Saturday, 14 December 2013

Humans are engineers, let’s terraform !

Credit: Hongkai Gao (via (i))
All humans are engineers, even the artists. Our close environment, the landscapes surrounding us are created by mankind. Intentional and unintentionally we do engineer the surface of the globe. We changed the surface, now we shift the climate. Threatened by climate change, shouldn't we endeavour to engineer the Earth to counter unintended climate change?  

If all nine billion people of the globe would live like European citizens – or people in North America, Australia, Japon… – that would blow up the globe. Up-scaling  advanced production and consumption patterns by a factor 20 is non-sustainable, and its down-scaling does not look feasible. Keeping current global imbalances of wealth and poverty does not seem fair. Striving towards “global sustainability” would require to adjust most of the the current production and consumption patterns. Without such adjustments, whatever these adjustments may be in detail, it seems unlikely to limit climate change to moderate scenarios of temperature increase and sea-level rise.

Evidently, human pressure on global systems is immense; unintentional terraforming is taken place going well beyond replacing pristine wilderness by rural landscapes. Humans change the state of the planet:

Dust Storm (Credit: Xuegang Mao (via
State of Planet Declaration: “Research demonstrates that the continued functioning of the Earth system as it has supported the welfare of human civilization in recent centuries is at risk. Without action, we could face threats to water, food, biodiversity and other critical supplies: these threats risk intensifying economic, ecological and social crises, creating the potential for a humanitarian emergency on a global scale.

In one human lifetime, an increasingly interconnected and interdependent economic, social, cultural and political systems have come to place. These systems put pressures on the environment that may cause fundamental changes in the Earth system and move us beyond safe natural boundaries. However the same interconnectedness provides the potential for solutions: new ideas can develop and propagate quickly, creating the momentum for the significant transformation required for a truly sustainable planet.

The defining challenge of the modern era is to safeguard Earth's natural processes to ensure the welfare of civilization while eradicating poverty, reducing conflict over resources, and supporting human and ecosystem health.

As consumption accelerates everywhere and world population rise, it is no longer sufficient to work towards a distant ideal of sustainable development. Global sustainability must become a foundation of society. It can and must be part of the bedrock of nation states and the fabric of societies.” [a]

Contrary to a negotiated approach towards global sustainability, “geoengineering” is understood to deploy a “technology fix” for the same purpose, namely to limit climate change, leaving current production and consumption patterns unchanged.

Four scenes on engineering

Jan Mayen island-  Credit: Sophie Tran (via
Imagine! Your are on an intercontinental flight. The flight is well packed. It is warm in the cabin, too warm, and not really comfortable. The crew announces that the cooling system should be re-engineered in-flight because it is insufficient for the high number of passengers on the flight. You learn that preparatory work will start soon, that the Oxford principles [b] have been respected and that so experiments would be undertaken soon. How would you respond?

Recall and imagine! Oil-based fossil-energy-age is halfway; the moment of peak oil is close. The planet is well packed with people. It is getting warmer. It is not comfortable. The chef-scientists of the G8 consider that geoengineering should fix that by providing additional cooling for the planet. You learn that preparatory work will start soon with some experiments. How would you respond?

SPICE -experiment (ii)
Recently the science magazine “Physics Today” [1] discussed why an experiment of the SPICE project “stratospheric particle injection for climate change” had been cancelled. The experiment foresaw to spray particle loaded water into the atmosphere 1000 meters above ground level [c]. The purpose of the experiment was to research how reflective particles in the atmosphere behave; one of the hypotheses to mitigate global warming. The experiment was designed to have no environmental impact. The experiment apparently was cancelled because proper governance of geoengineering experiments is lacking, including
addressing of patenting. Would you support that?

Recently the science journal “Nature” reported that injection of volcanic ash into the troposphere was planned to happen some days after publication of the article [2]. Ash-particles in the stratosphere modulate global temperature; for example, seasonal temperature dropped after massive volcanic eruptions, which injected ash into the stratosphere. Injection of 50 barrels of volcanic ash into the atmosphere at 3000 and 4000 meters altitude off the west coast of France should test an aircraft sensor for volcanic ash-hazards. It was planned to fly through “the largest artificial ash cloud ever made”. The experiment was not reported to have had an environmental impact. The experiment was not cancelled because governance of geoengineering experiments is lacking.... Would you support that?

Pieces of a puzzle

Considering the current state of moderating climate change, human capability to reduce its overall pressure on global systems seems to be limited, even if consumption of top-consumers is capped. On the contrary, human consumption of resources and pressure on global systems likely will increase as people of developing countries arise from poverty. Most people of the globe are living at relatively low levels of consumption. Their level of consumption will increase to get a fair share of the global resources; whatever fair may mean once someone does not live in poverty.

Their experiences made Humans much inclined to look for technological fixes for problems because that is what experiences taught. This approach, technological fixes had worked in the past and is something in which humans are good at. On the other side, the design and rolling-out of sustainable ways of economic and social functioning are a fringe activity in industrialised societies; they are getting their publicity, but little more. The German “Energiewende”, the attempt to replace in a decade-long process fossil-energy by renewable energies are mainly a technological project. However, what is wrong in focusing human efforts on methods in which mankind is strong?

Source - Environmental Protection Agency (iii) 
Well engineered technological methods have created our modern societies. These experiences are seen as a success at most places over the globe; whatever doubts emerged somewhere and sometime. Thus, it seems obvious to apply an engineering solution to climate change or global change issues too. In particular, as the identified, or the supposed, or the perceived threats to the environment of the past have been addressed successfully just in that manner. Air pollution causing acid rains has been reduced by cleaner combustion processes; ozone destructing chemical coolants have been replaced by other substances; genetically modified organisms got regulated by imposing restrictions on use; nanotechnology gets assessed for the limits of use-cases.

