INTEGRAL WORLD: EXPLORING THEORIES OF EVERYTHING
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber



powered by TinyLetter
Today is:
Publication dates of essays (month/year) can be found under "Essays".

Andy SmithAndrew P. Smith, who has a background in molecular biology, neuroscience and pharmacology, is author of e-books Worlds within Worlds and the novel Noosphere II, which are both available online. He has recently self-published "The Dimensions of Experience: A Natural History of Consciousness" (Xlibris, 2008).

SEE MORE ESSAYS WRITTEN BY ANDY SMITH

EVOLUTION'S
QUIVER

Direction, Cooperativity and Spirituality

Andrew Smith


Evolution has
many arrows

John Stewart's essay "Intentional Evolution" summarizes his view of evolution as a directional or progressive process, a notion he has discussed in more detail in his book Evolution's Arrow and in another essay, Evolutionary Manifesto. I am in substantial agreement with his work. Among the views we share are:

  1. the critical importance of developing an evolutionary view of our future that is consistent with science;
  2. the notion that evolution has a direction, in the sense that there has been a long-term trend for living processes to become “improved”, or as I would say, more complex;
  3. that the driving force for this evolutionary change is cooperation or what I call socialization, in which living things form societies, the members of which become increasingly interdependent;
  4. that the most advanced or complex societies can develop into new individual forms of life, as when molecular societies became cells, and cellular societies became organisms;
  5. that the latest example of the latter is an emerging entity that includes the entire earth and all its living processes;
  6. that spiritual or meditative practices play a major role in this future evolution.

The differences I do have with Stewart on evolution are mostly ones of emphasis or detail. Nevertheless, I want to discuss some of these differences here, to further clarify certain issues that I believe are essential to understanding how evolution progresses.

How Progressive is Evolution?

The existence of bacteria for several billion years poses no particular problem for the softer view that evolution will sometimes lead to progress.
a) Strong and weak forms of evolutionary progression.

Reading Evolution's Arrow made me realize that one's view of evolutionary progression, as for many other major scientific issues, can take both a strong or hard form as well as a weak or soft form. The strong form, evidently espoused by Stewart, is that evolution is inevitably or “fundamentally” progressive:

A central task of this book is to…[show] that evolution includes processes that drive it in a particular direction, and that the direction is progressive. (p. 7)[1]
evolution continually improves living processes in some general direction (p. 13)

This contrasts with a softer form of evolutionary progression, which I hold, that the process leads to increasing complexity in some forms of life—which constitute the leading edge, so to speak—but not in all of them. In this view, increasing complexity is one way that organisms adapt to their environment, but not the only way.

From the point of view of considering our evolutionary future, which is clearly the ultimate or long-term project underlying Stewart's work, I don't think this distinction matters much. We agree that evolution has created increasingly complex forms of life, which are better able to survive, and that this process could continue with humanity in the future. And we also agree generally on the forms that this change is likely to take.

But to defend his more extreme thesis, Stewart has to make some questionable arguments. Thus he compares evolution in the natural world with the evolution of human technology, arguing that they have two crucial components in common: 1) the potential for improvement; and 2) a search mechanism or process that looks for these improvements. Since human technology, by everyone's agreement, has progressed, the same must be the case for natural evolution as well.

The most familiar evolutionary mechanism, natural selection acting on genetic variation, clearly meets this [second] condition… this process searches for improvements by throwing up genetic variants, and then perpetuates any improvements that are discovered. (p.15)

There is a problem with the use of the word “improvement” here. As applied to human technology, it refers to a comparison with all previous forms of technology. Thus the gasoline-powered automobile was considered an improvement, in some way, over boats, the steam engine, bicycles, horse-drawn carriages, walking, and any other form of transportation. It had to compete with all these earlier forms of transportation, and be shown to be superior, in some respect or under some circumstances, to all of them.

In contrast, evolutionary improvement in the natural world is highly contextual. To prove useful and enhance survival, an adaptation only needs to be superior to existing relevant features of some organisms. As in Stewart's much used example of fur color in hares, what constitutes an improvement at one time and one locale might not be an improvement at another time and locale.

Stewart is of course well aware of this:

There is nothing to stop the genetic search moving in the opposite direction to where the greatest improvements lie. A genetic change will be favoured by natural selection if it is better than what has come before, even though it might move away from greater potential improvement…
So the opponents of a progressive view of evolution have found it very easy to go to the history of life on earth and point to absences of progress over long periods. But they have failed to see that extensive periods without progress are an inevitable consequence of a blind trial-and-error genetic search mechanism. The survival of some groups of animals without significant improvement for millions or even billions of years is not conclusive evidence against progressive evolution. (pp. 17-18)

I agree with Stewart that “extensive periods without progress” are not evidence against the notion that evolution can be progressive. But surely they are evidence against the view that evolution is always, or inevitably, progressive. For what happens when these periods extend into the billions of years?

This is the situation for bacteria, which have existed on earth for about three and half billion years, and Stewart devotes an entire chapter, albeit a short one, attempting to defuse the argument:

It is impossible to argue convincingly that evolution is fundamentally directional and progressive without satisfactorily explaining the success of bacteria. (p. 152)

The evolutionary stasis of bacteria is a problem for him only because of this “fundamental” qualifier, the view that evolution is inevitably progressive. The existence of bacteria for several billion years poses no particular problem for the softer view that evolution will sometimes lead to progress. This view recognizes that a process that is directed towards adapting to the immediate environment will not necessarily lead to long-term progress or improvement.

Moreover, even when it does, it may not result in the best possible improvements, over any length of time. As complexity theorist Stuart Kauffman (1993) has argued with his concept of a fitness landscape, because genetic evolution is blind, and searches only for short-term improvements, it may result in irreversible commitments to less than optimal adaptations. Stewart claims that such limitations can always be overcome, because forms of life are not only constantly seeking better ways to adapt, but better ways to evolve:

it is not only through increases in cooperation that evolution progresses. It also progresses through increases in the ability of living processes to adapt and evolve. (p. 8)

But the concept of a fitness landscape strongly implies that forms of life may end up in a situation where the very possibility of finding a better way to evolve is precluded.

b) Why bacteria are like bicycles.

In fact, we can use parallels between human technological evolution and genetic evolution to illustrate the weaker view of evolutionary direction, just as Stewart attempted to do to illustrate the harder view. While the bicycle is considerably less complex than an automobile, the development of the latter did not result in society's abandonment of bicycles. In fact, they are probably more popular today than they ever were before. Why?

There are many reasons. First, the bicycle was always more appropriate for certain situations than a car. It can be transported, stored and used in places where cars can't be. Second, a bicycle is much cheaper to produce and therefore sell, making it attractive to people, particularly children, who can't afford a car, and in fact can't operate one. Third, as modern societies changed, new uses for bicycles developed. For example, humans in developed societies have become increasingly interested in physical fitness, and bicycling is viewed as an excellent way to exercise. Fourth, cars actually create new opportunities for bicycles. A car can be used to transport a bike to places that are too far or too difficult to reach by biking there directly.

All of these factors have their parallels in the natural world, with bacteria. Thus bacteria were always better adapted than organisms for certain environments, such as extremely harsh climates where organisms can't survive. Second, bacteria can reproduce themselves far faster and in far greater numbers than most organisms can, making it easier for them to take over and establish themselves in certain environmental niches. Third, as evolution of organisms proceeded, new evolutionary niches for bacteria developed, such as symbiotic relationships with plants. And fourth, the evolution of the most complex form of life, human beings, created an environment, the large intestine, where hundreds of species of bacteria can live, so necessary to us that except for their genetic material they are like other cells in our bodies. These bacteria will likely survive as long as Homo sapiens does.

Technological evolution can also be used to illustrate the limits created by fitness landscapes. Consider the automobile again. As it became increasingly more widely used, it completely altered the human social environment. Millions of miles of highways and lesser roads were constructed solely for its use. A major industry grew up for the sole purpose of manufacturing and selling cars, and innumerable smaller businesses have sprouted up, particularly along major highways, to serve drivers. And most dramatically, large urban areas have developed around the car, specifically constructed so as to enable people who work in these cities to live considerable distances outside of them.

As a result of these changes, modern societies often find it very difficult to give up cars, even though their limitations have become increasingly apparent. They create noise, pollution, and congestion, and are dependent on a non-renewable resource, oil. As a means of travel, several alternatives, such as light rail, have major advantages, but because of the way society has developed around the automobile, many parts of the world which would probably be better off based on a different form of transportation are in effect locked into the automobile.

