A Sustainable Point of View

The Evolution of Evolution: A Paradigm Shift

The Evolution of Evolution: A Paradigm Shift

People create social biostructures of status, connection, friction and goals; these biostructures self-organize from the smaller chemical connections between us. Now we see that these biostructures are also connected. A complex adaptive system (CAS) or superorganism is a whole more than the sum of its parts, and those parts are us, and the systems we create.

Not everyone will be interested in looking at evolutionary theory in new ways, but framing human social dynamics in a systems context is an important paradigm shift. While our bootstrap ideology insists that people should be seen as individuals first, and that the aggregate effect of many individuals is just group-level chaos, systems theory says otherwise. A systems view suggests that there is order at the group level, a biosystem with its own history, trajectory, and implications. What is alluring about such an explanatory context is that it can help explain certain phenomena – both good and bad – that an individualist approach cannot: deep and systemic problems, culture and ideology, mass moods and panics, crowd phenomena, the evolution of society, globalization, technological evolution, collective intelligence – or collective stupidity – and more. If it sometimes seems that the social world has a life all its own, that’s because, it does.

If we take an honest look at these phenomena, we might reveal new ways of tackling our problems and new ways to embrace the future as well. But that honest look is difficult to come by, since there is a long history of warring ideas on these issues in science and academia. Contrary to what we might expect of science, the conflict isn’t a data problem at all; these ideas are fought over because of our preexisting ideologies about the order of things.

In the West, land of individualism, meaning is thought to come from the pursuit of our personal goals and dreams, and we’ve become ambivalent about an omnipresent social world that constantly seems to chip away at both. Perhaps our cultural ideals themselves deserve some blame in this. Whilst beautiful and deeply held, fantasies of pure self-determining freedom are proportionate with the meaninglessness we find in a social world of complex economies, corporate hierarchies, government regulations, communal obligations and more. These social specters seem to exist only to bleed us of the self-steered paths we were promised. It is a fair criticism: capitalism has a nasty tendency to do just that. But such a system thrives from a culture ill-equipped for such a world, a culture where people are focused only on themselves and their personal dreams. Were we more outward focused, more particular about our relationship to something bigger and deeper, we might accidentally create freedom in the form of a system worth living in; a system that feeds our souls, instead of robbing from them.

Putting aside our cultural expectations, a science of group life can help us transcend our fear on the topic and see how such a balance might be articulated. After all, our social bonds run deeper than governments, corporations and societies, to the mechanisms of meaning that fuel our biology. In the relationship between individuals and groups, through mechanisms of meaning, there is a salvation. None of us actually wants to absolve ourselves of community life entirely, we just want social interaction to be sustainable. We want our communal life to be smart, fun, purposeful, moral, safe and supportive. We want to have a meaningful relationship to our group, and yet, some autonomy too. The good news is that there is reason to believe that these things are in the evolutionary cards, but only when we take a honest accounting of where our social nature comes from and where it is going.

And that leads us back to systems. Human beings make up a living complex adaptive system, or CAS, which is a system of interacting agents that create a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts. Systems self-organize, which is to say, agents coordinate their behavior from the bottom up to create spontaneous order, and these self-organizing systems evolve toward ever-growing complexity – both materially and in terms of how they information-processing. A CAS can help us understand how people form groups, religions, societies and ideologies, while appreciating our deeper relationship to the social whole (a good overview of CASs is found here). A CAS is neither made of up of purely selfish individuals nor is it a dystopian hivemind, as the connections between individuals are what give rise to the larger order. Such systems are not dictated wholly from the top, nor should they be ruled entirely from the bottom, as feedback and coordination between every level is key to their evolution. As CASs evolve, they have the potential to make us smarter, more moral, more capable, and give us more meaning in life. I will ultimately argue that a CAS evolves through meaning, specifically how society shapes the biostructures of meaning – through politics, economics, law and more – to change our human nature and unlock new ways of being.

In many ways, you could say that the above video from Kurzgesagt illustrates the purpose of this post well. The video is a fantastic synopsis of human history, putting things together in a way that makes human civilization seem “in the cards” through intuitive and common sense conclusions. Yet this is a coup, for hidden in the matter-of-fact narrative is a controversial challenge to modern evolutionary theory. For instance: @3:28 Kerzgesagt argues that what sets humans apart is how our complex and language-equipped brains allow us to cooperate more flexibly than other animals, and this is the reason for our unique role in history; modern theory downplays cooperation, while the alternate theories below – group-selection, multi-level selection and non-zero sum game theory – support it. @4:08 the video talks about cultural evolution and collective learning, which current theory is highly ambivalent about, yet are embraced in our non-zero and Big History sections. @5:38 and @7:29 the video mentions the rise of agriculture leading to specialization, social organization and the exponential development of human culture, a directionality which modern theory says cannot exist, yet we’ll address in the non-zero, Big History, and metasystem transition sections.

