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A Sourcebook for the Worldwide Discovery of a Creative Organic Universe
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VI. Life’s Cerebral Cognizance Becomes More Complex, Smarter, Informed, Proactive, Self-Aware

C. Personal Agency and Adaptive Behavior in Supportive Societies.

As somatic complexity, proactive cerebral intelligence and represented knowledge proceeds in an evolutionary gestation, another directional attribute and quality becomes evident as each organism’s relative sense of self-awareness and personal identity. A corollary, as Cooperative Societies and elsewhere cite, is that a “semi-autonomous” state is best achieved as a symbiotic, reciprocal member of a viable grouping. From our global moment, the arc of an emergent genesis increasingly appears as an embryonic conception of an individual and collective selfhood. And lately we may have reached the verge of a global individuation and persona, as Systems History advises.

As a consequence, all these animal forms and stages become increasingly graced by familiar personal abilities and communal activities. A resultant arrow of integrated information and intelligence has become paired with a relative knowing consciousness which seems aimed toward our phenomenal homo, anthropo, and Earthropocene phases. The four subsections about brains, behaviors, bilaterality, and a communicative ability from grunts and gestures to syntactic language will altogether illume an ascendency of brain over body, mind over matter.

2020: As the section intro advises, from our Earthomo sapiens vantage the long arduous trajectory of an ecosmic evolutionary developmental genesis does take on the vectorial guise of a self-making, liberating, realizing individuation. As references attest, it is vital that entity members in communal groupings possess and enhance a semi-autonomous freedom for optimum survival. This reciprocity is in effect from slime molds to social insects, bird flocks, mammals and so on.

Ball, Philip.Life with Purpose. Aeon. November 12, 2020.
Bueno, Otavio, et al, eds. Individuation, Process, and Scientific Practices. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018.
Delafield-Butt, Jonathan. Agency and Choice in Evolution. Biosemiotics. 14/1, 2021.
Heylighen, Francis. The Meaning and Origin of Goal-Directedness: A Dynamical Systems Perspective. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society. July, 2022.
Lidgard, Scott and Lynn Nyhart, eds. Biological Individuality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017.
Miquel, Paul-Antoine and Su Young Hwang. On Biological Individuation. Theory of Biosciences. 141/203, 2022.
Militello, Guglielmo, et al. Functional Integration and Individuality in Prokaryotic Collective Organisations. Acta Biotheoretica. August, 2020.
Parr, Thomas, et al. Active Inference: The Free Energy Principle in Mind, Brain and Behavior. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2022.

Radzvilavicius, Arunas and Neil Blackstone. The Evolution of Individuality Revisted. Biological Reviews. Online March, 2018.
Sloan, Aliza and Scott Kelso. On the Emergence of Agency. arXiv:2212:03123.
Sultan, Sonia, et al. Bridging the Explanatory Gaps: What can We Learn from a Biological Agency Perspective? BioEssays. 44/1, 2022
Thibault, Paul. Simplex Selves, Functional Synergies, and Selving: Languaging in a Complex World. Language Sciences. April, 2018.
Tomasello, Michael. The Evolution of Agency: Behavioral Organization from Lizards to Humans. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2022.
Watson, Richard, et al. Design for an Individual: Connectionist Approaches to the Evolutionary Transitions in Individuality. Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution. March 2022.


Agency in Living Systems: Conceptual Frameworks and Research Approaches.. www.kli.ac.at/en/the_kli/news/view/337.. A home site for this June 2022 Altenberg Workshop in Theoretical Biology, (kli.ac.at/content/en/events/kli_workshops), sponsored by the Konrad Lorenz Institute. It was co-organized by Sonia Sultan and Armin Moczek as an outreach of their group (agencyinlivingsystems.com/). . A stellar speakership of scientists and philosophers included Eva Jablonka, Richard Watson, Daniel Nicholson and Kevin Laland, all abstracts here. Some papers now appear in a special Evolution and Development issue (26/5, 2023), search above names.

