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Social Evolution

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We have loosely used the informal concept of the "organism" as a distinct kind of living entity. We must recognize that this distinction is largely arbitrary, and only useful in limited domains. A number of examples, such as viruses, beehives, slime molds, and other symbiotic and parasitic relationships threaten to blur the distinction between the living organism and the community as the elemental living system.

Yet if we assume the existence of distinct organisms, then the hierarchy of neural evolution is marked by a series of metasystem transitions within organisms. But at the same time, metasystem transitions also occur which bring organisms together in groups. Some simple examples include breeding populations and the dynamics of fish schools and bird flocks. When these group controls are very strong, some of the more marked transitions (e.g. the development of multicellular organisms) result.

But when the group controls are considerably weaker, we have the existence of societies of organisms. The most integrated form of such societies can be found in the social insects: ants, bees and termites. Human society is much less strongly integrated but much more complex. Higher-level societies are usually marked by culture, which can be defined simply as models which are inherited between organisms in a non-genetic manner. We can define such non-genetic information, when carried between people, as memes. Memes, similar to genes, undergo a variation and selection type of evolution, characterized by mutations and recombinations of ideas, and by their spreading and selective reproduction or retention.

As outlined in our discussion of cognitive evolution, thought can be understood as the ability to control the production, reproduction and association of memes in the minds of humans. What follows is the possibility of evolution at the memetic level. The emergence of human thought marks the appearance of a new mechanism of evolution: conscious human effort instead of natural selection. The variation and selection necessary for the increase of complexity of the organization of matter now takes place in the human brain; it becomes inseparable from the willed act of the human being.

Thus the emergence of human intelligence and memetic evolution precipitated a further, currently ongoing, Metasystem Transition, which is the integration of people into human societies. Human societies are qualitatively different from societies of animals because of the ability of the human being to create (not just use) language. Language serves two functions: communication between individuals and modeling of reality. These two functions are, on the level of social integration, analogous to those of the nervous system on the level of integration of cells into a multicellular organism. The body of a society is the bodies of all people plus the things made by them. Its "physiology" is the culture of society.

Using the material of language, people make new --- symbolic --- models of reality (scientific theories, in particular) such as never existed as neural models given us by nature. Language is, as it were, an extension of the human brain. Moreover, it is a unitary common extension of the brains of all members of society. It is a collective model of reality that all members of society labor to improve, and one that preserves the experience of preceding generations.

Copyright© 1995 Principia Cybernetica - Referencing this page

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

Aug 9, 1995 (modified)
Jan 1992 (created)


Metasystem Transition Theory

The History of Evolution

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