Evolutionary Paradigms

To see where CASs come from, we have to add elements to the evolutionary story which will fundamentally change its meaning and direction. But to do that is also to take on a paradigm that has vested political and cultural interests. As Thomas Kuhn said, all paradigms are defended by their cohort of adherents; change comes not through rational discourse, but through ideological battles for power, or simply waiting until the old guard dies. As a result, challenges to a paradigm are often delegitimized by pointing out that ideological consensus is against them. However, if we accept that history reveals conventional wisdom to be influenced by culture, power, and vested interests, we must only consider: is the counter-narrative plausible? I believe the evidence from many different avenues of research is overwhelming.

Ignaz Semmelweis

Ignaz Semmelweis, 1860. Godfather of Germ Theory, In the mid-1800’s, Semmelweis attempted to convince his medical peers of the virtues of hand-washing to prevent the unnecessary deaths of thousands from unsanitary hospital conditions. His evidence was rejected by the establishment at large, forcing Semmelweis out to become a social pariah. He died alone, destitute and in a mental hospital.

Our current evolutionary theory is wrapped up in a cultural battle against religion from the “New Atheists,” a movement built by figures like biologist Richard Dawkins and philosopher Daniel Dennett, the late author Christopher Hitchens and the late paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould. Dawkins’ 1976 book The Selfish Gene helped lay down much of the intellectual basis for The New Atheist movement. Dawkins’ work painted evolution as fundamentally selfish and individualistic, framing evolutionary fitness as an organism’s success at promoting its own rational self-interest. Individuals that let themselves be controlled by religious myths and ideologies at the expense of factual accuracy and autonomy implicitly failed at nature’s game. Dawkins was seeking the moral high ground to attack religious dogma and hypocrisy, and he found it in a passionate defense of emotionless, selfish individuals.

In this battle, Dawkins has been wildly successful; conventional dogma in modern biology is that gene-centric evolutionary theory killed group-focused evolution in the 60’s. This victory helped cement Western science’s emphasis on methodological individualism, a philosophy which says that any group-level organization has to be reduced to an understanding of individual motivations. This is the philosophy that is currently the intellectual foundation for all of evolutionary biology, political science, economics, psychology and more, serving as the cornerstone for Western thought.

Ultimately, though, we may need to reverse the causal direction of our story.* The reason methodological individualism found a particularly receptive audience in the US is because of our long-standing cultural individualism, a belief system that starts with the premise that every man is an island. And while that should be respected as the foundation of all Western values, it is also somewhat of an extreme position. Reduction to the individual resists important insights from our systemic connectedness, leading to many of our greatest modern social, political and philosophical problems.

*For instance, talking about cultural individualism with regard to Western psychology, Oyserman, Coon & Kemmelmeier, authors of Rethinking Individualism and Collectivism, argue that “…contemporary American psychological research is particularly suited to an individualistic worldview and may not necessarily fit as a universal model of human behavior to the extent that other peoples or regions of the world are sharply different from Americans in individualism and collectivism. For example, self-concept research is dominated both by a focus on self-esteem and by the belief that attainment of personal happiness is a basic motivational drive. Likewise, person perception and cognitive processes are understood in terms of stable traits, and equity is viewed as the basis for successful relationships. These research frames fit individualistic, not collectivistic, conceptions of human nature.”

Consider how this statement from Dawkins in The Selfish Gene echoes our deepest American beliefs as well as our worst excesses: “a society based simply on the gene’s law of universal ruthless selfishness would be a very very nasty society…Be warned that if you wish, as I do, to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature…because we are born selfish.” In this statement we see our beliefs reflected that we are socially, morally and psychologically autonomous, which make greed and extreme competition a virtue in this country. The logic follows is that if nature has no natural social morality, we need not worry about human nature having any need for rich social meaning. There is no evolutionary basis for something bigger than ourselves. Of course, there is an attraction to these beliefs: they force us to have faith in ourselves even as they reduce moral and social responsibility. But if Dawkins is wrong and we actually are morally, socially and psychologically interdependent, this belief system could lead us astray. The last thing we need more ideas taking us to the tired well of happiness-as-hedonism and justifying the social rat race, especially when it’s already hard enough to find a sustainable sense of purpose in group life. But we can take heart that such a sense of purpose may be in the cards and even have an evolutionary basis; there is evidence that our psychology and sense of meaning are indeed wrapped up in moral and psychological service to the group, and that evolution has a natural social dimension. All of which shows paradigms like Dawkins’ – evolution via methodological individualism – to contribute to our modern spiritual bankruptcy and unsustainable mental health.

