Abstract: The nature of the interface between humans and the environment
is explored from evolution and through philosophy. Use is made of the
complex systems perspective
either through the wide ranging systems
incursions into biology or through recent calls in philosophy to found
ontology based on a systemically strengthened materialism. This potential
new ontology is explored in the evolution of the human environment to
explore the systemic aspects of our environment.
Before examining the interface of human behaviors and the environment, a
short review attempts to distinguish the potential of systems theory in
philosophy and biology to distinguish it from the traditional approach of
agent with fixed environment. The promise of systems thinking in biology
to address fundamental issues including the big question of what is life
and the deep challenges in evolutionary theory often related to the
separation of agent and environment is established. Moving into human
evolution, an hypothesis of a collective behavior-environment interface is
put forward. It takes the behavioral accumulation attributed to human
evolution including the appearance of two-organism coordinated behaviors
and the behaviorally compatible aspects of objects as a mutual continuum.
The compatibility of behavior with a systemic understanding as well as the
behavioral-systems supporting role of objects are explored for feasibility
and reciprocal support. These behavioral systems of social individuals
show a dynamics with the evolving environmental constraints of objects
that have been ignored under the simplifying assumption of working with
given boundary conditions. The distribution of matter and the
interactional probabilities of matter and organisms in the human
environment reveal highly skewed probabilities. Reality as well as life
reveal a deep kinship in systemic materialism.
builds an hypothesis about the nature of the interface between humans
and our environment. To speak of an “interface” is already to pull the
focus away from the modern default of the given, objective environment
as a cognition challenge and towards some process with a mutual
dimension. Two other framing shifts will also be helpful. The first is
to underline the magnitude of the relevance of complex systems. And the
second is to assess the current state of fundamental issues in biology
since within it today, not only are the challenges wide, but they rattle
old basic philosophical presumptions about the separation of organism
and environment or of human and reality. Without careful attention to
philosophy and biology together, the risk is to try to reform philosophy
through a biology that is already carrying an old worldview. This
circular trap applies equally in the reverse direction.
1 Systems ontology
Using systems theory as the basis for a new foundational paradigm has
recently been put forward (Bunge 2003; Bickhard 2011; Thalos 2011). A
premise is that prevalent, non-linear aspects of the world offer a
metaphysics that skirts the problems of either atomistic materialism or
holisms. Emphasizing the importance if not the foundational potential of
systems, Hooker (2011, 3) has stated that “[t]he impact of complex
systems on science is a recent, ongoing and profound revolution.” He
goes on to say that “the complex systems-driven revolution is as deep as
the revolutions in physics a century ago, but much wider in impact, even
if they do not disturb our sense of fundamental reality in the same
way.” (2011, 6). The position upheld here is that a systems ontology, or
an “emergentist materialism” as Bunge (2003, 147) called it or
“systemism” for Thalos (2011, 162), is indeed a revolution that can
offer a foundational metaphysics and that does disturb our fundamental
sense of reality.
1.1 System principles rather than systems
It is important to approach a systems ontology not as systems as
entities, thereby smuggling in a host of substance preconceptions, but
as a range of features – mechanisms and effects. The concepts in the
systems family of ideas – complex adaptive systems, self-organization,
emergence, self-organized criticality, phase transitions, complexity,
dynamic systems, networks, non-linearity, circular causality, etc. (NN)
– are now ubiquitous, and seemingly all fields have turned to systems
theory to a significant degree – e.g., sociology (Sawyer 2005; Padgett &
Powell 2012), economics (Beinhocker 2006), theory of mind (Spivey),
biology (Palsson, Alon), linguistics (Ellis & Larsen-Freeman 2009), and
history (Wallerstein). Not only are systems ideas and systems fields
widespread but systems phenomena are considered to be extremely common.
Three measures of what is classified as emergent or complex are:
Wimsatt’s concept of non-aggregativity (Wimsatt 2008?; Wan 2011);
anything that fails "linear superposition" (Bishop 2011, 128); and
internal bonding as opposed to atomism (Thalos 2011, 161). These first
two define complex phenomena negatively as being unlike simple
aggregates that behave invariantly when rearranged or have their size
changed. And both reveal that such non-aggregates are all around. The
last defining aspect treats relationships prior to building blocks.
What is not ubiquitous is any agreement about system concepts – about
what a complex system is or what general mathematics unifies the field
(Hooker 2011, 8). The fecundity of the field appears to be well ahead of
its unification. However, the many models, concepts, examples, etc., can
be an advantage for a systemic ontology to be able to work from system
attributes rather than any prototypical system. Loosely, such phenomena
as positive and negative reinforcement, other non-linear causal motifs,
local interactions, certain types of constraints, etc. will be described
as system mechanisms while such signs of self-organization as
attractors, multistationarity, and phase transitions will be referred to
as system effects. Together they will be called system features or
With such a background of a possible systemic ontology, the nature of
the interface between humans and their environment will be explored.
Such a question must be approached through biology; so it is to biology
and its connections to systems theory that frames must first be sought.
2 The reality of life
Biology now increasingly uses systems theory, but it is more typically
used for specific systems rather than fundamentally (Palsson 2006, Alon
2007). The following, brief overview of trends and issues in biology
will attempt to 1) establish how thoroughly complex systems ideas have
penetrated biology; 2) examine the extent of issues in contemporary
biology and their relations to systems theory; and 3; consider the
larger, foundational issues around biology that cross into other fields.
2.1 Trends in evolutionary theory
Currently systems biology is a fast-growing rage that is, however, seen
more as a tool for specific molecular networks than as an opening to
larger questions. There are issues. In fact, evolutionary theory appears
to be undergoing a big shift so that even moderate voices can speak of a
coming "extended synthesis" (Pigliucci & Mueller 2010). In the center of
view are several new explorations that do not fit easily within the
Modern Synthesis – evolutionary development theory (West-E 2003, Newman
2011), niche construction, symbiogenesis, and inherent
self-organization. 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, Odling-Smee et al 2003).
Symbiogenesis is the process of having organisms of two or more species
come together to form a new, combined species – an extreme form of
symbiosis that has happened at least a few significant times (Kozo-Polyansky
2010). Some have even underscored the radicality of this type of
evolution by speaking of evolution as “bi-phasic” (Koonin 2007). That
organisms might be made up of fundamental principles of organization has
resurfaced in a strong way (Camazine et al 2001, Newman 2011). The issue
is whether evolution can tinker its way freely into almost any structure
or whether the rules of biological organization only give evolution
restricted types of organisms to select among. Stronger still is the
claim, with significant evidence by some, that biological form is not
only self-organized to restricted forms but also highly convergent among
evolutionary lines so that, for example, bats and birds converged on the
same basic wing structure (McGhee 2011, Morris 2008). One critic, in
noting all these challenges, laments that researchers on these various
issues are isolated and unable “to escape the vortex of Darwinism” (Reid
These issues have common themes which appear to relate to systems
concepts. For evo-devo and niche construction theory the implication is
that organisms “select” their environment which in turn selects the
further evolution of their species. For symbiogenesis it is the
organisms of other species which effect the further evolution of
another. Both of these invoke reinforcement patterns either with the
environment or between other species. Self-organization and convergence
are patently an invocation of system effects.
2.2 Trends in study of origin of life
Turning to research on the origin of life or even its wider field in
astrobiology, the research direction can be said to be reversed. Rather
than working with the species or the organism as the starting point from
which organism-to-environment or organism-to-organism complications
arise as above, studies are conducted before any organism. By all
accounts for a time on the order of a hundred million years or so in a
pre-cellular phase, there was rich chemical activity especially at
certain spots on or near earth’s surface. This continuity is logically
important for materialists against any holistic claims, but from an
emergentist materialism perspective the richness of the continuity
underscores a systemic aspect of nature. A sample of this continuity is
The self-organization of life is divided into three main camps,
depending on which came first – metabolism, replication, or
compartments. For the latter two there are still some assumptions about
a “preparatory metabolism” to supply the monomers and energy (Pascal &
Boiteau 2011, 2949). From the metabolism first viewpoint there is a wide
distribution of processes and phases for these over the tens to hundreds
of millions of years for the emergence of cells in the life process.
