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Evolution and the Emergent Self

Evolution and the Emergent Self: The Rise of Complexity and Behavioral Versatility in Nature

Illustrations by Xuan Yue
Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 336
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  • Book Info
    Evolution and the Emergent Self
    Book Description:

    Evolution and the Emergent Self is an eloquent and evocative new synthesis that explores how the human species emerged from the cosmic dust. Lucidly presenting ideas about the rise of complexity in our genetic, neuronal, ecological, and ultimately cosmological settings, the author takes readers on a provocative tour of modern science's quest to understand our place in nature and in our universe. Readers fascinated with "Big History" and drawn to examine big ideas will be challenged and enthralled by Raymond L. Neubauer's ambitious narrative.

    How did humans emerge from the cosmos and the pre-biotic Earth, and what mechanisms of biological, chemical, and physical sciences drove this increasingly complex process? Neubauer presents a view of nature that describes the rising complexity of life in terms of increasing information content, first in genes and then in brains. The evolution of the nervous system expanded the capacity of organisms to store information, making learning possible. In key chapters, the author portrays four species with high brain:body ratios-chimpanzees, elephants, ravens, and dolphins-showing how each species shares with humans the capacity for complex communication, elaborate social relationships, flexible behavior, tool use, and powers of abstraction. A large brain can have a hierarchical arrangement of circuits that facilitates higher levels of abstraction.

    Neubauer describes this constellation of qualities as an emergent self, arguing that self-awareness is nascent in several species besides humans and that potential human characteristics are embedded in the evolutionary process and have emerged repeatedly in a variety of lineages on our planet. He ultimately demonstrates that human culture is not a unique offshoot of a language-specialized primate, but an analogue of fundamental mechanisms that organisms have used since the beginning of life on Earth to gather and process information in order to buffer themselves from fluctuations in the environment.

    Neubauer also views these developments in a cosmic setting, detailing open thermodynamic systems that grow more complex as the energy flowing through them increases. Similar processes of increasing complexity can be found in the "self-organizing" structures of both living and nonliving forms. Recent evidence from astronomy indicates that planet formation may be nearly as frequent as star formation. Since life makes use of the elements commonly seeded into space by burning and expiring stars, it is reasonable to speculate that the evolution of life and intelligence that happened on our planet may be found across the universe.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-52168-0
    Subjects: Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, Health Sciences, Biological Sciences, Astronomy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. Overview
    (pp. 1-4)
  4. 1 The Immune System: A Parable
    (pp. 5-17)

    Life has increased in information content over time and has also become more homeostatic; that is, it has built an “inner world” that is resilient to fluctuations in the external world. Life likely began in the ocean, where temperature variations are not as extreme as on land. Variations in salt content, pH, and of course water level are also not as extreme in the seas. Over time, life learned to buffer itself against these variations. When it came out of the water, it carried an internal circulatory system that still mirrors the salt content of the ocean. It evolved scales...

  5. 2 Voyages into Homeostasis
    (pp. 18-38)

    Homeostasis—a steady internal state that is buffered against fluctuations in the environment—is a far-reaching concept in biology. We have numerous homeostatic mechanisms in our bodies to keep just the right levels of sugar, salts, calcium, oxygen, and other vital molecules in our blood. Homeostasis can also be thought of as a behavioral quality: having a large variety of responses to changes in the environment. An ample repertoire of responses allows an organism to maintain its activities despite changes in its surroundings. Warm-blooded animals (homeotherms) like mammals and birds, for example, can remain active in winter when cold-blooded animals...

  6. 3 Information Content
    (pp. 39-69)

    Life gathers information in genes and brains, and in both there has been an increase in information content over time. There has been an increase in the average number of genes in going from prokaryotic cells (without nuclei) to eukaryotes (with nuclei), and a further increase in going from multicellular organisms with loose tissue organization to animals and plants with complex tissues. There has also been an increase in the size of nervous systems from their first appearance in the diffuse nerve net of jellyfish to the centralized control of insects and vertebrates. This is measured in terms of the...

  7. 4 What Is a Big Brain Good For?
    (pp. 70-83)

    The brain:body ratios of mammals and birds is about 10 times greater than that of reptiles, amphibians, and fish. In any other area of biology, such a difference would be considered significant: a digestive tract that was several times longer or a comparably larger wing or muscle would indicate a change in abilities and prompt a search for the evolutionary pressures that made it possible. Yet in some areas of cognitive biology, it is claimed that large brains make no difference at all in the learning abilities of different species.¹ In part this is due to the difficulties of designing...