So human technological evolution, which is driven by far more powerful and specific forces than random variation and natural selection, is littered with examples of suboptimal design, sometimes because people find other reasons for using certain forms of technology, and sometimes because technological developments take us in what retrospectively appears to be the wrong direction. How much more likely is that to be the case with the much blinder forces of random variation and natural selection?

c) Direction in social evolution.

If evolution is not always progressive, can we say something more about when it is is, and when it isn't, or might not be? Stewart argues that cooperation is the driving force of evolutionary progress, and as I said earlier, I agree with him. But it follows that evolutionary changes that do not involve cooperation may not be progressive.

In fact, there is an abundance of evidence for this view. For example, all the single-celled organisms that exist today, including not only bacteria but archaea and eukaryotes, live either independently or in very simple colonies. Nowhere in nature does one see complex societies of cells, with individual members carrying out a great diversity of functions, except within multicellular organisms.

Why is this so? As Stewart's discussion makes clear, there are enormous advantages to be had in societies, for individual cells as well as individual organisms. It seems that either a) such societies never existed, for some evolutionary reason; or b) they existed, but were replaced by still more complex societies, all of which were eventually replaced by multicellular organisms.

A similar gap is apparent at the molecular level. The scientific consensus is that the precursors of modern cells were molecular societies, in which several or more organic substances existed in a synergistic arrangement. A widely-touted example of such a molecular society is the autocatalytic network, which I will be discussing in more detail later. This is composed of a large number of substances that undergo metabolic transformations, with each reaction catalyzed by the product of one of the other transformations.

Yet nowhere in nature today do we see such isolated autocatalytic sets. Complex metabolic networks do exist, of course, but only within cells. In fact, other molecular components of cells, such as proteins and DNA, and supramolecular complexes like cell membranes and ribosomes, are also not found independently outside of cells. Why not? In this case, the most likely answer of the two choices listed above is b), that these molecular components and societies were out-competed along the way, with eventually all of them losing out to full-fledged autonomous cells. In an environment with modern-like cells, more primitive molecular societies or structures would live a very precarious existence, most often probably incorporated by cells for nutrients.

There is a similar gap present in our own evolution. It's well-established that our early ancestors lived in relatively simple societies, such as bands and tribes. But with a few exceptions, such simple societies are not found today. Almost all human beings today live in large, relatively complex societies. Here the second explanation is clearly correct. We know that these larger societies—which, unlike those within cells and organisms, are still evolving—offer decisive advantages. The simple societies have largely gone extinct, unable to compete effectively.

Taken as a whole, these observations suggest that once the evolution of societies begins, it frequently continues in a progressive manner. That is, once societies get beyond a relatively simple stage, it appears their chances increase to develop into more advanced societies, in a process culminating in a new type of individual lifeform. At the same time, though, lifeforms that don't begin this process, or at least don't get very far along, are not necessarily out-competed by groups. These lifeforms include not only cells like bacteria, but very simple organisms like sponges or Porifera, which first appeared on earth more than five hundred million years ago.

Why is this the case? I will consider first why social evolution is so often progressive. But to do that, we will find it helpful to have some way of measuring or assessing this progression.

Measuring Evolutionary Progress

Differentiation is therefore clearly a key factor in evolutionary progress.

If the evolution of societies is progressive, is there a way we can measure it? That is, can we compare two societies by some objective criterion that allows us to say that one is more advanced than the other?

The most commonly-used term to assess evolutionary progress is complexity. While there are several different definitions of complexity in currency[2], I define it as the number of different states that a society can exist in. Generally speaking, the larger a society is, the more complex both it and its individual members will be by this definition. That is, increasing the size of a society will increase the potential number of interactions that occur throughout the society, as well as those that can be made by any one of its individual members. Every permutation of possible interactions is a potentially different state of the society as a whole, as well as of a particular member involved in those interactions.

However, if all these members are identical, and interact identically, then most of these potentially different states are in effect redundant, and do not contribute to increased complexity. For this reason, complexity also increases with the degree of differentiation of a society. That is, to the extent that individual members carry out different functions or tasks within that society, that will increase the number of different kinds of interactions.

Differentiation is therefore clearly a key factor in evolutionary progress. More possible states, of an individual as well as of a society, means more options for adapting to the environment, so differentiation often trumps pure size. There are many societies in the natural world that contain an enormous number of members, yet are considered quite simple. Bacterial colonies can be immensely large, with membership numbering in the millions or more, but as noted earlier, there is little division of labor present. Social evolution can be said to have begun when such divisions developed, and it was at this point that progress became or could have become inevitable or directional.

How do we measure differentiation? Mathematical treatments of this notion can be quite complex[3], but there is a fairly simple approach that I believe captures the most essential features. In order for different roles or functions to be established in a society, individuals carrying out these roles must recognize them. That is, every individual member of the society must recognize that it plays a particular role or roles, and it must also recognize that other members of the society play certain roles.

Elsewhere (The Dimensions of Experience, Chapter 1; Does Evolution Have a Direction?), I have argued that we can identify several major stages in this differentiation process. Each stage represents an increase in the power that individuals have to make distinctions among other individuals, as well as among objects and other aspects of their environment, which for most organisms also effectively constitute part of the society. Here I will provide a brief summary of these stages, then discuss some examples that help illuminate how and why evolution progresses.

a) Social dimensions.

The simplest, most basic type of recognition process involves distinguishing self from other. I refer to this as one-dimensional recognition/communication, because only this single type of discrimination is present. One-dimensional societies are those composed of such members, and are completely undifferentiated, with each member essentially interchangeable with every other member. Approximating examples are found among very primitive invertebrates, such as coral reefs. Most cell societies, outside of individual organisms, are also of this approximate type.

Two-dimensional communication is able to make a distinction among different types or classes of others. It is exemplified by crawling arthropods, particular the social insects. The societies formed by such organisms feature a division of labor, or castes, in which different individuals carry out different tasks. Thus they can be said to be the beginning of real social differentiation. Members of the society must be able to discriminate among members of different castes, and also make other fundamental distinctions such as male-female and kin vs. non-kin. While most arthropods are not social, so-called solitary species can also make many of these same kind of distinctions. They can also be considered members of societies in the sense that they use their two dimensional experience to relate to other organisms in their environment.

Three-dimensional communication recognizes others as unique individuals. A few invertebrate species and most if not all vertebrates feature these kinds of interactions. They generally live in societies—again, including in the broad sense of an environment that includes many other species—in which individuals are multi-functional. That is, an individual is recognized not because it performs a particular role or task, as in two-dimensional societies, but because it performs a more or less unique constellation of roles.

Four-dimensional communication involves a dimension of time as well as the dimensions of space. It is exemplified by higher vertebrates, beginning with birds, which can recognize distinct behavioral states or behavior patterns of other individuals. A behavior pattern is a more or less stereotyped sequence of movements that occurs over time, so to recognize it requires distinguishing the individual in time as well as space. These organisms live in societies that also have an existence in time as well as space. By this I don't simply mean that they endure over time, as lower dimensional societies do as well, but that most of their essential features can only be understood as processes occurring over time. For example, families are a characteristic feature of most four-dimensional societies, and families are defined in terms of relationships that extend over a period of time.

Finally, five-dimensional communication features a great extension of the dimension of time, to the point where it might be considered in some sense to be a second dimension. Organisms of this kind, primarily our own species, are now capable of recognizing that other organisms, as well as objects, have a permanent existence extending beyond any period of direct interaction with them. Psychologists refer to this feature as object permanence, and it has been documented in a few vertebrates other than ourselves. However, it is only fully developed with the advent of language and symbolic thought, which of course allow us to refer to phenomena that are not in our direct experience.

Both societies and their members exhibit these dimensional properties, but only the entire society exhibits them to their fullest extent. Moreover, as I noted earlier, societies, in the broadest sense, include not simply a group of closely related organisms, but other organisms and aspects of their immediate environment. Thus dimensions as I define them refer not simply to how organisms recognize and communicate with each other, but also to how they sense and interact with their environment. Specifically, these dimensions correspond to actual physical dimensions of space and time. Thus one-dimensional organisms sense space in a single dimension, two-dimensional organisms sense space in two dimensions, three-dimensional organisms sense space in three dimensions, and higher dimensional organisms sense three dimensional space along with time. There is an enormous amount of evidence in support of this claim, which I have discussed elsewhere (Smith 2009).

