Big Evolution

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Manuscript from April 2016, abandoned as covering too many disciplines for one article

Big Evolution – why prebiotic and human eras will expand evolutionary theory

Abstract: While evolutionary theory faces challenges to be extended conceptually, the two temporal bookends – the prebiotic era and human time since the Neolithic – are evolutionary without being integrated to theory. Rather than a problem, the gap from these eras can be a source for theoretical integration. Here, the wealth of new research in both eras are combed to highlight aspects that are potential evolutionary features. Among the aspects found, the prebiotic phase shows chemical diversification and selection features while the human phase shows environment-system effects. Studies in both areas already indicate theoretical openings to system and self-organizational concepts that are not solely replicator dynamics. Potential opportunities, however, run into not just the theoretical preference for continuity of form over origin of form in biology but also into deep philosophical preconceptions for humans such as the agency of individuals in an environment-as-background. Biology is stuck with philosophy in a double bind. But, given the labile state of philosophical foundations, the issues raised related to an auto-organizing environment are shown to offer promise rather than contradiction. The auto-organizing aspects of the prebiotic and human eras point towards a way for both to break out together.

Both the prebiotic era – the first billion years of Earth history – and the time after civilization began share the odd status of being evolutionary but not biological. The former is theoretically outside the bounds of life as a replicator while the latter lies somewhere between a successful escape from the process or a muddled appendage. Both situations are a loss of theoretical purchase.

They each have an opportunity to be reconfigured so as to be contributors to a stronger conception of evolution. Origin of life studies, which have grown substantially over the last several decades, now offer a wealth of insights into prebiotic chemistry. Significantly, a new field, systems chemistry, aims “to ascertain the roots of biological complexity” (De la Escosura et al 2015p20) while moving beyond “the ‘security zones’ of solution-phase and solid-state chemistry” to address “processes that take place in soft matter, on surfaces and at interfaces” (p14). This same spirit to use prebiotic roots to discover new chemistries is a view that evolutionary theory should also embrace. These chemical processes that are the fast-moving future of systems chemistry are not just new chemistries but are, at least potentially, new evolutionary principles. A review of the field will attempt to sketch the possibilities and the potential principles.

While the prebiotic earth had an environment without an organism, human evolution focuses on one species, while massive evolution occurred in the environment. The degree and speed in which the biosphere is evolving as networked urban civilization can seem to dwarf the ape-to-human transition. To judge by the nightly news, evolution happened in the past or when a new virus appears, and issues around the future such as of robotics, nanotechnology, or even biotech hardly involve evolutionary theory. Of the theoretical work to bridge from the arrival of Homo sapiens to our world today such as cultural evolution (Richerson & Boyd 2005; Acerbi & Mesoudi 2015) the emphasis on developmental plasticity and learning transmission are important but still do not explain developments up to the present and are also not clearly accepted as part of evolutionary theory. Evolutionary theory then explains the past but not the present or the future; human evolution allows the interpretation of a victory, not a place in nature. The possibility then is to reverse the direction of explanation. The modern human and the environment of the Anthropocene can be used to glean processes that might strengthen evolutionary theory. There are new clusters of ideas – one around the distributed cognition of humans and the other around the “anthropogenic” environment – that highlight processes unique to this evolutionary era.

Following the above threads leads to promising as well as radical conclusions. Here below is the logic of the argument:

· Evolutionary theory has issues.
· Origin of life studies are overly focused on the first cell while ignoring 1 billion years of environmental processes.
· Human evolutionary studies are weak while modern life, the modern environment, contemporary society, and current concepts of the human each dwarfs the ape-to-human trajectory.
· Both fields are unique enough to be able to offer insights to evolutionary theory.
· Prebiotic studies including systems chemistry already yield a trove of insights from environmental diversification through chemical selection.
· Charting the unique aspects of human evolution yields a cluster of processes from environmental phenomenon and new trends in cognitive science, linguistics, and material culture studies that deserve attention for their evolutionary dynamics.
· From these human era processes an hypothesis is offered that gives a joint behavioral and environmentally reinforcing strong path and that focuses the unique processes.
· The processes of both eras have facets in common including a reliance on complex systems and selective processes for systems.
· The possibility is for expanded evolutionary theory, not extended or replaced, that adds a radical developmental component.
· Such an expanded evolutionary theory does, however, challenge the philosophical foundations of Modernism in terms of the subject-object basics, and a reformulation looks more promising than problematic.
· Issues in the excluded two eras are interlinked with each other and with the issues of evolutionary theory, and these are mutually tied to deep philosophical assumptions.

Issues in evolutionary theory

Despite unrivaled success, the issues of the Modern Synthesis in mainline evolutionary theory are not insubstantial. They include: evo-devo (West-Eberhard 2003; Newman 2011; Moczek et al 2015), niche construction theory (Laland et al 2008; Scott-Phillips et al 2013), systems biology (Palsson 2006; Westerhoff et al 2009), widespread epigenesis (Jablonka & Lamb 2014), symbiogenesis (Kozo-Polyansky et al 2010), major transition theory (Szathmary & Smith 1995), inherent self-organization (Camazine et al 2001), Phanerozoic earth system (Butterfield 2011), and synergistic selection (Corning & Szathmary 2015). Some critics say that these dictate an extension of the theory (Pigliucci & Mueller 2010, Laland et al 2015) and others that a replacement is required (Noble 2015).

Evo-devo and niche construction have the odd aspect that they in some ways allow the organism to modify the further evolution of its species (West-Eberhard 2003; Laland et al 2008; Moczek et al 2015). Symbiogenesis is the process of having organisms of two or more species merge to form a new, combined species – an extreme form of symbiosis that has happened at least a few significant times (Kozo-Polyansky et al 2010). That organisms might be made up of fundamental principles of organization has resurfaced in a strong way (Camazine et al 2001; Newman 2011). The theory of evolutionary convergence reinforces this logical priority of organization (McGhee 2011; Morris 2009). The issue of major transitions highlights that there remains no theoretical explanation for macroevolution or larger trends within evolution when the record shows obvious discontinuities (McShea & Simpson 2011). Synergistic selection describes the general process of “’payoffs’ associated with various synergistic effects in a given context” (Corning & Szathmary, 2015p48). And the Phanerozoic systems describe how the rise of multicellulars created a “biological environment” such that diversity was a product of a large, coevolutionary, trophic network (Butterfield, 2007p45). Summing up, one critic laments that researchers on these various issues are isolated and unable “to escape the vortex of Darwinism” (Reid 2007p422).

Further aggravating the theoretical drift, the concepts of organism and species are losing definition. A literature review by Clarke and Okasha (2013) reveal that the concepts of organism and of species are defined in many, non-overlapping ways. Individuality has been controversial from complex organisms with very different life cycles (Nyhart & Lidgard 2011) to the major transitions that involve jumps to a new group level of individual (Szathmary & Smith 1995; Calcott & Sterelny 2011; Michod 2011). Smith (2013p193) has it “that the nature of the living state cannot be conflated with the nature of individuality or with properties of individuals....” For species Koonin, can state: “... the species concept does not apply to prokaryotes and is of dubious validity for unicellular eukaryotes as well” (Koonin 2009p474).

Origin of life studies – from challenge to source for evolutionary theory

In origin of life studies a new phase is now discernible as a shift to the prebiotic processes themselves. The studies are astonishing in number and depth. There are the new fields of astrobiology, synthetic chemistry, and systems chemistry. The details have taken center stage. Reflective of this new phase is the following:

“This view conceives the initial stages of the prebiotic earth as a huge flow reactor containing an amazingly complex set of small molecules of different types, eventually establishing a wide variety of possible interactions among each other. Provided that there is an overall flow of matter and energy across such a supersystem, therefore sustaining far-from-equilibrium dynamics, this complex set could explore an immensely large number of possible reaction pathways.” (Ruiz-Mirazo et al 2014p287)

As this trend continues to grow and shed new light on novel chemistries and the abiotic world, the question highlighted here is on whether and how this will be used to strengthen evolutionary theory. Some chemists recognize this new frontier and have already named it as “chemical evolution” (Lehn 2013; Williams & Da Silva 2006). Another candidate name that underlines the inherent contradiction in our view of evolution is the seemingly oxymoronic “prebiotic evolution.”

It is possible now to discern trends from the perspective of origin of life studies that are candidates for potential new evolutionary principles. Five potential principles are presented. It is worth emphasizing the obvious that all of these are processes of the environment.