Egel speaks of some seven phases (e.g., “RNA-assisted peptide synthesis”
phase) before what he calls “cellular escape” when something like a Last
Universal Common Ancestor (LUCA) emerged and initiated r-selection type
evolution (Egel 2011, 342-4). He and colleagues can speak in promising
detail over each of those phases (Egel et al 2011). Morowitz and Smith
speak of the more stable thermodynamic flow of small metabolites on
which even the selection of macromolecules regulating these flows
depends (Smith & Morowitz 2008, 406-8). “Chemical selection” is a
recognized process that favors thermodynamically more stable molecules
(Melendez-Hevia et al 2008, 516).
The processes that ran these many phases in self-organization over many
millions of years – buildup of concentrations, repetitive steps,
circular causality among types of reactions, reinforcements of rates by
catalysts, etc. – are all mechanisms that turn molecular assemblies into
non-aggregates, system mechanisms. Jacob (2004; quoted in Lucas et al
2011, 535) could say that “... every object that biology studies is a
system of systems.” Those who study the origin of life are saying
something more like ‘every conceivable hurdle of life’s origin can be
explained by a sequence of system mechanisms.’ Similarly Hooker (2011,
39) can claim that system biologists today are well on their way to
explaining life’s principles: “... it is pretty clear that, at least in
principle, complex systems provide resources for modeling, and hence
explaining, each of them [Mayr’s seven principles of life, e.g.,
metabolism, regeneration, growth, ... (Mayr 2004)] and molecular systems
and synthetic biology are between them well on the way to doing so.”
Among the potential life principles – the thermodynamic requirement of
generating order by trading away more disorder, the necessity of a
solvent like water, the features of bilayer vesicles, network reaction
architectures, properties of specific chemical elements,
temperature/pressure ranges, and even fine tuned cosmic constants (Luisi
2006; Schulze-Makuch & Irwin 2008; Barrow et al 2008) – three
contributing to system dynamics are worth highlighting.
The first is energy flow and the resulting almost steady states of
matter cycling that result from its continuity. Mulkidjanian can note
that: “We would like to emphasize that formation and maintaining of
increasingly complex biopolymers could proceed only if supported by a
constant flow of utilizable energy. This consideration severely
constrains otherwise plausible hypotheses of origin of life under impact
bombardment that tend to treat emergence of life as a one-time event.” (Mulkidjanian
& Galperin 2007, P. 2005) Continuous energy flow through a system
results in both cycles and energized molecules (Cornish-Bowden 2004, 90;
Morowitz 1968, 33).
The second potential feature is the existence of reinforcement patterns
to flows. This goes by a variety of names – for example, autocatalysis,
feedback, circular causality by event type, closed loops, non-linearity,
systems biology, systems motifs, or network topology. [NN?] Even basic
replication (Pross 2012) can be considered as a reinforcement pattern
since a replicator non-linearly catalyzes other identical molecules.
The third and last potential feature of life’s emergence worth
highlighting is the existence of unique boundary conditions such as the
famous biopolymers (e.g., proteins and ribonucleic acids). Boundary
conditions can include larger collections of particles such as
self-organizing lipid membranes, but the concept is applicable to unique
molecules. Thinking of a special biomolecule such as a catalyst or a
genetic segment as a boundary condition shifts the frame of reference
from a source of special powers to a physics concept where a particular
physical structure results in different deterministic interactions with
other molecules than, say, the proverbial billiard ball. A biopolymer
shows two special features. One, it has very specific effects on certain
other molecules, and two, its own origin is deterministically very
similar to a large number of other polymers of similar length (Pattee &
Kull 2011, 214). The second of these – large differences from similar
factors of origin – is another aspect of boundary conditions, their
quasi-arbitrariness, but magnified since such large specificity changes
result with only slight changes in sequence. Smith and Morowitz can say
that: “small free energy differences among different sequences, ...
[make] the energetic landscape of sequence space flat compared with that
of the metabolites themselves so that “[p]olymer sequences are therefore
much more likely to be governed by sampling bias in evolutionary history
than are metabolites” and that “the informational and regulatory
character of life emerges with this class [polymers]” (Smith & Morowitz
2008, 406) It should be noted that biopolymers or unique boundary
conditions fill all of Wimsatt’s conditions for non-aggregativity.
Others have referred to what is here highlighted as boundary conditions
as constraints, memory, or information. [NN?]
2.3 Foundational issues that push the boundaries of biology
The above reportage of trends within biology makes clear that systems
have thoroughly infiltrated biology which is likely to continue given
the extent of the issues. There are other, wider issues which can be
framed as biological but which, however, cross discipline boundaries and
also appear to invite system concepts in addressing them. The following
problematics will be considered: the strict separation of environment
and organism, the focus on life’s exemplars rather than on life’s
principles with the attendant buried assumption that there is some
unknown specialness called “life,” the avoidance of any theory on the
general shape of macroevolution, and the reliance on not-so-firm
concepts of organism and species.
Lewontin frames the traditional assumption of an organism separate from
its environment: “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
2001, 59 60) This assumption is problematic when, for example, it is
contrasted with the recognition that organisms depend on being open
thermodynamically with the environment. A bigger problem from the
“meta-structure” of dualism is that the focus on matter alone left the
concept of life itself, like mind, as a special substance that had no
discernible origin other than “lucky chance.” Thus, notions of some sort
of a quasi-miraculous quality fostered forms of vitalism, Panspermia,
and other creator origins that have still not died out.
Thacker (2010) points out that since Aristotle the tradition of biology
has wavered between focusing on life exemplars (living organisms) and
searching for a principle of life itself, often conflated in the middle
ages with a search for god. Aristotle pursued both; Scholastics focused
on the principles of life; and science now focuses on the mechanics of
The upshot is that biology has hedged its bets twice – once, to focus on
the organism in relative isolation from the environment, and twice, to
focus on organisms as distinct from any principle of life. It is here
that a general embrace of a principle of systemics offers the potential
of a principle of life and a balancing concept to the organism.
The observations that evolution has a general shape, macroevolution, is
occasionally named (Smith & Szathmary 1999) but more often avoided (McShea
& Simpson 2011). These qualitative jumps in evolution seem to involve
shifts in identity (Michod 2011). If this issue is to be addressed, it
would seem that systemic principles would have a chance whereas a bare
principle of “living thing” would not. Discussions of network
architecture do reveal self-organized structures. [Kitano 2007;
Ciliberti et al 2007] Discussions of major transitions (in
macroevolution) do broach systemic principles. [NN]
A literature review by Clarke and Okasha (2013) reveal that the concepts
of organism and of species are defined in many, non-overlapping ways.
Ulvestad (2007, 73), in tracking the inhomogeneous composition of
organisms, states that “It is thus clear that our intuitive notions of
organismal being are imprecise.” The boundary of a putative organism is
now unrecognizable when organism-environment cross-causality has been
explored within eco-evo-devo – a property shared with systems (Hooker
book guy NN). The extent to which organisms and environment
interpenetrate can be seen from Piersma and van Gils’ conclusion to a
study of a migrating shore bird, the red knot:
“... although bodies and environments are recognizable entities, they
really are inseparable.... we also find that the genetic system that we
all work with is just one of five such possible inheritance systems.
