Updated: Nov 27, 2019
Evolution and natural selection are great rules in explaining biological diversity, yet they are not enough in explaining all of its idiosincrasies, the most blunt of them being the extravagant splendour of the animal kingdom. Irridescent colors and resounding songs are not necessarily great strategies while in a forest full of predators. Funnily enough it is beauty (perception) that makes us rethink evolution and the place of individual organisms as agents in their own evolution (rather than passive subjects to it). What if, evolution was governed not only by the line of natural selection (translating to greater and better survival in the given environment), but as well by the evolution of perceived beauty. Where perceived beauty speaks about something which is being distinguished, recognized and acted upon by, for example, a particular bird choosing a mate. Via the sexual reproduction this repetition of acts becomes a selection pressure in itself. This would create a runaway cycle reinforcing in time both the perception and the evolution of the trait, coming to the point of being almost antithetic to survival, though arbitrarily magnificent – a male peacock becomes a very visible target, yet wider and more beautiful tails are a reality.
This would suggest that while evolution is still the dynamics at play, this dynamic can happen simultaneously on different/divergent lines – survival being not the only selection mechanism active. In this case the natural selection and the bird beauty selection. Evolution can be thought of as a multidimensional phenomenon whose dynamics and outcomes cannot then be fully defined a priori. Such divergent lines open once again by the emergence of significant differences – where significant here means they are significantly perceived, maintained and acted upon generating a field of differences, a gradient. Such differences realize themselves as portals to a different set of possible futures. This provide us with a second interesting thought about freedom and the emergence of significant difference: the evolution of significant differences (and their gradient) may reshape the very phenomena who generated it. A difference which is constantly being reinforced, eventually enters the information of organization and reiterates it. This of course has a cost in maintaining the flow replenished – a cost which is evident in the tail of the peacok or in our case in the maintenance of a bigger brain, and yet a cost which does at times pay back.
The appearance of humans in the biological realm catalyzes the development of a whole new stage of social complexity at our scale (bacteria on the microscopic scale were there billions of years ago). A further layer of organization spanning today planetary scales is born. This layer is characterized by two main drivers of change which grow paramount with humans:
– a new way to organize information: Subjectivity and Language, setting and regulating social order – the new order at play;
– a new way to organize matter and energy: Technology, allowing planet wide flows of structured energy and matter, as well as information.
This allows new and spectacular things – the translation and transformation of information across different domains (biological, chemical, physical, abstract, technological) and into new complex forms of organization. And with it the continuous carving of new balances of freedom/restriction.
Imagine. One day an extra-ordinary human wakes up and raises eyes to the sky with a thought about flight and wings, s/he is the first to envision a winged human, an ‘hybrid’ with superior capacity. The creation is communicated and lives on in a new space – an abstract space of meaning, shared by humans, propagated across generations and spaces via languages and shared experiences. This is a space whose gradients are molded by ideas/beliefs and communications/ coordinated interactions rather than physical laws. More humans wakes up across time with the renewed longing and image of flight, it becomes visions, shared gods, mythologies, until it is the study of wings and of flight, of gravity and the fever of making it so, materials, technology, shared dreams and humanity has its first ‘metal bird’ – and today you, we, actually fly. We fly with wings which are not personal but rather a product of the new socio-technological level of organization feeding the flows: flying routes, petrol, knowledge and technology, and the people and communication. In this level of organization humans do have wings – and they are of multiple kinds. The metal kind, with the particular freedom/restriction and inevitable dependency they bestow, and the imaginary/experiential wings, building on the shared experience of flying in millions different way across a million different times and terrains, enclosed in a subjective plug.
The human set out long ago on the journey to become involved in its own creation, on a much faster track than biological evolution, it uses the evolution of culture – language – technology. The creation of concepts such as the soul or human nature, and the placing of belief in gods as their superior gardians, can be understood as well as part of this journey, to disengage the human from being absorbed by the fundamental overarching orders (imperatives of survival, decay and death) and having a path of its own, deciding its’ own selection mechanisms. Whether it is succeeding and at which cost (and if the spectacular overtakes the horrifying or viceversa) is a different question – which deeply relates to the discussion on Freedom and openness – freedom from what, freedom for what.