A Paradigm Shift

Perhaps it is good news, then, that as Jonathan Haidt explains, Darwin himself believed in something called group-selection. In explaining the evolution of morality, Darwin noted that our ethical nature is often based on self-inhibition, guilt and shame, all of which are of little use to individuals, but great utility to groups. In The Descent of Man, Darwin wrote “if… the one tribe included a great number of courageous, sympathetic and faithful members, who were always ready to…aid and defend each other, this tribe would succeed better and conquer the other…” The logic Darwin outlined here has become central to a cross-disciplinary accounting of the evolution of organized social life, a logic that leads to understanding how we’ve all become deeply interconnected.

Dawkins’ counter-argument would go something like this: altruism and cooperation – the mechanisms that groups are said to have evolved upon – have a fatal flaw in their logic, because they cannot overcome the “free-rider problem”: when selfish agents exploit the fruits of cooperation, they end up all-the-fitter for it, leading to the breakdown of cooperation as a viable strategy (despite the fact that looking around us, we find ourselves a part of a complex global economy somehow). For this reason, altruistic individuals could never evolve in our current evolutionary landscape.

Dawkins may have fundamentally misframed the problem,* and we won’t stop there. We will build an entirely new paradigm for evolution, one that shows it to be much more dramatic, dynamic and even optimistic, while not throwing out the important evolutionary advantages of individualism and autonomy.

*For those not following the link (though I’d recommend it as a great quick read), the basic thrust is this: Dawkins framed altruism as fundamentally win-lose, yet game theory now understands there to be win-win and lose-lose potential as well, which fundamentally changes his argument. If we update the assumptions accordingly, even genes cooperate with one another, and we can expect humans to as well.

We will see that the evolution of complex adaptive systems is the evolution of meaning, and that the purpose of one underlies the purpose of the other.


The idea that human beings are naturally a socially-organized species goes way back.

  • Religions like Christianity have employed metaphors of people forming larger social and institutional “bodies” as far back as early Christian theology.
  • In 1651, Thomas Hobbes raised the specter of people acting like a “group mind” in his masterwork “Leviathan.”
  • In the 19th century, Herbert Spencer, an entomologist and peer to Darwin, came up with the term superorganism to describe the collective behavior of ants. He thought this metaphor might well-describe human societies as well.
  • In the 1960s, group-selection came close to being the evolutionary consensus, but after overstating their case and getting strongly rebutted (as well as getting tainted with eugenics), it was all but killed off, waiting to be rekindled in the last decade by champions like David Sloan Wilson and his multi-level selection (where it is now incompatible with accounts of “racial biology”).
  • In 1975, E.O. Wilson popularized sociobiology as a framework to understand social behavior in an evolutionary context, yet with a strong individualist bent. Only recently did Wilson change tunes to be more in line with Herbert Spencer (and his long-time bitter enemy David Sloan Wilson) that human beings can be a superorganismi.e., a product of group-selection.
  • In 1984, the first complex systems theorists set up shop in the Santa Fe Institute, reconceptualizing our understanding of collective behavior through well-articulated concepts like complex adaptive systems (CAS). This work is now championed by Francis Heylighen and the Evolution, Cognition and Complexity Institute in Belgium.



Group selection is an argument that groups can be meaningful units of evolution that can be shaped by natural selection. Group-selection has a history of being incredibly controversial.

Advocates have argued that when groups compete against groups, those groups that work together better tend to win (elegantly explained here by Stanford anthropologist Robert Sapolsky). One argument for this (and the argument used by Sapolsky in the link), is that traits that work in dyads or small groups might take on entirely different properties when lots of people have them. An aggressive hen, for instance, will dominate a less aggressive hen and possibly produce more eggs one on one, but an entire group of aggressive hens inverts the value of that aggression, creating internal strife and stress that lowers collective reproductive rates. In a different direction, group-level adaptations like altruism show us something that benefits from the network effectthe more people that use it, the more benefit it confers to any one individual. Selection favors something like altruism to the extent that it creates win-win scenarios between people, allowing individuals to coordinate socially and spread information, leading them to outcompete selfish individuals and strife-prone groups and spread more progeny relative to their vanquished foes. These strains of logic are further born out in an evolutionary accounting of culture, which creates a new medium of information to speed up evolutionary learning and accrue group-level advantages even faster. It follows that a modern focus on group-selection (what has come to be called multi-level selection) is heavily wrapped up in culture (and importantly, not race) as a medium for such evolutionary mechanisms.

