The direction of evolution and the future of humanity

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(new) The most recent and refined version of the evolutionary worldview that was first presented in Evolutionís Arrow can be found in the 34 page document The Evolutionary Manifesto which is here

Chapter 13.    Evolution of Life on Earth            


Wherever life emerges in the universe, the potential benefits of cooperation should drive progressive evolution. The broad features of this evolution will be the same everywhere. This is because the potential benefits of cooperation are universal, and the general forms of organisation that enable these benefits to be exploited will be the same wherever life arises.

Life will begin with the emergence of entities that can manage matter to make copies of themselves. The potential benefits of cooperation between these entities will drive the evolution of managed organisations of entities. These organisations will in turn be managed to form cooperative organisations of organisations. This process will continue, progressively forming cooperative organisations of greater and greater scale. Each of the larger-scale organisations formed in this way will be made up of smaller-scale managed organisations, and each of these will be formed of still smaller-scale organisations, and so on. Each organisation will be managed so that its members cooperate in the interests of the organisation. Management will achieve this by ensuring that the members of the organisation capture the effects of their actions on others in the organisation, and on the organisation as a whole. As a result, members of the organisation will tend to treat other members as they treat themselves.

The potential benefits of cooperation will also drive progressive improvements in evolvability and adaptability, wherever life arises. Organisations that are better at evolving and adapting will be better at exploiting the benefits of cooperation. They will be smarter at discovering new and better forms of cooperation amongst the entities that form them, and at adapting this cooperation as circumstances change.

As we have seen, when life first arises it is likely to evolve through the operation of change-and-test processes that involve competition between organisations. The most competitive organisations will produce more offspring. If their competitiveness is due to features that are passed to their offspring, the proportion of organisations in the population that have these features will increase, and eventually all will have them.

But the first organisations that evolve will not contain change-and-test processes that adapt the organisation during its life, and that pass these discoveries to their offspring. Internal change-and-test processes that can produce evolutionary change across the generations have to be established by a long process of progressive evolution. As this progressive sequence unfolds, internal adaptive processes will be developed that can evaluate the effects of possible adaptations over wider and wider scales of space and time. Increasingly, the internal adaptive processes will be able to assess the future effects of alternative adaptations. Increasingly, they will be able to discover adaptations that are useful because of their longer-term effects.

An important milestone in this sequence is when organisations evolve the ability to communicate with each other about discoveries made by their internal adaptive processes. This enables a culture of adaptive knowledge to be accumulated over the generations. When this milestone is reached, the internal adaptive processes become an evolutionary mechanism that operates during the lives of the organisations.

A further critical milestone is reached when the internal adaptive processes are able to predict future evolutionary events and trends, and can use this ability to discover how to adapt to achieve future evolutionary success. Organisations that develop these abilities will understand the evolutionary processes that made them and that will determine their evolutionary future. As they develop the ability to consciously use their understanding of evolution to guide their own evolution, they will begin to transcend their biological and social past. They will develop the capacity to revise and improve their shortsighted pre-existing adaptive processes to take account of the longer-term evolutionary effects of their actions. They will develop the ability to change their pre-existing adaptations, values and goals so that they can do whatever is necessary to contribute most to the successful evolution of life in the universe. This contribution will include support for the formation of larger-scale cooperative organisations that are managed so that the organisations have the capacity to adapt for the outside/future and to pursue long-term evolutionary objectives.

Wherever life emerges in the universe, its evolution will have these broad features. The scale of cooperative organisation will increase progressively, as will its adaptability and evolvability. But the details will differ. In different locations under different environmental conditions, the nature of the entities that are able to emerge and manage matter to produce copies of themselves is likely to differ substantially. And the molecules that are able to manage cooperative organisations of these first self-replicators may be quite different to RNA and DNA. Even where conditions are identical, the fact that this early evolution will proceed by trial-and-error means that significant differences are still likely. Historical accidents are a common feature of trial-and-error searches in a complex environment.

