Evolution as self-organization

The most fundamental evolutionary mechanism is natural selection working together with genetic variation, a kind of decentralized biological trial-and-error method. By definition, selection is the very opposite of randomness. It implies that some qualities are preferred (those enhancing survival) while others are avoided. It reduces the number of possibilities and therefore variation is held in check by selection. Genetic variation works with sexual reproduction, making offsprings similar to their parents but different and often better.

Reproduction may vary genetically from parents due to different combination of genes or sudden mutations. If the new variant is better adapted and more successful, it is more likely to have more offspring who eventually takes over the population. In the interaction between evolving systems, this simple mechanism generates extremely sophisticated processes of diffentiation and integration like them in societies and big organizations. Also, the dynamics of information transmission and storage may be considered one of the drivers of evolution. Life is dependent on the ability to process information and to make complex transfomations of it to produce action.

All kinds of evolution is a kind of adaptation to prevailing circumstances. An organism that is too rigid in its responses will quickly be overrided and wiped out. One that overreacts will spend too much time in coping with constantly occurring crises rather than getting on with living. A good trade-off between the two extremes keeps the organism alive and healthy.

A significant human way of adaptation to new circumstances is mental modelling. It relies on pre-processed analyses which have been stored for future reference. When needed, these are used as pattern- recognition tools to recognize a situation compatible to one which previously had been solved. We test possible adaptations mentally and then try them out in practice, choosing the best for us. If apparently successful, it will be adopted by others and reproduced throughout the population by memes until replaced by something better. Adaptive problems not wholly understood by individuals, may sometimes be solved by human inventions like markets and governments. Left to itself, a market will distribute consumer goods and satisfy human need without conscious intervention from a central control unit.

The Darwin theory of evolution based on natural selection may be considered a theory of self-organization but also learning. Learning occurs wherever evolution is, even if artificially. Evolutionary theory which tells how replicative systems propagate in space and time and how properties and strategies are passed on to a successor organism, includes self-organization. This process can only take place above a certain complexity threshold and requires that the system is fed by high-value energy and exports entrophy.

Normally, evolutionary progress creates different kind of interaction between systems. Living creatures do not only optimize themselves against the environment which often change slowly, but also against other creatures. Competition and cooperation always exist. As time passes, new ways to interact and cooperate are generated and tested. Both number and size of cooperative phenomena increase. Living creatures increasingly coordinate their actions on behalf of the group rather than entirely act in their own individual interest. But genuine cooperation can only emerge where evolution has found out how  to build organizations out of self-interested components. Only individuals who pursue their own interests will act in the interest of society. This phenomenon is well-known e.g. in economics as “the invincible hand”.

An inevitable effect of interactive evolution are deceivers which undermine cooperation by taking the benefits provided by the cooperators, without cooperating in return. Such deceivers will always be a part of all kinds of cooperation. Only the appearance of adequate control systems can keep selfish abuses in check. Such kind of control can be a manager that takes control of a group for purely selfish purpose, but in the end promotes cooperation that is to everybody’s benefit.

Natural selection alone will, however, only be able to enhance cooperation between living entities which are limited in space and time. Cooperation between complex organizations of the largest scale, e.g. between different empires, apparently does not work, which can be learnt from history.

Evolution has coordinated molecular processes into cells, cells into organisms and organisms into societies. Life itself originates from the formation of cooperative hierarchical organizations. As living creatures, humanity cannot keep from going forward. Our visions cannot be withstood although we cannot foresee the consequences. Even evolution itself has evolved and improved the ability of evolutionary mechanisms to discover more effective adaptations. Living processes get smarter at evolving. Self-interested human individuals benefit from building cooperative organizations of greater scale and evolvability.

Some researchers, for example, John Steward (2003), state that cooperation extends over increasingly large spans of space and time. The potential for beneficial cooperation will not be finally exhausted until all living processes are organized into a single entity, that is, of the largest possible scale. It will end only when all matter, energy and information in living processes of the universe are totally interconnected into a cosmic super-organism.

A main point among Steward’s arguments is that needs and wants implanted in us by our evolutionary past no longer will produce the behaviour that is optimal for the future. When old hardwired motivations and emotional responses clash with a new reality in a global, nuclear world, they threaten our future. It is not easy for us to modify our motivations and dislikes. Instead of changing ourselves we continue to chase positive reinforcement for our internal reward system, making the evolutionary adaptability of humanity seriously limited. Humanity now must free itself from its biological and cultural past. These limitations had to be overrided by new spiritual software, enabling us to become self- evolving organisms with a superior level of cooperation.

From an evolutionary point of view, there is no contradiction between the material world inclined to run down according to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, and the organic world seeming to wind up in evolution. It is possible for the Universe to increase both its organization and its entropy at the same time. Here the separate arrows of time have joined forces and are pointing in the same direction forward. The direction of the evolutionary time’s arrow is forward, never backwards. The second law is transcended by the existence of life, living upon the free flowing energy between the sun and low-value infrared radiation reflected by the earth into deep space (exporting waste as entropy back to the environment).

It is, however, worth to note that self-organization is only one possible route of evolution. Systems may produce order out of seemingly randomness but also degenerate into chaos with degradation and errors as well. Errors have their own value in preventing too tightly bindings in coevolutionary relationships when runaway death spirals occur.

Source: Skyttner Lars (2006), General Systems Theory: Problems, Perspectives, Practice, Wspc, 2nd Edition.

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