Since organisms not only provide the beginnings and nurture of their
offspring, but also build the environments in which they and their
offspring live, there are very tight feedbacks of reciprocal causation,
both in the development of organisms and in the relationships between
the developing organism and their environments. Bodies are earth, and we
would do well to acknowledge that in the ways that we study them.” (Piersma
& van Gils 2011, 184)
There are other critiques of the species concept. Within contemporary
biology species has become a statistical concept to define its members (Bedau
2007, 467). From a systems perspective, a species can be a single
process or individual that is just spread out (Bickhard 2011, 101). The
chemists, Williams and da Silva, posit a chemical view of evolution that
dispenses with species and describes evolution as chemical phases
(Williams & da Silva 2006). They also emphasize continuity with the
environment: “... we shall describe cellular evolution as being at all
times within an energised advancing environment.” (Williams & da Silva
2006, 127) In their view a “chemotype” (as opposed to genotype) is the
signature of a chemical age – “The term chemotype is not just
analytically descriptive but includes concentrations, energy content,
space limitations and organisation, and is therefore a comprehensive
thermodynamic description.” (Williams & da Silva 2006, 421) The
chemotypes map roughly with known evolutionary epochs, e.g., anaerobic
prokaryotes or aerobic prokaryotes. Their last phase is the human era of
the last 10,000 years where their trends continue as the number of
elements employed has increased to virtually the whole table of
elements, compartmentalization has increased significantly, and energy
input has increased markedly.
2.4 Systemic principles as principles of life
In line with the claim that systems principles are an inherent part of
our world, it is argued that for biology systems concepts are more than
a practical methodology. It appears that they possess a range great
enough to explain the origin of life. And, without any plausible
alternative to otherwise explaining life’s origin, they become probably
necessary as well as sufficient.
And, as indicated above, systems concepts have the potential to address
the many issues facing evolutionary theory which, often enough,
encounter problems crossing the heretofore too strict conceptual and
theoretical boundaries of organisms. Systems concepts do more than that;
they offer one level of complexity for the common cases from physics
such as the B-Z reaction while allowing much more complex network
architectures in life examples. Moreno et al suggest that certain system
features “... are missing from the complex dynamic models of the
standard sciences of complexity, and suggests that biological and
cognitive systems hide not only more complexity than physical systems,
but rather different forms of it.” (Moreno et al 2011, 314) Davies
(2003) argues convincingly that system concepts better explain
biological functions than does the historical success from selection.
Complex systems features supply the missing creative aspect to a biology
with only a selectionist account, or as Reid (2007, 15) says: “Darwin
and his descendants have not formulated a generative synthesis. Their
hypothesis only circumscribes the demographic fate of novelties.”
This brief overview is meant to establish that complex systems ideas are
thoroughly penetrating the huge field of modern biology that is faced
with broad, deep, and exciting challenges. This background will now
shape an inquiry into the human phase of evolution, a deep discontinuity
of its own.
3 The life of reality
Beyond the relevance of systemic materialism for explaining life, it
should also be able to explain other basic phenomena especially those
that have remained poorly explained by generic materialism – mind,
agency, language, self and a host of concepts that have been exiled to
the humanities as sui generis special categories applicable to humans –
morality, art, personality and so forth. In fact, all of the ones
mentioned and many more have been studied as complex systems (In order –
Spivey 2007; Murphy & Brown 2007; Ellis et al 2009; Ross et al 2007; Fox
2006; Boyd 2009; Shoda et al 2002). Beyond these contained studies of
complex systems it is worth considering an exploration of reality itself
as a complex system(s). It is here that systemic materialism as a
distinct ontology can test if it challenges our sense of reality.
Tackling the systemic nature of reality itself will bring the piecemeal
individual studies of systemic phenomena such as of mind and of agency
into a more comprehensive light.
The claim, stated negatively, is roughly, just as there is no homunculus
in the head to view our representations (Dennett 1991), there is also no
theater for free outside the head that turns the matter and radiation of
our surroundings into the conceptual traffic that we use with ourselves
and with each other and that selects batches of matter for our usability
on stage. That the rose and the sunset get all the credit while it is we
who tease out the scent and the beauty has long been noted by
philosophers such as Whitehead. That humans unique among animals acquire
the ability to tease out a ‘world’ of meaning from any environment has
also been noted [Von Uexküll 1934). The problem is that our simple
materialism metaphysics posits only matter with the dualistic observer
peering with the god’s-eye-view and with human actions as yet another
category of intervention into the supposedly independently given matter.
Any potential interface of shaping and being shaped by is overlooked. It
is here that a systemic materialism can have the subtlety to address a
The claim, stated positively, is that human evolution expanded
behavioral systems to create overlapping behaviors (e.g., cooperation)
and networks of shared handles to matter so that these, with gradually
added niche constructed enhancements, set up widespread reinforcements
among human behaviors, coupled behaviors, and the artefacts of their
common ground. The issue is not the objects themselves but how we
traffic with them, how their distribution effects who we are in our
trafficking with them, and the interplay between these. This thinking
follows in spirit thinkers such as Dewey, von Uexküll, Vygotsky, and
Bateson [NN] with ideas on the brain-environment arc or the ecological
psychology of Gibson [NN]. But complex systems ideas are in place now.
And the missing piece is to move from organism behavioral-environmental
systems to their collective dimension.
3.1 Shifting perspectives
To give a feel for the nature of this proposal and for the subtle shift
in today’s academic terrain, consider how the language and concepts are
shifting. Using an example from archaeology, it has been the usual
practice to speak of early humans as doers in their environment, much
like we conceive ourselves. For example, Mithen (1996, 104) speaks of H.
habilis and their activities with stone nodules that were moved from
their sources with language such as “transport” and “prediction” and
“carried.” This casually action-protagonist view can be contrasted with
the view of Gamble (2007, 231) in describing the fire pits and hearths
of early humans (much later than H. habilis times) where there is a
collective, systemic hue:
“The fires they contain have to be cared for. Ash and cinders need to be
raked out and dumped elsewhere while activities that fragment things in
order to enchain and accumulate feed them with leaves, wood, bone and
peat.... Hearths attract bodies and care for them by providing warmth
and keeping predators beyond the circle. The relationship is reciprocal.
Hearths need those social agents if they are to grow, while people need
the social technology of hearths, not just for practical reasons, but to
involve others in projects. Hearths are an emotional resource for a
diurnal animal. They have always formed a focus for the childscape
because they act as nodes in the net gathering people into those
intimate and effective networks. Fire and people form a ring of agency,
a hybrid project.”
When in the past the metaphysics of humans acting on a fairly separate
environment is taken for granted; in the quote a different view of the
interaction of humans and objects is entertained that has system
elements of reinforcement even if not called out. This flavor catches
the direction of exploring humans and their environment where a systemic
interface might appear and how research is pushing against the limits of
our foundational metaphysics.
3.2 Problems of materialism / dualism
Before turning to the steps to build reality as a human-matter
behavioral interface, it will be helpful to point out how shattered are
our philosophical foundations that continue seemingly by inertia and how
weak are the current conceptions of cultural evolution. The working
assumption is that these should be tackled in tandem to avoid the
problems of building a cultural evolutionary bridge to erroneous
philosophical foundations and of addressing basic questions of
philosophy without evolution.
Contemporary philosophy is still saddled with strict versions of
materialism that force dualism or attempts at holistic alternatives. On
the face of it, to claim that the world is made of two distinct
substances, matter and mental stuff, that somehow work together though
separate verges past the contradictory towards the embarrassing. Among
other places the problem shows up in the claim that deterministic matter
could evolve into something free like human reason (Gellner 1989, ). It
also shows up as a material world that contains no values. The problem
that life too has been an accepted alien substance has already been
noted. Another discontinuity stemming from dualism is that human
creations are a special category divorced from the evolutionary
narrative. Regarding our objective reality concept, one qualified
observer of its philosophical status 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 1996, 15) Such problems stemming from dualism have been amply
described and decried both for the conceptual problems as for alleged
resulting socio-cultural problems (Nagel 2012; Koons & Bealer 2010;
Eisenstein 2007). These critiques have continued at least since the
passion of Nietzsche to be a steady river of despair or philosophical
3.3 Challenges of theories of human evolution
If our philosophical concepts are stymied, we also do not have a clear
idea of how we began. Evolutionary theory is all but ignored in our
daily affairs. The current theory of human origins, several strands of
cultural evolutionary theory, are weak, all but ignored, and essentially
leave off well before agricultural civilizations begin.
