Vernadsky, Noosphere and Vivekananda
Vladimir Ivanovich Vernadsky the Russo-Ukranian geologist was more than a geologist. He was one of the earliest systems-thinkers and a pioneering inter-disciplinary scientist. His book ‘The Biosphere’ was published in Russian in 1926 and in French in 1929. With 150 pages and unassuming cover, the book’s importance was not understood fully outside a small minority of inter-disciplinary scientists dealing with eco-systems. Soviet system always eyed suspiciously at any new developments in sciences. In the case of Vernadsky, he rejected to recognize Marxist dialectics as the sole valid approach to truth. That would explain why his work was not translated into English until 1986 by an American publishing firm Synergetic. Till then only those works which the great ecologist Hutchinson managed to translated into English with the help of Vernadsky’s son George Vernadsky alone remained as his works available in English.
Since then the importance of biosphere – its relevance and value has been getting more and more rediscovered. Natural philosophers Nicholas Polunin & Jacques Grinevald point out the increasing importance of Vernadsky’s thoughts in ecological sciences:
There can be no question of the vital and vast significance of the concept of Biosphere in our modern world, even as its actuality provides almost all the components of the life support of man and nature. Yet, looking back historically, it seems extraordinary indeed that nobody appears to have had, or anyway developed and published, these ideas until they were so clearly enunciated by Vladimir Ivanovich Vernadsky less than seventy years ago. And now The Biosphere is emerging as a vital overall reality that we need to maintain intact and cherish perhaps even more ardently than any particular part or factor of our planet’s terrestrial or aquatic surface.
In ‘The Biosphere’, Vernadsky identifies the basic oneness of life in space and time, while at the same time he recognizes the importance and dynamic evolution and extinction of various forms through which life manifests itself as a planetary phenomenon. He says:
Life remains unalterable in its essential traits throughout all geological times, and changes only in form. All the vital films (plankton, bottom, and soil) and all the vital concentrations (littoral, sargassic, and fresh water) have always existed. Their mutual relationships, and the quantities of matter connected with them, have changed from time to time; but these modifications could not have been large, because the energy input from the sun has been constant, or nearly so, throughout geological time, and because the distribution of this energy in the vital films and concentrations can only have been determined by living matter – the fundamental part, and the only variable part, of the thermodynamic field of the biosphere.
Discovering such a unity (unalterable life) manifesting through diversity of forms (‘changes only in form’) has been considered the hallmark of a truly realized person in Indic spiritual traditions. For example Bhagavad Gita says that the one who experiences the rooted nature of multiplicity of forms in the Oneness and the Oneness expanding into the varied forms, that person achieves the ultimate Truth. It is interesting that since Darwin, biological sciences have been able to unveil this underlying unity manifesting itself through variety of forms, through the process of evolution. Vernadsky himself turned to Hindu tradition in his quest for a spirituality that is synchronized with this new vision. In 1920 he wrote in his diary:
It seems to me as regarding the problems of the soul and deity the religious and philosophical thoughts of the Hindus give us much more than our own ideas which are so closely associated with Judaeo-Christianity.
Again he was stunned by the ‘creation’ hymn (‘Nasatheya Sukta’) in the tenth Mandala of Rig Veda. He wrote to his friend in ecstatic words:
I send you the stunning hymn of ‘Rig Veda’ in the metric translation by Deissen. It seems that the latter rather faithful to the content of the original. This is a work by an unknown poet who lived at least many hundred years before Christ and long before Buddha, Socrates and all Greek philosophers and science. But how contemporary it is and what profound thoughts it generates. I see it as a leap into eternity because it raises great doubts as to any creator and the root of existence is transported into what is outside this world, what is born and disappears and what cannot be seized or explained, that is the longing of the heart and feeling of love.
