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Specialization, Communication, and the Evolution of Complex Organisms

Keith Dawson
06:13 PM ET (US)
Glad to read all the commentary on Lynn Margulis. I'm coming very late to this party — just now about halfway through Stuart Kaufman's At Home In the Universe, and have no idea where self-organized criticality and order-for-free have evolved to since. From Lee Smolin's coment it seems like the answer may be "not very far, still just a nice theory."
Ted Anderson
04:34 PM ET (US)
Here is a quote on the topic of taking symbiogenesis seriously" "The only way behavior changes in science is that certain people die and differently behaving people take their places."

Don't miss the comments at the end. I particularly liked the note by Lee Smolin, but that physics perspective is hard for me to resist.
Ted Anderson
03:20 PM ET (US)
Thanks, Steve, for this sad bit of news. I finally read Microcosmos about a year ago, but was more struck by her earlier work ""Origin of the Eukaryotic Cells", from 1970, which sort of kicked off this whole symbiosis theme. Anyway still reading the Edge piece, I appreciate the link.
Edited 11-24-2011 03:21 PM
Steve Yost
07:41 AM ET (US)
Edge has a piece on Lynn Margulis.
"My major thrust is how different bacteria form consortia that, under ecological pressures, associate and undergo metabolic and genetic change such that their tightly integrated communities result in individuality at a more complex level of organization. The case in point is the origin of nucleated (protoctist, animal, fungal, and plant) -cells from bacteria.
Steve Yost
03:02 PM ET (US)
Found during a Google search on "John Stewart evolution":

Metasystem Transitions in Biology
Ted Anderson
03:51 PM ET (US)
I got Moravec's latest book, "Robot: Mere Machines to Transcendent Mind", out of the Library when I was there looking for Kauffman's "Investigations". Even if you're not interested in Robots you should read this book. The key is "... Transcedent Mind". Moravec does not think small. He is as interested in the Singularity as the next
Extropian, it is just that he thinks of everything in terms of robots.
But by chapter 6, "The Age of Mind" he starts with a subsection called "Robots' End" which begins like this:
    "Exes will put astronomically more thought into their actions than Earth's small-minded biological natives can muster. Yet, viewed from a distance, Ex expansion into the cosmos will be a vigorous physical affair, a wavefront that forges inanimate matter into machinery for further expansion. But it will leave a subtler world, with less action and even more thought, in its ever-growing wake."
Anyway, Moravec is one of those, along with Kurzweil, that belives that mind is more powerful than physics. If you haven't yet plowed all the way to the end of Kurzweil's precis[1], I recommend that you make the time. It is very heady stuff.


[1] http://www.kurzweilai.net/articles/art0134.html?printable=1
Ted Anderson
08:39 AM ET (US)

Reviews of "The Cosmic Blueprint: New Discoveries in Nature's Creative Ability to Order the Universe" (1988), "Are We Alone? Philosophical Implications of the Discovery of Extraterrestrial Life" (1995), and "The Fifth Miracle: The Search for the Origin and Meaning of Life" (1999) all by Paul Davies.

"The Cosmic Blueprint" is a good book describing the fascinating
subjects surrounding the origin of life and the universe that supports it. The book is a bit dated, published in 1988, but it has the
significant virtue of providing a very solid foundation. I've been reading books and articles for many years, and have a good grounding in physics, math, and the physical sciences. However, I can certainly imagine that others, with different backgrounds, would find some of these topics very hard to follow. Davies, provides a careful and thorough tutorial on the difficult subjects of chaos, complexity, self-organization, biogenesis, cosmology and consciousness.

Mostly, he is summarizing the work of others, but in a some cases his synthesis provides real insight. I really appreciated his demolition of the determinism that has pervaded science and the whole secular world since Newton. He had a great description of the two arrows of time. One is the familiar arrow of increasing entropy that derives from the dreary second law of thermodynamics. The also describes a second arrow of steadily increasing structure, organization and complexity. The optimistic arrow is "obvious" even though its cause remains unknown.
I missed seeing better coverage of Stuart Kauffman, my personal
favorite, and numerous ideas of newer authors, like Robert Wright, Lee Smolin and Susan Blackmore. However, if you've found other authors a little too breathless or confusing, Davies provides a solid and
enthusiastic description of this exciting field.

Next I read "The Fifth Miracle", anticipating a current version of the same general topics. This book was much more focused on biogenesis and related issues. As expected, Davies provided thorough coverage of this complex and controversial field. As I had hoped,, he provided the latest information on the thermophilic bacteria and the new light their existence sheds of the possible origin of Earthlife deep in the crust and below the sea bottom. This exciting discovery helps explain how life arose so soon after the end of the period of heavy bombardment that Earth endured until as recently as 3.8 billion years ago.

