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.

March 4, 2010

Towards a “Phase Transition” in Anthropology?

Posted in Ascendancy to Power: Agriculture, Book/article Reviews tagged , , , , , , at 6:25 pm by Jeremy

Myths of the Archaic State: Evolution of the Earliest Cities, States, and Civilizations

By Norman Yoffee.

New York: Cambridge University Press.

Casual readers beware!  The “myths” of the archaic state in Norman Yoffee’s title are not the original myths of the early civilizations.  Rather, Yoffee is referring to academic “myths” of traditional scholarship that his book aims to debunk.  This means that his work is targeted mainly for those already steeped in the theory of anthropology rather than those wanting to learn about the ancient civilizations themselves.

That said, there’s plenty of intriguing material about daily life in Mesopotamia in particular that will reward careful reading.  Yoffee’s approach emphasizes the dynamics of social roles and power dynamics in early civilizations, and as such he offers unusually detailed analyses of real world activities.  For example, a particularly memorable section is entitled “Imagining Sex in an Early State”, and describes how the Assyrian word for prostitute, kezertu, was derived from the verb kezeru, which means “to curl the hair.”

Fascinating as that is, the most notable aspect of Yoffee’s book for me is his application of complexity theory to understanding the major transitions in early human history.  Theories of complexity and self-organization are gaining increasing acceptance in biological specializations such as collective animal behavior or cellular dynamics, but it’s still rare for these approaches to be applied in disciplines that deal with the collective behavior of that rather strange animal called “the human.”

Yoffee first lays his theoretical foundation, describing a complex adaptive system as one that “cannot be reduced to the ‘sum of its parts’ because the action of some parts is always affecting the action of other parts, so that equilibrium of the entire system is never reached or maintained for very long.”  He then clenches his proverbial teeth and takes the plunge, stating:

I mean to show … that not only are ancient states and civilizations complex systems …, but so are all human societies playgrounds for social negotiation and for the empowerment of the few, and their parts remain far from some equilibrium with each other and their environment… the task is not to ask whether a society is complex but how it is complex…

On this basis, Yoffee borrows some of the “concepts and terminology from research on ‘complex adaptive systems” to show how minor perturbations in a social organization can occasionally lead to extremely rapid and dramatic change.

In taking this approach, Yoffee becomes a pioneer in an intellectual movement that I believe will have sweeping consequences in the years to come.  He’s not the first prominent anthropologist to undertake this intellectual journey.  For example, twenty years ago, Gregory Possehl, in writing about the Harappan civilization, made the following observation:

Thinking systematically, we see that virtually all parts (institutions and individuals) of the vast interconnected, largely seamless web of sociocultural systems are surely involved in the dynamic of change, as agents of both effect and affect… [N]either our anthropological vocabulary nor our discipline’s conceptual apparatus facilitates expression of the complex, subtle notion involved here… Once change has started there occurs a kind of “domino effect,” … a complex set of positive and negative “feedback” exchanges that sustain the process…[1]

However, while Possehl identified the same dynamic, he seemed well aware that he lacked the theoretical language to be able to apply it systematically to his subject.  Yoffee, by contrast, explicitly describes the rapid evolution of city-states in the late 3000s-early 2000s BC as a “phase transition” from “one state of being to another,” and compares it to the classic example from physics of hot water transitioning to boiling only at the point where it’s heated to 100˚ Celsius.

In another section, Yoffee uses the complexity theory concept of “emergent properties” to delve into the dynamics that transformed hunter-gatherers to settled farmers.  In this case, he goes beyond the usual analysis of how humans transformed crops and animals by considering the reciprocal effects of domesticated plants on human activity.  He describes how people needed to spend an increasing amount of time and energy looking after the crops and animals that were gradually becoming tamer and less able to compete in the wild, so that “people also become dependent on domesticants,” their movement restricted by the requirement to tend their new assets.

I believe that Yoffee’s pioneering approach is taking anthropology in a fertile direction, but I think these are only the first, tentative steps in a long journey.  I wonder if a breakthrough available to Yoffee and others in the field might be to join the concept of “punctuated equilibria” proposed by Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould with the “phase transition” dynamics of complexity theory.  Yoffee mentions Gould in passing in his book, but only in reference to the work of another anthropologist.

