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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.

Michod, Richard. Darwinian Dynamics. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999. This important work noted elsewhere is a resource for the perception of an emergent individuality in evolution.

Michod, Richard. Evolution of Individuality During the Transition from Unicellular to Multicellular Life. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 104/Supplement 1, 2007. As a case in point, volvocine microbial colonies are shown to complexify into bounded assemblies via altruistic divisions of labor. But while the cycle cited below reflects the common organization of a complex adaptive system, such contextual source is not recognized.

Individuality is a complex trait, yet a series of stages each advantageous in itself can be shown to exist allowing evolution to get from unicellular individuals to multicellular individuals. We consider several of the key stages involved in this transition: the initial advantage of group formation, the origin of reproductive altruism within the group, and the further specialization of cell types as groups increase in size. Our hypothesis is that fitness tradeoffs drive the transition of a cell group into a multicellular individual through the evolution of cells specialized at reproductive and vegetative functions of the group. (8613)

Michod, Richard and Aurora Nedelcu. On the Reorganization of Fitness During Evolutionary Transitions in Individuality. Integrative and Comparative Biology. 43/1, 2003. A further contribution on a constant tendency in multi-scalar evolution to proceed toward a new entity. Cooperative interactions which limit conflicts are crucial so ‘lower-level’ units can be included.

Returning to the various notions of individuality introduced at the beginning of the paper – distinctness in time and space, indivisibility of wholes, genetic homogeneity, genetic uniqueness, and physiological autonomy and unity – we may see how they stem from the processes of multilevel selection and conflict mediation inherent in creation of a new evolutionary individual. (71)

Michod, Richard, et al. Cooperation and Conflict in the Evolution of Individuality. BioSystems. 69/2-3, 2003. The development of life is viewed as a nested series of transitions which depend on mediating conflicts along with mutually beneficial behavior. These recurrent features are seen, for example, in the subject green algal organism Volvox carteri.

The continued well being of evolutionary individuals (units of selection and evolution) depends on their evolvability, that is their capacity to generate and evolve adaptations at their level of organization, as well as their longer term capacity for diversifying into more complex evolutionary forms. (95)

Militello, Guglielmo, et al. Functional Integration and Individuality in Prokaryotic Collective Organisations. Acta Biotheoretica. August, 2020. IAS-Research Centre for Life, Mind and Society, University of the Basque Country biotheorists GM, Leonardo Bich and Alvaro Moreno find evidence of a vital relative selfhood even in this primal realm. One could then notice that while bacteria subsist in collective groupings, they yet each retain a reciprocal degree and measure of personal, semi-autonomous identity.

Both physiological and evolutionary criteria of biological individuality are based on the idea that an individual is an integrated whole. However, a good account of functional integration has not been provided so far. To address this, we focus on the organization of two representative associations of prokaryotes: biofilms and the endosymbiosis between prokaryotes. This paper has three aims: first, to analyse the organisational conditions and the physiological mechanisms that enable integration in prokaryotic associations; second, to discuss the differences between biofilms and prokaryotic endosymbiosis and the types of integration they achieve; finally, to provide a more precise account of functional integration based on these case studies. (Abstract excerpt)

In sum, functional integration can be defined as the degree to which the different components of a biological dynamic regime of self maintenance depend on one another for their production, maintenance, activity and reproduction. If we take the eukaryotic cell as the example of new forms of full fledged biological individuality by way of association between prokaryotes, individuality can be understood by the degree, scale and precision of the control and coordination of the parts that collectively make the system a viable functional whole. A cohesive integration between functional tasks is achieved, then, when the differentiation of functions is coordinated at the system level by control and regulatory mechanisms that (1) act across the entities in the association, and (2) are exerted in such a way that the components can contribute through their activity to the maintenance of the system. (22)

Miller, Jacob and Kevin Weiner. Unfolding the Evolution of Human Cognition. Trends in Cognitive Science. August, 2022. As the quotes note, Yale University and UC Berkeley psychologists contribute to 21st century worldwise reconstructions of prior trajectories of effective cranial and knowing capacities. We cite as more 2020s evidence that better brains and more informative content actually defines a central vector from earliest phases aimed at our global human acumen.

