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Darwin's Pharmacy: Sex, Plants and the Evolution of the Noosphere

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Richard Doyle also goes by mobius, an indicator of just how important interconnections are to him -- and how transformative, bedeviling and hypnotic his ideas can be. As a professor of English and science, technology, and society at Pennsylvania State University, he has taught courses in the history and rhetoric of the emerging technosciences -- sustainability, space colonization, biotechnology, nanotechnology, psychedelic science, information technologies, biometrics -- and the cultural and literary contexts from which they sprout. An explorer of the exciting and confusing rhetorical membrane between humans and an informational universe, he argues that in co-evolution with technology, we find ourselves in an evolutionary ecology that is as vital as it is unexplored.

In Darwin's Pharmacy: Sex, Plants and the Evolution of The Noösphere, the transhumanist philosopher focuses on his favorite technology: the psychedelic, "ecodelic" plants and chemicals (read: drugs) that can help make us process more information and make us aware of the effect of language and music and nature on our consciousness, thereby offering us an awareness of our own ability to effect our own consciousness through our linguistic and creative choices. And that, from an evolutionary perspective, is simply sexy.

What follows is a portion of an "ecstatic dialogue" I had with Richard. We touch upon creativity, the evolution of mind and the "vertigo of freedom", among a myriad of other topics.

JASON: Your new book Darwin's Pharmacy talks about the relationship between psychedelic plants and the accelerating evolution of the "noosphere", which some define as the knowledge substrate of reality, the invisible, informational dimension of collective intelligence and human knowledge. Is this more or less accurate?

RICH: The book features a set of nested claims about the evolution of mind, psychedelics (or, as I prefer and propose, "ecodelics"), and the evolution of the noosphere, but all of the claims can be understood via two claims:

(1) Ecodelics have been an integral part of the human toolkit, so suppressing them is like suppressing music, jokes or other aspects of our humanity. (Here I am following Samorini, Siegel, and others)

and

(2) As integral parts of the human toolkit, ecodelics are best modeled as part of sexual selection -- the competition for mates and the leaving of progeny. A careful look at Charles Darwin's writings on sexual selection will show that sexual selection works through the management of attention -- what we would now call "information technologies." Think birdsong, bioluminescence (the most widespread communication technology on the planet), poetry. The peacock is managing and focusing peahen attention with his feathers, so what we have called "mind" has been involved in evolution for a very long time. Mandrilles eat iboga before competing for mates.

I work with the notion of the noosphere drawn from V.I. Vernadsky, and propose that we define it as the collective effect of attention of ecosystems. Psychedelics seem to draw our attention to the whole. Ecodelics dwindle the broadcast of the ego -- it is not very good at perceiving the whole, just as we can't, unlike a butterfly, taste with our feet. With the ego dwindled, we can become aware of the noosphere -- the message of the whole. This has particular importance as we grapple with the effects of human consciousness and its externalization in technology on the biosphere.

JASON: The Jesuit Priest and scientist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin spoke of the Noosphere very early on. A profile in WIRED Magazine article said, "Teilhard imagined a stage of evolution characterized by a complex membrane of information enveloping the globe and fueled by human consciousness"... Teilhard saw the Net coming more than half a century before it arrived. He believed this vast thinking membrane would ultimately coalesce into "the living unity of a single tissue" containing our collective thoughts and experiences." Teilhard wrote, "The living world is constituted by consciousness clothed in flesh and bone." He argued that the primary vehicle for increasing complexity consciousness among living organisms was the nervous system. The informational wiring of a being, he argued -- whether of neurons or electronics -- gives birth to consciousness. As the diversification of nervous connections increases, evolution is led toward greater consciousness... thoughts?

RICH: Yes, he also called it this process of the evolution of consciousness "Omega Point". The noosphere imagined here relied on a change in our relationship to consciousness as much to any technological change and was part of evolution's epic quest for self awareness. Here Teilhard is in accord with Julian Huxley (Aldous' brother, a biologist) and Carl Sagan when they observed that"we are a way for the cosmos to know itself." Sri Aurobindo's The Life Divine traces out this evolution of consciousness as well through the greek and Sanskrit traditions as well as Darwinism and (relatively) modern philosophy. All are describing evolution's slow and dynamic quest towards understanding itself.

JASON: Jacques Monod, the Parisian biologist who shared a Nobel Prize in 1965, proposed that "just as the biosphere stands above the world of nonliving matter, so an "abstract kingdom" rises above the biosphere. The denizens of this kingdom? Ideas... how do you respond to this notion?

RICH: Yes, the irony here is that in in his amazing book Chance and Necessity, Monod was part of the rather vicious attacks on Teilhard. Teilhard was attacked by both the Church and mainstream science. Was he on to something? Nobody was more mainstream than Karl Popper, the philosopher of science, and he also talked about the "Three Worlds" of "objects", "mental events" and the "products of the human mind", with the last, 'World Three', corresponding roughly to the noosphere. One significant difference between my use of this map and Popper and others is that I do not limit the effects of attention to human attention. Flowering plants, for example, work on this level of the biosphere that involves insect attention and perception.

JASON: This 'world of ideas' sounds a lot like the Noosphere.. are these two guys saying the same thing here?

RICH: As I mentioned above, I think there are important differences in our use of this map, but all of these authors are pointing to the need to model an aspect of our ecosystems that involves what the plant scientists now call "signaling and behavior" as well as the collective effects of that signaling and behavior. I find that the noosphere is a good metaphor and mneumonic device for doing that and helps us think on a more planetary and informational scale.

Precisely because the noosphere is about differentials of attention, it matters how we model it.

JASON: James Gleick, author of The Information has said that ideas influence evolution:"Ideas have retained some of the properties of organisms [...]Like them, they tend to perpetuate their structure and to breed; they too can fuse, recombine, segregate their content; indeed they too can evolve, and in this evolution selection must surely play an important role."

