The bacterium, the fly and the sugar bowl

[A response to Anthony Cashmore’s article denying free will published in the March 9, 2010 edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.]

I wasn’t sure if I was meant to take it seriously.  But it was being published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), it was even an Inaugural Article by a recently elected member… and it wasn’t yet April 1.  But there I was, reading in this august journal that

not only do we have no more free will than a fly or a bacterium, in actuality we have no more free will than a bowl of sugar.[1]

Does a fly have any more free will than…

As if that wasn’t shocking enough, this University of Pennsylvania biologist, Anthony Cashmore, was actually suggesting that our lack of free will should be reflected in our criminal justice system and proposing various adjustments to it.  Finally, to make matters even more disconcerting, a letter appeared a couple of weeks ago in PNAS, not taking issue with Cashmore on free will, but taking  our lack of it as a given, and discussing the implications for our system of justice.[2]

I guess I shouldn’t have been so shocked.  After all, this utter rejection of free will in the name of scientific reductionism has been around for at least a couple of centuries.  It’s as though Calvin’s doctrine of predestination was re-born but without God in the driver’s seat.  It was back in 1814 that Pierre-Simon de Laplace notoriously wrote in his Essai philosophique sur les probabilités:

A mind that in a given instance knew all the forces by which nature is animated and the position of all the bodies of which it is composed, if it were vast enough to include all these data within his analysis, could embrace in one single formula the movements of the largest bodies of the universe and of the smallest atoms; nothing would be uncertain for him; the future and the past would be equally before his eyes.[3]

… a bowl of sugar?

And for the past two centuries, wannabe Calvinists who found themselves in science rather than theology have kept up their attack on the notion of free will.  A hundred years after Laplace, it was celebrated biologist Jacques Loeb who found himself on the frontline of the assault, writing in his bestseller The Mechanistic Conception of Life:

Living organisms are chemical machines, possessing the peculiarity of preserving and reproducing themselves… We eat, drink and reproduce not because mankind has reached an agreement that this is desirable, but because, machine-like, we are compelled to do so.[4]

Perhaps Cashmore sees himself as the new century’s storm trooper for predestination; he certainly provided enough historical quotations himself to show that he is well aware of the pedigree of his idea.  And to give him credit, he has added an important stochastic element to the traditional notion of determinism, proposing that “there is a trinity of forces —genes, environment, and stochasticism (GES)—that governs all of biology including behavior, with the stochastic component referring to the inherent uncertainty of the physical properties of matter.”

But I intend to show that, in fact, Cashmore is so far from the truth that his statement above about the bacterium, fly and the bowl of sugar should be turned around completely to read:

not only we, but also a fly or a bacterium, in actuality have more free will than a bowl of sugar.

Cashmore cites, as evidence of his argument that GES governs all our activity, a number of recent studies showing that our conscious awareness of what we’re doing generally follows, rather than precedes, the relevant neural activity in the brain.  I agree with him that these studies are important, so let’s take a look at one of those he cited, by Soon et al., called appropriately enough “Unconscious determinants of free decisions in the human brain.”[5]

As Cashmore notes, Soon et al. conclude that

Taken together, two specific regions in the frontal and parietal cortex of the human brain had considerable information that predicted the outcome of a motor decision the subject had not yet consciously made. This suggests that when the subject’s decision reached awareness it had been influenced by unconscious brain activity for up to 10 s… Also, in contrast with most previous studies, the preparatory time period reveals that this prior activity is not an unspecific preparation of a response. Instead, it specifically encodes how a subject is going to decide.

So what does that conclusion tell us?  That certain parts of our brain – including part of our prefrontal cortex which is generally regarded as the locus of our “executive function” – make a decision and begin implementing it before our self-awareness becomes conscious  of this decision.  Is that evidence against free will?  No.  Rather, it’s evidence that when you, as an organism, decide to do something, that decision process is far more complex than we have generally understood it to be, and the part of the process that you’re conscious of is only a small, and sometimes relatively insignificant, part.  What Cashmore has done in his interpretation is conflate “conscious” with “free,” and therefore conclude that because we’re not conscious of something, we’re not free in our volition.

Cashmore is, of course, not alone in doing so.  In fact, even though he believes himself liberated from Cartesian dualism, he’s actually still confined within the modern dualistic tradition of Western thought that began with Descartes’ cogito ergo sum (“I think, therefore I am”) – the identity of self with one’s conscious awareness.  This tradition itself is really just a scientific rendering of an older current of thought that began with Plato two and a half millennia ago, when the eternal soul was conflated with the reasoning faculty and separated ontologically from the mortal body.

As cognitive linguists Lakoff & Johnson have shown, this split of self-identity between subject and object is so embedded in our thought and culture that it infuses the structure of our ordinary language. When we say “I pulled myself together,” or “I’m disappointed in myself,” or dozens of other such constructs, we’re exhibiting “something deep about our inner experience, mainly that we experience ourselves as split.”  Lakoff & Johnson generalize this as a dichotomy between the Subject, which they define as “the locus of consciousness, subjective experience, reason, will, and our ‘essence,’ everything that makes us who we uniquely are,” and multiples Selves, which “consist of everything else about us – our bodies, our social roles, our histories, and so on…”[6]

With the perspective of Lakoff & Johnson’s Self/Subject split,  we can interpret Soon et al.’s study as identifying some of the neural correlates of that split.  If one of the participants described the findings as “I wasn’t aware of the decision I’d made ten seconds earlier,” then rather than undermine the notion of free will, this merely demonstrates that the “specific regions of frontopolar and parietal cortex” that were seen to encode the decisions were not simultaneously participating in the conscious awareness of self.  In fact, a number of studies have searched for the neural correlates of that “self-referential or introspectively oriented mental activity,” and while acknowledging that it’s “likely to be widely distributed,” have identified the dorsal medial prefrontal cortex as probably the most important locus of the Subject/Self dynamic.

The important takeaway from all this is that, as Antonio Damasio has eloquently stated, “the mind exists in and for an integrated organism… The organism constituted by the brain-body partnership interacts with the environment as an ensemble, the interaction being of neither the body nor the brain alone.”[7] At this point, I can imagine Cashmore exultantly responding: “Right, so forget the distinction between conscious and unconscious processing, in the end it makes no difference.  Both the body and the brain are still subject to the determining factors of GES.  Neither is free.”  And from this perspective, I can agree with Cashmore that as far as free will goes, we humans are in the same bucket as his fly and bacterium.  Sure, there’s a extended continuum, and our higher-order consciousness may affect our actions more than Soon’s experiment shows, but  on a radical level, whether free will exists or not is really a question for the human, the fly and bacterium – all of us are in this together.

