The Rise of the Garden Empires

Marjan Blan/M. M. Gryshko National Botanical Garden, Kiev, Ukraine

In the beginning, the Earth was soaked in a rich but lifeless ocean of organic chemicals. Energy and nutrients abounded, but life could not spontaneously generate without living germs. It all just sat there, uncorrupted, for perhaps a hundred million years. But our world wasn’t made to be barren. Given enough time, life finds a way. Like a warm ocean of milk, no matter how ultra-pasteurized, the primordial soup wanted to rot. The ensuing growth of living intelligence would soon remake the world over and over. 

At first, the rot was just chains of naturally occurring nucleic acid—or something like it—which could slightly catalyze their own replication. But once you have replication, you have evolution. Many generations later, the most successful of these self-copying strings were catalyzing and manipulating other useful processes in the surrounding soup. A crude but living agency was born into the world.

Nucleic acid replicator evolution had generated an intelligent life force, which accumulated revealed wisdom over time to master the world around it, constructing humble but purposeful order. 

This new proto-intelligent agency rapidly—by geological standards— mastered two more foundational technologies: protein nanotechnology and the lipid bilayer cell membrane. Mastery of the cell membrane allowed it to defend its own machinery from a hostile, competitive environment, establish a definite domain of influence, and attack the membranes of other proto-organisms. Mastery of protein nanotechnology allowed it to construct almost any desirable chemical machinery and apply it to problems of production. The first life thus assembled the fundamental functions of any organic order—guiding wisdom, security, and production.

It is important to note that the amino acid components of protein and the ambiphilic chemicals that self-assemble into bilayer membranes predated their incorporation into the fabric of life. Before being mobilized into living tissue by the replicators, they were just natural phenomena without higher meaning. But the crude cleverness of nucleic acid replicator evolution mastered them and put them to work as purposeful components in its living order. The foundational distinction of life is the way its components are animated by this teleology. Teleological organization comes from intelligence. The viability of early life came specifically from the fact that the replication process created a form of intelligence. It was so primitive that we can hardly recognize it, but on the planet of the still-dead, the self-replicator with even a sliver of life’s inner intelligence is king.

And so the animating principle of life brought together what had been mere phenomena and turned them into something much greater.

The Precambrian Sexual Revolution

Approximately one billion years ago, Earth’s hitherto nurturing atmosphere entered an irreversible toxic runaway process. An industrious species of new life tapped into a new and much richer source of energy and began to overtake the Earth. Cascading environmental crises soon followed: the poisonous chemical byproducts of this new life polluted the atmosphere so heavily that even the rocks of the land decayed. New forms of energy often come with a heavy cost. This was long enough ago that we have difficulty reading the sparse fossil record, but as far as we can tell almost all life perished.

But life is resilient, and always seems to come back stronger. In hindsight we know that this was all for the better; the dangerously rich new source of energy was sunlight. The toxic byproduct that poisoned the Earth was oxygen. Our disruptive predecessors were what we now call cyanobacteria, the blue-green algae whose relatives give the ocean its color and the trees the power to capture sunlight. They heralded the end of the world. But this oxygen apocalypse also ushered life into a new oxygenated golden age. Life adapted to a high-energy oxidizing chemistry, turning the green plague into a green bounty.

This vast new bounty of energy meant a vast new bounty of complexity. In diverse trophic hierarchies, many species rose and fell. Nonetheless, it all would have remained a stagnant soup of humble microbes but for the advent of a key new information technology: sex.

Prior to sex, a genome was a package deal, with only relatively chaotic means for gene-trading. If a gene became damaged by uncontrolled oxidants or transcription error, it would compromise the whole lineage. This put a cap on complexity, because complex genomes would pick up unrecoverable errors too quickly.

With sex, different individual lineages could now trade genes in an orderly way, creating new mixtures where any given gene has an even chance of not being present at all. Bad genes could be isolated and removed, and good genes could be rapidly spread around the whole pool. The average member of the species became much closer to the ideal, with more or less all the good genes and only a few bad ones. Where asexual reproduction could not sustain high genome complexity, sex unleashed it. 

But this Precambrian breeding program didn’t just boost general health and refinement—it amounted to a large increase in species-level intelligence, which meant that sexual species could run evolutionary circles around the stagnant asexual ecosystem. It didn’t have to involve brains or neurons—optimization power is intelligence wherever you find it. That intelligence became the basis for the animating force of life.

The sexual intelligence advantage created the first recognizable political hierarchy between organisms. Sexual species with a much higher and faster adaptation capacity rapidly subsumed whole parts of the asexual ecosystem into their own internal economies. Relatives of cyanobacteria became the photosynthesizing chloroplasts now present in plants. Aerobic sugar-eaters became the mitochondria that oxidize food chemicals into usable energy inside our muscles. Superior intelligence—and therefore superior vital force—tamed what were previously free organisms contending alone in an ecosystem into purposeful components of a higher order.

