20 September 2011

Emergent Transitions In Cosmic Evolution

gastbijdrage van Henny van der Meer

Dr H.J. van der Meer is gastmedewerker bij IBL, Institute of Biological Science van de Leidse Universiteit. Hij bestudeerde de visuele waarneming van cichliden in Oost Afrika. Door zijn onderzoek is hij zich steeds meer gaan verdiepen in evolutie processen. Kennismaking met de endosymbiose theorie en nieuwe ideeën omtrent het ontstaan van leven, alsmede de publicaties van Maynard Smith en Szathmáry in 1995 over evolutionaire transities, waren voor hem aanleiding om meer relevante bronnen te raadplegen en de transities uit te breiden tot kosmologisch niveau. Hier een verkorte versie van een groter artikel dat binnenkort op zijn website verschijnt.

Half a century ago, products of the earth biosphere started to reach out for new celestial bodies. The primordial spreading of our planet into the ever-swelling universe has finally begun. A still awkward achievement of social-economic cooperation and cybernetic communication on a global scale, yet a milestone in the three and a half billion years of organic evolution on this planet this is. In future, it may become the mature colonization of our solar system and, in time, our galaxy – or it may become a dead-end. Anyway, the basic element of this adaptive dynamic system is Homo sapiens, a Darwinian agent [1] that itself is a product of a series of emergent transitions [2]

Today, the major transitions in organic evolution are hot topics among the bio-scientific community, especially with respect to the serial-endosymbiotic theory and the coming about of multi-cellularity [3]. Other major transitions in organic evolution were the descent of social behaviour and the origin of life itself, the latter being a transition from inanimate molecules to protobionts. On the cyclic process of cause and effect of these transitions the hypotheses focus on biological mechanisms like reproduction and inheritance and on the resurrecting multi-level selection theory. These mechanisms can hardly be applied to non-biological transitions.
The characteristics of the organic transitions, however, have features in common that resemble those observed in non-organic transitions. The latter too have to deal with a balance between the conservation of entity or individuality and coherence or community, although in physical and chemical systems both the unattached and the cohering agents are described as the result of quantum mechanics and gravity. Still, an inanimate system has fitness, in a sense of stability and extension. The more stable a system is and the less energy is needed to control its extension, the higher the fitness of the system is. Another remarkable similarity between non-organic and organic transitions concerns the ever-increasing size, complexity and synergy of the systems. 
The resemblance between the inanimate transitions during cosmic inflation and the major transitions in evolution inspires to formulate a unification theory [4]. However, it wouldn’t be the first time that such pretension was at least premature.

Phase transitions
An arbitrary animal, e.g. a horse, is composed of various tissues, each of which consists of numerous characteristic differentiated cells. All the cells contain similar organelles, membranes and replicators, that themselves are again composed of proteins, polymers and other complex chemicals. They are all molecules, nothing more and nothing less than an atomic network interconnected by shared electrons. Finally the atomic nuclei are combined protons and neutrons which are regarded to be trios of up- and down-quarks.
How did such a construction evolve? For a modern horse it took about thirteen and a half billion years since the beginning of our universe and it is pretty certain that only fifty million years ago there was still no sign of this animal on our planet. In the perspective of the major transitions in organic evolution it is tempting to draw the line ten billion years earlier than the origin of life on earth itself, which is put down at three and a half billion years ago.
According to the inflationary hypothesis, about thirteen and a half billion years ago, within a fraction of the first second of the birth of our universe, some extremely short successive periods can be distinguished [5]. These epochs can be separated by so-called phase transitions and each one lasted much longer than the preceding one. Some cosmic theories involve multiple universes, like the chaotic inflation theory, that starts with cosmic foam during the Planck era. The foam acts as a cosmic fractal during the eternal exponential expansion and accordingly produces a multiverse of infinite bubbles. Within a rapid inflating multiverse, numerous relatively slow expanding universes (bubbles) evolve(d), among which our own [6].
Due to the quantum fluctuations in the beginning, slightly denser regions of light elements were subject of weak gravitation through which, after about a billion years, galaxies were formed. If local densities were high enough, hydrogen atoms fused to helium atoms and the latter fused to even heavier elements. The fusions produced local energy and often the final waste was thrown into space after which the entire process was repeated. The heavier elements were concentrated in dust-clouds surrounding a young star and eventually cooled down to become a primordial planet. This process must have occurred many times in our galaxy alone. When sufficiently cooled down, these planets could be considered the next phase transition of the accumulated molecules and providing the matrix of primordial life. 

