I. The noosphere: a concept about the world’s future evolution
For discussing information-based realms, the grandest, most abstract, and so far least favored term is the noosphere. This term, from the Greek word noos, meaning “the mind,” was coined — whether separately or collectively is unclear — by French theologian-paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, along with French mathematician Edouard Le Roy, and visiting Russian geochemist Vladimir Vernadsky, in Paris in 1922. They were already familiar with the terms “geosphere” and “biosphere”, long in use, and innovatively decided that the planet would next evolve a noosphere. The idea spread in Europe and America following Teilhard’s posthumous publications in the 1950s-1960s, and in Russia following Vernadsky’s return there in the 1920s-1930s.
Our earlier writings credited only Teilhard. We did not know about Vernadsky (nor Le Roy, who left few writings behind). So we slightly expand here on our past discussion of Teilhard, then provide a new discussion about Vernadsky, followed by some comparative remarks. We also add important points from Le Roy’s perspective. Most helpful for doing so was our reading of Paul R. Samson & David Pitt (eds.), The Biosphere and Noosphere Reader: Global Environment, Society and Change (1998). It contained extracts from Vernadsky’s and Le Roy’s writings that were previously unavailable to us.
Teilhard’s thinking about the noosphere
In Teilhard’s view — especially as expressed in The Phenomenon of Man ( 1965) and The Future of Man ( 1964) — the world first evolved a global geosphere and next a biosphere. Now that people are communicating on global scales, the world is starting to create a noosphere — what he variously describes as a globe-circling “realm of the mind,” a “thinking circuit,” “a new layer, the ‘thinking layer’,” a “stupendous thinking machine,” a “thinking envelope” full of fibers and networks, a “planetary mind” and “consciousness”, where Earth “finds its soul.” According to Teilhard, in a metaphor he favored,
“The idea is that of the earth not only becoming covered by myriads of grains of thought but becoming enclosed in a single thinking envelope so as to form, functionally, no more than a single vast grain of thought on the sidereal scale, the plurality of individual reflections grouping themselves together and reinforcing one another in the act of a single unanimous reflection.” (1965, pp. 250-251).In the 1964 edition’s Introduction, Julian Huxley further defines Teilhard’s concept as a “web of living thought” and “a common pool of thought”. He also praises Teilhard for advancing “a threefold synthesis — of the material and physical world with the world of mind and spirit; of the past with the future; and of variety with unity, the many with the one.” And he clarifies that “we should consider inter-thinking humanity as a new type of organism, whose destiny it is to realise new possibilities for evolving life on this planet.”
According to Teilhard, then, forces of the mind — first “psychogenesis” and then “noogenesis” — have been creating “grains of thought” and other pieces of the noosphere for ages, while increases in social complexity and human consciousness have laid further groundwork for the noosphere’s emergence. Now the noosphere may finally be achieving a global presence, and its varied “compartments” and “cultural units” are beginning to fuse. As Teilhard puts it, equating cultures with species, “cultural units are for the noosphere the mere equivalent and the true successors of zoological species in the biosphere.” Eventually, a synthesis will occur in which peoples of different nations, races, and cultures will give rise to “unheard-of and unimaginable degrees of organised complexity and of reflexive consciousness” that is planetary in scope (a “mono-culturation”), arising without people losing their personal identity and individuality.
Fully realized, the noosphere will raise mankind to a higher evolutionary plane, one shaped by a collective coordination of psychosocial and spiritual energies and by a devotion to moral, ethical, religious, juridical, and aesthetic principles. However, he counsels, “No one would dare to picture to himself what the noosphere will be like in its final guise”. Moreover, he warns that the transition may not be smooth — a “paroxysm,” a global tremor and possibly an apocalypse may characterize the final fusion of the noosphere.
Although Teilhard’s concept is essentially spiritual, and far less technological than cyberspace or the infosphere, he identified increased communications as a catalyst. Nothing like the Internet existed in his time. Yet he sensed (1964) that 1950s-era radio and television systems were already starting to “link us all in a sort of ‘etherized’ universal consciousness,” and someday “astonishing electronic computers” would give mankind new tools for thinking. Today, he is occasionally credited with anticipating the Internet, as well as the idea of the Anthropocene age. (Sources: Teilhard, 1964, pp. 162, 175–181, 200–4, 235, 303; Teilhard, 1965, pp. 287–290; Teilhard, in Samson & Pitt, 1998, p. 77)
Vernadsky’s thinking about the noosphere
Vernadsky’s views in some ways parallel, but also differ from Teilhard’s — Vernadsky’s are much more materialist, in spots more mystical, yet less spiritual (Vernadsky was an atheist). Like Teilhard, he too held that Earth first evolved a geosphere, then a biosphere — and a noosphere would be next. Indeed, he wrote the first book on The Biosphere (in 1926), in which he treated the spread of life as an essentially geological force.