Finally, these five classes of individuals and groups apply not only to organisms and their societies, but to lower levels of existence as well. A little later, I will discuss some examples that illustrate this, as well as show how the concept of dimensionality is a key one in understanding the evolution of cells and of multicellular organisms.

b) Why is Evolution of Societies Progressive?

First, however, let's return to the question of why evolution of groups or societies is so often progressive. Or to put it another way, why do simpler groups inevitably lose out in competition to more complex ones? The concept of dimensionality should make the reason clear: a higher degree of dimensionality includes the lower dimensions. Thus individuals in a higher group exhibit all the properties that individuals in lower groups exhibit. In other words, there is much to gain and essentially nothing to lose in the evolution of a higher degree of dimensionality.

For example, consider what happens when groups evolve from two dimensions to three. Two dimensional organisms, which include most crawling arthropods, have a two-dimensional view of the world. They see their environment as essentially a flat plane. This has been shown, for example, in studies of both desert ants (Wohlgemuth et al. 2001) and crabs (Walls and Layne 2009), which can fairly accurately measure how far and in what direction they have wandered from their nest at any moment. In making these calculations, they essentially ignore hills and other vertical features, projecting the distance as though the terrain were completely flat. This contrasts with flying insects, such as honeybees, which measure distances in three-dimensional space (Dacke and Srinivasan 2007).

It isn't that these two-dimensional organisms don't live and move about in the same three-dimensional world that we and other organisms capable of experiencing three spatial dimensions do. They are not like the plane-dwellers in Edwin Abbott's classical book Flatland, trapped in two dimensions. It's just that these three dimensions are collapsed or projected into two. These organisms can sense or experience phenomena that exist in what we call three dimensions, yet they experience them as flat.

In other words, such organisms are capable of extracting less information from their environment than can organisms capable of sensing three full dimensions of space. Their experience of the environment is restricted. Understood in this way, we can appreciate that increasing dimensionality opens up new evolutionary niches or terrain. It allows organisms to take advantage of features that in some sense were always there, but of which they were not aware. Since all the earlier features remain, there is essentially no downside in this process. There is an important qualification to this statement that I will discuss later, but for now we can just say that other things being more or less the same, the higher the dimensionality of a society, the better adapted its individual members are to essentially any kind of environment. Dimensionality is an all-purpose tool.

c) The downsides of social life.

However, we haven't yet fully accounted for the evolutionary situation. If increasing dimensionality provides an explanation of why evolution of groups is progressive, why can bacteria survive independently of all but the simplest forms of social organization? And why do we see today so many organisms—essentially every species except our own—living in societies much simpler than our own?

With regard to bacteria, and other relatively simple and independent cells and organisms, the first thing to point out is that there are always tradeoffs that an individual makes during the transition from an independent existence to becoming a member of a society. Stewart notes that “cooperation can flourish without organisms giving up their self-interest” (p.7), and this is certainly essential to the evolution of societies. But while an individual may be better off in some defined way as a member, it nevertheless has to give up certain features or advantages in return for others. In this respect, this initial step in the formation of societies is different from their further development. While as discussed earlier, there are large benefits and virtually no downside in the evolution of simple societies to more complex ones, there is a definite downside to joining any society in the first place.

Individuals must give up certain freedoms, particularly, in the case of cells, mobility. Even in the very primitive cell societies existing today, such as Volvox and Dictyostelium (a type of slime mold), members have to remain physically associated with each other at least some of the time. I will discuss later why that is the case, why we never see in nature societies of cells, beyond very simple colonies of bacteria, that are not physically associated with each other. But for now, we can simply take it as a given.

If the cell is photosynthetic, as is the case with Volvox, and can make its own nutrients, this may not be much of a handicap. But if it isn't, and depends on movement to find and consume nutrients, as is the case with the amoeboid cells composing slime molds, this requires what we would call a sacrifice. Indeed, spore formation by Dictyostelium involves a process in which many of the individual cells die off.

Many single-celled organisms contain specialized appendages, such as cilia or flagella, that allow them to move through a liquid medium. Some contain even more specialized cellular equipment that they use to capture prey. Joining a society means laying down their arms, either giving them up entirely, or devoting them for the collective good, as when ciliated cells in a primitive organism are used to sweep food into the digestive area.

Reproduction of cells generally also becomes restricted in multicellular organizations, with some members prevented from reproducing at all. Most critically, societies as a whole cannot reproduce themselves as exact copies, as organisms can. At best, a portion of the society may split off from the main group, and grow to a size and composition similar to the original. But this is not a reliable process, and can act as a further downside in competition with independent cells. For example, a cell society may reach a limit beyond which it cannot grow further in cell number. If it is unable to reproduce itself fairly accurately, it cannot propagate the higher dimensionality that provides its members with advantages over individual cells.

In summary, while cell societies have advantages over the individual life, these advantages come at a price. When Stewart talks about “self-interest”, we should be mindful that self-interest cannot generally be precisely quantitated in natural systems, as it can be or may be in human economic systems. We can't list the advantages and disadvantages of social organization in a way that allows us to determine an objective balance sheet that holds in all circumstances. A feature that constitutes an advantage in one environment may be disadvantageous in some other environment.

The preceding line of reasoning does not apply quite as well to organisms, because unlike the case with cells, organisms in societies do not necessarily have to remain in close physical contact. Social interactions are still likely to result in restrictions in several essential forms of behavior, however, such as feeding and mating. The more important question, though, is why haven't societies of organisms followed the progression I suggested earlier, in which simpler societies are replaced by more complex ones? Why do we see in nature today numerous examples of organisms and societies of all the different dimensions, even the simplest?

Here is where I would qualify the statement that higher dimensional societies and their members are always superior at adapting to lower dimensional members. If the organisms or other lifeforms being compared are very similar as individuals, then most of the differences between them will result from differences in their social organization. This is clearly the case with primitive molecular societies, which were composed of organic molecules that did not differ very much in composition or function. It is also the case with eucaryotic cells. Though some cells have appendages or other adaptive features, as noted earlier, the basic components and functions of cells are fairly standard.

It is also the case with a single species of organism, which is why human evolution has been directional. Our ancestors were physically very similar to us. Almost all the differences between them and us are due to the differences in surrounding social organization. So as that organization has became more complex, individuals in those societies have become better adapted.

But if the organisms are of different species, as is the case with the various kinds of societies we see in nature, then in addition to social or dimensional differences, there will be other differences specific to the organisms. For example, most vertebrates have three-dimensional experience or higher, while most invertebrates have two-dimensional experience or lower. The differences in adaptive fitness that result are substantial. But there are species-specific differences that also come into play. Thus insects are generally relatively small, which enables them to inhabit or access evolutionary niches that are not available to larger vertebrates. They can frequently reproduce far more quickly and in far greater abundance, which increase the chances of survival and of evolving new adaptive traits.

A comparison with the evolution of human technology may again be illuminating. As I noted earlier, the development and widespread use of cars has not meant the end of bicycles, though they are less complex than cars. Though they have not had the benefit of as much advances in technology as cars have, bikes have found other niches in which they remain competitive. In this respect, they are like a different species of transportation. The same can be said for other forms of transportation that are less technologically advanced than the car, such as motorcycles, scooters, and for that matter, roller blades and roller skates, and even plain old walking.

But while cars have not put these other forms of transportation out of business, they have very effectively competed with and replaced older versions of the automobile. The Model T Ford may be valued today as a collector's item, but no one would want it just based on its ability to perform any of the usual functions of automobiles. There is no competitive pressure to continue manufacturing more of them. Likewise with other older cars. In fact, the value of any car is closely correlated with how new it is. A good part of this, of course, is because the newer a car is, generally the less it has been used. But it is also true that newer models are almost always considered superior to ones made in previous years. They incorporate all the main functions of older models, but with the addition of new ones, or of older ones that have been improved in some way.

In this respect, we could say that cars are like members of a single species. Essentially all the differences between them over time involve advances in a single kind of technology, or set of closely related technologies. This technology results from social interactions; it is not simply a metaphor for the dimensionality found in nature, but an expression of it. So advances in human technology parallel in some important respects evolution in the natural world.

Having now examined some general principles of social evolution, let's now consider some more specific examples. Evolution, in my view, is best understood as occurring on a series of levels: the physical, culminating in cells; the biological, culminating in organisms; and the mental, culminating (thus far) in modern human societies. I will briefly consider each of these in turn, highlighting the role of increasing dimensionality.

Autocatalysis: the Origin of Cells?

Dimensionality is key to understanding how catalysis could have evolved.