  8. 5 A Constellation of Qualities
    (pp. 84-112)

    In this chapter and the next, I will sketch portraits of four species that represent peaks of brain development in their lineages: chimpanzees, ravens, elephants, and dolphins. All have high brain:body ratios and share qualities of behavioral complexity and versatility. I will argue that a large central nervous system is the source of a wide repertoire of behavior. It is unusually flexible and innovative, enables complex social relationships and rich communication, and appears capable of a degree of abstraction. The association of these qualities in widely differing lineages and different environments suggests they are somehow connected with each other in...

  9. 6 The Evolution of Personality
    (pp. 113-133)

    The qualities considered so far in chimpanzees and ravens—complex societies and communication, innovation, tool use, play, and individual recognition—have an oddly human ring. We too exemplify these traits. This may sound wildly anthropomorphic, but in fact my intention is the opposite: to indicate that this constellation of qualities has been emerging in a variety of lineages, of which Homo sapiens is only the latest and most extreme example. They are a suite of characteristics found in large-brained, slowly developing animals that use behavioral versatility and insight learning to survive in their niches. They are an extension of the...

  10. 7 Concepts as Feature Extraction
    (pp. 134-155)

    An emergent self that can view others, itself, and its environment with greater objectivity may be the result of a large brain that has extra neurons that can be dedicated to higher levels of abstraction. In this chapter, I will describe an arrangement of brain circuits that allows one set of neurons to abstract qualities from responses in another set of neurons. Recall that an animal with an encephalization quotient (EQ) above 1 has higher brain weight than an average animal of its body weight. This extra brain matter may be available for functions beyond mere physiological control. Also, as...

  11. 8 The Brain and Belief
    (pp. 156-176)

    There was a “Big Bang” of human culture about 40,000 years ago in Ice Age Europe while our species still lived a hunter-gatherer way of life. This burst of creativity included widespread adoption of new techniques in material and mental culture. It was signaled by a new way of producing stone tools, but also introduced other advances such as heated shelters, eyed needles for sewing, widespread trade, and the use of new materials, such as bone and antler.¹ This revolutionary period also produced new kinds of art and religious practices, including elaborate burials with grave goods, the first known appearance...

  12. 9 Energy Flows
    (pp. 177-206)

    Consider the old millstream. A waterwheel was built over a stream with buckets to catch falling water. The weight of the water turned the wheel, and this water was dumped from each bucket before it returned to its starting position so that the cycle could begin again. The revolving wheel performed useful work, such as turning millstones to grind corn. From this simple example comes an important principle: energy gradients can be used to perform useful work. The gradient in this case is water falling in a gravitational field, but there are many other energy gradients in nature that can...

  13. 10 The Origin of Life
    (pp. 207-225)

    If life is another form of thermodynamic flow, as the last chapter indicated, its occurrence may be widespread across the universe. Life as we know it makes use of the most abundant atoms produced by stellar burning, so it may be a special form of matter that self-organizes at energy gradients under the right conditions. As we saw, the principles of nonequilibrium thermodynamics are very similar for living and nonliving forms.

    We cannot yet say whether life exists beyond this planet, but we have found that the precursors to the molecules of life are much more widespread and easily made...

  14. 11 The Prospects for Habitable Worlds
    (pp. 226-253)

    The idea that there may be planets around stars other than our sun was once the stuff of science fiction, but research in the last two decades indicates that such planets may be a common occurrence. Data from the most recent space telescopes indicate that even Earth-size planets in the habitable zone around their star may be numerous in the universe. Both theoretical studies and the latest data from space telescopes seem to confirm the Copernican principle that there is nothing special about this quadrant of the galaxy and conditions that led to a solar system here may be present...

  15. 12 The Apex of Nature
    (pp. 254-274)

    A star is an accident. It takes a certain volume of dust and gas, traveling at the right speed and density, to begin the gravitational collapse that will ignite the nuclear fires of a newborn star. But conditions after the Big Bang were such that materials for this accident were provided all over the universe, and the sky above us is studded with billions of points of light. It may be further asked whether solar systems, habitable planets, life, and intelligence are not also “accidents waiting to happen.”

    As we saw in chapter 11, planet formation is probably an integral...

  16. Notes
    (pp. 275-316)
  17. Index
    (pp. 317-326)