I: Systems theory as applicable in prebiotic chemistry Systems concepts are now a strong leg of current research in biology and, as noted, in chemistry. Systems biological ideas have mushroomed in biology and now flooded into origin of life studies (Kaneko 2011; Ruiz-Mirazo et al 2014). The birth of systems chemistry includes not just prebiotic chemistry but also new chemistries (Von Kiedrowski et al 2010; Lehn 2013; De la Escosura et al 2015). If complex systems theory has focused more on dynamics and systems biology has focused more on reaction rate matrices among molecular types, the more challenging phenomena lie in networks that are location dependent (Lucas et al 2011), supramolecular effects of weaker bonds than covalent ones (Ruiz-Mirazo et al 2014), auto-organization among molecular types, condensed and soft matter effects (Egel 2014), simultaneous shifts of equilibrium collections (Li et al 2013), the chemistry of surfaces, novel boundary effects to equilibrium by any of these, and the integration of many partial system models. Similarly with systems biology the suggestion has been made that “biological and cognitive systems hide not only more complexity than physical systems, but rather different forms of it” (Moreno et al 2011p314). The new tools are remarkable, and the new levels of detail contemplated are no less so. Systems theory is promising to take us closer than ever to the gap between non-living matter and living matter, between physics and biology.

In taking systems theory as a likely significant process of the prebiotic world and knowing that the subject is still weakly charted, a very inclusive definition will be taken. On the lower limit it should include simple energy flows as even just one edge in a network. And since this is a consideration of systems theory as foundational to biology where the difficulties of the individual organism have been mentioned, the case is made to not necessarily conflate systems concepts with organism.

II: The formation of local, unique environments define key processes Prebiotic studies make clear that specific environments were undergoing specific processes. While biology has usually treated the environment or an organism’s niche as the assumed background necessary to support life, origin of life studies invert the relationship since there are only environments becoming more compatible to what could come later. There are at least one billion years where figure and ground must be reversed. Williams and co-authors da Silva and Rickaby in several works (1999, 2006, 2012) have extended this reversal. They have made a cogent argument that the evolution of the environment is a larger phenomenon in which life is a component (Williams 2011). Williams & Rickaby (2012p3) have it that “... as well as the Darwinian random search ... there was and is a systematic larger-scale evolution dependent upon the opportunities which the large-scale evolving chemical element environment provided. It is, we believe, this strong and faster environmental development, in a given chemical direction, that guided the way to today’s organisms in a systematic, overall much slower, chemical evolution.”

The roots of such a process extend easily into planetary formation where prior processes have given a certain distribution of elements, molecules, disequilibrium, and energy flows (Williams & Rickaby 2012; Maruyama et al 2013; Hazen 2012) along with some selection such as when certain elements have escaped the atmosphere (e.g., some H2 and He) or when others are formed into gradients (e.g., Fe to the core and H2O to the surface, granite above basalt).

The key and controversial role of the environment to life extends into evolutionary theory. Although usually only given the status of background or supporting circumstances, evolutionary success is predicated on conforming to it (Lewontin 2000p44). There is a second perspective that shows the environment to be the senior partner in its relationship to life. It is generally agreed that life is an open system powered within environmental energy fluxes; this limit frames the environment as the more active partner. While used most often as an all-encompassing concept as in the environment, the concept is also used within an organism as in the environment of the heart, a developing cell amongst other cells in an embryo, or the products of one reaction in a cell as the precursors (i.e., environment) for another pathway. The opportunity is that origin of life studies are already a study of environmental processes.

III: Chemical diversity Most all origin of life studies either assume a chemical species-rich environment or endeavor to show how a locally diverse group of starter compounds could arise. Ever since the Miller-Urey experiment (1959), the ability of prebiotic conditions to form more complex compounds has been clear. Vulcanism, lightning, uV radiation, and hydration-dehydration cycles are energy sources that have been invoked to drive these formations. The questions have remained about the quantity of C1 compounds pulled into larger compounds and especially the ability to form polymers of these. There are now seen to be plausible mechanisms for both of these (Wächtershäuser 2012). The position here is less that precursors could be produced and more that diversity was produced or even that diversity was selected in conditions of simple energy flows interacting with very simple compounds. The production of diversity is itself an important process, not part of the background assumptions of luck.

A first step of this sketch then is that energy flows interacted with matter to produce/select more diverse matter (Szostak 2011). The depth of the conservation of energy principle shows up as kinetic stability or stationary states as the continual energy flows lead to ever more pockets of temporarily stabilized energy (Morowitz 1968; Pascal & Pross 2014; Williams & da Silva 1999). The Earth near surface environment is riddled with small, temporary energetic stepping stones that are the molecular species. And the energetic flows and transitions along the temporary kinetic stability steps combined with catalytic effects and with low energy stabilizations between them result in patterns of linkages by types of molecules (Mazurie et al 2010; Braakman & Smith 2013). The result is networks by types of molecules in energy exchange, conversion pathways, catalysis, or affinity relationships under disequilibrium conditions of continuous energy flow.

For example, Wächtershäuser (2012) assumes a set of “nutrients” such as CO, HCN, COS, and N2. Diversification continues as “low-molecular-weight organic compounds” form “from C1-compounds by transition metal catalysis” (p82). This is driven by energy from “volcanic-hydrothermal fluids” coming into contact with cooler water. As some of the products happened to be catalysts or ligands to metals to increase their catalysis, the diversification continued (p82). His main interest is in showing the plausibility of chemical pathways to all classes of molecules seen in primitive life. In making this trace, his steps show a large interdependence of energy flows and specific environments to create more diversity. He speaks of this diversifying metabolism as a “chemical garden” (p87). For Egel (2014) the diversification of matter phase leans on the now conventional collection of volcanism, sunlight, and hydration-dehydration cycles with mineral catalysis. But his preference is for the environmental combination that might be found at terrestrial hydrothermal vents where “[r]eactive polyphosphates, transition metals and other necessary compounds, too, are readily available” (p93). For Damer & Deamer (2015p874) enriched environments derived from volcanism, from the infall with comets, or from hydration-dehydration.

IV: Formation of aggregates from diversity Another trend to highlight is that there were material aggregations, or concentrations, including those of diverse matter (Hansma 2014). Aggregations of matter do imply energy driving their movement together, but this will be kept distinct from the trend of selection to keep a group of component types together (next section). As a distinguishing example, membranes formed by polar reactions of fatty acids or lipids in water are aggregations while any selective effect that these might have on keeping enclosed molecules together would be considered selection for a whole. The former (aggregation) is selection to be together while the latter is selection to stay together under dynamic conditions. Aggregates are a collective environmental form that are shaped by unique energy flows such as erosion (Maruyama et al 2013), weathering (Williams & Rickaby 2012), gravitational gradients (Mulkidjanian et al 2012), supramolecular bonding (He et al 2015), hydrophobic or hydrophillic forces (Keating 2012), phase of matter properties (Egel 2014), even thermodynamic fluctuations (Brogioli 2011), and physical topography of substrates such as pore spaces (Egel 2014) among others. Selection here is for affinity and not for stabilizing the whole. And the energy drivers are not enough for covalent bond formation but by weaker intermolecular forces.

Wächtershäuser (2012) posits an accumulation of lipids on mineral surfaces “with the effect of surface lipophilization.” This corresponds to aggregation. Egel (2014) takes up a colloid microsphere as the route to life and a mechanism of aggregation. Colloids are a soft phase of matter formed by cooperative aggregation, in this case by “soft organic compounds” (p93). These congealed by “adsorptive forces” with a “consequential phase separation” in water. Such a step of energy to aggregation was a “fundamental principle in biogenic evolution” (P93). Further aggregation occurs when the colloidal microspheres pull in metal ions, small organics, proteins, and oligonucleotides (p94-5). In emphasizing aggregation, he speaks of new, derived properties when the varying hydrophobic-hydrophilic contrasting properties of proteins have both new catalytic as well as structural properties (p98). This diverse aggregation led to more diversification through enhanced catalytic properties and condensation reactions for polymers protected from hydrolysis (p99). Local cohesion occurred because of “intermolecular fit in structurally stabilized configurations” (p99) to select preferentially partnering molecules.

Damer & Deamer (2015) emphasize the aggregation and selection for cohesion phases in their biofilms at hydrothermal pools scenario. A diverse chemical environment is posited to have collected at the surface of terrestrial thermal pools. Precipitation would cause these to wash into the pools in an aggregation step. Further aggregation is assumed to occur from assumed lipids in the chemical mix both by amphiphillic forces and by drying on pool edges (p875).