So far, a combination of public awareness and political concern, of technological fixes and negotiated regulatory actions has been applied to limit threats to regional and global systems, which were caused by pressure of human production and consumption patterns. So far, none of these methods, which were put in place, neither the technological fixes nor the regulations had to put into question the consumption pattern of the modern industrialised societies. Also so far, these methods were enough to reduce pressure on global or regional systems by reducing inputs without impacting on current production and consumption patterns. Common to these methods was to reduce inputs into global or regional systems by withholding emission, replacing substances or limiting use cases for certain substances. Thus, in these cases the selected approach was a technological fix or regulatory measure targeting the “start of the pipe”. Mature solutions to environmental threats replace “end of pipe” approaches with “start of the pipe” solutions; handling sewage water being the most pertinent historical example. What are situations in which “start of the pipe” are less appealing?

Applying a “start of the pipe” approach to climate change faces the issue that mankind should reduce inputs
were its hurts, namely reducing radically energy that is produced from burning fossil fuels. Capping burning of fossil fuels would be disruptive for the economic structures or the consumption pattern of the developed and developing industrialised societies. In addition, the disruptive change should take place in a manner that is coordinated at the scale of the globe. This seems a recipe for a “mission impossible”. The pace of negotiations on climate change matters clearly shows this. On the other hand, the consequences of a run-away climate change and the price of business as usual scenario looks forbiddingly high, as well in economic as in social costs that likely will be caused by climate change. Facing that dilemma affordable geoengineering looks tempting for some. Mankind could build on its strength, avoids disruption of the economic structures or the consumption pattern. The immediate downside of doing geoengineering is the feeling to get “in-flight re-engineered”; notwithstanding that geoengineering methods would have to be tested, evaluated, agreed and regulated before being deployed. By whom?

However geoengineering technologies, which counter climate change by other means than carbon capture at combustion, are of a different nature than the technological fixes and negotiated regulatory actions, which have been applied to limit threats to regional and global systems. Increasing the surface albedo to increase backscattering of sun-light, sheltering sun-light by aerosols or clouds in the higher atmosphere, capturing excess carbon by ocean fertilisation, afforestation etc.; all these technologies target other parts of the climate system but the carbon-dioxide input into the atmosphere. Therefore, many geoengineering technologies differ qualitatively because they do not tackle the initial cause, namely the carbon-dioxide inputs that are too high. Possibly, a technology that reduces inputs at the sources might gain more easily public support for its application. That may happen at least “in principle” and under the assumption that its cost is considered to be appropriate. Whatever appropriate may mean in a given situation, likely “appropriate” would mean that the cost would not be disruptive for the current economic structures or consumption patterns. Is that a pessimistic view?

In analogy to geoengineering; suppose that your ship has a leakage. Would you propose a lasting solution by installing stronger pumps and advocate heavier pumping? Such a proposal might be accepted in an emergency situation, and only if you propose a proven technique. Astonishingly, the Dutch do so for a substantial part of their country since centuries, and they plan to do so with rising sea level. But where else the Dutch people would like to be but in the Netherlands. Where else they could go? Thus, plan-fully the Dutch step up norms and constructions to face a sea-level rise of one meter in a century. They run their pumps to keep the water out “behind the dike” as they did it since centuries. In a more desperate situation people also would opt for "trial and error method" to confine a threat. This was done very much to confine the damaged nuclear reactors after the Chernobyl and Fukushima accidents. How massive these confinement activities may have been, they were deployed only on a very small scale compared to what geoengineering would involve.

So far for analogies; but what about developing and testing “technological fixes”, i.e. “stronger pumps”, as long as you have the opportunity to do so without being driven by an emergency situation? Would it be appropriate to develop in a regulated manner some affordable geoengineering technologies [3]?

Ukko El’Hob
Modified contribution to the blog of the International Association for the Promotion of Geoethics

[1] David Kramer, 2013 Geoengineering researchers ponder ethical and regulatory issues, Physics Today Vol. 66(11).

[2] Alexandra Witze 2013, Volcanic-ash sensor to take flight, Nature Vol. 502

[3] Adam Corner and Nick Pidgeon 2010, Geoengineering the climate: The social and ethical implications, Environment Vol. 52.

(i) This is a snapshot on the train from Lijiang to Kunming, Yunnan Provice in China. The terraced field is the creature of remaking nature, and the symbol of harmonous life style between human being and environment. No conquer, but live together.

(ii) Diagram of test. Click the image to view full size (53KB). Copyright Cambridge University Engineering Department.


[a], “State of the Planet Declaration" adopted by the conference “Planet under Pressure” 26th -29th March 2012 in London.

[b] In December 2009, the Oxford principles, initially drafted by scholars were endorsed by the to UK House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee on “The Regulation of Geoengineering” making them a national-level policy statement on responsibly executed geoengineering research.

[c] The injection height of 1.000m, following habitual definition, would be much below the stratosphere habitually having a lower limit around 10.000m. However, “SPICE” is not a mis-name of the project. The cancelled experiment was part of a much bigger undertaking that apparently run also into difficulties because of a dispute about patent rights for geoengineering techniques (see: D. Cressy 2012, Geoengineering experiment cancelled amid patent row, NATURE, Vol.(485)

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Stewardship of the Earth

Recently mankind kicked off the Anthropocene. Currently, mankind's economic activity is driving the planet Earth into a new geological epoch; its proposed name “Anthropocene”. 