Prevailing scientific approaches study organisms largely as passive objects, predetermined in development by their genetic makeup, and in evolution by an external selective environment. Alternatively, organisms may be investigated as potential agents of adaptive phenotypes and evolutionary innovation by virtue of (previously evolved) repertoires of regulatory, developmental and behavioral response. A shift in scientific emphasis to these complex response properties promises a more nuanced and complete understanding of biological systems than prevailing gene-based approaches. An agency focus promises new ways to study ecological resilience in the face of environmental challenges, and to understand human disease phenotypes. Sessions in the meeting were organized into the following themes: "What is Biological Agency?", "Plasticity, Process and Agency", "Agential Mechanisms in Developmental Evolution", "Dimensions of Organismic Agency", and "Agency and evolvability." (Introduction)

Agency in Living Systems: Conceptual Frameworks and Research Approaches. www.kli.ac.at/en/the_kli/news/view/337.. www.kli.ac.at/en/the_kli/news/view/337.. A home site for this June 2022 Altenberg Workshop in Theoretical Biology, (kli.ac.at/content/en/events/kli_workshops), sponsored by the Konrad Lorenz Institute. It was co-organized by Sonia Sultan and Armin Moczek as an outreach of their group (agencyinlivingsystems.com/). A stellar speakership of scientists and philosophers included Eva Jablonka, Richard Watson, Daniel Nicholson and Kevin Laland, all abstracts here. Some papers now appear in a special Evolution and Development issue (26/5, 2023), search above names.

Cooperative Alliances in the History of Life: Aggregation, Individuation, and the Major Evolutionary Transitions. www.philbio.org/events/seventh-annual-conference. A notice for the Duke University Seventh Annual Conference in Philosophy & Biology, held in Durham, NC, April 2008. Keynoters were Todd Grantham, “From Bands to Empires: Explaining the Emergence of Social Complexity,” Samir Okasha, “Evolutionary Transitions in Individuality and Levels of Selection,”and Joan Strassmann, “Cooperation and Conflict in Social Amoebae: The Challenge of Multicellularity Through Aggregation.” Other speakers were Brett Calcott, Ellen Clarke, Andrew Hamiliton, Dan McShea, Lauren McCall, Carl Simpson, and Ioan Muntean, a University of California, San Diego philosopher who wonders if this stratified scenario of life’s emergence arises this way because it is a self-organized, dynamic complex system. An Abstract for each presentation is available from this page.

The purpose of this conference is to explore the common genetic, developmental, and ecological factors associated with the origins of complex individuality at all levels of the biological hierarchy, particularly in relation to the major evolutionary transitions. How has evolution addressed the levels of selection problems that are inherent to cooperative alliances in the history of life? Are there any universal principles that govern the transitions to complex multicellular or colonial life? The goal is to shed light on the contingencies and regularities associated with the emergence of complex individuality.

Evolutionary transitions in individuality may provide the clearest examples of multilevel selection in nature. Canonical cases are the aggregation of prokaryotic cells into eukaryotic cells, cells into multicellular organisms, and multicellular organisms into colonies or societies. In each case, the dominant level of selection, and the level which is most “individuated,” shifted from the members to the aggregate as a whole. (Simpson, “The Evolution of Reproduction during Evolutionary Transitions in Individuality”)

Group as Individual in Social Dynamics. http://www.asu.edu/clas/csdc/events/conference.html. An Arizona State University conference of April 30 – May 2, 2009 by its Center for Social Dynamics and Complexity, which is co-directed by Jennifer Hewell (search) and William Griffin.

The emergence, development, and coherence of social groups and their internal structures and collective behaviors have become the focus of interdisciplinary research that brings together social scientists with biologists and computer scientists. The focus on this conference will be on revisiting old problems with new tools, especially questions of under what conditions can social groups be treated as individuals with respect to their collective behavior and interactions with other social groups. In order to address these issues, we will explore fundamental isomorphisms between social groups ranging from insect to human societies, and novel computational approaches for analyzing the complex dynamics of social systems. (Abstract)

Agren, Arvid. Evolutionary Transitions in Individuality: Insights from Transposable Elements.. Trends in Ecology and Evolution. Online November, 2013. A University of Toronto biologist emphasizes that major emergent consolidations ought to rightly be seen as a “new level of individuality,” an “integrated collective individual,” as groups complexify through divisions of labor and hypercycles to become whole organisms on their own. Indeed, the genome itself is here seen to exhibit features and propensities of “self-restraint, efficiency of transposon policing, and social group maintenance.”