Autocatalysis has become just about everyone's choice as a critical early stage in the evolution of cells. Kauffman (1993) first demonstrated that if a sufficiently large number of substances occur in a restricted area or pool, it is highly probable that one substance will be capable of catalyzing the metabolic transformation of another.[4] So an entire metabolic network can assemble essentially spontaneously, in which each product serves as a catalyst to create another product.

Yet many discussions of this phenomenon, including Stewart's, gloss over two critical issues regarding autocatalytic sets, which can be summarized in two simple questions: What are they? What do they do?

With respect to the first question, there is a dilemma in the concept of autocatalytic sets that is not always appreciated. On the one hand, metabolic reactions of the kind found in living cells, and which would certainly be found in precursors of these cells, involve transformations of relatively small organic molecules, such as amino acids, nucleotides, sugars, fatty acids, and the like. On the other hand, catalysts are generally large macromolecules, particularly proteins. The latter are not synthesized in ordinary metabolic processes, but require their own special, more complex synthetic machinery.

So it becomes a kind of chicken and egg question: Which came first, the small organic molecules that are found in modern metabolic networks, but which have little catalytic activity? Or the much more complex protein catalysts that enhance these reactions, but which are not themselves produced by such reactions? Though Kauffman suggested, and Stewart endorses, the second scenario (along with, perhaps, certain RNA molecules with catalytic activity), there are good arguments for and against both possible scenarios.[5] I don't propose to take a stand on this issue, but rather focus on just what the transition required.

Dimensionality is key to understanding how catalysis could have evolved. Small molecules, and the atoms that compose them, have one-dimensional properties. They may recognize and bind to other molecules, but there is very little specificity in this process, and the interactions are relatively weak. Hence they are poor at catalyzing reactions, which depends on strong, specific interactions between the catalyst and the molecule about to undergo some metabolic transformation.

Catalysis is basically a two- or three-dimensional property. Two-dimensional molecules, typified by small polymers such as peptides, often exist in flat sheet-like forms, and are able to interact with other surfaces. This property is associated with another typical feature of two-dimensional entities, the ability to recognize specific classes of other. Atoms within the peptide can distinguish among classes of other atoms. For example, one atom or a group of atoms in a peptide may recognize in a small molecule a certain carbon atom as opposed to another, chemically and structurally identical carbon atom. This distinction is possible because of its context, that is, the other atoms surrounding the carbon. This context, which in physical terms is a surface, makes that carbon atom a member of a certain class, and distinguishing such classes is a two-dimensional property.

Three-dimensional molecules, such as large proteins or enzymes, take on a specific three-dimensional shape or conformation, and are likewise capable of recognizing other specific shapes or conformations. Again, this is associated with a more fundamental three-dimensional property, the ability to recognize certain atoms as unique. Thus when an enzyme's catalytic site binds to some small molecule, it can distinguish certain atoms from all other atoms that are structurally identical to it. This again depends on context, but that context is more specific than that recognized by two-dimensional molecules, because of the additional third dimension. Just as occurs with organisms, three-dimensional recognition extracts more information than two-dimensional recognition, which in turn accesses more information than one-dimensional recognition. Each succeeding process “sees” more of what in some sense was always there.

So a key step in the evolution of autocatalytic networks would have been the polymerization of small organic molecules with weak catalytic activity to form two-dimensional molecules capable of more powerful and more specific catalytic activity. Greater specificity means that the catalyst would be less likely to enhance the wrong reaction, and greater potency or efficiency means that it will catalyze the reaction more rapidly. Further evolution would have resulted in still more potent and specific three-dimensional catalysts.

In fact, an autocatalytic network of this kind actually has four-dimensional properties. A new, temporal dimension is incorporated into its being. What holds it together is not simply a set of interacting molecules, but the ongoing activities of these molecules. In other words, it is not just a structure, but a process. This is actually true of any individual functioning enzyme molecule, which, on its level of existence, can be considered the analog of an organism engaging in a behavior pattern. Its identity can only be understood as a process. It is not just a macromolecule that has a highly specific conformation; it is a process in which one conformation passes into another or several other conformations, returning to the original to start the cycle over again.

This brings us to the second question: what do autocatalytic sets do? In living cells, the substances and energy produced by metabolic networks are used for other processes vital to the cell, such as growth, maintenance, and reproduction. In a simple autocatalytic set, however, this does not happen. The substances create each other, and thus help maintain each other, but the reactions, in a profound sense, go nowhere. They just cycle over and over. Following Kauffman, most discussions of autocatalytic networks assume the process stops when the supply of starting materials runs out. But in fact, if the reactions form a loop, the process could proceed indefinitely, or at least until a significant number of the substances diffuse away from one another.

In order to evolve beyond this situation, it was necessary for the products of autocatalysis to provide some other function. Terrence Deacon (2011) suggests that a key step of this kind could have occurred if one of these metabolic products was capable of polymerizing into a sheet-like structure that could fold over itself, forming a hollow ball. Such a ball could contain the autocatalytic sets, preventing the components from drifting apart as well as protecting them from other substances that might interfere with or degrade the metabolic processes. In other words, it would function as a prototype of the modern cell membrane.

An enclosed or contained autocatalytic set, Deacon further suggests, could have gone into a sort of hibernation upon exhausting the supply of needed substances. Its components might have remained associated with each other until a new supply of substances was encountered, triggering the autocatalytic steps again. This would provide the basis for a more permanent existence, which would be greatly enhanced when it became possible for the catalysts to be coded for in nucleic acid sequences.

Here we see the emergence of the fifth dimension: entities are recognized as having a permanent existence. A hibernating autocatalytic network is not the actual thing, and even less so is a sequence of RNA or DNA that has the potential to synthesize the catalytic substances. But both contain the information needed to reconstitute the four-dimensional process, so in this important sense the network has begun to exist in the fifth dimension. It has an existence that is not entirely dependent on its ongoing activity.

Why Cells Stick Together

All of these problems can be avoided when cells exist in close physical contact.

Now let's briefly consider the evolution of multicellular organisms. Comparing this process with the evolution of cells from organic molecules, there is one striking difference that surely was critical. Cells, like other forms of what we call life, can grow, maintain themselves and reproduce. This is crucial, because it makes the evolution of the cell societies that became organisms much easier in certain ways. The molecular societies that preceded cells, such as autocatalytic sets, maintained a precarious existence, and one might say, needed to evolve further just to survive. As I noted earlier, there are no such molecular societies in existence today outside of cells and organisms. This is in large part because they lost out in competition to the latter. But even if they had not, it's hard to imagine that they would have become very prolific. Lacking a reliable means of reproduction, and always at the risk of degradation, they would have had great difficulty in propagating themselves widely.

Cells, in contrast, are built for survival. While further evolution to multicellular organisms might provide many advantages, there is no reason to think this was necessary for the survival of life on earth. Indeed, the fact that bacteria and other types of unicellular organisms still exist today demonstrates that it wasn't necessary.

So evolution of multicellularity was easier, in the sense that the basic building blocks, cells, are stable. If a particular social experiment failed, no problem, there were plenty of other cells around to try some other way. On the other hand, evolution was also in a sense more difficult, for the same reason. Whereas any advantage in the evolution of molecular societies would have been vital, given the fleeting existence of the starting materials, multicellular societies had stiff competition with individual cells. It wasn't enough for these societies to survive for long periods of time, since independent cells could survive indefinitely. Cell societies had to have advantages that enabled them to out-compete independent cells.

I noted earlier that there are inevitable tradeoffs in going from independent cells to a cell society, particularly restrictions on movement and reproduction. These tradeoffs exist, mainly, because the cells in any significantly complex society must be physically associated with each other. If they were capable of moving about freely and reproducing—much as organisms are able to do in their societies—these disadvantages would obviously be greatly reduced. Why, then, didn't cell societies evolve in this manner?

The problem is that communication among scattered, freely moving cells becomes very difficult. The simplest way for cells to recognize and communicate with each other is through direct physical contact, and this is usually the way it's done within multicellular organisms. Some communication does take place through diffusible chemical substances, such as hormones, and in principle, cells in societies living outside of organisms could communicate in this manner. In fact, the amoeboid cells that compose Dictyostelium slugs do communicate like this. So to some extent do some species of bacteria (Meyer et al. 1997; Deziel et al 2004).