In his landmark paper, “New Scientific Knowledge and the Transition from the Biosphere to the Noösphere” (1938), Vernadsky argued that increases and changes in the nature of “biogeophysical energy” — owing to a progression of inventions from fire-making, to agriculture, to modern communications technologies, etc. — explain the planetary spread of the biosphere and the coming emergence of a noosphere. In his words, “This new form of biogeochemical energy, which might be called the energy of human culture or cultural biogeochemical energy, is that form of biogeochemical energy, which creates at the present time the noösphere” (p. 16). This kind of energy, he wrote, lay behind the development of the human mind and reason itself; and it will lead “ultimately to the transformation of the biosphere into the noösphere, first and foremost, through the creation and growth of the scientific understanding of our surroundings” (p. 20).
Vernadsky went on to say that the creation of the noosphere has “proceeded apace, ever increasing in tempo” during the “last five to seven thousand years” despite “interruptions continually diminishing in duration” (p. 29). He evidently expects “the unity of the noosphere” to bring “a planned unified activity for the mastery of nature and a just distribution of wealth associated with a consciousness of the unity and equality of all peoples”. But while it is “not possible to reverse this process”, he expected “the transitional stage” to be accompanied by “ruthless struggle” and “intense struggles” that may span several generations. Nonetheless, he doubted “there will be any protracted interruptions in the ongoing process of the transition from the biosphere to the noösphere” (p. 30). Finally, as he conveyed all this with confidence, he nevertheless wondered whether it all “transcends the bounds of logic” and whether “we are entering into a realm still not fully grasped by science.” He even made positive closing references to Hindu philosophy and to the role of art in man’s thinking (p. 31).
Later, despite his dismay about the destructiveness of WWII, Vernadsky’s article “The Biosphere and the Noösphere” in the journal American Scientist in 1945, compiled from his much earlier writings, reflected his visionary optimism by observing that:
“The historical process is being radically changed under our very eyes. For the first time in the history of mankind the interests of the masses on the one hand, and the free thought of individuals on the other, determine the course of life of mankind and provide standards for men’s ideas of justice. Mankind taken as a whole is becoming a mighty geological force. There arises the problem of the reconstruction of the biosphere in the interests of freely thinking humanity as a single totality. This new state of the biosphere, which we approach without our noticing it, is the noösphere. …
“Now we live in the period of a new geological evolutionary change in the biosphere. We are entering the noösphere. This new elemental geological process is taking place at a stormy time, in the epoch of a destructive world war. But the important fact is that our democratic ideals are in tune with the elemental geological processes, with the laws of nature, and with the noösphere. Therefore we may face the future with confidence. It is in our hands. We will not let it go.” (in Samson & Pitt, p. 99)Note that despite his despair about WWII, he still associated the nascent noosphere with such values as freedom, justice, and democracy.
Throughout his varied writings about “the evolution of the biosphere into the noosphere,” Vernadsky extolled the emergence of reason as a powerful, even geological force tied to the development of science and scientific thinking. He thus mostly regarded the noosphere as the “sphere of reason”, the “realm of reason,” the “reign of reason,” and as “the way through which the noosphere manifests itself in the thinking process” — even as “life's domain ruled by reason.” (Vernadsky, 1997, passim)
Vernadsky’s audience was mostly fellow scientists in Soviet Russia, not policy-makers. But he did occasionally argue that government administrators should attend to his findings, and that “Statesmen should be aware of the present elemental process of transition of the biosphere into the noosphere.” (in Samson & Pitt, p. 38)
Teilhard and Vernadsky compared
Both Teilhard and Vernadsky shared a deep belief in our planet’s evolutionary path: first a geosphere, then a biosphere, and next a noosphere. Yet their views about causes and consequences differ enough to be worth comparing. Teilhard’s views were far more spiritually-grounded than Vernadsky’s. The latter preferred to explain the noosphere’s emergence in terms of geological and technological forces. Yet, like Teilhard, he expected the noosphere to have wonderful ethical consequences for humanity — as he noted, “a just distribution of wealth” and “the unity and equality of all peoples”. Moreover, while both viewed the noosphere optimistically as a realm of collective consciousness, neither regarded it as a realm of uniformity. Both valued individualism and variety. Both favored a future built on democracy. And, seemingly contrary to Charles Darwin, both thought that evolution depended on cooperation as much as competition.