Though the term “culture” does have a definite biological meaning as
“interpopulational behavioral variation” for a species with social
learning (Wynn et al 2011, 187), the meaning of “culture is perilously
confused (Laland & Brown 2011, 214 referring to Kroeber & Kluckholm
1952). Cultural evolution can be formulated as a combination of this
behavioral variation with evolutionary developmental theory (evo devo)
so that learning and developmental plasticity can be selected for.
Richerson & Boyd (2005, 5) describe it as: “Culture is information
capable of affecting individuals’ behavior that they acquire from other
members of their species through teaching, imitation, and other forms of
social transmission.” This combination is a powerful theoretical
construct and leads to animal "traditions" and to notions such as Tomasello’s “cultural ratchet” where behavioral learning accumulates (Tennie
et al 2009).
When cultural evolution is understood as behavioral variation, social
learning, and evo devo that selects for learning and plasticity, the
theory has not moved out of a biological discussion that includes other
species but yet is saddled with some of the same theoretical issues in
mainstream evolutionary theory as highlighted above. When cultural
evolution moves to include features unique to early humans such as
varying ecology, cooperation, and teaching as possible early
enhancements to the evo-devo behavioral learning engine, it enters a
slippery slope towards aware human specialness. [NN?] Other features of
early humans are also considered – e.g., normativity, imitation
learning, and theory of mind – but there is a chicken-and-egg quality to
know which factors were the early drivers or later selected aspects. In
almost all accounts there is an assumption that positive reinforcement
promoted mutual growth among the factors especially learning and
plasticity. Typical is: “The idea, then, is that positive feedback links
social foraging and intergenerational social learning. Intergenerational
learning provides much of the informational fuel that makes social
foraging successful, and the rewards of social foraging support the life
spans and expensive metabolisms that make extensive intergenerational
learning possible.” (Sterelny 2012, 14). This itself has made for an
exciting research avenue to trace the chronology of types of
reinforcement. It also tacitly supports the claim here that human
evolution is another testament to complex systems effects in biology.
This unfairly brief characterization of cultural evolutionary theory
does capture biological concepts other than just genetics to show
unique, important mechanisms of change and adaptation. But cultural
evolutionary theory remains inadequate on several counts. One, it is
largely ignored by evolutionists and by those in the humanities. Two,
although hinting at a novel evolutionary process – Laland and Brown
acknowledge that culture, as “represented by the school of cultural
evolution, is a dynamic evolutionary system in its own right” – it fails
to spell out some new type of evolution (Laland & Brown 2011, 216). The
major transition literature flirts with the same unrealized possibility
(Smith & Szathmary 1999). Ingold captures the dilemma in noting that
even the UN in Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
avoids the differences within populations that evolution demands to
state “All human beings are endowed with reason and conscience” (Ingold
2008, 277-8). He continues: “That is why evolutionists find themselves
in the curious position of having to admit that whereas in the non-human
world, biology is the source of all variability and difference, in the
human world it is what makes everyone the same!” Three, it seems to drop
its interest in human origins a few tens of thousands of years before
the rise of civilizations so that it does not begin to address the
hectic, technology-driven “evolution” that the average person can see in
everyday twenty-first century life. And four, it works hard to stick to
the behaviors of organisms but slides imperceptibly to assumptions of
human awareness so that the contradictory type of mind characterized by
dualistic rationality becomes the picture for humans as they get closer
to modern humans. Cultural evolutionary theory does move beyond genetics
only but barely and without enough oomph to capture the present in the
majesty of evolution.
On the positive side, cultural evolutionary theory goes well beyond
everyday evolutionary theory and is in active ferment. Much of the
emphasis has shifted from the species view stemming from finding the
bones of a breakthrough gene to the search for the cognitive changes
that in turn framed the selective environment of hominins (Donald 1991;
Mithen 1996; Coolidge & Wynn. 2009).
3.4 The case for a collective behavior environment interface – an
So, in the shadow of failed foundations and with cultural evolutionary
ideas, cognitive science, and many fields in rapid growth and with many
fields turning to complex systems for solutions, the case for a systemic
basis for the human-matter behavioral interface can now be made. The
hypothesis is that hominins with diverse behaviors and rich sociality
saw the emergence of overlapping behaviors which was accompanied by a
common ground of behavioral expectations with the environment. It is
this common ground as a user-ready theater as an environment that forms
an origin for human consensual reality. Overlapping or coupled behaviors
(e.g., cooperation, competition within limits) and common ground were
additional selection environments in human cultural evolution for
factors such as normativity and intention monitoring and for the
accumulation of preferred objects.
The existence and compatibility with other fields of research, including
especially the new cognitive science and material culture studies, of
this hypothesized systemic common ground will now be sketched. It will
first be tackled first from a biological and evolutionary perspective
and then afterwards in relation to traditional philosophical concepts.
3.5 Collective behavior-environment interface – perspective from
This argument makes use of the viewpoint that behavior is itself a
complex system (Nolfi et al 2008; Thompson 2007) and then follows the
system overlaps when multiple organisms act in coordination. When humans
include others and neutral objects as elements of interacting behavioral
systems, then they and the neutral elements are elements in a group
behavioral system. A sample of this kind of thinking is given by Marsh
et al (2009, 1219) who 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.”
There are several strands of research that cut across this interface –
coordinated behaviors such as cooperation, common ground, extended mind,
the systemic aspect of the environment, the effects of material culture,
interactive behaviors unique to humans, and evidence of simplifications
in complex systems. Their relevance to the hypothesis will be unpacked
3.5.1 Coupled behaviors including cooperation
Cooperation among humans has been widely discussed in the context of
human evolution (Richerson & Boyd 2008, 92; Sterelny et al 2013) and in
comparison to other great apes (Tomasello 2009). The origin of
cooperation is greatly debated since it seems almost impossible given
the short term, game-theoretic rewards for cheaters from an
individualist perspective. However, its widespread existence in human
groups has been verified. Explanations range through “indirect
reciprocity, group selection on genes, sexually selected display, innate
algorithms for detecting rule violators, Machiavellian intelligence,
reputation effects, and the cultural group-selection process ....” (Richerson
& Boyd 2008, 92) What is important here is less cooperation and more
weaker forms that have the same behavioral system implications. For
example in describing how chimpanzees do not collaborate, Tomasello
(2008, 174) describes a chimpanzee hunt for monkeys as a “group activity
of some complexity in which individuals are mutually responsive to one
another’s spatial position....” in a way similar to “wolves and lions.”
He refers to this behavior as “coordinated.”
From another viewpoint Byrne highlights the complex behaviors of great
apes as helping them survive when monkeys have many advantages in the
same niche: “... chimpanzees make tools to extract social insects from
their nests, and to break open hard nuts; 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 2006, 493 4) A possibility is that
complex behaviors themselves allow more opportunity for overlap with
another, perhaps motivated by learning or tangential social purposes
rather than material goals. Complementing this view is the assumption
that early hominins diverged from other apes by exploiting the complex
environments of either mosaic ecologies or the edges of savannahs where
other “fallback foods” such as root plants were available (Cartmill &
Smith 2009, 203; citing Laden & Wrangham 2005). Complex behavioral
capabilities were present in diverse environments where learning speed
was important to a point where coordinated behaviors would be
indistinguishable from their antecedents.
Other sources of coupled behaviors are coaction (Wegner & Sparrow 2007)
and reinforced cooperation. By the latter is meant default cooperation
such as when drivers “cooperate” by avoiding crashing into each other on
the freeway, where the structured environment constrains even flagrant
individualism. Coaction is defined as “when one agent’s action is
influenced by or occurs in the context of another agent’s action–and
together they do something that is not fully attributable to either one
alone....” (Wegner & Sparrow 2007, 18-9).
