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VI. Earth Life Emergence: A Development of Body, Brain, Selves and Societies

8. A Emergent Evolutionary Transition to a Personsphere Progeny

    We choose the cover image of its initial book because it quite depicts life’s long creaturely evolution as crowned by our phenomenal human phase. The image has been criticized as a revival of a “great scale of nature,” since any teleological goal is out of favor. But at some point, if we might allow a worldwise Anthropo Sapiens engaged in self-discovery, a central course and trunk, as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin glimpsed, may at last be validly quantified and established. As further evidence, the Mind Over Matter section contains notice of a fledgling Major Synthetic Evolutionary Transition project as human acumen, so advised, may thoughtfully take up and continue forth to a much better, sustainable, genesis future.


As this site tracks the scientific and academic literature, a growing trend is the widespread acceptance of this nested, repetitive scale as a way to define life’s episodic emergence from replicative biomolecules to human linguistic societies. It was first conceived in two volumes The Major Transitions in Evolution, (1995) and The Origins of Life (1999) by the theoretical biologists John Maynard Smith and Eors Szathmary. They are reviewed in Systems Evolution, along with many reports on their presence across fauna, flora, neural, and group instances. The original seven stages are shown in Ascent of Genetic Information since each comes with a certain code. This robust 21st century version of an oriented sequence from which people arise now sets aside an old Darwinian aimless, contingency, which as yet remains in textbooks.

Herein this new 2015 section will gather entries from various perspectives that sight and explore a continuance of this pattern and process onto a nascent civilizational phase. Several entries cited elsewhere are included for a sense of biological and genetic rootings. We offer these novel examples as an outline of a hopeful humankinder whom can carry forth anatomical, physiological, and cerebral wisdoms to an individual, societal and planetwide super-organic viability. As for an Earthlish, Earthese, or Earthian language, throughout the website it seems this ought to be genetic in kind, as if a global genome.

Major Transitions in Evolution. www.thegreatcourses.com/courses/major-transitions-in-evolution. A 24 part presentation of this 21st century model of life’s nested, scalar emergence from replicative biochemicals to human culture. Conceived by John Maynard Smith and Eors Szathmary in the 1990s (search each), as evinced by a Great Course edition, it is now a widely accepted and availed replacement for gradual, Darwinian drift. But, we note, the old aimless version remains in textbooks, which still denies any direction or human phase. See Szathmary’s 2015 update Toward Major Evolutionary Transitions Theory 2.0 in PNAS (112/10104).

How and when did life on Earth get to be the way it is today? Imagine a world without bees, butterflies, and flowering plants. That was Earth 125 million years ago. Turn back the clock 400 million years, and there were no trees. At 450 million years in the past, even the earliest insects had not yet developed. And looking back 500 million years-a half-billion years before the present-the land was devoid of life, which at that time flourished in a profusion of strange forms in the oceans. These and other major turning points are the amazing story of evolution, the most remarkable force in the history of Earth, the organizing principle throughout the biological sciences, and the most important mechanism scientists use to understand the varieties of life on our planet.
Major Transitions in Evolution tells this science-detective story in 24 lavishly illustrated lectures that focus on the giant leaps that gave rise to nature's boundless diversity. You study the conditions that led to the first complex cells, flying insects, flowering plants, mammals, modern humans, and many other breakthroughs. And in the process of studying the past, you gain a powerful understanding of the present world. This course is taught by two professors: Anthony Martin, a paleontologist and geologist at Emory University, and John Hawks, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. You also explore many other transitions that occurred between these milestones, and you take an intriguing look ahead to speculate about the future direction of evolution. From the deep past until today, evolution has been a story with countless subplots, false leads, and reversals of fortune. But it has had one overarching theme-that life is wondrous, resilient, and endlessly surprising.

Bourke, Andrew F. G. Principles of Social Evolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. A University of East Anglia behavioral zoologist integrates the study of animal assemblies across many phyla into the major evolutionary transitions scale to gain a vital perspective. Life’s evident, sequential propensity to form cooperative groupings is then braced by factoring in inclusive fitness, (kin selection) theory. An expanded sense of recurrent communities from prokaryote microbes to homo sapiens can then be described. Bourke goes on to affirm the earlier work of Leo Buss (1987) who perceives a consistent “evolution of individuality” at each stage. With Brett Calcott (2011), Selin Kesebir (2012) and others, another confirmation of this major episodic model is stated, a latter, temporal “scala naturae.”