But the use of diffusible substances is a relatively inefficient and impractical way to communicate, since in any liquid medium much, probably most, of the substance will miss its target cell. Furthermore, communication beyond the second dimension—recognition of classes of other cells—would be almost impossible. In order for individual cells to be recognized as such, they would have to contain a unique chemical tag, some constellation of substances different from every other cell; and there would have to be a way for other cells not only to recognize that tag, but to target it at a distance. Moreover, for the communication to be mutual, the receiving cell would have to be able to target the sender, again, specifically. When one visualizes a society of even dozens, let alone hundreds, thousands, millions of cells, constantly sending such diffusible substances to each other, one realizes how hopeless the situation would quickly become. When one further stipulates a temporal dimension, so that the message involves changes in these substances over time, the situation is far beyond hopeless.

All of these problems can be avoided when cells exist in close physical contact. To see this, we need only look at multicellular organisms, almost all of which feature all five of these stages, in the form of their tissues and organs. Most tissues or organs in the body, to be sure, are one- or two-dimensional societies. The cells that compose them generally interact only with physically adjacent cells, recognizing them either indiscriminately (one-dimensionally), or in most tissues, as a type of cell distinct from other cells in the body (two-dimensionally).

The higher dimensions are found almost entirely in just one organ, the brain or nervous system. Even the brains of very primitive invertebrates exhibit three-, four- and possibly five-dimensional properties. As I have emphasized, these higher dimensions depend on temporality, and nerve cells are uniquely able to exist within and recognize such dimensions because of their excitability, the property of generating and transmitting electrical activity. A nerve cell's identity is changing from moment to moment.

As noted earlier, communication among cells within most organisms also takes place to some extent by chemical signals, such as hormones. But this type of signaling is confined almost entirely to two dimensions, in other words, it targets cells of a particular type, rather than individual cells. Chemical signals are often capable of carrying some temporal information, in the form of pulsatile patterns of the concentration of some substance, but signals of this kind are closely integrated with nervous system activity. Within organisms chemical signals among cells are in fact generally proxies of neural activity, which it should be noted, usually involves chemical substances, anyway, in the form of transmitters. The higher, temporal dimensions of communication would be extremely difficult to create without neurons and their electrical activity. In addition, of course, the nervous system offers a great advantage in speed of communication.

To summarize, for evolution of multicellular societies to progress very far, these cells had to associate with each other physically. This hindered somewhat their ability to compete with independent cells, opening niches for the latter to survive in. The kinds of cell societies that would have been most capable of competing with independent cells, in which members had a large measure of freedom to move about and reproduce, could not get very far.

This, I believe, is the reason, or a major reason, why unicellular organisms have been able to survive for so long on earth. They never had to compete with cells in societies that offered significant advantages over independent cells. They of course did and still do have to compete with multicellular organisms, but the latter are so different from individual cells that they leave many evolutionary niches available for the latter. Including, as we have seen, niches located with organisms themselves.

The Planetary Organism

A striking feature of both cells and organisms is that they contain all the main stages leading to their evolution.

I said earlier that evolution on the mental level has thus far reached the stage of complex modern societies. However, Stewart believes that a new form of life is emerging, or could emerge, one that encompasses the entire planet, and all of its species. In the Evolutionary Manifesto, he describes this as follows:

Initially an emerging global society will have a very limited capacity to act intentionally on its external environment. It will be like a new-born baby. Its internal processes will be relatively harmonious and sustainable, but it will have very limited capacity to adapt as a coherent and coordinated whole in response to challenges that arise outside it.
For example, the global society will not be able to move about freely in the solar system nor have the capacity to manage the behavior of asteroids and other local celestial bodies. It will not use an understanding of its external environment to actively pursue objectives and goals. It will not be conscious in any unified sense. In terms of agency, it will be more vegetable than animal.
In this respect, the global society will be like all other living organisms when they first emerged. The cooperatives that formed simple cells, complex cells and multi-celled organisms were all unable to act coherently on their external environment at first, and had to undergo a long period of evolution to acquire this capacity. (Evolutionary Manifesto, pp. 12-13).

I am in complete agreement with Stewart here, and have in fact described a potential higher level of existence in much the same way. In my scheme this would be a zero-dimensional entity. Like the earliest cells and earliest organisms, it is unable to make any distinctions between self and other. However, like the cells and organisms before it, it might eventually be capable of developing through higher stages, and forming societies with other forms of life like itself:

In particular the global organization will develop the ability to move, to expand its scale to that of the solar system and then to the galaxy and beyond, to remodel its physical environment, to have physical impacts on events outside itself, to form intentions, to establish projects and long-term objectives for the organization, to communicate and interact with any other living processes that it encounters, to amalgamate with other societies of living processes to form larger-scale cooperative organizations, and to do any other thing that might advance the evolutionary process in the future.
The development by the global organization of a capacity to act, adapt and relate as a coherent whole is a very significant step in the evolution of life on this planet. It will mean that life on Earth can speak with one voice. For the first time, there will be an entity that is at the same level as other planetary and trans-planetary societies. At last an entity will exist that other planetary societies can relate to without fear of distorting our development. (Evolutionary Manifesto, p. 13)

This is speculative, of course, but if this is truly what is occurring on earth now, it can help provide another answer to an evolutionary puzzle: Why, if social evolution is progressive, do so many simpler societies exist on earth today? Earlier I argued that a main reason for this is that while simpler forms of social organization are, other things being equal, less adaptive than more complex ones, these advantages may sometimes be outweighed by species-specific differences.

There could be an additional reason, however. A striking feature of both cells and organisms is that they contain all the main stages leading to their evolution. Cells contain small organic molecules, like amino acids and nucleotides; small polymers like peptides and nucleic acids; large polymers like proteins; four-dimensional processes like enzymes; and five-dimensional processes like metabolic networks. I have referred to this structure as mixed hierarchical, because it contains both nested (or holarchical) as well as non-nested hierarchies. Similarly, organisms contain multicellular organizations representing all the five dimensions (actually six, since relatively independent or zero-dimensional cells are also found in organisms, just as relatively independent or zero-dimensional atoms are found within cells). So while lower dimensional societies have been progressively replaced by higher ones as independent forms of life, they have all been preserved when major new form of existence emerged.

Why has life evolved in this fashion? The short answer is because new individual forms of existence must be able to carry out the basic functions of life—growth, self-maintenance and reproduction—in a carefully regulated manner. While the societies that preceded them may also be capable of these processes to some extent, they are not well-regulated. Societies tend to grow unchecked until this growth is hindered by environmental factors, such as lack of needed resources. As they grow, they tend to change their internal form of organization. And as I noted earlier, societies can't reproduce in the sense of creating exact copies of themselves.

Cells and organisms do regulate these functions, controlling their size and their organization with fairly narrow limits, and creating progeny that have similar size and organization. In order to do this, they must make use of the entire scale or spectrum of social organization that preceded them. For example, cells are composed of five-dimensional societies of molecules like metabolic networks. But in order to maintain these networks, they must access small organic molecules, which are one-dimensional, and in order to incorporate these molecules into the molecular societies, they need the services of two-, three- and four-dimensional molecules. Likewise, the brains of organisms are five-dimensional societies of cells, but in order for the brain to be maintained, as well as direct behavior, various lower dimensional tissues and organs are required.

Again, we can see parallels in human technology. The most advanced transportation technology in existence today we might say consists of aircraft. I have already discussed how less advanced forms of transportation can exist side by side with more advanced forms, by exploiting uses not available for the latter. But even if we consider the aircraft industry separately, as a “species” competing with other forms of transportation, it's clear it requires these less advanced forms of transportation. Most workers commute to the plants where the aircraft are built using cars. In order to move about within the plant, they may use simpler forms of transportation, such as small motorized vehicles and electric carts, as well as, of course, walking.

So if, as Stewart and I both believe, a major new form of existence is emerging on earth, one that incorporates and transcends all other forms of life, I would expect it to feature an analogous type of organization. That is, it should contain one-, two-, three- and four- dimensional animal societies as well as the five-dimensional societies characteristic of our own species. While species-specific differences may have helped simpler organisms and their societies survive for all this time, their further survival may be ensured by their incorporation into the planetary organism.

There is nothing mysterious about this process. Over the past century, there has been evidence of accelerating extinction of many species on the planet, in large part a consequence of human activity. As the dominant species on earth, we are in fact capable of driving every other species not needed for our immediate needs into extinction. But recently a counter-trend had developed. There is a growing awareness that extinctions need to be prevented, that our own survival depends on other forms of life. The very fact of this awareness can be taken as evidence in itself of this emerging planetary form of life. It is a sign that the kind of change that has to occur for this new lifeform to survive is in effect beginning to come about.