Biologists arguing against the most naive forms of group-selection have attempted to stall out these arguments by attacking them at their roots: by suggesting that most group-level adaptations can be reduced to individual adaptations. For instance, going back to our classic example of a group-level adaptation – altruism – it has been argued by sociobiologists to in fact be kin selection in disguise. That is, behind our gushy conception of people helping people is a colder reality: only people related by blood actually cooperate because they share common genes. Cooperation, they argue, should actually be seen as genes helping themselves across different family members. This idea is popular today. Human altruism is self-serving at best, or our genes being selfish at worst. One problem with this idea is that such an accounting of human sociality would be inherently fragile; such a “constrained altruism” would likely see social organization reach an upper limit of complexity and lead to a world populated entirely with fragmented bands of families. Instead we find a world where people contribute to communities, where wars are fought with “bands of brothers” willing to die for one another, where people sacrifice themselves for strangers – all altruistic impulses that can be stronger than blood. Data like this has pushed sociobiology to expand their argument for altruism with the concept of reciprocal altruism: people have evolved to help those that help them (in fact, reciprocal altruism looks very much like the logic wired into the oxytocin mechanism of meaning this blog). Unlike kin selection, the problem with reciprocal altruism isn’t that it lacks explanatory power, it’s that the explanatory power it possesses naturally gives way to the wider logic of group-selection, something these accounts had been trying to resist. As reciprocal altruism is a framework that can help explain the rise of oxytocin, and the rise of oxytocin gets us to the development of full-fledged social networks, reciprocal altruism leads to the same group logic that transcends a narrow reading of individual selection.

An interesting update to group-selection comes from Jonathan Haidt. His Ted Talk describes the fact that religion is on the decline, but a growing number of people identify as “spiritual.” At the root of this is an impetus to “self-transcend,” which Haidt tracks to our psychological connection to collective pursuits we consider “bigger than ourselves”; that includes being apart of everything from war to communal dances, religion to politics, meditation to prayer, collective anger (as in the Tahir Square protests) to collective grief (as in 9/11). According to famed sociologist Emile Durkheim, these are examples of transcendent peak experiences characterized by loss of individuality and extreme social emotions, a basic part of being human which made Homo Duplex, or “two-level man.”

Haidt’s argument is that unlike the modern theories about religion, this is not an evolutionary liability (as Dawkins would characterize it), but an adaptation. Invoking Darwin’s quote from above, group selection has seen fit to outfit human beings with irrational emotional mechanisms that minimize friction and maximize pro-social feeling to ensure groups work as a team, outcompeting rival teams hindered by excessive self-interest. Thus, out-group competition effectively drives a different fitness equation: pro-social emotions that support cooperation and morality are fittest because they make for strong groups, superorganisms that become more than the sum of their parts. This strategy, which mitigates the “free rider problem” of evolutionary cheating, has been deployed time and time again – with bacteria, social insects, and now cultural humans – through a powerfully constructive and destructive force: cooperation.


David Sloan Wilson is the champion of multi-level selection theory at Binghamton University in New York. His challenge is to replace the simple paradigm that claims evolution only cares about individual genes with a more complex narrative. His talk at the 2007 Beyond Belief conference shows that he embraces the challenge wholeheartedly, taking New Atheist defenders like Dan Dennet “to the mat.” I encourage watching the beginning for a robust and entertaining exploration of current evolutionary theory as a kind of “stealth religion” that operates on a dogma that goes above questioning simply by not invoking metaphysical deities, despite their use of other ways of “departing from factual reality.”

Wilson argues that most biologists agree that group-selection is possible in principle, but that it is “undermined by selection at lower levels.” Wilson and his ally and colleague, famed sociobiologist E.O. Wilson (no relation), argue that a fallacy occurs when we think that the balance between both levels of selection is somehow static. Rather, the relationship between individual and group-level selection is itself evolvable, shifting over evolutionary time. It is when group-level selection becomes sufficiently robust (as it has several times throughout evolutionary history), that the group “becomes an organism in every sense of the word.”

For instance, early life was dominated by single-celled organisms. Now when we think of cells, however, it is as the building-blocks of multi-celled organisms. Group-selection has turned these former individuals into a socially-organized collective so interdependent, their social group has become an individual in its own right.

Wilson provides several points about transitioning from one “level” to another:

  • Rare events – transitions between individual and group-level aren’t easy (see: goldilocks conditions below)
  • Major consequences – once a superorganism comes on the scene, it becomes ecologically dominant to the former cohorts in its niche (think ants, who have displaced many species to become more than 50% of the insect biomass, and humans, who have outcompeted all other species to dominate every niche across the planet)
  • Transition is never complete – within-group selection is only ever suppressed, never eliminated (for instance, within a human being- an individual organism that is also a harmonious social collective of cells, in part by suppressing within-group competition among them – an evolutionary theory of cancer holds that cancer is what happens when harmony in the cellular society is disrupted and competition runs amok)

The implication is that we should not only embrace the heretical position that social groups are superorganisms, we should also view single-organisms as the social groups of the past. We can abandon the notion that only small groups of relatives and reciprocators can be units of selection, as large cultural systems can be selected upon as well, giving rise to cultural evolution. To extrapolate to the religion that Dawkins so derides, it is not the root of all evil for two reasons: 1) the elements that are problematic are true of all socially-organized humans; and 2) even when beliefs aren’t factual, they can be pragmatic by motivating us to think and act adaptively, even when we don’t fully understand how in the moment.


