“Punctuated equilibria” as a special case of emergence in complex systems

I’ve just completed my first draft of an academic paper I’ve been working on entitled: “Punctuated Equilibria” as Emergence: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Change in Social Systems.

Readers of either of my two blogs will know that I think recent advances in thinking about complex adaptive systems can offer a tremendous amount to disciplines outside the traditional ones of physics and systems biology.

In this paper, I propose that Stephen Jay Gould’s famous theory of punctuated equilibria may be seen as a special case of emergence in complex adaptive systems, and the same approach can be used to gain a better understanding of major changes in human social systems: in pre-history, in historical times, and in our present day.

Here’s how the paper begins:

“Punctuated Equilibria” as Emergence: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Change in Social Systems

Jeremy R. Lent


Abstract: The theory of “punctuated equilibria” has had a major impact on evolutionary thought since its publication nearly forty years ago.  Advances in the understanding of complex, self-organized systems over the ensuing decades now offer the perspective of seeing “punctuated equilibria” as a particular case within the more general principle of emergence.  What insights could the analysis of emergence in self-organized systems offer to our understanding of major changes in human social systems?  A theoretical framework is distilled from studies in animal and ecological self-organization, and applied for illustrative purposes to four cases of human social change: language, agriculture, the scientific/ industrial revolution, and our current global system.


In a foundational paper written in 1972, Eldredge and Gould proposed that the tempo in which different species evolved followed a very different dynamic than had previously been assumed 1.  Ever since Darwin’s publication of On the Origin of Species 2, most proponents of evolutionary theory had held a gradualist view of speciation 3.  In contrast, Eldredge and Gould proposed what they called “punctuated equilibria” as the general rule for divergence of species.  They argued that “evolutionary trends are not the product of slow, directional transformation within lineages,” but that “punctuational change dominates the history of life”4.  Evolution, they claimed, “is concentrated in very rapid events of speciation”4.

While Eldredge and Gould’s theory has not been without its critics 5, it has had a resounding impact on approaches to evolutionary theory.  Mayr 3 observed that “whether one accepts this theory, rejects it, or greatly modifies it, there can be no doubt that it had a major impact on paleontology and evolutionary biology”.  Recently, the theory has received new empirical support from a statistical analysis of the pattern of genetic change in phylogenies of animal, plant and fungal taxa, showing an exponential distribution that would be predicted by the punctuated equilibria hypothesis 6.

In the same year as Eldredge & Gould published their paper,  Lorenz gave a paper 7 to the American Association for the Advancement of Science entitled Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil set off a Tornado in Texas?, a major milestone in the scientific acknowledgement of the importance of non-linear dynamics in complex systems.   Since then, there has been tremendous growth in both the sophistication and reach of attempts to understand self-organized complex systems 8-10.  One of the crucial elements generally identified in such self-organized systems is the phenomenon of emergence, where a system is seen to undergo a nonlinear phase transition as a result of dynamic interactions between both bottom-up and top-down processes 10-11.

In this review, I propose that the dynamics of punctuated equilibria described by Eldredge and Gould are integrally linked to the behavior of complex adaptive systems, and may potentially be viewed as a particular case of emergence applied to the field of paleobiology.  I suggest that the principles of change in self-organized systems could usefully be applied to a wide range of areas of human behavior, and offer the social sciences a methodology that could provide new pathways for understanding the dynamics of social change.

Want to read more?  Here’s a link to a pdf version of the working draft of the paper. Anyone with an academic interest in this subject is invited to read and comment, either in the comments section below or by e-mail.

Footnotes referenced:

1             Eldredge, N. & Gould, S. J. in Models in Paleobiology. (ed Thomas J. M. Schopf)  (Freeman, Cooper and Company, 1972).

2             Darwin, C. On the Origin of Species By Means of Natural Selection.  (John Murray, 1859).

3             Mayr, E. in The Dynamics of Evolution eds Albert Somit & Steven Peterson)  21-48 (Cornell University Press, 1992).

4             Gould, S. J. & Eldredge, N. Puctuated Equilibria: The Tempo and Mode of Evolution Reconsidered. Paleobiology 3, 115-151 (1977).

Five years after the publication of their original paper, Gould & Eldredge used this paper to respond to critics, amplify their hypothesis and speculate about its broader implications.

5             Gould, S. J. & Eldredge, N. Punctuated equilibrium comes of age. Nature 366, 223-227 (1993).

6             Venditti, C., Meade, A. & Pagel, M. Phylogenies reveal new interpretation of speciation and the Red Queen. Nature 463, 349-352 (2010).

7             Hilborn, R. C. Sea gulls, butterflies, and grasshoppers: A brief history of the butterfly effect in nonlinear dynamics. American Journal of Physics 72, 425-427 (2004).

8             Gleick, J. Chaos: Making a New Science.  (Penguin, 1987).

9             Lewin, R. Complexity: Life at the Edge of Chaos.  (University of Chicago Press, 1992/1999).

10           Kauffman, S. At Home in the Universe: the Search for Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity.  (Oxford University Press, 1995).

A leading proponent for broader applications of complexity theory, Kauffman argues that the emergence of life, intracellular dynamics and evolutionary fitness landscapes can all be understood using the framework of self-organization.

11           Thompson, E. Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind.  (Harvard University Press, 2007).

Thompson explores the theory of autopoiesis as a defining characteristic of life and investigates its implications, applying the central concept of “dynamic co-emergence”to various complex biological systems such as evolution, cellular dynamics and consciousness.


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