Freedom From, not Freedom To

As I noted earlier, in my view, an emerging planetary holon would also have the same general type of consciousness, or relationship to its environment, as early cells and organisms had. The signal feature of this consciousness, a lack of distinction between self and other, is very similar to that reported for higher states of consciousness experienced by individuals. This suggests that this higher state is in fact an experience of a planetary organism. It is the consciousness of being this organism.

Many other authors, including Stewart, have recognized an intimate connection between a higher state of consciousness and the future evolution of the human race. In in his article "The Future Evolution of Consciousness", he argues that the next evolutionary step will require that individuals use spiritual/contemplative/ religious practices to gain mastery of their thoughts and emotions:

Feelings and emotions continue to enter consciousness…and the individual is free to take them into account when deciding what goals to pursue, but they no longer unilaterally control [our conscious experience][6]
Feelings and emotions arise, but no longer need to be acted upon.
once thoughts or emotions are objects of consciousness we can relate to them in the same way as we relate to inert objects in our external environment— we are free to choose whether to respond to them, including whether to give them further attention.
all phenomenon (internal as well as external) are potentially objects of consciousness that can be adapted consciously.

The notion that we can use spiritual practices, aimed at realizing a higher state of consciousness, to change our lives as individuals is very common among people who practice or are interested in some form of spirituality, and is practically the very definition of much of the self-help movement. But it raises two crucial issues that I think are generally ignored or glossed over. The first is freedom, the extent to which we are capable of controlling our behavior. Up to now in evolution, the moment to moment behaviour of organisms results from reflexes, instincts, and most commonly in higher vertebrates including our own species, certain desires. Any so-called conscious behaviour on our part occurs only because it is motivated by some desire. No one has ever proposed a coherent means by which we could act which would not be governed by desires.

When Stewart claims that “we can relate to [thoughts and emotions] in the same way as we relate to inert objects in our external environment,” the implication is that this does not represent a radical break with out past evolutionary history, but is simply a continuation of an ongoing trend. As he notes, a popular psychological view (predominant in Ken Wilber's early work, such as The Atman Project) is that during human development, an increasing portion of our behavior that was originally viewed subjectively becomes viewed objectively. For example, children learn to view their bodies and their physical behavior more objectively as they grow older. From this point of view, thoughts and emotions are simply the next stage in this process.

This may well be the case, but we don't in fact choose which objects to relate to, either. That process is also governed by desires. So while Stewart says, “an individual is free to take [feelings and emotions] into account when deciding what goals to pursue”, the only known way in which we “decide” anything is through weighing of options, in which competing thought patterns are compared, with the one with the most emotional value winning.  

Whether this is his intention or not, Stewart is therefore implying that consciousness can somehow make these decisions without itself being the product or effect of thoughts and emotions. In other words, he seems to regard consciousness as the manifestation of free will. In agreement with Sam Harris (2012), I find this notion not only not supported by any evidence, but incoherent. As Harris points out, according to science, phenomena either have causes or they occur randomly. In neither case, is free will involved. If consciousness is able to choose freely which emotions we will take into account without still other emotions being involved as causative factors, how does it do this? On what basis does it decide? If it is on the basis of what seems to promote long-term evolution, as Stewart suggests, then is it not motivated by a desire to promote this evolution? If there is no desire for this evolution, why would we choose to promote it?

Let me be perfectly clear here. I am denying neither the effectiveness nor the benefits of such spiritual practices. What I am calling into question is how we should understand what is going on during them. Being able to observe all our thoughts and emotions does not mean we can decide which ones to act on. It just means that we become detached from these mental phenomena; they are no longer relevant to, no longer control, our existence—indeed, they disappear, by the very act of observing them. To the extent that we are successful in this endeavor, there are no thoughts and no emotions. To this extent, one could say that we are free from them. But that is very different from being able to choose them.

As an analogy, consider the weather. We members of modern society are to a large extent free from the effects of the weather—neither rain, snow, sleet nor hail, as the old saying goes. Of course, major changes in weather, such as droughts, floods, hurricanes and typhoons, not to mention global warming, are a different matter, but for the sake of this example we can ignore this. The salient point is that despite our freedom from the effects of the weather, we are not free to choose what the weather will be. This is almost entirely out of our control.

The difference between the freedom to do something and freedom from doing something may seem trivial, but it isn't. In the latter understanding, we are still subject to forces beyond our control; there are simply fewer of them. Of all the major spiritual traditions, I think the Gurdjieffian one most accurately reflects this view. In these teachings, evolution is associated with a progressive reduction in the number of laws or constraints that we are subject to (Ouspensky 1961). Terrence Deacon (2011) makes a similar point when he defines evolution as “progressive restraint”. In this context, he means that forces or processes that we would normally be subjected to, resulting in increased entropy, become restrained. This is what permits life to become more complex.

While this type of evolution might be described as a progressive increase in freedom, as suggested by thinkers such as Dennett (2004) and Gazzaniga (2011), it should not be confused with free will. Even in the ultimate case, if we became completely free from all forces or constraints, this still would not enable us—at least according to everything with understand about science—to choose what we do. Unless and until we have a very different view of causation, there seems to be no way around this situation.

Who is Conscious? And of What?

A second important issue raised by viewing spiritual practices as essential to future human evolution concerns the relationship of the individual to the planet. If the higher state of consciousness is indeed associated with a newly emerging planetary form of life, how is it experienced by individuals? How can someone be simultaneously an individual, and also a form of life transcending billions of individuals? Can individual cells experience themselves as the entire organism?

This problem comes into sharp focus when Stewart goes on in "The Future Evolution of Consciousness" to describe this awareness as non-dual, which, it should be clear, is just another name for zero-dimensional:

Without any privileged perspective, all is experienced 'as one' and no phenomenon, including those associated with the individual, are seen as more central or relevant than others.

If no phenomenon is privileged with respect to others, how can we act in this world? If a threat to someone's life—maybe even to our own life—is no more central or relevant than other activities going on around us, why should we act to stop it? Or to put it the other way around, if we do act in response to a threat to our own life or to someone else's life, how do we do so without privileging that event? It seems to me that there are three possible answers to this.

a) is non-dualism incompatible with the individual's perspective?

The first is to bite the bullet and say that one can't in fact experience the non-dual state and at the same time live as an individual within a society. The two are completely incompatible. Since in the non-dual state no individual perspective is privileged, there would be no reason for someone in the dual state to continue living as an individual. Lacking any motive for survival, someone truly realizing the nondual state probably would not survive long in the world, and from that perspective this would not matter in the slightest. Existence would continue at a higher level.

A claim like this may make non-dualism appear to be, ironically, dualistic. If existence is possible completely independently of the human body, doesn't that imply that consciousness is distinct from the physical world? I think this is a common misconception held by many scientists and philosophers who view the reality of spiritual states skeptically.[7] The answer is no, or at least, not necessarily, because while the non-dual, in this view, is not associated with any individual multicellular organism, it is associated with a planetary, what we could call multi-individual, organism. So whatever one thinks of this view of the non-dual, it is completely compatible with scientific materialism. Or more precisely, while it may pose problems for scientific materialism, these are not generally different from nor more difficult than the problems posed by our ordinary consciousness.

To be fair, most advocates of the non-dual do not see it as confined to our planet. This would be a restricted form of the non-dual, applicable in the planetary context, but not genuinely non-dual in relationship to existence in the universe beyond the planet. As noted earlier, Stewart and I both envision the possibility of the planet eventually forming societies with other planetary forms of life. The relationships involved would inevitably involve self-other distinctions, so the planets involved would no longer have non-dual awareness. In this respect, they would be like primitive cells or organisms that were initially zero-dimensional, but developed higher dimensions as they formed societies.

Most advocates of the non-dual would probably not accept this. They would insist that it implies a state that is non-dual in absolute sense. To most scientists and philosophers, non-dualism in this sense does seem to imply dualism, that is, it suggests a state that has no connection to physical existence. In response to this charge, the non-dualist typically argues that the apparent dualism is illusory, due to the very fact that we are not experiencing the non-dual.

