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« The Tricks Magicians Use: Slight of Hand | Main | Getting serious »

July 30, 2009


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The Kennedy paraphrase is brilliant!

Here is an answer from James Lovelock:

"Perhaps the saddest thing is that if we fail Gaia will lose as much or more than we do. Not only will wildlife and whole ecosystems go extinct but in human civilization the planet has a precious resource. We are not merely a disease; we are through our intelligence and communication the planetary equivalent of a nervous system. We should be the heart and mind of the Earth not its malady. Perhaps the greatest value of the Gaia concept lies in its metaphor of a living Earth, which reminds us that we are part of it and that our contract with Gaia is not about human rights alone, but includes human obligations."


"Given our nature to try to understand the natural world, what is our role in this evolution? Might it not turn out that we discover that our own evolution is intertwined with that of our planet as a whole? Could it be that our current species isn't the end point at all, but rather just a stop along the way? And could it be that we are supposed to be an integral part of the whole Earth evolution?"

A long time ago I read a book by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin called 'The Future of Man'. If I remember correctly he stated that evolution is always progressing, but as man has more or less evolved to his physical endpoint, evolution will continue on the plane of consciousness.

From a review on Amazon:

"The Future of Man is a magnificent introduction to the thoughts and writings of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, one of the few figures in the history of the Catholic Church to achieve renown as both a scientist and a theologian. Trained as a paleontologist and ordained as a Jesuit priest, Teilhard de Chardin devoted himself to establishing the intimate, interdependent connection between science--particularly the theory of evolution--and the basic tenets of the Christian faith. At the center of his philosophy was the belief that the human species is evolving spiritually, progressing from a simple faith to higher and higher forms of consciousness, including a consciousness of God, and culminating in the ultimate understanding of humankind's place and purpose in the universe. The Church, which would not condone his philosophical writings, refused to allow their publication during his lifetime. Written over a period of thirty years and presented here in chronological order, the essays cover the wide-ranging interests and inquiries that engaged Teilhard de Chardin throughout his life: intellectual and social evolution; the coming of ultra-humanity; the integral place of faith in God in the advancement of science; and the impact of scientific discoveries on traditional religious dogma. Less formal than The Phenomenon of Man and The Divine Milieu, Teilhard de Chardin's most renowned works, The Future of Man offers a complete, fully accessible look at the genesis of ideas that continue to reverberate in both the scientific and the religious communities."

I'm not a catholic. I don't belong to any religion, but I found this book quite interesting at the time.

George Mobus

I'm a big fan of Teilhard. I read "The Phenomenon of Man" as a young man and it definitely left an impression on me. Its effect was to keep my mind open to the possibility that evolution was indeed progressive even while the common wisdom of the day (I was majoring in zoology at the time) was that evolution had no direction. It was all just dumb luck!

Later I read Harold Morowitz's "Energy Flow in Biology" in which he points out that as long as energy flows through a system and that system has not yet reached steady state, that it will continue to evolve toward that steady state condition in which order and organization are maximized. In other words, evolution does have a direction toward higher organization (what I think Teilhard meant by 'complexification') and information.

Where I would part company with Teilhard is on the notion that biological (physical) evolution has reached an epitome to be replaced only by further evolution of consciousness. He was, after all, motivated by the spiritual teachings of the Church and had to reconcile his scientific views on evolution with the theological. He posited man's further evolution toward the 'Omega Point' as the joining of man's spiritual essence with the Christ mind. At the time he was thinking and writing there was a strong belief among biologists that evolution for humans had come to an end (the famous 'technology trumps selection' argument). Less well recognized in that time was the notion of co-evolution of humans and culture -- the causal feedback loop between the human brain's capacity to learn and model the world and the developing culture's capacity to act as a selection force.

We now have ample evidence that humans have been continuing to evolve *because* of technology and culture.

The idea of evolution of consciousness depends heavily on what you actually mean by consciousness and its relationship to the activities of the brain. I have studied the Vedic version of this (upon which, also, Buddhism is based) and practiced Transcendental Meditation (now for more than 30 years) which is supposed to facilitate some kind of evolution toward Cosmic Consciousness. In terms of the more conventional view of what consciousness IS, this might be interpreted as simply greater awareness of the wholeness of the universe (world). I can readily accept this since I argue already that whole systems thinking is built into the brain, but generally gets squashed by mundane life affairs and now by education itself!

What is known about brain plasticity suggests that indeed our mental habits can be altered by various practices and, as in the Buddhist mindfulness meditations one can actually develop more positive thinking and learn to quell negative emotions. So there is the possibility that a human can improve their mental states this way. Whether you would call this evolution of consciousness or not is, I think, a matter of semantics.

