Metaconsciousness: Mythology for a Post-Civilized World
Prologue | Contents | I.2
In response to discoveries in the fields of quantum theory, artificial intelligence (AI), artificial life (AL), fractal geometry, distributed agent neural networks, and massively parallel processing, I have speculated about the provenance of the phenomena humans experience as consciousness, intelligence, and creativity, by suggesting that these occupy a narrow band in a much broader spectrum of analogous phenomena which emerge and flourish under conditions of sufficient richness, diversity, variety, complexity, and liberty among large numbers of information-sharing constituents. Said constituents may be quantum fields anywhere and everywhere throughout the universe; atoms in molecular combination, molecular structures in a microbe, microbes in a colony, neurons in a nervous system, microprocessors in an artificial network, birds in a flock, and / or an enormous variety of alternative components in systems of virtually limitless description. The phenomenon associated with such systems' interactive information-sharing, I have dubbed metaconsciousness.
The essence of metaconsciousness is that it exhibits the singular property, or its functional equivalent, of learning from experience. This property is exhibited, for instance, in the process of evolutionary adaptation through natural selection – which is obviously applicable to all living systems, and perhaps less obviously to many "nonliving systems," such as subatomic, atomic, and molecular systems of various kinds.
Howard Bloom takes us back to the first moments of the "Big Bang Myth" – my term, not his – to invoke the genesis of metaconsciousness – again, my term, not his:1
The instant of creation [Bloom writes] marked the dawn of sociality. A neutron is a particle filled with need. It is unable to sustain itself for longer than ten minutes.2 To survive, it must find at least one mate, then form a family. The initial three minutes of existence were spent in cosmological courting, as protons paired off with neutrons, then rapidly attracted another couple to wed within their embrace, forming the two-proton, two-neutron quartet of a helium nucleus. Those neutrons which managed this match gained relative immortality.3 Those which stayed single simply ceased to be. The rule at the heart of a learning machine was already being obeyed: "To he who hath it shall be given. From he who hath not even what he hath shall be taken away."4
Bloom goes on to trace the evolutionary development of increasingly complex molecular structures, rudimentary one-celled organisms, expanding bacterial colonies, and eventually, multi-celled organisms like sponges, sea anemones, worms, lizards, cats, and people.
Bloom, like most biologists I have read, skates rather cavalierly over this astonishing evolutionary progression, which summary treatment has long been a source of exasperation to me.5 However, the myth of metaconsciousness, which is convincingly supported by much evidence developed and cited by Bloom, seems to render this controversy at least somewhat moot, and considerably less urgent than it had seemed to me earlier.
Meanwhile, Bloom has his own gripes about the canonized dogma of the community of professional biologists, specifically as regards the "theory" of individual selection; which holds that natural selection operates upon individuals, not upon groups of individuals – or in effect, "Every organism for itself, let the devil take the hindmost!" Individual selectionism declares that evolution is driven by the reproductive success of individual organisms – or perhaps by the individual genes they carry – such that any that sacrifice their reproductive success for an advantage to the species, or the tribe, herd, school, colony, etc., will either fail to reproduce their kind, or will reproduce themselves less numerously than their more selfish peers, and will eventually become extinct. "Those who survive," Bloom writes, "will be cynics preprogrammed by natural selection to commit an act of generosity only if their donations pay off in hordes of progeny."6
A proposed alternative to the individual selection "theory" is the group selection theory, considered by many in the "mainstream" community of biologists to be heresy.7
Those few willing to admit to their belief in group selection [Bloom writes] argue that individuals will sacrifice their genetic legacy in the interests of a larger collectivity. Such a need to cooperate would have been necessary long ago to make a global brain and a planetary nervous system possible. On the other hand, if the individual selectionists prove correct, humans and earlier life-forms would have been unwilling to share knowledge which might have given others a competitive edge. If selfishness is the force that drives us, there are future consequences, too. The cyber-ocean of the World Wide Web and its coming technological successors could be a barracuda pit rather than a meta-intellect.8
Bloom is referring here to the "global brain" heralded by numerous luminaries of assorted computer science disciplines in anticipation of the future evolution of the Internet. He goes on to demonstrate that these "leading edge" protagonists of an electronic metaconsciousness are about 3½ thousand million years behind the times; that such a global "meta-intellect" of astonishing breadth, power, and sophistication has been present and evolving on this planet practically since the planetary surface had cooled to a temperature which allowed the presence of biological life. He also cites numerous research findings that confirm, contrary to the individual selection "theory," that individual entities, from microbes, to baboons, to humans, do indeed make sacrifices for the general welfare of the group and the species, which confer no benefits to themselves, or to their direct progeny or unique genetic heritage.
Moreover, throughout the broad spectrum of biological life there seems to be a cellular mechanism for preprogrammed "cellular suicide" – apoptosis – which becomes operational under conditions which may be described generically as "failure to perform."