I will return to this last point a little later. But for now, rather than get sidetracked into philosophical debates, perhaps alternatively we could say that the non-dual in this broader sense is associated with the entire universe. If our planet developed a consciousness, and eventually formed social interactions with other planets, perhaps a still higher form of life encompassing the entire universe could eventually result. The consciousness of this entity might fulfill this more encompassing vision of the non-dual. This version, too, would be at least potentially consistent with scientific materialism.[8]

One way, then, to understand the relationship of the non-dual to individuals is that there basically is no relationship. That to experience this state fully means to be completely out of touch with one's individuality. This is much like the relationship of a conscious organism to one of its cells. While there is definitely a physical relationship between the two, the life of the cell is completely irrelevant to the organism. The latter cannot be said in any meaningful sense to be the individual cell. The behavior of the cell contributes to the behavior of the organism but it is just one component out of billions.

b) non-dualism is unconsciously individual.

An alternative to this understanding of the non-dual is a relationship in which the individual and non-dual are closely connected, but through unconscious processes. In this view, in the non-dual state all the functions of the individual that are ordinarily carried out by conscious processes—some types of thought, emotions and movement, interacting with other individuals, etc—have become unconscious. That is, while the individual experiencing the non-dual completely transcends individual consciousness and individual behavior, these latter functions continue to be carried out automatically, by processes operating below the non-dual level. So even though the non-dual is completely beyond the individual, with no event more central or relevant than others, it is still associated with an individual who is capable of acting as if some events were in fact privileged.

Many spiritual traditions seem to suggest that something like this occurs, when they describe the life of an individual who has realized the nondual as “in the world but not of it”. I think this view is also generally consistent with Stewart's discussion of what he calls declarative transitions, in which

once particular skills or behaviour have been revised and improved using declarative knowledge, they again become automatic and unconscious through a process of proceduralization.

In other words, we would understand the non-dual state as one in which everything it means to be an individual acting consciously (through declarative knowledge) in a society becomes a matter of unconscious, procedural knowledge. All conscious experience now becomes devoted to functioning as a planetary organism.

A skeptic might protest that given how extraordinarily complex and changing modern society has become, it would be impossible for all behavior at the individual level to be carried out by unconscious procedural processes. Surely interacting with a spouse, a child, a close friend, or a colleague, or engaging in complex abstract thought, is nothing at all like riding a bike? But in fact most cognitive scientists now accept that most of our behavior, even complex behavior such as language, is largely unconscious (Hunt 1983; Norretranders 1998). Moreover, in principle there may be no limit to how complex unconscious behavior can be. While consciousness is generally portrayed as making it possible for behavior to be more flexible and creative, many philosophers argue that any behavior carried out consciously could just as well be carried out unconsciously. This is at the heart of the philosophical zombie argument: that it is conceivable that a being functionally identical to a human being could exist, yet who lacked all conscious experience (Chalmers 1996; Seager 1999).

Indeed, the non-dual state, in this second view that I am proposing, would be like a superzombie. Like a philosophical zombie, there would be no awareness of the thoughts and feelings that accompany ordinary human life. In this sense, there would be “no one home”. But it would be a super form of zombie, because there would be a very high awareness of another world, one that includes the ordinary one we are familiar with.

Again, I don't think this is inconsistent with Stewart's view, which reflects developing mainstream notions about the function of consciousness. As noted earlier, consciousness is widely viewed as associated with the most flexible, creative, adaptive forms of behavior that a particular organism is capable of. It is, so to speak, the leading edge of behavior and function. But as that leading edge advances, what was formerly conscious becomes unconscious; behavior that at one time was only possible through conscious processes becomes possible through unconscious ones. In this respect, spiritual development is very much, as Stewart says, a continuation of earlier evolutionary processes.

However, there is one major problem with this view, implicit in a question I raised earlier: could an individual cell have the awareness of being an organism? Describing the future evolution of humans as a continuation of past trends ignores the fact that the emergence of a new form of individual life, as a planetary organism would be, represents a major break with these past trends. While human beings are the outcome of hundreds of millions of years of evolution of multicellular organisms, all this evolution has occurred within a single level of existence. The emergence of a planetary form of life would transcend this level. To expect a simple continuation of the trends evident in the evolution of organisms is no more realistic than to expect that the evolution of organisms continued trends in the evolution of cells. It did in some sense, of course, but at the same time the key features of organisms are ones that are radically different from cells.

To be clear about this, I'm not arguing that no future evolution of human beings as individuals is possible. I'm claiming that any evolution involving spiritual practices is a move away from the level of the individual. As I have argued elsewhere (Aeternum per Tempore), one should not confuse spiritual development with individual development. Spiritual development is likely to be accompanied by individual development, but only because individuals live in societies, and must function effectively there in order to create the space and resources for spiritual development. The key point, which I think many if not most advocates of individual development miss, is that individual development is not the goal or objective of spiritual development. It is in my view much more realistically understood as a side effect.

I'm not certain whether Stewart sees it this way or not. I agree with him when he says that future evolution

does not require all humans to suddenly become saint- like. Past evolution has repeatedly shown how to organize self interested individuals into cooperatives through the institution of effective governance. (Evolutionary Manifesto, p. 10)

But the use of the practices he advocates does in fact imply that people will become saints, in the sense of transcending their individual natures. I think it's either misunderstanding or misrepresenting these practices to view them as forms of behavior that individuals will willingly adopt as soon as they become convinced that they are in their interests, no matter how long-term those interests are understood as. The evidence of thousands of years has shown very clearly that these practices are enormously difficult, in this respect not comparing at all to any of the kinds of changes that have occurred in human behavior up to now in our social evolution.

Conversely, the kind of changes that are required for “self-interested” individuals to evolve into new social organizations are not fundamentally spiritual in their nature. On the contrary, judging from the way that earlier individual forms of life—cells and organisms—have evolved, one could argue that evolution of the planetary organism demands that most people do not realize a higher state of consciousness. It would seem that the integrity of the planet depends on the interactions of billions of individuals operating at the ordinary level of consciousness, just as the integrity of an organism, for example, depends on the interactions of billions of cells operating at a much lower level of consciousness.

c) non-dualism is paradoxical.

A third way to understand the relationship between non-dual awareness and individual behavior is, in effect, to throw up our hands and say that non-dualism, being beyond all human logic and other thought, inevitably appears paradoxical to us. So while it appears impossible that an individual could simultaneously be aware of being a distinct individual with a perspective based on thoughts and feelings, on the one hand, and make no distinctions at all on the other, our failure to understand this simply reflects the limitations of our ordinary state of consciousness.

In a limited sense, this paradoxical nature is present even in our ordinary state of consciousness. As an organism, we view our bodies as a unity, every part of them a part of us. But the very fact that we can speak of parts demonstrates that we can still make distinctions. We can say that my hand or my eye or my heart is separate not only from other parts, but also in some way separate from the “I” that we use to refer to ourselves. An individual form of life integrates many components and processes, which are experienced as a unity in one sense, yet distinct in another.

Another observation relevant to the non-dual/individual relationship is the phenomenon of lucid dreaming, in which an individual is aware of dreaming while it goes on. Lucid dreaming suggests that it is in fact possible for an individual to access two different levels of consciousness simultaneously. If we can dream and be awake at the same time, could we not also be awake, in the ordinary sense, and at the same experience the non-dual? This position seems particularly attractive in light of the traditional spiritual view of our ordinary consciousness as being a state of sleep or illusion.

Still, there are serious limitations in using these examples as analogies to the non-dual. The reason we can make distinctions among our body parts is because, as dualistic creatures, we are capable of making distinctions in general. The notion of a distinction is not just familiar to us, it permeates our lives. A more primitive organism, which should have a bodily awareness far closer to zero-dimensional or non-dual than our own, would presumably not be aware of these distinctions. They literally do not exist on this level.

With regard to lucid dreaming, while it demonstrates the possibility of existing on two levels of awareness at the same time, both of these levels have a basis in reality that according to the non-dual view, our ordinary state does not have. That is, while the content of our dreams is not considered real in the sense that the world we experience while awake is, the experience of a dream is real in that it can in principle be explained in terms of processes occurring in the brain. In the view of science, these processes are every bit as real as those that result in our ordinary consciousness.

In the traditional non-dual view, in contrast, there is nothing at all real about our ordinary experience. From the non-dual perspective, this experience does not exist in any sense at all. Even to call it an illusion is something only the dual perspective does, drawing a distinction between what is an illusion and what is real.

Moreover, as we saw earlier, the more accurate analogy here would not be between dreaming and ordinary awareness, but the awareness of an individual cell and that of the whole organism. As far as we know, no individual can be aware at the level of a single cell, either on its own or at the same time as being aware of an individual.[9] This is not simply just an empirical fact. Everything we know about awareness at the level of an individual suggests that even if awareness of a single cell exists, it could not in any way communicate this awareness to the awareness of the entire organism.

