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Self-Organisation and the Development of Complexity

Here the most important figure is Stuart Kauffman, whose ideas are most accessibly presented in his At Home in the Universe (1995).Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1995.Kauffman’s work stems principally out of his analysis of non-linear systems - the mathematics of chaos, as modelled on the modern computer and applied to biological systems. In a sense his conclusions complement Stephen Jay Gould’s (see Punctuated Equilibrium and Radical Contingency):

  • Gould’s stress is that the evolution of higher organisms is not a matter of inevitable progress to greater sophistication, but rather that higher systems are always vulnerable to environmental change (most famously when a massive impact from space, 65 million years ago, led, it is thought, to the extinction of the dinosaurs).

  • Kauffman has made use of the work by Prigogine on complex chemical systems held far from equilibrium. The surface of the early Earth contained many such systems (because energy was continually pouring in from the sun). It is now known that these systems are always likely to give rise to greater complexity. So the particularly elaborate systems that are self-replicating cells were, Kauffman alleges, very likely to arise.The details of how a system as intricate as a single cell arose remain frustratingly obscure. What Kauffman has shown is that autocatalytic systems (where each of the components speeds up the reaction...Not merely that, but such evolving systems will tend to move to a special ordered state near to ‘the edge of chaos’, representing the ideal balance between stability and propensity to explore change.See also Bak, P, How Nature Works (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997) on ‘self-organized criticality’.

So one of the properties that organisms may be expected to evolve is ‘evolvability’ - the capacity to try out new properties without prematurely losing the benefit of the old. Although the course of evolution will always be influenced by selection, and radically altered by any sudden climatic or geological change, it will be much influenced by the mathematics of self-organisation. Yes, evolution does depend on all sorts of chances, but also yes, a thermodynamic system like the surface of the Earth will keep throwing up the possibility of complexity.

An extension of the concept that organisms evolve evolvability is the perception that they develop information-processing systems which can analyse the environment and respond not just to stimuli which have occurred in the past but to conditions not met before. The immune systems of higher organisms would be an example, but in a sense the clearest case is the human intellect itself - a product of natural selection which is so versatile and creative that its activity affects the environment of millions of other species.

Email link | Feedback | Contributed by: Dr. Christopher Southgate and Dr. Michael Robert Negus
Source: God, Humanity and the Cosmos  (T&T Clark, 1999)

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