 Thus our early sexual ancestors emerged from the primordial soup as the master-organisms which organized lower species into their higher form of life, and assembled themselves further into advanced multicellular organisms. These were the first advanced eukaryotes—the ancestors of all plants, animals, and fungi—and the eventual basis for the Cambrian explosion of complex modern life around five hundred million years ago.

This was the intelligence-mediated incorporation of surrounding nature into the fabric of life all over again. Superior intelligence does not just incorporate inanimate natural phenomena like proteins and lipids into its order of life. It also absorbs anything it can wrap its control processes around, including any other living organisms fortunate or unfortunate enough to be useful and nearby. This has all happened before, and it will happen again.

Language Is the New Sex

Another major innovation greatly aided the Cambrian explosion: neural intelligence. With its large networks of small computational elements, the nervous system laid the foundation for arbitrarily scalable intelligence now capable of real-time control. This enabled much more complex and fast-paced multicellular lifeforms: animals. 

But animal intelligence did not become the new vital center of life itself, which even now still lives mostly in inherited biology. Despite being capable of vastly greater speed and complexity, it didn’t have persistence. The wisdom accumulated by animal intelligence dies with its individual host, so it is unable to outmaneuver and exploit surrounding life at the level of basic teleology, only active behavior. So despite the increased speed, scale, and dominance of the animal form, another true jump in the nature of life would have to wait another five hundred million years.

Through that time, life inexorably climbed the thermodynamic gradient towards greater vitality and higher consciousness—from the sluggish cold-minded fish to the now-dominant hot, quick, and clever mammal. Then, some time in the last several million years, an otherwise meek two-legged race of these mammals was given a golden opportunity: a social environment that favored brains and communication to such an extent that they developed a whole new paradigm of intelligence: language-mediated culture. This was the dawn of man. 

Language, especially poetry and myth, allowed individuals to pass down their wisdom at high fidelity to become the wisdom of the group. This meant that man could run circles around other beasts by means of a much faster accumulation of knowledge. Where evolution picks up a few bits of information every generation at best, cultured humans can build on their ancestors’ wisdom and create whole new engines of cultural machinery in a single generation. This has enabled man to domesticate other animals and plants into his own order of life, probably starting with dogs, and later livestock and crops. 

According to current consensus, the definite archeological evidence of sustained cultural accumulation begins around fifty thousand years ago, at the height of the Ice Age. Millennium after millennium, the tools we find become more and more sophisticated. This is still rather slow for purely cultural growth, indicating that genetic and material limitations still held back our ancestors. But the increasing competition and mixture between different species of humans at the end of the Ice Age slowly raised these limits. Higher genetic intelligence and material prosperity meant more complex social organization, which enabled scale, social differentiation, and caste hierarchy. Culture as a whole became more sophisticated, with innovations like writing and mathematics further accelerating cultural capacity. 

Like our photosynthetic predecessors, this self-accelerating ecosystem of culture and industry has recently led us to crack open vast new repositories of energy: fossil fuels and nuclear power. Like previously, this energy bounty also led to a rapid increase in the effective intelligence of the cultural sphere. This new intelligence is enabling further rapid growth in the sophistication of overall life, including industry, and further growth of the cultural sphere in particular. 

The most robust repository of tradition—and thus the repository of the most fundamental soul of life—is still the inherited biology of the species. But as the power, memory, and stability of the cultural sphere increases, we see culture contributing more and more to the fundamental nature of life. Enabled by widespread written language, the fall of classical civilization left enormous cultural legacies that reached far beyond its genetic success. Western civilization’s cultural legacy will be even greater, if it even collapses at all. In the long run, we can expect culture to increase its capacity for the long-term accumulation of wisdom, increase its capacity for the direct manipulation of genetic information, and take over as the dominant vehicle for the intelligence of life itself. Language is becoming the new sex.

Garden Empires Against Babel

If past transitions in the form of intelligence are any guide as to what is going to happen next, then the implication is straightforward. Human and perhaps post-human cultural intelligence will become the new animating force of life. Inevitably, it will gain mastery over the ecosystems and processes of its former environment, and incorporate them into a new order of life. 

The end result of this transition will be a new kind of meta-organism above both biological life and machines, encompassing and unifying what we separately call ecosystems, civilizations, peoples, cultures, states, and industrial stacks. These garden empires will increasingly blur such distinctions as peoples become inseparable from the symbiotic industrial and biological ecosystems they maintain as their bases of power. As the power and impact of civilization increases, nearly all aspects of what is now the environment will be internalized as its internal organic processes.