An artist's view of Earth
First studies of mankind's global impact were published some decades ago[1]. Mankind is transforming the ecosystems of the Earth and actively terraforming the globe by the strength of matter and energy fluxes mankind commands. In the last decades, Researchers have accumulated much evidence supporting that human activities determine the state of the globe with a similar strength as the ordinary natural processes. In the rhythm that this insight gathers momentum within the public debate an understanding should emerge that mankind should take stewardship of the planet Earth. However the latter does not seem to happen, because insights are challenging for the general public, old traditions are living on, and value-systems are not apt.

Comfortable pressure-cooker

Curiously, most global issues are not easy to notice in spite of the pressure they put on the functioning of planet Earth. 

We and our fellow citizen have little chance to grasp the sheers size of mankind's activities. What does it mean that people are consuming annually about 91.000 Terra-Watt-Hours energy? What does it mean that global primary production is about half terrestrial and half marine and that we consume at least a fifth of it? How does it come that plastics clog marine ecosystems. These matters are difficult to grasp from any local perspective, and local perspectives is what people and societies know. Any a local perspective confronting global issue is easily responded by dramatizing or denying it. Dramatizing a situation or denying a problem is the easy response, as the public debate about climate change illustrates. Both responses hamper appropriate.

Thus, when describing the current state of planet Earth in face of anthropogenic global issues, a comprehensive scope of issues has to be addressed. In that spirit, the conference “Planet under Pressure” (held 26th -29th March 2012 in London) summarized the current state of planet Earth in the “State of the Planet Declaration" [*]:
  • Research demonstrates that the continued functioning of the Earth system as it has supported the welfare of human civilization in recent centuries is at risk. Without action, we could face threats to water, food, biodiversity and other critical supplies: these threats risk intensifying economic, ecological and social crises, creating the potential for a humanitarian emergency on a global scale.
  • In one human lifetime, an increasingly interconnected and interdependent economic, social, cultural and political systems have come to place. These systems put pressures on the environment that may cause fundamental changes in the Earth system and move us beyond safe natural boundaries. However the same interconnectedness provides the potential for solutions: new ideas can develop and propagate quickly, creating the momentum for the significant transformation required for a truly sustainable planet.
  • The defining challenge of the modern era is to safeguard Earth's natural processes to ensure the welfare of civilization while eradicating poverty, reducing conflict over resources, and supporting human and ecosystem health.
  • As consumption accelerates everywhere and world population rise, it is no longer sufficient to work towards a distant ideal of sustainable development. Global sustainability must become a foundation of society. It can and must be part of the bedrock of nation states and the fabric of societies.
Quote from “State of Planet Declaration”

The European Parliament (Collage U. El'Hob)
Little seems to have happened since March 2012, when the conference “Planet under Pressure” took part. Further evidence on global change issues has been accumulated and has been rendered public, such as the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Inconspicuously, the observer could witness the well-trained reactions of the different partisan-groups. Their reactions were ranging from dramatizing to denying the threat caused by anthropogenic climate change. This kind of debate, which is lasting since some time for climate change issues, indicates that the key-issues to debate are neither facts and observations nor environmental risks, but traditions and values that are the foundations of societies.
To master anthropogenic global change issues, people have to debate their traditions and value-systems in the context of these issues. Traditions and value-systems determine very significantly the behaviour of people and societies. Value-driven and tradition-based behaviour includes the common traits of people or societies how they appreciate facts and observations and how they take choices and risks.

Stone-age-old practices going global

Currently, humans consume about 20% to 30% of the global primary production. The size of human population, its appetite for natural resources, and the speed turning these around transforms landscapes ecosystems and global biogeochemical cycles.

"Modern fisheries, including both landings and by-catch, currently consume 24-35% of global marine primary production in the continental shelf and major up-welling areas, corresponding closely to current estimates that humans now appropriate roughly one quarter of the land's potential net primary production. Humans are the dominant marine predator on earth. This means that fisheries stocks are being harvested at rates near the maximum sustainable limit, and 24% of the fish stocks are over-exploited or depleted, meaning that they are being harvested at rates not sustainable in the long term, and 1% are considered to be recovering from depletion." (J. E. Duffy, Marine Biodiversity and Food; earthportal, quoted: 8th April 2012).

Insights like this one should call for a different practice how to use the resources of the earth, at least for the use of its living resources. A practice of global stewardship is needed. A practice of global stewardship should replace the current practice for the use of resources, namely "search, find and gather", a practice that humans used since stone-age times up to present times.

Notwithstanding under what circumstances in the past the "search, find and gather practice" had been sustainable the present-day "search, find and gather practice" is damaging the resources of the Earth. The best example to illustrate the damage is marine fishery. Global marine fishery has decreasing returns in spite of increasing economic efforts. Modern industrial fishery is keeping practising the stone-age-old practice of "search, find and gather". Industrial aquaculture does not differ in that aspect, which confines high-value fish in compounds to grow them with food fished from the sea.

Slash-and-burn agriculture has been practised in Finland from prehistoric times. [2]

Looking on the historical process of the development of agriculture provides a further astonishing insight. Neolithic agriculture grew as "slash, burn and grow" technology, and neolithic settlers moved away once they had exploited the soil. 

