Third Phase Transition

solving the anthropocene crisis

Preface & Introduction

Introduction, part 2.          Go back to previous part

The cooperative species

The capacity of any species to adapt to its environment is the selective survival principle of life’s evolution. It has been common popularly referring to it, by the phrase ‘survival of the fittest.’ This formula had been transferred by Herbert Spencer, from his competitive model of sociology to his essays on species evolution, parallel to Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace discovering and publishing their ground-breaking findings on natural selection. Although it was to become the slogan of ‘social Darwinism,’ a corruption of evolutionary science as a racist ideology of class war, it need not be useless. It all depends on the definition of ‘fitness.’ Defining fitness as the capacity of a species to successfully adapt to, contribute to, and benefit from its natural environment, it might serve as a useful formula of evolutionary theory, although ‘natural selection’ is more comprehensive. Darwin was to integrate the formula, after suggestion by Wallace.

Human adaptability was to become qualitatively different from that of all other species. Early hominins not only got genetically adapted by their uneven success in reproduction. Nor did training of kids or deviants of flocks restrict itself to socialization by conditioning, in line with dominant instincts, like many other animals did. Socialization itself started to become a process adding to itself in complexity, from one generation to another.

Groups of hominins started adapting their proper environment. They also acquired ability to change environment and discover new surroundings. By themselves altering their external environment, hominins were changing their own needs. This two-way external adaptability had become possible, due to these species’ unique internal adaptability. Only by adapting to each other, that is to say by cultivating human relations, had this processing and mutual external adaptability in relation to environment become possible.

Thus, to an increasing degree these humanlike species had started to act as interlaced evolutionary organisms – a development of society. It was precisely such evolutionary understanding that had been obfuscated by social Darwinism. It had corrupted evolutionary understanding, by borrowing the biological term ‘organ’ and misusing it as a simple and arbitrary allegory, tossed through millions of years – ‘super organism’ – to designate contemporary and occasional power relations between ruling and exploited classes and among nation states.

Grounding understanding in the natural properties of the species is the scientifically sound method. Human adaptability meant that sensitivity to development of human relations was becoming the foremost natural historic survival fitness of the species. This evolved nurturing human relations into the essential human need. A unique need, separating these hominin species from all other species. The predecessors of Homo sapiens had thereby evolved a new selective mechanism, that could act evolutionarily. This social evolution could work incomparably more powerful and rapid than natural selection or genetic drift, which were based in such genetic mechanisms as mutations, genetic recombination, or gene change. As a matter of fact, this social evolution would, to an increasing degree, influence genetic change, to the advantage of those leading to sociability, strong ties, empathy, et cetera. In short: Human love had started evolving into the survival feature of a speciation, that was to become more successful than all the others. Genetic changes were to become subordinated to this species-specific exceptional vitality.

Concerning exactly what paths the socio-natural evolution from hominids to hominins had taken, and precisely what events had led to the survival of one single species of these hominins, is not the prime concern here. As new discoveries pop up, these lead to reinterpretations and changed hypotheses, something which happens at increasing speed. The general tendency, however, of these successive iterations, is the development of an ever-sharper picture of human nature as a cooperative species. The first order approximation of human nature is becoming an unquestionable consensus. We are, beyond doubt, the cooperative species.

One of the first manifestations of the proto-cooperative stages of hominin speciation, proving that it had reached a new type of evolutionary ranking, was most likely its beginning climbs up the food chain, from prey towards top predator.  This might be assumed evolving via cooperative scavenging, with flocks of early hominins waiting their turn, until predators and canine scavengers had consumed all the flesh of a prey, then completing the business by attacking the skeletons with sharpened stones and consuming the nutritious marrow, practising a cooperativity which only these social animals had been capable of developing. Of course, emergence and development of the human fire regime was to become the greatest step up this climb. During such ecological advancement, cooperation had been firmly establishing itself as key survival feature, since life at the savanna had proven naturally harsher than the proverbial law of the jungle, the primate Eden.