Importance of Vernadsky is not only in revealing our evolutionary past in a stunningly new framework and making the current ecological cycles to be understood from both evolutionary and planetary perspectives. He also provided important insights into the future evolution of earth. The planetary evolution according to Vernadsky transformed the geosphere to bio-geo-sphere or biosphere and the biosphere to what he called the ‘noosphere’. He arrived at this idea in 1938 in his work ‘Scientific Thought as a Planetary Phenomenon’:
Being embraced by the living matter, the biosphere seems to increase its geological force to an infinite degree; it seems to also become transformed by the scientific thought of Homo sapiens and to pass to its new state—noosphere.
Noosphere is the next phase of planetary evolution where the mind becomes an important bio-geo force: consciousness shaping the evolutionary future. He elaborated the idea further:
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 noosphere.
The term noosphere was originally coined by Teilhard de Chardin the Jesuit anthropologist. However it was Vernadsky integrated the emergence of noosphere with the evolutionary history of the planet.
After Vernadsky many important thinkers on evolution have restated how emergence of self-conscious humanity has made the crucial transition in evolution from biosphere to noosphere. In 1960, in the centennial year of the publication of ‘Origin of Species’, Sir Julian Huxley coined the term ‘psycho-social evolution’ to characterize the nature of evolution after the advent of humans:
Biological evolution is only one sector or phase of this total process. There is also the inorganic sector and the psycho-social or human sector. The phases succeed each other in time, the later being based on and evolving out of the earlier. The inorganic phase is pre-biological, the human is post-biological.
Huxley also strongly felt the need for a psychosocial science for guiding this post-biological evolution:
The primary job of psychosocial science will be to describe and analyze the course and mechanism of psychosocial evolution in scientific terms. It will also include a science of human possibilities. What are the possibilities of man and his nature, individually and collectively? How is their realization helped or hindered by different types of psychosocial environment? How can we estimate human fulfilment; in what ways and to what extent can it be promoted by changes in psychosocial organization? In particular, such a science will involve a radical re-thinking of man’s systems of education, their aims, content, and technique.
Swami Ranganathananda of Sri Ramakrishna Mission has elaborated upon these ideas of Huxley:
What is meant by ‘psychosocial’ evolution? From the living cell up to Homo sapiens, biological evolution was motivated by organic satisfactions, numerical increase and organic survival. But, with the appearance of humanity, these became, modern biology maintains, secondary. The primary motivation becomes fulfilment. Evolution itself becomes, at this stage, conscious and deliberate and goal-oriented, unlike the instinctive processes at the prehuman stage.
Decades later in early 1980s, Jonas Salk the prime innovator of Polio vaccine, felt that with the advent of human mind a new phase has set in the planetary evolution. He called it the metabiological evolution:
The beginning of life marked the beginning of biological evolution, sometimes referred to as Darwinian evolution. Increasingly complex organisms evolved until human forms appeared – and with them, the development of the human mind. With the advent of man came the capacity to create new forms that would not otherwise exist. … The mind is like a volcanic eruption, and the force behind it exists in that extra layer of the cerebral cortex. The human mind has altered the rate of evolution in a staggering way. … I refer to the evolution of human consciousness and creativity as metabiological evolution. I’m not trying to coin new words just for the sake of doing so. Rather, I’m trying to unify, to tie it all together. I could call the three phases chemical evolution, biological evolution and cultural evolution. But then the connection between them may not be clear. When I refer to prebiological, biological and metabiological evolution, then the unifying connection is implicit. The three phases are part of what I call universal evolution – in which we see revealed the evolution of evolution itself.
What Huxley calls as psycho-social evolution and Salk calls as meta-biological evolution are different names for the same process that has taken over the planetary evolution, after the advent of mind. This is the emergence of Vernadskian noosphere. The time has come for the system-biologists to exchange notes with the social scientists.
Noosphere’s memetic evolution
Studying the way noosphere evolves necessitates noosphere that we develop new tools and frameworks. A promising conceptual tool in this regard is memetics. Though not yet conclusively established as a science, it does provide a radically refreshing view of approaching noospherical evolution. British Zoologist and author Richard Dawkins, who coined this term originally, calls the basic unit of cultural transmission or imitation as ‘meme’. Memes are self-replicating units. According to Dawkins from tunes to ideas to clothes fashion to pottery to engineering – all these learned, transmitted behavior patterns are memes. Dawkins also points out the curious relation between memes and genes:
Memes and genes may often reinforce each other, but they sometimes come into opposition. For example, the habit of celibacy is presumably not inherited genetically. A gene for celibacy is doomed to failure in the gene pool, except under very special circumstances such as we find in the social insects. But still, a meme for celibacy can be successful in the meme pool. For example, suppose the success of a meme depends critically on how much time people spend in actively transmitting it to other people.