“Significant difference” allows a new line of evolution to emerge. A new gradient of differences out of which the newly carved dimension for evolution grows – beauty/ greatness / intelligence. The mind organizes itself around the new gradient and evolves by refining differences. From this perspective the human is the outcome, while still riding, of a multidimensional evolution happening on different dimensions – survival / empathy/ abstraction/ technology – via diverse paths and speeds. Multidimensional evolution of both the specie and the particular mind is open-ended, in the sense that it is not governed by survival only – and in the sense that it is not necessarily good nor bad, whether one is conscious to it and responsible for the carving or just swept away by it. The introduction of a new dimensional axis to evolution, whether in a specific mind or in the specie, changes the dynamics to non-linear – meaning non-predictable, thus carving a potential space for favorable freedom/restriction. Freedom on this level demands being endowed with the power and the burden to choose which difference to curate – whether in the cosmic landscape of nothingness or in the immediate landscape of now. Curation of Becoming is, before anything else, the curation/choice of the relevant axis of evolution maintained active in one’s becoming. It is an active production which may yield an expression of freedom.
Humanity is already deep into the next level of organization. Vast socio-technological systems are emerging which begin to function on their own (i.e.: economy, social networks, warfare, media, …). These systems are the new powers organizing flows of resources and blindly (they do not require a conspiracy, just complexity) enslave individuals to their workings. Often producing results we could not possibly predict, nor would we have chosen (social injustice, poverty, war, climate change, health hazards,…).
As of today, we may believe we are not being absorbed by the natural or fundamental orders – we are ‘civilised’, advanced, and we have almost endless energy, for now – yet are we being absorbed by other systems which emerged and exists already beyond our reach? what do we have in our hands if at all to place as our renewed stand in front of their unarrestable advancement? What is our say on their future direction, if we at all get to have one? What is your say?
As humans, rising our subjective eyes to the sky, we are forever after hybrids. Hybrids with the totality of biological life which run this planet in a way that makes it possible for the temporary pattern called human to emerge at all, and play in the game of hubris – ‘as if’ we have a say on our future, and we claim we do. And hybrids with our social and our technological worlds, which uphold the extension of our minds and our freedom, knowledge and sociality. And yet, we carve our cosmos on the wings of subjective events, singular plunges into infinity, we craft our outpost that it may carry us to the yet singular and unknown. There, to claim freedom is to stand foreverafter subjectively naked in front of a whole universe, for whatever one has or is, originated somewhere else. And freedom becomes knowing while not knowing what “I” am. A body, a cell, a crowd, a web of relations, a cosmic river, a fluctuation, water – Possibly a dynamic for the emergence of difference - Of course the story is not over yet…
Freedom runs deep, deep into the fabric of the universe, and deep into the miriad networks of wet connections, and it tells a story of impossibility and possibility within the impossibility – masterfully delaying the inevitable, holding at bay the great cosmic jaws awaiting at the end of the run for one more silent blink, that the possible may grow.
The endless advancement of fundamental orders at play, and freedom, standing, penetrating, expanding between advancement and delaying, absorbed and engulfed as time stands still. Earning beats, to raise the probability of bifurcations, lines of divergence lighting up futures which did not exist till now, or now, or now.
 How beauty is making scientists rethink Evolution: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/09/magazine/beauty-evolution-animal.html
Chaisson’s research on free energy flows and complexity, showing how more complex structure requires more and more intense free energy flows:
Chaisson, E. J. (2011). Energy rate density as a complexity metric and evolutionary driver. Complexity, 16(3), 27-40.
“This article reports on new research to model energy flow in complex systems from the big bang to humankind during 14 Giga-years of natural history. Whether living or nonliving, complex systems are open, ordered, nonequilibrated structures that acquire, store, and express energy. Energy does seem to be a common feature among such organized structures; energy flow may well be the most unifying process in science, which helps to provide a coherent explanation for the origin, existence, and complexification of a whole array of systems—notably, how they emerge, mature, and terminate during individual lifetimes as well as across multiple generations.”
“I have sought to normalize energy flows for all complex systems by their inherent mass; this better enables more uniform analysis, allowing effective comparison between and among virtually every kind of system encountered in Nature. This, then, has been and continues to be my working hypothesis: Energy rate density, a mass-normalized (free) energy flow denoted by ɸm, is perhaps the most common currency available to do work thermodynamically to build structures, evolve systems, and create complexity. Figure 1 summarizes previous work on this subject, depicting how physical, biological, and cultural evolution over 14 Gy transformed homogeneous, primordial gas into increasingly intricate systems. The graph shows the rise in values of free energy flow mass-normalized for a range of structures observed in Nature and of known scientific age.”