But, not satisfied with providing one answer to this mystery, he also suggested a second one. The likely exchange of material between the Earth and Mars, exemplified by the infamous ALH84001 meteorite, is not much in doubt. Davies explains how this transfer can happen without pulverizing or vaporizing the affected material. He then couples this idea with the theories of panspermia to point out that both Mars and Earth may have been surrounded by a tenuous biosphere that extended into space. These biospheres overlapped and, importantly, would have
provided newly evolved life a haven from planetary surface conditions made intolerable by early bombardments of massive planetesimals. I found it interesting that while he emphasized the amazing radiation resistance of some species of bacteria, pointed out how this lends support to the panspermia theory and described the biosphere's extension into space, he didn't actually say that the bacterial radiation hardness could have been *caused* by repeated episodes of living off-planet during numerous sterilizations of the early Earth's surface.

He ends the book with some interesting speculations on whether the universe has some built-in predilection for life. Of course, there is no real answer to this question yet, but Davies provides a service in suggesting and supporting the possibility. This hope provides an antidote to the depressing and prevalent perspectives of Monad,
Weinberg, Gould and others that there is no purpose or direction to the universe.

Lastly, I read Davies' middle book (actually he's written two dozen of them) on the question of extraterrestrials. He starts with a good history of thought on the subject, which goes back a surprisingly long way. Then he discusses the panspermia hypothesis and its implication for independent origin of life in the universe, the significance of a possible message from the stars, and the various aspects of the
anthropomorphic principle. Spliced in the middle is a chapter about the nature of consciousness.

I was disappointed that the prospect of a technological singularity didn't factor into Davies' analysis of Fermi's question. But overall, this brief book provides a good review of thinking on this intriguing subject.

Ted Anderson (10-June-2000)

Version: PGPfreeware 7.0.3 for non-commercial use <http://www.pgp.com>;
Marcia B
11:19 AM ET (US)
Feh. Warning wrt the online version of the SFI Bulletin: The SFI site uses CSS.
Marcia B
11:15 AM ET (US)
Maybe drift, maybe not: Catching up on some crushed-trees reading, I found that the Santa Fe Institute (SFI) has a three-year Packard grant (yes, those Packards) to study robustness. It will build on previous SFI work in, among other areas, emergence and evolutionary dynamics.

From the SFI Bulletin: ...[R]obustness may be key to survival. The recovery of ecosystems from natural disasters, the ability of cells to tolerate insult, the ability of a computer to compute reliably in the presence of noise or defective components, the viability of an economic organization -- in all these processes, it is robustness (rather than, say, optimization) that plays the central role. Yet researchers in the many disciplines for which robustness is a relevant concept are typically hard put to even define the term, much less to contemplate fundamental principles that might apply to general contexts. [The] SFI scientific initiative...will explore the origins, mechanisms, and implications of robustness in physical, computational, biological, and ecological systems.

The Bulletin story about the Packard program is very detailed. The same issue also carries articles on networks and entropy that I found equally fascinating. You can read it -- and other issues -- online (Vol. 15, No. 2). I recommend it.
Steve Yost
04:12 PM ET (US)
From David Mankins on separate list:

_Microcosmos_, but Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan. Short (but very unfair) summary: we're really not much more than walking colonies of cooperating bacteria.

A quick peek at Amazon shows that Margulis has a number of more recent books on the same theme, but _Microcosmos_ is the only one I've read.

(Margulis, incidentally, collaborated with James Lovelock on the original statement of the Gaia Hypothesis.)
Edited 06-08-2001 04:13 PM
Steve Yost
03:31 PM ET (US)
I've since finished reading Nonzero, and the biological half (really closer to a quarter) of the book was just as interesting and in line with my thinking as the first half, though it didn't go into as much depth as the first half. One reason for this might be that it's a book for a popular audience, and writing about human history is maybe inherently more interesting than writing about biology.

The difference from my thinking and Wright's book is one of emphasis. I'd like to examine more the role of specialization. I'd like to examine the dynamic surrounding the impetus for an entity to specialize and how that specialization may be rewarded because it's valuable and heavily used by a society, in turn causing greater interdependence within the society (be it humans or cells). Wright discusses many ways that entities cooperate -- he doesn't focus particularly on specialization. In fact I think he uses the word very infrequently.

But that's almost hair splitting, and it's certainly not a criticism of Nonzero, which I'd highly recommend to anyone who's followed this thread.
Edited 06-08-2001 03:43 PM
Steve Yost
03:24 PM ET (US)
I posted this to a private mailing list a couple of weeks ago:

I happened to pick up Robert Wright's book Nonzero (paperback published in January). Another happy shock -- it's almost exactly the book I had in mind, though in much greater historical depth (and of course better writing style) than I could ever have done -- see [1]. Even the book structure is uncanny -- my (unlikely) book was to have *alternating* chapters, jumping betwen the human perspective and the early cell-biological perspective. He
reviews human history in the first half, then biological history in the second (haven't gotten there yet).