It took a long time to develop sustainable agricultural practices that initially could sustain stable populations and later could support their growth. During may centuries, the price for failing to practise a sustainable agriculture was hunger, emigration and death. To avoid this, societies formed that valued a conservative culture of proven traditional methods, which most time sustained simple subsistence only. Unsurprisingly, humans broke out of these constraints when the discovery of additio0nal resources permitted to do it. Modern, industrialised agriculture was the final breakthrough supporting the growth of human population to modern levels. But, modern industrialised agriculture is not self-sustained because it needs steady inflow of energy and resources to keep production levels high. In junction to that process, soil quality is degrading in many parts of the world, and irrigation water is getting scars. So, modern industrialised agriculture is a "slash, burn and grow practice" similar in its general nature to the former practice of neolithic settlers when they started slashing forests to open fields.

A caption, somewhere to nowhere (Collage U. El'Hob)
Worryingly, the stone-age-old practices of "search, find and gather" or "slash, burn and grow" could serve as paradigms for present-time methods; many natural resources, in the first instance oil and gas are used in that manner, the frenzy about shale-gas may serve as a recent example. Not withstanding these common practices, examples of a sustainable use of resources are found. Sustainable use of resources seems to be found when cultural, social and economic value systems jointly determine people's attitudes and choices. It seems that lasting, sustainable use of resources needs to aggregate different value categories into a balanced set, which then guides human practices to the best of its knowledge.

Insights, outreach and values

Humanity's impact on the Earth system has become comparable to planetary-scale geological processes such as ice ages. Consensus is growing that we have driven the planet into a new epoch, the Anthropocene, in which several Earth-system processes and the living fabric of ecosystems are now dominated by human activities.” 

"A commitment to the proposal for universal Sustainable Development Goals is needed, as goals for Global Sustainability. These should be developed to take account of the synergies and trade-offs in and between areas such as food, water and energy security, maintenance of biodiversity and ecosystem services, sustainable urbanisation, social inclusion and livelihoods, protection of seas and oceans, and sustainable consumption and production."
Quote from “State of Planet Declaration”

Popularizing science-based insights into global issues would make their complexities understood. However science-outreach activities have to compete for public attention and often they lose the competition. Modern societies could come to grasp with the complexities of global issues through their educational systems. However, this is a decade-long process. Also, it is questionable that science-based insights alone would be enough to change human behaviour. To guide behaviour of people, it is appropriate that valuing the use of scientific insights is aggregated with a more general value system.

Karkun Ukko, Ivan Plaketti *22.8.1893 +1935
It is observed that local societies, which are based on traditional knowledge and value, often show insights that would favour global stewardship if these insights could be generalized. It had been argued that generalizing such value-driven insights could be instrumental for facing global issues. Analyses show that these insights emerged because these societies function at subsistence level in fragile environments. Therefore, these societies have little outreach and their techniques have little attractiveness to provide solutions at a global scale.

However, although extrapolating the social techniques of local societies of traditional knowledge is of limited use, these societies show how their value-based functioning nurtures commons and favour stewardship. So, it is to wonder how to merge science-based insights and an accompanying value-system of that favours commons and global stewardship. Such a value system has to include the interplay of individuals, people and societies with the earth systems. This part of the value system, to be called “geoethics” means to put human activities and earth-science issues into a general value-loaded context. 

However, it is a challenge to call for “geoethics” when many societies on the globe are ravaged by poverty and exploitation, and thus neither caring of commons nor understanding of the global issues is an apparent option.

Building the global village

The Earth system is a complex, interconnected system that includes the global economy and society, which are each highly interconnected and interdependent. Such systems can confer remarkable stability and facilitate rapid innovation, but they are also susceptible to abrupt and rapid changes and crises, such as global financial meltdowns or the volatility of the global food system.”

These insights demand a new perception of responsibilities and accountability of nation states to support planetary stewardship. A crucial transformation is to move away from income as the principal constituent of well-being, but to develop new indicators that measure actual improvements in well-being at all scales. Equity in opportunities to improve well-being and eradication of poverty at the individual level will also play pivotal roles in the transition towards planetary stewardship.”
Quote from “State of Planet Declaration”

The global village is emerging, and it gets visible – at least on this side of the digital divide. As villagers, we know about neighbours, their deeds, strengths and failures. As villagers, we may hate each other, but even then we are bundled into one undertaking. Traditionally, villagers know that they are bound to work together, or to fail, in particular when they face the challenges of the environment. Historical examples may be the challenge to maintain the fields of the Nile valley, or to maintain shore defences at the North Sea, or to overcome a harsh season. The village is an interconnected system of surprising complexity. Mutual assistance and caring is possible as well as destructive run-away reactions. A village is not a paradisical place. It is a place of work and common fate. It is time to perceive Earth as a “global village” that has to face “global issues” such as climate change.

Monetary value is too little

Recognition of the monetary and non-monetary values of public goods such as ecosystem services, education, health, and global common resources such as the oceans and the atmosphere is needed. These conditions must be accurately factored into management and decision-making frameworks at the national and sub-national levels. This would ensure that economic activities do not impose external costs on the global commons. Corrective measures that internalize costs and minimize the impacts on the commons need to be identified and implemented through regulatory and market-based mechanisms.”
Quote from “State of Planet Declaration”

Collage U. El'Hob
Monetary value was the essential means to have built a global network of exchange of goods and services and to maintain it. To improve process efficiency actors in modern societies seek to maximise monetary value. It is believed that a common general maximum (of wealth and happiness) is achieved if (all) individual actors seek their local maximum, and use the achieved financial returns to purchase goods and services. This strategy looks appealingly simple. Also, it worked convincingly, at least if applied to local problems and as long as side effects could be externalised, e.g. by applying a method like "the solution to pollution is dilution". However, that approach gets stuck as soon as the externalisation of side effects had an outcome like "your solution is my pollution"; on hindsight outcome seems evident because there is the end to any dilution in any finite systems. The current global issues show that the simple approach of optimising local financial return does not work any more for maximising global wealth and happiness.