Organic transitions
The phase transitions mark developmental transitions of energy-matter in the coming about of ‘netted’ building blocks (quarks, atoms, molecules) that resembles the genesis reflected by the major transitions in organic evolution (bacteria, eukaryotes, multicellular and social organisms). A remarkable difference is, that in the inanimate transitions the necessary energy is linked to the materials (energy = matter), whereas the organic development entirely depends on external energy from e.g. volcanism, sunshine or cosmic radiation. This may explain the difficulty to understand the transition from inanimate to organic (the origin of life). It is not clear what connects the inanimate chain (from quark to quasar) to the organic chain of transition, apart from their enormous increase in stratification and consequent complexity. Since every star in our galaxy exists by the grace of the same fusing hydrogen and helium and since all the intergalactic dust-clouds and planets consist of similar atoms and molecules, it is most certain that, wherever autocatalytic replicators originate(d), they will be amenable to the universal laws of quantum mechanics. For that reason, the protobionts that probably evolved on millions of planets in our galaxy alone, all form part of the same transition level. And the final products of the local evolutions are the ones that are sufficiently equipped to make contact beyond their own horizon.
The emergent transitions in evolution of terrestrial organisms mainly seem to be the result of a changing balance between individual/gene selection and group selection. First of all, however, the differences strike the eye when focussing on the transitions that involve real organisms (endosymbiosis, multicellularity, eusociality in the broad sense). The transition from bacteria to eukaryotes involve the cooperation of completely different species whereas the genesis of multicellularity is regarded a fused alliance between closely related individuals. Eusociality in humans presents an entirely new phenomenon, culture (including language, religion and technology) [7] that exceeds the biological mechanisms. Yet, they are linked by the corresponding synergetic cooperation and successive level of organisation.
Long before each transition, the organisms (bacteria, unicellular eukaryotes, animals) entered a ‘virgin’ dimension with abundant resources and little competition, which lead to an explosion of diversity (levelwise). The initial weak individual selection pressure increased with population growth and when resources become scarcer, competition forced up individual selection. Especially in overcrowded areas, individuals became more and more interdependent and cooperative. Small groups of cooperating organisms were confronted with similar other groups as well as with non-cooperating individuals. Gradually, cooperation overruled competition and accordingly group selection inflated. At a certain point, the initial weak group selection defeated individual selection, which was then of no more relevance as the transition had become a fact. In this model, transitions are the result of alternating velocities in multilevel selection. They could be visualized as the ‘annual’ rings in the Tree Of Life.
It is not difficult to formulate a hypothesis. To underpin the theory with a mathematical model is a completely different thing. Fortunately, the subject has the attention of many scholars who can [8].

Interstellar transitions
Eusociality, in the original sense of a colony with a substantial number of sterile individuals, is mainly found among arthropods. However, since humans are labelled as eusocial animals [9], and since we are the only species so far that has succeeded in the establishment of a global exchange of resources, among other things, I dare to make the anthropocentric allegation that Homo sapiens is on the edge of the next transition. It is the transition from a social animal to a global society, in which (wo)man is an irreplaceable as well as a submissive element.
The duality between the individual and the community is known to us all and we usually prefer the latter even though it would be just a very small group. If, in the future, we may find relieve in a more extensive conjugation, this would primarily depend on a general reluctance to cheat. It is not something that can be extorted like mankind already has tried in vain for centuries. Today, the only way to prevent fraud is punishment. And the only way it could be fought, is by means of parent-child education. So, kind of back to basics.
The human species is a Darwinian agent. Its origin can be understood in the light of all organic evolution. Our eusociality comes from a long period of juvenile dependency, flexible division of labour, vital needs of neighbourly care, security, recognition and loyalty and, last but not least, our communicative potentials. Yet, the most of us also struggle with individual traits like ambition, envy and a need for power. Usually these traits are realized only at the cost of other people.
The recent developments of our species progressed in merely a percentage of the millions of years organic evolution usually takes. Human’s outstanding ability to control and manipulate both the inanimate and the organic world holds a promise. The coherence of sustainable technology and spiritual concord will create a global union with protruding antennae to contact the agents of the next transition. I am referring to the successful organic products of evolution on planets of neighbouring stars that will most likely reach out for contact as well.
Pessimists do not believe that ’human greed will be able to cope with Gaia’s revenge’. They prophecy the downfall of human civilisation for the benefit of small-scale nature and they fear a final extinction of Homo sapiens.
Still, I support the optimistic view in the understanding that there is still a long way to go before the transition from human beings as social animals to a uniform and stable global society has become fact. And the outcome of the process, how the world will look like then, is, as in any evolutionary development, quite unpredictable.
Finally, a disturbing thought forces itself on me. The transitions are viewed in a causal context: a sequence of increasing complexity in time as well as in matter in which the next level is determined by the preceding one. Could the transitions also be viewed in a goal-directed context without losing scientific reliability? Not only creationists and clergy-men believe in the future cause. As a counter-part of the entropy that leads to chaos, a universal property generating order was proposed under the name of syntropy [10]. Since it contradicts the one-way flow of time it never gained much scientific support. Yet, it remains an intriguing idea.