Weaker forms of coordination have not received the attention that
cooperation has received. Yet, cooperative behaviors among humans as
well as other species including mammals (e.g., naked mole rats) have
been verified (Skyrms 2009, 145 6). Two implications can be drawn. One,
weaker forms of coordination probably preceded cooperation. And two, if
behaviors can be considered complex systems, then overlapping behaviors
suggest integrated behavioral systems were emerging.
3.5.2 Common ground and extended mind
Related to coordinated behaviors is common ground. It has not received a
lot of research attention and is hardly studied in the context of human
evolution except as a logical precursor to language (Clark, H. 1996;
Gibbs 2006, 172; Tomasello 2008, 75). It also does not appear to have
received any attention in relation to a complex systems view of
cognition and behavior. Common ground, however, is studied as something
necessary to explain other early human attributes such as the intention
monitoring aspects of human sociality (Enfield & Levinson 2006).
Interactive behaviors turned behaviors near each other into behaviors
with each other in a way that showed a common, interactive space. As
Levinson (2006, 52) puts it:
“Interaction always presupposes a participation structure, which itself
presupposes a distinction between being copresent but not in interaction
versus copresent and participating. This distinction is precisely what
motivates >access rituals’ like greetings.”
With his coauthor, Enfield, they go on to explain common ground:
“At the heart of the uniquely human way of life is our peculiarly
intense, mentally mediated, and highly structured way of interacting
with one another. This rests on participation in a common mental world,
a world in which we have detailed expectations about each other’s
behavior, beliefs about what we share and do not share in the way of
knowledge, intentions, and motivations.” (Enfield & Levinson 2006, 1).
And Enfield elaborates:
“Common ground constitutes the open stockpile of shared presumption that
fuels amplicative inference in communication, driven by intention
attribution and other defining components of the interaction engine. Any
occasion of >grounding’ (i.e., any increment of common ground) has
consequences for future interaction of the individuals involved, .... [t]he
greater our common ground, the less effort we have to expend to satisfy
the informational imperative.... [and] the economy of expression enabled
by common ground affords a public display of intimacy ...” (Enfield
This picture of common ground as “shared presumption[s]” or
“participation structure” does presume coordination but not language
while keeping an eye towards the bases of language. It does point to a
social interface towards the external world. But it does so only by
saying that it is necessary for human coordination, interaction,
intention-exchanging, and ultimately language without saying what it is.
3.5.3 Extended mind and multi-party behavioral systems
Parallel to this work indicating a common ground achievement for humans
are other lines of research working from the bottom up that also
indicate behavioral systems larger than an individual. Extended mind
theory (Clark, A. 2008) and ecological psychology (Reed 1996) are two
strands of cognitive science that are charting how mind and cognition
are extended phenomena.
Both of these are stronger at showing that cognition is spread into the
objects of the environment than that it is systemically entwined with
the cognition of others. But both dimensions are shown. And the complex
system aspect of these cognitive processes is often mentioned directly
and seemingly always assumed. A key proponent of extended mind theory,
A. 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. Such cycles supersize the mind.”
(Clark, A. 2008, xxvi). A famous example of extended cognition from
Hutchins does cover both multiple people as well as multiple objects as
a collective cognitive system. In his study of ship navigation by many
sailors and their instruments, he concludes:
“... the real power of human cognition lies in our ability to flexibly
construct functional systems that accomplish our goals by bringing bits
of structure into coordination. That culturally constituted settings for
activity are rich in precisely the kinds of artifactual and social
interactional resources that can be appropriated by such functional
systems is a central truth about human cognition.... and a proper
understanding of human cognition must acknowledge the continual dynamic
interconnectivity of functional elements inside with functional elements
outside the boundary of the skin.” (Hutchins 1995, 316)
Here Hutchins does make explicit that cognitive effect is bi-directional
to and from objects that enhance cognition. The hypothesis that humans
evolved collective behavioral systems enhanced by material artifacts
appears to be directly supported by extended mind theory.
3.5.4 Systemic nature of the environment – affordances
The other strand of relevant research, ecological psychology, appears to
support not just the cognitive overlap with objects but also the system
interweaving of behaviors among humans. One tool that this program finds
important is the concept of “affordance.” An affordance is a feature of
the environment relative to an organism that facilitates, affords, or
allows it to use it in a behavior. “Affordances are opportunities for
behavior. Because different animals have different abilities,
affordances are relative to the behavioral abilities of the animals that
perceive them.” (Chemero 2009, 108) One can say that a door handle
affords a human the possibility of turning a handle to open the door.
Within the tradition of ecological psychology “Behavior is defined as an
animal’s ability to change its relationship with its surroundings.”(Reed
1996, 97). And these relationships are both distributed and dynamic:
“[I]ntentions are not considered as a mental or psychological state
within a person. Instead they are considered to be a property of the
ecosystem arising in the interaction between organisms and their
environment.” (Knoblich, G. & N. Sebanz 2008, 2022)
There are several advantages of affordances for an ontological bridge to
objects. They have been empirically verified as effecting behavior and
specifically so relative to an agent’s size, abilities, handedness, etc.
[NN?] They provide a very good theoretical bridge to objects. They
strike a middle ground between imputing “agency” to objects or only
treating objects as accessories to behaviors. They highlight that
behaviors, like cognition, can and have been treated as systems which
allows this cultural domain to be studied as enmeshed processes rather
than as collections of agent-issuing behaviors.
And, affordances come with a natural and somewhat tested track to
cooperation and multiple-human behaviors. What are called joint
affordances are recognized as the ways that an object allows two people
to use it from respective positions. After giving an example of how one
person lifts a two-handled basket differently than if working with
another person to lift it together, Knoblich and Sebanz explain that:
“... embedded in joint intentionality, simultaneous affordance changes
into a joint affordance, inviting two different actions from two
co-actors.” (Knoblich & Sebanz 2008, 2026) 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). Knoblich and Sebanz also agree on the importance of
objects as affordances as transmitters of social agreement. “The
creation of enduring artefacts opened up a whole new world of
affordances and ways of interacting with the world in a direct manner.
The resulting fact that artefacts embody socially transmitted knowledge
about ways of interacting with objects is hardly ever acknowledged in
the research on object perception.” (Knoblich & Sebanz 2008, 2027).
Similarly, Anderson et al (2012, 725) describe “social affordances” as
behavioral coupling of two people to form a "coherent perception-action
unit or synergy."
Alternately, a coupling for coordinated action similar to common ground
that also emphasizes distributed cognition but through shared
representations is work by Pezzulo and Dindo: “... 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.” (Pezzulo
& Dindo 2011, 626) Or, Wertsch (2009, 119) invokes a “distributed
version” of "collective memory" in a similar role with some
Chemero has already broached the implication that affordances suggest a
different ontology. “But if the environment contains meanings, then it
cannot be merely physical.... Radical embodied cognitive science
requires a new ontology, one that is at odds with today’s physicalist,
reductionist consensus that says the world just is the physical world,
full stop.” (Chemero 2009, 135-6) The key proposal is then to conjecture
that, similar to joint affordances, humans, coordinating their
behaviors, share affordances to a degree that expectations and
intentions are coupled through them with others. The environment of such
social affordances is the substrate of which common ground was built.
And this environment as common ground becomes increasingly a scratchpad
of possible and expected behaviors for hominin groups where the
individual-to-individual interactions are increasingly coordinated
through it. The mutual affordance structure of the environment sets the
interactional as well as the payoff possibilities for those
participating. The environment now affords not just potential behaviors
but potential agent-to-agent interactions through the environment
including potential interactions with payoffs such as cooperation or
exploitation. Humans by their coordinated interactions with
environmental neutrals (objects) set expectations with and to each other
about those neutrals so that certain future behaviors are rendered more
probable. Coupled complex behavioral systems are fortified through the
attractors that these objects afford. And their successful employment in
coupled behaviors would have fortified them as salient references in the
common ground in which development, selection, and payoffs to new
behaviors would have occurred. A common ground of mutual affordances for
coordinated behaviors would have grown along with them.