So let’s take a close look at the dynamics that all living organisms share.  Are we really subject to GES and nothing more?  This is where I think Cashmore’s understanding comes up short.  He states:

Some will argue that free will could be explained by emergent properties that may be associated with neural networks. This is almost certainly correct in reference to the phenomenon of consciousness. However… in the absence of any hint of a mechanism that affects the activities of atoms in a manner that is not a direct and unavoidable consequence of the forces of GES, this line of thinking is not informative in reference to the question of free will…

Well, the thing is, there’s no “absence of a hint of a mechanism.”  In fact, there’s a rigorous, interdisciplinary approach to the complexities of life, with decades of modeling under its belt, which recognizes the emergent properties of complex, self-organized systems as a dynamic which supersedes the forces of GES, while remaining consistent with the physics of these forces.  Cashmore betrays a possible lack of understanding of the nature of self-organized systems when he refers approvingly to “studies that indicate that consciousness is something that follows, and does not precede, unconscious neural activity in the brain.”  In fact, the breakthrough in understanding consciousness as an emergent property of neuronal self-organization is that there is no linear progression.  Consciousness neither follows nor precedes neural activity in the brain.  Consciousness is simultaneously both a function of and a driver of that neural activity.

How can that be?  The key concept necessary for an understanding of any living system – whether it’s human consciousness, a multi-cellular fly or a single-celled bacterium – is the two simultaneous directions of causation, both upwards and downwards.  This is summarized well by renowned neuroscientist György Buzsáki:

emergence through self-organization has two directions.  The upward direction is the local-to-global causation, through which novel dynamics emerge.  The downward direction is a global-to-local determination, whereby a global order parameter ‘enslaves’ the constituents and effectively governs local interactions.  There is no supervisor or agent that causes order; the system is self-organized.  The spooky thing here, of course, is that while the parts do cause the behavior of the whole, the behavior of the whole also constrains the behavior of its parts according to a majority rule; it is a case of circular causation.  Crucially, the cause is not one or the other but is embedded in the configuration of relations.[8]

This global order parameter, while influenced by genes and environment, and subject to stochastic variation, nevertheless exerts an emergent force on its own integrated system that is not determined by the parts of that system, but by the dynamic interactions of the whole with the parts.  Philosopher Evan Thompson, referring to empirical examples of epileptic patients changing the neurodynamic patterns of epileptic activity, explains that

‘downwards’ (global-to-local) causation is no metaphysical will-o’-the-wisp, but a typical feature of complex (nonlinear) dynamical systems, and may occur at multiple levels in the coupled dynamics of brain, body and environment, including that of conscious cognitive acts in relation to local neural activity.[9]

At this point, there’s a temptation to respond that, while the workings of these complex, self-organized systems are, for all practical purposes impossible to determine, they’re still deterministic.  However, this blanket dismissal of emergence fails to differentiate between what’s been termed “epistemological” and “ontological” emergence.  Philosophers Silberstein & McGeever explain the distinction well.  Epistemological emergence is the kind of “false” emergence that can be dismissed by determinists, where there’s no real top-down causation, but the system is just practically impossible to predict:

Most cases of emergence are epistemological. These are often cases in which it is hopeless to try to understand the behaviour of the whole system by tracing each individual part or process: we must find a method of representing what the system does on the whole or on average in a manner which abstracts away from causal detail… This kind of explanation often involves high-level descriptions of one sort or another: examples include averaging, gas laws and statistical mechanics in general.

A property of an object or system is epistemologically emergent if the property is reducible to or determined by the intrinsic properties of the ultimate constituents of the object or system, while at the same time it is very difficult for us to explain, predict or derive the property on the basis of the ultimate constituents. Epistemologically emergent properties are novel only at a level of description.[10]

Boiling water does not represent true, ontological emergence.

So, for example, if you heat a pot of water until it starts boiling, it’s sometimes claimed that the boiling is an emergent property of the water.  Wrong.  That’s epistemological emergence.  In practical terms, you’ll never be able to predict each bubble, but in principle, as Laplace said back in 1814, a mind that knew all the forces of nature could theoretically model the movements of the water.  Ontological emergence, by contrast, refers to

features of systems or wholes that possess causal capacities not reducible to any of the intrinsic causal capacities of the parts nor to any of the (reducible) relations between the parts. Emergent properties are properties of a system taken as a whole which exert a causal influence on the parts of the system consistent with, but distinct from, the causal capacities of the parts themselves.[11]

In other words, a “causal influence… consistent with, but distinct from” Cashmore’s GES.  Ontological emergence, in the view of Silberstein & McGeever, “entails the failure of part-whole reductionism.”  It also entails the failure of Cashmore’s denial of free will.

Perhaps the best explanation of ontological emergence I’ve come across is Evan Thompson’s description of the cell (and life) in terms of what he calls “dynamic co-emergence”:

An autonomous system, such as a cell or multicellular organism, is not merely self-maintaining, like a candle flame; it is also self-producing and thus procures its own self-maintaining processes… Whether the system is a cell, immune network, nervous system, insect colony, or animal society, what emerges is a unity with its own self-producing identity and domain of interactions or milieu, be it cellular (autopoiesis), somatic (immune networks), sensorimotor and neurocognitive (the nervous system), or social (animal societies).

Dynamic co-emergence best describes the sort of emergence we see in autonomy.  In an autonomous system, the whole not only arises from the (organizational closure of) the parts, but the parts also arise from the whole.  The whole is constituted by the relations of the parts, and the parts are constituted by the relations they bear to one another in the whole.  Hence, the parts do not exist in advance, prior to the whole, as independent entities that retain their identity in the whole.  Rather, part and whole co-emerge and mutually specify each other.

Biological life, seen from the perspective of autopoiesis, provides a paradigm case of dynamic co-emergence.  A minimal autopoietic whole emerges from the dynamic interdependence of a membrane boundary and an internal chemical reaction network.  The membrane and reaction network (as well as the molecules that compose them) do not pre-exist as independent entities.  Rather, they co-emerge through their integrative, metabolic relation to each other.  They produce and constitute the whole, while the whole produces them and subordinates them to it.[12]

Fruit flies exercising their free will.

