The History of Evolution
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The History of Evolution

The basic idea underlying the Principia Cybernetica Project is that evolution leads to the spontaneous emergence of systems of higher and higher complexity or "intelligence": from elementary particles, via atoms, molecules, living cells, multicellular organisms, plants, and animals to human beings, culture and society. This gives us a view of the history of evolution as a kind of progression towards higher complexity (albeit essentially unpredictable, with many side-tracks and dead-ends). Such an encompassing view may allow us to answer the basic questions: "Who are we? Where do we come from? Where are we going to?" (The last question requires an extrapolation of this development towards the future.)

Although the growth of complexity during evolution is not universal (many systems evolve towards higher simplicity), it appears as the most striking factor from a long-term perspective. Most of the time this complexity increase, and evolution in general, occurs rather slowly or continuously, but during certain periods evolution accelerates spectacularly. This results in changes which from a long term perspective may be viewed as momentous events, separating discrete types of organization. Each time a higher level of control or organization has developed we say that a Metasystem Transition (MST) has taken place.

The MST concept makes it possible to reconstruct the sequence of evolutionary events from the beginnning of time to the present as a partially ordered series of metasystem transitions. These transitions can be roughly classified in four categories or "tracks":

  1. Prebiotic: the developments taking place before the origin of the life, i.e. the emergence of physico-chemical complexity: the Big Bang, space and time, energy and particles, atoms and the different elements, molecules up to organic polymers, simple dissipative structures.
  2. Biological: the origin of life and the further development of the specifically biological aspects of it: DNA, reproduction, autopoiesis, prokaryotes vs. eukaryotes, multicellularity, sexual reproduction, the species.
  3. Cognitive: the origin of mind, i.e. the basic cybernetic, cognitive organization, going from simple reflexes to complex nervous systems, learning, and thought.
  4. Social: the development of social systems and culture: communication, cooperation, moral systems, memes
Although most of the transitions taken place sequentially within each main track, and these track emerge roughly in the order they are presented here, there is also essential interaction between the categories. For example, communication and cooperation between organisms (social track) takes place before rational thought (cognitive track) emerges, and is in a mutual positive feedback relation with that cognitive transition. Similarly, sexual reproduction (biological) appears in parallel with the emergence of reflexes (cognitive) and influences the appearance of social cooperation via its formation of family groupings.

For a chronology of some of these transitions, see the Cosmological and Evolutionary/Geological Timelines.

Copyright© 1994 Principia Cybernetica - Referencing this page

F. Heylighen, C. Joslyn, V. Turchin,

Nov 16, 1994 (modified)
Aug 1993 (created)


Metasystem Transition Theory

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Physical Evolution [empty]

Biological Evolution

Cognitive Evolution (stages)

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