Psychologist Henry Plotkin gives a definition of meme that builds upon Dawkin’s definition:
A meme is the unit of cultural heredity analogous to the gene. It is the internal representation of knowledge.
Memetic systems made of interconnected yet distinct memes are far larger than individual ideas, music tunes, individual beliefs and fancies. Religions, philosophical systems, political ideologies are all examples of memetic systems with a lot of inter-connected memes. A religion for example as a memetic system can include specific memes like beliefs, philosophical points, hymns, specific tunes of music etc. Just as how the dynamic ever changing environment of the biosphere exerts varied selection pressures on genes in biosphere, the same way memes are also subjected to selection pressures in a sustained way in noosphere. Certain memes flourish when certain major changes happen in the noosphere.
Earlier in 1962 Thomas Samuel Kuhn a historian and philosopher of science had published a book ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’ in which he had introduced the term ‘paradigm shift’. A paradigm shift means a change in the basic assumptions, or paradigms, within the ruling theory of science. With science becoming more and more the dominant and the most common universal thinking process of the humanity, the fundamental change in the scientific worldview can be seen as a major shift in the noosphere – almost similar to a Cambrian explosion of forms coupled with perhaps a massive extinction or a less dramatic phasing out. An interesting question is how much does this change in noosphere affect our own biosphere and the place and future of humanity in biosphere?
In his 1982 book ‘The Turning Point: Science, Society and the Rising Culture‘, physicist-turned deep ecologist and author Fritjof Capra, influenced by Kuhn, shows how the ‘paradigm shift’ that had its starting in ‘New Physics’ has brought change in various disciplines. He seeks to establish the dominance of a mechanistic view of life in biological sciences as aligned to Newtonian ‘world-machine’ model and correlates the increasing importance systems view of biology continues to gain with the emergence of new physics. This paradigm shift can be seen as a major shift in the composition of noosphere, a change in the selection pressures of noosphere.
If we take the Cartesian or Newtonian physics as a memetic system, then the dominance of that memetic system in noosphere allows the co-dominance and co-evolution of similar memetic systems in other domains of Noosphere. With the experiments like the double-slit experiments, EPR paradox leading to Bell experiment, concept of Bohm’s ‘implicate order’ another memetic system rose which when percolated through popular science books and philosophers of science facilitated the rise of other memes. Thus the new physics selected through crucial experiments, in turn facilitated the successful spread of memes like ‘inter-connectivity’, ‘holism’ etc. With this change in the noosphere, the memes like ‘the web of life’, ‘all things are connected like the blood that unites us all’ etc. (the words attributed to Chief Seattle) start having a deeper existential basis associated to them rather than being looked upon merely as poetic and romantic hyperbole. One can say the survival values of these memes change.
One should also note the emergence of Gaia worldview championed by James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis and its popular acceptance as an allied phenomenon. The inter-connectivity which the New Physics revealed, popularized in countless popular science magazines (over-exploited also by cheap new-age writers) effected this shift in the public psyche. Peter Hay of Tasmania University, author and environmentalist points out the impact of mew physics on general ecological thinking:
The environment movement has its favourites among the theorists of the new physics, and one such is David Bohm. Bohm’s notion of an ‘implicate order’ in which ‘the totality of existence is enfolded within each region of space (and time)’ so that ‘wholeness permeates all’ also stretches the underlying structure of the larger whole against the flux of chaotic self-organization is played. Though the implication of these developments have taken long to penetrate the popular consciousness – and still longer to exert any major impact on the theory, practice and technological application of science in its other branches – the potential consequences are hard to understate. Their cumulative effect is to undermine reductionist science, for it can no longer be credibly held that knowledge resides in an understanding of the constituent parts of biophysical systems.
