From star stuff to a conscious human being

Science, IT, Nature

“The ‘noosphere’ consists of human consciousness and mental activity,” writes Shanti.


I like the word ‘noosphere’. The word is derived from the Greek νόος (‘mind’, ‘reason’) and σφαῖρα (‘sphere’). It is a concept developed and popularized by the Russian-Ukrainian Soviet biogeochemist Vladimir Vernadsky and the French philosopher, paleontologist and Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.

Vladimir Vernadsky Vladimir Vernadsky (1863–1945) reasoned that there was a certain sequence through which the Earth develops. Geosphere or inanimate matter comes first, followed by the biosphere or biological life. Then follows the ‘noosphere’, consisting of human consciousness and mental activity.

In Vernadsky’s theory of the Earth’s development, the noosphere is the third stage, after the geosphere (inanimate matter) and the biosphere (biological life).

The word ‘biosphere’ was invented by Austrian geologist Eduard Suess, whom Vernadsky met in 1911. Just as the emergence of life fundamentally transformed the geosphere, the emergence of human cognition will fundamentally transform the biosphere. In this theory, the principles of both life and cognition are essential features of the Earth’s evolution, and must have been implicit in the Earth all along.

Teilhard de ChardinFor Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), the concept of ‘noosphere’, co-developed with Vernadsky, is his core concept.

It is referring to the evolving layer of language and communication, science and technology, information and communication, transforming and absorbing both the geosphere and the biosphere, emerging and proliferating via us.

Although humans should not consider themselves the centre of the universe, by modifying life and creating neo-life in laboratories, where life is becoming technologically reproducible, we are uniquely positioned along the axis of evolution, envisioned by Teilhard as an increasingly self-conscious and self-directing process. The techno-scientific world is so large that humans become trivialised. At the same time, there is something unique about humans, because the noosphere emerges and proliferates via us. Teilhard sees life as a spiralling process of becoming; human beings represent the moment in time when evolution becomes “conscious of itself” and consciously self-directed.

We are a way for the Cosmos to know itself.
– Carl Sagan

Teilhard spent many years abroad, in Egypt, China and the United States, and was deeply fascinated by Cro-Magnon parietal art. For Teilhard, cave art represents a turning point in the process of noogenesis, the birth of thinking, the emergence of self-consciousness.

Teilhard’s The Human Phenomenon depicts a dramatic, panoramic vision of the evolving cosmos, the process of ‘cosmogenesis’, beginning at the atomic and molecular levels, where the stuff of the universe continuously degrades and pulverises (under the sway of entropy), while at the same time giving rise to more and more organised forms of matter, via synthesis and complexification. Stars and planets are basically laboratories for producing atoms and molecules, where matter evolves in the direction of larger molecules.

On planet Earth, geological research reveals the formation of larger crystal molecules and polymers. In the course of evolution, Teilhard argues, an interior, psychic dimension of things increasingly manifests itself.

Planet Earth is a polymerising world (p. 36), (any process in which relatively small molecules, called monomers, combine chemically to produce a very large chainlike or network molecule, called a polymer), giving rise to phenomena of life, to increased interiority and cellular awakening, culminating in the dawn of consciousness (psychogenesis). Indeed, for Teilhard, the phenomenology of consciousness begins with the cellular revolution: the leap from pre-consciousness in prelife to the rudimentary consciousness of prokaryotic single cells as living beings up to multi-cellular organisms and mammals. Cellular awakening is the first transformation in the emergence of consciousness.

When his writings were published (shortly after his death, as his superiors forbade publication during his lifetime), he quickly became an intellectual celebrity. Currently, he is credited with having anticipated Gaia theory, the global village concept, the Internet, the WWW, transhumanism, the ‘global brain’ and the Anthropocene. Pope Francis might consider the possibility of waiving the ‘Monitum’ that since 1962 has been imposed by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (formerly the Holy Office) on his writings.

Although there are fundamental differences in the two conceptions, Vernadsky and Teillard seem to agree on the point that there is a sequence in the development of these three spheres.

Certainly there has been a growth in complexity and in consciousness: it has been a long way from the ‘Big Bang’ to ‘Man Being Conscious’ of himself and of the universe and of Man being an active agent in the evolution of Life. And what will be the next stop, beyond the noosphere, I wonder?

Anyway, if has been a long and winding road from star stuff to a conscious human being.

As far as we know by now, about 370.000 years after a Big Bang (some think there were and still are ‘bangs over bangs’) we had hydrogen atoms all over the universe and some helium atoms as well. However, there were slight irregularities in the density of these clouds of cosmic gas, so gravity took her chance to bring them together in greater and greater volumes.

They became more and more dense, until they collapsed under their own gravity and became hot enough to trigger nuclear fusion reactions, creating the very first stars and galaxies, our Milky Way being one of them among the many millions. These first stars started the process of transforming the lighter elements that were formed in the Big Bang (hydrogen, helium and a tiny bit of lithium) into heavier elements, and that’s what is still happening in this present ‘Stelliferous Era’ or ‘Era of Stars’.

The NITROGEN in your DNA,
the CALCIUM in your teeth,
the IRON in your blood,
the CARBON in your apple pies,
were made in the interiors of collapsing stars.
We are made of STAR STUFF.
– Carl Sagan

Stars use these light elements like hydrogen and helium as their fuel. All of the material in the universe heavier than hydrogen and helium is made by fusion in a star, we too! An ordinary star can make many of the elements, especially the most important ones for life, like oxygen, carbon and hydrogen. It can’t make all of the elements, though; it can’t make anything heavier than iron. The heavier elements are made in supernovae. A supernova occurs when a massive star reaches the end of its life. Supernovae are extremely bright and extremely hot. This is where the heaviest elements in the universe are made.

So, all of the material needed to make rocky planets and us was made in stars and some of it was made in supernovae. This means that planets couldn’t exist until there had been enough time for a star to completely go through its life cycle and become a supernova. The material would then be ejected back into space and would form a new star, possibly with planets. It also means that everything in the world, including all life forms, came from a star!

As the astronomer Carl Sagan said, “We are star stuff”: star stuff evolving in a conscious human being. Looks beautiful, doesn’t it: the geosphere flowering into the biosphere, the biosphere flowering into the noosphere: spring time all the time!

Sources consulted

Shanti is the creator and compiler of series, including Home in the Universe and 1001 Tales.

Comments are closed.