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V. Life's Evolutionary Development Organizes Itself: A 2020s Genesis Synthesis

A. A Major Emergent Evolutionary Transitions Scale

Erwin, Douglas. Tempos and Modes of Collectivity in the History of Life. Theory in Biosciences. Online September, 2019. The National Museum of Natural History paleobiologist posts a latest explanatory synthesis for life’s well documented episodic, scalar emergence from bioreplicators to linguistic entities. In collaboration with Santa Fe Institute and Arizona State University theorists, Erwin adds a salutary aspect of a collective computation at work. A further vital inclusion is evolution as a learning process due to Richard Watson, Eors Szathmary (co-originator with John Maynard Smith of the major transitions view) and others. These expansions are then seen to bolster evidence for a constant convergence throughout. A surmise might be that along with nodal elements, integral nature is graced with an equally real propensity to join into symbiotic communal groupings which altogether survive and develop toward our composite humankinder perception. This article is part of the Special Issue on Quantifying Collectivity.

Collective integration and processing of information have increased through the history of life, through both the formation of aggregates in which the entities may have very different properties and which jointly coarse-grained environmental variables (ranging from microbial consortia to diverse coral reef species) and through collectives of similar entities (cells within an organism or social groups). Such increases have been implicated in significant transitions in the history of life, including aspects of the origin of life, the generation of pangenomes among microbes and stromatolite communities, multicellularity and social insects. Here we provide a preliminary overview of the dominant modes of collective information processing in the history of life, their phylogenetic distribution and extent of convergence, and the effects of new modes for integrating and acting upon information upon the tempo of evolutionary change. (Abstract)

Estrela, Sylvie, et al. Transitions in Individuality through Symbiosis. Current Opinion in Microbiology. 31/191, 2016. Biologists Estrela and Ben Kerr, University of Washington, and Jeff Morris, University of Alabama, seek to finesse the popular Major Transitions in Evolution scale whereby whence life’s course from unicellular microbes to multicellular organisms is occurred by a common mode of smaller, diverse entities which came together as a larger, cohesive, functionally reciprocal whole.

When a more complex, functionally integrated entity emerges from the association of simpler, initially independent entities, a major evolutionary transition has occurred. Transitions that result from the association of different species include the evolution of the eukaryotic cell and some obligate mutualisms. Recent studies are revolutionizing our understanding of how these intimate interspecific associations come to be, revealing how and to what extent each partner contributes to the relationship, and how partners mediate conflict. Here, we review work on the evolution of mutualistic symbioses in the context of transitions in individuality and highlight how a better mechanistic understanding of the ecological drivers of host-symbiont interdependencies can help elucidate the evolutionary path to symbiotic organismality. (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 evolution are the emergence of life and subsequent biochemical innovations, social behavior and cognition, and of technology. After life emerged, planetary processes became much more complex due to diverse biogeochemical possibilities. With the advent of collective cognitive societies, many planetary processes became controlled by life. With higher technologies, intentional steering of the environment commenced. In each stage, new mechanisms of control, mediated by novel information processing architectures, are added to existing levels on the biosphere environment. We can classify these evolutionary stages of planets into matter-dominated, life-dominated, and agency-dominated phases, where each is distinguished by how much information processing systems might affect planetary processes. (Abstract edits)

In this paper we characterize physics, life, intelligence, and technology from each other in terms of the ole of information in controlling matter, and how this shapes the planetary environment, allowing the possibility of placing these phases on the same continuum. This suggest three phases of planetary evolution for comparison: matter-dominated (no life), life-dominated, and intelligence-dominated, where transitions between these correspond to changes in the organization of information in physical systems, and how that organization constructs and controls the planetary environment. (101) Humanity’s ways of storing, sharing, and using information are transitioning Earth from a life-dominated planet to an agency-dominated planet. (102)

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.

Gilbert, Scott. Evolutionary Transitions Revisited: Holobiont Evo-Devo. Journal of Experimental Zoology B. Online September 29, 2019. The Swarthmore College biologist and author contributes to this John Bonner issue, which altogether supports an inherent structural view of life’s oriented emergence from physical sources all the way to curious peoples. Gilbert is a prime advocate of this integrative realization that organisms and selves are actually communal entities by way of myriad microbes. See also Suarez & Trivino herein for a recent endorsement.

John T. Bonner lists four essential transformations in the evolution of life: the emergence of the eukaryotic cell, meiosis, multicellularity, and the nervous system. This paper analyses the mechanisms for those transitions in light of three of Dr. Bonner's earlier hypotheses: (a) that the organism is its life cycle, (b) that evolution consists of alterations of the life cycle, and (c) that development extends beyond the body and into interactions with other organisms. Using the notion of the holobiont life cycle, we attempt to show that these evolutionary transitions can be accomplished through various means of symbiosis. Perceiving the organism both as an interspecies consortium and as a life cycle supports a twofold redefinition of the organism as a holobiont constructed by integrating together the life cycles of several species. These findings highlight the importance of symbiosis and the holobiont development in analyses of evolution. (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)

Gonzalez-Forero, Mauricio and Jorge Peria. Eusociality through Conflict Dissolution. Proceedings of the Royal Society B. April, 2021. University of St. Andrews and University of Toulouse behavioral biologists provide a deeper study of this widespread form of creaturely groupings actually achieve their success. By so doing, the nested major transitions scale gains a further analysis.

Eusociality, where largely unreproductive offspring help their mothers reproduce, is a major form of social organization. An increasingly documented feature of eusociality is that mothers induce their offspring to help by means of hormones, pheromones or behavioural displays, with evidence often indicating that offspring help voluntarily. Overall, our results explain how a major evolutionary transition can happen from ancestral conflict. (Abstract)

A few major evolutionary transitions in individuality have had vast effects on the history of life. Examples include transitions from prokaryotes to eukaryotes, from unicellularity to multicellularity, and from solitary life to eusociality. A major transition is said to occur when independently replicating units evolve into groups of entities that can only replicate as part of the group and that show a relative lack of within-group conflict. A transition is envisaged to involve the formation of a cooperative group and its transformation into a cohesive collective by a cooperative division of labour, communication, mutual dependence, and negligible within-group conflict, leading to a higher-level individual. (1)

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.

Grosberg, Richard and Richard Strathmann. The Evolution of Multicellularity: A Minor Major Transition? Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics. 38/621, 2007. University of Washington biologists expand on the now accepted view of an evolutionary sequence posed by the late John Maynard Smith and Eors Szathmary by discussing how myriad genetic and cellular phenomena contribute to this progressive emergence. The merger of nucleated cells into rudimentary organisms is seen as occurring many times, so it is said to be ‘relatively easy.’ By what perspective or project then could the oriented procession that the quote describes be taken as evidence of an innate self-organizing propensity, for this is just the repetitive scale that it would produce?

Beneath the outward harmony of living organisms lies an often contentious history of transitions to ever more inclusive, hierarchically nested levels of biological organization. Although views differ on what defines a major evolutionary transition, almost everyone agrees that the following transitions qualify as major: (a) the compartmentalization of replicating molecules, yielding the first cells; (b) the coalescence of replicating molecules to form chromosomes; (c) the use of DNA and proteins as the fundamental elements of the genetic code and replication; (d) the consolidation of symbiotic cells to generate the first eukaryotic cells containing chloroplasts and mitochondria; (e) sexual reproduction involving the production (by Meiosis) and fusion of haploid gametes: (f) the evolution of multicellular organisms from unicellular ancestors; and (g) the establishment of social groups composed of discrete multicellular individuals. (622)

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)

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