V: Chemical selection The literature is full of references to selection of chemical types. Melendez-Hevia et al (2008p508) explain it as “... the appearance of the minimal material necessary for natural selection to work could not be produced by natural selection itself, but by a previous selection that we shall call ‘chemical selection.’” Here are some examples. Kaneko (2011) speaks of the removal of a minority species of molecule in a hierarchy of catalysts; Egel (2014) speaks of a supramolecular fit among small peptides to increase stability; the discussion about selection for enantioenrichment has found potential mechanisms (Ruiz-Mirazo 2014p307); “spatial confinement, mediated diffusion” could always be effecting the local composition (De la Escosura et al 2015p18); and uV light selects for more stable polymers (Mulkidjanian & Galperin 2007). Wächtershäuser (2012) claims selfish catalytic paths will weaken overall metabolism which is a “selective force for multi-catalytic ligand effects” (p84). He speaks of a dual feedback possibility for a catalyst where precursors are favored in a way that amplifies the whole (p84). Damer & Deamer (2015) emphasize the selection of molecular types in their vesicular aggregations for polymers that stabilize the membranes as unstable vesicles will tend to collapse and disperse in the hydrated phase. New polymers would then be produced in each dehydrated phase by condensation so that production alternates with selection for stable wholes (p878). Other reactions occur in the vesicle contents which are also selected by their contribution for stability including contributions to the right permeability, catalysis, and feedback control (p880-1).

The focus here for chemical selection will be within previously formed aggregates and in the context of selection with other chemical types or for the stability of some whole. Within such aggregates not at local equilibrium there can be new forms of energy flow and ephemeral systems – catalysis, equilibrium adjustments among combinatorial collections (He et al 2015; Norris 2014), supramolecular favoring of products, common binding sites as in preferred side chains, vesicle formation, vesicle stabilization by other compounds, selective permeability of vesicles, feed forward catalysis (Wächtershäuser 2012), production of precursors to restore equilibrium from driven reactions (Shapiro 2006), auto-organization, and autocatalysis. Such flows then define new environments, wholes where collections select preferentially for collective cohesion. They compare to what has been called “synergistic selection” by Corning & Szathmary (2015). These collections with cohesive selection have system properties – flows of production, aggregation, and selective cohesion – that are comparable to protocells.

Steps to a prebiotic conception of evolution

The above trends in origin of life studies are neither complete nor constitutive of a theory of an evolutionary process for the prebiotic Earth. They are meant rather to validate that early Earth chemical studies are extensive even without reference to the first cell and that potential principles can already be discerned. It is already well understood that energy-driven networks were increasing local chemical diversity. In that context for one billion years it is obviously local environments that are the seat of evolutionary dynamics. That complex systems concepts, although up to now developed around less heterogeneous components, will be required is more and more promising given the systems biological experimental success along with the wide theoretical support. The aggregation of diverse components and the selection of components with these aggregations are widely reported processes of the environment that deserve to be highlighted in looking for the building blocks for a chemical evolution before the “Darwinian threshold” (Woese 2004p182). To recap, the positive trends as potential building blocks towards a theory of prebiotic evolution are:
1. Environmental dynamics (consisting of:)
2. Energy flows and networks of chemical type interactions (which drive:)
3. Chemical diversity (allowing diverse chemical-energy flows to:)
4. Aggregations of diversity (which are stabilized with:)
5. Selection within aggregates (where all the above are potentially describable by:)
6. Complex systems concepts

It will be further claimed that these identified trends have relevance to the issues in evolutionary theory, but first a similar taking stock of the issues and unique processes of the other bookend to mainstream evolution, human evolution, offers a second, complementary window.

Human evolution – the discontinuity perspective

The position taken here is that evolutionary theory has successfully described a continuity for human evolution but has not been able to describe the discontinuity. To bring home the discontinuity of human evolution, consider the mental image of a graph that uses the y-axis to show the maximum population of human permanent settlements over time. Even if cave-dwelling humans were permanent, their numbers hardly differed from zero so that settlements of 102 or so that came at about 12,000 BCE (Mithen 2003) might register on a curve that hits 105 around 600 BCE before bouncing up to 106 a few times between Rome and 1800 CE until London hits 2x106 million in 1850 as the curve then grows steeply to over 2.5 107 today ( – “list of largest cities throughout history”). These will leave “fossil” records that endure long past the present. Their growth curve is in stark contrast to the genetic difference of 2% to chimpanzees that can be used as a proxy since the last common ancestor, some 6 to 7 million years ago. Taking cities as a phenomenon of evolutionary significance is a reminder that the ape-to-human transition can only be part of the story. The steep curve of human aggregations since the start of the Neolithic is also another indication that the cultural evolution process by itself fails to explain the late acceleration.

There are other indicators of this enormous discontinuity. Consider the discontinuities from the environmental effects of the arrival of humans. The issue is summed up by Ellis: “Even with a population of seven billion, Homo sapiens is not an entirely novel force of nature. But human systems are” (Ellis, 2011p1012). He estimates that over half of the terrestrial biosphere has shifted from biomes to “densely settled and cropland anthromes, together with rangelands developed in woodlands” so that the ecologies have been significantly transformed (Ellis, 2011p1021). Humans and our domestic animals now represent 97% of the biomass of all terrestrial vertebrates (Smil 2002p187). Our material “metabolism” is enormous; there are, for example, 104 substances produced at over 104 kg per year (Baccini & Brunner, 2012p54). Machines dwarf the weight and carbon intake of humans; against 100 Mt of dry-weight biomass for humans, cars alone are 10 times this (Smil 2002p269). For the majority of us the local environments are highly structured with buildings, stores, roads, and infrastructure networks such as water supply. Technology and electronics now show their own dynamics (Arthur 2009).

The discontinuity of the human environment with what preceded it is enormous and unparalleled in speed. Rather than continuing to try to stretch Darwinism into modern life, the opportunity, as with the prebiotic, is to look for other continuities of biology into the civilized epoch to check if there are other relevant processes.

Processes potentially significant to human phase of evolution

In contrast to the prebiotic era where, until recently, relevant processes were unknown, the human era is awash with unique processes that, however, are not now linked to evolution or only weakly linked to evolution. Among those weakly linked to evolution, as drivers, are cooperation (Boyd & Richerson 2009; Sterelny et al 2013, Tomasello 2009), niche construction (Laland & O’Brien 2010), material culture and material agency (Tilley et al 2006), and language especially its newly highlighted attributes (Enfield 2013). Among those hardly linked to evolutionary theory are domestication of other species (Young 2016), the planning faculty (Aunger & Curtis 2016), the new 4E cognitive sciences that include extended, embedded, embodied, and enactive mind (Stotz 2014), institutions and social niche construction (Gerson 2014), joint behaviors (Butterfill & Sebanz 2011), shared agency (Bratman 2014), and the unique interactive behaviors of humans (Enfield & Levinson 2006). These potential evolutionary factors within the human evolution phase are unique, and, at least in some cases, merit consideration as evolutionary drivers.

There are also new studies which give a different view of humans. From Darwin’s day the rational individual (then, the rational gentleman) is today a facile trap for thinking about the destination of human evolution. The distributed view of mind from cognitive science and the concept of shared agency are trends that reveal how far the scientific view of the human has changed in less than a century and that need to be in view alongside the radically changed environment to prevent dropping back to the intelligent ape default.

I. 4E cognitive science Cognitive science shows very marked change. The simple characterization is that mind and cognition have broken out of the brain as the body, our actions, and the environment are now deemed intrinsic aspects of mind. Embodied mind emphasizes how the body and brain work as a whole system and that motor control and perception evolved together (Streeck et al 2011; Kiverstein & Miller 2015). The enactive view sees mind as the result of the coupling of an organism-system to its environment so that all information “is context-dependent and agent-relative” (Thompson, E. 2007p51). Extended mind (Clark, A. 2008) and ecological psychology (Reed 1996) are two strands of cognitive science that are showing that cognition is spread into the objects of the environment. Clark states that “body- and world-involving cycles are best understood, or so I shall argue, as quite literally extending the machinery of mind out into the world–as building extended cognitive circuits that are themselves the minimal material bases for important aspects of human thought and reason” (Clark, A. 2008p-xxvi). These new fields are growing quickly, and continue to strengthen the picture of mind as a distributed phenomenon. While consensus has not yet emerged, the rich diversity of studies already reveal cognition as far from being locked in a brain and somehow very distributed outside it.