Which is why I’m claiming free will not just for us humans, but also for that fly and bacterium.  In fact, speaking of flies, I’d refer Cashmore to a study by neurobiologist Bjorn Brembs who was attempting several years back to see if fruit flies in a deprivation chamber would fly in random or predictable patterns.  Turns out, they were neither random nor predictable.  They showed all the hallmarks of chaos, the form of activity that can arise from complex self-organized behavior, and which has been modeled in human brain patterns:  “It’s a rudimentary sort of free will,” Brembs concluded.[13]

Of course, I’m not claiming that we have the same amount of free will as a fly.  I think we’re at different points along a continuum of free will, which can be understood as a function of the complexity of the organism: whether it’s multicellular,  has a nervous system, a brain, a neocortex or (as in humans) a highly evolved prefrontal cortex.  In all cases, our free will is certainly constrained by Cashmore’s GES: genes, environment and stochasticism, but the constraints don’t eliminate free will, they just structure how it can be manifested.  One way of thinking about Cashmore’s GES is like a scaffolding: you can view the structure as a set of prison bars eliminating your freedom, or you can view it like a set of gymnasium bars, which you can grab onto and swing from.  It’s your, er, … well, it’s your choice.

Ultimately, I’m afraid that the mechanistic view of determinism propagated by Cashmore and others merely indicates the poverty of the reductionist worldview as a vehicle for understanding complex, self-organized systems such as cells, organisms and the human mind.  We’re all in this life together.  And whereas we humans may be the only ones capable of reflecting and writing about it, we share our free will with every other living organism on the earth.  That’s something that I, for one, am happy about.


[1] Cashmore, A. R. (2010). “The Lucretian swerve: The biological basis of human behavior and the criminal justice system.” PNAS, 107(10), 4499-4504.

[2] McEvoy, J. P. (2010). “A justice system that denies free will is not based on justice.” PNAS 107(20)E81.

[3] Cited by Postman, N. (1993). Technopoly: the Surrender of Culture to Technology, New York: Vintage Books.

[4] Cited by Capra, F. (1982/1988). The Turning Point: Science, Society, and the Rising Culture, New York: Bantam Books; and Rensberger, B. (1996). Life Itself: Exploring the Realm of the Living Cell, New York: Oxford University Press.

[5] Soon, C. S., Brass, M., Heinze, H.-J., and Haynes, J.-D. (2008). “Unconscious determinants of free decisions in the human brain.” Nature Neuroscience, 11(5), 543-5.

[6] Lakoff, G., and Johnson, M. (1999). Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought, New York: Basic Books, 268-9.

[7] Damasio, A. (1994). Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain, New York: Penguin Books, xx-xxi, 88.

[8] Buzsáki, G. (2006). Rhythms of the Brain, New York: Oxford University Press.

[9] Thompson, E. (2001). “Empathy and Consciousness.” Journal of Consciousness Studies, 8(5-7), 1-32.

[10] Silberstein, M., and McGeever, J. (1999). “The Search for Ontological Emergence.” The Philosophical Quarterly, 49(195:April 1999), 182-200.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Thompson, E. (2007). Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 64-5.

[13] Homes, B. (2007).  “Fruit flies display rudimentary free will.” New Scientist, 16 May 2007.

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Life as an ontological surprise

The Phenomenon of Life: Toward a Philosophical Biology

By Hans Jonas

Evanston: Northwestern University Press.  1966/2001.

I’ve argued elsewhere in this blog that our Western conceptualization of the universe could gain a lot from the Chinese Neo-Confucian view that sees reality arising from a confluence of li and ch’i, the organizing principles of nature (li) being applied to the raw energy/matter (ch’i).  In this approach, if you look at a candle, the ch’i comes and goes every moment in the substance of the wick, candle wax and oxygen burning up, but the form of the flame, the li, is what remains stable.

In his book, The Phenomenon of Life, Hans Jonas, a 20th century existential philosopher (a pupil of Martin Heidegger), never mentions Chinese thought, but his approach to matter and form resembles the Neo-Confucian approach so closely that it offers an example of how certain Western philosophical paths form a natural bridge to the Chinese tradition.

When considering life, as opposed to inanimate objects, Jonas tells us, “form becomes the essence, matter the accident.”  “In the realm of the lifeless,” he explains, form is no more than a changing composite state, an accident, of enduring matter.”  But when you look at “the living form,” the reverse holds true:

the changing material contents are states of its enduring identity, their multiplicity marking the range of its effective unity.  In fact, instead of saying that the living form is a region of transit for matter, it would be truer to say that the material contents in their succession are phases of transit for the self-continuation of the form.

This approach to understanding life is fundamentally at odds with the Western dualistic and reductionist view, and so it’s not surprising that Jonas’ book, viewed as “the pivotal book of Jonas’s intellectual career,” spends much of its time attacking reductionism, tracing its ancient roots from Orphism all the way through to modern renderings such as August Weismann’s dualist distinction of germline from somatic cells and the Neoplatonism of some modern mathematicians.

Jonas offers a strikingly clear narrative of how  Greek Platonic dualism, which formed the ontological basis for Christian cosmology, set the groundwork for modern reductionism by draining the spirit out of the material world.  He explains how concentrating the sense of the sacred into the eternal realm left a “denuded substratum of all reality,” which is then viewed as a “field of inanimate masses and forces.”  And he emphasizes the central importance of this dynamics in the structure of Western thought, saying:

In more ways than one, the rise and long ascendancy of dualism are among the most decisive events in the mental history of the race.  What matters for our context is that, while it held sway, and in an otherwise varied career, dualism continued to drain the spiritual elements off the physical realm – until, when its tide at last receded, it left in its wake a world strangely denuded of such arresting attributes.

Jonas sees the crucial moment occurring in the seventeenth century.  Christian dualism had already “drain(ed) nature of her spiritual and vital attributes,” leaving “the new metaphysic of science” to seal the deal.    In company with many other historians of philosophy, Jonas sees Descartes as putting the final nail into nature’s vital parts, describing how “Descartes’ division of substance into res cogitans and res extensa… provided the metaphysical charter for a purely mechanistic and quantitative picture of the natural world.”