Calcott, Brett and Kim Sterelny, ed. The Major Transitions in Evolution Revisited. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2011. The volume is a decadal update upon this major theoretical advance, now much accepted, which still struggles with a nested scale of being and becoming from microbe to man at odds with prior Darwinian tenets. Players such as Daniel McShea, Samir Okasha, Peter Godfrey-Smith, and others wonder about its greater or lesser significance – is it really there, are the levels equal, what if anything drives its form, how about an evolving informational cause for each stage, and so on. While the overall pattern seems to evince an inherent self-organization, only one chapter by University of Adelaide philosopher Pamela Lyon touches upon complex dynamical systems. A summary retrospective by Eors Szathmary and Chrisantha Fernando goes on to note how this multilevel model quite provides a working structure for life’s evolutionary emergence.

In 1995, John Maynard Smith and Eörs Szathmáry published their influential book The Major Transitions in Evolution. The "transitions" that Maynard Smith and Szathmáry chose to describe all constituted major changes in the kinds of organisms that existed but, most important, these events also transformed the evolutionary process itself. The evolution of new levels of biological organization, such as chromosomes, cells, multicelled organisms, and complex social groups radically changed the kinds of individuals natural selection could act upon. Many of these events also produced revolutionary changes in the process of inheritance, by expanding the range and fidelity of transmission, establishing new inheritance channels, and developing more open-ended sources of variation. The contributors discuss different frameworks for understanding macroevolution, prokaryote evolution (the study of which has been aided by developments in molecular biology), and the complex evolution of multicellularity. (Publisher)

Christian, David. Origin Story: A Big History of Everything. New York: Little, Brown, 2018. The Macquarie University historian is the main founder since the early 2000s of this evident integral union of cosmic planetary evolution and homo to anthropo sapiens duration. Once again he identifies a central course and thread of a relative advance in complexity and collective learning. By this trend, a current formation of a cerebral noosphere of global proportions can be discerned. But the long recount, however vast and couched, remains a descriptive tabulation, sans any inherent vitality, phenomenal identity, and meaningful purpose of its own, which the author specifically denies in other writings.

Most historians study the smallest slivers of time, emphasizing specific dates, individuals, and documents. But what would it look like to study the whole of history, from the big bang through the present day, and even into the remote future? David Christian set out to answer this question when he created the field of "Big History," the most exciting new approach to understanding where we have been, where we are, and where we are going. In Origin Story, Christian takes readers on a wild ride through the entire 13.8 billion years we've come to know as "history." By focusing on defining events (thresholds), major trends, and profound questions about our origins, Christian exposes the hidden threads that tie everything together -- from the creation of the planet to the advent of agriculture, nuclear war, and beyond.

Clarke, Ellen. Origins of Evolutionary Transitions. Journal of Biosciences. 39.2, 2017. In this Individuals and Groups issue, the All Souls College, Oxford, UK philosopher of biology surveys the lineaments and identities that drive and distinguish ascendant grouping of earlier, simpler wholes into new, beneficial, organism-like forms.

An ‘evolutionary transition in individuality’ or ‘major transition’ is a transformation in the hierarchical level at which natural selection operates on a population. In this article I give an abstract (i.e. level-neutral and substrate-neutral) articulation of the transition process in order to precisely understand how such processes can happen, especially how they can get started. (Abstract)

Dedeo, Simon. Major Transition in Political Order. arXiv:1512.03419. The Indiana University systems scientist applies this popular evolutionary scale (Szathmary) from replicator molecules to human communications onto a further civilizational phase. While prior stages are seen as based on how information is stored and conveyed, sapient societies arise and proceed more by how it is processed. A computational version is advanced to explain a “lossy” cleaning up or compression of this cultural transmission. A bit technical in style, see also The Evolution of Lossy Compression by DeDeo and Sarah Marzen at arXiv:1506.06138.