And any differences that do arise are likely to be magnified. This is because evolution progresses by building on earlier steps. We are managed organisations of the organisations that evolved before us on this planet, and this will be a feature common to all life, wherever it evolves. If any of the earlier steps had been different, due to differences in conditions or historical accidents, all the evolutionary steps that followed may also have been affected, at least in their detail. As a result, organisations elsewhere in the universe that are capable of evolutionary modelling and self-management may look very different to us. But they will be managed organisations of smaller-scale managed organisations of still smaller-scale organisations.

To this point in the book we have concentrated on developing an understanding of the general sequence of progressive evolutionary change that will unfold wherever life arises. We are now in a position to use this general understanding to look at the specific way in which this sequence has unfolded in the evolution of life on earth. In particular, we can now identify each of the organisational milestones in which groups of living entities were managed to form new, larger-scale cooperative organisations. We have already looked in detail at many of these milestones to illustrate how the general evolutionary sequence unfolds. Where we have done so, our consideration of them here will be brief. We will be concerned mainly with putting the milestones into their proper historical order, and looking briefly at how each milestone built on previous steps in the sequence.

Our tracing of this sequence of progressive evolution will eventually bring us to human evolution. We will look in much greater detail at the sequence of evolutionary milestones that have been achieved in the course of human evolution. We will see where humanity fits into the sequence of progressive evolution that has unfolded and is likely to continue to unfold on this planet. This will help us to develop the background needed to see how human organisation must change if we are to continue to participate successfully in future progressive evolution.

The first major organisational milestone in the evolution of life on earth was the emergence of molecular processes that could manage atoms, molecules and other matter to produce copies of themselves. The ability of these molecular processes to manage matter in this way meant that they had a fundamental characteristic of life: the capacity to reproduce. As we have seen, a strong argument can be made out that the first processes to do this were autocatalytic sets of proteins[1]. Collectively, an autocatalytic set of proteins manages the matter available to it to reproduce each member of the set through time. Each member of the set manages (catalyses) chemical processes that lead to the production of other members of the set. Together these managed chemical processes form a proto metabolism.

The next major organisational milestone was achieved through the management of autocatalytic sets and their proto metabolism by RNA molecules. RNA could use the rich molecular resources of a set to boost their own reproduction. Some RNA molecules discovered how to enhance the productivity of their set by catalysing the formation of useful proteins. This enabled the RNA molecules to harvest more from the set for their own use. The most powerful way in which they could boost the effectiveness of their set was to promote cooperation amongst the proteins in the set. The RNA management could ensure that proteins were catalysed to the extent that they contributed to the effectiveness of the set. In this way, proteins captured the effects of their actions on others in the set, and on the set as a whole. The end result of the evolution of this new form of organisation was the first cells. The modern representatives of these simple cells are the bacteria and the other cells known as prokaryotes.

The third key organisational milestone involved the formation of managed organisations of these simple cells. The result was the modern eukaryote cell that contains within it the descendants of the earlier, simpler cells. There is still disagreement amongst biologists about how many different types of cells formed the eukaryote cell. But it is common ground that at least the mitochondria within animal and plant cells, and the chloroplast found only in plant cells, are both the descendants of simple prokaryote cells[2]. These simple cells were initially engulfed by large prokaryote cells as food. But instead of just using them once as food, the larger cells found they could do better by exploiting the benefits of on-going cooperation with the smaller cells. As we have seen in the case of mitochondria, they could do this by managing the smaller cells so that the interests of the smaller cells were aligned with those of the organisation as a whole. Management ensured that the smaller cells could capture the benefits of any contribution they made to the effectiveness of the host cell.

In each these first three organisational milestones, cooperative organisation was produced by external management, rather than by distributed internal management: in the first, matter and a proto metabolism were managed externally by an autocatalytic set of proteins to form a self-reproducing molecular process; in the second, sets were in turn managed externally by RNA molecules to produce simple cells; and in the third, simple cells were in turn managed by the DNA of a larger cell to produce complex eukaryote cells.