Both were quite unclear regarding what the transition to the noosphere will be like for people. They both made the transitional phase seem inevitable. At times, Teilhard even made it seem alluringly smooth and peaceful. Yet, if they’d just offered comparisons (which neither evidently did) to the transitions to the geosphere and biosphere, they’d surely have noted that evolution of any kind is often far from smooth and peaceful; indeed, it is often chaotic, disjointed, and violent. Fortunately, Teilhard and Vernadsky at least allude to this prospect — Teilhard by noting that a global tremor, if not an apocalypse, may characterize the final fusion of the noosphere, Vernadsky by noting the likelihood of intense ruthless struggles spanning several generations. Both recognized humanity’s capacity for self-destruction.
Which raises another question about the nature of the transition: Teilhard and Vernadsky both saw the noosphere as evolving piecemeal around the planet, much as did the geosphere and biosphere, with some parts arising here and then spreading there, other parts elsewhere, with interconnections and interactions increasing over time, until the entire planet is caught up in webs of creation and fusion. But neither Teilhard nor Vernadsky specified exactly what parts and pieces may matter along the way. Teilhard at least indicated that “compartments” and “cultural units” bearing “grains of thought” will do the “fusing”. That isn’t much to go on, but it’s helpful for thinking strategically, as we argue later.
Le Roy’s depiction of the transition
Le Roy’s few writings on this subject offer further insight into how the transition may occur. In his book on The Origins of Humanity and the Evolution of Mind ( in Samson & Pitt, 1998), Le Roy turned to a “hydro-dynamical” metaphor for showing how the noosphere may emerge from the biosphere. It would not resemble the growth of a branching tree, but instead occur by way of spurts, jets, and spouts that finally link to form a layer. In his words,
“Take the biosphere. Let us imagine in it a few points here and there where spurts, strictly limited and hardly surpassing above the middle level, and where jets grow little by little, open up and finally link up their spouts, spreading a layer that covers the Earth. The layer is ultimately superimposed on the primitive layer and covers it like multiple currents. This is the noosphere, spurting and emanating from the biosphere, and finishing by having the same amplitude and same importance as its generator. … [It is] “the spurting points that [will] attach the noosphere to the biosphere.” (Samson & Pitt, p. 66-67)Those metaphors aside, Le Roy went on to identify real-world factors that will drive creation of the noosphere: “division of work, game of association and habit, culture and training, exercise of all types; from where come social classes, types of mind, forms of activity, new powers”. He noted that this will ultimately lead to a separation and spiritualization of the noosphere — “a disengagement of consciousness increasingly free and pure, and the constitution of a superior order of existence; the order of spirituality, reaching a point of perfection where the noosphere would strain to detach itself from the biosphere as a butterfly sheds its cocoon.” According to Le Roy, it is “this mysterious force of thought cohesion between individuals that allows the start of organised union in a unique layer”. (Samson & Pitt, pp. 67, 69)
In other words, Le Roy viewed the expansion of the mind and the creation of the noosphere as a planetary process that will lead to the noosphere’s separation from the biosphere:
“We are, in truth, confronting a phenomenon of planetary, perhaps cosmic, importance. This new force is human intelligence; the reflexive will of humankind. Through human action, the noosphere disengages itself, little by little, from the biosphere and becomes more and more independent, and all this with rapid acceleration and an amplification of effects which continue to grow. Correlatively however, by a sort of return shock, hominisation has introduced, in the course of life, some formidable risks.” (Samson & Pitt, p. 5)This depiction by Le Roy of the noosphere’s emergence is quite dramatic, even gripping and visionary — as are the depictions offered by Teilhard and Vernadsky. Maybe that helps to explain why, thanks to these three foundational thinkers, the noosphere concept has persisted and grown, not only over time and but also across scholarly, spiritual, and other boundaries. A brief survey of recent developments follows.