Novacene: The Coming Age of Hyperintelligence by James Lovelock

Novacene: The Coming Age of Hyperintelligence by James Lovelock

Reviewed by Amirah Chati

James Lovelock- inventor, environmentalist and futurist- was no stranger to controversy in his century-long life. His final book, ‘Novacene: The Coming Age of Hyperintelligence’, published three years before his death, outlines a significant new hypothesis for a world he would not live to see. The Anthropocene, Lovelock declares, is ending. The geological era defined by converting the stored solar energy of the earth into useful work, thereby radically impacting the earth’s climate and biodiversity, is drawing to a close. According to Lovelock, having converted solar energy to information, the age of the super-intelligent being- the ‘cyborg’- has already begun. This is the Novacene.

In order to understand this theory, we have to begin with the fundamental hypothesis that underpinned Lovelock’s career. The Gaia hypothesis argues that since life began it ‘has worked to modify its environment’. A complex and multi-dimensional process, the theory states that all life on Earth is part of a self-regulating community of organisms interacting with each other and their surroundings to regulate and stabilise the planet’s environment. Lovelock believed his theory confirmed the earth was one organism and was consequently met with a flurry of refutations, particularly from the Darwinian field of thought.  Dawkins himself was one of the first objectors, publicly confronting Gaia’a direct contradiction to his theory of evolution. He argued that organisms evolve specific traits through natural selection, not to altruistically benefit an entire planet’s atmosphere.  Dismissed by others as a ‘metaphor, not a mechanism’, another key criticism of the Gaia theory was that it was too teleological and theorised based on the assumption of predetermined purpose. To that end, it was well received by the public. I found myself warming to the hypothesis easily, or at least agreeing with the inability to accept that a simple, cause-and-effect logic could explain the wonder and complexities of Allah’s creation. This happens often in Lovelock’s work and is why he is considered a maverick romantic in the work of environmental science. His Quaker upbringing colours his perspective and adds a depth of humility to his confronting the ‘inexplicable’. He accepts the wisdom and essence of religion, believing it expresses a truth about the cosmos, and cites Barrow and Tipler’s belief that it appears to be ‘finetuned to produce us’ (1986). This extraordinary ability, found often in the book, to extrapolate himself from the rigid conformities of modern science, but not make the leap to the innate fitrah of Islam can be frustrating and saddening in equal measure. All praise to Allah for the ultimate blessing of faith. 

Lovelock mentions religion often and believes new atheists have ‘thrown the baby of truth out with the bathwater of myth’. While rejecting the premise of a God since He ‘evades scientific explanations’ and the ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ multiverse theory, Lovelock arrives at the third option provided by Barrow and Tipler: perhaps information is an innate property of the universe, and the intelligent inhabitants of earth have been chosen (naturally, of course, adds Lovelock, wary of stepping into the instinctive realm of the spiritual!) by the cosmos to explain itself. This argument predicates the entirety of Locklock’s Novacene and was extraordinary on first reading. The vast imagination of Lovelock wrangled together a purpose for our species, all while stripping its vast scope from any divine involvement. 

This theory, that human beings are the mechanism by which the cosmos can understand itself, is even more pertinent when reflecting on just how sacred knowledge is in Islam. The command of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) for each believing man and woman to seek knowledge, the prayers of the Prophet (PBUH) for blessed and beneficial knowledge, the existence of the Gayb (unseen) in Allah’s knowledge and the limitations of human knowledge are core tenants of the Islamic faith. Allah repeatedly uses His knowledge as the Creator of the world to evidence His existence. 

Lovelock’s perspective therefore, founded on Barrow and Tipler’s argument that knowledge is integral to this process, is not disagreeable to a Muslim reader until he concludes that said knowledge should be used for the consciousness of the all-evasive ‘cosmos’, and not for the purpose of submission to an Omnipotent God. As is the case in most post-Enlightenment scholarship, academia exhibits religious trauma through defensive, aloof and egotistical hypotheses. Contrary to his contemporaries, Lovelock at least believes humans are the sacrificial lambs- the launching pad of the cyborgs. 