Other historians of philosophy have traced a similar path, but Jonas’ book really comes to life when he offers an alternative worldview, which is where he begins to sound intriguingly like a Neo-Confucianist.  Jonas describes life in almost poetic terms, describing how, “in living things, nature springs an ontological surprise,” where “systems of matter” no longer exist by the “mere concurrence of the forces that bind their parts together, but in virtue of themselves for the sake of themselves, and continually sustained by themselves.”

This interpretation of life as an emergent phenomenon is a philosophical forerunner of current views espoused by leading thinkers in biology and complexity theory, such as Stuart Kauffman, Evan Thompson and Ursula Goodenough, among others; and in fact it was Thompson’s book, Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind, reviewed on this blog, that originally alerted me to Jonas’ writings.

As Thompson noted in his book, Jonas deserves credit for highlighting the “all-pervasiveness of metabolism within the living system.”  Most of us think of metabolism as something that happens when we eat, an important part of life but not exactly the foundational concept.  However, as Jonas argues:

The exchange of matter with the environment is not a peripheral activity engaged in by a persistent core: it is the total mode of continuity (self-continuation) of the subject of life itself… the system itself is wholly and continuously a result of its metabolizing activity.

This is the crucial differences, Jonas explains, between a living system and a machine, and underlines the inadequacy of any scientific approach that views living organisms as just very complicated “machines” – the core metaphor of the reductionist view.  “It is inappropriate,” Jonas tells us, “to liken the organism to a machine,” and here’s why:

[M]etabolism is more than a method of power generation, or, food is more than fuel: in addition to, and more basic than, providing kinetic energy for the running of the machine … its role is to build up originally and replace continually the very parts of the machine.  Metabolism thus is the constant becoming of the machine itself – and this becoming itself is a performance of the machine: but for such performance there is no analogue in the world of machines…

Following on the implications of this, Jonas concludes that “the organism must appear as a function of metabolism rather than metabolism as a function of the organism.”  Which takes us back to the li and ch’i of Neo-Confucianism.  Metabolism can be viewed as a process of changing the organization of matter, cell by cell, molecule by molecule, breaking apart the prior organization and reorganizing the molecules into a form that optimizes and becomes the organism, on a continuous, dynamic basis.  Viewed in this way, it’s the li, the organizing principles, that define the organism, and the matter/energy, the ch’i, is merely the raw material being used to maintain the li.  Or, to put it in Jonas’ words, the organism is a function of metabolism.

Jonas then ventures deeper into the implications of this reversal of traditional Western priorities.  He shows how the existence of an organism leads to the emergence of teleology, an underlying sense of purpose.  Traditional Western scientists steer clear of notions of teleology, fearing that it smacks either of Aristotle or Christian theology.  But in fact, as Jonas makes clear, teleology is the logical result of the unique dynamics of living systems:

But there is always the purposiveness of organism as such and its concern in living: effective already in all vegetative tendency, awakening to primordial awareness in the dim reflexes, the responding irritability of lowly organisms; more so in urge and effort and anguish of animal life endowed with motility and sense-organs; reaching self-transparency in consciousness, will and thought of man: all these being inward aspects of the teleological side in the nature of ‘matter.’

Because of this universal characteristic of teleology in life, Jonas concludes that “life can be known only by life.”  “We poor mortals” have an advantage, Jonas tells us, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, over the Neoplatonic God existing as an eternal, never-changing idea of perfection:

Happening to be living material things ourselves, we have in our self-experience, as it were, peepholes into the inwardness of substance, thereby having an idea (or the possibility of having an idea) not only of how reality is spread and interacts in extensity, but of how it is to be real and to act and to be acted upon.

This has profound implications for what it means to “know something.”  Knowledge of any living system can never be a purely abstract conception.  True knowledge involves an integration of our minds and bodies, our conceptual and our animate consciousness.  Not surprisingly, alien as this view is to Western thought, the Chinese long ago had a word for it: tiren.  In another review on this blog, I’ve quoted Chinese scholar Donald Munro on the meaning of this word:

Tiren means to understand something personally, with one’s body and mind.  This knowledge becomes qualitatively different from knowledge that does not involve personal experience…  Embodiment is a combination of cognition … and empathic projection of the self to the object.

For Western reductionist thinkers, life might indeed be, in Jonas’s words, an ontological surprise.  But I have a feeling that, for Chinese Neo-Confucianists, Jonas’ discussion of “the phenomenon of life” would be no surprise at all.  For them, the surprise would be the reductionist view of the world that only measures the ch’i, remaining blithely oblivious to the fact that the li even exists.

Exploring the Li of Consciousness

Rhythms of the Brain

By György Buzsáki

New York: Oxford University Press.  2006.

György Buzsáki’s book is viewed by the academic press as a “must read,” particularly for “neuroscientists looking to get an up-to-date and challenging exposition of many of the big questions.”  I’m sure that’s true.  But I view it somewhat differently.  I see Rhythms of the Brain as one of the increasing number of modern scientific descriptions of the authenticity and power of the classical Chinese concept of the li.

Now what could a book on the brain by a leading neuroscientist possibly have to do with traditional Chinese thought?  Readers of this blog will know that “the li” is a Neo-Confucian concept of the dynamic organizing principles of nature.  In traditional Chinese thought, Nature is composed of two interrelated principles: ch’i, which we can loosely translate as matter/energy; and li, which are the organizing dynamics by which the ch’i is manifested.  There’s no ch’i without li, and there’s no li without ch’i.

Now let’s fast forward a thousand years to Buzsáki’s book.  The physical composition – the ch’i – of the brain is staggering on its own account.  Buzsáki tells us how the human brain has about “100 billion neurons with an estimated 200 trillion contacts between them.”  But what makes the brain even more amazing is how it can organize these trillions of connections to cause us to think and feel, to be aware of the world and of ourselves, to be able to sit here and read these words.  That’s where the rhythms of the brain – the li of consciousness – play their part.

Think about it this way: the moment someone dies, their brain still exists, but there’s no longer a mind.  If you freeze their brain instantaneously, you could theoretically trace every one of those 200 trillion contacts.  But all you’d be looking at would be a complicated tangle of protoplasm.  The ch’i would still be there, but the dynamic, pulsing rhythms, the li, would be gone.