II. Shared agency The concept of agency is another area that has been reworked to give it shared, extended, and partial dimensions. Some philosophers (Bratman 2014) see agency as shared with others. Some archaeologists (Jones & Boivin 2010; Olsen 2010) agree that some situations require us to extend agency to the things among events with people in what is usually called material agency. Malafouris (2013p17) has: “[m]aterial engagement is the synergistic process by which, out of brains, bodies, and things, mind emerges.” Material culture studies similarly see that “persons make and use things and that the things make persons” (Tilley et al 2006p4). In environmental policy studies (Connolly 2011; Pickering 2008) one speaks of distributed agency where material objects can influence events. In ecological psychology the concept of affordance (feature of the environment relative to an organism that facilitates, affords, or allows it to use it in a behavior – Chemero 2009) has sometimes been construed as not just affording a behavior but of prompting a behavior. “[A]ffordances can be considered as enhancing the prior probability P(A) of certain actions in the mere presence of objects” (Pezzulo 2012p110). A useful concept of agency in light of these views of its distribution is that of ecological control that does not micromanage but that shepherds “a variety of nonbiological problem-solving resources spread throughout our social and technological surround” (Clark, A. 2007p102).

The above frame for human evolution – its discontinuity, the need to consider new processes as relevant, and the distributedly cognizing human agent as destination – makes a reappraisal of evolutionary processes in this unique era plausible. To continue to look strongly at paleontology while largely ignoring present “evolution” not just in theory but within the social discourse outside science is a risky limitation of focus. Other processes particular to the human era will now be examined.

III. Joint behaviors Two processes are taken as significant. The first is the research around the concept of joint behaviors. They include cooperation but are a much larger set of behaviors. The point of view adopted here is that not only are different types of joint behaviors very widespread and include cooperation but that they better explain developmental capabilities in children as well as a plausible evolutionary pathway and that they better demonstrate the complex systems aspects of all behaviors than cooperation with its strategic individuals perspective.

There has been greater attention to widespread cooperation in humans (Tomasello 2009; Sterelny et al 2013), but the concept is controversial largely because of the free-rider evolutionary issue. The critique here is that cooperation is framed under an assumption of the primacy of individuality in a game theoretic manner while behaviors evolved in elaborate social and learning contexts with often minimal payoffs (Fantasia et al 2014; Ross 2013). Here is a sample of joint activities that are less than cooperation in the sense of carrying either commitment or involving the full complement of mindreading capabilities. An aspect in the literature on the continuum between individual and cooperative behaviors is coaction (Wegner & Sparrow 2007). Coaction is defined as “when one agent’s action is influenced by or occurs in the context of another agent’s actionBand together they do something that is not fully attributable to either one alone....” (Wegner & Sparrow 2007p18-9). And there is interactionism in cognitive science where “encounters are not reducible to attributes of the individual mind, because it is the interactive unit that behaves in a certain way, and the cause of this behaviour is captured by the collective dynamics themselves” (Gallotti & Frith 2013p161). There is the notion of “plural activity” where many agents happen to be involved in the same goal such as multiple ants’ stinging the same fly that results in a kill (Butterfill 2012). And there is the idea of “distributive active coordination” as when individual garbage men are working independently to tackle a large group of bins (Abramova & Slors 2015).

Studies of joint actions reveal systems dynamics. Marsh et al (2009p1219) describe how in joint action or joint perception two people can become a temporary “perception action system with new capabilities ... [and] ... with a reality of its own ... [so that] ... our actions serve to impact and define the social unit of which we are a part, and in turn our actions are constrained and channeled by participation in this relationship or group.” Much of the current research on joint behaviors among humans has come from ecological psychology where joint affordances are contrasted with affordances. Joint affordances are recognized as the ways that an object allows two people to use it from respective positions (Costantini & Sinigaglia 2011). Initial experiments such as with lifting different sized objects by two people indicate that modern humans have very clear senses of joint affordances (Marsh et al 2009; Davis et al 2010). Similarly, Pezzulo and Dindo (2011p626) have it that: “... the agent-environment dynamics and the agent-agent dynamics are part of the problem-solving strategy ... [so that] ... two agents are coupled at the level of cognitive variables as well as at the physical level of interaction.” Research extends to the kinematics of joint tasks including for monkeys where actions have been shown to be less variable, more discernible and “selecting movement trajectories that allow a faster disambiguation of an action from alternative ones” (Visco-Comandini et al 2015p116).

Joint behaviors especially of the casually interactive kind offer more plausible evolutionary scenarios. This is especially true of great apes where behaviors with elaborate sequences coexisted with intense social dynamics. Byrne highlights the complex behaviors of great apes as helping them survive when monkeys have many advantages in the same niche (viz. monkeys can eat unripe fruit): “gorillas, and to a lesser extent chimpanzees, use elaborate, multistage routines to deal with plant defenses; orangutans use complex, indirect routes to reach defended arboreal food, and sometimes make tools to gain access to bees’ nests or defended plant food” (Byrne 2006p493-4). Because great apes live in groups with intense social relationships, an assumption is that these behaviors could easily be entangled and mutually reinforcing. Food sharing after hunts among chimpanzees is not cooperative but “is motivated by undefined social factors...” (Tuttle 2014p312). The complex reinforcement of the social and the instrumental show up in that “measures of cognitive skill in primates are correlated across multiple domains (e.g. behavioural innovation, social learning, tool use and extractive foraging)...” (Seyfarth & Cheney 2015p19). And, on the developmental side young children are seen to engage in joint behaviors such as tidying up toys with a caregiver at a much younger age than they acquire the mindreading type capabilities that are presumably developed during these casual joint behaviors (Butterfill 2012). Both evolutionarily and developmentally joint behaviors are more plausibly prior to the mindreading capabilities presumed to be required for cooperation or even idealized rationality.

The picture of joint behaviors that is emerging is of a very wide category of behaviors that allows a clearer path to evolvability and that shows complex systems characteristics. There are other behaviors that can be claimed to be joint and that help reveal the ubiquity of the phenomenon. Most of our behaviors are de facto joint. Basic sociality requires some minimal coordination. Today, observing customs, using language even if lying, watching the same movie, adhering to architectural spaces, being considerate, or buying and selling even if cheating all involve acting jointly with the actions of others. Even the direct 4F behaviors (fight, flee, feed, f...) show elaborations. Another instance of joint behavior that will be included here is what can be called constrained joint behavior as for example when drivers on a freeway appear to cooperate by traffic lanes and mutual avoidance. It also includes dominance behaviors to force someone to do something (Butterfill 2012p45). And it should be enlarged to include joint behaviors that are the result of a niche construction by one individual that elicits a new behavior by a second. Joint behaviors are thus widening arcs of social behaviors including material or structural intermediaries. It is predominantly seen in cotemporal behaviors where individuals are reacting with some degree of improvisation. As such it demands a “participation structure, which itself presupposes a distinction between being copresent but not in interaction versus copresent and participating” (Levinson (2006p52). But the concept here is enlarged to include joint behaviors that are not cotemporal as when one behavior follows another but is linked. For example, the case in economics where, say, a button-maker in one country sells buttons to a shirt-maker in another country who sells to a wholesaler in a third country, etc. shows a chain of jointness that has solo activity, joint behaviors, and cooperation interspersed and interlinked along action sequences. With this widening of the concept of joint behaviors to include many more behaviors that do not carry the cooperative flavor of “joint” and that can be linked across time or via material intermediaries, the label “coordinated behaviors” will be used.

IV. Niche construction / material culture effects The second process selected here as relevant to the human evolution phase is niche construction. Usually this phenomenon is presented as influencing evolutionary selection (Odling-Smee et al 2003), but here it is suggested that it is significant as influencing both developmental trajectories of individuals as well as individual behaviors that result in de facto joint behaviors between the constructor and the reacting agent. In this context it is aligned with the concepts of material agency in archaeology (Malafouris 2013) and material culture studies (Tilley et al 2006) that were discussed above under shared agency. That niche construction is widespread among many animals has been amply documented (Odling-Smee et al 2003p51). That niche construction can strongly effect development is also supported: “cultural niche construction probably has more profound consequences than gene-based niche construction” (Laland & O’Brien 2010p310). That the structural modifications in the environment by humans beggars the name ‘niche construction’ is clear. A mere glance around almost wherever one finds oneself attests to the heavy structuration of our environments. An urban view can hardly find a structure, a terrain, or a species that has not selectively been brought into the local environment. In this case the environment ceases to be the environment in the sense of external. The human environment, that which surrounds us, is that which we have prepared cumulatively and which we prepare constantly and transiently.