It revolves around the idea of non-zero-sum game theory, though he doesn't delve deeply into game theory; he uses the phrase more as a bumper-sticker mnemonic. It's based quite squarely on the idea of a larger "organism" evolving from cooperation and specialization within a densely communicating large-scale group -- exactly what I'd been pondering. His historical perspective is vast and deft in illustrating his points. I'm looking forward to the biological half, which has a good review for accuracy and
counterpoint to "trendy" views that minimize the power of natural selection (Wright has been an ongoing jouster with Stephen Jay Gould).

I'm delighted that Mr. Wright has tackled the subject with his usual conversational, masterfully researched aplomb. Sometimes though the conversational aspect gets in the way for me -- I'm looking for a list of main points, because the points are (to me) world-view-forming.

Oh, BTW, Nonzero starts with a quote of Teilhard de Chardin!
[We'd been discussing Teilhard de Chardin on the list]

I guess the coincidence isn't so great if I reflect that I've read Wright's The Moral animal and a couple of his Slate columns (though an extrapolation is far from obvious), and go with what I said in my previous post:

> [BTW, for me this goes to show that as we become more connected,
> it's more and more likely (especially for lesser minds like mine)
> that any idea we have has already been thought of, often in the
> form of a fully fleshed-out theory. All the hints and background
> that lead to a new idea have also been available to thousands or
> millions of other people (but of course that's no new idea either).]

Indeed Wright says this on p. 191 of Nonzero (which I read last night):

 The vast, fast collaboration allowed by information technologies
 slowly turned the multinational technical community into an almost
 unified consciousness. Increasingly, good ideas were "in the air"
 across the industrialized world.

I like the idea of ideas being "in the air" -- in fact I've fancifully said that ideas aren't really "mine". They're in the "ideasphere" and happen to come to me based on my circumstance and interest.

Steve Yost
02:04 PM ET (US)
Sounds good, Ted. Your comments might be helpful at Amazon too, where the only review there is pretty darn muddy.
Ted Anderson
12:14 PM ET (US)
I am presently reading a 1988 book by Paul Davies called "The Cosmic Blueprint"[1]. It seems to cover many of the topics of interest here. I'll followup with a mini-review when I get finished.


[1] http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0671602330
Steve Yost
11:07 AM ET (US)
> ...Santa Fe Institute, which
> draws scientists and other Deep Thinkers from all over the
> globe.

From what I've seen, it seems like I could gladly spend a next life there :-)
Marcia B
09:49 PM ET (US)
Thanks for your kind hospitality, Steve!

I wonder if Barabasi and Watts have communed together over their shared interest - perhaps even at the Santa Fe Institute, which draws scientists and other Deep Thinkers from all over the globe.

(BTW, did we all notice how I [smugly] pointed out Princeton's misspellation with my [sic]...and then gracefully went on to commit one of my own in my very next sentence, mentioning "evolotion"? Instant tit for tat, I guess - go ahead, universe, smack me around; I can take it. ;-)
Steve Yost
08:18 PM ET (US)
Marcia, your post and all others are very welcome. That sounds like a fascinating must-read (for me) book, and it reminds me of m6 which refers to a NYT article about how the topology of networks is similar across many fields. I'm sure they're related, though the source there is Dr. Albert-Laszlo Barabasi at Notre Dame.

Marcia B
04:51 PM ET (US)
(Steve, since you posted this link in a note to the IRRlist, I'm considering myself "invited" - hope that's okay w/ you and others in this discussion.)

The IRRlist note I sent yesterday (clipped below) seems relevant to this discussion (and perhaps tangentially related to Dan Kalikow's public Web Epiphanies QT). My note was in part a response to Gary Stock's reading suggestion on the Teilhard de Chardin thread: "Wonderfully comprehensive (and worth reading every word): a correlation of progress, people, wildlife, and the web: http://washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A1132-2001May8.html ."

Of interest to Irregulars who followed that [Tielhard de Chardin] thread might be Small Worlds: The Dynamics of Networks between Order and Randomness, by Duncan J. Watts. The book is a general exploration that asks under what conditions a small world can arise in any kind of network.

From [the Princeton site]: "The networks of this story are everywhere: the brain is a network of neurons; organisations are people networks; the global economy is a network of national economies, which are networks of markets, which are in turn networks of interacting producers and consumers. Food webs, ecosystems, and the Internet can all be represented as networks, as can strategies for solving a problem, topics in a conversation, and even words in a language. Many of these networks, the author claims, will turn out to be small worlds."
For your further edification, here's another paragraph from the Princeton site:
"How do such networks matter? Simply put, local actions can have global consequences, and the relationship between local and global dynamics depends critically on the network's structure. Watts illustrates the subtleties of this relationship using a variety of models--the spread of infectious disease through a structured population; the evolution of cooperation in game theory; the computational capacity of cellular automata; and the sychronisation [sic] of coupled phase-oscillators."
(And which Irregular was it who recently did an amusing little family test on the theory of the evolotion of cooperation in gaming?)
Steve Yost
10:42 PM ET (US)
And now it appears that Teilhard de Chardin (or successors such as John Stewart) long ago thought through much of this. Here's my IRR post for reference:
I'm late coming to this thread, and have even lost the first post and link.
But WOW, what a discovery for me. Thanks very much to whomever posted the
first message on Teilhard de Chardin.

