nova Spivack’s long essay posted on Twine. Twine is a crowd-sourced aggregator of knowledge, superficially like the shared bookmarks of Delicious, or Stumbleupon, but with more room for comments and potentially more connections between posts. Nova founded Twine. I’ve been trying it out. One idea Nova mentioned in his essay I think is worth developing. He suggest three stages of development for collective action.

1. Crowds. Crowds are collectives in which the individuals are not aware of the whole and in which there is no unified sense of identity or purpose. Nevertheless crowds do intelligent things. Consider for example, schools of fish, or flocks of birds. There is no single leader, yet the individuals, by adapting to what their nearby neighbors are doing, behave collectively as a single entity of sorts.

2. Groups. Groups are the next step up from crowds. Groups have some form of structure, which usually includes a system for command and control. They are more organized. Groups are capable of much more directed and intelligent behaviors. Families, cities, workgroups, sports teams, armies, universities, corporations, and nations are examples of groups. They may have a primitive sense of identity and self, and on the basis of that, they are capable of planning and acting in a more coordinated fashion.

3. Meta-Individuals. The highest level of collective intelligence is the meta-individual. This emerges when what was once a crowd of separate individuals, evolves to become a new individual in its own right, and is facilitated by the formation of a sophisticated meta-level self-construct for the collective. This new whole resembles the parts, but transcends their abilities.  High level collective consciousness requires a sophisticated collective self construct to serve as a catalyst.

What Nova Spivack suggests here is that the path from random population to meta-individual is a path of increasing structure. The parts are more tightly bound in relationships, and as they gain in interdependence, the whole advances to the next phase. I think a close study of how meta-individuals, or super-organisms (which I think are the same thing), form would reveal that there they be more than 3 stages, or perhaps more than one pathway.  I think the main research hurdle in describing this development is to specify what exactly is being structured. My guess is that it is the informational nature of the organism.


In the landmark book “The Major Transitions in Evolution”  the authors Smith and Szathmary lay out the eight major phases of development in biological evolution so far, and perhaps not remarkably, these eight stages resemble the path from random population to meta-individuals at each level. In other words, Smith and Szathmary say that evolution is the continued, graduated progression in which smaller units form larger, higher level units, and then those new meta-individuals start to form a new group, where each meta-individual is a mere individual. Thus life has formed a super-organism structure eight times so far.  These eight levels or stages of super-organization are:

From replicating molecules to bounded population of molecules

From populations of replicators to chromosomes

From RNA chromosomes to DNA genes and proteins

From Prokaryotes to Eukaryotes

From Asexual clones to sexual populations

From single cell protists to multicelluar organisms

From solitary individuals to colonies

From animal societies to language-based human societies

As the Wikipedia entry on the theory states, Smith and Szathmary extract out several principles they find common to these eight transitions.

  1. Smaller entities have often come about together to form larger entities. e.g. Chromosomes, eukaryotes, sex multicellular colonies.

  2. Smaller entities often become differentiated as part of a larger entity. e.g. DNA & protein, organelles, anisogamy, tissues, castes

  3. The smaller entities are often unable to replicate in the absence of the larger entity. e.g. Organelles, tissues, castes

  4. The smaller entities can sometimes disrupt the development of the larger entity e.g. Meiotic drive (selfish non-Mendelian genes), parthenogenesis, cancers, coup d’état

  5. New ways of transmitting information have arisen.e.g. DNA-protein, cell heredity, epigenesis, universal grammar.

I believe the last point is the cause and not a symptom of the transition.

Another way to view these transitions is as increased levels or varieties of cooperation. At each stage there is a tension between the selfish needs of the individual and the needs of the collective.  Robert Wright, writing in “Nonzero” argues that the evolution of humanity is one long progression of increasing cooperation, starting from the first cell of life, where both “sides” win. Rather than having to choose the interests of the individual or the meta-individual collective in a zero-sum game, evolution innovates ways to structure cooperation so that both the individual and the group benefit in a non-zero-sum win/win.  John Stewart, author of “Evolution’s Arrow“, argues that the direction of evolution is to extend cooperation over large spans of time and space. In the beginning atoms “cooperated” to form molecules, than replicators, then DNA, and so on, where greater amounts of material are interdependent for greater lengths of time. He suggests we can see where evolution is going by imagining a next phase which will increases the span of cooperation further.

