The Non-Human Noosphere

The definition of the noosphere as “the sphere of human thought on earth” is woefully anthropocentric. It ignores that fact that our fellow sentient organisms have noospheres of their own. Elephants have their own social networks, maintaining close friendships and extended tribes, and keeping touch over long distances through subsonic rumbles.

If the noosphere can loosely be defined as the interaction and interconnection of conscious minds, then clearly cetaceans, wolves, great apes, elephants, and many species of birds have their own forms of a noosphere. Granted, these noospheres are not as large and complex as ours. Humans have telecommunications, the biggest brain-to-body ratio on earth, and the force of numbers – 7 billion of us, versus a few tens of thousands for African elephants, and a few hundred thousand for chimpanzees.

Yet the relative simplicity of the animal noosphere compared to our own does not mean it is not worthy of consideration. Nor does the human noosphere somehow exist above and separate from those of animals. AS their conscious minds interact with our own, pets, domestic animals, and semi-tame wild animals form nodes within the human noosphere. I have hundreds of first-degree social connections, my dog has maybe a dozen, but nonetheless, he exists within a networked mental space. Barbara Smuts, in her essay on human-baboon interaction, clearly shows that the nexus between the human and animal noospheres is not a one-way street. There appears to be a give-and-take where humans “become animal” and animals “become human,” at least in the few cases where the two know one another intimately. Our minds interact, not in passing, but in long-term, affective relationships.

The animal noosphere has interesting implications for conservation.  If the African elephant goes extinct, not only do we loose a unique physical form, a unique ecosystem function, or a unique genome and evolutionary history, we also loose a unique noosphere. The elephant, therefore, also has value for how it thinks, and how its thoughts connect it to other individuals, elephant or otherwise.

Preserving alternative forms of consciousness is a worthy goal, even if just from a philosophical standpoint. Humans underwent a language singularity around 100,000 years ago. We are so hardwired for language use that isolated children naturally invent novel forms of communication. Language makes us human, but it also shuts us off from all non-linguistic species.

Animal minds are valuable because they provide alternative ontological models to human being and thinking. Imagine how intellectually narrow our world would be if we did not have elephants, albatrosses, and Uexkull’s famous tick to provide alternative models to our logocentric view of the universe. However, minds don’t amount to much in isolation. The more social a species is, the more their individual consciousness becomes tied into the distributed cognition of the group. Just as a human without a social tribe is a weakened, diminished beast, so is a chimpanzee without a troop or a dolphin without a pod. In many ways, their noospheres define them.

In light of the sixth great extinction event, how do we preserve non-human noospheres? Cognitive parks? Facebook for zoos? Regardless of the solution, it’s time to add neurodiversity to the list of other natural diversities that are draining from the earth at a mind-numbing rate.

Image via TangoPango.

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