I've mulled over this idea of cooperation and specialization happening at
greater scales on my sorta-blog[1], so I'm excited to find that much greater
minds have thought this through long ago.

This T. de C. page [2] mentions a publication called Evolution's Arrow
that's derived from Teilhard de Chardin. It's amazingly close to my thoughts
and of course much more comprehensive.

I haven't read the T. de C. materials in any depth. Do they talk about
specialization as well as cooperation?  I think that's important to the
evolution-as-aggregation process.

Here's the main part of my blog entry:
There's an evolutionary process that results in a new entity that's an
amalgamation of smaller-scale entities. On the grand scale, this formation
is much more significant than the adaptation of each individual entity
through natural selection. It's the appearance of a more complex, more
organized entity.
At some point, single-celled creatures "evolved into" higher forms of life
where each cell has a specialized function and coordinates closely with
other cells*. Does that same evolutionary process act on humans? As we
become more and more specialized in our work and more highly connected, are
we in fact forming larger-scale entities, or even a single global entity?

We can answer simply: yes, they're called societies and interest groups of
all scales. But I'd like to examine the process of social formation and
relate it to evolutionary processes. Evolutionary processes can be viewed as
the response of a reproducing organism to an environmental pressure that
causes its form to adapt, over generations, in order to survive (viewing it
as an intentional process from the organism's perspective).

What are the pressures on the "Humans On Earth" entity that demand greater
specialization and connectivity in order for it to survive?


Now here's the intro to Evolution's Arrow:

Stewart argues that evolution is directional and progressive, and that this
has major consequences for humanity. It argues that evolution moves in the
direction of producing cooperative organisations of greater scale and
evolvability - evolution has organised molecular processes into cells, cells
into organisms, and organisms into societies. The book founds this position
on a new theory of the evolution of cooperation. It shows how self-interest
at the level of genes and individuals does not stand in the way of the
movement of evolution toward increasing cooperation. Evolution progresses by
discovering ways to build cooperative organisations out of self-interested


[1] http://www.quicktopic.com/blurcircle?SpecializationAndCooperation
[2] http://webhost.bridgew.edu/jhayesboh/teilhard.htm

I'd welcome further discussion on this at
It's been going on awhile and meandered a bit, but please just pick up
whereever you like.

[BTW, for me this goes to show that as we become more connected, it's more
and more likely (especially for lesser minds like mine) that any idea we
have has already been thought of, often in the form of a fully fleshed-out
theory. All the hints and background that lead to a new idea have also been
available to thousands or millions of other people (but of course that's no
new idea either).]

Edited 05-19-2001 10:50 PM
Ted Anderson
04:24 PM ET (US)
Well, we may have to agree to disagree on the off-earth population question. Once you buy the "earth is the cradle of humanity" paradigm it is "obvious". Also, if you accept the "exponential rate of technological advancement" theory, you would expect many times more progress in the 21st century as in the 20th. So looking at the shuttle and the space station and saying "too resource intensive" may not be a good guide for what is reasonable in 2050 or 2075. By way of clarification, only a tiny fraction of the off-earth population would live on planets, most would be on satellites, asteriods, and, especially, artificial habitats.
Steve Yost
12:12 PM ET (US)
Thanks, Ted. I'll check out those refs. Can't say I think off-Earth living will be the norm in 100 years, though there may be motivation, unless the human population is a tiny fraction of what it is now, and we've catapulted some of us outward in a desparate measure to assure survival of the species (see Lessing's Making of a Representative...). It's just too resource-intensive to get and stay out there. Hell, I don't think there'll be golf courses in Arizona, let alone colonies on other planets :-)
Ted Anderson
11:36 AM ET (US)
On the point of my last post is the announcement of Ray Kurzweil's new book The Singularity is Near. It looks like there is lots of material from the book is online, specifically a précis. I haven't read through the whole thing yet, but there are many point in this article that are directly on this topic. Check it out.
Ted Anderson
09:54 AM ET (US)
A couple of thoughts on this. Regarding, "Life-on-Earth", I think you need to consider the liklihood that a majority of humanity will live off-earth with 100 or so years. Because light-speed is so slow compared to the distances between solar system objects, latency-limited communication communities will form. It isn't clear what population such communities might stabilize at, but the ideal scale for a cooperative organism would be a good guess, if only we knew what it was. The number of cells in the brain is one data-point, another is the number of complex molecules in a cell. Both of these are a "few" billion.