The apparent support the new physics lends to green ways of seeing has been made explicit by a number of observers (for example Birch and Cobb 1981; Capra 1983; 1992; Devall and Sessions 1985: 88-89). In essence, this lies in the reinforcement it provides for the non-reductionist paradigm also found within ecology, including the latter’s stress upon the unforeseen system-wide consequences of technological interventions in biological system.
Memetic-symbiosis can also be discerned. An abject superstition covering itself with quantum mechanics jargon can be seen as memetic parasitism. Ecological thinking getting a fresh impetus from the idea of interconnectivity conceptualized some quantum physicists can be seen as memetic commensalism. More importantly what memes get selected also has consequences for biosphere.
Those memes which change the way human consciousness understands its relation with nature around and within have serious consequences for both the planet and vitally more so for human species. Those memetic systems which eliminate other memes, destroy memetic diversity ruthlessly, which restrict the emergence of new memes can endanger the entire humanity. A successful human society should ensure memetic diversity and not elimination of memes favoring monocultures of the mind. Carl Sagan is emphasizing the need for the conserving of memetic diversity when he concludes in his book ‘Dragons of Eden’ thus:
The future belongs to those societies that, while not ignoring the reptilian and mammalian parts of our being, enable the characteristically human components of our nature to flourish, to those societies that encourage diversity rather than conformity, to those societies willing to invest resources in a variety of social, political, economic, and cultural experiments, and prepared to sacrifice short-term advantage for long-term benefit; to those societies that treat new ideas as delicate, fragile and immensely valuable pathways to the future
Today digital connectivity has opened up yet another dimension for noosphere. This has accelerated the digital evolution of noosphere, which is moving towards a faster integration of humanity. But the digitalized globalization has also unwittingly released forces for expansionist monocultures of the exclusivist kind. In such a situation, a healthy noosphere demands that it has the maximum memetic diversity. Buddhist scholar Prof. Lokesh Chandra calls this memetic diversity, theo-diversity. He observes:
Bio-diversity is the supreme law of nature. There are over a hundred thousand species of flora and fauna in India alone, more than a lakh of forms of plant and animal life in our country. Likewise, the spiritual life has to divine the several meanings, the fuzzy wisdom of nature, the light of the Many, and to image the sacrament that enshrines the Multiple, the Changing, the Silent. Let us not wound the years with “The Only True One”. The One has to become the Many …. Theo-diversity is an inescapable corollary to the astounding discoveries in science and their universal applications in technology. Theo-diversity alone will ensure the ascension of humanity to light and nobility that makes Joy not an attribute of the spirit, but its essential nature (sac-cid-ananda).
The various dimensions of noospheric evolution both connected to yet qualitatively different from the previous phases of evolution has not yet totally dawned on humanity. We need radically different frameworks and approaches than the usual sociological, economic, political, psychological models we have. Memetics though controversial is definitely one such tools but we need to evolve even more frameworks – both reductionist as well as holistic which should work in a complementary manner.
It is interesting to note that in the writings and lectures of Swami Vivekananda, there is a basic framework which anticipates these developments in systems approach to the evolution of universe, life and intelligence. He saw in evolution an underlying unity of all life rejecting spontaneous creation with an external factor like God and he also inferred that with the advent of human mind and unity of humanity, a new phase in evolution has commenced. In his Lahore lecture on Vedanta he dismissed a creator-God or Intelligence outside the nature:
What is the fight between science and religion everywhere? Religions are encumbered with such a mass of explanations which come from outside — one angel is in charge of the sun, another of the moon, and so on ad infinitum. Every change is caused by a spirit, the one common point of agreement being that they are all outside the thing. Science means that the cause of a thing is sought out by the nature of the thing itself. As step by step science is progressing, it has taken the explanation of natural phenomena out of the hands of spirits and angels. …This universe has not been created by any extra-cosmic God, nor is it the work of any outside genius. It is self-creating, self-dissolving, self-manifesting, One Infinite Existence, the Brahman. Tattvamasi Shvetaketo — “That thou art! O Shvetaketu!”