Why was it that none of these first three major organisational milestones were produced by distributed internal management? To see why, we need to remember that internal management controls a group of entities by predisposing each of the entities to behave in particular ways. It can do this only if the controls that establish the predispositions are reproduced in each of the entities. Examples of these types of controls are clusters of genes that are reproduced in each member of a group of animals, and clusters of learnt behavioural predispositions such as beliefs and norms that are reproduced in each member of a group of humans. We also need to remember that if a system of internal management is to evolve and adapt, it must include a change-and-test process that tries out different management controls.

This means that if a group of entities are to be managed cooperatively by distributed internal management, the entities must include internal controls that are evolvable and can be reproduced in all members of the group. Internal management could not play a part in producing cooperative organisation until internal controls of this type had evolved.

But distributed internal management was always going to become significant in the evolution of life. This is because progressive evolution was always going to produce internal controls of the type that would make internal management possible. To see why this is so, we need to notice that external managers that organise entities into cooperative organisations will also be internal controls within those new organisations. So the RNA that externally manages an autocatalytic set of proteins to form an early cell is also an internal controller of the early cell considered as a whole. The same applies to the eukaryote cell. The eukaryote cell is formed when the DNA of a larger cell externally manages molecular processes and other simple cells within the larger cell. It is clear that this DNA is also an internal controller of the resulting eukaryote cell, when the eukaryote cell is considered as a whole.

But a further condition had to be met before these internal genetic controls could be reproduced in each member of a group of cells to manage it cooperatively. In order to be able to produce cooperative behaviour between cells, the genetic controls had to be able to control and adapt the way in which the cells interacted[3]. The genetic controls had to be able to organise the cells sufficiently well to be able to produce, control, and adapt useful cooperative interactions between cells.

It was not until the third organisational milestone was reached that this condition was met. It was only with the evolution of the complex eukaryote cell that genetic managers evolved sufficient management ability to produce and adapt the sophisticated interactions that were needed to organise a cooperative division of labour between cells.

This paved the way for the fourth major organisational milestone in which the management of groups of entities produced new, larger-scale cooperative organisations. Highly cooperative organisations of eukaryote cells were made possible by the management of groups of cells by gene-based distributed internal management. A group of cells could be managed by internal genetic predispositions if these were reproduced in each of the cells. This would be the case if the group resulted from the reproduction of a single cell. As we saw in Chapter 7, this genetic internal management could hard wire the cells in the group to act cooperatively in the interests of the group as a whole.

It is worth emphasising here that the multicellular organisms formed in this way were, like the other organisations produced in each of the organisational milestones, organisations of the organisations formed at the previous milestone. These in turn were organisations of the organisations formed at the milestone before that, and so on. So multicellular organisms such as us are made up of eukaryote cells that are the descendants of a community of simple prokaryote cells. These in turn are descendants of autocatalytic sets managed by RNA and DNA, and these in turn are the descendants of the first molecular processes that were able to reproduce themselves by managing simpler atoms and molecules into copies of themselves.

The formation of multicellular organisms again substantially increased the scale over which living processes cooperated. Their larger size enabled multicellular organisms to develop more complex internal arrangements. This made possible the evolution of the organs and systems needed for more sophisticated internal adaptive processes. As we have seen, the genetic managers of multicellular organisms have been able to organise the activities of millions of cells to cooperatively produce complex nervous systems and brains. These have enabled organisms to learn and discover better adaptations during their life, store the results of this learning, and use it to target the search for adaptation in the future. The genetic manager itself was unable to adapt organisms during their life, but it has produced nervous systems and other internal adaptive processes that can.

Genetic distributed internal management also produced the next major organisational milestone. But this time genes organised cooperative groups of multicellular organisms rather than cooperative groups of cells. Ant, bee and termite societies are the most widely recognised examples of this fifth organisational milestone. The genetic managers of multicellular organisms were able to organise societies once the managers had developed the ability to produce and adapt cooperative interactions between organisms. A group of multicellular organisms could be managed by internal genetic predispositions if these were reproduced in each of the members of the group. This could be achieved if the group began with an individual that reproduced to form the other members of the group. A genetic manager produced in this way could predispose the members of the group to act cooperatively. It could also organise them to exclude from the group individuals who were less likely to contain the manager, and to restrict reproduction to those most likely to contain the manager.