  1. In system theory a basic element is called ‘agent’. A Darwinian agent is a basic element of a Darwinian population as described in Lewontin, R.C., 1970. The units of selection. An. Rev. Ecol. Syst. 1: 1-18. 
  2. A synergetic process describes the development and sequence of emergent systems. A system is called emergent when the component agents provide innovative qualities that enable the system to ‘conquer a new dimension’. It is claimed that synergy played a key role in the development of complex systems, especially with respect to their co-operation. For more information, see Corning, P., 2003. Nature’s Magic: Synergy in Evolution and the Fate of Humankind. Cambridge University Press, USA. 
  3. Interesting books on the subject:  Maynard Smith, J., E. Szathmáry, 1995. The Major Transition in Evolution. W.H. Freeman, New York, USA; Calcott, B. & K. Sterelny (eds.). Major Transitions in Evolution Revisited. The MIT Press, Massachusetts, USA; Margulis, L., 1998. Symbiotic Planet. Basic Books, New York, USA. 
  4. No unification theory but an analogy was proposed by Eugine Koonin: “The central feature of both processes is the transition between a "hot" phase of rapid change and a "cooler" phase of slower evolution during which the formation of structures becomes possible.”  Koonin, E.V., 2007. The Biological Big Bang model for the major transitions in evolution. Biology Direct. 2:21 ( www.biology-direct.com/content/2/1/21/comments). One could also think of the deduction of general laws of corporate drive and the maintenance of individuality, with fitness as the necessary amount of energy to control extension (multiplicity and/or fecundity). 
  5. It started with the Planck era when all fundamental powers were unified and hence unstable, which triggered the first phase transition by the separation of gravity. During the following grand unification epoch the instability continued leading to the separation of the strong force from the electro-nuclear force. This second phase transition triggered an extremely rapid exponential expansion, followed by the release of the potential energy of the inflation field. Next, during the electroweak epoch the universe was filled with very hot and dense plasma of quarks, leptons and gluons. With the separation of the electroweak interaction into the weak (nuclear) force and the electromagnetic force, the quark epoch began until the expanding universe had cooled down below the binding energy to allow the formation of pairs and trios of quarks. With this (4th) phase transition at the end of the first second of the universe the hedron epoch began, during which the matter-antimatter equilibrium was, by the further cooling down, broken down and most hedrons (formations of quarks) disappeared. During the next ten seconds the leptons dominated until, again by further cooling down, most of them were destructed and disappeared. After that, protons and neutrons combined into atomic nuclei that formed dense plasma together with electrons and photons at the beginning of the photon epoch. This period lasted for several hundred thousands of years until the protons, neutrons and electrons had combined into the atoms of light elements, mainly hydrogen and helium, and the universe became transparent. From: Steven Weinberg (1977). The First Three Minutes: A Modern View of the Origin of the Universe. Basic Books, New York; Ratra, B. & M.S. Vogeley (2008). The beginning and evolution of the universe. Publ. Astron. Soc. Pac. 120: 235-265. 
  6. The chaotic inflation theory was first proposed by Andrei Linde in 1986 and the impact was described in detail by Alan Guth in 2007. A popularized insight is described by Brian Greene (2011). The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos. Knopf, New York. 
  7. The basic characteristic of culture is the exchange of information by means of communication. In most organisms this attribute had developed to some degree via chemical exchange; mainly in vertebrates also via visual and audible clues. The fundamental characteristic of human culture is our language, which has enabled us to express our solidarity, team-spirit and corporate sense in a way of national bonding and religion. Declared supporters of religious or political groups with a respectively ethical or materialistic fundament can be found among many modern scholars. However, while these groups are out for each other’s existence, this sort of clustering is not really relevant to global cooperation. Although it may sound paranoid, even the scientific society is infiltrated by these groups in order to blur facts from interested motives. The leading groups decide by means of money or followed moral, which subjects should be considered to research and which fields are not likely to get that support. 
  8. According to David S. Wilson and Edward O. Wilson in their article Rethinking the theoretical foundations of sociobiology (2007) “there is widespread agreement that selection occurs within and among groups, that the balance between levels of selection can itself evolve, and that a major transition occurs when selection within groups is suppressed, enabling selection among groups to dominate the final vector of evolutionary change”. Elaborate models on multilevel selection are found in A. Gardner, A. Grafen (2009). Capturing the superorganism: a formal theory of group adaptation. J. Evol. Biol. 22: 659-671; M. Perc, A. Szolnoki (2010). Coevolutionary games – a mini review. Biosystems 99: 109-125; P.Bijma & M.J. Wade (2008). The joint effect of kin, multilevel selection and indirect genetic effects on response to genetic selection. J. Evol. Biol. 21: 1175-1188. 
  9. The eusociality of humans is argued in K.R. Foster, F.L.W. Ratnieks (2005). A new eusocial vertebrate? TRENDS Ecol. Evol. 20: 363-364. 
  10. In special relativity the energy/momentum/mass equation: E2=m2c4+p2c2 relates the energy of an object (E) with its mass and moment (speed). This equation simplifies into the famous E=mc2 when the momentum is set equal to zero (p=0). In quantum mechanics the key equation is Schrödinger's wave equation. In 1926 the energy/momentum/mass relation (special relativity) was united with Schrödinger's wave equation (quantum mechanics) obtaining an equation which depends on a square root and has always a dual solution: one positive, in which waves propagate from the past to the future (retarded waves), and one negative, according to which waves propagate backward in time, from the future to the past (advanced waves).
    In the 1930s the negative solution was refused as it was considered to be impossible, even though many experimental evidences were supporting it (for example Dirac's neg-electron, Anderson's positron and the discovery of antimatter). Any attempt to integrate quantum mechanics with special relativity always opens the uncomfortable dilemma of waves which move backward in time. The refusal of the negative solution keeps special relativity separated from quantum mechanics. Lately, it was showed that only when advanced waves, which move backward in time, are considered to be real the mysteries of quantum mechanics (such as the dual nature of matter - waves and particles - and nonlocality) become necessary manifestations of the dual nature of waves and time. In 1941 the mathematician Luigi Fantappiè, working on quantum mechanics and special relativity, proposed a mathematical demonstration which shows that the positive solution, which describes waves (and particles) which propagate forward in time, is governed by the law of entropy (dissipation, disorder and death) whereas the negative solution, which describes waves (and particles) which propagate backward in time, is governed by a symmetrical law which Fantappiè named syntropy and which has the following properties: concentration of energy; differentiation; creation of structures; order. Fantappiè noticed that the properties of the law of syntropy are similar to the properties of living systems, arriving at the conclusion that living systems are, in their essence, attracted by the future, and therefore anticipatory systems. From: Vannini, A., 2005. Entropy and syntropy. From mechanical to life science. NeuroQuant.3: 88-110; Di Corpo, U. & A. Vannini, 2010. Advanced Waves and Quantum Mechanics. Syntropy 1: 74-81.