So I would expect relatively compact (less than a light-second in diameter) communities would communicate. compete and trade with each other. As you say, there is the limit of 4*PI steradians of solar output. But this is plenty for many such communities. Once we get to a few billion such communities communicating, competing and trading with each other, then we'll have yet another organizational level to consider. Other stars are really, annoyingly far away. These ideas are pretty well described in Savage's book.

Another factor is Artificial Intelligence (AI). On the same time scale that off-earth residents could be expected to dominate the human population, the explosion of computer power is likely to make AI a reality. A big difference (one of several :-) between AI and Human Intelligence (HI) is that the power per unit of computation is a not fixed at the current biological level. The theoretical bounds on energy requirements of computation are far below the human values. Therefore in a competition for solar energy AIs should be able to get a lot more done with the same solar exposure. Equivalently, many more individual AIs will be able to accomplish the same computation compared to the number of HIs that can be supported. This suggests that AIs will out compete HIs in the long run. For more details on these idea see Moravec's "Mind Children" and Ray Kurzweil, "The Aig of Spiritual Machines".
Steve Yost
06:55 AM ET (US)
Late-breaking thought:

I've posited here that at any scale of organism S there's an evolutionary demand for a larger-scale organism made up of specialized highly-communicating S-scale organisms (noting Lewis Thomas' idea that the definition of organism may be hard to pin down). That's because the S-scale organisms survive better when they're cooperating well in specialized ways.

Let's examine what the limits to this organism-upscaling might be.

Humans can cooperate to form larger scale organisms: societies of various scales. We're now experiencing evolutionary pressure to form a global society -- we call this "globalization".

Could there an evolutionary pressure to go beyond this scale? The scale is Life-on-Earth. There are no other creatures with which to compete for resources -- the Life-on-Earth entity is isolated on its sphere, and its single significant resource is the energy of the Sun. The flaw in Stapledon's scenario seems (not having read it) to be that there'd be little motivation to communicate with other global-scale entities "with sufficient bandwidth so as to form a single organism" (assuming that the costs to develop this bandwidth would be huge) unless specialized resources could be shared across this channel. Further, lacking direct competition with other same-scale entities for resources, there's no evolutionary pressure to share in this way.

So, once we've "acheived globalization", evolutionary pressure will be towards the maximal use of the Earth's resources. What's that mean? I'll try this: the lowest-entropy/highest-information (whew, define that) configuration given the input of the energy of the Sun.

Right now we may be close to an information peak/entropy trough, but outside a sustainable version of this, given that the size of Earth's human population (can we call our brains/bodies the highest-information configuration around?) depends on consuming fuel stored in the Earth over millions of years.

It might be a global challenge like running out of fossil fuel or food that pushes us to larger scale cooperation. Let's take food: E.O. Wilson and others say that we utterly depend on biotech innovation to support projected population size in the next, what, 15 years? We cringe at the concentration of power in situations like that, and at the fragility of such a specialized solution. Are there alternatives that can prevent a starvation catastrophe without concentrated specialization? The obvious one is have fewer children. When we manage to do this, we're resisting our dumb old genes' drive to proliferate -- there's an opportunity for a very interesting tangent. I'll resist.

I'll end this post with a relevant anecdote. Last year when, for about half a day, there was news that a sizeable asteroid had a decent chance of colliding with Earth in a few years, I thought: this could be the ultimate challenge to our collective ability -- would we be able to come up with a way to avoid this? It would take a globally mounted cooperative effort with a huge demand for coordinated innovation and a great sacrifice of resources worldwide that would otherwise be used for basic needs. There'd be countervailing opinions about the probability of the event on one hand and eschatological inevitability on the other hand -- a real challenge to communicating the need. Could we do it? The process would be a good approximation of the formation of a global organism.
Ted Anderson
12:50 PM ET (US)
I posted a note on this topic to Dan Kalikow's Web Epiphanies QT. Check it out and let me know what you think.
Steve Yost
04:23 PM ET (US)
Thanks for the interesting reference, Keith. I'll add it to my to-read list.
Keith Dawson
04:03 PM ET (US)
Steve, the penultimate paragraph in your #8 reminded me of Olaf Stapledon (1886-1950). In 1930 he wrote a novel called Last and First Men. Talk about your broad canvas: not only do men unite into, effectively, a world-wide global entity; they contact other such entities in other star systems and eventually communicate with sufficient bandwidth so as to form a single universal organism. They then discover, just as this universe is ending, that it represented only one in a large (infinite?) manifold of universes, evolving toward some sort of perfection; and that their own performance was not the aimed-for pinnacle, but merely one of many not-quite-good-enough attempts along the way.