Initially, the first societies of organisms organised by genetic managers could not adapt as a coordinated whole during their life. This is because their genetic management could not include a genetic change-and-test mechanism that operated within the society. As we have seen, to maintain full control over an organisation, a genetic manager must suppress competition from alternative managers within the organisation. It therefore cannot try out new mutated managers within the organisation during its life. So, as with multicellular organisms, the genetic managers of insect societies had to establish new adaptive processes within the societies. They had to organise new change-and-test processes that operated during the life of the society.

Insect societies managed by genetic managers have not yet established internal adaptive processes anywhere near as sophisticated as those contained in the more complex multicellular organisms[4]. There is no equivalent to the central nervous system or the brain. This is because insect societies are limited in their ability to explore fully the benefits of cooperation between their members. They have not been able to establish the extensive cooperative division of labour that has enabled multicellular organisms to produce complex organs such as the eye, heart, kidney and brain. Even the most complex insect societies contain only four different types of members[5].

In large part this limitation results from the fact the genetic manager is not reproduced in all the members of a typical insect society. This is because the female insect that founds the society produces the other members by sexual reproduction. The founding female will have been inseminated by one or more males. Offspring that are produced sexually in this way will differ from each other genetically. As a result, the members of the society are likely to have different genetic managers. In contrast, the cells that make up a multicellular organism are each produced by the cloning of a single fertilised egg. Barring fresh mutation, all cells will have the same genetic manager.

So in insect societies, competition between alternative managers within the society will undermine cooperation. It will prevent a manager from capturing all the benefits of the cooperation that the manager could potentially organise. As a result, it will not be profitable for the manager to organise some forms of cooperation even though they would benefit the society as a whole.

As for insect societies, the next two organisational milestones in the evolution of life on earth also involved the formation of organisations of multicellular organisms. But these new organisations were a clear advance over insect societies. Their capacity to explore the potential benefits of cooperation over wider and wider scales of space and time was far superior. This is because the organisations were made up of multicellular organisms that were far more adaptable and evolvable than insects. Organisms that are more adaptable and evolvable are able to form societies that are also more adaptable and evolvable, and are better able to exploit the benefits of cooperation. Smarter organisms can build smarter societies.

The sixth and seventh organisational milestones had to await the emergence of multicellular organisms with highly developed abilities to adapt and evolve during their life. As we shall see in detail in the Chapters that follow, the sixth milestone required an organism with the ability to learn new behavioural predispositions and to pass them from generation to generation. The seventh could begin to unfold only once an organism with a capacity for systemic modelling had emerged. And the full potential of the seventh milestone will be realised only when there is an organism with a capacity for evolutionary modelling and self-management. Of course, life on this planet began to acquire these capacities only with the emergence of humans and our recent ancestors. The story of the sixth and seventh organisational milestones is the story of the evolution of human societies.

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[1].       See Kauffman, S. A. (1993) The Origins of Order: Self-organisation and selection in evolution. New York: Oxford University Press; and Kauffman, S. A. (1995) At home in the universe: The search for laws of self-organisation and complexity. New York: Oxford University Press.

[2].       Cavalier-Smith, T. (1981) The origin and early evolution of the early eukaryote cell. In: Molecular and Cellular Aspects of Microbial Evolution. Society for General Microbiology Symposium 32. (Carlisle, M. J. et al., eds.) pp. 33-84. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[3].       Stewart, J. E. (1997) Evolutionary Progress. Journal of Social and Evolutionary Systems 20: 335-362.

[4].       But insect societies have evolved some processes that adapt the society as a whole. For example, see Bonabeau, G. T., Deneubourg, J., Aron, S. and S. Camazine. (1997) Self-organization in social insects. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 12: 188-193.

[5].       Holldobler, B. and E. O. Wilson (1990) The Ants. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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