There is an uncanny echo of the above words of Vivekananda (uttered in 1897 at Lahore) in the writings of Stephen Hawking in his 1988, best seller ‘A Brief History or Time’, where he says:
So long as the universe had a beginning, we could suppose it had a creator. But if the universe is really completely self-contained, having no boundary or edge, it would have neither beginning nor end; it would simply be. What place, then for a creator?
In the case of organic evolution of life in our planet, Vivekananda holds the same Advaitic approach to the process. Through evolution Swami Vivekananda arrives at the basic unity of all life, just like Darwin before him and Vernadsky after him:
Take, for instance, the life of a little plant. We find two things that make the plant a unity by itself — its growth and development, its decay and death. These make one unity the plant life. So, taking that plant life as only one link in the chain of life, we may take the whole series as one life, beginning in the protoplasm and ending in the most perfect man. Man is one link, and the various beasts, the lower animals, and plants are other links. Now go back to the source, the finest particles from which they started, and take the whole series as but one life, and you will find that every evolution here is the evolution of something which existed previously.
Though Vivekananda spoke about the ‘chain’ and ‘link’, he underscored the fact that they were all ‘one life’ with variation only in manifestation. Naturally as shall be seen later, he would arrive at the tree metaphor when talking about evolution. The oneness of life which Swami Vivekananda stresses is one important notion that every evolutionary scientist has arrived in his or her own personal scientific odyssey. Darwin himself after discovering natural selection expressed in his notes a feeling not much different from the spirit of the Upanishad seers:
There is one living spirit, prevalent over this world, (subject to certain contingencies of organic matter chiefly heat), which assumes a multitude of forms according to subordinate laws. — There is one thinking sensible principle (intimately allied to one kind of organic matter—have & which thinking principle seems to be given a assumed according to a more extended relations of the individuals, whereby choice with memory or reason? is necessary—which is modified into endless forms bearing a close relation in degree & kind to the endless forms of the living beings.
Noted British evolutionist JBS Haldane could not miss the way the science of evolution has instilled a sense of belonging and reverence to all life in Western psyche which was as he noticed characteristically Hindu. He wrote:
My wife has stated categorically that Darwin converted Europe to Hinduism. This is, I think, an exaggeration, but is nearer to the truth than it sounds. Hinduism is not a religion as this is term is understood by the adherents of proselytizing religious beliefs. It is an attitude to the universe compatible with a variety of religious and philosophical beliefs…. Darwin, then, from the Hindu angle, had some at least of the attributes of a saint.
But what makes Vivekananda more relevant to the study of noosphere is the way he shuns the pseudo-science of social Darwinism. This is a remarkable stand because at that time the most of the Western world was under the sway of Herbert Spencer – applying the ‘survival of the fittest’ to human societies, justifying enslaving of non-western societies, colonial exploitation, racism and elimination of mentally challenged individuals in the name of the science of eugenics. In a conversation with a disciple Vivekananda offers an astonishingly different take on the issue of human evolution:
In the animal kingdom we really see such laws as struggle for existence, survival of the fittest, etc., evidently at work. Therefore, Darwin’s theory seems true to a certain extent. But in the human kingdom, where there is the manifestation of rationality, we find just the reverse of those laws. For instance, in those whom we consider really great men or ideal characters, we scarcely observe any external struggle. In the animal kingdom instinct prevails; but the more a man advances, the more he manifests rationality. For this reason, progress in the rational human kingdom cannot be achieved, like that in the animal kingdom, by the destruction of others!…
Hence the struggle theory is not equally applicable to both kingdoms. Man’s struggle is in the mental sphere. A man is greater in proportion as he can control his mind. When the mind’s activities are perfectly at rest, the Atman manifests Itself. The struggle which we observe in the animal kingdom for the preservation of the gross body has its use in the human plane of existence for gaining mastery over the mind or for attaining the state of balance. Like a living tree and its reflection in the water of a tank, we find opposite kinds of struggle in the animal and human kingdoms.