Our strengths

Our highly interconnected global society has the potential to innovate quickly. The international scientific community must quickly reorganize to focus on global sustainability solutions. We must develop a new strategy for creating and quickly translating knowledge into action, which will form part of a new contract between science and society, with commitments from both sides.”
Quote from “State of Planet Declaration”

It is to acknowledge that mankind's activities are like a planet-scale geological process. Mankind is starting the Anthropocene. The sheer number of human beings and their needs renders that unavoidable. Therefore, for “mankind's survival in the pressure cooker”, we will have to keep the Anthropocene functioning. Survival requires a global stewardship of the globe and its commons. Global stewardship requires societies and individuals engaging in a value-driven behaviour that incorporates geoethics, science-based insights, public awareness, social inclusion and individual participation.

Ukko El'Hob

[1] P. M. Vitousek, H. A. Mooney, J. Lubchenco, J. M. Melillo 1997, Human Domination of Earth's Ecosystems, Science Vol.277 p. 494-499; preceding publications: M. Vitousek, P. R. Ehrlich, A. H. Ehrlich and P. A. Matson 1986, Human Appropriation of the Products of Photosynthesis, BioScience, Vol.36(6); or other works such as by the “Club of Rome” [**]

[2] "Slash-and-burn agriculture has been practised in Finland from prehistoric times. Slash-and-burn agriculture played an important part in why North Savo has been permanently settled from the beginning of the 15th Century. Especially slash-and-burn cultivation in coniferous forest has been the technical and economic foundation for settlements in the area. " (
[*] quotes in italic are from the "State of Planet Declaration"; conference “Planet under Pressure”, 26th-29th March 2012, London (UK);

[**] - from Wikipedia: “The Limits to Growth is a 1972 book about the computer modeling of exponential economic and population growth with finite resource supplies. Funded by the Volkswagen Foundation and commissioned by the Club of Rome it was first presented at the St. Gallen Symposium. Its authors were Donella H. Meadows, Dennis L. Meadows, Jørgen Randers, and William W. Behrens III. The book used the World3 model to simulate of consequence of interactions between the Earth's and human systems....
The most recent updated version was published on June 1, 2004 by Chelsea Green Publishing Company and Earthscan under the name Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update. Donella Meadows, Jørgen Randers, and Dennis Meadows have updated and expanded the original version. They had previously published Beyond the Limits in 1993 as a 20-year update on the original material.”

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Evolution –2– Noosphere

First emerged the Geosphere, then the Biosphere, now the Noosphere - this is the time-line of evolution up to the Anthropocene

The concept “evolution” is a philosophical insight how to describe the process of the development of the world. Its story line tells the fantastic development from stardust to virtual social networks. Evolution  has a much wider scope than survival of species by weeding out the least fit for an environment with limited resources.
The Track - Collage, Ukko El'Hob

Regarding “evolution”…

Evolution is an iterative process, in which structures assemble and replicate. The overarching key-features of evolution are “self-assembling of structures” and their “replication”. 

The biological evolution of “living beings” by self-replication, a process which also is called reproduction, is part of that general evolution process. However, the biological evolution of “living beings” is a central step in the overall evolution process. A new feature emerged, the competition of finite structures. These finite structures process energy, matter and information. Their competition is for the efficiency of these processes, with a focus on the efficiency of the information processing.

Regarding “self-assembly”…

Regarding assembling of structures; evolution implies that simple components aggregate to more complex structures. The aggregation of the simple components is spontaneous without an external driver. The features of the simple components drive the aggregation process. The aggregated structures are more complicated as the simple components and show different characteristics. These new characteristics are more than the sum of the characteristics of the aggregated components. Getting their turn, these more complex aggregated structures spontaneously aggregate again. They are now the components of even more complex structures that have in turn their own distinct features; and so on.

Regarding “replication”…

Lilith's sister - Collage,  Ukko El'hob
Regarding replication; evolution is about copying the original structure. The result of replication is, at least, to keep the particular original structure forthcoming whilst the original structure has broken apart. The replication process has to be achieved before the replicated structure starts to break up, and, so the replication process is of a competitive nature. The result of a more efficient replication is to multiply the number of structures that are like the original structure. A replication may not be entirely faithful but could be approximate only and so will lead to variants of the original structure. 

A very crucial development step of the evolution process takes place when structures replicate themselves. A self-replicating structure commonly is understood as “living”, the self-replicating process is called reproduction. Once self-replicating occurred, then biological evolution appeared. An approximately self-replicating structure is understood to be evolving, and that is what biological evolution is about.

Regarding “reproduction”…

It is an essential prerequisite of the reproduction process that it is confined to a limited space. Once a replicating process excludes structures outside a limiting boundary from replication then self-replication begins. These limiting outer boundaries segregate the “self-replicating structure” from its “environment”; the latter may include other “self-replicating structure”. Excluding structures outside a limiting boundary from a replication process turns that process into a reproduction process. 

To generalize, reproduction is about reading and applying information which is describing a limited structure for the solemn purpose to replicate this structure before it breaks up. Thus, reproduction is processing a limited set of information in a race against time. Therefore, reproduction is a competitive process.