In their foundational 1977 paper on punctuated equilibria in speciation, Gould and Eldredge suggested that “a general theory of punctuational change is broadly, though by no means exclusively, valid throughout biology.”[2] Just as complexity theory is now increasingly being applied beyond biology to the arena of social sciences, the same case might be made for punctuated equilibria.  In fact, an argument could be made that Gould & Eldredge’s application of their theory to evolutionary speciation may be one particular applied case of the more general rule of emergence in complex dynamic systems.

Gould himself, a few years later, speculated on some of the wider implications of his theory, stating:

In the largest sense, this debate is but one small aspect of a broader discussion about the nature of change: Is our world … primarily one of constant change (with structure as a mere incarnation of the moment), or is structure primary and constraining, with change as a “difficult” phenomenon, usually accomplished rapidly when a stable structure is stressed beyond its buffering capacity to resist and absorb.[3]

Here, by way of comparison, is Yoffee’s summary description of the sudden shift from village communities to city-state in ancient Mesopotamia, which seems to fit Gould’s characterization:

In Mesopotamia, villages that were centers of production and exchange, that were located on trade routes and/or rivers, that lay near great agricultural land, seats of temples and regional worship, and that were defensible locations from attacks by neighbors – for hundreds or thousands of years – suddenly became cities, as people from the countryside increasingly moved into them.

The concept of punctuated equilibria has already been applied by leading thinkers in other disciplines within the social sciences.  For example, Richard Klein refers to it in characterizing his view of the pattern of human evolution;[4] Quentin Atkinson et. al. see it as a model for the evolution and divergence of languages;[5] and Joel Mokyr sees it as a “paradigm for technological history” in analyzing the phenomenon of the Industrial Revolution.[6]

At first glance, the very term “punctuated equilibrium” seems incompatible with the general rule of complex dynamics systems existing “far from equilibrium.”  However, I believe this may be a problem with Gould & Eldredge’s choice of terminology rather than the underlying dynamics they are describing.  If you consider the paradigmatic example of water coming to the boil, it may appear at equilibrium at the surface, but underneath there is an increasing flow of currents as the water gets ever closer to a phase transition.  Similarly, in Yoffee’s example of Mesopotamian urbanization, the forces affecting village dynamics would have been slowly building even while, at the surface, the village appeared stable.  Perhaps a more apt name for Gould & Eldredge’s dynamic might be “punctuated continuum,” suggesting a relatively stable, gradually changing continuum suddenly entering a phase transition of rapid transformation.

There is some theoretical underpinning for this linkage of the two concepts in the writings of Per Bak and Kim Sneppen, the two physicists who first coined the term “self-organized criticality.”  In two different papers they write about the two sets of phenomena as one dynamic:

The model self-organizes into a critical steady state with intermittent coevolutionary avalanches of all size; i.e. it exhibits ‘punctuated equilibrium’ behavior… this behavior indicates that the ecology of interacting species has evolved to a self-organized critical state…

Gould and Eldredge have coined the term punctuated equilibrium to describe the intermittent behavior of the evolution of single species.[7]

The implications of this approach in analyzing the major changes in early human society are widespread.  Once you accept, as Yoffee has, that “the task is not to ask whether a society is complex but how it is complex,” then there is a profound impact on methodology.  Instead of trying to identify a major cause or causes for a phase transition, the focus shifts to understanding how the different factors interacted with each other, and perhaps even more consequentially, how the larger social pattern then effected downward causation on the original factors, thus leading to the “reciprocal causality” characteristic of true emergence.

Thompson & Varela, two leading theoreticians in the study of complex systems, describe this self-organizing confluence of both “upward” and “downward” causation:

Emergence through self-organization has two directions.  First, there is local-to-global determination or ‘upward causation’, as a result of which novel processes emerge that have their own features, lifetimes and domains of interaction.  Second, there is global-to-local determination, often called ‘downward causation’, whereby global characteristics of a system govern or constrain local interactions.  This aspect of emergence is less frequently discussed, but has long been noted by researchers in the field of complex dynamical systems.  It is central to some views about consciousness and the brain…[8]

Let us hope that Yoffee’s pioneering efforts in this area have begun their own pattern of emergence, whereby his approach, along with others, initiate the beginnings of some “downward causation” in their field, leading perhaps to a “phase transition” in methodological approaches throughout the social sciences.


[1] Possehl, G. L. (1990). “Revolution in the Urban Revolution: The Emergence of Indus Urbanization.” Annual Review of Anthropology, 19, 261-282.