Recent findings spanning subject fields from braincases in paleoneurobiology to in vivo measurements in cognitive neuroscience are providing novel insights into our reconstructions of life’s emergent cerebral intelligence. Here, we integrate these findings and propose that studying small, evolutionarily new cortical structures can be a significant way to identify new links between neuroanatomical substrates and human-specific aspects of cognition. (Abstract)

Evidence from sulcal indentations on endocasts not only show big changes from our early human ancestors, but also hint that smaller sulcal structures may hold large implications for the history of our own brains. Considering when smaller sulci emerged in our evolutionary history builds on present work and offers a promising new application bridging studies of cognition, neuroanatomy, and paleoneurobiology. (737)

Mitchell, Kevin. Free Agents: How Evolution Gave Us Free Will. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2023. The author, a neuro-geneticist at Trinity College Dublin, studies the many relationships between genes, brains, and minds on both individual and evolutionary levels. Into these 2020s he has prepared the first whole book length treatment for the leading edge content of this Life’s Cerebral Cognizance Becomes More Complex, Smarter, Informed, Proactive, Self-Aware chapter. In so doing, the work describes an oriented encephalization from sensory stirrings to scales of ramified neural complexities all the way to our mosaic neocortex. A central track becomes evident as an increasing adaptive behavior with regard to one’s own life, group and environs. In retrospect, life’s cerebral/cognitive evolutionary course can then be seen to assert a liberated agency of personal choice. The vital message (my take) from brains instead of bones could be that we peoples can rise from sinners to winners, avoid nuclear war, and proceed to select ourselves as a unified Earthropocene success.

Scientists are finding how brain activity controls behavior and neural circuits effect actions. But many still conclude that agency—or free will—is an illusion. Free Agents presents a wealth of evidence to the contrary, arguing that we are not mere machines but distinct selves empowered with purpose. Across Earth’s long evolution, Mitchell describes how living beings capable of choice arose from physical origins. As nervous systems came to be, they gave sentient animals the capacity to model, predict, and simulate. These faculties have reached their peak with our human abilities to imagine, introspect, reason and view possible futures. {Publisher)

A purely reductionist, mechanistic approach to life misses the point. On the contrary, basic laws of physics that deal only with energy and matter and forces cannot explain what life is or its defining property – living organisms do things for reasons, as causal agents, in their own right. They are driven by information whose meaning is embedded in the structure of the system itself, based on its history. In short, there are distinct types of causation at play in living organisms by virtue of their organization. (x-xi)

As we will see in later chapters, meaning and value are the internal currency and action selection that emerged as life continued to evolve. From the rocks and sea of our early world, life arose as organisms that maintained theor internal states and sustain a degree of causal autonomy from the world around them. The next step in the evolution of agency is the ability of these autonomous organisms to back upon the world, to become causes in their own right. (43)

In humans, the expansion of our neural resources and recursive architecture of our cognitive systems gave us the ability to think about thoughts. Our minds were set free. We are capable of open-ended truly creative imaginations and hypothetical futures, of creating art, music, science, abstract reasoning that has revealed the deepest laws and principles of the universe. (294)

And we do not do this alone: the true power of human thought comes through collective interactions and cumulative culture. We have as individuals and as a species the power to transcend the immediacies of our own biology. And, though the prospects seem gloomy, we have within our reach the possibility of wisdom, of making optimal decisions for the long-term survival of our planet if we choose to exercise it. (294)

Molter, Daniel. On Mycorrhizal Individuality. Biology & Philosophy. 34/Art. 52, 2109. A Weber State University, Utah philosopher provides another take of life’s persistent formation of relative personal entities in communal settings at each and every chance.

This paper argues that a plant together with the symbiotic fungus attached to its roots, a mycorrhizal collective, is a true individual, and further, that this identity has important implications for evolutionary theory. Mycorrhizae in nature usually connect the roots of multiple plants, so their individuality entails overlapping entities. I suggest that the degree of evolutionary individuality in a symbiotic collective corresponds to its probability of reproducing with vertical or pseudo-vertical transmission, which could constitute a fourth parameter of graded Darwinian individuality in collective reproducers. (Abstract excerpt)

Moreno, Alvaro and Matteo Mossio. Biological Autonomy: A Philosophical and Theoretical Enquiry. Berlin: Springer, 2015. After some years of writing papers (search), University of the Basque Country and French National Centre for Scientific Research philosophers of science offer a book length consideration that evolving life’s salient essence and aim could be increasingly distinct, free entities in supportive communities. A chapter list makes the case: Organizational Closure, Biological Emergence, Teleology and Functionality, Agency, Evolution: the Historical Dimension of Autonomy, Organism Levels of Autonomy, and Cognition. In so doing, the work traces this perception from Immanuel Kant to the relational dynamic sciences of Ilya Prigogine, Robert Rosen, Francisco Varela and others about a natural vitality that organizes and individuates itself. Autopoietic self-making is much involved, which spawn nested iterative levels of quickening sentience. See also an essay by Bernd Rosslenbroich in Biology & Philosophy (online June 2016) for an endorsement of organismic autonomy instead of molecular machines.