Last and First Men appears to be out of print in all of its individual editions. It has been published several times bundled with a later Stapledon novel, Star Maker. This one has not been published yet and this one is back-ordered. However, Advanced Book Exchange shows 107 used copies for sale.
Edited 03-18-2001 04:08 PM
Steve Yost
11:22 PM ET (US)
I can't think of the reading that made me think single-celled organisms were around maybe an order of magnitude longer than anything else -- it's not true. This geologic time scale at a site for young students shows the era when single-celled organisms evolved lasted 1.4 billion years, and was 2.5 billion years ago. There were another 2 billion years when multi-celled organisms appeared.

The "Cambrian Explosion", bringing a big increase in diversity, happened from 540 to 500 million years ago: "...the fastest growth in the number of major new animal groups took place during the Tommotian and Atdabanian stages of the Early Cambrian, a period of time which may have been as short as five million years."
Steve Yost
11:23 AM ET (US)
[For some reason I didn't see there was a new post until now. I'll subscribe.]

I'd also be skeptical of something as hyperbolic as "...all follow a single universal pattern of change...". I think that's the journalist talking, trying to summarize with impact. But there seem to be laws that do drive, at least, the local minima that things gravitate towards. If the pattern doesn't emerge globally, it probably appears locally. In fact it probably appears fractally.

Regarding tendency towards complexity, there are two points to be careful of.

The first is one's definition of complexity (as referring to greater order => "more advanced", "better"), which I've never really seen nailed down. It's close to the basic epistemological question, isn't it? I've seen it questioned, most recently for me in William James' Varieties of Religious Experience (see the italicized note here). Information Theory is applicable here, but I only have slight exposure to it in Jeremy Campbell's Grammatical Man. I don't want to go too far afield there yet, though it'll be necessary background for me (as evidenced by the next point).

The second point is that the increased complexity that's of interest to me occurs not within the organism (though there's that), but in the aggregation of individuals with the increasing cooperation and interdependece of specialization. We've heard much of the idea that Darwin's natural selection doesn't tell the whole story -- that cooperation is important to us (I need references here). My main point is that, to the extent this cooperation is tied to specialization, that the organism that's formed is ultimately one at a higher level of scale. Natural selection is about the evolution of the individual of a species; this is about the formation of a new aggregate organism, which I think is actually a more significant evolutionary step. Single-celled organisms were around much longer than anything that has followed -- that first leap to a multi-celled creature was immense. What processes were behind that? What environmental pressures demanded it?

It could be that the demand is actually quite simple -- specialization and interdependence is much more powerful for survival of the individuals than the fittedness of any single individual. In a world where everything was on the same scale -- single celled organisms (or do I need to look subcellular?) -- the emphasis is on individual survival, but once the leap of cooperative specialization was made, that organism must have had a vastly better chance at propagation (provided there was sufficient energy to support the more complex, higher-entropy organism). Is that why evolution has raced at relatively high speed since then?

Note this is saying that this complexity by amalgamation has a great tendency to win out as long as there's sufficient energy in the environment. My intuition here is based on Ilya Prigogene's work that says, in a nutshell, that localized order arises from far-from-equlibrium processes. Brash intuitive follow-on: at the system level, you need sufficient low-quality energy input (heat) to support a high-entropy process like complex life. (A comically cogent metaphor is that your specialized engine designer wouldn't have a good life if there weren't abundant fossil fuels.)

Sorry about all the links and tangents. I'm focussing on building background right now. I can see that the great challenge for an author is to first expand his knowledge as a foundation, then present the message in carefully crafted stages so the reader doesn't confront the whole thing at once. I know you have the capacity to not only follow, but be an excellent critical mind for interaction here. In support of the thesis, I'll do much better with others, especially those with talents I don't have, to help me.

BTW, I'm avidly reading Lives of a Cell now. There's a lot there that's exactly about this. Thomas just touches poetically on it in many places and moves on, but he clearly had some of these ideas.

Damn, I need to create a way to make this QT edit box optionally bigger. I feel like I'm writing on index cards.
Edited 01-03-2001 11:24 AM
Jon Waldron
03:18 PM ET (US)
But the NY Times article specifically mentioned certain networks that did not obey the power law. Where there is an "environmental" factor that constrains addition links in a network, the network takes on a different topology. This makes me extremely skeptical of the following statement:

"...no matter what the system, all follow a single
universal pattern of change..."

Ok, let me take another tack. Last night, I was chatting with a friend who teaches Biology at the University of Tennessee. He was musing on the difficulty of teaching Evolution to College Freshmen. It's not just the potential of being derailed by the Creationism v. Evolution issue in the home state of the Scopes trial, it's the fact that most people don't understand enough about the theory and evidence for evolution to understand what the debate is all about. Anyway, I mentioned this idea that systems have an innate tendency toward complexity. His response was cautious; "remember," he said, "evolution makes no claims that species evolve to become 'better,' they evolve in the direction of fitness to reproduce given specific conditions of survival" (or words to that effect). From this I gather that sometimes complexity and sophistication lose out, or become irrelevant byproducts of other changes when the conditions governing fitness change.