The history of life has been characterised by evolutionary transitions in individuality, the grouping together of independently replicating units into new larger wholes: genes to chromosomes, chromosomes in genomes, up to three genomes in cells, and cells in multicellular organisms that form groups and societies. Central to understanding these transitions is to determine what prevents selfish behaviour at lower levels from disrupting the functionality of higher levels. Here, I review work on transposable elements, a common source of disruption at the genome level, in light of the evolutionary transitions framework, and argue that the rapid influx of data on transposons from whole-genome sequencing has created a rich data source to incorporate into the study of evolutionary transitions in individuality. (Abstract)

Arnold, Carrie. Bacterial Clones Show Surprising Individuality. Quanta. September 4, 2019. A science journalist reviews a flow of recent papers that report even in this seemingly insensate substratum, discrete microbes can be seen to act as semi-autonomous entities, which must be of advantage to their communal colony. A sample posting is Microbial Phenotypic Heterogeneity in Response to a Metabolic Toxin by Jessica Lee, et al at bioRxiv on January 23, 2019.

Ball, Philip. Life with Purpose. Aeon. November 12, 2020. For this popular online site, the prolific British science writer makes a point that organisms, and we peoples, ought to be better viewed as distinguished an autonomous agency. Citing the work of Stuart Kauffman and Philip Clayton before, and Gavin Crooks and Susanne Still lately, as life’s emergent, oriented evolution becomes known as a self-organizing process, its member beings thus gain a capacity as distinct selves actively engaged in its advance.

The crucial point of all this is that agency – like consciousness, and indeed life itself – isn’t just something you can perceive by squinting at the fine details. Nor is it some second-order effect, with particles behaving ‘as if’ they’re agents, when enough of them get together. Agents are genuine causes in their own right. Those who object can do so only because we’ve so far failed to find adequate theories to explain how agency comes about.

Ball, Phillip. Organisms as Agents of Evolution: A New Research Review. templeton.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/04/Biological-Agency_1_FINAL.pdf. A full review of this salient article by the British science sage appears in An Earthumanity Era above.

Barandiaran, Xabier, et al. Defining Agency: Individuality, Normativity, Asymmetry and Spatio-Temporality in Action. Adaptive Behavior. 17/5, 2009. University of Sussex, and Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics researchers that begins by emphasizing the presence and role of independent, self-motivating entities in any living system. The paper goes on, as the quotes convey, to situate and relate this activity to the life’s developmental dynamics from its origins. By such view, earthly evolution could be seen to a good degree as a rising manifestation of free persons within conducive community. As the Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess, among others, wrote, a creative cosmos in both its “big self and little self,” universe and human, is most of all a grand “self-realization.” See also “Political Self-Organization in Social Media” (Aguilera, Miguel, et al) by the same group.

The concept of agency is of crucial importance in cognitive science and artificial intelligence, and it is often used as an intuitive and rather uncontroversial term, in contrast to more abstract and theoretically heavy-weighted terms like “intentionality”, “rationality” or “mind”. They implicitly and unproblematically assume the features that characterize agents, thus obscuring the full potential and challenge of modeling agency. We identify three conditions that a system must meet in order to be considered as a genuine agent: a) a system must define its own individuality, b) it must be the active source of activity in its environment (interactional asymmetry) and c) it must regulate this activity in relation to certain norms (normativity). We find that even minimal forms of proto-cellular systems can already provide a paradigmatic example of genuine agency. (Abstract)

Living Agency: What follows (and a great part of what was previously stated) is a variation on an old theme that unifies some approaches in philosophy of mind and cognitive science by grounding cognitive capabilities in the autonomous organization of living systems. This tradition could be traced back to Aristotelian conceptions of living form and organic function, together with the Kantian interpretation of self-organization in living systems on his Critique of Judgment. But it was not until the rise of systems theoretic approaches to biological organization (e.g., Ludwig Bertalanffy 1958), phenomenological approaches to philosophical biology (Hans Jonas 1966), cybernetics (Ashby 1952), and developmental psychology (Jean Piaget 1967) that this tradition came closer to scientific examination and put in contact with cognitive science. (375)