Enter Robert Wright, who contributes to our story by providing us with a missing mechanism to shift from individual-to-group selection: the game theory concept of non-zero sumness.

Non-zero sumness starts with a definition of zero sumness, which means that if two people play a game like tennis, one must win and the other must lose. Here, where the players fortunes are negatively correlated, we can say that the game is zero sum from the combination of the scores: (+1) + (-1) = 0. If you play doubles, however, while your relationship to your opponent[s] is still zero-sum, the score of the person on your team is positively correlated with your own, and is therefore a non-zero sum relationship – your win is theirs and vice-versa. Simply put, for better and worse, non-zero sum outcomes never equal zero, either because of a shared win [(+1) + (+1) = 2] or a shared loss [(-1) + (-1) = -2].*

*It is worth noting that non-zero sumness is what Richard Dawkins got wrong in his misframe of cooperation and altruism in The Selfish Gene.

This adds to our understanding of win-lose evolutionary games by adding two other kinds: win-win and lose-lose. Any time nature puts two agents “in the same boat,” cooperation can be harnessed to increase positive sums, or to avoid mutual losses. And this creates a directional escalation in evolutionary selection. It pulled atoms into villages called molecules; molecules into cities called cells; single-celled organisms into megalopolises called multi-celled organisms; and ultimately, with humans, it pulled multi-celled organisms into societies as well. When human beings came along, brains allowed for a new way to store data that kicked off a whole new leg of evolution called cultural evolution; yet it was really to sustain the earlier trajectory begun by biological evolution, one toward social complexification and non-zero-sumness.

The broad strokes of cultural evolution are this: over time, the evolution of ideas and technology (the wheel, writing, roads, printing press, etc) create new cooperative potentials that can be harnessed with win-win cooperation. Society adapts to this potential and builds infrastructure to support it, as does culture through the evolution of norms, beliefs, values and so on.* Over time, this creates a moral direction to the landscape by skewing us toward cooperative games and away from competitive ones, and doing so between more people and at greater scales and distances. By pushing us toward win-win dynamics and away from win-loss dynamics, morality and compassion grow to harness this potential. In this way, we have come from hunter-gatherer villages to chiefdoms (multi-village polities), empires to nation-states, and finally global interconnection, because of a natural social logic.

*The evolution of norms, beliefs, values, rituals, traditions and more, often follow a logic of promoting what David Sloan Wilson called “practical reality,” or beliefs that have value in their ability to motivate us toward productive behaviors, even if they depart from “factual reality.”

If it isn’t clear, this social logic is connected to moral logic. Along the way, the moral imagination has been expanded from a time when everyone outside your tribe was considered subhuman and would be killed on sight, to one where we all must begrudgingly admit that most people are human beings and should have at least some basic human rights. Redeeming as this might sound, it isn’t naive optimism because such evolutionary logic is grounded in self-interest. In other words, as the opportunity for non-zero-sum games increase, our own self-interest increasingly correlates with that of other people, leading us to subconsciously exploit the greater range of win-win circumstances with increasing tolerance and general exercise of pro-sociality, a feedback loop that begets itself over the rise of civilization.

The narrative here is unique in that, while traditional evolution says civilization is a fluke (as Stephen Jay Gould famously argued, evolution is as random as “a drunkard’s walk”), here we have a plausible link between our social human nature and the rise of social order amidst chaos, and it is one that does not rely on pollyannish tropes or naive idealism. And yet, it is one that has some built-in hope for humanity. Counter to the New Atheists, it shows a positive role for religion – by incrementally increasing the moral imagination with narratives that justify ever-widening spheres of cooperation and compassion across divides – while staying consistent with the criticisms of our collective nature. Most importantly, it suggests that even without intelligent design, there may be a trajectory of escalation to history, and this opens up a range of new implications to the direction of the future and how to judge our role in it.


Reinforcing the shift in this new evolutionary narrative is David Christian, who shows that our new evolutionary view extends back 13.7 billion years ago to tell the story of how the world got so complex.