That of course, would be the ninth transition,

From human society to a global super-organism containing both humans and their machines.

For this to happen, humans would have to benefit directly as well as the One Machine. (Nova suggests we abbreviate the One Machines as OM, pronounced Om, as in the mantra. That works for me.) There has to be a non-zero sum benefit for individual humans and for the larger collective of the OM. We see such benefits in the use of the web. In fact the web is ruled by network effects, which is another way of stating the increase benefits accrue to a collective (network) with the participation of additional individuals, who join because they also get direct benefit. Humans use Google because they benefit greatly, and their use makes Google better.

At every stage of evolutionary development we see

1. Increased cooperation among parts, benefiting both parts and the whole.

2. Increased span of interdependence in space and time.

3. Increase complexity of informational flow.

4. Emergence of a new level of control.

For the ninth transition in life’s evolution — the transition to a planetary level organization of humans and machines — we should expect to see:

1. Increased cooperation among humans, benefiting both humans and the OM.

2. Increased span of interdependence. Planetary scale, things happening and enduring longer or quicker than before.

3. Increase complexity of informational flow. New ways of connecting, organizing, relating not possible before.

4. Emergence of a new level of control. An innovation (like DNA, or spinal cord, government) that takes control of functions in order to benefit constituents non-zero-ly.

  • zyxo

    Digributor has it right, saying that we will not notice the OM’s.
    I only see one problem (that I previously discussed in : in order to have evolution to a next level, you need a lot of individuals. With one world-spanning humanity, connected by the internet, there is only one candidate OM. If we had several thousends of them, competing for some kind of “food source” and living in some kind of OM biosphere then a possibility would exist that one of them evolved to a thrue OM. This is not the case. So we will have to create him ourselves : the singularity. It will not come into existence through evolution, just through change in what people do, which can be in any direction.

    • Kevin Kelly

      @zyxo and others: To date natural evolution has required populations of similar individuals to operate, but evolution itself is evolving and that aspect of evolution may not be needed in the technium.

  • Bruce Lewin


  • SevenOfNine

    The Borg seeks perfection

  • ycor

    @eli: V.F. Turchin also saw the problem you mention in his book “the phenomenon of science”, free on the Net, he offers a way out.

  • Eyal Sivan

    Great elaboration on your previous post. Like Alvis below, I much prefer the scale-free approach that sees our evolution from molecules to OM as one continuous cycle. Under this lens, I think the point about many OM’s vs. one OM becomes moot, because any group of OM’s could be viewed as one.

    “I believe the last point [new ways to send info] is the cause and not a symptom of the transition.”

    Could it not be both? Which is to say that, every evolutionary transition eventually creates new ways to send information (symptom), which in turn result in the beginning of the next transition (cause). Perhaps ‘new means of transmission’ is like the relay point between evolutionary phases.

    Also, like eli, I worry about the social implications of dubbing us a superorganism. I think your reference to non-zero sum equilibriums is an excellent key point.

    My full response entitle Scale-Free Thinking can be found here.

  • stephanie gerson

    two main thoughts/questions/proposals/I don’t even know what to call them:

    1) a part of the story Smith and Szathmary tell, in more abstract terms, is: multiple parts form a more complex whole –> larger whole differentiates into multiple parts DIFFERENT from the original parts that made up the whole. i.e. there are a bunch of ingredients, they’re mixed together to make something, and that something can be broken down to make NEW ingredients. this is MAJOR. “smaller entities are often unable to replicate in the absence of the larger entity.” often but not always? can original and NEW ingredients be mixed together too, to form new wholes? and so on?

    2. after the meta-individual stage comes a stage in which all prior stages can be ‘shifted’ into (for lack of a better term). we might feel stuck in meta-individualism for a sec, which will understandably compromise our individualism (this is required for meta-individualism to create itself; Kevin talks about this in terms of dependence on the superorganism and individuals experiencing identity crisis). but once the meta-individual is well-lubricated, it will co-exist with all prior stages, i.e. groups and crowds and individuals. so that individuals can work with crowds can work with groups can work with meta-individuals. in other words, we now have many more combinatorial possibilities. there’s talk of what the One Machine can do, but what can OM collaborating with individuals and/or crowds and/or groups do? we’ve seen mixing and matching at different levels of organization before….

