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A Sourcebook for the Worldwide Discovery of a Creative Organic Universe
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V. Life's Corporeal Evolution Develops, Encodes and Organizes Itself: An Earthtwinian Genesis Synthesis

A. A Major Emergent Evolutionary Transitions Scale

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)

Heylighen, Francis, et al. The Role of Self-Maintaining Resilient Reaction Networks in the Origin and Evolution of Life. Biosystems. Vol. 219, September, 2022. Free University of Brussels bioscholars FH, Shima Beigi and Evo Busseniers provide a paper for a special edition about how life’s emergent development from earliest nucleotide origins all the way to our linguistic version is now widely accepted as a nested, recurrent, encoded, quickening sequence. Here, better explanations are detailed maybe just how living systems actually proceed on their way to us. By some EarthKinder-like vista, we peoples seem to move closer to its global gestation phase.

We characterize living systems as resilient “chemical organizations”, i.e. self-maintaining networks of reactions that are able to resist a wide range of perturbations. We try to understand how life could have originated from such self-organized structures, and evolved on by acquiring various mechanisms to increase resilience. An example is a use of catalysts, such as enzymes, to enable reactions to deal with perturbations. This activity can be regulated by “memory” molecules, such as DNA. We suggest that major evolutionary transitions then take place when living cells of different types or species form a higher-order organization by way of special functions so reduce interference between them. (Abstract)

The present paper is part of a special issue on evolutionary transformations in biological systems. The focus is on the processes that give rise to the emergence of complex organizations with qualitatively new characteristics. This includes what are known as “major transitions” such as eukaryotes and multicellular organisms, and of life itself. What characterizes such transitions is that initially independent units, such as molecules, cells or individuals, become integrated into a larger, self-maintaining organization. This encompassing system behaves like a distinct individual with its own goals. This emergent system both constrains and enables certain interactions between its components. (1)

However, the emergence of synergetic arrangements becomes clearer when you look at these cellular units as processes that depend on each other to produce their inputs or consume outputs. Therefore, we will start from an ontology based on processes, which we have recently called “relational agency.” Thus the components that make up a living system should not be seen as independent objects but as interconnected processes and agencies. The present paper intends to show how the perspective of relational agency with formal reaction networks can help elucidate the origin of life and evolution of life. (2)

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)

Evolving a Major Transition in the Internet Age. evolution-institute.org/evolving-a-major-transition-in-the-internet-age. This 2020 posting by the veteran environmentalist and filmmaker in collaboration with the SUNY Binghamton evolutionary practitioner and author David Sloan Wilson is located on Wilson’s The Evolution Institute site. By way of text and a DSW interview, a project is scoped out is based upon a likely but rare perception that a further emergent stage of global proportions can be seen as much underway. By this extension, our anthropocene phase is composed of wholly interconnected information but beset by disjointed nations and societies. A vital need is to implement the “new ways to cooperate at higher levels of complexity” that usually distinguish and facilitate these transitions. To date, this is only concerted effort to carry forth life’s ascendant, quickening scale to its sustainable planetary fulfillment.

PROSOCIAL is a framework for improving the efficacy of groups that is being developed by the Evolution Institute. It is based on eight core design principles – originally derived by Elinor Ostrom for groups who manage natural resources – that are needed by most groups whose members must work together to achieve common goals: Strong group identity and understanding of purpose; Fair distribution of costs and benefits; Inclusive decision-making; Monitoring agreed-upon behaviors; Fast and fair conflict resolution; Appropriate relations with other groups. (Alan Honick website)

Kesebir, Selin. The Superorganism Account of Human Sociality. Personality and Social Psychology Review. 16/3, 2012. The Turkish-American, University of Virginia social psychologist describes her thorough doctoral study of how human groupings seem to possess or be moving toward organism-like traits and states. She first reviews prior colony models, and goes on to the major transitions view of emergent evolutionary stages, which are seen akin to superorganisms. Five salient features are then applied to human assemblies: Integration of lower-level units through communication, Shared intentionality and social identity processes, Low heritable variation among the entities, A common destiny, and Mechanisms to resolve conflicts. As the quotes aver, she concludes that some form and temperament like this does appears to be going on.