Christian’s story of evolving complexity is important because it challenges the roots of methodological individualism, which is to say, that entropy – the breakdown of energy and order – dominates the universe completely. Even more so than methdological individualism, the physics principle that everything trends toward chaos and disorder provides an ultimate justification for why randomness and chaos are thought to rule above all, including in biological evolution. By implication, there is no direction for evolution to push in, no different “levels” of evolution to shift to, and ultimately, society still isn’t in the cards. “And yet,” Christian says, “look around us.” Surrounding us are complex networks of biological and social complexity that have arisen despite the chaos: first chemistry, then single-celled life, then multi-celled life, then humans, culture and now a complex global economy. Christian shows that while entropy does indeed rule, important exceptions arise from very rare threshold moments (what David Sloan Wilson called transitions) where Goldilocks conditions – conditions that are just right – push back against entropy to do the impossible: create new forms of complexity that beget further complexity.

Big History

  • Threshold 1 – 13.7 bya big bang brings universe into being; 380 thousand years later simple atoms appear
  • Threshold 2 – 200 million years after the big bang, stars appear
  • Threshold 3 – When suns die, they create chemical complexity
  • Threshold 4 – Earth & our solar system form from the building blocks of chemical complexity 4.5 billion years ago
  • Threshold 5 – Molecules combine to form living organisms from DNA 4 billion years ago
  • Threshold 6 – 200 kya humans evolve
  • Threshold 7 – cultural explosion of collective learning, 5,000 years ago

By looking at the evolution of complexity as one story with multiple “levels,” we begin to see patterns across levels that show no one privileged level of evolution, but a rising ladder of creative evolution. For instance, biological evolution is characterized by DNA, an information-storage and processing template that “learned” through trial-and-error to socialize, creating multi-celled organisms. Multi-celled organisms in turn led to brains, an entirely new medium of information-storage and processing, leading to real-time learning and the creation of even more dynamic forms of social organization between multi-celled organisms. Finally, after an even shorter evolutionary period (each leg is shorter as each information-processing breakthrough is essentially nature learning how to learn better), we arrive at humans, a threshold moment thanks to culture. With culture, information-processing and storage can now use language, writing, computation and other mediums to transmit information across groups and generations, allowing information to outlive its host organism with what Christian calls collective learning. This turns human beings into an even higher plane of superorganism that itself evolves (what Wright called cultural evolution), rising through families, tribes and states toward a global brain: a global organism that processes and adapts at a truly unprecedented level.


We won’t delve into this too much here because our next post revolves around it quite a bit. However, here is a classic example: the evolution of lactose intolerance.


Finally, we come to metasystem transition theory, which may provide a kind of supernarrative integrating all the previous elements.

Metasystem Transition Theory (or MSTT) is a theory of evolution rooted in a subset of systems theory called second-order cybernetics, and as such, it draws on the concept of the system – a collection of interrelated parts that form a complex whole – as unifying conceptual framework. Systems are elegant in their simplicity as almost everything – from molecules to cells, organisms to societies – can be seen as a such. What’s more, abstracting away from systems, we begin to see that there is an order between and among systems. We can look at the relationships between systems to integrate the sciences that study them, creating hope for a unified scientific paradigm and an expanded evolutionary narrative to fit it. Which is where MSTT comes in.

Importantly, one of the reasons a systems view is so powerful is that it reframes biological evolution as just one nested level of evolution among many (atomic, molecular, cellular, organismic, superorganismic). This stands in opposition to how evolution has been cast by biologists, who as authoritative keepers of the evolutionary narrative, privilege biological evolution as archetypal. The result is great skepticism toward any other domain – like culture – that seeks to expand the evolutionary umbrella to include itself. Where biologists find these arguments lacking is that A) new types of evolution generally fail as perfect analogs to biological evolution (“cultural evolution can’t possibly be evolution because it isn’t just like biological evolution”), or B) new evolutionary processes do not fit into an evolutionary cosmology where biology is at the top of the heap: if cultural evolution can’t be reduced to DNA and natural selection, it isn’t really evolution.

The problem is that we are framing biology as some privileged level of selection to begin with, something with which to compare everything else. Biological evolution, while the first kind of evolution we discovered, is actually one kind among many. DNA and natural selection are not the end-all-be-all, as each type of evolution has a replicator – a modifiable information-template like DNA – that is selected for and evolves depending on the game being played at that level. And while each level of selection has some important parallels and common dynamics, each level also has emergent properties – properties in the new whole that were not present in the parts – that make the levels around biological evolution very different in the nature of the game.

Still, we can compare levels and see a through-line connecting them all. For one thing, systems are all nested – atoms in molecules in cells in societies – because at some point in each system’s evolutionary history, each one invariably transcended to a newer, higher level that enveloped previous levels. Yet despite each transition changing the nature of the game, each new system was still a kind of complex adaptive systems (CAS), a specific type of complex system – often a living system – with a population of agents that act and react to one another’s actions, creating emergent behavior (a school of fish, nations in a global economy, or businesses in a market).

