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.

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.

“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.

Carry It On

Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind

By Evan Thompson

Cambridge: Harvard University Press

In a couple of recent blog posts[1], I’ve talked about how life-science needs to expand its reductionist agenda to approach the mysteries of life, enabling us to bridge the chasm between science and spirituality.  After recently completing Evan Thompson’s Mind in Life, I believe that he could be one of the leading thinkers in getting us there.

Thompson was one of the co-authors, along with Francisco Varela, of a ground-breaking book published in 1993 called The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience, which explored some of the areas of overlap between cognitive science and Buddhist psychology.  Varela, who introduced (with Humberto Maturana) the idea of autopoiesis[2], was viewed by many as a thought-leader in this area, until he tragically died in mid-career in 2001.  In his current book, Thompson is carrying on the thought-processes he began with Varela[3], and taking them into expansive new areas.

At the core of the book is the idea that life is a self-organized, self-creating system.  This central theme is then applied to different aspects of life, such as consciousness, evolution and cellular dynamics, to provide a coherent view of how these seemingly disparate areas are in fact all integrated.

A key phrase Thompson has coined to describe his particular view of life’s self-organized nature is “dynamic co-emergence.”  This is crucially important for contrasting living systems with other complex, self-organized non-living processes, such as a candle flame or a whirlpool.  Here’s how Thompson explains it:

An autonomous system, such as a cell or multicellular organism, is not merely self-maintaining, like a candle flame; it is also self-producing… In the single-cell, autopoietic form of autonomy, a membrane-bounded, metabolic network produces the metabolites that constitute both the network itself and the membrane that permits the network’s bounded dynamics.  Other autonomous systems have different sorts of self-constructing 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.

The reason why Thompson calls this “dynamic co-emergence” is that:

… 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.

Thompson traces a tradition of Western thought, going back to Aristotle, which entertained this approach to understanding life.  I call it the “moonlight tradition”, because its illumination was so overwhelmed by the bright glare of Platonic dualism, that it’s just about invisible to most conventional examinations of Western thought; but when you look at the world by its light, you see things in a new and beautiful way, in the same way that a plain, familiar landscape becomes entrancing by moonlight.

Following this line of thought, Thompson shows how Kant arrived at a view of “natural purpose” for living organisms which is only now being re-discovered by scientists applying the mathematical tools of complexity theory that were not available to Kant.

These tools are, however, available to Thompson, and he makes excellent use of them in exploring the implications of “dynamic co-emergence” to central aspects of our lives.  A key concept from complexity theory is that of an “attractor”: a relatively stable, dynamic state to which a complex system converges over time.  Every time you turn on the water in a sink and see the pattern it makes as it circles the drain, you’re seeing an attractor.  It’s both stable and dynamic.  It keeps changing, but only within certain parameters.  Open the faucet more, and after a few chaotic moments, the water will settle into a new attractor.[4] Attractors can describe the changes in state taken by the kinds of self-organizing, dynamically co-emergent systems that comprise life as we know it.

When you apply the concept of attractors to the most complex systems of all, such as our minds, this leads to another concept known as “metastability”, where things appear relatively stable even as they keep fluctuating from one area to another within an attractor.  This dynamic, Thompson explains, “permits a flexible repertoire of global states without the system becoming trapped in any one particular state”.  Increasingly, leading neuroscientists are applying this analysis to understand how complex patterns of neuronal firings can lead in our brains to the state of consciousness.

Thompson follows this logic on inexorably, exploring how the cellular complexities of dynamics such as metabolism lead to a sense of purpose in even a single-celled organism.  As this microcosm of value is then traced up the ladder of complexity all the way to human cognition, we see how intentionality turns into what is known as “valence” (attraction/repulsion, like/dislike, etc.) and ultimately into what we define as values.

Similarly, we can trace how the short-term dynamics of the attractor of our consciousness lead to feelings, then to moods, and ultimately personality.  From this perspective, we can begin to see personality as a kind of metastable phase-state within which our emotions and moods play out.  But always, the emphasis is on the dynamic co-emergence of the parts and the whole.  So, in this example, your feelings and moods are continually re-forming your personality at the margin, which then impacts those very feelings.  You, therefore, are a self-created and self-creating entity!

Thompson champions a fundamentally different, and potentially liberating, view of ourselves and the world around us, in stark contrast to the reductionist, deterministic view espoused by the life-science mainstream.  In a powerful invective, Thompson witheringly critiques Richard Dawkins’ metaphor of the “selfish gene,” arguing that “it is little more than a metaphor that masquerades as a theoretical concept and… leads to a misleading picture of the nature of possible explanations in molecular biology.” I found this section very convincing, and feel it should be required reading for anyone who remains committed to the “genocentric” view of life.

But what metaphor could we use to replace the current “genetic program” view of the natural world?  Thompson proposes a metaphor that he calls “laying down a path,” implying that “there is no separation between plan and executed action.”  This is one area where I think there’s a lot more to be done.  Personally, I believe that the “music” metaphor may be the most powerful candidate to replace “genetic programming.”  Later in the book, Thompson does describe evolution in term of dance:

Like two partners in a dance who bring forth each other’s movements, organism and environment enact each other through their structural coupling.

However, I think there’s a lot more play in the metaphor than that.  One writer who has embraced this as a central metaphor is Denis Noble, author of The Music of Life: Biology Beyond Genes, a book that I’d recommend as a great complement to Thompson.  The power of the music metaphor is that it incorporates all the complexities of dynamic co-emergence, and at the same time it plays havoc with the traditional “competition” metaphor so prevalent among genetic determinists.  Imagine a biologist from another planet watching an orchestra play and observing that “the violins must pursue the most successful adaptive strategy because there are so many of them.”

After centuries of its concealment in the twilight of the “moonlight tradition,” the application of mathematical rigor to a more holistic view of life has the potential to revolutionize the life sciences in the 21st century and beyond.  Thompson’s book does a great job of applying Varela’s insights further afield, and in doing so he’s “laying down” an important path for others to follow.

[1] Re-weaving the Rainbow and A False Choice: Reductionism or Dualism.

[2] Autopoiesis can be loosely defined as a definition of life as a system with a semi-permeable boundary produced by reactions within that boundary that simultaneously regenerate the components of the system: thus, it’s self-organizing and dynamically self-creating.

[3] Thompson writes in the Preface that the book was originally intended to be co-authored with Varela.

[4] Technically, this describes what’s called a chaotic or strange attractor, as opposed to a more predictable point attractor or limited cycle attractor.