We present three major transitions that occur on the way to the elaborate and diverse societies of the modern era. Our account links the worlds of social animals such as pigtail macaques and monk parakeets to examples from human history, including 18th Century London and the contemporary online phenomenon of Wikipedia. From the first awareness and use of group-level social facts to the emergence of norms and their self-assembly into normative bundles, each transition represents a new relationship between the individual and the group. At the center of this relationship is the use of coarse-grained information gained via lossy compression. The role of top-down causation in the origin of society parallels that conjectured to occur in the origin and evolution of life itself. (Abstract)

In information technology, lossy compression is the class of data encoding methods that uses inexact approximations (or partial data discarding) to represent the content. These techniques are used to reduce data size for storage, handling, and transmitting content. (Wikipedia)

Foley, Robert, et al. Major Transitions in Human Evolution. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. 371/1698, 2016. A special collection from a Royal Society and British Academy 2015 meeting about whether such a scalar ascent might apply to and be found in some places and to some degree over the million year course from primates to hominids to ourselves as we altogether reconstruct our prehistory. The articles include The Origin and Evolution of Homo Sapiens by Chris Stringer, and Morphological Variation in Homo Erectus and the Origins of Developmental Plasticity by Susan Anton, et al.

Evolutionary problems are often considered in terms of ‘origins', and research in human evolution seen as a search for human origins. However, evolution, including human evolution, is a process of transitions from one state to another, and so questions are best put in terms of understanding the nature of those transitions. This paper discusses how the contributions to the themed issue ‘Major transitions in human evolution’ throw light on the pattern of change in hominin evolution. Four questions are addressed: (1) Is there a major divide between early (australopithecine) and later (Homo) evolution? (2) Does the pattern of change fit a model of short transformations, or gradual evolution? (3) Why is the role of Africa so prominent? (4) How are different aspects of adaptation—genes, phenotypes and behaviour—integrated across the transitions? The importance of developing technologies and approaches and the enduring role of fieldwork are emphasized. (Abstract)

Gillings, Michael, et al. Information in the Biosphere: Biological and Digital Worlds. Trends in Ecology and Evolution. Online December, 2015. As researchers turn to and carry forth the popular major evolutionary transitions scale, bioinformatic theorists Gillings and Darrell Kemp, Macquarie University, Sydney and Martin Hilbert, UC Davis, proceed to view the worldwide Internet as a next nascent stage. In our human hyper-society, its informational complement becomes the many algorithmic programs at work. Illustrations display its progress from original RNA and DNA replications to eukaryote cells onto complex multicellular organisms and human language. A further composite then appears as “digital self-replication, biological-digital fusion, and digital sentience.” By so doing, one might note that an emergent genetic quality distinguishes and tracks each nested phase, present once more as an equivalent global genome.

Evolution has transformed life through key innovations in information storage and replication, including RNA, DNA, multicellularity, and culture and language. We argue that the carbon-based biosphere has generated a cognitive system (humans) capable of creating technology that will result in a comparable evolutionary transition. Digital information has reached a similar magnitude to information in the biosphere. It increases exponentially, exhibits high-fidelity replication, evolves through differential fitness, is expressed through artificial intelligence (AI), and has facility for virtually limitless recombination. Like previous evolutionary transitions, the potential symbiosis between biological and digital information will reach a critical point where these codes could compete via natural selection. Alternatively, this fusion could create a higher-level superorganism employing a low-conflict division of labor in performing informational tasks. (Abstract)

Gowdy, John and Lisi Krall. Agriculture as a Major Evolutionary Transition to Human Ultrasociality. Journal of Bioeconomics. 16/2, 2014. RPI and SUNY Cortland economists view the advent of agrarian settlements as an historic advance over hunter-gatherers to a communal, organism-like habitation. The same principles and features of self-organized divisions of labor and communication that distinguish other instances such as insect super-organisms are repeated in these emergent groupings. A large literature of prior studies in this respect from Samuel Bowles to Edward O. Wilson lead up to this present version in terms of this popular sequential scale.

