Evolution’s arrow

Is there a direction to solution?
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I recently rediscovered John Stewart’s Evolution’s Arrow: The direction of evolution and the future of humanity (The Chapman Press, 2000). The whole book is available as a free download.

John Stewart is an evolutionary palaeoecologist at the School of Applied Sciences, Bournemouth University who has some interesting things to say about modelling. The following extracts are in three parts. In the first, Stewart makes a distinction between three types of modelling. In the second, he contrasts two of these when modelling external systems. And in the third, he applies his ideas to management of the self.

Since Penny Tompkins’ and my approach, Symbolic Modelling, is based on the principles of self-organising systems and evolutionary dynamics, much of what Stewart says about ‘systemic modelling’ applies to ‘symbolic modelling’.

Smarter Humans (pp. 93-94)

It is useful to divide modelling ability into three broad levels. The first, linear modelling, is limited in the complexity of the processes that it can model successfully. It cannot model a complex system in which a large number of components mutually interact. It can deal only with systems that can be analysed into components that interact in chains of causation that unfold step by step. It can understand systems that can be analysed by logical reasoning. So it is capable of modelling the outcome of the interaction of a small group of people over short time frames, the working of mechanical devices, and the movements of the planets about the sun.

In contrast, systemic modelling* can successfully model the unfolding through time of complex systems with many interacting components. So it can model and understand a large social system, a flexible international corporation, or an ecological system.

The third level, evolutionary modelling, is able to model the evolution of extremely complex systems over large scales of space and time. In particular, it can model the large-scale evolutionary processes that have formed us, and that will determine the future evolutionary success of humanity.

The progressive improvement of modelling capacity through these three levels is driven by the greater adaptive abilities that the improvements bring the individual. Individuals who improve their modelling will be better equipped to discover adaptations that satisfy their needs and goals, whatever these happen to be. As individuals proceed through the levels, they will be able to model the effects of their actions more accurately, understand the effects on their environment of a wider range of possible actions, and will be able to model the effects of their actions over wider and wider scales of space and time.

External Systemic Modelling (pp. 100-101)

Linear modellers cannot understand and predict the behaviour of complex systems.* Unless a linear modeller can analyse a process into step-by-step chains of cause and effect, he cannot mentally simulate the effects of his actions on the process. This is true whether the process is in his external or internal environment. The limitations of linear modelling mean that there are significant advantages to be had by the development of a capacity for systemic modelling. This ability enables individuals to mentally model their interactions with more complex processes such as social systems and ecosystems. Systemic modellers are able to understand and predict how social systems and ecosystems will unfold over time, and how they might be managed. Individuals with a capacity for systemic modelling are also able to model the effects of their actions over greater scales of space and time.

Systemic modelling is made possible by the acquisition of generalised mental schema that represent how various types of complex systems unfold and behave through time. Where the individual has a schema that matches a particular system, he can immediately envisage how the key processes of the system will behave. He immediately sees how the system as a whole unfolds over time, rather than having to follow the interactions of the parts of the system step-by-step.

Unlike a linear modeller, a successful systemic modeller does not analyse a system into its parts and then try to predict the behaviour of the system by seeing how the parts interact together in a step-by-step fashion. Where the mental schema match the system, the systemic modeller will see how the system will behave at a glance, with a flash of insight or intuition.

As systemic modellers improve their ability, they accumulate schema of greater and greater complexity that enable them to model the effects of possible adaptations over wider and wider scales of space and time. They are able to take account of the effects of possible adaptations that linear modellers are completely blind to. But systemic modellers can continue to use linear modelling where it is useful. For example, they still use it where they do not have appropriate schema, and use it as they build up and adapt schema.

Because current science is largely founded on linear modelling, it has great difficulty in accepting and incorporating the findings and insights of systemic modelling. This is the case even where systemic modelling has proven to be indispensable for advancing science. Studies show that few of the great discoveries of science have been produced by linear, logical thinking. A high proportion originated from intuitive leaps made possible by systemic modelling. But before these insights gained scientific acceptance, they had to be translated into simple models based on linear chains of cause and effect. Until this was done, the discoveries were invariably rejected as unscientific.

Importantly, systemic modellers have the potential to manage complex cooperative organisations. They can model mentally how the organisation will respond to their management. They can choose to implement the management that is shown by their mental modelling to advance their interests and those of the organisation.

But until the capacity for systemic modelling is turned inwards to further develop the capacity for self-management, systemic modellers tend to pursue the same kinds of values and goals as linear modellers. They are likely to have already developed a capacity for linear self-management. As a result, they probably have analysed and rejected the religious belief systems that were important in organising cooperation within earlier human societies. They will tend to be ego driven and self-centred, and use their enhanced adaptive ability to serve their existing internal physical and emotional goals. They are likely to use the enormous power of systemic modelling to seek narrow goals such as social status, power, feelings of importance, and sexual and other physical pleasures.

Systemic Self-Management (pp. 101-103)

An individual can use systemic modelling to observe and understand his own adaptive processes, and to improve significantly his capacity for self-management. This will produce major adaptive advantages. Linear self-managers are severely restricted in their ability to model the effects of changes to their pre-existing emotional and physical adaptive processes. Systemic modelling is not limited in this way. The individual can use systemic modelling to understand the purposes of his existing adaptive systems, and to model the effects of changes to the systems, even where the effects are very complex.