Regarding “competition”…

The competition has three main targets. The first target is to timely access resources found outside the limits
of the structure that is reproducing itself. These resources are energy and matter. The second target is to timely transfer these resources into the structure that is to reproduce and across its limiting outer boundary. The third target is to timely use these resources inside the structure for its reproduction including the a new limiting outer boundary. For successful reproduction, these targets have to be met before the structure breaks up that is to replicate. So generalizing what reproduction is about; a finite structure within a limited elapse of time and for the purpose to self-replicate transports matter as well as energy and processes information. Evolution is about improving the efficiency of that structure. Evolution happens because the self-replication is not faithful. Reproduction errors occur and variations of the original structure form; varying in efficiency. The least fit variants do not replicate before they break-up, so they die.

Initially the evolution of “living beings” targeted the processes for transport and use of energy for improving their efficiency. Eventually, evolution targeted the efficiency of the processes that handle information and support communication. In the course of evolution, the latter got more and more relevant for an efficient self-replication.

Regarding “information and communication handling”…

Splintering Memories - Collage, Ukko El'Hob
Efficient “information and communication handling” is needed in the first instance for the functioning of the internal processes of the “limited self-replicating structure” including its repair, growth and self-replication. Second, the “limited self-replicating structure” needs efficient “information and communication handling“ to capture in its environment the resources that are needed for its repair, growth and self-replication. Third, the “information and communication handling“ determines how efficient the “limited self-replicating structure” may interact with other “limited self-replicating structures” of the same or different kind. The evolution of these three levels of “information and communication handling” consecutively led to the development of cell-body-systems, body-mind-systems and mind-culture-systems. 

On the way...

Much has happened since stars lighted up, and before mind-culture systems, thus societies, developed along the path of evolution. Now, the number of human beings and their manner of reproduction are such that we squeeze the biosphere of planet Earth. The combined strength of humans is such that we shape the Geosphere of planet Earth and that we are starting the Anthropocene

Diverging Tracks - Collage, Ukko El'Hob
Where will we go from here? By aggregating simple building blocks, evolution will continue its path to build more complex systems. Currently these “simple building blocks” are the individual humans, which form interacting groups and societies. Consequently humans interaction likely will evolve following the current path of evolution, namely to improve the efficiency of “information and communication handling systems”.This will cause humans to create increasingly complex technologies, including technologies that extend their body-mind-system. Likely these technologies will in turn open development paths to self-replicating systems that differ from the 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, and these beings will belong with us to the Noosphere. 

P.s......if we do not crash this planet.
Ulkko El’Hob

Saturday, 11 May 2013

Letter to my Cousin - Evolution, mind and risk

My dear Cousin,

I'm bundling a year's time of study and reflection, peppered with a flavour of hypotheses.

Starting off

Life is likely to be abundant in the universe. Life including intelligent life-forms happens to evolve with time. In our case some billions of years of evolution have been needed.   Self-organisation of matter leads to intelligent life-forms as long as external conditions favour lasting evolution of increasingly complex systems; on Earth it happened on Mars not.

Currently we, humans, put that process a step further by establishing a global economy that influences the future development of planet Earth; we onset the Anthropocene in a world of "tribal" conflicts. We must master that man-made trouble.

Intelligent life-forms distinguish between their external environments and their internal self-concious representation, which may be called "mind". The mind is the internal  self-concious representation of the external environment. It is a virtual image that can be manipulated in a wide sense. Intelligent life-forms having their own mind emerge, because a mind is a flexible and versatile feature favourable for self-replication.  The "mind" evolves with its carrier  - brain and body (for humans). The particular state of mind determines the action and interaction of individuals in the external environment for the common purpose, survival through reproduction.

Karhun Ukko
Myths, religions and other such-like metaphysical concepts emerged with early humans as a lasting part of their minds and cultures favouring persistence of tribal groups, intra-tribal cooperation and inter-tribal conflicts. Myths, religions and other such-like metaphysical concepts are "virtual", just "a setting of mind". However they take effect in the external environment through the actions of their carriers.

Due to the evolutionary path of human species it is likely that  myths, religions and other such-like metaphysical concepts are favoured by the current brain-mind structure of humans. The  human brain-mind structure evolved  in palaeolithic times and persist in recent and current social contexts. Emergence of brain-mind structure shifted the effect of the evolutionary pressure from body-brain, over brain-mind to mind-culture. Insight into the particular evolutionary path of our species should help to mitigate risks inherent to our contemporary intra-species conflicts, in particular if they are caused by our inclination to myths,  religions and other metaphysical concepts.

It seems debatable that myths,  religions and other metaphysical concepts are helpful for survival of the global village, on the contrary as current conflicts show. However we have to live with these concepts because they are important features of the contemporary world, which easily boost conflicts. This is worrisome because we are living world in which our species consumes  the bigger share of the resources of the globe for its reproduction and is shifting the biogeochemical functioning of the globe into new, unknown stages.

In view of that riks, I'm putting expectations on the enlightenment, the unfinished movement at the roots of the modern world! Insight is needed, "sapere aude"!  Therefore, my dear cousin, I like to share some thoughts about evolution of mind, related risks and options.

A short story of evolution of life

Initially stars from of hydrogen only but soon they are fusing more complex  chemical elements. Exploding stars, super-novas throw matter into space where it aggregates to evolving planets like Earth[1].

Bubbling water - own photo
Geochemistry emerges from chemical processes. The increasing complexity of the geochemical environment, the geosphere  settles into processes that are fostering replication of substances. That is critical  for emergence of "living beings" and the biosphere, because replication of structures is the essential, initial key feature of life. Replication tuned to self-replication leads to reproduction, thus to produce "more of about the same" namely  "living beings".

Controlled interaction of "living beings", of organisms is limited by death, by haltering their functioning. Therefore the lasting existence of a "species" requires that many of the individual organism reproduce before they die. For survival the self-replication  - the reproduction -  has to be of a quality and quantity that “a bit more of about the same” is produced in a kind of "copy and past me into the environment" process. Biological evolution emerges, the self-replication in a changing environment. Organisms and environment enfolded into each other and unfolded from one another.