Each story of CAS evolution is a story of self-organization, where agents governed by simple rules can synchronize their behavior from the bottom-up, creating patterns of organization between them. In this way, distinct components can become functionally-integrated into a whole without centralized or intelligent control. This is the mechanism that empowers evolution to be create entirely new things. Self-organization is implicated in every invocation of superorganism on this list, from Jonathan Haidt’s superorganisms, to David Sloan Wilson’s; from Robert Wright’s to David Christian’s. And it is, in a word, what the needs and drives of meaning accomplish: they self-organize us into something bigger.

MSTT is an umbrella narrative that connects our axes of meaning with systems concepts very nicely – themes like control, goals, networks and friction are common to both. These concepts make sense of our biochemistry while also being the drivers of system self-organization, invariably pulling systems to higher levels of order and complexity. Lets look at some of that connecting logic now.


From Principia Cybernetica, The Metasystem Transition: “Consider a system S of any kind. Suppose that there is a way to make some number of copies from it, possibly with variations. Suppose that these systems are united into a new system S’ which has the systems of the S type as its subsystems, and includes also an additional mechanism which controls the behavior and production of the S-subsystems. Then we call S’ a metasystem with respect to S, and the creation of S’ a metasystem transition. As a result of consecutive metasystem transitions a multilevel structure of control arises, which allows complicated forms of behavior.”

CONTROL: Evolution is directional toward higher levels of control. Each system that transitions to a metasystem represents a shift from lower levels of control, such as by autonomous agents, to a higher social level with greater control over lower levels and collectively over the environment.

From the Principia Cybernetica, metasystem transitions as the evolution of control:

In “The Phenomenon of Science” (Columbia University Press, 1977) it is shown that the major steps in evolution, both biological, and cultural, are nothing else but metasystem transitions of a large scale. The concept of metasystem transition allows us to introduce a kind of objective quantitative measure of evolution and distinguish between evolution in the positive direction, progress, and what we consider an evolution in the negative direction, regress (cf. the direction of evolution). For example, here is the sequence of metasystem transitions which led, starting from the appearance of organs of motion, to the appearance of human thought and human society:

  • control of position = movement
  • control of movement = irritability (simple reflex)
  • control of irritability = (complex) reflex
  • control of reflex = associating (conditional reflex)
  • control of associating = human thinking
  • control of human thinking = culture

The above sequence of control demonstrates how we can see biological and cultural evolution as a singular trajectory of rising control over one’s self and one’s environment, with all the cumulative fitness gains that entails. A creature that attains control of association through thought, for instance, will transcend out of competition with creatures at the reflex level of control, as the ability to control one’s associations and reflexes allows more flexible behavioral responses in a given niche, opening more and wider niches for adaptation.

A hierarchy of control can be seen as more or less structural and functional in nature, with the brain and society both evidencing hierarchical organization. Socially, however, it is important to note that despite the evolution of control taking us from dominance hierarchies to eminence (leadership) hierarchies, it is technically not individuals who are at the top of the social hierarchy, but culture, which controls how the hierarchy is shaped right down to the constraints on the individuals at the top.

GOAL-DIRECTEDNESS: Evolution is directional toward bigger, more far-reaching goals. From Principia Cybernetica:

In the mechanistic world view, there is no place for purpose or goal-directedness. All mechanical processes are determined by their cause, which lies in the past. A goal, on the other hand, is something that determines a process, yet lies in the future. To a Newtonian scientist, the idea that an as yet non-existent, future state could influence the present, seems wholly unscientific, not to say mystical.

The thesis that natural processes are determined by their future purpose is called teleology. It is closely associated with vitalism, the belief that life is animated by a vital force outside the material realm. Our mind is not an aimless mechanism; it is constantly planning ahead, solving problems, trying to achieve goals. How can we understand such goal-directedness without recourse to the doctrine of teleology?

Probably the most important innovation of cybernetics is its explanation of goal-directedness. An autonomous system, such as an organism, or a person, can be characterized by the fact that it pursues its own goals, resisting obstructions from the environment that would make it deviate from its preferred state of affairs. Thus, goal-directedness implies regulation of–or control over–perturbations.

With human beings, we can look at how nature created a machine designed for goals. Jeff Hawkins’s book On Intelligence bears out exactly how this works in the brain. The brain is a representational system, a machine designed to create a running simulation of the world. It accomplishes this by constantly memorizing our sensory experience and playing the experiences back when similar cues from the environment activate them in memory. Derek Bickerton argued in Language and Species, that a further development was possible thanks to the evolution of language in the brain. When humans first linked concepts to words, it gave us the ability to activate these memory/predictions absent external stimuli, freeing us to invoke representations of the world freely in the mind. This combination is essentially the evolution of imagination, and it allows us to use our prediction-making-machinery to project ideal outcomes forward and work toward them.

