Monday, 12 December 2016

Evolution, or on the Path to the Noosphere

First, there was the Geosphere, then the Biosphere and now the Noosphere. 
This sequence is the time-line of evolution.

Initially, on Earth, chemical, geological, geochemical evolution emerged. The biological evolution followed. It leads to the progressive development of cell, body systems and body-mind systems. Offspring of the latter were mind-culture systems that formed societies. All these systems together are information processors and communicators. So far, a conceptual, general frame. However, what is the storyline behind this frame?

Well, To Start Off Simple...

10 billion years ago, stars formed out of hydrogen. Hydrogen is the simplest chemical element. It combines a single proton and a single electron. The first stars fused hydrogen in their cores to form more complex chemical elements, such as deuterium, lithium and also carbon or iron. These chemical elements are the ashes of stars burning away. Once stars reach the end of their lifetime, they 'explode to implode', i.e. forming what we call a supernova. This explosion blasts the ashes, i.e. the newly fused chemical elements into space. New stars form, fuse and explode; more and more heavier elements are formed Now, from these ashes minerals could develop, combining different chemical elements into more complex structures. From these structures, further more complex structures can be made, like planets.

When these minerals had aggregated into forming planets, like Earth had several billion years ago, they evolve in a new fashion. Chemical processes transform original minerals into other minerals, be they simple too but different or be they more convoluted. Various chemical processes combine into process-loops, and so, the Geosphere is forming. Eventually, geochemistry of planets developed as well as their particular geology. Different pools of matter form in the Geosphere, be it in the deeper layers of the planets, or close to the surface, taking on solid, liquid or gaseous forms. Matter exchanges between these pools and flows in closed pathways repetitively, exhibiting geochemical cycles.

...from astrophysics to geology.

After an elapse of time, increasingly repetitive chemical processes developed. These processes are more complex than the simple transformation of minerals in geochemical cycles. Often, particular processes take place on the surface of minerals because these surfaces provide geometrical shapes that ease the development of complex chemical structures, including their replication. In time, some billion years ago, replication of complex chemical structures had reached a state of abundance on Earth, and there were polymers everywhere. As more different stuff, such as minerals and polymers were around, as more and more intricate process could appear. At that moment, Earth's chemical processes had evolved into a phase where 'living beings' could emerge.

Replication of structures is an essential, primary key feature of life. With time, the different replication processes combined and reproduction could appear. This new feature could emerge once the replication processes had stabilised and diversified so that an abundance of 'more of about the same' could be produced.

Take A Bit Of Evolution...

At first, the simplest 'living beings' consisted of a boundary layer of polymers that formed an enclosed surface around some particular substances and segregated them from other surrounding matter. When this boundary layer also surrounded the specific substances that are needed for the replication processes, then the 'closed boundary layer' gets a promising future. Suppose that raw material (i.e. food and energy) is available then more of the enclosing boundary can be produced. Consequently, growth is possible, both in size and numbers. Particularly interesting would be to attain a further skill, namely also to replicate the specific substances that handle the replication process for the boundary layer. When that is happening, then self-replication may happen and 'more of about the same' may grow, i. e. more enclosed boundary layers. We would be tempted to call this 'a cell'.

The primary function of boundary layers is to segregate lumps of matter from each other and other matter. Boundary layers are a fundamental, key feature of 'living beings'. Boundary layers are the interface that controls interaction with other 'living beings' and between a 'living being' and its environment. These interactions take the form of selected fluxes of matter, energy and information across the boundary layer that limits the 'living being'.

The emergence of 'self-replicating enclosed boundary layers for selected cross-boundary fluxes of matter, energy and information' mark the onset of the biological evolution. When the biological evolution feeds back into the chemical-geological evolution of a planet, i.e. the Earth then a Biosphere is forming.

...making stuff, more and more.

Controlled interaction of 'living beings' ends when they die. At that time, the protecting boundary layers break up. Therefore to secure sustained existence of life, 'living beings' have to replicate before they die. Thus for survival, a self-replicating 'living being' has to do this sufficiently often before ceasing to exist, at least once but better more often.

A 'living being' may survive if the self-replication or reproduction process produces copies of it in sufficient quantity and quality. These copies do not have to be perfect and many; just 'a-bit-more-of-about-the-same' will do it. The replicates may vary when compared to the original. However, for the reproduction process to be sustainable, they have to fit into the environment they find themselves in, into the fluxes of matter, energy and information across the enclosing boundary functions.

Reproduction is a process of 'copy-and-paste-me into the environment' that produces 'a bit more of about the same'. The slight variation of the replicated 'living being', when compared to its forebear, is essential for survival. It is a means to open chances to cope with changes that are occurring in its environment. There is a small probability that some of the variants fit reasonably well, by chance to the varied environment, by chance. This fit will ease their replication. Any misfit will hinder replication. In case that resources are few, then the least-fit may not replicate.

Variation is intrinsic to most replication processes because they are faulty, i.e. they produce "just about the same". Fully accurate, faithful replication would hinder survival because of a likely misfit with the environment that has changed. On the other hand, a severe faulty replication would hinder survival because of losing functionality of the 'living being'. The trick for survival is to replicate in a suitable quantity and quality, each replication being a peculiar but slight variation of the forebear. Biological evolution has to follow this approach, and throughout the billion years, it has traced a path muddling through a wide range of possible changes.

...making sense off, at least a bit.

Awareness about one's environment is the key strategy to finding a development path; a very successful strategy indeed, as evolution has shown. It has led to the development of receptors, sensors, signalling systems, nervous systems, and eventually brains, minds and finally culture, society and (digital) technology. What all these different features have in common is that they are means of capturing and processing information about the environment they are belonging, with the purpose of better managing the exchange processes with it. In the end, this leads to a better control of the various exchange processes in support of survival through reproduction.