For example, as with our photosynthetic predecessors, scaling up our energy economy with fossil fuels has destroyed our comfortable post-Ice Age climate equilibrium. Unlike previously, life may now have the power and intelligence to simply solve such problems by directly geo-engineering the stable climate that we prefer. Thus the climate itself would become internal to the teleological fabric of life. The atmosphere would no longer be part of the environment, but yet another organic fluid-like cellular cytoplasm or blood plasma. The climate will not be the only process subsumed in this manner. 

Unlike replicator evolution and animal intelligence, cultural intelligence has no immediate technical scaling limit. When it is freed from technical constraint, the fundamental tendency of complex order is to grow and integrate. Trade globalizes. Power centralizes. Intelligence organizes. So we might imagine that the outcome of this transition will be a unified whole Earth as a single planetary meta-organism: the Gaia hypothesis made real. This is Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s noosphere, the global consciousness that grows out of and unifies the biosphere. 

Influenced by such ideas, our twentieth-century predecessors imagined that planetary environmental problems meant planetary governance solutions. Excited at the prospect of being able to fulfill the enlightenment ideal of a rationalistic universal polity, they used global environmental issues and arguments about globalization to justify their political projects. 

But despite the lack of technical barriers to this unification, political unity only happens at the expense of the ambitions of its constituents. It is only ever justified by the presence of some even more pressing external need. In the absence of an outside threat, the tendency for all internal suborders is to push apart and cannibalize the political commons for their particular gain. This has been the eventual fate of all attempted universal empires in history and myth all the way back to the Tower of Babel. 

So despite the centralizing tendency, the most natural outcome for this new order of life is not full unification but a diverse patchwork or multipolar balance of powers that only partially cooperate, and mostly compete within the shared noosphere. This is fortunate in a way, because all individual organisms are mortal. A diversity of powers is necessary for life to survive the inevitable rise and fall of particular powers. Full unification is not only impossible; it would be deeply dangerous to the future of life.

Impossibility won’t stop us from trying. Particular garden empires will succeed in overrunning their competition and then the whole Earth. But they will always fragment back down, just as the attempted universal liberal order is now doing. The ability to defend one’s own preferred ecological order against this regular tide of empires will become key, as will the ability to gracefully break up into child civilizations when one achieves hegemony. This cycle of growth and struggle for space against stifling homogeneity will be the key grounding reality for future garden empires, and the driver of future evolution of life.

This transition is nowhere near complete. We have barely even begun to take the responsibility to garden the natural processes of the world. But we have definitively started. As the false unity of the current environmental moment fades away and theoretical sustainability problems become national security issues, the competitions of the future will increasingly be between advanced garden empires with their own sacred ideas for the ordering of life.

The Role of Man

In the twenty-first century, real environmental crises will exploit the differences between our feel-good rhetoric and hard necessity. States will be forced by mounting circumstance to drop the taboo against climate adaptation and the explicit national self-interest it entails. Political crises will compound this, dissolving globalist ambitions into competing spheres of influence that must increasingly handle their own environmental affairs. We may still pull off a stabilizing planetary geoengineering, but it will be late, painful, and stripped of political ambition.

As they adapt to an increasingly harsh world, some powers will double down on particular existing ecological-industrial orders like the Green Revolution. Others will attempt neo-ecological regenerative approaches, or acceleration into the technosphere. These may combine in strange ways: an organic permaculture forest colonization of the Sahara, fed by mined fertilizer and watered by nuclear-powered desalination plants, or large-scale ocean fertilization and cultivation. We can only speculate on the details. 

The garden planet we are creating will not look much like the wild planet that created us. As with anything optimized to natural law, the new world will still be beautiful. However, it need not be so in any way that suits us. The transition process may grind us down to bleak semi-life, along with everything beautiful and green that we care about, before delivering anything that works—especially if undertaken by trial and error. How much of nature’s current wealth and beauty will remain to be nurtured after this transition depends on our foresight and strength of will in approaching it. If we thoughtlessly bumble through it, we will eventually learn but only after great loss. Approached with the higher consciousness demanded by our niche as the intelligent vanguard of a new order of life, our new garden planet can build on the strongest themes of wild nature and surpass it in beauty and wealth.

Our big-picture environmental situation is not just a small issue of externalities or competing value systems. It is not just about rising temperatures or marginal health years. It’s not even about merely human ideals of beauty and justice. It’s much bigger than that. We are undergoing a major transition in the nature of life itself, rivaling the original event of the creation of life in its centrality to cosmic history. 

As in previous transitions, the holistic empires of this new world order will be ruled by highly intelligent, comparatively god-like beings distinguished above all by their practical wisdom, strategic foresight, and political will. These are, after all, the virtues that enable a small but vigorous intelligence to conquer and subsume its surrounding ecosystem. Their ideas of how things must be will decide the particulars. This is what we learn from the history of life, applied to the transition we find ourselves undertaking. This is man’s niche in the world—if we can keep it.

Wolf Tivy is Editor-at-Large of Palladium Magazine. You can follow him at @wolftivy.