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Chapter Twenty-one


Science, after all, is only an expression for our ignorance of our own ignorance. —Samuel Butler


Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, writing in the mid-twentieth century, declared the world's nascent telecommunications infrastructure "a generalized nervous system" that was giving the human species an "organic unity." Increasingly, humankind constituted a "super-brain," a "brain of brains." The more tightly people were woven into this cerebral tissue, the closer they came to humanity's divinely appointed destiny, "Point Omega."

What exactly was Point Omega? Hard to say. Teilhard's philosophical writings are notable about equally for their poetry and their obscurity. As best I can make out, at Point Omega the human species would constitute a kind of giant organic brotherly-love blob.

Teilhard's superiors in the Catholic Church hewed to a more conventional theology. They forcefully encouraged Teilhard, a trained paleontologist, to confine his published pronouncements to the subject of fossils.

After Teilhard's death in I955, his most cosmic writings were finally published. They generated buzz in some avant-garde circles, but they never gained mainstream acceptance, either in the church or the wider world. Why? In part because his notions of how evolution works were mushy and mystical, and never earned the respect of the scientific establishment. In part because Point Omega meshed so poorly with extant theology. And in part, perhaps, because comparing societies to organisms had not-so-long-ago been a pastime of European fascists, who had justified murder and repression in the name of superorganic vigor.

It's amazing how fast a viewpoint can move from radical to trite. Today, with fascism seeming like an ancient relic, and the Internet looking strikingly neural, talk of a giant global brain is cheap. But there's a difference. These days, most people who talk this way are speaking loosely. Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the World Wide Web, has noted parallels between the Web and the structure of the brain, but he insists that "global brain" is a mere metaphor. Teilhard de Chardin, in contrast, seems to have been speaking literally: humankind was coming to constitute an actual brain—like the one in your head, except bigger.

Certainly there are more people today than in Teilhard's day who take the idea of a global brain literally. But they reside where Teilhard resided: on the fringe of opinion.

Are they crazy? Was Teilhard crazy? Not as crazy as you might think. And once you understand how relatively non-crazy it is to call humankind a giant brain, other aspects of Teilhard's worldview begin to look less crazy as well. Such as: the idea that there is a point to this whole exercise; the idea that life on earth exists for a purpose, and that the purpose is becoming manifest.

I'm not saying these things are true at least, I'm not saying it confidently, the way I've been saying that organic history and human history have a direction. I'm just saying these things can't be dismissed with a wave of the hand. They don't violate the foundations of scientific thought, and they even gain a kind of support, here and there, from modern science.


There are various reasons that, at first glance, you might be skeptical of this giant global brain business. One is that a real, literal brain belongs to a real, literal organism. And the human species isn't an organism; it is a bunch of organisms. But before dismissing the possibility that a bunch of organisms can themselves constitute an organism, we should at least get clear on the definition of an organism. That turns out to be harder than it sounds.

Consider the "colonial invertebrates." As Edward O. Wilson has noted, some come close to qualifying as "perfect societies"—so close, in fact, that "the colony can equally well be called an organism." The awesome, sixty-foot-long Portuguese man-of-war, for example, certainly looks like an organism—like a giant, colorful jellyfish—and indeed is usually called an organism. But it evolved through the merger of distinct multicelled organisms, which grew more specialized as they grew more interdependent: some paralyze fish, others eat the fish and then share the nutrients. Among other colonial invertebrates that blur the line between organism and society are our old friend the cellular slime mold (which vacillates between autonomous cells and unified slug) and corals (including, aptly, the "brain coral").

For that matter, even things that we all agree are organisms—such as ourselves—can have their colonial aspects. Remember the discussion of our cells and our organelles—formerly distinct creatures that merged? There is a little Portuguese man-of-war in all of us.

Indeed, as we've seen, cells and organelles have not only distinct roots, but distinct routes: different pathways that their genes take into the next generation, and hence somewhat different Darwinian interests. The organelle's DNA, relying on maternal transmission, might profit by biasing reproduction in favor of females—and in some plant species it does exactly that. So one criterion you'd think might serve as a clear-cut distinction between organism and society—complete unity of purpose among the organism's constituents—won't work.

In fact, even if we leave organelles aside, and look only at the nuclear genes—at the chromosomes constituting the genome all is not peace, love, and understanding. The reason is that, though the genes in a genome would appear to be in the same boat, there is a brief but crucial period when they aren't. When it comes time to send a boat to the next generation—when an egg cell is created and sets sail hopefully—half of the genes must be left behind, to make room for genes that come from the sperm. Likewise, only half of a male's genes will, via sperm, make it into that egg during fertilization. As a rule, genes are assigned to eggs in an even-handed way, so that a given gene, whether from male or female, has a fifty-fifty chance of winding up in a given intergenerational boat. But if a gene could find a way to bias the assignment process, placing itself in most or all of the boats, it might proliferate by natural selection.

This has actually happened—in mice and fruit flies and, no doubt, other, less studied species. A type of gene called a "segregation distorter" has only one apparent function: distorting segregation—slanting the sorting process so that it can sneak onto the intergenerational ship time and time again. It is a professional stowaway.

There is also a bigger genetic stowaway—a whole chromosome called a B chromosome that appears in lots of organisms, including people. Like a stowaway who steals food from the crew at night, a B chromosome is a parasite; it can hurt the organism's chances of reproducing, delaying the onset of fertility in females. But from the point of view of genes on the B chromosome, that's okay; if they slightly reduce the number of ships that set sail, but manage to sneak onto all of them, they will do better than genes that play by the rules, getting excluded from half of the ships. It is these law-abiding genes that suffer from the shrinkage of the overall fleet.

Generally speaking, law-abiding genes do a good job of solving such problems—preserving the rule of law, foiling would-be parasites in various ways. The reason is that if they don't solve such problems, and parasitism runs rampant, natural selection casts the whole lot of them aside parasites and law abiders alike—in favor of genes that run a tighter ship. (In cultural evolution, analogously, societies that don't solve the "trust" problem, that don't discourage rampant parasitism, have tended to lose out to societies that do.) This ability of selection at the level of the organism to override selection at the level of the gene is the reason these examples of conflict of interest within an organism are, in the scheme of things, small potatoes. Even people with parasitic B chromosomes—around one in fifty of the people you see each day—have an air of organic unity about them.

Still, the fact remains that one of the things you might expect to be a clear, bright line between society and organism—internal unity of purpose--isn't clear or bright. As the zoologist Matt Ridley has put it, "What is the organism? There is no such thing." Each so-called organism, he notes, "is a collective." And not a wholly harmonious collective at least, not by definition.

If the line between organism and society isn't the distinction between complete and incomplete unity of purpose, then what is the line? That's the problem: lacking a clear boundary, biologists are free to differ. In 1911 the great entomologist William Morton Wheeler published a paper called "The ant colony as an organism"—a title that, he stressed, was not meant as mere analogy...


An excerpt from Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, By Robert Wright, published by Pantheon Books. Copyright 2000 by Robert Wright.