It should be emphasized that here niche construction is envisaged in an extended capacity where it becomes an effect on behaviors including contemporaneous behaviors. This brings it towards the concepts of material culture studies. In this field it can be said: “Central here is an understanding of both things and theories as simultaneously events and effects rather than as passive objects, active subjects, or caught up somehow in the spectral webs of networks, meshworks, or dialectical relations” (Hicks 2010p30). Below, a more full examination of the conceptual importance of what will be called extended niche construction beyond its evolutionary ties will be undertaken.

An hypothesis for human evolution and other significant processes

These two processes, coordinated (joint) behaviors and niche construction for behaviors, allow an hypothesis. It is that coordinated behaviors and selected objects formed coordinated behavioral systems reinforcing to both. A social species with elaborate and instrumental behaviors acquired ever more overlapping or joint behaviors and used structures in the environment to anchor and effect these. Both the common ground and the constructed items increased in tandem with the coordinated behaviors. Both improved results as well as increased learning were the payoffs. These interlocking systems between agents and objects in diverse groupings and over time are conjectured to show complex system dynamics and to select for new interactively sensitive behaviors such as higher levels of intentionality. Hutchins voices a similar view: “What evolves, however, is not the brain alone, but the system of brains, bodies, and shared environments in interaction” (Hutchins 2006p393). A key new behavior selected in these new systems is language that is neither on the agent side nor the object side but is behavior-niche construction simultaneously and that is explicated as a corollary. The behavioral systems here are neither an individual nor groups ready for group selection but emergent mixes like the notion of “ephemeral emergent” from sociology (Sawyer 2005p210). The active conception of the environment is similar to the investigations of geographers for “the constitution of lived space” (Hicks & Beaudry 2010p3; also Stallins 2012). It could be called multibehavioral evolution.

To unpack further and defend this hypothesis five other significant processes of the human era will now be discussed. The logical direction of support – either causing or resulting from – is often unclear, but a strong compatibility indicating linkage is clear. These next five processes of the human era are: unique interactive behaviors, increased planning behaviors, complex system dynamics within coordinated behaviors, cognitive niche construction, and institutions or social niche construction.

V. Special interaction behaviors Another significant trend includes the elaborate interaction skills that people demonstrate. These include: teaching (Danchin et al 2008p710), imitation, theory of mind or mind-reading of another’s intentions, Gricean intentions or intentions that drive behaviors whose sole function is to have an effect by virtue of having their intentions recognized (Levinson 2006p54), turn taking with interaction repair (Levinson 2006p54), role reversal imitation (Tomasello 2003p19), joint attention (Tomasello 2008p159), perspectival cognitive representations (Moll & Tomasello 2007), normativity, objects with social functions (Searle 2010), and reasoning to convince others (Tomasello 2014p110).

The richness of these capabilities or of what Enfield and Levinson (2006p399) call “the interaction engine” is remarkable (Pezzulo 2012). Enfield & Levinson (2006p3) have it that “human social interaction exhibits striking properties not found elsewhere in the animal world.” They go on: “human social life is intricately structured through the attribution of actions, motives, intentions, and beliefs to fellow interactants” (p3). They link most of the above unique capabilities backwards to joint actions or cooperation while linking it forwards to language. While these evolved capacities are compatible with the existing paradigm of traits of well adapted individuals, an appreciation of the pervasiveness of joint, coordinated, or simultaneously overlapping behaviors makes the origin of these capabilities with these coordinated behaviors much more likely.

VI. Planning A further process is planning or the ability to have behaviors that extend over time and are often unique (Bratman 2014; Aunger & Curtis 2016; Stutz 2014). Tomasello (2014p9) holds that thinking is simulation and selection of options before behavior. Aunger & Curtis (2016p68) also hold planning as an internal type of selection. Roots of planning can be seen in the ability of great apes to delay gratification for small rewards in the present for greater rewards later (Tomasello 2014p24). The supposition here is that planning or extended behaviors facilitate more opportunities for local, immediate niche construction (i.e., preparation) as well as the involvement of others where all would be mutually reinforced.

VII. Behaviors as complex systems The hypothesis takes the position that the joint behavioral system should be approached from complex systems dynamics at many levels – cognitive-perceptual, between people, with objects, and in the dynamics between objects themselves. The assumption is that behavior is itself a complex system (Nolfi et al 2008; Thompson, T. 2007; Calvin & Jirsa 2010; see also discussion below on complex systems). Indicative of this line of thinking is the following: “In the dynamical systems (DS) approach to adaptive behavior and cognition, agents and their environments are viewed as tightly coupled DS. ... the nervous system, body, and environment are not three independent components engaged in a synchronic interaction; rather, natural adaptation is the ongoing result of a global, self-organizing process” (Monebelli et al. 2008p182).

Whether complex systems are the appropriate description of coordinated behaviors awaits continued studies. But for now research such as that by Anderson et al (2012) does indicate 1/f scaling, bifurcations, and interpersonal synchrony (also: Kelso 1995, 2012; Jordan 2008; Szary et al 2015), all taken to be suggestive of dynamic systems. Only complex system dynamics at the scale of behaviors and coordinated behaviors could allow the large human-environment behavioral systems envisaged in the hypothesis.

VIII. Cognitive niche construction Niche construction is usually considered instrumentally as in what actions does it allow. Now, however, it is also being considered for its role in shaping the cognitive environment. For the extended mind view environmental resources such as a notebook extend the mind (Clark & Chalmers 1998); for Sterelny (2010) these more often allow the mind to scaffold itself upon these resources especially when they are not just personal resources. Hutchins (1995, 2006, 2014) has repeatedly explored the theme of cognitive resources in the environment and their relation to coordinated or cooperative behaviors.

Focusing on cognitive niche construction such as labeling or as a personal notebook, however, probably understates its ubiquity. Simple reflection on personal use of expectancies that one has on objects and their placement whether by self or other show that the environment is constantly mined for possibilities and probabilities of interaction by self, other, or groups whether they are prepared such as the notebook (Clark & Chalmers. 1998), culturally chosen as a queue (Hutchins 2014p39), or inadvertent as the locations of removed clothes on the floor. These questions are explored phenomenally in material culture studies, and it raises a question of whether there should be an analogue for theory of mind for objects. The point here is that niche constructedness for behaviors is not just instrumental, nor joint, nor cognitive, but also personal and idiosyncratic.

IX. Social niche construction Moreover, niche construction can be built from social arrangements including institutions. “Social niche construction” is the modification of the niche that includes the “interactions with other organisms in their social groups. It constitutes the resources (e.g. food), services (e.g. grooming), and other outputs (e.g. threats) provided by organisms for each other” (Odling-Smee & Laland 2009p106). Social life is an “interrelated aspect of a generated niche” (MacKinnon & Fuentes 2012p77). Similarly, social institutions are considered a form of cultural evolution where conventions maintain a socially constructed niche (Gerson 2014; Powers et al 2016.). Or, the “dynamically reproducing sociocultural system” itself is taken to be the “dynamically reproducing” unit of analysis from a dynamic systems perspective (Iddo et al 2014p321). An interesting extension of this way of thinking is that human selves are taken to be niche constructions, necessary for “simultaneously stabilizing and intermediating the micro-scale dynamics of the distributed individual mind/brain and the macro-scale dynamics of society and culture” (Ross 2007p13; see also Stutz 2014p4).

Extended niche construction

The above treatment of niche construction that bends its original intent as an evolutionary process leaves it with an ambiguous definition. To conceive of it developmentally and behaviorally but especially as integral to a coordinated behavior-niche constructed environment requires some clarification. The classic examples for niche construction come from the animal kingdom, but the standard reference – Odling-Smee et al 2003 – includes bacteria, fungi and plants (p51). Since the effects from these latter are especially long term (e.g., the oxygenation of the planet), they lend themselves easily to the evolutionary perspective. To consider niche construction developmentally, much less behaviorally, is to primarily be able to consider effects on animal behaviors that are from social learning but that have not yet passed into genetic control. Here it is niche construction’s effects on current behaviors that is of interest. For example, blades manufactured by early hominin that might be found around a campsite are usually considered prompts for social learning or cultural evolution but are here considered in the context of emerging joint behaviors. This is the small difference between leaving blades on the ground to help teach a child or to prompt someone that they should go hunting. To speak of niche construction for behavioral modification is to pass into an even faster time frame.