During the late 60’s and 70’s the first rigorous conceptual, mathematical and simulation models of minimal living organization became available: Maturana and Varela’s autopoietic theory of life, Tibor Ganti’s chemoton model, Stuart Kauffman's auto-catalytic network theory, or Robert Rosen’s M-R systems. The development of complexity sciences (particularly the exploration of principles of self-organization in complex networks and research in far-from-equilibrium systems in physics and chemistry) and the rise of system's biology enriched the theoretical and methodological framework of this tradition. (375)

The picture that comes out of this tradition is that the required minimal living organization is that of a far-from-thermodynamic-equilibrium system, a metabolic network of chemical reactions that produces and repairs itself, including the generation of a membrane that encapsulates the reaction network while actively regulating matter and energy exchanges with the environment. From this point of view, organisms are integrated and active systems that must continuously interact with their environment to self-generate and maintain their own dissipative organization. This minimal (or proto-cellular) living organization comes to capture the essence of life, for even complex multicellular organisms ultimately respond to the same logic of networked self-regeneration and self-regulation through its openness to the environment. (375-376)

Barandiaran, Xavier and Kepa Ruiz-Moreno. Modeling Autonomy: Simulating the Essence of Life and Cognition. BioSystems. 91/2, 2008. An Introduction by University of the Basque Country philosophers to a special issue on how to recognize and appreciate in theory and field, from prokaryote to village, nature’s persistent tendency toward bounded, self-maintained autonomous selves. The guiding inspiration is the autopoiesis vision of the late Francisco Varela, which informs many papers by authors such as Margaret Boden, Michael Turvey, Nils Bertschinger, John Collier, and Chrisantha Fernando.

We have long lived in a scientific world-view where molecules, genes, individual neural structures, or disembodied algorithms were considered the only and ultimate causes of our experience. Yet that atomistic world-view is starting to change considerably and the complex systems that we are and we live with can start to be understood as holistic, dynamically integrated systems, whose most characteristic properties are not reducible to isolated components.

Bekoff, Mark and Paul Sherman. Reflections on Animal Selves. Trends in Ecology and Evolution. 19/4, 2004. Rather than the old discontinuity which separates humans and animals, a continuum of self-recognition in evolution is evident. This proceeds by degrees of cognizance of an organism’s bodily identity to an emergent primate ‘theory of mind’ that other members are similarly aware, an ascent facilitated by sociality and cooperation. While individual humans arise from this trajectory, we add that observers such as Robin Dunbar note it is our language based society that sets us apart.

Here, we suggest that it is appropriate and useful to consider knowledge of self, or ‘self-cognizance,’ as a continuum ranging from self-referencing to self-awareness to self-consciousness. (176)

Bornens, Michel. Cell Polarity: On the Evolutionary Significance of the Primary Cilium/Centrosome Organ in Metazoa. Open Biology. August, 2018. In this Royal Society journal, a Institut Curie, CNRS, Paris biologist quantifies a tendency of cellular evolution to form multiple diverse assemblies on the emergent way to viable organisms, which then seem take on their own self-individuation.

Cell-autonomous polarity in Metazoans is evolutionarily conserved. I assume that permanent polarity in unicellular eukaryotes is required for cell motion and sensory reception, integration of these two activities being an evolutionarily constrained function. Metazoans are unique in making cohesive multicellular organisms through complete cell divisions. They evolved a primary cilium/centrosome (PC/C) organ, ensuring similar functions to the basal body/flagellum of unicellular eukaryotes, but in different cells, or in the same cell at different moments. The possibility that this innovation contributed to the evolution of individuality, in being instrumental in the early specification of the germ line during development, is further discussed. I conclude that beyond critical consequences for embryo development, the conservation of cell-autonomous polarity in Metazoans had far-reaching implications for the evolution of individuality. (Abstract excerpt)

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