As with individual brains, a good understanding of culture will likewise require us to see that many such brains networked together creates a social analog to the goal-state (such as the American Dream in the US). For instance, it is cultural goal-states that limit social and political discourse, as people closed off to new information aren’t irrational, they are protecting a goal-state – a “dream” – that they are invested in.

NETWORKS: Evolution favors ever larger, more cooperative social networks. The evolution of cooperation and win-win logic has led to the development of physical and psychological mechanisms that link agents into networked communities: people bound by channels of information, cooperation and resources. Over time, these communities restructure and reorganize to harness new forms of control and change their goals. For instance, human society has transitioned from small bartering economies to global currency-based economies; the ancestral cells of simple slime-molds have restructured into multi-celled organisms, reorganizing into complex networks of tissues and organs in the process. Paradoxically, the restructuring of human social networks has had two opposing effects: people are now more connected then ever in an internet-empowered global network society, and more fragmented from their ability to self-organize into evermore specific subgroups and niches. (SEE: Francis Heylighen, The Global Superorganism: an evolutionary-cybernetic model of the emerging network society).

FRICTION: Evolution favors the reduction of friction and the rise of synergy. Over evolutionary time, the discrepancy between the cooperative potential of a group and the level of current conflict between agents is a measure of social friction. Competing agendas and self-interest lead to conflict that hampers group output and efficiency. However, intergroup competition pressures groups to mitigate friction where possible by harnessing increased win-win rewards or avoiding lose-lose situations, lest some other group (who solved shared problems better) outcompete them. Alternatively, synergy can rise globally as innovations that mitigate friction spread through conquest or learning. Traditionally, increased synergy is accomplished both through a combination of punishment (following a tit-for-tat/Golden Rule strategy) and by hierarchical “managers” or leaders that increase coordination toward shared goals. In the internet age, there are two increasingly viable methods for reducing friction: stigmergy – indirect coordination of action when by a trace left by an action stimulates another action by a different agent – and ephemeralization – Buckminster Fuller’s concept that technology exponentially empowers us to do “more and more with less and less until eventually you can do everything with nothing.” (SEE: Francis Heylighen, Accelerating Socio-Technological Evolution: from ephemeralization and stigmergy to the global brain).

Complex Adaptive Systems are something to explore for many rich insights. Hopefully this cliff notes outline shows that there is a rich history of CASs that human beings intertwine with, one which explains much of the complex social landscape that surrounds us. In fact, what our evolutionary paradigms begin to show through their agreement, is how each of the social structures we looked at in the previous post are in fact a substrate of an even larger living system, one that has a long lineage and a trajectory.

There are important implications to seeing our evolution in the context of CASs. A critical one is that CAS evolution is also the story of evolving meaning. Many of the key mechanisms behind CASs – control, goals, networks and friction – align well with our dimensions of meaning and the transpersonal social structures they create. We could argue that evolution has wired human beings for the biological feedback found in dreams, status, community and friction, because such feedback provides the needs and drives that motivate people to self-organize into larger networks, flatter hierarchies, more synergistic systems and richer visions, driving cultural evolution itself. This “drive” pushes us in the same direction as all metasystem evolution: toward higher-levels of energy and complexity by transcending previous levels to operate at new and higher ones. Humans, though, are newly equipped to lean into this consciously be setting a global superorganism as our goal-state, and through it, speed up our evolution toward greater interdependence and diversity, less friction, more flexible hierarchies and more sustainable goals.

One payoff of this framework is that we can extrapolate from past metasystem transitions – whether from a tribe to a chiefdom, a chiefdom to a nation-state, or a nation to a global economy – that such transitions have likely been met with expanding spheres of meaning: feelings of being connected to ever larger and safer communal families, of expanding and inclusive moral progress, of more far-reaching and smarter goals, and increasingly egalitarian and flexible roles. Still, these transitions are never smooth. Even as we make progress, we cannot help but have the sense that our gains are overwhelmed by the magnitude of our challenges: enduring xenophobia, ideological clashes, hierarchical abuses, and pervasive injustice. Still, in the broader story of metasystem transitions and the deep motivations that drive them, we find a kind of faith: that each of these challenges are surmounted when we use our systemic problems as feedback to find their solutions, driving the system inexorably in its surprisingly ambitious reach: toward a global level of harmony and cooperation.

To that end, our first challenge is to change our understanding of evolutionary meaning so as to interpret that feedback intelligently.

The audacious claim above – that the evolution of meaning and complex adaptive systems foretell a potential transition to a new global superorganism – predicts that, like much of Robert Wright’s talk, there is a kind of grim optimism to be had in progress despite an intuitive sense that we face an impending global collapse. To that end, here are some links that bare out this claim that progress is already afoot:

Finally, here is a related call-to-arm about the power of complex adaptive systems as a paradigm shift for saving the world: