VI. Earth Life Emergence: Development of Body, Brain, Selves and Societies
8. An Emergent Evolutionary Transition to a Personsphere Progeny
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.
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.
Andersson, Claes and Petter Tornberg. Toward a Macroevolutionary Theory of Human Evolution: The Social Protocell. Biological Theory. Online December, 2018. Within a context of the major transitions in individuality scale, Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden systems scholars achieve an overdue perception whereof societal groupings can take on a guise akin to life’s original protocells. As early hominins form symbiotic bands, they achieve adaptive internal reciprocities as cellular wholes within Wholes. A tacit principle is an emergent recurrence of the same pattern and process. In each case, a bounded unit leads which then fosters cooperation, knowledge gain and selfhood in community. By way of this nested procession, life’s rise accrues “new channels of inheritance” and an oriented direction. In regard, this website has been citing a “social protocell” for some time, especially in Ecovillages. See also Group-Level Social Knowledge by Elizabeth Hobson, et al at arXiv:1810.07215 and The Cultural Brain Hypothesis by Michael Muthukrishna et al in PLoS Computational Biology (Nov. 2018) for other takes.
Despite remarkable empirical and methodological advances, our theoretical understanding of the evolutionary processes that made us human remains fragmented and contentious. Here, we make the radical proposition that the cultural communities within which Homo emerged may be understood as a novel exotic form of organism. The argument begins from a deep congruence between robust features of Pan community life cycles and protocell models of the origins of life. We argue that if a cultural tradition, meeting certain requirements, arises in the context of such a “social protocell,” the outcome will be an evolutionary transition in individuality. By so doing, traditions and hominins coalesce into a macroscopic bio-socio-technical system, with an organismal organization that is culturally inherited. We refer to this hypothetical evolutionary individual as a “sociont.” We go on to hypothesize that the fate of the hominin would be mutualistic coadaptation into a part-whole relation with the sociont. (Abstract excerpt)
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.”
Bourrat, Pierrick. Evolutionary Transitions in Heritability and Individuality. Theory in Biosciences. Online May, 2019. A Macquarie University, Sydney philosopher of biology (search) continues to finesse and advance understandings of this nested, episodic, accepted model of life’s regnant reciprocity of persons in communities. See also Trait Heritability in Major Transitions by Matthew Herron, et al in BMC Biology (16/145, 2018).
The literature on evolutionary transitions in individuality (ETIs) has mostly focused on the relationships between lower-level (particle-level) and higher-level (collective-level) selection, leaving aside contrasts between particle-level and collective-level inheritance. To that effect, I present a model to study particle-level and collective-level heritability both when a collective-level trait is a linear function and when it is a non-linear function of a particle-level trait. The upshot is that population structure is a driver for ETIs. (Abstract excerpt)
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)
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)
Czegel, Daniel, et al. Major Evolutionary Transitions as Bayesian Structure Learning. bioRxiv. Online June, 2018. Hungarian Academy of Sciences veteran theorists DC, Istvan Zacher, and Eors Szathmary scope out advanced methods to enhance this MET in Individuality scale, which ES and John Maynard Smith conceived in the 1990s. As proof of its validity, the nested repetitive scale (nominally 8 steps) from rudimentary genes and cells to societal language is now widely accepted. Herein an inclusion of an active knowledge-gaining faculty by way of scalar Bayesian iterations is proposed. With colleagues, the authors have pursued a parallel approach to view evolution as a learning process, see the Evolutionary Intelligence section.
Complexity of life forms on Earth has increased tremendously, primarily driven by subsequent evolutionary transitions in individuality, a mechanism in which units formerly being capable of independent replication combine to form higher-level evolutionary units. Although this process has been likened to the recursive combination of pre-adapted sub-solutions in the framework of learning theory, no general mathematical formalization has been provided yet. Here we show, building on work connecting replicator dynamics with Bayesian methods, that (i) evolution of a hierarchical population under multilevel selection is equivalent to inference in hierarchical Bayesian models, and (ii) evolutionary transitions in individuality, driven by synergistic fitness interactions, is equivalent hierarchical structures via Bayesian model comparisons. These correspondences support a learning based narrative of evolutionary complexification: the complexity and depth of the hierarchical structure of individuality mirrors the amount and complexity of data that has been integrated about the environment through the course of evolutionary history. (Abstract edits)
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)
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)
Furukawa, Hikaru and Sara Imari Walker. Major Transitions in Planetary Evolution. Ikegami, Takashi, et al, eds. ALIFE 2018 Conference Proceedings. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2018. A select paper from this online volume by Arizona State University astrogeobiologists who perceive life’s oriented development as a nested iterative scale of relative informational genomes and aware organisms in communal groupings. A further worldwide emergence could be our linguistic personsphere sapience via a cumulative geonomic culture which is able to reconstruct all this.
Earth has undergone a succession of stages driven by physical, chemical, geological, biological, and social processes. Among the most significant transitions in Earth’s planetary
Gabora, Liane and Cameron Smith. Exploring the Psychological Basis for Transitions in the Archaeological Record. arXiv:1812.06590. The University of British Columbia and Portland State University team continues their innovative studies upon the evolutionary advent of unlimited human creativity. These native abilities which seem deeply innate while infinite in their potential are then attributed to two major cognitive transitions.
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)