During a lucid dream, there is activity in extensive neural networks in the brain. Some of this activity is associated with the dream, some of it with awareness of being an awake individual who is dreaming. While the two levels of awareness are different, one can conceive of ways in which the information in one neural pattern could be synthesized with that in the other. For example, one could form ongoing memories of the events in the dream, which are almost instantaneously accessed by the waking awareness. In other words, if we regard each form of awareness as being associated with some pattern of activity in the brain, there is no reason in principle that some other pattern might not be associated with awareness of both levels of awareness.

It is very difficult to see how this could be possible for the awareness of a single cell, however. While the awareness of a cell depends on interactions with many other cells—just as the awareness of an individual depends on interactions with other individuals—it still involves a perspective based on that cell. It is all these interactions from the point of view of that cell. How could any pattern in the brain convey both these interactions and those multi-perspective interactions associated with awareness as an individual? In the same way, if we regard the non-dual as associated with the interactions of individuals (or at a still higher level, interactions of planetary forms of life), we are faced with the problem of how one individual's perspective of a particular set of interactions can in effect be integrated with all these other interactions.

Traditional non-dualists would almost certainly dismiss arguments like these. They would do so by appealing to what, from the point of view of almost any (dualist) philosopher or scientist, seems to be a form of idealism. In this view, the entire material world is a creation of mind. So it is not correct to say that non-dual awareness emerges from or is associated with the interactions of individuals or of any other form of physical existence.

However, this view doesn't really solve the problem, either. Since, according to the non-dual view, the material world doesn't actually exist, there is nothing to create. Why the world is the way it appears to us, in particular, why there is so much regularity to events as shown to us by science, is not explained. In the end, there is the retreat to paradox. We can't explain what is going on logically. End of story.

To conclude, the relationship between the non-dual and an individual perspective is problematic. Regardless of how we understand it, however, it should be clear that a higher form of consciousness is associated with a higher form of life. Even if there is some way that an individual human being can be associated with this higher form of life, the individual is clearly no longer an individual in the sense that human beings have been for their entire history of tens of thousands of years. At the very least, the existence of a higher state of consciousness implies the emergence of a new species. And it also implies, either in association with or entirely beyond this new species, a new, higher form of life.

So if we take Stewart's vision seriously, as I certainly do, we have to accept that human beings some day will not be the highest form of life. They—probably while becoming increasingly integrated with artificial forms of life, a very important future trend that Stewart doesn't discuss—will be essential to the survival of the planet, just as cells are essential to the survival of organisms, and atoms and molecules essential to the survival of cells. But just as evolution has moved beyond atoms and molecules, and beyond cells, if it continues it will move beyond organisms, including our own species.

ENDNOTES

[1] Page numbers refer to the online version of Evolution's Arrow, unless indicated otherwise.

[2] See Lloyd (2006) for a good discussion of different definitions of complexity.

[3] Edelman and Tononi (2000) define complexity in the brain as a balance that optimizes integration and differentiation. If every process in the brain were completely integrated with every other, there would be no diversity of functions. If every one were completely differentiated from the other, though, they would not be able to interact with each other. The brain is of course a very complex society of cells, and principles that apply to it should apply to many other societies.

[4] Kauffman's scheme has been subject to a number of criticisms. For example, the same laws of probability that suggest that each substance could catalyze the formation of another also make it likely that some substances would act as inhibitors of a reaction. And of course it may require only one reaction to be inhibited for the entire autocatalytic network to be shut down. For some other criticisms, see Chapter 10 in my book Worlds within Worlds.

[5] A traditional view is that formation of primitive proteins and other polymers such as RNA (some of which also have catalytic activity) could have been catalyzed by inorganic surfaces such as clays or solidified lava (Fox 1991). Conversely, some studies have shown that some relatively  small organic molecules have weak catalytic activity. Some of these molecules can in fact act as both autocatalysts—replicating themselves, as DNA and RNA molecules do—as well as organocatalysts, enhancing  other metabolic reactions, as is necessary in autocatalytic networks (Kamioka et al. 2009, 2010).

[6] This and all remaining quotes, unless indicated otherwise, are from "The Future Evolution of Consciousness".

[7] For example, Lakoff and Johnson (1999) insist that “We cannot, as some meditative traditions suggest, "get beyond" our categories and have a purely uncategorized and unconceptualized experience. Neural beings cannot do that.” (Kindle Location 260). If a higher form of consciousness is associated with the entire planet, emerging from the interactions of billions of social individuals, then it is not a “neural being”. So it could get beyond categories and concepts as these are experienced by individuals, though it might eventually develop a new form of them at a higher level.

[8] As I have discussed elsewhere (The Dimensions of Experience, Chapter 10, "The Unverifiable Truth"), beyond the issue of dualism, there is a deep philosophical problem in understanding how, if such a form of consciousness existed, we would be capable of “knowing” or “talking” about it in language.

[9] Several researchers have argued that single neurons in the brain may be conscious (Bieberich 2002; Edwards 2005; Sevush 2006), and even that individual consciousness is actually the consciousness of these single cells. Could these be individual non-dual cells? But it seems very difficult to conceive that the great variety of our conscious experience could be manifested by a single cells, or even by a small number of such cells. In any case, if this actually the case, this view seems to imply that no other cells are or could be conscious.

REFERENCES

Abbott EA (1992). Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions. New York: Dover Thrift.

Bieberich E (2002) Recurrent fractal neural networks: a strategy for the exchange of local and global information processing in the brain. Biosystems 66: 45-64.

Chalmers D. (1996) The Conscious Mind. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Dacke, M, Srinivasan, MV (2007) Honeybee navigation: distance estimation in the third dimension. J Exp Biol 210 (Pt 5), 845-853

Deacon, T (2011) Incomplete Nature. How Mind Emerged from Matter. New York: Norton

Dennett, D (2004) Freedom Evolves. New York: Penguin

Deziel E, Lepine, F, Milot, S, He, J, Mindrinos, MN, Tompkins, RG, Rahme, LG (2004) Analysis of Pseudomonas aeruginosa 4-hydroxy-2-alkylquinolines (HAQs) reveals a role for 4-hydroxy-2-heptylquinoline in cell to cell communication. Proc Nat Acad Sci USA 101: 1339-1344.

Edelman GM, Tononi, G (2000) A Universe of Consciousness. New York: Basic.

Edwards JCW (2005) Is consciousness only a property of individual cells? Journal of Consciousness Studies 12: 60-76.

Fox, SW (1991) Synthesis of life in the lab? Defining a protoliving system. Q Rev. Biol. 66, 181-185

Gazzinaga, M (2011) Who's in Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain. New York: Ecco

Harris, S (2012) Free Will. New York: Free Press

Hunt M (1983) The Universe Within. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Kamioka, S, Ajami, D, Rebek, J Jr. (2009) Synthetic autocatalysts show organocatalysis of other reactions. Chem. Commun. (Camb) 47, 7324-7326 

Kamioka, S, Ajami, D, Rebek, J Jr. (2009) Autocatalysis and organocatalysis with synthetic structures. Proc. Natl Acad Sci USA 107, 541-544

Kauffman, S (1993) The Origins of Order. New York: Oxford University Press

Lakoff, G, Johnson, M (1999) Philosophy in the Flesh (New York: Basic)

Lloyd S (2006) Programming the Universe. New York: Knopf.

Meyer J-M, Stintzi, A, De Vos, D, Cornelis, P, ., Tappe, R, Budzikiewicz, H (1997) Use of siderophores to type pseudomonads: the three Pseudomonas aeruginosa pyoverdine systems. Microbiology 143: 35-43.

Norretranders T (1998) The User Illusion. New York: Viking.

Ouspensky PD (1961) In Search of the Miraculous. New York: Harcourt Brace & Jovanovich.

Seager W. (1999c) Are Zombies Logically Possible? And why it matters. Available at: http://www.scar.utoronto.ca/~seager/zombie.html

Sevush S (2006) Single-neuron theory of consciousness. J Theor Biol 7: 704-725.

Smith, AP (2009) The Dimensions of Experience (X-libris)   Walls, MK, Layne, JE (2009) Fiddler crabs accurately measure two-dimensional distance over three-dimensional terrain. J Exp Biol. 212, 3236-40.

Wilber K (1980) The Atman Project. Boulder, CO: Shambahla.

Wohlgemuth, S., Ronacher, B., Wehner, R. (2001) Ant odometry in the third dimension. Nature 411, 795-8




Comment Form is loading comments...