A short story of evolution of mind

Biological evolution has lead to the development of signalling and information processing systems, of neural systems, and of brains. Neural systems and brains are means to process information about the environment with the effect to better master survival and reproduction.  The processing can be done by fixed, hard-wired, neural connections up to a certain level of effectiveness. However "a mind" is more effective means to process  information about the environment. Evolution of "a mind" requires that much of the processing is done by softer neural connections, that are less stiff and more elastic. Increasing complexity of  neural systems and brains offer that capacity.

Carl Milles 1875-1955, Immigrants
With further increasing complexity of neural systems and brains they acquire the additional feature to act autonomously and doing other different signal-processing task than reaction to external stimulus. At that stage of development the individual organism starts to emerge. Foundation of conciousness and self-conciousness is evolving with improved capabilities to create internally in the mind "virtual images" of the external environment. With further evolution of the brain the manipulation of these images - in the mind - is getting possible, and the manipulation can produce a range of scenarios that is much wider than what can be observed happening in the external environment. For humans we call that manipulation "thoughts", "insights", "feelings", etc. At that stage of evolution actions of the individual organism are coming possible on the basis of the "virtual image" hold internally in the brain and setting the mind of the organism. This new capability adds to  the features of the organism that determine its relative fitness for survival and reproduction. In return on "relative fitness" an evolutionary pressure is exercised on the brain-minds-system favouring "virtual images" that enhance further relative fitness; in a balanced manner of the individual organism, its kin or its group.

Thus evolved brains, very complex neural systems are carriers of minds - initially "very simple minded" and of limited "intelligence". Minds emerge as additional feature of organisms in due course of their evolution  when complexity of neural systems has increased sufficiently. Minds are internal and virtual representations of  the external environment of the organism; representations that are hold and processed by the brain. The mind-full representation of the outer world can be modified by information received from the external environment that is transmitted by the neural system and processed by the brain. The internal, virtual representation of the external environment may be distorted, and also it may evolve following its own intrinsic processes; it does not have to be faithful but effective for survival. How they may be, once these  internal virtual representation emerged in a species then they are important drivers on which evolutionary pressure acts. Evolutionary mind-setting is the new game to play for competition, survival and reproduction.

More evolved brain-mind-systems include also a virtual representation of its carrier, the individual organism
Song  -  for bonding the group 
in relation to other living beings including relations to members of the own species and group. The specific mind-setting has the purpose to steer, manipulate actions of the individual organism in the outer world. The organism is self-conscious, has a concept of its environment and its fellow-beings, and acts as it deems suitable following its own internal, virtual representation of the external environment expressed as the individual organism's mind. To bundle and coordinate mind-setting of  several individual organisms a mechanism is needed to shape a collective mind-setting. To that end creation myths, religion and other metaphysical concepts emerged to fuse cooperation groups of their carriers to master their competition with other groups.

Evidently evolutionary pressure then is setting onto this feature too  fostering development of more complex systems, cultures [2].

A short view on the mind that we have

Neural systems including brains and minds relate to each other somewhat like computer hardware to computer software; the hardware is the carrier on which runs the software. However, current understanding makes it plausible that part of the mind-setting involves some structural responses of the brain, such as temporal lobe transients  that are related with spiritual "god experiences"[3].  Thus the hardware-software analogy is not to be taken mechanically, and mind-setting likely is different than reprogramming using fixed
circuits. Anyhow, hardware and software have to match regarding their basic features to avoid dysfunction of the software. The brain, the neural system and the body form the hardware on which the software, the mind, runs. The basic features of the brain or hardware impact on the functioning of mind or software. But beyond a basic match, a variety of minds can be carried by the same kind of brain or neural system.

However the basic purpose of the system "body-mind" is still self-replication in a quality and quantity that is at least “a bit more of about the same”. To survive, as species, body and mind have to evolve jointly. The currently most evolved body-mind system, the "human cognitive system is an emergent outcome of the self-organisation of matter; external reality is perceived in the way as it is because evolution has shaped the human perceptual system to be such as it is"[4].

Evolution of minds opens a development path to cooperation and bonding between individuals. Individuals are similar but not identical body-mind-systems. The evolution of the bonded cooperating individuals or groups leads to sharing of know-how among them and finally to the emergence of craftsmanship, arts, culture and technology as new features represented in the external environment  having affect on the internal mind-setting of individuals[2, 5]. The individuals act coordinated as groups, networks or societies shaping the external environment in which they have to survive and to reproduce in a quality and quantity that is at least “a bit more of about the same”. Thus, "t[T]he human mind has not evolved to provide a coherent picture of the world, or to solve metaphysical problems, but to solve quite practical problems, related for the most part to survival and reproduction. It thus deals with practical, not logical necessities".[4]

Since early palaeolithic times  the mental and immaterial bases of our societies, namely common rules, ethics and moral codes, were made up in human minds to improve fitness for survival  - of the individual, of its kin and of its group. The common rules, ethics and moral codes were tested in cultural practice to be fit for purpose and were inherited by traditions and customs in junction with genetic setting for the formation of the brain. The evolutionary pressure on early humans has given us a peculiar brain-mind system to process
Stone age grave setting in Spain (from:
internally images of the external environment. The brain-mind system has a solid capacity for logical and abstract analyses and ample skills to gain insight by analogy, intuition or emotion. As well the brain-mind system is inclined to perceive super-human agents, creation myths, religions and other super-natural forces[4]. These different capacities, skills and perceptions form the features of the peculiar brain-mind system of humans. Some features are tuned to invent the technical means needed for our survival. Other features are tuned to provide explanation for our place and purpose in the wider world. And further features ease our rapid and strong action. Together these features form a terrible powerhouse to anticipate, to shape and to steer action. For that reason our body uses 20% of its energy-intake to power 2% of its mass to run the brain-mind system. The rapid expansion of  different human species over the globe testify its effectiveness.