Implicit in this conversation of Vivekananda is the idea of psychosocial or metabiological evolution as a qualitatively different phase of evolution that has happened so far. Here it should be noted that Swami Vivekananda rejects the mind-matter duality. He sees mind as a dynamic continuum with the environment:
Both matter and mind are really nothing but forces; and if you analyse them far enough, you will find that at root they are one. The very fact that the external force can somehow evoke the internal force shows that somewhere they join each other — they must be continuous and, therefore, basically the same force. When you get to the root of things, they become simple and general. Since the same force appears in one form as matter and in another form as mind, there is no reason to think matter and mind are different. Mind is changed into matter, matter is changed into mind. Thought force becomes nerve force, muscular force; muscular and nerve force become thought force. Nature is all this force, whether expressed as matter or mind.
Mind, as a phenomenon not distinct from nature but connected through matter and energy with the nature in an inseparable manner resonates with the idea of Vernadskian idea of human mind as a mighty geological force in noosphere. In fact Vernadsky seeing mind as an important factor in planetary geo-bio evolution gets a premonition in Vivekananda’s thought, though in a much larger canvas. Swami Vivekananda again and again stresses the importance of preserving the various approaches and visions of truth. To him variety is a condition of life:
Death is the result of inaction. Be active; and wherever there is activity, there must be difference. Difference is the sauce of life; it is the beauty, it is the art of everything. Difference makes all beautiful here. It is variety that is the source of life, the sign of life. Why should we be afraid of it?
He further states :
To learn this central secret that the truth may be one and yet many at the same time, that we may have different visions of the same truth from different standpoints, is exactly what must be done. Then, instead of antagonism to anyone, we shall have infinite sympathy with all. …. Just as nature is unity in variety–an infinite variation in the phenomenal–as in and through all these variations of the phenomenal runs the Infinite, the Unchangeable, the Absolute Unity, so it is with every man; …. This idea, above all other ideas, I find to be the crying necessity of the day.
Yet all these memetic diversity should also be subjected to a selection pressure. Swami Vivekananda was talking about the theo-diversity essentially, the different religious systems. Here he wanted the methodology of science to become universal selection force for all memetic systems including religious systems. He states:
Is religion to justify itself by the discoveries of reason, through which every other concrete science justifies itself? Are the same methods of investigation which we apply to sciences and knowledge outside, to be applied to the science of Religion? In my opinion, this must be so, and I am also of opinion that the sooner it is done the better. If a religion is destroyed by such investigations, it was then all the time useless, unworthy superstition; and the sooner it goes the better. I am thoroughly convinced that its destruction would be the best thing that could happen.
This is Vernadsky’s scientific thought becoming a real global phenomenon. Swami Vivekananda also foresees such an enlightened acceptance of memetic diversity which should ultimately lead to the realization of Oneness at the universal level. In his lecture ‘Unity in Diversity’, delivered at London on 3rd November 1896, he said:
I do not say your view is wrong, you are welcome to it. Great good and blessing come out of it, but do not, therefore, condemn my view. Mine also is practical in its own way. Let us all work out our own plans…. I have seen some scientists who were equally practical, both as scientists and as spiritual men, and it is my great hope that in course of time the whole of humanity will be efficient in the same manner. When a kettle of water is coming to the boil, if you watch the phenomena, you find first one bubble rising, and then another and so on, until at last they all join, and a tremendous commotion takes place. This world is very similar. Each individual is like a bubble, and the nations, resemble many bubbles. Gradually these nations are joining, and I am sure the day will come when separation will vanish and that Oneness to which we are all going will become manifest. A time must come when every man will be as intensely practical in the scientific world as in the spiritual, and then that Oneness, the harmony of Oneness, will pervade the whole world.
Vernadsky would have said yes to this vision of oneness of all humanity – it would have been his ideal Noosphere. After all, academician Aksenov informed in the magazine ‘Science in USSR’ that Vernadsky in his last days was deeply attracted by the works of Swami Vivekananda.
And this year sees the 150th birth anniversary of both Swami Vivekananda and Vernadsky.