So systemic modelling has the potential to enable the individual to better integrate his mental adaptation with his pre-existing emotional and physical adaptive processes. Using systemic modelling, the individual can begin to manage these adaptive processes to resolve conflicts between them and to ensure their goals are aligned with the goals pursued consciously by the individual. The greater ability of systemic modelling to discover better adaptation will be used to revise the operation of these pre-existing adaptive processes, ensuring that the wider and more complex effects of alternative adaptations are taken into account. Importantly this can include the use of self-management to revise motivations and goals established by the pre-existing internal reward systems. Increasingly, pre-existing motivations and emotional states will be seen as objects of consciousness that can be influenced. The individual will no longer see these as entirely fixed and given, but as increasingly subject to conscious choice.

A systemic modeller might also attempt to educate his pre-existing emotional responses so that they operate more consistently with the broader understanding made possible by systemic modelling.

A systemic modeller might also attempt to ensure that his internal motivation and reward system supports the new adaptive behaviours and strategies that are shown by his modelling to be more effective. He might organise his life and his thinking to ensure he is motivated and emotionally rewarded as he implements these new behaviours and strategies.

Because systemic modellers have a much better understanding of the complex adaptive purposes served by their emotional system, they are also more able to use their emotional states as signals that they should pay more mental attention to particular needs. For example, instead of trying to repress and override feelings of depression, they are more likely to take the feelings as an indication that they need to seriously review their life style. The use of self-management to better integrate the mental and emotional systems means that each system will be used to enhance the adaptive capacity of the other.

As the capacity for internal systemic modelling develops, it will increasingly tend to undermine the individual’s self-centeredness. In part this will come about because the individual will begin to see that his particular motivations, goals and values have no absolute value or justification. He will find no valid reason to put them ahead of any other set of goals, and he will be unable to show that a life spent exclusively serving his particular goals and values is inherently better than alternative ways of life. These views will be strengthened as he develops the capacity to model the social processes that have helped to produce his particular set of motivations, goals and values. These models will show that his goals and other adaptive characteristics could have been very different. A different upbringing, different social conditions, a different culture, and he would have different wants and beliefs, and different likes and dislikes. This understanding will begin to undermine the individual’s belief that all his energies and adaptive capacities should be solely directed at satisfying his own particular self-centred reward system. It will also help him understand the different perspectives of others, and the causes of those differences. He will be less able to ignore and dismiss alternative perspectives.

Self-centeredness will also be undermined as the individual begins to model the social processes in which he is embedded over wider and wider scales of space and time. He will quickly become aware of his dependence on the effective operation of his social system. He will see that in many respects, he cannot achieve his personal goals unless the social system functions well. The systemic modeller will understand that in many instances, the interests of the social system coincide with his interests, and it is in his interests to promote the effective operation of the social system.

When his models of the social system can span historical scales of space and time, he will increasingly see himself and others as temporary. He will tend to see himself as just one of the enormous number of individuals who make up the social system at any time, and who each follow their particular dreams and goals for the relatively short period of their life. It is only the social system itself that will appear to be able to have any permanence and significance. From this perspective, a life spent solely serving self-centred internal rewards and motivations will appear particularly absurd. This wider perspective can make it easier for the individual to find value in supporting the effective operation of his social system, or at least the part he interacts with most often.

So systemic modelling will tend to undermine self-centredness. But it does not conclusively point to a new set of values that the individual should pursue. It eventually undermines individualism, but it does not establish a new set of objectives that can guide the individual. It leaves the individual with ambiguity and uncertainty. A belief in cultural relativism is a typical product of systemic modelling. All values, all goals and all motivations are seen as equally valid. Internal systemic modelling increasingly provides self-managers with the ability to harness their motivations and reward systems to new objectives, but it does not establish what those new objectives should be. This is, of course, the position that systemic modellers find themselves in today. It is only with the development of evolutionary modelling that humanity can again find individual and collective direction.

James' comments:

* John Stewart’s use of ‘systemic modelling’ is not to be confused with Caitlin Walker’s Systemic Modelling, although there are overlaps. See trainingattention.co.uk

And there are big overlaps between Stewart’s ideas and the developmental parts of Ken Wilber’s Integral model. See Penny Tompkins and my paper: A Developmental Perspective.

I side with Nassim Nicholas Taleb that the behaviour of many complex systems is inherently unpredictable. See my review of Taleb’s ideas, Black Swan Logic.

I also have reservations about the general tone and metaphors in Stewart’s description of ‘evolutionary modelling’ and his predictions for the future of mankind. Despite all his talk of systemic and evolutionary, Stewart is still wedded to metaphors of  “predict” and “control” and a mythical beast called a “fully developed I”. 

If the best we have to look forward to is evolving our consciousness until we have something like a “visionary CEO of a modern corporation” managing the show, then I’m glad I wont be there to see it! Instead, I would have liked to seen much more attention paid to the major evolutionary roles played by diversity, by feedback, by unexpected events and by the emergence of unanticipated life and organisational forms. Given these have keep life evolving continuously for 3-4 billions years, I’d say we need to build them to any grand plan for humankind.

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