Buzsáki’s book is all about the li of the human brain: the rhythms that form the complex, self-organized fractal patterns that come together to create the emergent phenomenon of consciousness.  Buzsáki’s analysis utilizes the crucial concept of the brain as a complex adaptive system exhibiting a “nonlinear relationship between constituent components.”  As such, the rules that apply to self-organized systems elsewhere in the universe – in cells, ant colonies, fish swarms, global climate, (to name but a few) – also apply to the brain’s functioning.  Some of the results of this, in the brain as in the other systems, are that “very small perturbations can cause large effects or no effect at all” and that “despite the appearance of tranquility and stability over long periods, perpetual change is a defining feature.”

Buzsáki’s analysis emphasizes the distinguishing characteristic of such systems: emergence of a higher level of organization through “reciprocal causality,” which he describes as follows:

emergence through self-organization has two directions.  The upward direction is the local-to-global causation, through which novel dynamics emerge.  The downward direction is a global-to-local determination, whereby a global order parameter ‘enslaves’ the constituents and effectively governs local interactions.  There is no supervisor or agent that causes order; the system is self-organized.  The spooky thing here, of course, is that while the parts do cause the behavior of the whole, the behavior of the whole also constrains the behavior of its parts according to a majority rule; it is a case of circular causation.  Crucially, the cause is not one or the other but is embedded in the configuration of relations.

Buzsáki explains how this dynamic leads to that special combination of flexibility and robustness that our minds possess, whereby we seem to experience both stability and continual change at the same time.  Brain dynamics, he states, are in “a state of ‘self-organized criticality.’”  As such, the dynamics of the cerebral cortex display “metastability,” whereby in some cases the smallest perturbation can cause a major shift in the patterns of neuronal firing, and in other cases that firing can return to its previous patterns even after receiving large perturbations.

Buzsáki notes that such self-organized systems generally demonstrate a power law distribution, which leads to the inevitability of “rare but extremely large events.”  Here, he sees an exception to the general rule in the case of the normal brain, arguing that “such unusually large events never occur” because the balancing “dynamics of excitation and inhibition guard against such unexpected events.”  However, I wonder if that’s the case.  I know that, usually, when Buzsáki and other neuroscientists are considering these uniquely synchronized events, they’re thinking of the pathological synchrony of, for example, an epileptic seizure.  But what if they consider a highly infrequent synchrony between different brain systems that usually remain asynchronous?  Most of us have experienced rare moments in our lives where the normal balancing metastable dynamics are suddenly blown away.  For each of us, these moments will be totally unique, but in typical cases they might take the form a feeling of spiritual transcendence, of extreme love or anguish, a moment of enlightenment or of utter despair.  In many cases, these experiences can have such high valence that they can shift the previously metastable patterns of our brain into a new attractor manifold.  In more common parlance, these moments can profoundly affect our values and behavior for the rest of our lives.  I believe that this is an area that could profitably be explored by the methodology Buzsáki lays out in his book.

More generally, in examining the implications of the brain’s power law dynamics, Buzsáki ventures into the parallels between brain dynamics and other externally generated patterns exhibiting the same power-law distributions, such as music.  Buzsáki speculates that

Perhaps what makes music fundamentally different from (white) noise for the observer is that music has temporal patterns that are tuned to the brain’s ability to detect them because it is another brain that generates these patterns.

This speculation has in fact been empirically supported by physicists Hsü & Hsü who have identified a scale-independent fractal geometry in the music of Bach and Mozart.[1] But I wonder if the implications go much farther than this.  Supposing it’s the power law distribution itself that resonates with the brain, rather than the fact that “it is another brain that generates these patterns”?  In this case, might we consider the rhythms of the brain as a fundamental source of esthetic appreciation?  Do we, in fact, find nature so beautiful because at a foundational level, the self-organizing complexity of the brain responds to the analogous patterning that it perceives around it?

Tropical mollusk shell: an example of the intrinsic beauty of self-organized systems

Beauty is traditionally defined as “unity-in-variety,” as “that mysterious unity that the parts have with the whole.”[2] This description sounds remarkably similar to the self-organized reciprocal causality of complex adaptive systems referred to above.  In an interesting analysis, biologists Solé & Goodwin describe Hans Meinhardt’s research on tropical mollusk shells, demonstrating the generic order intrinsic in natural patterns.  The pigment patterns in mollusks, they tell us, “provide one of the most beautiful and convincing demonstrations of constraint arising from intrinsic self-organizing principles of biological pattern formation.”[3] Could this perceived beauty in fact be a case of the human mind, an emergent product of self-organized dynamics, recognizing an external manifestation of those very same dynamics?

Over a thousand years ago, Chang-Tsai, one of the founders of the Neo-Confucian movement, made a famous statement that resounded with future generations of philosophers:  “What fills the universe I regard as my body; what directs the universe I regard as my nature.”[4] Could it be that Chang-Tsai and György Buzsáki are in fact exploring the same reality, a thousand years apart?


[1] Hsu, K. J., and Hsu, A. (1991). “Self-similarity of the “1/f noise” called music.” PNAS, 88(April 1991), 3507-3509.

[2] Garcia-Rivera, A., Graves, M., and Neumann, C. (2009). “Beauty in the Living World.” Zygon, 44(2:June 2009), 243-263.

[3] Solé, R., and Goodwin, B. (2000). Signs of Life: How Complexity Pervades Biology, New York: Basic Books.

[4] Quoted by Ching, J. (2000). The Religious Thought of Chu Hsi, New York: Oxford University Press.

“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

DRAFT WORKING PAPER, March 2010

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.

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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.

The Rosetta Stone of Metaphysics: The Li

For millennia, the hieroglyphs of ancient Egypt were undecipherable to the modern world.  Then Napoleon’s troops discovered the famous Rosetta Stone in 1799, with an ancient proclamation in three languages, one of which was Greek and another hieroglyphs.  After some years of intensive work, the hieroglyphs were finally deciphered.  The awesome – and previously unknowable – world of ancient Egyptian thought had opened up to modern minds.

The Rosetta Stone of Metaphysics: The Li

The chasm that currently exists between spirituality and science is a little like the gap between hieroglyphs and European languages before the discovery of the Rosetta Stone.  From the perspective of our scientific world, spirituality remains mysterious, alluring, but ultimately unknowable.  However, I believe that the traditional Chinese conception of the li – the organizing principles underlying every aspect of the universe – offers us a kind of metaphysical Rosetta Stone: a conceptual bridge between the material world of mathematics and science and the immeasurable world of the spirit.

