First draft, ready for comments
Nature and our cultures are evolving, self-organizing, complex, open systems. That they are self-organizing does not mean that anything can happen; there are patterns that define how things can be reproduced, how they can change and what will survive. In nature, variation from one generation to the next is rather limited; the evolution of the eye did not begin with eyeballs but with light-sensitive cells on the animals’ surface. Only with reproduction, variation and selection for increased light sensitivity did these light-sensitive cells evolve into a specialized organ. In culture, the same tends to apply; gradual variation and modification allow new phenomena to evolve. Leonardo da Vinci may have created art and machinery that were unique and to some extent groundbreaking in his time, but he painted with the same oil-based paints as his colleagues and did not invent surrealism or the spray can. Likewise, his machines were mechanical; he did not invent the car or batteries.
In nature, genetic mutations that deviate too much from the genome of the species and which thus create too much variation tend to produce individuals that do not survive well. In culture, ideas that are too strange to make sense tend not to be reproduced either. Yet, from time to time somebody does comes up with a totally fresh idea that spreads like wildfire, like the cultivation and use of penicillin, Rubik’s Cube, and social media; or something is not picked up right away except by a small in-crowd but has an impact much later, like Nietzsche’s philosophy, quantum theory, and Beethoven’s Grosse Fugue. The latter was composed in 1825, premiered in 1826, very few seem to have understood it, almost everybody hated it, it was not performed in public again until 1853, and only in the 1920s was it rediscovered and generally understood as a timeless masterpiece.
We only copy cultural and technological creations if they fit into our existing cultural and technological fabric and thus appear meaningful and useful to us. If cultural inventions challenge our existing understanding too much, we cannot make sense of them, and if technological inventions do not fit into our daily lives, we do not apply them. This is, no doubt, why so many well-meaning Western development projects have failed in developing countries: What the donors offered did not make sense to people; it did not fit into existing expectations and practices, and therefore did not get reproduced and did not indeed create development.
Structurally speaking, the big difference between evolution in nature and evolution in culture and technology is that genes do not generally jump from species to species; there is not a lot of cross-fertilization going on in nature and offspring generally vary very little from their parents. In culture, on the other hand, a new idea in one field may jump to another part of the same culture or to another culture and suddenly be everywhere. Postmodernism found various expressions in the arts in Europe from the early 1900s (i.e. Dadaism and Surrealism), then influenced design, architecture and academia throughout the West in the 1980s, and found its way into pop culture and politics in the 1990s, and it has inspired and changed every field in its path. Likewise, when it comes to technology. The assembly line, for instance, jumped from the car industry to almost every other industry in the early 20th century and has influenced thinking in almost every field of society, from economics to art and education.
That the systems are complex means that they consist of autonomous agents or individual elements, and that these are interacting, either by competing or collaborating, or in some cases by doing both. Increasing complexity is characterized by increasing specialization and diversification, and that new elements are added in a gradual, co-evolutionary process where new and old elements are adjusting to one another in the process.
In our hyper-complex reality, complexity itself may not be perceived as something good, rather it is often confused with something stressful. From a purely structural point of view, increased complexity means more options, more optimal use of resources, less predictability, and more freedom. Individual atoms do not have many choices except connecting into certain, very specific and rather predictable molecules. Likewise, the “choices” of the molecules are limited, as are the choices of single cells. But the single cells have more options in the world than molecules. Multi-cellular organisms also have more options, less predictability and more freedom than single cells. Mammals have more options and way more freedoms than reptiles, and humans have freedoms and options that other primates cannot even be made to grasp no matter how much we might help them. Among our options and freedoms as humans is that we have been able to inhabit all environments on the globe while staying the same species. We can learn to adapt, quite often in unpredictable ways.
The problem with these increasing degrees of freedom and the fact that we have more options is that we must make more choices. This is where complexity may today become a burden to many; the evolutionary pressure is still upon us forcing us to develop more complex minds in order to understand and handle the world we are creating, and this developing of more complex minds is a challenge. But overall, increased complexity is a process of increased options, freedom and wealth.
In order for complexity to grow or stay at the same level, i.e. not decline, the system must be open. In nature, this typically means that a biotope receives sunshine and water and produces oxygen for the atmosphere, and that certain species migrate. It is possible to create sustainable closed ecosystems that do not deteriorate, i.e. see a decline in complexity, but even they receive sunlight from the outside and are therefore somewhat open. In culture, complexity grows or stays at the same level in a similar way: we develop and maintain our cultures by importing and exporting ideas, often modifying what is new to us and making our own version of it. In theory, it ought to be possible to seal off a people or a culture from the rest of the world without the culture deteriorating; there just are no known examples of it. The only culture that comes close is the indigenous Tasmanians who were sealed off from the Australian continent as sea levels rose several thousand years ago. Like the aborigines in Australia they must have known how to light a fire when they got to Tasmania but when the British got there in 1770, the Tasmanians were reported not to know how to light fire, they carried it around. They were overall one of the poorest and technologically least advanced peoples ever to be discovered by the Europeans.
Another way of describing the cycles of reproduction, variation and selection in evolving, self-organizing, complex, open systems is loops. Multitudes of parallel loops allow systems that are open and dynamic to be stable and self-coherent over time. These may be loops of metabolism, loops of reproduction, loops of behaviors, or loops of daily or annual rituals etc. When loops are constantly running, minor changes to some of them do not wreck the overall system or push it out of balance. While some loops change or disappear, or new ones are added, the overall organization is preserved and can evolve gradually. Sometimes, however, a critical part of the loops is interrupted or changed at once and the entire system may reorganize itself and begin functioning in a radically new way.
In the above, we have distinguished natural systems from culture and technology. Evolution in nature will continue along its own lines no matter what we do; life will keep evolving or go extinct and we cannot change the process itself. It’s different with culture and technology, including the way that the economy works and develops. Cultural systems of any kind are man-made. People or man-made institutions, such as our legal system, define how cultural evolution may take place. We create the rules. We may not always be aware that we are creating the rules, and they may be extremely difficult to change, but in theory, we have the power to choose what the rules should be and to change them.
The picture featured at the top shows the entrance to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault where seeds from plants from all over the world are kept as a genebank. The evolution has self-organized all those genes and we, humans, carrying other genes that have co-evolved along with those seeds, are now storing our common heritage, courtesy of the Norwegian government.