[2] Gould, S. J., and Eldredge, N. (1977). “Puctuated Equilibria: The Tempo and Mode of Evolution Reconsidered.” Paleobiology, 3(2 [Spring 1977]), 115-151.

[3] Gould, S. J. (1982). “Darwinism and the Expansion of Evolutionary Theory.” Science, 216(4544:April 23), 380-387.

[4] Klein, R. G. (2000). “Archeology and the Evolution of Human Behavior.” Evolutionary Anthropology, 9(1), 17-36.

[5] Atkinson, Q. D., et. al. (2008). “Languages Evolve in Punctuational Bursts.” Science, 588.

[6] Mokyr, J. (1990). The Lever of Riches: Technological Creativity and Economic Progress, New York: Oxford University Press.

[7] Bak, P., and Sneppen, K. (1993). “Punctuated Equilibrium and Criticality in a Simple Model of Evolution.” Physical Review Letters, 71(24), 4083-4086.  Also: Sneppen, K., Bak, P., Flyvbjerg, H., and Jensen, M. H. (1995). “Evolution as a self-organized critical phenomenon.” PNAS, 92(May 1995), 5209-5213.

[8] Thompson, E., and Varela, F. J. (2001). “Radical embodiment: neural dynamics and consciousness.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 5(10), 418-425.

Thompson, E., and Varela, F. J. (2001). “Radical embodiment: neural dynamics and consciousness.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 5(10), 418-425.

November 18, 2009

A False Choice: Reductionism or Dualism

Posted in Scientific Revolution tagged , , , , , at 4:18 pm by Jeremy

Twenty-four hundred years ago, Plato fired the first shot across the bow in the debate that – to this very day – structures how we view our world.  He was arguing against the earliest known thinkers of the classical Greek world called the Presocratic philosophers, some of whom had come up with notions that we would regard as quite modern even today: for example, that the whole cosmos can be broken down to tiny particles of atoms, colliding mechanically with each other.

Plato hated this so much that he proposed five years of solitary confinement for people who held these opinions, followed by death if they hadn’t reformed.  What got Plato so riled up?  It was, in his own words, the notion that:

By nature and by chance, they say, fire and water and earth and air all exist – none of them exist by art – and … the earth, the sun, the moon and the stars were generated by these totally soulless means… not by intelligence, they say, nor by a god, nor by art, but … by nature and by chance.[1]

Plato was railing against the mindset that’s currently known as “reductionism” – the notion that everything in the universe, no matter how complex, mysterious or spiritual it might seem – can be theoretically reduced into a series of “nothing but” descriptions: nothing but atoms, nothing but neurons, nothing but genes.  And Plato’s response to this was, again, something very familiar to us: he posited another dimension, a dimension of the soul, a dimension of eternal ideals, which existed apart from the material, everyday world, and somehow infused it with meaning and spirit.  This is the Platonic dualism which underlies our Western tradition of thought (discussed in another post).

Science scans the universe but doesn't find God

Many people still accept the prevailing dualism and lock into the construct of an external God and an immortal soul within us which will join Him in heaven some day.  But this belief structure is under ever increasing empirical pressure from a scientific methodology that scans the brain and finds no place for the immortal soul, that scans the universe and finds no place for God.

Consequently, many others in today’s world have switched to the reductionism of science, summarized so clearly by Francis Crick, the co-discoverer of the DNA molecule:

You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.[2]

But this approach delivers a world devoid of meaning, as described by Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg: “The more we know of the universe, the more meaningless it appears.”[3]

No wonder that so many of us would empathize with the deeply felt existential longing of biologist Ursula Goodenough, as she confides her inner fears:

… all of us, and scientists are no exception, are vulnerable to the existential shudder that leaves us wishing that the foundations of life were something other than just so much biochemistry and biophysics…  My body is some 10 trillion cells.  Period.  My thoughts are a lot of electricity flowing along a lot of membrane.  My emotions are the result of neurotransmitters squirting on my brain cells.  I look in the mirror and see the mortality and I find myself fearful, yearning for less knowledge, yearning to believe that I have a soul that will go to heaven and soar with the angels.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.  I believe that the choice between reductionism and dualism is a false choice.  I propose that it’s perfectly possible to embrace both science and spirituality.  The premise underlying this proposal is that the coldly mechanical universe offered by reductionist science is plain wrong: it’s a simplifying metaphor that’s proven very powerful as a way to analyze and predict elements of the natural world.  But it’s no more than a metaphor and its simplifying assumptions are beginning to limit what science can offer us in the 21st century and beyond.

