March 17, 2010

“Punctuated equilibria” as a special case of emergence in complex systems

Posted in Ascendancy to Power: Agriculture, Emergence in self-organized systems, Language and Myth, Pfc tyranny: overview, Scientific Revolution tagged , , , , , at 5:00 pm by Jeremy

I’ve just completed my first draft of an academic paper I’ve been working on entitled: “Punctuated Equilibria” as Emergence: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Change in Social Systems.

Readers of either of my two blogs will know that I think recent advances in thinking about complex adaptive systems can offer a tremendous amount to disciplines outside the traditional ones of physics and systems biology.

In this paper, I propose that Stephen Jay Gould’s famous theory of punctuated equilibria may be seen as a special case of emergence in complex adaptive systems, and the same approach can be used to gain a better understanding of major changes in human social systems: in pre-history, in historical times, and in our present day.

Here’s the abstract to the paper:

The theory of “punctuated equilibria” proposed by Eldredge and Gould is conceived as a special case applied to the field of paleobiology of the more general dynamic of emergence in self-organized adaptive systems.  “Punctuated equilibria” has been sporadically applied as a descriptor of change in social systems, and elsewhere the underlying methodological linkage to emergence has been noted.   However, it is proposed that a more formal application of emergence theory to changes in human social systems offers the potential for new insight.  The distinction between “epistemological” and “ontological” emergence is discussed and the key concept of “reciprocal causality” introduced.  Documented examples of ontological emergence in animal and ecological self-organization are reviewed.  A theoretical framework is then applied, for illustrative purposes, to three cases of pre-historical and historical emergence in human social systems – language, agriculture and the scientific/industrial revolution.  The framework is then applied to potential phase transitions in the current human system.

Here’s a link to a pdf version of the working draft of the paper.  Anyone with an academic interest in this subject is invited to read and comment, either in the comments section below or by e-mail.