I'm getting lost here. What was the original question?
I feel like I'm following too many links, when what I really need to do is go back and re-read Origin of the Species.
Steve Yost
02:16 PM ET (US)
More to look at, from a random gander at an old email from that endless font, the evolutionary psychology mailing list: reviews of Mark Buchanan's new book Ubiquity.
(available only in the UK, apparently: http://www.amazon.co.uk/exec/obidos/ASIN/0297643762)

Scientists have recently discovered a previously unrecognised law of nature: no matter what the system, all follow a single universal pattern of change. Mathematically, this pattern is known as a "power law" and , until recently, it was virtually unknown outside physics. However, now that science is looking, its footprints can be seen everywhere. There is, it seems, an archetypal organization working in the world at all levels - the so-called "principle of universality". This discovery heralds what the author calls the new science of "ubiquity" and here documents the coming revolution that this discovery will bring.
Edited 12-29-2000 02:36 PM
Steve Yost
05:10 PM ET (US)
Jon, the Forbes article Keith pointed me to (linked in #6) is about Stephen Wolfram's work, which is centered around complex results resulting from simple rules (namely cellular automata generation rules). James Gleick's book Chaos is a great layman's introduction to this and related areas, if you're not already familiar with it.

I think your intuitive leap there, connecting this to the network topology similarities, is well-founded. I'm excited by that very idea: that the communication topologies are similar between cells and people because there's an underlying rule that demands it to be so under evolutionary pressure. It's fantastic that this study of one of the two main factors in the bigger puzzle I want to look at appears now.

The core I want to examine is this: are there fairly simple rules that "demand" the creation, by incremental specialization and interdependence, of a more complex organism under the pressure of competition for resources (the Darwinian environment)?

It seems to be so: an environment of limited resources demands not only adaptation of individuals in order to best the rivals at their level of granularity, it also demands cooperation and specialization of individuals, with concomitant communication between them. In the limit this process forms a more complex organism that survives better than the individuals who merely compete against each other. In actuality it's not that there's an ultimate more complex organism, but a continuous hierarchy of organization and interdepencence.

There's a hierarchy to the comm-topology power law that's very interesting -- you could say that it reflects the hierarchy of specialization (or domination of specialty).
Edited 12-28-2000 05:13 PM
Jon Waldron
10:24 AM ET (US)
Thanks for the citation, Steve. The part of the article that I found most interesting was the speculation of what rule or rules might give rise to the "topological similarities" of the different networks. I have a dim recollection of reading about self-organizing systems that produced complex results from being left alone to grow with a few simple rules. The authors of the Times article mentioned the "Rich get richer" rule (i.e., the more well connected you are, the more well connected you will become). It would be intersting to know whether that rule has been expressed more formally.
Steve Yost
09:18 PM ET (US)
To Jon & Keith 27-Dec-2000:

This article from yesterday's NYT says in its introductory paragraphs "The networks of molecules in a cell, of species in an ecosystem, and of people in a social group may be woven on the same mathematical loom as the Internet and the World Wide Web."

"We are getting to understand the architecture of complexity," said Dr. Albert-Laszlo Barabasi, a physicist at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana whose research group has recently published papers comparing such seemingly diverse systems as the Internet and the metabolic networks of life-sustaining chemical reactions inside cells. The similarities between these and other complex systems are so striking, he said, "it's as if the same person would have designed them."


How interesting that the mechanisms for communication among cells and people have at least topological similarities! Sounds like Dr. Barabasi would be a good contact.

Keith, the Stephen Wolfram article [1] was fascinating, though it sounds related to the above idea mostly in that it may supersede it along with the rest of science :-). I think I'll get in the queue for his book.


[1] http://www.forbes.com/asap/2000/1127/162.html
Steve Yost
12:55 PM ET (US)
It's interesting to think about how and why we humans become specialized, and work from that end of the big question. Atrophy is a symptom. Is it part of the cause too, or are cause and effect inextricably entwined in a long-term multi-scaled process such as this? Specialization does tend to form hierarchies of creators and consumers, as in your engine example. Those without specialties are the have-nots (we can see that in our global society). Why? Hmmm, maybe this points to an evolutionary cause for organism-creation. If a specialist adds efficiency (less energy/cost for improved survivability), the group supports the specialty and the specialist's survival is assured by the group (in a market economy, he often becomes wealthy). This can be a gradual process: one specialty can be added at a time. When everyone has a specialty, you have a completely interdependent unit -- an organism. (Here's an article I just happened to read that notes the process, not as its thesis, but in its development: http://www.cjr.org/year/00/4/frank.asp . Think about those opera singers.) You also have the remnant simpler (non-specialized) organisms that perhaps depend on the more complex organism, and perhaps the more complex organism depends on them. This raises the question of the bounds of the organism. But to the extent that the simpler organisms are fungible, the complex organism doesn't *work* to assure their survival (is this point worth pursuing?). Think of the bacteria in our colons or third-world sweat shop laborers.