If such cooperative behaviour had formed the springboard, then control of fire for hunting, protection, landscaping, and cooking had constituted a virtual leap. Much of the resulting over-nutrition had been channelled into hypertrophying the most energy-consuming organ of the body, the brain. It was the rapid evolution of this cooperative organ, which had improved the hominins’ capacity for nurturing the social senses of cooperation – love, together with cumulative cultivation of complex manipulative skills and abstract knowledge. Particularly the forceful expansion of the frontal lobe provided for abstracting the mind from immediate impressions and concentrating it selectively and persistently on more composite tasks. An almost as dramatic increase evolved in the subcortical areas, where emotions are generating. This new combined strength of sense and sensibility was – allegorically borrowing two technological terms – ‘rewiring’ and ‘supercharging’ pre-adapted potentialities for high-sociality, strong-tie, and group propensities. Such features had already been genetically present within the brain of the great apes, although not activated and selected for in the way they could now become, by this human socially evolved emotional loading.

Recent findings indicate that specific speech organs had developed already at the very dawn of Homo sapiens. Excavations at the coast of South Africa show remnants from a sapiens refuge during East African desertification, that seem to imply advancement in cultural means of communication earlier than previously thought. Such findings might suggest that dialogue and symbolic representation proved its higher collective survival probability earlier than formerly believed. Means like language and symbols should have been more efficient and less violent than mere body language, in managing this rich emotional life for the common good.

The nutritional improvement provided for by hunting, gathering, and the use of fire, had augmented physical staying power, like running endurance, which could outperform superior speed and acceleration typical of prey. Improved physical stamina could also be enough for persistently working up the material tools of cooperative activities, et cetera.

Finally, looking at reproduction, however, probably paints the sharpest relief for understanding how the evolutionary advantage had emerged and been selected for, as mental features had been prioritised by evolution for physical ones, in hominids evolving into hominins. The less wide pelvis, required for upright walk, and the bigger heads, required for a cooperative brain, had tended to collide. How would the slimmer females be able to deliver these large skulls? According to the contested ‘obstetrical dilemma hypothesis,’ females would have tended to die in childbirth to an increasing degree, favouring hereditary disposition towards premature birth. A contending interpretation, ‘the metabolic crossover hypothesis,’ has observed that there seems to be a definite biological limit in all mammals, as to how large and energy consuming a foetus might grow, before it gets hormonally rejected by the womb. Regardless, the result seems to have been delivery of an unfinished foetus, measured by animal standards. The proportionally much greater brain was, nevertheless, not fully developed at birth. The brain of the human child would nearly double during the first year. This explosive growth is nowhere near, neither the decelerating growth of most other parts of the body, nor the ceasing growth by closely related animals. Then, what was the survival advantage of this? At first sight, evolution had seemingly burdened hominins with an initially unfit offspring?

But precisely this had shifted the focus, to how the group of hominins would be able to protect and rear the helpless kids. Already the need for assisted birth had displayed a qualitative difference from other animals. Birthing had become a cooperative labour. And the mother of the helpless baby would be directly dependent on her human environment, to get any food. Then, the entire hominin flock was forced to focus on how to compensate for the apparent underdevelopment of the new-borns. During an intense first year, the senses of the baby were completely focused on assimilating, as efficiently as possible, to the rapidly growing brain, the cooperative advantages that had been achieved culturally thus far. What might have seemed like initial unfitness, consequently contained expanded reproduction of the very core in human survival fitness. Early infancy, corresponding to late gestation of animals, had by hominins transformed into an intensely combined biological and social development process. Thereby the notion ‘extrauterine foetuses,’ referring to the tiny tots that had become the common task of the entire group to culturally refine. And the flock of grown-ups needed to focus this critical bottleneck of survivability. Arguably, survival of the helpless infants had become the very organizing principle of emerging cooperativity.

It is a reasonable assumption that the matrilineal ties of kinship, which still some million years later were to remain typical of early clan structures, could be interpreted as a distant remnant of this core importance in preserving, nurturing, and educating further generations of cooperative ability. To borrow some modern terms, ‘the child perspective’ or ‘children’s rights,’ seem to have been born as a natural principle out of hominids evolving into hominins. And the combined helplessness and receptiveness of the kids seems to have been a catalyst of the evolving cooperative nature of human speciation.

