One of the most personally frustrating things I encounter when navigating the social sciences are the bedrock assumptions that so much of the various fields are built on. I’ve ranted already about one of my favorites — the notion that civilization and self-organization came from the fact that humans were always starving, and so they started growing crops. Such crazy BS. Dunno about you, but civilization (especially the first Authoritarian hierarchies) were far more coordinated affairs than most tribal societies. And no one gets along super-well when they’re hungry. The idea that base energetics limited how they function is unbelievable.
One of my other pet peeves of the deeper dysfunctional ones is that evolution is random, and has no preferred direction. “Fitness” rules all, and things just kinda kill each other until the strongest/most resilient/etc. wins out. So ridiculous. You can look around at any given time and see the evidence that this is nonsense. If you go down to my wood shop, which has evolved over the years, the variety, sophistication, and interconnected nature of my tools belie this myth.
But it’s bigger than my wood shop. It’s one of the most profound examples of the Value set/v-Memes talking — namely, the Authoritarian one. “Bigger and stronger”? Please. How much Authoritarian can you get? And even the worse message. Once someone trots out an example of how Bigger and Stronger failed, they’ll inevitably shake their fists in the air and say “You can’t make sense of where the world will go.” You can’t look around and synthesize a larger pattern, because you’re not an expert. And that arbitrary nature? You’ve got to be pretty clever if you’re even going to guess.
The deep secret of evolutionary environments can, however, be seen across nature, and once the understanding of spatial and temporal scale reinforcement, coupled with energetics is understood a little bit (these things are still challenging) you can start looking around for meta-patterns. Larger than metaphors, and potentially a little more dangerous, they are still there for the pickings.
In the case of evolution — my thesis that evolution tends toward both complexity and coherence is easily mapped from how ocean waves develop. Ocean waves start out as a stochastic (read random) pattern across the surface of water. But over time, there is a reinforcement pattern of certain wavelengths from boundary/environmental conditions that causes harmonic resonances, so that certain wavelengths build, and others dissipate. These dominant wavelength waves, created by that combination of wind and tide, will vary dependent on the energy pumped into them, as well as the contours of the ocean floor, and other factors. But without coherence – that lining up of the various factors, the stochastic nature starts a process of self-cancellation (random phases, signal processing folks!) that erases them. Sorta. The sea is never perfectly flat, and the interstices in between the waves fill in with a variety of smaller waves, that have some scaling processes that approach fractal nature. Hokusai so eloquently gave us the famous image, Great Wave off Kanagawa, to make the point in art.
Evolution works in the same way. Large structures form, and grow, until the environment renders them unstable, and then complexity harnesses the remaining energy in a coherent fashion until the ecosystem is filled in.
This should not be surprising to anyone with an understanding of nonlinear dynamics. The idea that a disturbance (which usually accelerates evolution) occurs, of a meta-nonlinear nature occurs, and then fills in meta-linearly (or less accurately, incrementally, but you might get the idea a little easier) would surprise no one.
And coherence? Think about it — it’s a no-brainer. If things AREN’T coherent, then they dissipate through stochastic/random processes. It’s a necessary condition.
Why should we care? What’s the Deep OS takeaway? And what the hell does any of this have to do with empathy? Everything, of course.
As our global world continues to emerge and self-create — ain’t no one REALLY in charge, though we definitely can add inputs to affect the system — we are rapidly gaining in complexity. Tools like the Internet just accelerate the process. We can connect to people around the world, and people around the world can connect to each other. We don’t even have to be invited. One of the largest social networks in the world is China’s WeChat. If you don’t read Mandarin, well, you’re gonna miss a lot of the action.
But complexity cannot sustain itself without coherence. What’s happening in America right now, on a host of issues like gun control, are threatening the survival of the nation. Let alone the survival of our children.
And as Ryan and I discussed in this piece, if we want both complexity AND coherence, we’ve got two paths in front of us. The first, the low v-Meme solution, is homogeneity. Homogeneity will work for larger scalings of Authoritarian systems (look at China, for example) but will inevitably fall apart as more diverse information flows inundate a society (look at China and Hong Kong now!) But for diverse systems, with far greater opportunities for creativity, happiness and growth, we have to have empathy — the full stack, from Mirroring Behavior to Conscious and Rational Empathy. That’s why, as societal size has increased, we mostly see an upward bending of developed empathy, and empathetic evolution.
With evolution, it’s pretty clear — it’s onward and upward, toward complexity and coherence. Or toward a major disturbance that starts the process all over. The roadmap is there. The choice is ours.
4 thoughts on “Evolution’s Path – Greater Complexity and Coherence”
Kevin Kelly’s book on What Technology Wants does a great job of describing this from technology perspective, like your wood shop analogy. He goes on to conclude that technology wants what we want. A co-evolution towards complexity and coherence.
I”ll check it out. I just can’t believe that someone hasn’t thought of the surface wave propagation/evolution analogy before me.
I once read a paper in an academic marketing (ie advertizing) journal written by a physicist which derived solitons (traveling waves as you know–sin-gordon equation) in shopping behavior. Others have suggested that elementary particles are solitons (ie not elementary, but collectivie phenomena). I sort of tend to see repeating patterns–some even use the schrodinger equation to model planetary motion—they are just large atoms.
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