VI. Life’s Cerebral Faculties Become More Complex, Smarter, Informed, Proactive, Self-Aware
D. A Creative Union of Free Personal Agency in Reciprocal, Supportive Societies
Sultan, Sonia, et al. Bridging the Explanatory Gaps: What can We Learn from a Biological Agency Perspective? BioEssays. 44/1, 2022. Sonia S., Wesleyan University, Denis Walsh, University of Toronto and Armin Moczek, Indiana University biological theorists engage, clarify and advance new realizations that individual entities indeed can have their own motive volition in the course of events. In regard, rather than lumpen dross, organisms actually have a mind and will of their own. See also When the End Modifies its Means: The Origins of Novelty and the Evolution of Innovation in the Biological Journal of the Linnean Society (August 2022) and An Enactive-Developmental Systems Framing of Cognizing Systems by Amanda Corris in Biology & Philosophy (July 2022).
We begin this article by citing explanatory gaps due to gene-focused approaches to phenotype determination, inheritance, and novel traits. We do not diminish their value but note where their usage has met persistent limitations. We then discuss how many issues can be addressed by an inherent biological agency — the capacity of living systems to participate in their own development, maintenance, and function by regulating their structures and activities. (Excerpt)
Thibault, Paul. Simplex Selves, Functional Synergies, and Selving: Languaging in a Complex World. Language Sciences. Online April, 2018. A University of Agder, Kristiansand, Norway social linguist contributes to a movement in this field, harking to Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934), Alain Berthoz, Nigel Love and others, which contends that human beings are most engaged in an evolutionary and development endeavor to enhance themselves as individuals. Thibault dubs this a “selving” process, which is facilitated by our distinctive “languaging” capacities. He views the interactive dialogue as a reciprocity of “autonomy and heteronomy” whence persons grow and flourish as they socialize and communicate. All of which, one ought to note, is a good northern version of African ubuntu wisdom. See also Evolution Lineages and Human Language by Stephen Cowley and Anton Markos for a companion entry in the same journal (April 2018) and Vincenzo Raimondi herein.
In this paper, I present selves as simplex structures that construct themselves and are constructed in and through the embodied socio-cognitive dynamics of ‘selving’. Selving arises and takes place in dialogically coordinated languaging activity. In complex social and cultural worlds, simplex selves-in-languaging constitute and stabilise their own and others' experience. Thus, while human subjectivity is foundational, a self emerges from an ontogenetic history – it is a bodily-based time-extended process that generates a sense of its felt agency. The self is thus empowered to enact an embodied and enduring anima that is intrinsic to a living human being: it appears in articulatory acts and, dramatically, when people engage with each other by means of what is generically called ‘languaging’. The analysis shows how, on at least some occasions, selving is a matter of configuring personal meaning and adapting and integrating it to second-order cultural resources in ways that are amenable to a description of languaging activity in terms of a three-part structure. (Abstract excerpts)
Tomasello, Michael. The Evolution of Agency: Behavioral Organization from Lizards to Humans. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2022. After some decades at the MPI for Evolutionary Anthropology, the renowned behavioral psychologist (search) has returned to Duke University. This latest volume is slated for August.
Nature does not form organisms that are biologically prepared for every contingency they might encounter. Instead, organisms evolve as feedback control systems that have goals, can make decisions about how to achieve them, and then monitor their behavioral course. Thus nature builds psychological agents. In a bold new theoretical proposal, Here Dr. Tomasello describes agent-like entities that emerged on the evolutionary pathway to human beings. First was the goal-directed agency of ancient vertebrates, then an intentional agency of early mammals, next the rational agency of great apes and finally the social agency of homo sapiens. (Publisher excerpt)
Varela, Francisco. Organism: A Meshwork of Selfless Selves. Albert Tauber, ed. Organism and the Origins of Self. Amsterdam: Kluwer Academic, 1991. The late neuroscientist cofounder of autopoietic systems theory illustrates their recursive dynamics of emergent complexity with regard to their self-making capability.
