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.


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