Major Evolutionary Transitions

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Eörs Szathmáry is best-known in the world of evolutionary biology for a book he co-wrote with John Maynard Smith, titled “The Major Transitions in Evolution”. It was the first comprehensive explanation of the processes through which life has increased in complexity over billions of years, from its origin as the simplest protocells, to prokaryotic cells, eukaryotic cells, multicellular organisms, eusocial animal colonies, and ultrasocial human groups.

Major evolutionary transitions have two central dimensions of change. One is cooperation. They occur when simpler individual entities find new ways to cooperate in more complex groups that eventually evolve into higher-level organisms. The second is information. To manage and regulate higher levels of complexity, they find new ways to store, use, and transmit information.

In all the major transition before humans, that information exists in the biological realm, taking such forms as genes, chromosomes, and epigenetic networks. In human groups that information exists in the cultural realm, taking symbolic forms such as spoken language, written language, and digital media of all varieties today.

Enter the other guest in this conversation, Terrence Deacon, whose first book, “The Symbolic Species: The Coevolution of Language and the Brain” focuses primarily on how the last of those transitions worked, drawing from Terry’s deep knowledge in many fields. In a more recent book, “Incomplete Nature: The Emergence of Mind from Matter” he explores the emergence of end-directedness in both biological functions and mental processes. He is also interested in understanding the underlying cooperative processes that enable transitions to take place.

In the following conversation, David Sloan Wilson takes Eörs and Terry on a journey through the full range of major transitions. They begin with discussions of life’s origins, and end with musings on the challenges humanity faces in making a major transition to a global-scale noosphere today.

Many of Teilhard’s writings about the noosphere describe its evolution in terms that suggest an awareness of major transitions as a generalized process — though the theory wasn’t formalized and accepted until nearly 40 years after his death. Interestingly, he recounts how he first became aware of the noosphere while serving as a stretcher-bearer on the front lines of World War I. He writes, in a short piece titled “The Reality of the Noosphere”:

“…precisely because the individual human being represents a corpuscular magnitude he must be subject to the same development as every other species of corpuscles in the World: that means he must coalesce into physical relationships and groupings that belong to a higher order than his.”

To add some interpretation: Teilhard’s “corpuscles” are essentially analogous with the “individual entities” in our description of major transitions above, though Teilhard thought in terms of cosmic evolution, so he included such things as elementary particles, atoms, and molecules in his vision of higher-order groupings and relationships. Major transitions, in the sense we examine here, encompass only living organisms that evolve through Darwinian processes of variation, selection, and replication.

The discussion between Eörs, Terry, and David took place over two days, presented as two separate videos below. Though there is some overlap, the first video covers major transitions that took place before humans and the formation of the noosphere. The second video covers the transition from ape groups to human societies, and what the theory of major transitions implies for the future of humanity as well.

Eörs Szathmáry and Terrence Deacon Transcript Part One

Eörs Szathmáry and Terrence Deacon Transcript Part Two