Bardone (2011, 92) speaks of “adapting affordances” as something that
facilitates another affordance such as a microscope for a very small
target. When the adapting is for another, then facilitating affordance
is more clear. Examples include attention to an object as facilitating
an affordance for another or language that shifts priorities about one
or more objects. Here behaviors to facilitate a certain affordance are
themselves affordances. Such behaviors would have accompanied the rise
of social affordances and included indexical signs and norming
Conceptual drawing for affordances for early primate (A) versus those
for same physical environment for early hominid (B) where there are more
affordances, more possible causal interactions between them (arrows) and
more social affordances where activities involve another.
3.5.5 Environmental structures, material culture, and behavioral
And then the reinforcement of common ground in coordinated behaviors
would have also given a reinforcement to the physical structuring of the
environment. This is to speak of tools, artifacts, and niche constructed
aspects of the environment. As a superficial assumption such a
collective system as entertained in the hypothesis should see the
accumulation of system-selected material structures that are reinforcing
to behaviors, including coupled ones. Another expectation might be that
material structures would show a compatibility among themselves or an
inter-relatedness. These ideas are consonant with the concepts from
material culture studies:
“Material culture studies in various ways inevitably have to emphasize
the dialectical and recursive relationship between persons and things:
that persons make and use things and that the things make persons.”
(Tilley 2006, 4).
“... the materials of past (and present) societies are not seen as an
epiphenomenal outcome of historical and social processes or as just an
epistemological component through which these processes can be grasped
but actually as constituent parts–even explanatory parts–of these very
processes.” (Olsen 2010, 38)
The quote earlier from Gamble about children learning around a hearth
captures this sense of where the needs of the fire – wood, ashes, etc. –
prompt human behaviors and are agential. Others can speak of composite
intentionality especially when acting in the smart environments of our
contemporary world (Bardone 2011, 65).
In this view objects are boundary conditions for behavioral systems and
thus can reinforce behaviors. They can also reinforce the social
learning of behaviors which is important for the evo-devo component of
cultural evolution theory. And since objects by type and number steadily
increased in the hominin environment, since objects were often employed
in coordinated behaviors, and since they were increasingly niche
constructed into more usable forms, the reinforcement from material
structures grew enormously. As part of these trends tools began to be
used in combinations (Gamble 2007); and tools such as blades were
treated as more permanent tools rather than as throwaways (Coolidge &
Wynn 2009, 112). In the former case material structures became
combinatorially employed in systems and in the latter they reinforced
systems dilated in time.
The issue in the above characterization of objects as reinforcing
systems is opposed to two standard views of objects. In the first view
deriving from the physical sciences objects are arbitrary in the
environment so that physical laws are universal after accepting the
particular boundary conditions. In the second view objects made by
humans are the unilateral fruit of human creativity. But this
conventional, extra evolutionary explanation has been decried:
“... tradition, even post Darwinian tradition, excludes our doings from
natural history.... Yet to put this exclusion so baldly is to make its
absurdity self evident, and to invite us to challenge the entire
tradition on which it rests.” (Fox Keller 2005, 1073)
Neither of these traditional views of the object has an evolutionary
component. The first is time-independent; or better, it is time-heedless
as in however these things got here. And the second exults in the
increasing richness of the human engineered environment as a unilateral
fountain of human genius. In this reckoning objects do not evolve. Yet,
in a world like ours today where object/technology accumulation and
evolution is proceeding at cultures-breaking speed and when systemic
materialism is a robust alternative, the choice of considering objects
as anchors to evolving behavioral systems reveals a mutualist trajectory
of material structures co-evolving with behaviors.
Part of the beauty of the concept of affordance is that it carries an
ambiguity of whether it is a thing or some sort of perceptual
projection. This underlines the fundamentally interactive nature of our
relationship to the environment. It is a collection of affordances,
material while satisfying our behavioral conscriptions to various
degrees. Two other concepts carry similar relationships to things –
constraint satisfaction network (Hutchins 1995, 241; Simon & Read 2004)
and the theory of event coding (Gibbs 2006, 61) – while being more
A mere glance around almost wherever one finds oneself attests to the
heavy structuration of our environments. An urban environment is almost
entirely either human prepared or has undergone selection for the human
environment. In this case the environment ceases to be the environment
as in what is external since almost none of it is external. The human
environment is different by effectively being non-external. In the
absence of a better term it will be referred to as the "humanized
environment." The zoologist, Portmann (1968, 91-2), makes the point that
for the first year of human life the human environment acts as an
extended uterus for the newborn.
Additionally, there have been new energy inputs to the human environment
over time from animal power to water power to hydrocarbon power (Smil
2002). All these trends for the human environment – the increased energy
input, the expanded use of materials, the compartmentalization of
structures, its nestedness within previous evolutionary growth (from
bacteria to food crops) – are trends noted by Williams and da Silva in
their treatment of evolution as a chemical progression (cited above) and
are reflective of systemic features. But it is the proliferation of
different and specific types of structures, their longevity, and their
combinatorial powers that suggest their entrainment in systemic
mechanics. If the self-organizational aspects of the human environment
are compared to the systemic processes at the origin of life, then
human-prepared objects can seem analogous to macromolecules and their
modification of the network flows of metabolites.
Human environmental structures show other patterns which suggest that
common ground is not only physically modified but mobilized into flows
with their own system effects. Flows of favored structures developed in
the environment (economics); human-selected objects dominated the
environment so much that there was a transition from mobile lifestyles
to permanent settlements (Mithen NN); then in contemporary life these
objects so dominate the environment that the term “environment” here is
a misnomer; and, objects have now developed their own evolutionary
dynamic (e.g., Arthur 2009, 21-5 speaks of technology as a “chemistry”
in “combinatorial evolution”). Economics is a testament to material
flows and their dynamics that are frequently studied as complex dynamic
systems (Beinhocker 2006). Non-linear flow effects seem everywhere from
phase transitions (Sole 2011) to circular cumulative causation (Berger
2009) to the frequent market bubbles. Both the innovation of goods and
the flows of goods show system effects. Innovations come in network
effects of popularity and compatibility with other types of goods
3.5.6 Special interactive behaviors for maintaining collective
Maintaining or creating stable behavioral collectives, even of the
two-person variety, would require their own dynamics if the collectives
were complex systems. That humans have a large repertoire of special
talents and cognitive abilities over and above the great apes and that
our understanding of these talents continues to show the refined
subtlety of these mechanisms is at least consistent with the supposition
that collective behaviors and their potential exist as complex systems.
Already with primates there are indications that social dynamics
requires new capabilities.
“We now recognize that it is not the mere size of a primate social
group, but its level of social complexity that is correlated to larger
neocortices in certain primate taxa. Such complexities can be measured
via social play, deception, coalition formations, altruistic acts, and
other subtle social strategies.” (MacKinnon & Fuentes 2012, 80)
Consider the following partial list of special human cognitive abilities
besides the big one, language. Most of these have been studied by the
group of researchers around Tomasello or around Enfield and Levinson.
They include: teaching (Danchin 2008, 710), imitation, coalitional
psychology (Boyer 2012), 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 2006, 54), turn taking with interaction repair
(Levinson 2006, 54), role reversal imitation (Tomasello 2003, 19), joint
attention (Tomasello 2008, 159), normativity, and objects with social
functions (Searle 2010). The richness of these capabilities or of what
Enfield and Levinson call “the interaction engine” is remarkable (2006,
399). All of them spread, build, or stabilize behavioral systems.
Intelligence and memory should be added to the list. And while these
evolved capacities are compatible with the existing paradigm of traits
of well adapted individuals, the hypothesis of a behaviorally rich
environment with diverse shared affordances gives a clearer path for
selection for these capacities.
