Evolutionary cybernetics
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Evolutionary cybernetics

Evolutionary cybernetics studies the origin and development of purposeful organization in Nature, Mind, Society and Technology

Universal Darwinism

Darwin's theory of evolution through variation and natural selection has been proposed as a general explanation of the organized complexity we see around us. Although the original intention was to explain living organisms, the paradigm of variation and selection has proved so powerful that it has been applied to an increasing number of other domains, leading to a host of novel approaches: evolutionary epistemology, evolutionary computation, evolutionary economics, evolutionary ethics, evolutionary psychology, memetics, Darwinian chemistry, Darwinian medicine, etc.

Yet, the Darwinian approach remains controversial. There are two main reasons:

  • most people find it difficult to imagine how the intrinsically "dumb" process of blind variation can give rise to intelligent, apparently purposeful systems, such as organisms, minds or societies.
  • some scientists (e.g. Kauffman, Margulis) claim that we need alternative mechanisms of evolution, such as self-organization and symbiosis, that complement variation and selection
. We contend that the problem does not lie with the principle of variation and selection, which can be shown to underly all evolutionary phenomena in one form or another. We rather believe that the evolution of organization is difficult to grasp because most people lack a clear understanding of what constitutes organization. This means that we must look at another approach: cybernetics.

Cybernetics: the science of organization

The twin domains of cybernetics and systems science study all forms of "organized complexity", that is, different components assembled in a way that is neither random nor repetitive so as to form a "system". Organization can be defined as structure with function, that is, a system of components arranged in such a way as to fulfill a certain purpose.

The main insight that cybernetics has contributed to the understanding of organization is that of the control system. A control system is involved in a negative feedback cycle, so that its output (actions) influences its input (perception), in such a way as to bring the perception as close as possible to its goal. Cybernetics has shown that all forms of goal-directed action are based on such cycles.

After this insight was formulated in the 1940's, it led to plenty of applications. Yet, the emphasis was on the organization of a given system rather than on the issue of where that organization had come from. This emphasis on rigid structures led to a counterreaction in the 1970's: second-order cybernetics. The rationale behind this approach was that systems are not given, physical entities, but models constructed by an observer.

Unfortunately, the discussions grown out of this in se important insight had a tendency to get stuck in endless recursions of the type of observers observing observers observing, thus losing touch with applications. At the same time, the ebb-and-tide of scientific fashions had drawn researchers interested in more concrete models from the original "first order" cybernetics to artificial intelligence, and from there to neural networks, autonomous robots, artificial life, and complex adaptive systems. Although all these approaches are closely related, many of the important cybernetic insights seem to have been forgotten in the process. As a result, for many people nowadays "cybernetics" only survives as a fancy label for various technological hypes. The time seems ripe to revive and renew the cybernetic tradition by integrating its ideas with the newly developed insights into evolution and complexity.

Evolutionary cybernetics

Evolutionary cybernetics can be defined as the study of how the processes of variation and selection give rise to organization. This means, first of all, a study of the dynamics of distinctions, connections, variety, closure and constraint, that is, the fundamental aspects of organized complexity. This will allow us to better understand how systems emerge out of unstructured aggregates of components, and how variation and selection take place at different system levels and between different, co-evolving systems.

Then, we need to study the evolution of goal-directedness, i.e. control systems. This problem has two aspects, one qualitative or discrete (how does a control level emerge?), one more quantitative or continuous (how does a control system develop?). The evolutionary emergence of control can be called a metasystem transition, and is the subject of the accordingly named "metasystem transition theory". Darwinian reasoning readily explains why control systems tend to emerge: natural selection prefers systems that can survive in spite of a variety of perturbations, and thus ; control systems that have survival as their basic goal will tend to proliferate. As to the mechanism producing control, it is relatively easy to imagine variation processes closing in on themselves in a negative feedback loop constrained by a particular value of a variable (e.g. autocatalytic cycles of chemical reactions that depend on the availability of one particular scarce molecule, such as DNA).

Once a control loop has arisen, a cybernetic analysis of the different properties and components of this loop can help us understand how variation and selection can make control more efficient. For example, a greater variety of possible actions will allow the control system to cope with more diverse problems (Ashby's law of requisite variety), while a greater sensitivity in perception will allow it to distinguish more accurately between different situations. A better internal model of its environment will allow it to more reliably anticipate the results of its actions, while a more balanced hierarchy of goals and values will guide it in choosing those actions that are most likely to contribute to its long-term survival.

Interdisciplinary connections

Evolutionary cybernetics is clearly related to a number of other new disciplines and approaches. It stands to the domain of evolutionary systems (also called "systems theory of evolution"), as cybernetics stands to its sister discipline of systems science: in principle the subject domains mostly overlap, in practice the cybernetics focus is more on functions and goals, while the systems focus is more on structures. This means that evolutionary cybernetics will pay more attention to issues such as values, ethics, future development, and technological applications. Both evolutionary cybernetics and systems are closely related to biosemiotics, which, however, has the more restricted focus of the emergence of closed sign systems or "meaning" in organisms.

The presently popular approach of complex adaptive systems too studies many of the same issues, but lacks a focus on hierarchical organization and especially goal-directedness, preferring the use of methods imported from mathematics, physics and chemistry, where the notion of function or "purpose" is absent. The cybernetic paradigm is more influential in the related disciplines of artificial life and especially autonomous agents, which try to model the development of autonomous, goal-directed systems. However, the emphasis here is purely on implementations of models in hardware or software, without much attention to their necessary theoretical and philosophical foundations, or their applications to wider social and psychological issues.

Some of these philosophical, psychological and social issues have become the subject of an array of new disciplines: evolutionary epistemology, ethics, metaphysics, psychology, economics, memetics, etc. However, apart from their common base in Darwinian theory, these approaches stand largely on their own, lacking the transdisciplinary integration that has always been the hallmark of cybernetics and systems science.

In fact, the simplest way to distinguish evolutionary cybernetics from all these related approaches is by its potential for transdisciplinary unification: its broad conceptual framework in principle allows it to address all the fundamental issues in the study of nature, mind, society and technology. This turns it into the basis for a complete philosophical system or world-view, that would use scientific insights to answer such eternal questions as: "Who are we? Where do we come from? Where are we going to? What is the meaning of life?" The Principia Cybernetica Project is an organization founded precisely with the aim of developing the principles of evolutionary cybernetics into such an encompassing philosophy.

Copyright© 2000 Principia Cybernetica - Referencing this page

F. Heylighen,

Mar 6, 2000


Metasystem Transition Theory

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