Cooperative dynamics

The complexities of inter-human adaptability have been the subject of innumerable interpretations, and controversies among these. In intact class society such interpretations had to be biased. The need for downplaying and explaining away obviously cooperative human nature, had been part of the ruling classes’ existential conditions. This had been inevitable, especially under conditions where collectively powerful means of cooperation and methods of enquiry were still largely lacking. This does not mean, however, that basic conceptual determinations of its dynamics must be impossible to establish. Certainly not now, as class society is rapidly depleting its potentiality, while means of cooperation grow explosively.

Experiments with animals have demonstrated limited capacity to cognitively identify with each other. One animal observing another repeatedly failing, and finally succeeding, in gaining a reward by solving a tricky task, might show instant skill in copying the successful effort. Even a limited empathic behaviour might be experimentally reproduced with animals.

The power of identifying, however, had become incomparably higher in humans. This had given it a qualitatively different character. The ability to feel what the other individual feels, and to understand what the other individual thinks, was no longer restricted to simple situations by humans. These skills had extended themselves existentially to the whole life situation and the entire life history. They even spread out into prehistory, handed over from the dead, and into the future of the still unborn. This extension of emotional and thoughtful identification nurtured species-specific patterns of human interaction – a cooperative culture.

Imitation and innovation

Being cooperative first of all meant being imitators. Any new practice, regardless of its origin by chance or by ingenuity, gained cooperative traction by a common sense of copying, approving, and memorising it. Massive adaptation by imitation formed habits, the opposite of instinctual impulses. These habits facilitated and aggregated further identification and inter-adaptability. As habits had become widespread, combined, and long lasting, they formed mental conventions and cultural traditions, in turn being institutionally fixed. Transferring as meticulously as possible such gains, by physical demonstration, oral tradition, and symbolic artefacts, had become the main thread of evolving human culture. Without such conservative features of cooperation, societies could never have formed.

The specific features of human life, however, with its rapidly changing conditions, could not allow for habits, conventions, and traditions, even remotely as a rigid as animal instincts within ecological niches. That, of course, would have meant at least stagnation, evolutionary regression, and most probably extinction. It might serve as a good hypothesis that now extinct hominin species could have suffered a somewhat higher degree than Homo sapiens of such stability. That might have been beneficial for a time but – as conditions changed – detrimental in the end.

Recent findings have proven climactic conditions rapidly changing in extreme fashion, in the cradling heartland of eventually successful human evolution, situated in East Africa a few hundred thousand years ago. These abrupt and dramatic changes can be assumed to have played a strong selective role in evolutionary singling out the extreme cooperative adaptability of Homo sapiens. Features which later would come to general use, in adapting to the most diverse conditions around the planet. The advent of the last ice age, driving East Africa to desertification, brought regional animal life to a minor regional mass extinction. The speciation of Homo sapiens seems to have taken shape, passing through a critical bottleneck of near extinction. This crisis seems to have been answered by a dramatic self-organized change of environment and lifestyle to a coastal refuge in South Africa. At least contemporary state of the art suggests so. Eventually our species could live and thrive practically anywhere.

The ability to innovate, when faced with new challenges of environmental character, should therefore be included in the basic determinants of cooperative skill. The opposite of convention – fantasy – should be dubbed the midwife of innovation. As we all know, necessity is the mother of invention. Within the individual, the social feature of fantasy was represented by intuition. It was the core quality of individual intelligence, at the interface of emotions and rational thinking. The dialectics of conservative copying and intuitive innovation became a cooperative dynamic.

As we speak of innovation, we often think of an individual genius having a breakthrough. This, however, is normally a marginal phenomenon within human cooperation. It has always been. Innovations most typically take place by trial and error, as successive iterations at a mass scale, under the pressure of varying external and internal conditions. And the wider the scale of a practice or a tradition, which had been faithfully copied, the larger and richer the flowering field of such successive adaptations to various needs. No less important, it was precisely through careful mass imitation that the defectiveness of original innovations could achieve greater perfection. The fundamental form of innovation and tradition was the associated mass effect of a human intelligence growing increasingly collective, and by doing so gained incrementally in precision, scope, and adaptive variation.

Innovators not only piloted new tools, new procedures, new habits, but also language as conserver of knowledge and as tool in new interpretations of reality, forming frames of reference for collective identification with the group, with the species, with society, and with Mother Nature. Which one of the two basic human languages, the numerical or the semantic one, that had pioneered evolution of symbolic abstraction, might not be that easy to find out. It was the active disapproval or approval, adoption, and perfection, however, by the mass of imitators that provided for the failure or success of any innovation.

As imitators proved to be qualified improvers, in rare cases even to a degree that an incomplete or even almost failed innovation could have its breakthrough, the continuity and acceleration of social development would, of course, blur the lines between original innovators and improvers. The higher and more rapid the degree of development, the harder to isolate an individual genius. The more abundant the means of cooperation, the more collective the process of innovation, proving the collective nature of human intelligence.

In the present crisis conditions – the great acceleration of global change – the motive forces of social and technological innovation get ever more important, as compared to the routine conservative forces of imitation, habits, conventions, traditions, and institutions. And the potentiality of explosive mass imitation inherent to abundant means of cooperation is even more important. This state of flux corresponds to the third phase transition.

Human labour as devoted and divided cooperation

The ennobling, concentrating, and functional division of cooperation, into the status of professional human labour, became the constituting feature of human society. This pertained to the second phase of linear metabolism. As humanity transcended, from foraging to provision of material necessities through maintenance of social production, the need for permanent leadership of cooperation arose.

A primordial division of laborious tasks had already been developing during the first phase. It had been based in female reproductive labour predisposing for more permanent nourishing and nurturing skills, at the core of cooperative development. The proportionally greater muscularity by the males had been inclining to hunting and combat. This sexual division of cooperation, however, between female collectors and male hunters, did not have to take on an oppressive character, unless permanent or recurring war over hunting grounds had tended to generally weaponize social relations. In the wake of such critical conditions, the womanizing of incipient patriarchy might have resulted prematurely. For example, it is hard to imagine any other origin of female circumcision, than in an early, incomplete, and precisely therefore overly brutal assault on female autonomy, in a situation where the social conditions of patriarchy had not yet matured.

It was not until the phase transition towards linear metabolism, however, that women and children could start being systematically degraded and regularly treated like speaking cattle, similarly to the war captives domesticated as slaves. It was this process of productive achievement and social differentiation that would ultimately end up in private property and territorial state. And this, in turn, was both founded in and constitutive to the social processes by which the productive success of the sedentary life form was to eventually evolve into private property and territorial statehood.

Early stratification of society into rigid casts, by inherited occupation and social status, bear witness of a more primitive social division of labour than through property and state, class society’s more dynamic level of association. Cast divisions had still been tribally associated. Such proto-historic remnants, together with their stigmas, had probably been so deeply embedded within cooperation, because they once had been piloting social division of labour. All such things will of course vanish together with class society.

In accordance with the first functional division of cooperation by sex, growing into one that was becoming socially discriminative, predominantly male leaderships would crystallise and rise to the status of rulers. At the protohistoric pre-stages of class society, with their typical domestication of slave labour, human cooperation had been brutalised. A minority of men had conquered power, as an enclosed cooperation, in a sect-like community above general cooperation. They could live relieved from toil, at the expense of human collaboration. They had thereby acquired a special interest in spreading and controlling the cooperation of the labouring population. Such segregated leadership versus massive incapacitation, would remain the hallmark of human cooperation throughout civilization. This fundamental feature would constantly reproduce itself down to the micro level. It would produce hierarchies, that were not founded in selecting those most merited for tasks. Rather they would form through self-selection of those most self-interested. Their climbing up the social ladder, would form the socially fertile soil, of what was to eventually become politics.

But such association by segregation, was to be fully realized and constituted as organizing principle, only with the advent of class society. The great historical achievement of class society was that it institutionalized human labour and its division as an exploitative social relation, optimizing the development of productive forces – social exploitation of surrounding nature, through the leverage of exploiting human nature. At the most general level, class society and its metabolism corresponded to remaining scarcity in the means of cooperation.

Now class society is no longer possible. And means of cooperation are becoming abundant. Massive incapacitation of human association within the earth system has become obsolete. In fact, it expresses the former productive forces transforming into an aggregate destructive force. Realizing that human division of labour cannot and must not continue in oppressive and exploitative forms, should lead to the conclusion that constructively working for a global social mutiny is the path that is left, for solving the Anthropocene crisis.

Violence and right of association

Two inverse curves of human cooperation can be distinguished, throughout the entire second phase of linear metabolism, including its proto-historic phase transition. The rate of internal lethal violence has been tendentially declining. The level of association has been incrementally rising. There is a correlation. The tendentially falling human rate of internecine violence has, averagely and in the long run, corresponded inversely to the tendentially rising historical success of human association. They are not simply or mechanically connected. It has been a general civilization-spanning trend though, with these two variables intermingling and changing place in concrete passages of history.

As social systems and world orders had succeeded each other, violence had both paved the way and permeated intercourse in furthering wider association, under conditions of class society. The re-uniting of humanity’s fate in capitalism’s rise through colonialism is, of course, the prime example. The violent outbreak of democratic revolutions, giving birth to popular association in modern nation states, is another important one.

Today, the relation of these two inverse variables manifests itself, on the one hand, as the recent loss of state capacity, in the most developed counties, to mass mobilize for war (‘the Vietnam syndrome’). On the other hand, human self-organization only continues growing and proliferating in nonstate or supranational forms. These two tendencies are characteristic of the post-war period of global change. And they have been especially typical during the last decades, of great acceleration in global change.

The relapse of nonstate military organization displays a similar tendency. Mobilization capacity has been collapsing, from former guerrilla warfare, eventually maturing as regular national armies, into sectarian violence, shrinking into armed gangs or individual terrorism. Thus, also violent mobilization capacity outside state control has been waning. The great majority of poorer populations have been busy associating, in trying to build a better future for their children, grasping opportunities provided by abstract capital’s global industrial repulsion.

The two inverse trends described above can be substantiated statistically. But they appear to be contradicted, under certain circumstances, by another feature. The past decades of great acceleration have also displayed a pattern of chronic civil wars, including barbaric brutality, and even local holocausts. These features are still appearing restricted to so-called hotspots, where class society’s statehood and private property has started dissolving into warring private armies, financed through plunder, seizure of resources, illicit business, and contraband. However, these features should be understood as a tendency, that threatens to spread. We could expect them as a common alternative, if generalized association in solving the Anthropocene crisis should not succeed. The present disintegration of class society, if not progressively solved by global social mutiny, will follow a social path of criminalization in human relations. It would spell a devastating relapse into barbarism, accentuated by the abundant means of cooperation at its armed disposal. The feature of tendential criminalization in human relations, indicative of society’s presently critical state, will be treated in the concluding book of the first part.

The general tendency still prevailing, however, holds a brighter future. Human cooperation is leaving behind the violent birth pangs, characteristic of civilization’s second phase of exploitative metabolism. With means of cooperation approaching abundant levels, their reach potentially spanning the globe within entire humanity, the human need of generally associating has been awoken. The still existing state of human relations is an historical result from class society, violently monopolizing natural and human resources. Now, this condition is revealing itself to threaten global mass destruction. This is what the Anthropocene crisis demonstrates. Generalized association is thereby becoming not only desirable, but outright imperative.

It is no longer an awe-inspiring monopoly of violence, that upholds the obviously destructive order. It is merely kept up, as a lingering result of a continuously existing confusion, in confronting the general dimensions and concrete tasks of completing the necessary phase transition.

The phase transition to globally advanced circular metabolism, with human labour acting in synergy with life’s biogeochemical metabolism of sun-work, will at one and the same time be a natural historical realization of the self-organizing principle of the cooperative species – the general right of association. The first, second, and third order approximations to human nature come to the fore.

The human senses

As cooperation became the unique survival fitness of our species, elevating it into the primal human need, the five bodily senses of humans were transformed accordingly. Tactile sense, eyesight, hearing, senses of taste and smell became socially focused. And just like material consumption had been reduced to a mere precondition for, or means to achieving the deepening human relations desired, the bodily senses were narrowing and refining to capacities for experiencing human pleasure and love.

