Neoteny, the noosphere and being a neophyte - RSA

Neoteny, the noosphere and being a neophyte


  • Social brain
  • Social networks

I’ve had some interesting material land in my inbox today, including two emails containing words I’ve never seen before. Perhaps I ought not to admit such ignorance, but the meanings of both words have turned out to be pretty fascinating and I wouldn’t want to pass up the opportunity to share them here out of some kind of intellectual vanity.

So, the first was ‘neoteny’. Neoteny refers to the retention by adults in a species of characteristics previously only seen in juveniles. I think the term is used in developmental biology to describe abnormal processes in which physical maturation doesn’t come about properly. In the context of the email I received, it was being used obliquely to describe the positive way in which adults can conserve sufficient youthfulness to retain a capacity for playfulness. This, in the context of play being a potentially important vehicle for the kind of transformational learning we are interested in on the Social Brain project.

The noosphere: a kind of collective consciousness, a profound ‘oneness’ of humanity, a globally interdependent web of interaction and interthinking.

And the second new word was ‘noosphere’. The noosphere is strongly associated with the work of the French philosopher, palaeontologist, geologist and mystic, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. It is seen as the third in a series of phases of the development of the earth, coming after the geosphere (inanimate matter) and the biosphere (biological life). It denotes the sphere of human thought and according to Teilhard de Chardin, emerges through and is constituted by the interaction of human minds. As people organise themselves in more complex social networks, the more developed the noosphere becomes. The noosphere seems to refer to a kind of collective consciousness, a profound ‘oneness’ of humanity, a globally interdependent web of interaction and interthinking.

I have to say I’m glad to have added both of these words to my vocabulary, not least because of their obvious relevance to my work. Stumbling into such unfamiliar lexicon can have the effect of yanking you out of your comfort zone. It’s much easier and less disempowering when concepts are expressed in words you already understand. I guess the danger of this is that you might end up dismissing something potentially important and useful just because it doesn’t make immediate sense. But, the richness of understanding that new, sometimes abstruse words can represent is worth chasing, even if does involve a bit of awkward fumbling (and time spent on Wikipedia) along the way…

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