Hanschen, Erik, et al. Individuality and the Major Evolutionary Transitions. Gissis, Snait, et al, eds.. Landscapes of Collectivity in the Life Sciences. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2018. University of Arizona biologists including Richard Michod (search) finesse this popular nested scale by noting that each subsequent whole phase results in an enhanced personal liberty in community. For our review, it is evident that nature seems bent on forming such cooperative collectives at each and every stage. One might propose METI, major evolutionary transitions in individuality, by which to represent life’s quickening gestation. The whole volume is reviewed in Anthropo Opus as a consummate contribution.

The hierarchy of life is the central landscape of collectivity in the living world-eusocial societies composed of multicellular organisms, multicellular organisms composed of single (eukaryotic or prokaryotic) cells, single (eukaryotic) cells composed of (prokaryotic) cells, cells composed of gene networks, and gene networks composed of replicating genes. The theory of evolutionary transitions addresses how cooperative collectives evolve into new units of evolution, that is, new kinds of evolutionary individuals. In this chapter, we briefly review the major transitions in evolution (MTE) framework as originally formulated (John) Maynard Smith and (Eors) Szathmary, recent revisions to this framework, and the fitness-focused framework, evolutionary transitions in individuality (ETl). (Abstract)

Henrich, Joseph. The Secret of Our Success: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015. The University of British Columbia anthropologist and Canada Research Chair in Culture, Cognition, and Coevolution draws on his years of field and research studies to say that more than a larger brain, it is our societal preserves of common, accumulating knowledge that empower local and global civilizations. By this retrospect, an historic proclivity to form effective groupings and communities which attain semblances of a “collective brain” and viable know-how is the main source. In a summary, it is noted that if this constant trend is sighted forward, human beings seem in the midst, of a further, huge major evolutionary transition. See also Innovation in the Collective Brain by Michael Muthukrishna and Joseph Henrich in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B (Vol.371/Iss.1690, 2016).

The secret of our species’ success resides not in the power of our individual minds, but in the collective brains of our communities. Our collective brains arise from the synthesis of our cultural and social natures – from the fact that we readily learn from others (are cultural) and can, with the right norms, live in large and widely interconnected groups (are social). The striking technologies that characterize our species, from kayaks and compound bows used by hunter-gathers to the antibiotics and airplanes of the modern world, emerge not from singular geniuses but from the flow and recombination of ideas, practices, lucky errors, and chance insights among interconnected minds and across generations. (6-7)

Hoffecker, John. Modern Humans: Their African Origin and Global Dispersal. New York: Columbia University Press, 2017. The University of Colorado anthropologist achieves a latest comprehensive survey of homo sapiens’ arduous migratory diaspora as it has spread over the continents. He goes on to propose that this full anthropic expanse ought to be seen as a major evolutionary transition. Within this nested, emergent scale, an enabling feature is a new mode of species-wide neuronal information. Hoffecker then aligns with John Mayfield’s view (search) that life’s Metazoan evolution might be well seen as a selective, computational optimization. As a result, human beings might proceed to “creatively compute” artificial, algorithmic structures and societies, so as to intentionally advance to a viable planetary culture. As his 2013 paper mused (search), a super-brain via syntactic language seems in consequent effect with its own “collective computation” (see Jessica Flack and Eleanor Brush for more on this phrase).

Modern Humans is a vivid account of the appearance of anatomically modern people in Africa less than half a million years ago and their later spread throughout the world. John F. Hoffecker demonstrates that Homo sapiens represents a “major transition” in the evolution of living systems in terms of fundamental changes in the role of non-genetic information. He also draws on information and complexity theory to explain the emergence of Homo sapiens in Africa several hundred thousand years ago and the rapid and unprecedented spread of our species into a variety of environments in Australia and Eurasia, including the Arctic and Beringia, beginning between 75,000 and 60,000 years ago. (book)

Information, Complexity, and Human Evolution It is difficult, if not impossible, to explain the origin and dispersal of homo sapiens within the framework of the modern evolutionary synthesis. Modern humans are inextricably tied to non-genetic (epigenetic) forms of information that evolve in accordance with processes not described in the synthesis of natural selection and population genetics. A wider evolutionary framework that encompasses multiple forms of information and both living and nonliving complex systems (that is a broader definition of life) is required. (41)

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