In order to understand reductionism a little better, I’m going to look at the three leading versions of it in today’s world, which I call genetic reductionism, neurological reductionism, and spiritual reductionism.[4]

The great popularizer of genetic reductionism is biologist Richard Dawkins, author of the best-seller The Selfish Gene.  As Dawkins describes it, genes are the irreducible unit of biological replication.  Genes are virtually immortal, and they use our bodies as the vehicle for their “selfish” purpose of replication:

… they swarm in huge colonies, safe inside gigantic lumbering robots, sealed off from the outside world… manipulating it by remote control.  They are in you and in me; they created us, body and mind; and their preservation is the ultimate rationale for our existence.[5]

DNA: the housing for the “selfish gene.”

For Dawkins and his followers, all evolution can be explained by the underlying power of the “selfish gene.”  But a growing number of biologists are showing that the selfish gene is, in fact, nothing more than a simplifying assumption, and an increasingly erroneous one, at that.  “We have taken,” says biologist Richard Strohman, “a successful and extremely useful theory and paradigm of the gene and have illegitimately extended it as a paradigm of life.”  “The mistaken idea,” he explains, is “that complex behavior may be traced solely to genetic agents and their surrogate proteins without recourse to the properties originating from the complex and nonlinear interactions of these agents.”[6]

Ultimately, as philosopher Evan Thompson points out, the obsessive focus on the selfish gene is such bad science, it doesn’t even deserve the name:

This notion of information as something that preexists its own expression in the cell, and that is not affected by the developmental matrix of the organism and environment, is a reification that has no explanatory value.  It is informational idolatry and superstition, not science.[7]

Neurons: Crick’s view of the building blocks of our humanity.

What about neurological reductionism, the view summarized so well by Francis Crick, that “You’re nothing but a pack of neurons.”[8]?  The problem with this approach is that it ignores the most salient aspect of our consciousness: its dynamic, ongoing self-organization.  Even if you could map out every neuron in the brain and analyze each one, molecule by molecule, you wouldn’t even come close to explaining consciousness, because it’s the complex, dynamic patterns formed  by their interactions that cause us to be who we are.  “In cognitive neuroscience,” writes neurobiologist A.K. Engel, “we are witnessing a fundamental paradigm shift.”  Classical views of the mind as a passively programmed computer are inconsistent with modern findings.  “Current approaches emphasize the intimate relationship between cognition and action that is apparent in the real-world interactions of the brain and the rich dynamics of neuronal networks.”[9]

Mind is not the “pack of neurons” described by Crick and others.  It’s only when we try to understand it for what it is, “a spatiotemporal pattern that molds the … dynamic patterns of the brain,”[10] that we can make real progress.  As neuroscientist Scott Kelso puts it: “Instead of trying to reduce biology and psychology to chemistry and physics, the task now is to extend our physical understanding of the organization of living things.”[11]

Which takes us to spiritual reductionism, the dead-end view described by Nobel Prize-winner Roger Sperry that “man is nothing but a material object, having none but physical properties” and therefore “Science can give a complete account of man in purely physicochemical terms.”[12] What this view misses is the same principle that the other two forms of reductionism also miss: that we can only begin to understand the nature of complex systems – cells, organisms, even consciousness – when we focus on the ongoing, dynamic patterns of interactivity formed by these systems, rather than just the molecules, neurons and genes of which these systems are composed.

And when you begin looking at these interactions, something transformative happens: the emergent patterns caused by these complex systems affect the very system itself, causing an even greater spiraling of complexity.  This is known as “circular causality” or “downward causation.”  Biologist Brian Goodwin summarizes this dynamic as follows:

The important properties of these complex systems are found less in what they are made of than in the way the parts are related to one another and the dynamic organization of the whole – their relational order… To understand these complex nonlinear dynamic systems it is necessary to study both the whole and its parts, and to be prepared for surprises due to the emergence of unexpected behavior…  In this sense the study of complex systems goes beyond reductionism, which focuses on the analysis of the components out of which a system is made.[13]

There are still many scientists, grounded in reductionist thinking, who like to dismiss these approaches as somehow unscientific or even “mystical”.  That’s getting to be an increasingly difficult position to hold, as more and more scientific fields embrace the approaches of dynamical complexity theory to make inroads into their thorniest problems.  Solé & Goodwin describe the current situation:

The concept of emergence, once regarded by many biologists as a vague and mystical concept with dangerous vitalist connotations, is now the central focus of the sciences of complexity.  Here the question is, How can systems made up of components whose properties we understand well give rise to phenomena that are quite unexpected?  Life is the most dramatic manifestation of this process, the domain of emergence par excellence.  But the new sciences unite biology with physics in a manner that allows us to see the creative fabric of natural process as a single dynamic unfolding.