[Further, we have the tendency towards merger of the specialists into larger organizations as communication/transportation becomes easier. But let's reserve that for later.]

At the other end of the big question is examining what happened when simple organisms (a simple case being single-celled organisms) "evolved into" multi-celled organisms with specializations. Examining what caused that might shed light on what's happening to us (though the above human focus has really got me thinking). Maybe it's best to iterate. If this were to evolve into a book, I could see a structure with alternating chapters developing (human-level/cell-level).
Edited 12-19-2000 12:55 PM
Jon Waldron
12:52 PM ET (US)
Maybe the "process of increasing specialization" can be understood to be primarily a process of atrophy. That is, an organism has a set of complementary skills to ensure survival and propogation of the species. The skills that are less useful atrophy.

Using the word "skills" is already anthropocentric, isn't it? And it might lead to unclear thinking. For example, my skill at doing numerical calculations may have "atrophied" because of the ubiquity of electronic calculators, but that's atrophy within an individual for a skill that is already a very modern, invention. Evolution plays little part in that, I would guess.

By the same token, when there is rapid technological change, naturally some individuals will become specialists, and others merely consumers of the specialists' labor. So I have no understanding of an internal combustion engine, but I benefit from the skills of car makers and mechanics. That's not atrophy.

But, from a biological perspective, things look different, I think. The individual known as Jon Waldron couldn't function without the activity of bacteria in my digestive tract, which certainly appear to be "not me." How did this come to happen? How and when did such a cooperative relationship develop? And is it inevitable or accidental?

Sorry to stop in the middle of that thought...
Edited 12-19-2000 12:52 PM
Steve Yost
12:49 PM ET (US)

> ...individual within that entity
Since the emphasis is on our increasing specialization and communication, a city like New York is an appropriate test case for the thought experiment. But limiting the question to a city also brings up the annoying question of the boundaries of an entity. While not ignoring the question entirely (and Lewis Thomas may bring a lot to that question), I'd like to focus first on the *process* of increasing specialization and communication and whether it's evolutionarily driven (exploring first what *that* means).
Edited 12-19-2000 12:50 PM
Jon Waldron
12:46 PM ET (US)
I'm very fond of Lewis Thomas and would certainly recommend any of his books. I recollect that Thomas repeatedly muses on whether individual organisms are really independent. He's fascinated by symbiotic relationships, parasitical relationships, and other arrangements that benefit multiple "independent" entities.

It occurs to me that another way of thinking about this question is to evaluate entities (societies, e.g.) in terms of their goals. Whether or not you believe that the City of New York, for example, forms an organism, properly called, it seems clear that "New York" has a set of goals that is distinct from the set of goals of any one individual within that entity.
Edited 12-19-2000 12:47 PM
Steve Yost
12:40 PM ET (US)
13-Dec-2000 4:40am

There's an evolutionary process that results in a new entity that's an amalgamation of smaller-scale entities. On the grand scale, this formation is much more significant than the adaptation of each individual entity through natural selection. It's the appearance of a more complex, more organized entity.

At some point, single-celled creatures "evolved into" higher forms of life where each cell has a specialized function and coordinates closely with other cells*. Does that same evolutionary process act on humans? As we become more and more specialized in our work and more highly connected, are we in fact forming larger-scale entities, or even a single global entity?

We can answer simply: yes, they're called societies and interest groups of all scales. But I'd like to examine the process of social formation and relate it to evolutionary processes. Evolutionary processes can be viewed as the response of a reproducing organism to an environmental pressure that causes its form to adapt, over generations, in order to survive (viewing it as an intentional process from the organism's perspective).

What are the pressures on the "Humans On Earth" entity that demand greater specialization and connectivity in order for it to survive?

It appears that Lewis Thomas has examined at least some of this in Lives of a Cell. I'll read it and see how much he addresses the process that brings about the more complex entity, and examines its relation to human society.
*Lots of questions here, and I need to learn a lot about cell reproduction and its evolution: When a different organism appears, especially one that might be viewed as an amalgamation of entities, can we say the simpler organism "evolved into" another? Is it legitimate to view the eventuation of multi-celled organisms as a combination of previously single celled organisms? Can we say the single cell "gave up its identity" as an organism in order to survive? Perhaps we should think instead of the cell-splitting process that happens as an embryo forms: at some point in our planet's history, a single cell probably split into two connected halves, or from one viewpoint didn't complete the usual reproductive split, and this organism was then able to reproduce (How? And how did sexual reproduction evolve, wherein genes from two entities are combined when producing a third?)
Edited 12-19-2000 12:40 PM

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