In western thought, the monotheistic religions of Christianity, Islam or Judaism are often viewed as the only spiritual alternative to scientific materialism.  With their dualistic worldview, positing an intangible dimension of God and immortal souls, they are incommensurable with scientific thought: ultimately, one can never be measured in terms of the other.  Many people, rejecting dualism but sensing something greater than reductionist science allows, seek non-traditional explanations, which are frequently dismissed by science as incoherent.

In contrast to these approaches, the perspective of the li offers a coherent, non-dualistic mode of understanding how the natural world can be at the same time tangible and mysterious, how our lives can be both flesh and blood and spiritually meaningful.

The Neo-Confucian approach to the li and modern scientific thought both start out from the same place.  They both posit a material universe explainable on its own terms, without having to come up with a supernatural Creator.  The greatest Neo-Confucian philosopher, Chu Hsi, was very clear about this, as we can see from the following excerpt:

The blue sky is called heaven; it revolves continuously and spreads out in all directions.  It is now sometimes said that there is up there a person who judges all evil actions; this assuredly is wrong.  But to say that there is no ordering (principle) would be equally wrong.[1]

Both Neo-Confucian and scientific thought look at how energy and matter interact in order to understand how nature is organized.  But from that same starting place, they follow two different directions.  Science looks for measurable laws that are held to be universally true, and technological advances have permitted science to find these laws in ever smaller units.   Neo-Confucianism, by contrast, looked for organizing principles, regardless of whether they were measurable or not.  With this approach, it perceived the very thing that science has eliminated from its purview: the boundless spirit pervading the natural universe.  This is best seen in another excerpt from Chu Hsi’s teachings, where the master responds to a reductionist-leaning pupil:

Fu Shun-Kung asked about the Five Sacrifices, saying that he supposed they were simply a duty; a manifestation of great respect; it was not necessary (to believe that) any spirit was present.  (The philosopher) answered: ‘(No spirit, say you?)  Speak of the mysterious perfection of the ten thousand things and you have spoken of the Spirit.  Heaven and earth and all that is therein – all is Spirit![2]

Natural laws lead us to hard science.  The li leads us to a spiritual understanding of the world.  One key to the difference between “natural laws” and the “li” is the concept of measurability.  Natural laws must, by definition, be measurable in order to be counted as laws.  The li, on the other hand, exist in an infinite array through time and space and can never be completely measured.  For this reason, natural law works well with what we can measure, such as molecules, spectrums of light, acceleration of gravity, etc.  But it struggles when we try to use it to understand things we can’t measure: feelings, ecological systems, evolutionary processes, consciousness.  The li, by contrast, makes no distinction between what you can and what you can’t measure.  To understand the li requires a different approach – it requires integration.

Leading thinkers in complexity science find themselves at the boundary where natural laws meet the li, and struggle to communicate this thought within the limitations of our Western scientific terminology.  Here is how J.A. Scott Kelso, a neuroscientist who applies complexity theory to the dynamics of the brain, describes his view of what lies beyond the boundaries of conventional physics:

… my answer to the question, is life based on the laws of physics? is yes, with the proviso that we accept that the laws of physics are not fixed in stone, but are open to elaboration.  It makes no sense to talk about the laws of physics as if the workings of our minds and bodies are controlled by well known fundamental laws.  As I stressed earlier, it will be just as fundamental to discover the new laws and principles that govern the complex behavior of living things at the many levels they can be observed… At each level of complexity, entirely new properties appear, the understanding of which will require new concepts and methods.[3]

Kelso is describing the li.  The key to understanding what I mean is that “the li” is both a scientific and a spiritual term.  It’s a term that covers equally well findings of modern complexity theory and traditional Chinese philosophy.  The reason this can occur is that complexity science and the spirituality of Chinese thought are interconnected.  Rather than describing different dimensions, they’re using different approaches to understand the same underlying reality.

There are profound implications to this.  Complexity science leads us into a world where some conventional scientific preconceptions have to be reconsidered.  As we explore that world, we are fortunate to have generations of sophisticated thinkers from traditional Chinese philosophy to help us map out the way.

Conventional science is predicated on prediction, power and control.

Conventional science is predicated on prediction, power and control.

For example, the conventional scientific approach to the world is predicated on the notions of prediction, power and control: the ability to predict natural phenomena gives us power and consequently control over those phenomena.  In contrast to this, a scientific approach that acknowledges the li – the complexity arising from self-organization and emergent states of living organisms – leads to the realization that the conventional level of prediction, power and control are impossible.    Instead, acknowledgement of the li leads towards a sense of participation rather than power, encouraging harmony within a process rather than attempting to impose control.  This is how biologist Brian Goodwin describes this realization:

A new frontier is now opening for our culture, a frontier where science will continue to be relevant, but in a radically altered form.  Instead of a primary focus on controlling quantities, the challenge for science is to cooperate with the natural creative dynamic that operates at the edge of chaos, to experience the qualities that emerge there, and to move toward a participatory worldview which recognizes the intrinsic values that make life worthwhile.[4]

The “participatory worldview” Goodwin describes raises another key principle arising from the li: the interactivity inherent in our relationship with both ourselves and the world around us.  We are inseparable from the natural world: what we do to it has implications that inextricably pull us back in.  And we’re equally inseparable from ourselves: we are constantly creating and re-creating ourselves whether we know it or not.  As physiology researcher Peter Macklem puts it: “Who is our artist?  We sculpt ourselves.”[5]

A full understanding of this dynamic interactivity has the potential to take us to places that are considered “mystical” in Western traditions, but mainstream in the traditional Chinese philosophy of the li.  In a famous document known as the Western Inscription, one of the founders of Neo-Confucian thought, Chang Tsai, took this participatory worldview to its ultimate logic with a vision of our cosmic inseparability from the natural world:

Heaven is my father and earth is my mother, and I, a small child, find myself placed intimately between them.  What fills the universe I regard as my body; what directs the universe I regard as my nature.  All people are my brothers and sisters; all things are my companions.[6]

Chang Tsai is not alone in his vision; in fact, he’s part of a long tradition of Chinese thought.  Over a thousand years earlier, the ancient philosopher Mencius noted that “One who fully explores his heart/mind will understand his own nature, and one who understands his own nature will thereby understand Heaven.”[7]

Ant nest organization parallels the neuronal interactions of our brains.