And these socialized senses, in turn, diversified and enriched these human relations. In fact, human senses were no more developing chiefly as physical features of the individual body, but primarily as immaterial social senses within the very relations between individuals. The dialectic of inter-human adaptation was to converge these relational senses into common sense, amplifying, extending, and conserving human association.

Direct sensory impressions are no longer the focus of human senses. Rather it is the sensualism of the human mind which defines the human condition. Its individual manifestation is perpetually occupied with remembering, enjoying, resting from, and preparing human relations. Being alone might be restful and re-creative, but being lonely means human suffering, so devastating that it leads to premature death. It might even turn suicidal.

The nature and frustration of human needs

In the human species, the need of developing and enriching human relations evolved into the primary need, since its fulfilment increasingly placed the species in an advantaged position within its environment. In the process, cooperation became an end in itself. It became the means of satisfying the need to realize individuality, by integrating parts of what had been achieved collectively within human cooperation. Material consumption has, to a rising degree, been reduced to a mere precondition for satisfying this basic human need of freely enhancing and enjoying human cooperation.

In class society, however, the ruling classes, effectively monopolizing the right of association through their hold on property and state, had routinely set the standard of material overconsumption and revelry. It was precisely in that way that they could satisfy their specific cultural need of solidifying a social position as collective agents of exploitation. That standard had evolved as constitutive part of their right of association. This corruption of needs, inherent to all civilization so far, and to its linear metabolic mode, of course reflects the restricted possibilities for abundant cooperation and free development of human relations. This frustration of human needs had even been characteristic of the enclosed and entrenched existence of the rulers themselves. Yes, in fact specifically typical of their condition.

Today there is an acute shortage in the level, density, scope, and above all quality of purpose in association of our cooperative species. Its achieved right of association does not at all match the escalated rate of cooperation already achieved. Cooperation is becoming global, its means overwhelming, while the right to unite is denied its general character. The human needs aroused by the abundantly developing means of cooperation can therefore not be met. The great rift, between the overwhelming rate of cooperation reached and the insufficient right of association realized, signifies that the difference between human needs awaken and those satisfied is now greater than at any other point of time, since hominins separated as a qualitatively different family of self-progression from the animal kingdom.

The failure of meeting the primary human need – uniting in abundant relations – has fuelled futile material overconsumption. Frustration of this need turns into a barbarically energetic regression, bursting forth where- and whenever it becomes immediately possible. Human needs are instant. To the human mind, material overconsumption works just like the empty calories of junk food do to the body. It only triggers further hunger of frustration, while deteriorating physical and psychosocial health.

The Grand Canyon presently separating the levels, of human needs to unite that have been awaken and those satisfied, is not random in origin. And this abyss cannot be randomly abridged. It can only be done by commonly meeting the challenge of the Anthropocene crisis in union. This both requires and opens the possibility of breaking the massive social incapacitation typical of class society and its linear metabolism. The fact that its disintegrating system artificially maintains the vast majority of us in such an outdated state of powerless and irresponsible childishness, is the driver of the consumption impulse. In turn, it meets a supply from a fossil metabolic regime which is not sustainable. As private persons, we can neither fully satisfy human relations, nor consume sustainably, since the outlived system offers the exact opposite of these two kinds of needs. Only by equal and energetic engagement, in completing the phase transition to globally advanced circular metabolism, will abundant opportunities for enriching human relations open themselves.

In the absence of social mutiny, nothing else can strike roots than frustration. This present frustration of needs spans human existence from the individual level to that of humanity in its entirety. At the former level, frustrated young people are driven to treat their own bodies as objects of product development and their own social relations as market relations, with the centrally manipulated devices of social interconnectivity in their hands. At the latter level, this discord is concentrated in the still unattended need to solve the Anthropocene crisis. It is this frustration of needs, at all levels of association, that semi-helplessly boils down to the bodily and spiritually unhealthy habits, contributing to aggravating the planetary crisis.

Continue reading: Go to Introduction, part 3, Collective intelligence.

Back to part 1, Metabolic phases of socio-natural co-evolution.