-Solé, R., and Goodwin, B. (2000). Signs of Life: How Complexity Pervades Biology, New York: Basic Books.

Nobel Prize-winner Roger Sperry: an early proponent of emergence theory.

Reductionism, in its falsely compelling rigor, tells us “we’re all just nothing but… and that’s all there is.”  Dualism, in contrast, posits an entirely different dimension of divinity and soul, and gives us the choice of taking it on faith, or falling back to the hard, cold ground of reductionism.  However, when the full implications of the dynamics of complexity and emergence are understood, then, in the words of Roger Sperry, “the very nature of science itself is changed.”  Science no longer needs to be the voice of spiritual despair.  When science embraces dynamic complexity, as Sperry elaborates:

In the eyes of science… man’s creator becomes the vast interwoven fabric of all evolving nature, a tremendously complex concept that includes all the immutable and emergent forces of cosmic causation that control everything from high-energy subnuclear particles to galaxies, not forgetting the causal properties that govern brain function and behavior at individual and social levels.[14]

“Thus we have,” says complexity theorist Stuart Kauffman, “the first glimmerings of a new scientific worldview, beyond reductionism.  In our universe emergence is real, and there is ceaseless, stunning creativity that has given rise to our biosphere, our humanity, and our history.  We are partial co-creators of this emergent creativity.”[15]

I’m going to explore this theme, which I think will be central to the search for authentic meaning in the 21st century, in the sister blog to this one, called Finding the Li.  In the meantime, I’ll leave you with a thought from Heraclitus, perhaps the first Western complexity theorist and ironically one of those Presocratic philosophers that Plato wanted to throw in jail:

For wisdom consists in one thing, to know the principle by which all things are steered through all things.[16]


[1] Cited in Vlastos, G. (1975/2005). Plato’s Universe, Canada: Parmenides Publishing, pp. 23-4

[2] Crick, F., (1995), Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul.  Scribner.

[3] Quoted by Kauffman, S., (2008). Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason, and Religion. New York: Basic Books.

[4] Ironically, the original form of reductionism from physics, “we’re all nothing but atoms”, has dissolved in the quagmire of “spooky” quantum mechanics and string theory, only to re-emerge in the biological sciences.  For a history of this shift, see Woese, C. R. (2004). “A New Biology for a New Century”.  Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews,  pp. 173-186.

[5] Dawkins, R. (1976/2006).  The Selfish Gene.  New York: Oxford University Press.

[6] Strohman, R. C. (1997). “The coming Kuhnian revolution in biology.” Nature Biotechnology, 15(March 1997), 194-200.

[7] Thompson, E. (2007). Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

[8] Crick, F., (1995) op. cit.

[9] Engel, A. K., Fries, P., and Singer, W. (2001). “Dynamic Predictions: Oscillations and Synchrony in Top-Down Processing.” Nature Reviews: Neuroscience, 2(October 2001), 704-716.

[10] Kelso, J. A. S. (1995). Dynamic Patterns: The Self-Organization of Brain and Behavior, Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press.

[11] Kelso, op. cit.

[12] Sperry, R. W. (1980). “Mind-Brain Interaction: Mentalism, Yes; Dualism, No.” Neuroscience, 5(1980), 195-206.

[13] Goodwin, B. (2001). How the Leopard changed Its Spots: The Evolution of Complexity, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

[14] Sperry, R. W. (1981). “Changing Priorities.” Annual Review of Neuroscience, 1981(4), 1-15.

[15] Kauffman, S. (2007). “Beyond Reductionism: Reinventing the Sacred.” Zygon, 903-14.

[16] Cited by Marlow, A. N. (1954). “Hinduism and Buddhism in Greek Philosophy.” Philosophy East and West, 4(1:April 1954), 35-45.