It is also to enter the slippery discussion of causality and agency. At present this can only be conceptualized as action and accomplishment (the niche construction and the niche constructed) where the result is a new existent. When the action is under genetic control the etiology is not a danger to determinism, but when it passes to the momentary, it enters the free will zone of deterministic exception. Pearl (2000p337) notes that causality, although frequently discussed in science, has no legitimate place within science. His best use for the concept is conceptually convenient as an “intervention.” To strengthen the concept of niche construction, two steps are proposed: 1) that the effects of organisms in the environment can have effects at many different posterior time scales, and 2) that action and accomplishment, especially in the human domain, should be recast as bifurcation and niche construction (and repeat). The former then brings niche construction into effects of much shorter time scales (e.g., agriculture is at least as much environmental preparation for this year’s crop as it is seed planting and selection where the traditional view has emphasized agency and evolutionary effects over niche construction) while the latter keeps it in the safer logical realm of complex systems rather than letting it slip dangerously towards dualistic accounting (i.e., the twin fantasies that agency arises de novo and that human creations endow the environment with new boundary conditions for the next deterministic calculation). Odling-Smee et al (2003) were very inclusive for the activity of niche construction as every modification was included even simply changing locations (p41). The extension here is to make every effect, not just evolutionary ones, included. And it is to bring it down to ever shorter time frames so that the everyday, careless language of human deeds and accomplishments is not smuggled in at some point along human evolution. This, however, makes the case for systems thinking for behaviors with niche construction more necessary.

Since niche construction is extended to fast time frames and to fast effects as in behavioral effects, it should probably have a new name. There is extended niche construction. But “extended” and “niche” both miss the speed of the phenomenon. Substitutes for “niche” such as context or world both import dualistic tones. “Hyperfast stigmergy” is a possibility (Camazine et al 2001p23). So is “behavioral niche construction.” For now, extended or fast niche construction will be used.

Fast niche construction for behaviors then is envisaged not just as the biological recognition of how environmental effects should be extended from the evolutionary perspective but also of a replacement for the corrupt philosophical practices of using agency and human creations – a new beginning (Pearl 2000p337) and a new creation (Fox Keller 2005p1073). Instead, continual behaviors with continual new environmental boundary conditions occur alongside continual synapse modifications of the internal environment in loops that do not contradict causal continuity.

A corollary for language as fast behavioral niche construction

Language, with syntax and huge lexicons, is a unique capability of humans. It has had a troubled status philosophically as possibly a third type of being as signs, intermediate between objectivity and subjectivity. Studies of language evolution have blossomed recently with much promise (Tomasello 2008; Fitch 2010). What is not clarified is the nature of language. The range of current suggestions about what language is is striking. Consider this cursory list: it is always illocutionary but not always descriptive (Hurford 2007p171); it is pragmatically infused in contexts (Clark, H. 1996; Streck et al 2011); it is described as niche construction (Aunger 2009; Cowley 2004; Sinha 2015); it is tied to cooperation (Tomasello 2008) or coordination in joint activities (Knoblich & Sebanz 2008; Pezzulo 2012); it can modify cognitive sense of space (Gianelli et al 2013); it appears to be tied to behaviors even for abstract cognitives (Borghi & Riggio 2009p117; Stout & Chaminade 2009; Anderson et al 2012p720); it can be studied separately as languaging the activity (Uryu et al 2014), or as system of word meanings which are derived either from cognitive resources (Pinker 2007), learned scaffolded regularities (Goldberg 2006), or within complex system dynamics (Ellis et al 2009); it reputedly is tied to local ecology (Nash & Muhlhausler 2014); it carries civility or a ritual function to maintain society as well as meaning or an instrumental function (Anderson 1990 – cited in Nash & Muhlhausler 2014; Carey 1989p18); in extended mind theory it is treated as a “coordination dynamics” where words anchor the complex dynamics across mind and environment (Clark, A. 2008p53; Fusaroli et al 2014); similarly in ecological psychology it has been proclaimed as an “adapting affordance” to accentuate a given affordance (Bardone 2011p93); it can be seen as a public simulation similar to thinking simulation (Tomasello 2014p9); and it can act as social contracts as in the naming of “husband” (Deacon 1997p400, Searle 2010p16).

As linguistics goes through its own reappraisal, what is suggested here is that the seemingly conflicting views from utterance to dynamics to cooperation to niche construction to social stability are very compatible with the coordinated behavior-niche construction system hypothesis. The corollary is that language is coordination by fast-changing niche construction by sounds that are selected for syntactical compatibility. Like the suite of interaction behaviors (above) language emerged in the joint behavioral environment as a fast niche construction. With language, behavior and niche construction are in very fast interplay. And with it reality is modified. With language, “...reality is brought into existence, is produced, by communication...” (Carey 1989p25). It is modified physically (sound waves), and it is modified probabilistically as added reinforcement patterns. This corollary extends to other sign systems such as writing (Logan 2006) and to computers where other types of niche constructions become quickly employed in setting the boundary conditions for other behaviors including our own. And it extends to information as fast and selected niche construction to effect behaviors.

To make this clear, consider this example. Person A says to person B “you can get water over at the fountain” (with a gesture to a direction possibly). Now the fountain as a niche construction is already an affordance eliciting behaviors. But with this utterance person B is given an enhanced affordance of the fountain, or a doubly niche constructed affordance. And, possible joint behaviors between the two people could be enhanced as other intentions by A for saying it and other intentions by B in accepting or rejecting the utterance can travel on this construction.

The hypothesis of multibehavioral niche construction – a summary

By attempting to show 1) how evolutionary thinking through the replicator dynamics of Darwin does not measure up to the human phenomenon, 2) how there are many unique processes that could engender a distinctive dynamic for the human phase, and 3) how a particular hypothesis sketches a potential dynamic, the intent is to show the contours of this dynamic. It should be remembered that collective, trans-individual conceptions of humans have been rumored from antiquity (Tu 1998) to recently (Stock 1993). Explicating the extent of coordinated behaviors and of the massively and coordinatedly constructed nature of the environment gives mechanisms for extended systems. This is not to reify the coordinated behavior niche construction systems into any closed category, be it group in group selection, superorganism, social system, etc. It is to invoke the study of emergent and ephemeral system effects among humans and world.

The current extension of evolutionary theory into human evolution, cultural evolution, does chart a unique course. “[S]ocial foraging and intergenerational social learning” keeps bands of early humans as successful foragers able to “support the life spans and expensive metabolisms that make extensive intergenerational learning possible” (Sterelny 2012a, p14). The connection to the genetic route is that “[d]evelopmental plasticity and ecological versatility were at a premium in the habitats in which early Homo evolved” (Anton et al 2014p1236828-10). But this does not go far enough to account for the phenomenon of civilization. And, it obscures the conceptual chasm in the modern reader between a prior, instinctual frame for behavior in animals and the frame of humans as thinking, learning doers.

The hypothesis, in emphasizing the large and gradual evolution of coordinated behaviors in many forms from the social such as grooming (Dunbar 2014) into the varieties of instrumental behaviors such as with tools but involving others, foregrounds a large class of behaviors that were the incessant cradle of the other attributes – cooperation, intergenerational learning, mindreading, language, etc. The subtleties of coordinated behaviors were the environment for early humans as they are the background for us today as individuals and within groups. And this matrix of coordinating behaviors also pulled the physical environment into the consensuality of common ground as joint behaviors demanded that a recursive awareness of I-know-that-you-know that some object can be used in such and such a way. This is the concept of common ground (Clark, H. 1996; Gibbs 2006p172; Tomasello 2008p75) but without its becoming a consensual closure (Jones 2016). We couple cognitively and enlarge the circle of structures that reinforce that coupling. Then the demands of coordination pushed consensuality into normativity as the environment took on expectations for the behaviors of others. And within this growth of coordination and stabilization of the environment to the group, niche construction was increasingly done and used for coordination. Paths, labels, tools, and shelters became active reinforcements to the normative expectations or learning facilitations of others.

It was this dynamic back and forth that fostered more elaborate coordinating behaviors and a more consensual and selected environment. It is the depth of the subtleties of coordinating behaviors and the extent of the environmental appropriation for behavioral stabilizations that powered human evolution. Out of the former came cooperation, Machiavellian intelligence, thinking as persuasiveness, mindreading, and language. Out of the latter came the cumulative niche construction that tipped to permanent settlements and then to an industrially continuous maintenance and selection of the human built environment. There was never an individual, intelligent or not; we were always distributed. And there was never a given environment waiting for the light to come on; we were constantly building our expectations with it with others to know it.