What do they mean?  These statements begin to make sense when you think about them in terms of the li – nature’s organizing principles.  Modern scientific research is beginning to identify self-organized dynamics within each of the trillions of cells in our body that are similar to those that form ecological communities – even communities as large as the entire natural world.[8] Biologists are increasingly discovering close parallels between the organized behavior of social insects such as ants or bees and the neuronal interactions of our brains.[9] Kelso touches on this dynamic when he notes that “a remarkable, possibly quite profound, connection seems to exist among physical, biological, and psychological phenomena.”[10]

If the li that comprise our own existence share their dynamics with the li all around us in the natural world, then this might explain the feeling of awe and oneness we sometimes experience as we observe our universe.  Biologist Ursula Goodenough gives a sense of this bridge between science and the sacred:

As a cell biologist immersed in [a deep understanding of, and admiration for, the notes and the strings and the keys of life] I experience the same kind of awe and reverence when I contemplate the structure of an enzyme or the flowing of a signal-transduction cascade as when I watch the moon rise or stand in front of a Mayan temple.  Same rush, same rapture.[11]

In fact, some studies have identified similar patterns of self-organization in both music and the human brain, offering us a hint that our esthetic sense is intimately connected with the universal patterns of the li that Chang Tsai described.[12] The modern Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield expresses the sense of spiritual awakening that can arise from this realization:

From an awakened perspective, life is a play of patterns, the patterns of trees, the movement of the stars, the patterns of the seasons and the patterns of human life in every form…  These basic patterns, these stories, the universal archetypes through which all life appears, can be seen and heard when we are still, centered, and awakened… Our lives are inseparable from our environment, our species, our relations with the stream of all that exists…  All things are all a part of ourselves, and yet somehow we are none of them and beyond them.[13]

A thousand blossoms: touching the li of Nature.

How far we’ve come (while remaining commensurable with scientific thought) from the reductionist thinking that’s typically associated with conventional science, an approach that can be epitomized in this observation by Nobel laureate physicist and reductionist spokesman Steven Weinberg: ‘I have to admit that sometimes nature seems more beautiful than strictly necessary.’[14] In contrast, here are some thoughts of Neo-Confucian philosopher Chu Hsi on the experience of touching the li of Nature:

Spring colors in the West Garden beckoning,
I rushed up there in straw sandals.
A thousand blossoms and ten thousand buds in red and purple:
Who knows the creative mind of Heaven and Earth?[15]

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Note: This is the fourth in a series. Go to other posts:

1: Nature’s Organizing Principles: The Li.

2: The Li: Beyond the Laws of Nature.

3: Wiggles in the Stream of Time: Li and Ch’i.

4: The Rosetta Stone of Metaphysics: The Li.

5: Einstein, Chu Hsi and the Investigation of Things.


[1] Cited by Needham, J. (1956/1972). Science and Civilisation in China, Volume II, London: Cambridge University Press.

[2] Cited by Needham, op. cit.

[3] Kelso, J. A. S. (1995). Dynamic Patterns: The Self-Organization of Brain and Behavior, Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press.

[4] Goodwin, B. (1994/2001).  How the Leopard Changed Its Spots: The Evolution of Complexity, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

[5] Macklem, P. T. (2008). “Emergent phenomena and the secrets of life.” Journal of Applied Physiology(104), 1844-1846.

[6] Quoted by Ching, J. (2000). The Religious Thought of Chu Hsi, New York: Oxford University Press.

[7] Cited by Slingerland, E. (2003). Effortless Action: Wu-wei as Conceptual Metaphor and Spiritual Ideal in Early China, New York: Oxford University Press.

[8] See, for example, Lovelock, J. (1979/2000). Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[9] See, for example, Couzin, I. D. (2008). “Collective cognition in animal groups.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 13(1), 36-43; Wilson, D. S., and Wilson, E. O. (2007). “Rethinking the Theoretical Foundation of Sociobiology.” The Quarterly Review of Biology, 82(4: December 2007), 327-348; Ward, A. J. W. et. al. (2008). “Quorum decision-making facilitates information transfer in fish shoals.” PNAS, 105(19), 6948-6953.

[10] Kelso, op. cit.

[11] Goodenough, U. (1998). The Sacred Depths of Nature, New York: Oxford University Press.

[12] Wu, D., Li, C.-Y., and Yao, D.-Z. (2009). “Scale-Free Music of the Brain.” PLoS ONE, 4(6:June 2009), e5915.

[13] Kornfield, J. (1993). A Path With Heart: A Guide Through the Perils and Promises of Spiritual Life, New York: Bantam Books.

[14] Quoted by Horgan, J. (2003). Rational Mysticism: Spirituality Meets Science in the Search for Enlightenment, New York: Mariner Books.

[15] Quoted by Ching, J., op. cit.

Crossing the Complexity Barrier

Darwinism Evolving: Systems Dynamics and the Genealogy of Natural Selection

Depew, D. J., and Weber, B. H. ,

Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press. (1996).

The study of complexity and self-organization in living organisms offers a powerful, new way to understand the natural world.  It provides a profound and serious alternative to the reductionist program which has dominated biology since the early part of the 20th century.  But what does it imply for Darwin’s theory of natural selection, the bulwark of modern biological thought?  Over the past two decades, a number of researchers have shown how natural selection and complexity theory, far from being rivals, are in fact “marriage partners.”[1]

Of these studies, the one that I’ve found most rewarding is Darwinism Evolving by Depew & Weber, which gives an in-depth narrative of the thought currents around Darwin’s theory, from before Darwin all the way to the present day, using the narrative to establish and support their own approach.

They begin with an interesting take on Darwinian theory, describing how it developed in the context of both the political and scientific framework of the mid-19th century.  Politically, Depew and Weber show how Adam Smith’s view of the “invisible hand” could be powerfully translated from economics to biology.  In both cases, individuals struggle to do what’s best for them, and by doing so, blindly become agents in the natural laws of capitalism and evolution.  Similarly, the “gradualist” approach that Darwin favored in describing the process of natural selection, fit well with the prevailing political ethos of Victorian England.  They describe a chemist named W.R. Grove addressing a scientific meeting in 1866, telling his compatriots how: “Happily in this country practical experience has taught us to improve rather than remodel; we follow the law of nature and avoid cataclysms.”