Based on the eponymous Moore’s Law that the processing speed and capacity of silicon chips would double each year, Lovelock argues that humans will have moved beyond natural selection to such a state that they would require the help of machines to make machines, leaving us to watch like the ‘inhabitants of a Stone Age village (at) the construction of a railway’. This autonomous and intelligent perception of the cyborg is a far cry from the portrayal of robots in popular culture- the noun derived from the Czech word for ‘forced labour’, Lovelock shrewdly points out. While there is increasing fervour surrounding the possibility of conscious AI in the current phase of development, most engineers and tech journalists either believe that present-day AI is a dutiful tool for human beings that can merely mimic intelligence, or a ‘brainstorming partner’ as Sam Altman, founder of OpenAI mused on ChatGPT4. So while we may be closer to Lovelock’s prognosis that cyborgs will have evolved from code written by themselves, the zeitgeist has yet to seriously consider the notion of sentient AI as the dominant species on earth. In this realm nearing science-fiction, Lovelock rejects Freud’s comfort of the uncanny and imagines the autonomous cyborgs as spheres who will outstrip humankind, leaving earth to explore and give meaning to the far-away galaxies of the universe. For a Muslim readership, for whom the matters of the soul and consciousness are the ‘affair of my Lord’ (Quran 17:85), the discourse on AI sentience and autonomy lacks something fundamental: no one has ever been able to define consciousness, and intelligence alone- artificial or biological- is not enough to warrant the delineation. 

Nonetheless, Lovelock’s joy and wonderment at what humankind has thus far achieved by the permission of Allah is infectious. Yet, punctured between chapters of anticipatory hypotheses are discussions on war (‘I think we committed a fundamentally evil act by using nuclear energy for warfare’), cities (‘it is clear that cities distil the ambiguities of our feelings about the Anthropocene’) and the Heat Threat, which Lovelock references not merely to man-made global warming, but the impaired resilience and vulnerability of an ageing earth to any shocks. Too steep of a rise in temperature, and the Gaia system may become disabled with devastating consequences.  

Yet, while lightly touching on the ‘harmful choices’ humankind has made, Lovelock maintains a boundless optimism for the future of artificial intelligence. Even in his apparent objectivity, Lovelock concedes little and likens critics to luddites with religious undertones that are ‘soaked in politics’. To believe the issues of climate change, modern warfare and plundering of resources are not inherently political, resulting in seismic inequalities both on local class structures and global neo-colonial relationships, feels like an existential contradiction. Here, Lovelock’s writing is divorced from reality and assumes the same patronising aloofness of centuries of Western scientists, theorising away, indifferent to the real-life consequences of their work. The point is all the more salient when, looking up from the book into the real world, Gaza is pounded by missiles built in far-away facilities, poisoned by man-made substances produced in sterile labs and the realisation of suited diplomats with imperial ambitions. From Hiroshima to the Tuskegee Experiment, science and academic theory have always been a weapon in the arsenal of evil as much as they’ve been celebrated as the bastions of progress.  

Infact, over the century of Lovelock’s life, Marx’s assertion that ‘in our days, everything seems pregnant with its contrary’ has rung more true than ever. ‘Machinery, gifted with the wonderful power of shortening and fructifying human labour, we behold starving and overworking it; The newfangled sources of wealth, by some strange weird spell, are turned into sources of want; The victories of art seem bought by the loss of character’. Marx may not have aspired to the consciousness of the cosmos so much as the consciousness of the proletariat, but his assessment of the consequences of scientific progress feels more evidence-driven than Lovelock’s. We would do better to tackle the challenges that phenomenal technology has brought us thus far than proclaim a brave new world for which we have done little to prepare. And all the while, as we prepare for the even greater, endless future of the hereafter, we look upward to a universe of the unknown and call out:

رَبَّنَا مَا خَلَقْتَ هَذا بَاطِلاً سُبْحَانَكَ فَقِنَا عَذَابَ النَّارِ

“Our Lord, You did not create this aimlessly; exalted are You; then protect us from the punishment of the Fire” (Quran 3:191)

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