An hypothesized coordinated behavior-niche construction complex systems approach to behavioral groups offers much room for emergent and ephemeral system dynamics between the traditional options of individualism and the often hazarded exaggerations of cohesive human societies. Shifting the frame from individuals to coordinated behaviors as systems requires a word about invoking a hope in complex systems to approach human behaviors with the environment. While the excitement of complex systems theory is evident and the case for its foundational nature has been made (Bunge 2003; Bickhard 2011; Thalos 2011) and the call for its application both to systems chemistry as well as to the behavioral patterns among humans and with the environment, the challenge is that there are few agreements about what is meant by systems theory. It is the productivity of many strands of research with differing models in different areas of biology that mitigates the lack of unity. The reductionist side is anchored by the relatively simple and well understood complex systems models (self-organization, emergence, self-organized criticality, phase transitions, networks, non-linearity, circular causality, multistationarity, etc.) where the components are mainly homogenous while interacting nonlinearly and complexly (Strogatz 1994) or where the component diversity is low such as in the now famous B-Z reaction (Nicolis & Nicolis 2012). To speak of the ability of systems theory to be able to address basic and deep ideas in biology is to look at the current diversity of successes while speaking of a frontier of promise (Voit 2013p399). It is also to acknowledge that it has a wider basis than its predecessor competitors – classification and molecular biology. For the hypothesis of the joint behavioral niche construction of emergent complex systems, it is to acknowledge that the target suggests such dynamics that certainly offers more promise than the default, antiquated, agonistic metaphysics.

Steps to an evolution proper to the human era

To recap, the trends as potential building aspects of evolutionary dynamics particular to human evolution, in addition to social learning traditions (cultural evolution), are:
1. Coordinated and joint behaviors (and)
2. Sustained, cumulative niche construction effecting behaviors (leading to 3 - 9)
3. Distributed cognition across the self-object-other boundaries
4. Shared agency and material agency
5. Interactive suite of special coordination behaviors
6. Planning (that is likely selected, pre-niche constructed, multi-stepped, and joint)
7. Evidence of complex system dynamics for social and environmental interactions
8. Cognitive niche construction
9. Social or institutional niche construction
where all of the above offer reinforcement and selection to the others at evolutionary, developmental, and behavioral scales. Language can be added to this list if including all its newly explored facets. These processes are put forward both to widen the discussion around human evolution and to support the particular hypothesis and corollary.

The above discussion on the human era attempts to show the discontinuity of human evolution and the unique processes that characterize it. The hypothesis attempts to shape these unique processes into a whole concept. Each of these points is offered under the premise that evolutionary theory is stuck, particularly at its extremes, and it is offered under the hope of finding a better dialogue between science and the humanities than a simple partitioning of past and present. This entails that the hypothesis is defended as applicable to the disciplines of the present, including philosophy, just as it attempted to use the present to expand evolutionary theory. The hypothesis will be followed below into its challenges with philosophical presuppositions.

Evolution reconsidered

Besides attempting to reconcile evolutionary theory to two ignored eras of evolution, a goal is to show that these two eras offer processes that potentially not just extend the Modern Synthesis but expand it. Many non replicator dynamics are seen in both phases – auto-organization, growing complex systems, dynamics with and within the environment, selection for stability within emerging wholes, unique structures, energy fluxes. From a distance the picture is of energy flows, material structures selected for stability interdependence, and complex system dynamics – or, systems and “systemized” matter. This latter refers to catalytic and convertible pairs in proximity in flow-probable exchange in chemistry and to instrumental-usage or consumable-consume pairs in given behavioral networks. In fact for classical evolution an unstated consequence is that the environment contains selected species, i.e., selection is an environmental effect. When, as in the two bookended eras, organismal coherence is less the dominating dynamic, then the more subtle aspects of systems, environments that are not yet habitats, organization for emerging selves, and selection aspects that define new wholes are easier to study.

These same observed processes on the surface are pertinent to issues still roiling current evolutionary theory (see above). Many of the issues in the main phase of evolutionary theory today touch on the inadequacy of a unidirectional dependence on the environment while both the prebiotic phase and the human era show strong dynamics with and within the environment. In criticizing the Modern Synthesis, Noble emphasizes system-environment mutuality as “the interaction between DNA sequences, environment and phenotype as occurring through biological networks. The causation occurs in both directions between all three influences on the network” (Noble 2015p8). Evo-devo would fall under this systems-environment mutual causality where development (system) modifies either internal or external environment to be followed by back effects to itself where selection then follows these biases. At another level the issues of major transitions for changes in the level of the individual or of symbiogenesis are given the right theoretical direction from the twin notions that aggregations allow new system flows which then can have selective effects for wholes that persist with elements that foster that integrity. This is the type of process that must be in place between any switch of genetic selection from an individual to a group level.

And both the prebiotic and the human eras shift the evolutionary question from the continuity/modification of life forms to the origin of form itself. This brings the evolution question to its philosophical roots. The biologist Lewontin frames it well. “By making organisms the objects of force whose subjects were the internal heritable factors and the external environment, ... Mendel and Darwin brought biology at last into conformity with the epistemological meta-structure that already characterized physics since Newton and chemistry since Lavoisier” (Lewontin 2001p59-60). This statement at least raises a doubt of whether any improvement of evolutionary theory can be made without approaching the assumptions implicit in that philosophical frame at the origin of evolutionary theory. It should not be a surprise now that the hypothesis raised here does challenge that “meta-structure.”

There are two interrelated challenges here. For biology the above explorations challenge two old tacit assumptions – one, to study the organism while leaving aside the question of the nature of life, and two, the simplification to study the organism in relative isolation from its environment. For philosophy there are also two challenges. The concept of self as a niche construction for others (Ross 2007p13) while acting as a manager of the local ecology of intermingled cognitive resources (Clark, A. 2007p102) is a long way from the idealized individual. And the concept from the hypothesis of a coordinated-behavioral niche constructing system is a long way from our basic sense of reality as the given objective commons as the starting point for all. Whether these are challenges, opportunities, or contradictions, the issues show how biology and philosophy are locked with each other’s mutual assumptions ... and potential blind spots.

The hypothesis is a specific claim about the nature of the world of humans that is compatible with current evolutionary theory while offering a stable alternative to a discredited Modernism. The processes of both the prebiotic and human phases are highlighted as steps to a potential future evolutionary theory that answers its current issues, that addresses evolution well beyond the preferred zone of multicellulars, and that incorporates the origin of life itself rather than species differentiation only.

Modernism reconsidered

Thus, to turn now to philosophical issues raised by the hypothesis is not only to defend the hypothesis in itself but also to show that an expansion of evolutionary theory such as called for here requires addressing the foundational – philosophical – assumptions of biology and science. This is more of a blessing in disguise since our age’s foundational philosophy, Modernism, has been under such heavy attack for so long that many have forgotten about it or have ignored philosophy as hopeless. Even as the sciences had unparalleled success, the logical structure of Modernism or dualism (the infamous matter vs. mind, or in this case individual vs. environment) has been repeatedly, devastatingly, but futilely critiqued from Vico to Nietzsche up to the present (Nagel 2012; Koons & Bealer 2010; Eisenstein 2007). Not atypical, one qualified observer put it: “The kind of scientific realism we have inherited from the seventeenth century has not lost all its prestige even yet, but it has saddled us with a disastrous picture of the world. It is high time we looked for a different picture” (Putnam 1996p15). Nagel is at least as clear: “the mind-body problem is not just a local problem, having to do with the relation between mind, brain, and behavior in living animal organisms, but ... it invades our understanding of the entire cosmos and its history” (Nagel 2012p3).

The hypothesis would replace faulty Modernism’s separation of individual observer from the clearly spread out material environment with a picture now emerging of a structuredly material environment in reciprocal exchange with distributedly cognizing individuals linked in jointly behaving ephemeral systems. The degree of interlocking is empirical; the denial of intercausality is illogical, contra evidence, and inexcusable. The myriad facets of niche construction adumbrated above show the rich degrees of our investments in building and of reading our environments. An unpacking of niche construction’s role in behavior opens a path to clearly map the interactivity of people and environment formerly covered with fill-in concepts such as independent agency, semiotics, and the hubris of our created works.