I believe there is sufficient evidence in the trajectory of brain evolution in man to argue that the brain can develop further capacities in the realm of sapience. If I am near correct in my assertion that the frontopolar patch known as Brodmann area 10 is doing the heavy lifting of sapience processing, then it is not at all inconceivable that even a small increase in relative proportion and some additional but probably slight modifications in the wiring diagram (e.g. richer supply of Von Economo cell inputs from the limbic areas) would push us further along the direction of higher consciousness (here used in the more conventional sense), or, in other words, higher sapience.

To sum it up, I think both mental practices (in the eastern philosophical sense) that mold mental habits and further biological evolution of the brain are in the works. They are not mutually exclusive ideas. It would be interesting to see what Teilhard would do with today's evolution theory!



Thanks for your thoughts on Teilhard de Chardin and consciousness in general, George. I'm glad I didn't bring it up for nothing.

"In terms of the more conventional view of what consciousness IS, this might be interpreted as simply greater awareness of the wholeness of the universe (world)."

This is exactly how I see it too. A greater awareness also of cause and effect, and the world outside of our Monkeysphere (try Google for a funny piece explaining this concept). A greater awareness finally of the way we are conditioned and why we are conditioned this way (because of the need for unending, exponential economic growth). We are completely conditioned, not only by culture and society, but also by our habits and thought patterns. And it is this that "squashes the whole systems thinking built into our brain", as you put it so aptly. :-)

"To sum it up, I think both mental practices (in the eastern philosophical sense) that mold mental habits and further biological evolution of the brain are in the works. They are not mutually exclusive ideas."

I fully agree. I remember reading somewhere (perhaps even here) that researchers examined the brains of Zen Buddhists meditating and noticed that their brain activity altered completely while meditating. I've read some other sources too about how an increased awareness changes the way the brain functions. Amazing stuff.

I really commend you on your inquiring into direct means of influencing the brain and increasing sapience, although I'm not sure if all the complexity and heaps of required knowledge aren't actually hampering the coming about of a greater awareness (and of course there might be some Teilhardian external force or entity involved as well that cannot be explained by science, but let's not go into that). But I'm not really in a position to judge , as I can't seem to find the time to read (and understand!) all of your writings on this subject. Maybe I should quit reading wordy blogs like The Oil Drum, Kunstler, Heinberg, The Archdruid and several climate change sites for a month or so, and read and re-read the articles here. If only there were 48 hours in a day!

George Mobus


There is a large body (and growing) literature on meditation and its effects on the brain during and after the practice. Some excellent work by Richard Davidson (here is an interview:

Daniel Goleman wrote a book on "Destructive Emotions: A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama" about how meditative practices can reduce said emotions and improve the positive emotions. Davidson is a prominent player in the book.

As far as intentional intervention with improving brain architecture is concerned, the issue is one of just how far can meditation practices alone take one (I've been at it for 35+years and I still wouldn't be mistaken for a serene Buddhist monk!) as compared with where we need to be mentally to meet the challenges of the world to come. Then there is the simple problem of getting the majority of people to adopt the practices. Moreover, the majority of people who start meditation end up quiting after a while, for various reasons.

Therefore, I am still concerned that some form of further biological evolution of the brain (prefrontal cortex in particular) is essential to the long-term future of humanity.

I hear you on the time problem. I am so lucky to now have time to pursue these interests wherever they take me. Having tenure in a backwater campus of a world class university is remarkably liberating. I won't go into the why's and wherefore's but let's just say, at my age, being concerned about a typical career path and playing by all the conventional rules isn't foremost in my daily life. Ergo - time to read and write! Of course, every once in a while I have to do something to support the school's mission - like create new programs in energy systems! But basically I have got time to ruminate on the meanings of the world events. Even so, there never seems to be enough time!



The root of the problem is the grand heroic narrative that we have created individually in our minds. The myth of our own importance is tied to the cognitive origins of religion.

What I want to see, what I'd love to find if it exists, is a book that chronicles the history of mankind but does not buy into the social constructs.

If I were to write it, I'd call it "A Revised History of Homo Caladus on the Planet Earth." It would have chapters that discuss the humans as they burn dense carbon fluids in mechanical engines that propel capsules in which they travel long distances in order to exchange paper fiat for meals that are agglomerated from multiple different sources. The movement of foodstuffs and individual trinkets are limited by human concepts such as 'property' and 'economics' that serve as myths to the humans in order to organize their daily activities in cognitive models in their brains.

Now, once this book has been written and enough people have read it and digested it and therefore disengaged from their embedded lives... then lets see what kind of conversation we can have about the role of humans on this planet.

George Mobus


Currently working on a blog (maybe turn into a series) that will be a new narrative along the lines I think you are looking for. Maybe.


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