The subtlety of behaviors in the human world can be seen from other
vantages. The actions of facilitating affordances for others as
mentioned above is a dimension that saturates our behavior as is reading
the intentional repercussions of others. Fauconnier and Turner (2002)
show how in “conceptual blending” our minds use behavioral experiences
(“mental spaces”) to blend with new behavioral challenges or with
behavioral expectations of others to devise and couple novel approaches.
These reveal the incredible facility with which we blend and simplify
our patterns even if illogical.
They are all traits that, at least on the surface, are of a type that
could help regulate a system of beliefs, expectations, intentions, and
environmental order. They are a reminder of the dense richness of this
fabric of beliefs, expectations, and intentions. This richness was
probably also reinforced by other mechanisms such as the emergence of
emotions unique to humans – pride, shame, and guilt (Turner 2000).
It is well to compare the diverse yet attractor-following human
collaboration with the cooperation achieved by social insects or even
the naked mole rats where simple interaction rules and hormonal cues and
simple material structure rules (“stigmergy” Camazine et al 2001, 23)
avoided the cognitive complexity.
3.5.7 Strategies of interface simplifications
Another possible sign of systemic effects in the human environment is
whether simplification patterns are evident within complexity.
Complexity is differentiated from chaos because it supports the
emergence of large scale simplifications. Sterelny (2003, 157) argues
that the environment is modified for simplification:
“Hominids make aspects of the physical or social world more salient by
marking them physically, linguistically, or behaviorally. Collectively
then, hominid groups buffer the increasing cognitive demands placed on
them by their own technologies, their extractive foraging, and their
social relationships. Such buffering allows the further expansion of
information hungry techniques by reducing the burden of such techniques
on individual agents.”
There is other evidence indicative of simplifications emerging in our
environment. For the tradition from Durkheim to Collins, social
interactions as simple as carrying water or going to a football game
give mutual-focus that bind participants in a “compelling emotional
experience” that forms and transports meaning, ideas, and symbols while
building reputations in social networks (Collins 2004, xii). The new
style social hierarchies that came with civilization emerged “... when
an individual is authorized to delegate to others the power to sanction
normative transgressions” (Dubreuil 2010, 8). Also, simplification
appears with the condensation of events into stories and news items or
even with the pull to normativity. In the following sections other
facets of our environment such as objects and language will be examined
for their own contributions to complexity reduction. But these few cases
are supportive of an expectation that if reality were a systemic
behavioral interface then widespread use of simplifications by various
prioritizing mechanisms would be evident. The enormous traffic between
humans and the environment coupled with the past memories folded back
into this traffic as well as the imaginative future expectations is so
huge that coordinating simplifications have to be found –
simplifications of structures in the environment and of cognitive
relationships in our own interpersonal environment.
3.5.8 Hypothesis of collective behavior-environment interface, a
The conclusion of the hypothesis is similar to the conclusion of others
except that the systemic nature, its extension into affordances from the
material environment, and its scale-of-magnitude complexity are
emphasized. An example of a similar point of view comes from Whiten &
Erdal (2012, 2119):
“Here we present evidence from a diversity of sources supporting the
hypothesis that a fuller answer [to how hominin evolution could compete
with a guild of specialist carnivores] lies in the evolution of a new
socio cognitive niche, the principal components of which include forms
of cooperation, egalitarianism, mindreading (also known as >theory of
mind’), language and cultural transmission, that go far beyond the most
comparable phenomena in other primates.”
By way of recap, the hypothesis of a collective behavior-environment
interface entails the following logic:
$ Coupled behaviors such as social learning arise mutually with social
$ The resulting environment, or common ground, now has "meaning" in that
the affordances of others have social and survival consequences for any
$ Any niche construction enhancements of any objects increase the
behavior-inducing probability of these as affordances.
$ Coupled behaviors pay off in either greater rewards or greater
$ Reinforcement between coupled behaviors and learning (e.g., teaching),
common ground and coupled behaviors (i.e., joint attention), and niche
construction and common ground set up a new payoff and selection
environment for intelligence, memory, intention monitoring, intention
control, object continuity, roles, and normativity.
$ The usage of social affordances initiated norming behaviors (negative
reinforcement) and facilitating behaviors (positive reinforcement) such
$ The composition of and agreement about common ground not only had
positive payoffs but became a significant time and energy expenditure.
All of these points are taken to describe behaviors with the environment
and others as aspects of complex systems.
The last point to touch in taking stock of a hypothetical common ground
from the vantage of evolution is to situate the hypothesis within the
frame of a fundamentally systemic biology forecasted above. Not only is
the hypothesis consonant with this understanding of biology, but there
is also the possibility for a tighter parallel between biological
systems and systemic common ground of the hypothesis. In section 2.2
above three features at life’s origin were deemed significant – energy
flow, network causal topologies with cycles, and unique boundary
conditions. These three features are also seen prominently in the
systemic reality of the hypothesis. Energy flow is a precondition that
has grown markedly as humans have harvested ever new sources of energy.
And the two most marked features of systems reality (common ground) are
the physical structures of the environment, i.e., boundary conditions,
and the elaborate causal topologies of human collaborative behavioral
complexes. The suggestion is that the characteristics of human evolution
are not to be compared to the prototypical examples from biology,
organisms, but to more diffuse phases of complex system processes in
It is worth mentioning that energy, networks, and boundary conditions
are important aspects of physics whose importance within its laws was
only appreciated rather late. Feynman (1963, 4-1,2) could say “... in
physics today, we have no knowledge of what energy is” although it is a
“numerical quantity” which “... does not change in the manifold changes
which nature undergoes.” Dorogovtsev & Mendes (2003, 219-20) describe a
networks as “... one of the few fundamental objects of the Universe.”
And networks are considered to model complex systems in a close way
(“Green showed that complex systems are isomorphic to networks....”
Paperin et al 2011, 610; reference to Green 1993). Boundary conditions
were in some ways seen as obstacles to clear in order to find the true
fundamental laws of physics. For example, early scientists ignored
friction in order to understand the impossible, but valid, case of
infinite inertia (Funkenstein 1986, 153). Taking the environment with
its boundary conditions as a given for a moment in time in which
organisms evolve has been an assumption taken up in biology. Against
this view, Lewontin (2000, 58) emphasizes the evolution of the
environment: “The constructionist view is that the world is changing
because the organisms are changing.” It is noteworthy that this
assumption is not used in studies of the origin of life because it is
only by the enrichment of the environment that self-organized life could
emerge. In their treatment of chemical evolution Williams & da Silva
(2006) reach similar conclusions about energy, systems, and
To make a suggested comparison between the hypothesis and the character
of system dynamics at the origin of life is to invite responses to
biological questions about the nature of human evolution as a unique
process (Laland & Brown 2011, above) or as a “major transition” (Smith &
Szathmary 1999, above). This latter, major transition theory, recognizes
human sociality with language to be a unique transition that like other
such transitions (e.g., origin of chromosome, eukaryotic cell) might
indicate that “the space of biological possibility ... [is] itself
evolving.” (Calcott et Sterelny 2011, 4) And different biological
possibilities include the type of individual evolving (e.g., chromosome,
Both biological directions to the question of the character of human
evolution (i.e. cultural evolution or human sociality major transition)
remain open. The hypothesis suggests an answer at the level not of
physical individuality but of behavioral individuality. Coordinated
behaviors, ephemeral cooperative behaviors (following Sawyer 2005, 210
for “ephemeral emergent” of social groupings), and fully cooperative
systems reveal a range of behavioral “individuals” however transitory.
These have both their own selection dynamics and systemic properties.
The physical aspects of these are the public objects that constrain and
reinforce them as well as the energy and material flows they engender.
Reality then is the set of constraints anchoring these various
behavioral systems. Or better, reality is the set of matter aggregates
constraining collective, ephemeral, and individual behavioral systems as
shaped by previous, related versions of these behavioral systems.
Conceptual drawing for systems origin of life (C) where a self-organized
network or closed catalytic network has emerged in the midst of causally
deterministic events now normalized to align in same direction; better
depiction of the same (D) where more probable event types because of
their combination are drawn bolder where all events are normalized as
deterministic events; a simpler and more intuitive depiction of the same
systems depiction of very simple life. Drawing C is inspired from
Rothschuh (1963) as seen in Toepfer (2012).