A summary of the hypothesis and corollary from a philosophical point of view is now given. The hypothesis takes reality not to be a separate sphere from the person but a sphere that is heavily structured by past living processes from selection to niche construction (from both long and short term inputs and from self). And, it is far from an arbitrarily structured material world. This structuration is evolutionary, historical, self-generated, and coordinated with others. A person is also not separate but is in growing reciprocal exchange with these structures (cf. Merleau-Ponty 1962). A person is also in growing reciprocal exchange with others so that there is coupling of behaviors and growing coordinated coupling with all structures of the surround (common ground). We couple cognitively and enlarge the circle of structures that reinforce that coupling. Reality then is not just the clearly mappable material but also the accumulated, structured boundary conditions from all time scales as well as the cognitive and interactive probabilities held between individuals and structures. Further, this coupling between people and between people and structures (objects, species, architecture) is actively being created, maintained, and destroyed. It is our primary activity. Here, the corollary of language enters as the ongoing, fast coupling by niche construction. It is not a symbolic substitution for the real object but a further, constructed reinforcement to our behavior with it.

The connection to complex systems theory needs to be made. A simple philosophical concept of systems is that it is a collection not reducible to an aggregate as something not effected by rearrangement of parts (Wimsatt 2008; Wan 2011) or to anything that fails “linear superposition” (Bishop 2011p128). In saying that humans are part of a coordinated behavioral niche constructing system, the hypothesis is claiming the people and the environment are coupled in nonlinear dynamics. This point makes an interesting tie back to the prebiotic phase. In noting that evidence suggests that prebiotic aggregates in energy exchange tend to select components relative to their stability, one can discern a transition point between aggregates and systems. Human evolution reveals how one species in the biosphere has become ever less an aggregate and ever more pockets of systems.

The issue of an environment with or without values is not either-or. Objectivism, compared to the hypothesis with the niche constructed and held-in-common for coordinated use environment, fits as a finer selection for consistency. That is, objectivism is a fine-grained cognitive niche construction. The richly valued and constructed common ground of earlier humans was held together by strong totems of cultural adhesion including the blessing of consistent truth. This pull towards cohesion of the whole pushed into the rigorous consistency at the birth of science: “Greek formalization of logic probably would not have been sufficient on its own. Without a strong religious impulsion towards a single orderly world, and the consequent avoidance of opportunist, manipulative incoherence, the cognitive miracle would probably not have occurred” (Gellner 1992p96). In doing so the mantle of truth ceded partially to the practice of objectivity – “Whereas truth is absolute and does not come in degrees, objectivity only comes in degrees” (Gaukroger, 2012p66). But, “in the 17th century, objectivity replaced truth in the role of cognitive guidance. If truth guided argument by showing where arguments should end, objectivity took the opposite route, constraining how arguments should begin and proceed” (Gaukroger, 2012p59). Both truth and objectivity were selection processes for the wholes of cultural knowledge, and both happened in rich seas of personal habits, preferences, and idiosyncracies. The objective cohesion of science is a method to initiate explorations and not a claimant to absoluteness nor to containing all the rich knowledge relationships of cognizers as developing complex systems. And it is a uniquely powerful selection system, employing very cunning niche constructions in experimental settings.

This frame situates the hypothesis as describing the individual values, opinions, aesthetics, misconceptions, plans, hopes, strategies, etc. that were pushed aside at the dawn of Modernism such as in Bacon’s (1620) getting rid of the “idols.” And it situates it relative to the recent wave of social construction trying to recognize the interactive nature of certain kinds (Hacking 2000p123). But the emphasis is on the physical constructions in the environment whose provenance is not in doubt and which effect our behaviors, perceptions, and social relations so strongly. The hypothesis is not an epistemological claim but an ontological one as the world is structured by biology and as organisms extend their behavioral coordination into the environment. The hypothesis then is a candidate for Putnam’s (1996) call above for “a different picture,” a new foundation.

Theology and life

While situating the hypothesis in relation to philosophy, it is worthwhile to position its relevance to the other large frame – theology. Many religions have a process view of the world. The Western religious tradition at the birth of science did not. During the Middle Ages it had shifted. “At the outset of the sixteenth century, the dominant scholastic view of God was not esse but an ens – not the incomprehensible act of to-be, but a highest being among other beings” (Gregory, 2012p38). God had shifted from a process to an entity. At the dawn of science there had been an earlier philosophical trinity of nature, humans, and god; but modernism dissolved god by moving previously divine attributes to matter and to humans (Gillespie 2008). It was “the gradual transference of divine attributes to human beings (an infinite human will), the natural world (universal mechanical causality), social forces (the general will, the hidden hand), and history (the idea of progress, dialectical development, the cunning of reason)” (Gillespie 2008p273). With this development biology took up its subject matter as the organism only such as Descartes’ work on the mechanics of the organism (Grene & Depew 2004p38) whereas in the older tradition since Aristotle there had also been a search for the principle of life itself (Thacker 2010p90). This other search for the principles of life was conflated with the search for god especially through the Middle Ages (Thacker 2010p102). Thus, Descartes’ work on the organism as entity was consonant with the theology of the times that saw god shifting from esse to ens, an increasingly remote entity.

With these trends, two aspects of god – as process and as life principle(s) – were left stranded as science plowed ahead in the twin spheres of human and matter or organism and environment. And the god of ens retreated to the private sphere (Gregory 2012p172) and to debates in mechanistic terms of who-what-when. What this paints is a gap in theology. Divinity in process and in life principles is open terrain. These directions would restore divine notions from ens (entity) back to esse (being as process). A god as entity shares with physics and final theories a transcendent and removed divinity (Smolin 1997p199) while the frontier of process as divinity is open to the radical possibility of complex systems theory that comes with its fundamental aspect of multiplicity (Nicolis & Nicolis 2012p3). The relevance here is that life principles and process philosophy are open domains. Should the possibility that this territory be rejuvenated in theology and should biology recapture the principles of life aspects of the field, then these two fields would find themselves as allies rather than as opponents.


In presenting this wide-angled view, a major hope is to show that diverse research agendas are deeply constrained by their interdependencies. Each major section – the possibility of prebiotic evolution, the possibility of approaching human evolution as a unique phase, the hypothesis of multibehavioral niche construction complex systems for humans, language as a consummate example of behavioral fast niche construction, and support for an expanded view of evolution – and the frames of philosophy and theology are supportive or limiting to the others. For clarity a summary is given:

· In the prebiotic and human eras there are processes that indicate unique evolutionary dynamics and that are similar.
· This opening calls for continued investigation of unique evolutionary dynamics in the prebiotic phase while warranting such an investigation in the human phase.
· Taking the ubiquitous coordinated behaviors of humans and their prolific niche construction as key processes allows an hypothesis that these individually and mutually formed reinforcement dynamics that led to elaborate interactional skills, heavily constructed environments, and simultaneous behaviors-constructions.
· These simultaneous behaviors-constructions include fast constructions (languaging, the activity) and selected constructions to effect very specific behaviors (language as lexicon, texts, and other developed sign systems).
· The hypothesis assumes and supports the recent view of a person as a distributed cognizer and an agency manager.
· The hypothesis challenges reality as only objectivity with a structured, selected, interactively commonized, persons-invested, dynamic material environment that allows refined selections such as objectivity.
· The above argument shows that evolutionary biology can benefit by expanding its range and that its assumptions are mutually restricted with modern philosophy.

Ideas often stand or fall together – contrary to the scientific hope that independent facts can be built up additively (Gellner 1988p63) but now part of Kuhn’s (1970) concept of paradigm shifts, itself a complex systems indicator by power law distribution of changes. The view of Modernism that formed the initial foundational stones of the scientific era still holds a lot of biological views together. Whether those views continue to hold should not be left to not asking questions outside the Modernist frame. Neither the organism nor the interactively and cognitively sanitized environment are preordained categories.

That prebiotic chemistry is already finding so many new insights of evolutionary chemistry is certainly cause for optimism and openness to evolution without the organism. That human evolution is apparently more unique than even evident 150 years ago at the time of The Origin of Species also warrants exploring questions beyond the species model. The hypothesis presented is both a model to confirm the evolutionary uniqueness of the human phenomenon and a serious attempt to capture researchable and explorable principles that are not constrained by the overly used and patently limited individual vs. environment frame of Modernism. The view of language is a corollary to this hypothesis. Humans, reality, and language become key aspects of one living system. And all of these points can be part of the deliberation to extend, replace, or, as argued here, expand evolutionary theory.


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