Our  brain-mind system, thus our consciousness driven by emotions coupled to rational insight, being shaped in millions of years of life-and-death struggle had evolved initially for practical survival and reproduction of tribal hunter-gatherer societies. Too little time has passed since the tribal hunter-gatherer societies started to fade away, a best less than 10.000 years ago,  that our brain will have evolved much in response to different environments of agriculture and urban societies. Pressure to evolve in response to these changes is acting on our social mind-setting, thus on our cultural compromises as well as on our acquired or enforced customs. Our social mind-setting  developed since neolithic tribal hunter-gatherer societies faded away. The social mind-setting and the needs of more modern societies, their production, reproduction and governance modes relate in mutual feedbacks. "The social mind has co-evolved together with the development of society. It is neither the mind alone that has shaped society, nor society alone that has shaped the mind; both have shaped each other in a process of interaction" [4].

Unavoidable inbuilt risk

Even in contemporary societies creation myths and related religions settings are a powerful means to set minds and to govern, in particular in times or in regions of unrest and conflict, and as well for private as for public purpose.Myths, religions and other metaphysical concepts force bounds, project power and carve out differences. One of the most striking contemporary example is the conflict in Palestine that is extensively argued in notions reflecting creation myths. The insight that "since early palaeolithic times each of the countless thousands tribes likely invented its own creation myth; gods being shaped by the environments of those who invented them" [5] does not limit our regular recourse to creation myths and derived religions. Thus, still today gives "t[T]he specific creation stories [gave the members of the tribe] an explanation for their existence, their place in the wider environment and purpose of their actions [5]."

Temppeli Kirkko (Helsinki) - own photo
Evidently, religion driven governance, rule-setting and identity-shaping is a feature of the power-play and power-projection in contemporary world; and that for all its societies and for many of their respective private or public reactions. Indication for that are ample be it the bible-belt in the US, Islamic governments, acceptance or rejection of gay-marriage or abortion, or religious services at the occasion of public events. This feature of the contemporary world indicates that the initial palaeolithic creation myth had developed into a major device in our evolution that is well-rooted in our mind-brain system and that can easily be activated for multiple purposes[6].

Thus religion-mediated steering of our societies likely makes use of a palaeolithic feature of our brain-mind system, and it is therefore that religious steering is so deeply rooted in our daily lives. It does not seem to be too speculative to assume that many  non-religious contemporary political, social or cultural movements activate features in our  brain-mind system that originally support the creation myth, and by that support cooperation and identity building of the respective movement.  Non surprisingly, because we can only use the brain-mind system that we have! We may wonder what kind of brain-mind systems other intelligent life-forms could have, lie-forms that may have evolved without a stage in which bonding of individuals into competing groups was essential for survival of the species.

What to make of all that?

We have to handle the situation that "h[H]umanity today is like a dreamer, caught between the fantasies of sleep and the chaos of the real world." [5]  This is a risk for our survival because we mix "a Star Wars civilization, with Stone Age emotions, Medieval Institutions, God-like technology [5]. That is a dangerous mix in a world of billions of individuals needing most of the resources of the planet for reproduction.

Likely the creation myth was an important drivers of our social development. It facilitate evolution of cooperation in and competition between groups during  palaeolithic times fostering brain-mind systems and related cultures that favour survival of the respective groups [2]. Apparently that driver is still active in our contemporary societies, and we get easily caught in fighting between groups that each show strong and effective internal cooperation.

The inclination of our species to act for the "survival of my group" may hinder us  to find ways to handle our contemporary global problems before they put in question the survival of our species; to recall: extinction of species is the rule not the exception. Our inclination to inter-group competition may hinder us to perceive the bigger, global picture in due time, namely that mankind modifies the functioning of planet Earth and ravages its treasures.

However, understanding why humans evolved with a mind-set favouring inter-group competition may help us to mitigate its inherent risk.

We should understand that our natural mind-setting was made for a different than the contemporary world, that body, mind and soul are shaped by the natural evolution of our species. We have a chance to tamper our inclination to seek cleavages in the global village; sapere aude!

 Ukko El'Hob

[1] The Story of Earth: The first 4.5 Billion Years, from Stardust to a Living Planet, Robert M. Hazen, 318p.; How to build a habitable planet: The story of earth from big bang to mankind, Ch. Lagmuir, W. Broecker, Princton University Press, 2012, 720p.
[2] "Wired for Culture. Origins of the Human Social Mind", Mark Pagel; Penguin 2012 , pp. 432,  Human behaviour: A cooperative instinct, Simon Gaechter, Nature 489
[3] Michael A. Persinger (1983) Religious and mystical experiences as artefacts of temporal lobe function: A general hypotheses. Perceptual and Motor Skills 57.
[4] Ilkka Pyysiäinen, How Religion works - towards a new cognitive science of religion, Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 272p.
[5] "The social conquest of earth" by Edward O. Wilson, W. W. Norton & Company, 2012, 352p.
[6] Born believers, Justin L. Barret, New Scientist 39, 17th March 2012; Religion, Economy, and Cooperation, Ilkka Pyysiäinen (ed.), De Gruyter 2010, 240p.