Apoptosis [Bloom writes] is a firecracker string of self-destruct routines preprogrammed into nearly every living cell. Its fuse is lit when the cell receives signals that it is no longer useful to the larger community. Between self-crippling immune systems and self-defeating conduct, isolated individuals vastly increase their odds of death. The payoff to their gene-mates is likely to be zilch.9
When a colony of bacteria, for instance, consumes all the food which had heretofore been sustaining the colony, and it in consequence faces famine, numerous individuals appear with a penchant for exploration, in distinction from the norm of "dining in" established during the better days of abundant local food supplies. These intrepid pioneers scatter in all directions, and those that find new food sources telegraph their discoveries, by various chemical and genetic means available to bacteria, back to the famine-stricken parent colony. The result is a mass migration to the newly discovered food bonanza, and "happy days are here again" – for them.
For the less fortunate pioneers who fail to find new food supplies, something else happens, which is surprising and quite interesting. They too telegraph their findings – i.e. their lack of success – to the parent colony; and the effective content of their message is, "There's nothing to eat where we are, we're doomed. Don't make the fatal error of following us; goodbye, and good luck." Thereupon, the unsuccessful pioneers commit apoptosis and die. The interesting point is that they do not die in vain; they enlarge the parent colony's database about where congenial and abundant habitats are – and are not – to be found. This does not benefit the pioneers individually, for individually they are beyond all help and hope; yet it significantly benefits the group as a whole, for they have thereby learned something useful about their world.10
This is essentially how learning machines consisting of distributed agents work. Those agents which are successful at discovering solutions, or at contributing to solutions to the conundrums faced by the group, are rewarded by abundant connections, energy, sustenance, emulation, and other "perks" bequeathed by the group as a whole, and by its individual members. Those agents which are not successful at contributing to needed solutions are cut off and abandoned by the group – and even themselves reverse their own life-sustaining mechanisms, commit apoptosis, and die.
This happens to neurons which fail to contribute to the neural network in a developing nervous system. It happens to members of a flock, herd, school, or colony of organisms, which fail individually to grapple successfully with environmental challenges mastered by their more successful peers. It happens to humans who fail to master life's challenges, and are driven "to the end of their rope," and fall into stress, hopelessness, despair, and (directly consequential) ill health. Their very cells commit apoptosis and self-destruct from within; while their irritable and antisocial behavior sabotages hope of surcease from without. Thus Bloom's oft-repeated dictum: To he who hath it shall be given. From he who hath not even what he hath shall be taken away.
1. Bloom does employ the term, "meta-intellect," on at least one occasion, at Bloom, 2000, p. 4. See also Cosmological Scale Expansion in section II.5 for a cosmological alternative to the "Big Bang Myth."
2. "10.3 minutes, to be more precise." (Bloom's footnote.)
3. "The staying power of helium atoms is so great that roughly 14 billion years later, the universe remains 25 percent helium." (Bloom's footnote.)
4. Howard Bloom, Global Brain: The Evolution of Mass Mind from the Big Bang to the 21st Century, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., New York, Chichester, Weinheim, Brisbane, Singapore, Toronto, 2000, p. 14.
5. See [a portion of my essay dated 15 February 2004] for a critique of the "evolution by accident" biological model. See also The Molecular Microworld of the Cell, ff., in section II.6, for an additional slant on this controversy.
6. Bloom, 2000, p. 4. I venture to suggest that a fundamental difficulty with the individual selection "theory," which will become more evident in subsequent sections, is the problem of identifying with precision exactly what is meant by individual. That is, is an individual an organism, such as a man, or a mouse? Or is a single cell not an organism – and an individual? Or is a single gene in the vast genetic library carried by a single cell an individual? Is not a colony of bees an organism, or an individual? Or is only a single bee an individual? Looking at it from another direction, may not a school of fish, or a herd of elk, or a tribe of humans be considered a single "individual organism," whose "success" or "failure" influences the evolution of the species? These questions may become even more perplexing in light of section I.4, where we give consideration to the metaconsciousness evident among the quantum fields, both at subatomic, and supergalactic scales. See Yes, but What Does it Mean?, particularly item c, in section I.4, for elaboration. See also Of Parts and Wholes, and "Yabut...", in section II.7 for yet further discussion of the ambiguous relation between individuals and their constituents.
7. "Scientific heresies" are no joke, and can result in loss of funding, tenure, and in effective professional ostracism for those who run afoul of the conformity enforcers of scientific orthodoxy by espousing, or even researching the "wrong theories." This is why I enclose "theory" in quotes, in speaking of "the 'theory' of individual selection." It is also one reason why I prefer myths to "theories."
8. Bloom, 2000, p. 4. In the final analysis, it may emerge that there exists after all only one "individual" – the single totality of "All That Is," which is at once the "cause," and the "result," of all evolution. Would that render the individual selection "theorists" "right," or "wrong?"
9. Ibid., pp. 8-9.
10. Ibid., pp. 15-18.
Metaconsciousness: Mythology for a Post-Civilized World
Prologue | Contents | I.2