My purpose for bringing up this issue of the self as ‘I’ nevertheless is to emphasize the continuity of the same motif that we discussed at greater length for the cellular and basic cognitive selves. Like a fractal, this motif is repeated over and over again for the various regional selves of the organism. (102)
Varela, Francisco. Patterns of Life: Intertwining Identity and Cognition. Brain and Cognition. 34/2, 1997. An example of Varela's insightful quest for the deep nature of phenomenal mind and body.
Organisms are fundamentally a process of constitution of an identity. (73) The nature of neurocognitive identity just discussed is, like that of the basic cellular self, one of emergence through a distributed process. What I wish to insist upon here is the relatively recent (and stunning!) conclusion that lots of simple agents having simple properties may be brought together, even in a haphazard way, to give rise to what appears to an observer a purposeful and integrated whole, without the need for central supervision. (83)
Wendt, Stephanie and Tomer Czaczkes. Individual Ant Workers Show Self-control. Biology Letters. 13/10, 2017. University of Regensburg, Animal Comparative Economics Lab researchers quantify that even social insects seem to have a modicum of autonomous behavior and contextual awareness. A group, flock, colony interplay of beneficial cohesion along with and maintained by freely active members continues to be nature’s most effective resort of reciprocal me + We = US community.
Self-control can allow humans and animals to improve resource intake under such conditions. Self-control in animals is often investigated using intertemporal choice tasks—choosing a smaller reward immediately or a larger reward after a delay. However, little is still known about self-control in invertebrates. Here, we investigate self-control in the black garden ant Lasius niger. We confront individual workers with a spatial discounting task, offering a high-quality reward far from the nest and a poor-quality reward closer to the nest. Most ants (69%) successfully ignored the closer, poorer reward in favour of the further, better one. However, when both the far and the close rewards were of the same quality, most ants (83%) chose the closer feeder, indicating that the ants were indeed exercising self-control, as opposed to a fixation on an already known food source. (Abstract)
West, Stuart, et al. Major Evolutionary Transitions in Individuality. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 112/10112, 2015. A paper for the 2014 NAS Sackler Colloquium entitled Symbioses Becoming Permanent: The Origins and Evolutionary Trajectories of Organelles about confirmations of life’s communal emergence as due to pervasive symbiotic unions. In accord with Eors Szathmary’s presentation at this meeting (search), this nested, manifest scale could be seen as regnant, liberated persons in relative communities. See also in the Science journal Evolving New Organisms via Symbiosis by Toby Kiers and Stuart West (348/392, 2015) and How Single Cells Work Together by Jonathan Zehr (349/1163, 2015).
The evolution of life on earth has been driven by a small number of major evolutionary transitions. These transitions have been characterized by individuals that could previously replicate independently, cooperating to form a new, more complex life form. For example, archaea and eubacteria formed eukaryotic cells, and cells formed multicellular organisms. However, not all cooperative groups are en route to major transitions. How can we explain why major evolutionary transitions have or haven’t taken place on different branches of the tree of life? We break down major transitions into two steps: the formation of a cooperative group and the transformation of that group into an integrated entity. We show how these steps require cooperation, division of labor, communication, mutual dependence, and negligible within-group conflict. We find that certain ecological conditions and the ways in which groups form have played recurrent roles in driving multiple transitions. In contrast, we find that other factors have played relatively minor roles at many key points, such as within-group kin discrimination and mechanisms to actively repress competition. More generally, by identifying the small number of factors that have driven major transitions, we provide a simpler and more unified description of how life on earth has evolved. (Abstract)
Zimmer, Carl. Expressing Our Individuality, the Way E. Coli Do. New York Times. April 22, 2008. A Science Tuesday report that even for the simplest forms of life such as microbial colonies, individual bacteria are not insensate clones but seem to possess an ability to respond and act in their own, independent ways.