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A Sourcebook for the Worldwide Discovery of a Creative Organic Universe
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VI. Earth Life Emergence: Development of Body, Brain, Selves and Societies

E. An Enhanced Autonomous 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. Carl Simpson, “The Evolution of Reproduction during Evolutionary Transitions in Individuality”

As bodily complexity, proactive cerebral intelligence and represented knowledge proceeds in evolution, another quality and directional parameter is each organism’s self-awareness and sense of personal identity. From our retrospect, the arc of life’s emergent genesis might be seen as a long, embryonic stirring toward a conception an individual, and collective, selfhood. And lately we seem to have reached the verge of a cognizant global individuation, a planetary progeny.

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)

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)

Bouchard, Frederic and Philippe Huneman, eds. From Groups to Individuals: Evolution and Emerging Individuality. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2013. An exploration of recent realizations such as multilevel selection, major transitions scale, self-organizing microbes, that communal animal groupings of every kind contain relatively distinct, semi-autonomous entities. By this advance, a later revival of the nested superorganism concept as a reciprocity of individual and assembly is cited. Book sections are Organisms and Individuality; Adaptation and Complex Individuals; and Groups and Collectives as Individuals; with typical chapters “The Case of Division of Labor” by Andrew Hamilton and Jennifer Fewell; “Defining the Individual,” Charles Goodnight; and “Species and Organisms” by Ellen Clark and Samir Okasha. Once again an affirmation is recorded of nature’s procreative, embryonic individuation, now reaching a worldwide mindscape to reconstruct and discover itself.

Our intuitive assumption that only organisms are the real individuals in the natural world is at odds with developments in cell biology, ecology, genetics, evolutionary biology, and other fields. Although organisms have served for centuries as nature’s paradigmatic individuals, science suggests that organisms are only one of the many ways in which the natural world could be organized. When living beings work together—as in ant colonies, beehives, and bacteria-metazoan symbiosis—new collective individuals can emerge. In this book, leading scholars consider the biological and philosophical implications of the emergence of these new collective individuals from associations of living beings. The topics they consider range from metaphysical issues to biological research on natural selection, sociobiology, and symbiosis. The contributors investigate individuality and its relationship to evolution and the specific concept of organism; the tension between group evolution and individual adaptation; and the structure of collective individuals and the extent to which they can be defined by the same concept of individuality. These new perspectives on evolved individuality should trigger important revisions to both philosophical and biological conceptions of the individual. (Publisher)

Bourke, Andrew F. G. Principles of Social Evolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. Reviewed more in Cooperative Societies, a University of East Anglia zoologist seeks to expand this field by strongly placing it within the hierarchical “major evolutionary transitions” scale of Maynard Smith and Szathmary. We also note here because a strong theme, following Leo Buss (1987), is a consequent emergence of relative individuality.

Buss, Leo. The Evolution of Individuality. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987. A prescient attempt to expand the modern evolutionary synthesis beyond an emphasis on genes and/or organisms to sequential levels of the selection of whole “individuals.”

Life is hierarchically organized because any given unit of selection, once established, can come to follow the same progression of elaboration of a yet higher organization, followed by stabilization of the novel organization. (172)

calcott, Brett and Kim Sterelny, ed. The Major Transitions in Evolution Revisited. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2011. Reviewed more in A Quickening Evolution, wherein several contributors observe a central, regnant trajectory of Evolutionary Transitions in Individuality.

Clarke, Ellen. A Levels-of-Selection Approach to Evolutionary Individuality. Biology & Philosophy. Online October, 2016. An All Souls College, Oxford University philosopher of biology continues her endeavors to show how natural selection acting at different hierarchical levels can lead to and trace a regnant personal identity within relative communal groupings.

What changes when an evolutionary transition in individuality takes place? Many different answers have been given, in respect of different cases of actual transition, but some have suggested a general answer: that a major transition is a change in the extent to which selection acts at one hierarchical level rather than another. The current paper evaluates some different ways to develop this general answer as a way to characterise the property ‘evolutionary individuality’; and offers a justification of the option taken in Clarke (J Philos 110(8):413–435, 2013)—to define evolutionary individuality in terms of an object’s capacity to undergo selection at its own level. In addition, I suggest a method by which the property can be measured and argue that a problem which is often considered to be fatal to that method—the problem of ‘cross-level by-products’—can be avoided. (Abstract)

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