Life forms are organized in nested clusters. Genes are bundled in chromosomes that occur in cells. Cells are joined together in multi-cellular organisms, and some multi-cellular organisms, such as bees and ants, live in societies. This hierarchical organization strongly suggests that the amazing diversity of life forms is partly due to the grouping of biological units into higher-level units. Although this idea has been endorsed since the end of the 19th century, it has not been part of the mid-20th century evolutionary synthesis, most likely because it lacked a strong theoretical underpinning (Bourke, 2011). The dynamic underlying the hierarchical organization of life forms has been called major transitions in evolution (Maynard Smith & Szathmáry, 1995). A major transition in evolution occurs when individual organisms become so integrated that they transform into a higher-level organism in their own right. (235)

Looking at human societies through a superorganism lens allows for a clearer appreciation of the full scope of human existence. A unifying narrative emerges for phenomena that are treated piecemeal within an individualist paradigm. According to this narrative, cultural meaning systems, shared intentionality, norm compliance, deference to authority, social identity processes, religiosity, and morality can be understood parsimoniously as manifestations of the same dynamics that create superorganism-like social structures. Superorganisms thus offer a useful heuristic around which to organize our understanding of human sociality. (251)

The task of this paper was describing how and when human groups are like superorganisms. The answers raise a third question that I have not addressed: Why are human groups like superorganisms? The why question invites an evolutionary explanation. Specifically, we have to ask whether the superorganism metaphor works because humans actually have gone through a major evolutionary transition to arrive at superorganismic capacity. Do we have in our hands a case of convergent evolution rather than just a surface resemblance? Even though this paper did not seek to make an evolutionary case for a major transition account, the reviewed evidence speaks to the possibility of a major transition for two reasons. First and simply, the abundance of superorganismic human features suggests that a major transition might have taken place. If human groups act like superorganisms in so many ways, we have to consider the possibility of a major evolutionary transition. (251)

Kirby, Simon. Transitions: The Evolution of Linguistic Replicators. Binder, Phillippe and Kenny Smith, eds. The Language Phenomenon: Human Communication from Milliseconds to Millennia. Berlin: Springer, 2013. In this unique volume, the University of Edinburgh chair of language evolution turns to the major transitions scale to situate human linguistic competence within its prior sequential emergence. Eight stages from replicating biomolecules to human societies are each arise due to a novel informative venue as “new ways of communicative transmission.” This persistent temporal context can then expand appreciations of our sapient literacy. In linguistic terms, a better sense of compositionality, holophrastic utterances, and iterated learning is thus gained.

Maynard Smith & Szathmáry’s (1995) work provides a rich framework for thinking about replication. They themselves identified the importance of language in this light, but language is a new system of replication in more than one sense: it is both an enabler of cultural replicators with unlimited heredity, and also a new kind of evolutionary system itself. Iterated learning is the process of linguistic transmission, and it drives both language change and the transitions to qualitatively new kinds of linguistic system. By seeing language as an evolutionary system, the biggest payoff we get may be the ability to take biologists’ insights into the evolution of life and apply them to the evolution of language. (135)

Kun, Adam. The Major Evolutionary Transitions and Codes of Life. Biosystems. September, 2021. In this journal which is more open to holistic vistas, a Parmenides Center for the Conceptual Foundations of Science, Munich and collaborator with Eors Szathmary at Eotvos Lorand University, Budapest provides a novel synthesis between this popular view of life’s oriented developmental scales, and an expanded presence of many genetic-like code qualities. As they cross-fertilize and inform, both aspects benefit and grow in explanatory import. Can yet we move closer to truth and real discovery in time?

Major evolutionary transitions as well as the evolution of codes of life are key elements in macroevolution which are characterized by increase in complexity. These nested emergences ensue by a transition in individuality and by the evolution of a novel mode of using, transmitting or storing information. Here is where codes of life enter the picture. This flexibility allows information to be employed in a variety of ways, which can fuel evolutionary innovation. The collation of the list of major evolutionary transitions and the list of codes of life show a clear pattern: codes evolved prior to a major evolutionary transition and then played roles in the transition and/or in the transformation of the new individual. The evolution of a new code of life then can facilitate major evolutionary transitions. This effect could help us to identify new organic codes.

