2017 : WHAT SCIENTIFIC TERM OR CONCEPT OUGHT TO BE MORE WIDELY KNOWN?

Director, Big History Institute and Distinguished Professor in History, Macquarie University, Sydney; Author, Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History
The Noösphere

The idea of the “Noösphere,” or “the sphere of mind,” emerged early in the 20th century. It flourished for a while, then vanished. It deserves a second chance.

The Noösphere belongs to a family of concepts describing planetary envelopes or domains that have shaped the earth’s history: biosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere, lithosphere, and so on. The idea of a distinct realm of mind evolved over several centuries. The 18th-century French naturalist, Buffon, wrote of a “realm of man” that was beginning to transform the earth’s surface. Nineteenth-century environmental thinkers such as George Perkins Marsh tried to measure the extent of those transformations, and Alexander von Humboldt declared that our impact on the planet was already “incalculable.”

The word “Noösphere” emerged in Paris, in 1924, from conversations between the Russian geologist, Vladimir Vernadsky, and two French scholars, the paleontologist and priest, Teilhard de Chardin, and the mathematician, Édouard Le Roy. In a lecture he gave in Paris in 1925, Vernadsky had already described humanity and the collective human mind as a new “geological force,” by which he seems to have meant a force comparable in scale to mountain building or the movement of continents.

In a 1945 essay, Vernadsky described the Noösphere as: “a new geological phenomenon on our planet. In it for the first time, man becomes a large-scale geological force.” As one of many signs of this profound change, he noted the sudden appearance on earth of new minerals and purified metals: “that mineralogical rarity, native iron, is now being produced by the billions of tons. Native aluminum, which never before existed on our planet, is now produced in any quantity.” In the same essay, published in the year of his death, and fifteen years before Yuri Gagarin became the first human to enter space, Vernadsky wrote that the Noösphere might even launch humans “into cosmic space.”

Unlike Gagarin, the idea of a Noösphere did not take off, perhaps because of the taint of vitalism. Both de Chardin and Le Roy were attracted to Henri Bergson’s idea that evolution was driven by an “Élan vital,” a “vital impulse” or “vital force.” Vernadsky, however, was not tempted by vitalism in any form. As a geologist working in the Soviet Union he seems to have been a committed materialist.                                

Today, it is worth returning to the idea of a Noösphere in its non-vitalist, Vernadskyian, version. Vernadsky is best known for developing the idea of a “biosphere,” a sphere of life that has shaped planet earth on geological time scales. His best-known work on the subject is The Biosphere. Today, the idea seems inescapable, as we learn of the colossal role of living organisms in creating an oxygen-rich atmosphere, in shaping the chemistry of the oceans, and in the evolution of minerals and rock strata such as limestones.

The sphere of mind evolved within the biosphere. All living organisms use information to tap flows of energy and resources, so in some form we can say that “mind” had always played a role within the biosphere. But even organisms with developed neurological systems and brains foraged for energy and resources individually, in pointillesque fashion. It was their cumulative impact that accounted for the growing importance of the biosphere. Humans were different. They didn’t just forage for information; they domesticated it, just as early farmers domesticated the land, rivers, plants and animals that surrounded them. Like farming, domesticating information was a collective project. The unique precision and bandwidth of human language allowed our ancestors to share, accumulate and mobilize information at the level of the community and, eventually, of the species, and to do so at warp speed. And increasing flows of information unlocked unprecedented flows of energy and resources, until we became the first species in four billion years that could mobilize energy and resources on geological scales. “Collective learning” made us a planet-changing species.

Today, students of the Anthropocene can date when the Noösphere became the primary driver of change on the surface of planet earth. It was in the middle of the 20th century. So Vernadsky got it more or less right. The sphere of mind joined the pantheon of planet-shaping spheres just over fifty years ago. In just a century or two, the Noösphere has taken its place alongside the other great shapers of our planet’s history: cosmos, earth and life.

Freed of the taint of vitalism, the idea of a Noösphere can help us get a better grip on the Anthropocene world of today.