As explained in the Introduction, our general stance consists in suggesting that the principle of biological autonomy must be understood in the light of three characteristic dimensions that are conceptually distinct and yet inherently related. Biological autonomy has a constitutive dimension, which consists in its organization’s capacity of self-determination. Biological organization determines itself and, through this determination, grounds normativity, teleology, and functionality in a naturalized way. Biological autonomy also has an interactive dimension through which biological systems promote their own maintenance by acting on their environment. Autonomy is not independence: autonomous systems are not monads, they are inherently agents, engaged in a continuous interaction with their surroundings. (196-197)

Autonomy has a historical dimension: it is not just spontaneous self-organization. Autonomy appears as the result of an entailment of reproductive cycles, starting from self-maintaining chemical systems, which progressively increase their complexity. Reciprocally, the evolution of biological complexity cannot be adequately understood just as the outcome of natural selection, but results from the fundamental interplay between organization and selection. In this respect, the autonomous perspective renews biological ontology by organizing it around units of autonomy instead of units of selection. (198)

Mossio, Matteo and Leonardo Bich. What Makes Biological Organization Teleological? Synthese. Online February, 2015. With many colleagues, French National Centre for Scientific Research and University of the Basque Country philosophers continue a more true to life revision of evolution’s ascent as actually springing from and guided by an inherent agency and vectorial aim. In this view, a growing emphasis upon “self-determination” is achieved through cellular and organismic constraints and boundary closures. By this feature, Immanuel Kant’s advocacy of a natural self-organization is affirmed, setting aside selection alone. This theory is akin to autopoiesis, but with an added sense that self-making systems are facilitated by an independent source. See also The Teleological Transitions in Evolution by Simona Ginsburg and Eva Jablonka in the Journal of Theoretical Biology (Online April 2015), and Mossio’s book with Alvaro Moreno Biological Autonomy (May 2015).

Nadolski, Erica and Armin Moczek. Promises and limits of an agency perspective in evolutionary developmental biology. Evolution & Development. 25/6, 2023. The main paper by Indiana University biologists in special issue on Agency in Living Systems mostly composed of presentations from a 2022 Altenberg Workshop (see herein) with this title (Google). See also a lead editorial by AM and Sonia Sultan. Subject entries include Collective behavior in changing environments: Dynamics, modularity, and agency by Deborah Gordon, The agential perspective: Countermapping the modern synthesis by Denis Walsh and Gregory Rupik and Agential autonomy and biological individuality by Fermin Fulda. A working group with this identity can also be accessed with more evidence for this current correction from lumpen machine to free selves in cooperative groups

An agent-based perspective in the study of complex systems is well established in diverse disciplines, yet is only beginning to be applied to evolutionary developmental biology. In this essay, we begin by defining agency and then discuss this view applied to select processes and consider the potential epistemic roles that it might play in evo devo. Throughout, we discuss evidence supportive of agential dynamics in biological systems and explore where agency thinking may enrich the explanatory reach of research efforts in evolutionary developmental biology. (Excerpt)

Newman, Stuart. Inherency and agency in the origin and evolution of biological functions. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society. 139/4, 2023. The senior bioscholar provides more insights about this historic 2020s revision from the later 20th century scheme of random mutation and post selection on passive entities. Rather the actual case which required neuroscience and computational abilities to date seems to be life’s original, insistent course of a relative individual proactivity.

Although discussed by 20th century philosophers in terms drawn from the sciences of non-living systems, in recent times biological phenomena has been considered in regard to organismal capability and purpose. Bringing two aspects neglected in evolutionary theory (i.e. inherency and agency) to bear on questions of function leads to a rejection of the adaptationist ‘selected effects’ notion. I review work showing that organisms such as the placozoans can thrive with just their constituent cells and the physical properties of simple tissues and cellular aggregates which exhibit agential behaviours. I conclude that most essential functions in animal species are inherent to the cells from which they evolved, rather selected than effects. (Abstract)

The theoretical initiative known as the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis (EES) contains several issues discussed here: the role of developmental inherency in morphological change and tasks such as niche construction. However, the fuller perspective I advocate is that not only do morphologlies appear without evolutionary precedent, but so do cellular functions ready to be recruited by tissues and organs of multicellular forms. When combined with latent capabilities of cell collectives they actively devise new ways of life, which set aside the old ‘selection-for-fitness’ school.

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