Marcello Barbieri lists five characteristics of codes of life that are important for the history of life. (1) Discontinuity: Codes of life represent something abruptly novel, not just gradual improvement of something that already exists. (2) Invariance: Codes of life do not change in the sense that there is a strong selection for their conservation. (3) Additivity: More than one types of code can be included in the same lineage, and one code does not erase the other. (4) Stability: Each code remains a viable form, and organism harbouring them still exist, thus the appearance of a new code does not invalidate former codes of life. And (5) Complexity: The evolution of a new code increases complexity. If we contrast this list with characteristics of the major evolutionary transitions, then we nearly find the same list. They are fundamental events in the history of life (cf. discontinuity) which always increase complexity. METs are also mostly irreversible (cf. invariance). METs happen in succession too and an organism can be the product of multiple METs. (2)

Lamm, Ehud, et al. Human Major Transitions from the Perspective of Distributed Adaptations. Royal Society Philosophical Transactions B. February, 2023. In this special issue, biophilosophers EL and Meir Finkel, TelAviv University and Oren Kolodny, Hebrew University of Jerusalem clarify that these sequential, ascendant stages are no longer informed and influenced by heredity or neural realms, but by an emergent phase that accrues and advances in relative, constructive individual and communal knowledge.

Distributed adaptations are cases in which adaptation is dependent on the whole population so that it is conferred by a structural or compositional aspect. In regard, the relevant information cannot be reduced to that possessed by a single individual. Several kinds of human-distributed occasions are presented, and their evolutionary implications are highlighted. We discuss the consequences that they may have for human collective action and their role in colonization of new areas and niches, seasonal migration, and in setting constraints for minimal inter-population connectivity. (Excerpt)

We conclude with a bold conjecture: major changes in the course of human evolution involved changes in the distribution of adaptive cultural information, in the broad sense of the word used throughout our discussion. In this paper, we have outlined some of the considerations and qualifications needed to develop this conjecture into a productive research programme and have illustrated the multiple kinds of Das found in human culture, their multiple uses, and how DA may have affected cultural macro-evolution. We believe this thought paradigm will serve as a useful perspective in the study of major transitions in human evolution. (9)

Lewis, Samuel, et al. Darwin’s Aliens. International Journal of Astrobiology. Online November, 2017. In consideration that a general Darwinian process ought to hold across life’s exoplanet evolution, Oxford University zoologists including Stuart West (search) apply expanded concepts of natural selection along with emergent complexities and major transitions to imagine exocreatures life forms. Figure 8 displays a nested scale from genomes to cells, multicellular symbiosis, aka interspecies mutualism, speciation, and onto societal organisms. This earthly retrospect concludes that although “organisms” could appear quite different, since the same basic scheme would be at work, a deeper familiarity should consistently prevail.

Making predictions about aliens is not an easy task. Most previous work has focused on extrapolating from empirical observations and mechanistic understanding of physics, chemistry and biology. Here we show how evolutionary theory can be used to make predictions about aliens. We argue that aliens will undergo natural selection – something that should not be taken for granted but that rests on firm theoretical grounds. In particular, we can say something about how complexity will arise in space. Complexity has increased on the Earth as a result of a handful of events, known as the major transitions in individuality. Major transitions occur when groups of individuals come together to form a new higher level of the individual, such as when single-celled organisms evolved into multicellular organisms. We suggest that major transitions are likely to be the route to complexity on other planets, and that we should expect them to have been favoured by similarly restrictive conditions. Thus, we can make specific predictions about the biological makeup of complex aliens. (Abstract)

To conclude so far, empirical observation tells us that complexity has increased on earth through major transitions. Evolutionary theory tells us that for major transitions to occur, the conflict must be eliminated. The theory also tells us what conditions lead to the elimination of conflict. The empirical data agree with the predictions of the theory, in that major transitions have only occurred in the extreme conditions that effectively remove conflict. (5)

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