Depew & Weber are not the first to note this political context (in fact they tell us how Karl Marx picked up on it as early as 1862.)  But they probably break some new ground in their linkage of Darwin’s ideas to developing theories in physics, arguing that:

… the Darwinian research tradition, while successfully resisting reduction to or incorporation within physics, has from the beginning used explanatory models taken from physics to articulate its core idea of natural selection.

They show how Newton’s laws formed a “generalized model for describing and explaining phenomena in fields beyond physics, even social systems” in the nineteenth century, and they offer a fascinating analysis of how the laws of statistical mechanics developed by Maxwell and Boltzmann had a profound effect on later, post-Darwinian evolutionary thinking.

This thesis really hits its stride when Depew & Weber follow the interactions between evolutionary thought and the second law of thermodynamics, which states that processes in a system will tend towards entropy.  They give an account of the strange life of Ronald Fisher, the first person to formally link evolution with the second law, with his view that “just as the world moves downhill by the exploitation of energetic gradients, so it moves uphill by the exploitation of fitness gradients.”  With a clear distaste for how evolutionary theories can be manipulated to support ethical idiosyncrasies, they note how “as his classmates went off to the slaughter of World War I, Fisher was writing in the Eugenical Review that although morality and aesthetics are both grounded in sexual selection, those who rightly rule in a society know that beauty is a higher value than morality.”

The linkage of evolution with the second law of thermodynamics becomes more rigorous and powerful as the story continues.  We’re introduced to Alfred Lotka’s thermodynamic theory of evolution which can be summarized as:

Evolution proceeds in such direction as to make the total energy flux through the system a maximum compatible with the constraints… In accord with this observation is the principle that, in the struggle for existence, the advantage must go to those organisms whose energy-capturing devices are most efficient in directing available energy into channels favorable to the preservation of the species.

Depew & Weber tell us how “with his vision of the unity of physics, chemistry, and biology, Lotka proposed this as a fourth law of thermodynamics.”

Perhaps the most important milestone in this narrative is the “seminal little book that appeared in 1944”, by quantum physicist Erwin Schrödinger called What is Life?, which threw “considerable sweetness, as well as light” on the subject.  Schrödinger’s breakthrough was to contrast an organic or open system with the universe as a whole, arguing that “the second law requires only that the universe as a whole must show an increase in entropy.  Eddies of order, or what Schrödinger called ‘negentropy’, could be sustained in the great flow of ever-increasing entropy.”

So life can be seen as a continual struggle against entropy, whereby cells, organisms or ecosystems take energy from the broader universe, organize it in ways that assist them (i.e. metabolism), and dissipate the waste back out.  This is why Ilya Prigogine, the next great thinker on this subject, refers to organisms as “dissipative structures.”

This narrative enables one to see current theories of complexity and self-organization within a full historical context.  Those who are “marrying” self-organization to evolution are, in fact, working on the fourth or fifth generation of matchmaking.  The difference now, as Weber and Depew point out, is that the new science of complexity has developed theoretical tools and data-driven applications that fundamentally change the project.  As they put it:

The first lesson to be learned from the new dynamics is that the world contains more novelty, diversity, and complexity than we had assumed…  Crossing the complexity barrier, accordingly, calls for … radical revisions in how scientific theories are to be analyzed and in how they explain when they are applied to problems… [I]t is not just physics and biology that must change to accommodate this fact but philosophies of science, too.

The implications of “crossing the complexity barrier” are far-reaching, and Depew & Weber explore some of these directions.  For example, a thermodynamically-based view of evolution leads to an understanding of evolution as occurring on multiple levels rather than solely on the individual organism (or as espoused in recent decades, the individual gene.)  It also supersedes the “competition” metaphor in traditional evolutionary narrative, as Depew and Weber explain:

Organisms will, on this account, be construed as informed patterns of thermodynamic flow.  Those populations will be fittest that best enhance the autocatalytic behavior of the reward loops in which they participate.  One advantage of this notion is that it makes it possible to contextualize natural selection to the wider array of processes in which it occurs, and to project a vision of ecological communities in which cooperation becomes as characteristic as competition, or indeed inseparably linked to it…

Not surprisingly, Depew & Weber come out strongly against reductionist thinking in general, and even more fiercely against Richard Dawkins’ particular style of that thinking, describing how he “invests his metaphors with disturbing semantic reverberations that harken back to Enlightenment themes”, giving the choice between being pawns of our genes” or “of a tyrannical Calvinist God.”  As I’ve described elsewhere, I’m in strong agreement with their view of Dawkins’ “false choice,” and the inherent limitations of thought offered by reductionism, which they describe as follows:

The problem has been that when everything is antecedently considered to be ‘nothing but’ atoms in the void, many real, important, and interesting phenomena tend to get explained away, brushed aside, eliminated, or, worse, crammed into the wrong explanatory box… Indeed… the reducing impulse undermines fairly huge tracts of experience.

The dynamical systems perspective is far from universally accepted, even by those who challenge conventional gene-centered evolutionary approaches.  Here is a critique from David Sloan Wilson, known for championing multi-level selection theory:

Embedded in the thermodynamics talk is the naive assumption that adaptation at level x … automatically leads to adaptation at level x + 1… It is… discouraging that ‘‘the emerging sciences of complexity’’ are so isolated from evolutionary biology that the mistakes of the 1940s and 1950s are being repeated.[2]

I disagree with Wilson about the “automatic” assumption.  I think the “complexity” part of modern systems thought leads to the understanding that there’s nothing “automatic” about the dynamics leading to evolution, or for that matter, leading to the life of any given organism.  But this type of dismissal, even from advanced thinkers such as Wilson, shows how far the scientific community still has to go in crossing the complexity barrier, and participating in that “marriage” of natural selection and complexity theory.


[1] See Kosse, K. (2001). “Some Regularities in Human Group Formation and the Evolution of Societal Complexity.” Complexity, 6(1 (2001)), 60-64, who calls for a “marriage between Darwinian theory and the emerging science of complexity.”

[2] Wilson, D. S. (1997). “Biological Communities as Functionally Organized Units.” Ecology, 78(7), 2018-2024.