To Add A Bit Of Complexity...

Evolved brains, thus very complex nervous systems, are carriers of minds or intelligence - initially very simple, with limited skills. Minds have emerged as a new feature in the course of the evolution of 'living beings', once the complexity of their nervous systems had sufficiently developed. Beyond exhibiting other features, minds are internal, virtual representations of the outer world, the environment around the 'living beings'. The brain holds these virtual representations; thus, it is the carrier of the mind.

The information about the external environment that is part of the mind results from inputs that were captured by the receptors and interpreted by sensors. These inputs trigger signals. The nervous system transmits and aggregated these signals. The brain processes these signals in complex manners. It may be, or not that a previous representation of the outer world is modified, and the mind represents the external environment in a different manner. Any of these representations, which we may call 'perceptions', are internal to the 'living being', and they are virtual in the same sense of the word as it is used in information technology. These virtual representations form a kind of 'mental objects' that are created from heavily processed signals. These internal, virtual mental objects represent a somewhat distorted image of the external world; the distortion may vary. In many cases, the representations that are part of by human mind is quite faithful and can be used to guide our actions, .i.e. to drive a car. Some are crap, and other may be fancy and fashionable but without match outside the mind, e.g. souls, ghosts and gods. Thus, the mental object may evolve further due to internal processes of the brain and finally the object may get disparate from any faithful representation of the external environment. Be these virtual representations as they may, these virtual and mental objects represent significant drivers for the 'living beings'; e.g. people are guided by their dreams and visions for the better or the worth of their survival, i.e. reproduction.

...getting virtual, getting  viral.

Some hundred million years ago, these internal, virtual drivers were a new, emerging feature produced by the evolution of bodies, i.e. nervous systems. The evolution was slow. Finally, mind-setting for survival and reproduction was the new game to play, possibly emerging fully to the level that we witness in our close ancestors little time ago.

Evolved minds also included an internal, virtual representation of its carrier, the 'living being'. Understanding of 'oneself' started to emerge, possibly very early in the evolution of mental systems. When mature, then this particular mental object has the purpose to steer, perceive and plan actions of the carrier of the mental object, i.e. the body in the external environment. The processing of mental objects precedes the action of the body, by little for many movements of our bodies or by extended periods of time for planned activities of groups of human beings. The latter kind of processing of mental objects is part of our daily communication by which we describe and evaluate options 'how to act?'. Going beyond this direct communication between 'living beings', we have encoded messages in our culture and related artefacts to guide actions of other humans by triggering their internal, virtual mental objects.

Nervous systems, including the brain and the mind, find an analogy in computer hardware and computer software. The hardware is the carrier to run the software. Hardware and software have to match in essential features. Otherwise, the software cannot function. The brain, the nervous system and the body are the hardware on which the software, the mind, runs. The essential characteristics of the brain determine the manner in which the mind functions. However, beyond the matching of basic features, a variety of minds can be carried by the same brain or nervous system. The essential role of the 'body and mind system' is the same as in earlier stages of evolution, namely: to replicate the 'living being' in quality and quantity of at least 'a bit more of about the same'. Thus, to survive, the body and mind have to evolve jointly.

...bonding once more.

Evolution of minds opens options for cooperation and bonding between individuals. Individuals are similar but not identical body-mind systems that interact with each other. Seen from the perspective of one particular person, the body-mind systems of the other persons, individually and collectively, are part of the environment with which matter, energy and information are exchanged. The evolution of these 'bonded body-mind systems' (i.e. groups of individual 'humans' in our history) led to sharing of know-how and artefacts among them. Artefacts are external representations of mental objects. They are external because they belong to the environment.

Craftsmanship, arts, culture and technology, etc., all emerge as new features among 'bonded body-mind systems'. These new features partially are internal to the body-mind system, i.e. having virtual representations and being related to mental objects. In that form, they mainly are perceptions that are shared between different 'body-mind systems', i.e. they are 'memes' shared among individual humans. Likewise, these new features (craftsmanship, arts, culture and technology, etc.) make up part of the environment in the form of artefacts that are produced by the 'body-mind systems', i.e. by humans who give their internal, virtual mental objects a physical form and add them to the environment. Consequently, these tangible artefacts and their related internal, virtual, mental objects in other persons become implicit to the environments that are external to a given 'living beings', i.e. person. The individuals act in a coordinated manner, as groups, networks or societies, shaping the environment in which, to survive, they have to reproduce, in quality and quantity that is at least "a bit more of about the same". Consequently, the Noosphere is emerging from the Bio-Geosphere.

On The Way Out...

Much has happened since the first stars have formed. Today, the number of human beings and the manner of our reproduction take such a size that we squeeze the Biosphere of planet Earth. The combined strength of us, humans is such that we modulate the Geosphere of planet Earth, starting the Anthropocene. But where do we go from here? Evolution will continue its erratic
path, building increasingly complex systems by means of using simple building blocks. Irritatingly, we will evolve beyond us and our current state of being. Increasingly complex technologies that we create will open developmental paths to new, self-replicating systems that differ from the body-mind systems as we know them today. These systems will reproduce themselves “about the same”, will carry internal representations of their own structures and their environment, will be fused into our culture, and thus these 'artificial beings' will belong to us, be with us, will be part of us. That's, then the Noosphere.

P. S....if we do not crash this planet !

(c) pictures Ukko El'hob

Note: This text had been published some years ago on this bog. It got reworked and re-edited for more thoughts and better reading. Thank you LLL! 

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