gert korthof said...

Henny, het boek The Major Transitions in Evolution is inderdaad in de evoutiebiologie een klassieker en een mijlpaal door zijn ongebruikelijk brede scoop. Vooral de opvolger THE ORIGINS OF LIFE. From the Birth of Life to the Origin of Language (1999) is geschreven voor een breder publiek en is een goudmijn van inzichten.

Henny, ken je Gerard Jagers op Akkerhuis? Hij heeft enigzins in dezelfde lijn een theorie ontwikkeld die behalve biologische evolutie ook cosmologische evolutie omvat:

nand braam said...

Ik las ergens dat volgens John Maynard Smith de evolutie in 7 sprongen is verlopen. Welke zijn die 7 sprongen?

gert korthof said...

Nand, de lijst van 8 transities is hier te vinden:
bij het boek THE ORIGINS OF LIFE.
Als je vragen hebt dan hoor ik het wel!

nand braam said...

@ Gert
Bedankt voor de verwijzing. Ik heb een artikel gelezen over John Maynard Smith, waarin op het einde bij de korte bespreking van zijn boek “The Major Transitions in Evolution” (ik heb het boek zelf niet gelezen) toch echt geproken wordt over zeven sprongen en niet acht.


Ach, zeven of acht sprongen, dat doet er niet zoveel toe, denk ik. Het zijn verfijningen , denk ik, van de bekende drieslag kosmogenese (het ontstaan van het heelal) , biogenese (sprongmutatie van levenloze tot levende stof) en noögenese (sprongmutatie naar zelfbewustzijn) .

Lucas Blijdschap said...

Gert, had je deze al gezien?


gert korthof said...

Bedankt Lucas, die had ik totaal gemist! Is genoteerd!
Het is populaire geschiedschrijving, leuk en spannend als smaakmaker om daarna eventueel de engelstalige boeken over de geschiedenis van de evolutietheorie te raadplegen.