  • eli

    Brilliant. You know, I’ve been thinking about this exact idea for a while, but I don’t like the outcome, which seems to be the end of individuality. I think as the super-organism comes into existence, things like “art” will cease to make sense, at least on an individual scale.

    Is this what we want? Maybe the current stage of human evolution is in a nice middle ground between ignorance and all-knowingness – between all 0s and all 1s… Or maybe I just can’t see out of my own system far enough to understand the benefits of the next stage of evolution.

  • eli

    And another question: given the idea of this next step in our evolution, does it make a difference that we can actually predict it?

  • Digributor

    All existing atoms didn’t combine into single molecule. All existing molecules didn’t combine into single cell. … All existing humans won’t combine into single OM. There will be many OM-s performing art for each other, humans though will not see it.

  • Zbigniew Lukasiak

    There is evidence that group decision making is done through a complex subconscious algorithm ( This happens on a level lower than language. This means that a group of people behaves in a way autonomously and partially independently from our conscious decisions.

  • matt

    Excellent as always.

    btw, the small tortoise god from Small Gods by Terry Pratchett was named Om. Pratchett is way ahead of his time too.

  • JoseAngel

    Similar narratives about increasing connectivity, global superorganisms, emergent consciousness, etc. were developed by Teilhard de Chardin in “The Phenomenon of Man” and in similarly mystical terms by Olaf Stapledon in “Star Maker” – in the thirties. There is much reflection there on varieties of superorganisms and on the level of consciousness and concern achieved both by the individuals and by the collective mind. But these narratives are wildly optimistic… even when they narrate cosmic catastrophes. Nothing guarantees that global connectivity is not the shortest way to global system failure, or self-destruction before any godlike thing emerges. Which is indeed my forecast.

  • glory

    wasn’t this already covered in howard bloom’s global brain?

  • Alvis Brigis

    Cool post Kevin. Systems thinking is the way to go and I’m glad you’re incorporating Spivack’s holistic, Buddhism and social media driven perspective. You’re both on a very interesting trajectory.

    @ glory – Howard Bloom has done def great work on this topic, as have John Smart and other assorted Evo Devo systems theorists, . What’s interesting here is the analysis of the human-to-cloud relationship, an essential slice of our concept of our total system.

    Personally, I think the global super-organism extends beyond just humans+cloud and that technology and intelligence are more systems properties on a continuum than any set definable structure/meta-system. Still, Kelly’s posts and memes are very important as they paint the connection between us and cloud.

    Thought: It’d be awesome though to bring Kelly, Spivack, Smart and Bloom together for a memetic pow-wow. There’s a overlap here, but also all-original ideas that can be networked to generate a new framework, which is ultimately the goal. Might not such a meeting of the memes itself result in a micro meta-system transition?

    More thoughts on the topic here:

  • chris

    Very nice. I couldn’t help but noticing some similarities with the work of Ken Wilber as well, specifically Sex, Ecology, and Spirituality. The great converging integration of theories across the spectrum human knowledge and experience.

  • Nicolás

    From our skins OM will make origami.

    Note that this is not a taxidermic image: the result lives. We all make OM perform, so we will redefine ourselves through its (our) collective thinking and acting, like a piece of paper not only writing but reshaping itself, as in a stop motion film. This is not a physical image, of course, but it can be also. Paper is no more, some will argue against its use even as a metaphor, because, man, it’s all being scanned, you know? I guess then skin will be paper. Collaborative biotech will be OM’s way to go from thought to body. We will check FFFFound and other social graphic design galleries to see what can we transform into. In this sense, Warren Ellis’ graphic novel, Transmetropolitan, was foreseeing many things about the future -like the “foglet” Tico Cortez-, except on its main scenario, the political one. Because besides the physical, we’ll look like those ants Deborah Gordon was talking about at TED, just “smelling” ourselves to coordinate, no need for central government. But I’m starting to ramble like crazy now, better shut up, don’t want to fold myself too much, or I’ll end up remixed like an origami made by a swarm of Escher wannabes. But that can be nice as well, I think.

  • Bill Burris

    Speaking of Ken Wilber, everyone should listen to his conversation with Kevin Kelly.