The American neurophysiologist Roger Sperry also arged that ideas are "just as real" as the neurons they inhabit: Ideas cause ideas and help evolve new ideas. They interact with each other and neighboring brains, and thanks to global communication, in far distant, foreign brains... to produce in toto a burstwise advance in evolution that is far beyond anything to hit the evolutionary scene yet" What are your thoughts on this?

RICH: First, I like "idea sex" as a meme, and yet I think it is in some way redundant. I am working with Geoffrey Miller's hypothesis (which was also, implicitly, Charles Darwin's) that the human mind evolves as a courtship device. Thinking and story telling are like birdsong - they play a role in how we pair up. Darwin (as well as more contemporary researchers like Nottebohm) focused on the role of song in courtship and neurogenesis. Nottebohm observed juvenile finches singing their brains larger!

Gleick's treatment of the evolution of ideas is strikingly resonant with Plato's dramatization of the effect of writing to "get into the wrong hands" and drift. (See the Phaedrus). I honestly think we are still grappling with the fact that our minds are distributed across a network by technology, and have been in a feedback loop between our brains and technologies at least since the invention of writing. As each new "mutation" occurs in the history of evolution of information technology, the very character of our minds shifts. McCluhan's Understanding Media is instructive here as well (he parsed it as the Global Village), and of course McLuhan was the bard who advised Leary on "Tune in, Turn on, Drop Out" and very influential on Terence McKenna.

One difference between now and Plato's time is the infoquake through which we are all living. This radical increase in quantity no doubt has qualitative effects - it changes what it feels like to think and remember. Plato was working through the effect of one new information technology -- writing -- whereas today we "upgrade" every six months or so...Teilhard observes the correlative of this evolutionary increase in information -- and the sudden thresholds it crosses -- in the evolution of complexity and nervous systems. The noosphere is a way of helping us deal with this "phase transition" of consciousness that may well be akin to the phase transition between liquid water and water vapor -- a change in degree that effects a change in kind.

Darwin's Pharmacy suggests that ecodelics were precisely such a mutation in information technology that increased sexually selective fitness through the capacity to process greater amounts of information, and that they are "extraordinarily sensitive to initial rhetorical traditions." What this means is that because ecodelic experiences are so sensitive to the context in which we experience them, they can help make us aware of the effect of language and music etc on our consciousness, and thereby offer an awareness of our ability to effect our own consciousness through our linguistic and creative choices. This can be helpful when trying to browse the infoquake. Many other practices do so as well -- meditation is the most well established practice for noticing the effects we can have on our own consciousness, and Sufi dervishes demonstrate this same outcome for dancing. I do the same on my bicycle, riding up a hill and chanting.

One problem I have with much of the discourse of "memes" is that it is often highly reductionistic -- it often forgets that ideas have an ecology too, they must be "cultured." Here I would argue that drawing on Lawrence Lessig's work on the commons, the "brain" is a necessary but insufficient "spawning" ground for ideas that becomes actual. The commons is the spawning ground of ideas; brains are pretty obviously social as well as individual. Harvard biologist Richard Lewontin notes that there is no such thing as "self replicating" molecules, since they always require a context to be replicated. This problem goes back at last to computer scientist John Von Neumann's 1947 paper on self-reproducing automata.

I think Terence McKenna described the condition as "language is loose on planet three", and its modern version probably occurs first in the work of writer William S. Burroughs, whose notion of the "word virus" predates the "meme" by at least a decade. Then again this notion of "ideas are real" goes back to cosmologies that begin with the priority of consciousness over matter, as in "In the beginning was the word, and the word was god, and the word was with god." So even Burroughs could get a late pass for his idea.

JASON: Richard Dawkin's definition of a meme is quite powerful: "I think that a new kind of replicator has recently emerged on this very planet, [...] already achieving evolutionary change at a rate that leaves the old gene panting far behind." [the replicator is] human culture; the vector of transmission is language, and the spawning ground is the brain."

This notion that the "the vector of transmission is language" is very compelling.. It seems to suggest that just as in biological evolution the vector of transmission has been the DNA molecule, in the noosphere, the next stage up, it is LANGUAGE that has become a major player in the transfer of information towards achieving evolutionary change.. Kind of affects how you think about the phrase "words have power". This insight reminds me of a quote that describes, in words, the subjective ecstasy that a mind feels when upon having a transcendent realization that feels as if it advances evolution:

A universe of possibilities,
Grey infused by color,
The invisible revealed,
The mundane blown away
by awe

Is this what you mean by 'the ecstasy of language'?

RICH: Above, I noted that ecodelics can make us aware of the feedback loops between our creative choices -- should I eat mushrooms in a box? -- Should I eat them with a fox? -- and our consciousness. In other words, they can make us aware of the tremendous freedom we have in creating our own experience. Leary called this "internal freedom." Becoming aware of the practically infinite choices we have to compose our lives, including the words we use to map them, can be overwhelming -- we feel in these instances the "vertigo of freedom." What to do? In ecodelic experience we can perceive the power of our maps. That moment in which we can learn to abide the tremendous creative choice we have, and take responsibility for it, is what I mean by the "ecstasy of language."

I would point out, though, that for those words you quote to do their work, they have to be read. The language does not do it "on its own" but as a result of the highly focused attention of readers. This may seem trivial but it is often left out, with some serious consequences. And "reading" can mean "follow up with interpretation". I cracked up when I Googled those lines above and found them in a corporate blog about TED, for example. Who knew that neo-romantic poetry was the emerging interface of the global corporate noosphere?

Read the full "ecstatic dialogue" here: http://bigthink.com/ideas/38972

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