Conceptual drawing of systems view of simple behavior (F,
left) where organism
shifts to new state 1’ under new environment and of sustained behavior
between two organisms (G, right) where 1’ and 2’ are either evolved
predator/prey relationship or mutualism/sociality. (Examples of F are E.coli lac operon gene for lactose/glucose; or Egbert et al, 2012; or
Conceptual drawing of behaviors with objects (square, brown boxes). Left
(H) is one organism interacting with two affordances/objects where light
green semi-circles are meant to depict the temporary behavioral system
with object. Right (I) has two organisms interacting with social
affordance/object o3 and where small purple semi-circle is meant to
depict coupled behavioral system with object. These two drawings
respectively depict similar conceptions to those from drawings A and B
3.6 Reconciling common ground hypothesis with philosophy
After the above arguments that a behavioral environment interface arose
in the course of human evolution that is consonant with a systemic view
of biology, the question remains whether such an hypothesis is
compatible with philosophical assumptions and whether it addresses some
of the infamous and lingering contradictions of dualistic materialism.
It should be noted immediately that behaviors-in-common and particularly
behaviors in common with objects collapses the usual modernist
assumption of the independence of knowledge and thing, of the radical
distinction of epistemology and ontology.
The hypothesis follows trends in philosophy that are already in
progress. For instance, Mark Taylor (2001, 206)has it that “... we will
see not only that biological and mental processes are isomorphic but
that, when taken together, they constitute yet another complex adaptive
system.” Behaviors as a way to merge the scientific with the
experiential and the objective with the subjective have been explicitly
proposed since at least Mead and Merleau-Ponty (Rosenthal & Bourgeois
3.6.1 In the practice of daily life
First of all, the systems perspective of life is rather intuitive. As
one writer suggests, systems thinking is all around us as common wisdom
– “The rich get richer and the poor get poorer” and “A stitch in time
saves nine” (Meadows 2008, 3). It is now firmly entrenched as a branch
of therapy and maybe even as a unifying metatheory for different schools
(Smith-Acuña 2011). Finding multiple points of change before a family
system shifts or having a therapist pick a structural role in a couple
from which to be and to challenge and with what strength are facets of
interacting systemically. Calling a dog can easily help her slide
effortlessly into a new behavioral attractor. In business one might
speak of a “strategic and fiscal landscape.” Seeing a written article
take shape is certainly a trip through some strange attractors.
Its influence in economics is mentioned above. And, it is increasingly
important in ecology where issues such as the resilience of an ecosystem
before collapse are a concern. The systemic aspects of ecology are
focal: “Investigators can all agree that an ecosystem is a
quasi-organized type of system...” (Currie 2011, 27). And our management
of human interactions with ecologies generates new surprises and non-linearities
including the expected surprises from experiments (Gross 2010). In
short, our lives are full of non-linearities that often span larger
collections and longer processes than those for which our analytical
methods have been so successful.
With ideas and beliefs the system effects are equally striking.
Consensuality itself presumes reinforcements besides the effects of
panics and fads. Small pieces of evidence can have extreme non-linear
influences – a “butterfly effect” for ideas. The learning curve is a
favorite for non-linearity. We ourselves are seen to have particular
styles of thinking whether we associate ideas by fertile imagination or
negative fault-finding or holding the middle ground (De Bono 1982).
Others of us seek butterfly effects in our lives by looking for the next
invention or the next popular topic. Business today encourages the
recognition of different thinking styles and “making thinking visible.”
Offices and malls are designed in meticulous detail to afford the flow
of people, goods, and attention through them. Systems principles and
effects are scattered about our public landscape, and practices of
various types to navigate them are similarly prevalent.
It is our environment. Mastering the physical of the world does not
excuse us from mastering the richness of the cognitive infusion.
3.6.2 Reconciling object, knowledge, language, and agency
Having framed reality as a behavioral interface, it is important to make
this understandable in the usual concepts of object and knowledge.
Consider the following equivalences: an object is an affordance;
knowledge is an adaptive behavior; and language is an aspect of the
behavior with something. Objects as affordances or opportunities for
behaviors have already been referenced above. On knowledge, “...
adaptations are themselves knowledge, themselves forms of
‘incorporation’ of the world into the structure and organization of
living things.” (Plotkin 1994, xv) The cognitive study of word usage
ties them to behaviors even for abstract concepts (Borghi & Riggio 2009,
117; Stout & Chaminade 2009; Anderson et al 2012, 720; A. Clark in
Supersize?). “Maybe we understand language by simulating in our minds
what it would be like to experience the things that the language
describes.” Bergen (2012, 13) What is suggested here is that object,
knowledge, and language (as semantics) are aspects of behavioral
Of the three concepts – object, knowledge, language (or sign) –
knowledge is the least firm as it has largely passed into the vernacular
as some sort of nebulous quantity as in the “knowledge economy” or “has
a lot of knowledge.” It is also the concept from the old substance
metaphysics that has mostly dissolved into the new cognitive science in
the realm of neural patterns and complex systems. Language is trending
in the same direction as cognitive science pulls it in and as language
pragmatics studies find ever more situational subtleties [NN – Gibbs, H.
Clark?, Streck et al 2011) It is also trending to an environmental
aspect as it is studied as niche construction (Aunger 2009;Cowley 2004).
And language in the traditional sense of syntax or whole system is now
being approached as a complex system (NN – Lansing from Hooker, Ellis et
An inference that is suggested by the above is that not only are
knowledge and words aspects of objects (or other targets) as affordances/behaviors
but that they layer these as complex systems. In this ontology knowledge
and sign are aspects of the object system, the more human aspects of
their networks to be sure and the more volatile, but inseparably part of
the interface in which objects “complete,” constrain, or afford
behaviors. As put forward in section 3.5.5, signs are facilitating
affordances to make other affordances more available. Language then acts
as a behavior reinforcing to, correcting of, and playing in common
ground. It is the use of common ground to renew itself, the reality
system reinforcing itself. There is no mirroring or substitution, just
behaviors making other behaviors more or less prominent and probable.
The object can be said to be non-foundational because it is difficult to
argue for its definition apart from our interaction with it. As Putnam
(1988, 114) explains: “What is wrong with the notion of objects existing
‘independently’ of conceptual schemes is that there are no standards for
the use of even the logical notions apart from conceptual choices.” Or,
the pursuit of objectivity allows justified removal of prejudices but
not assumptions (Gaukroger 2012, 5); objects carry assumptions.
Pragmatically, the “concept of an object is a concept of something that
is knowable robustly ...(accessible [detectable, measurable, derivable,
definable, producible, or the like] in a variety of independent ways.)”
(Wimsatt 2007, 197) But turning away from the object as foundation of
uniqueness allows its systemic nature, its affordances, to anchor its
usage in different conceptual schemes including those that pursue
detailed consistency. The object could only be maintained as
foundational by removing both conceptual assumptions as well as time
from it. But removing conceptual assumptions is illogical and removing
time is a spurious idealist abstraction. To reintroduce time to objects
is to speak of probabilities of its past and future trajectories which
in turn stem from all the conceptual assumptions and systems that
surround it. The frequency, structure, distribution, and movement of
mailboxes is not just a property of metal or wood but of systems that
probabilize all these features. To continue to speak in two registers in
traditional philosophy – of foundational objects and agency – is be
blind to the evolution of the environment and to be blind to the
multiple competing and overlapping expectations that our behavioral nets
enlace around them. Objects afford multiply to people of different
sizes, physical abilities, and cultures and to organisms of different
species; and these multiple affordances are also facts inseparable from
particular material structures.
Similar to the traditional sharp distinction between life and
environment is the sharp distinction in materialism between matter and
human agency. The two concepts appear to be mutually constructed as
opposites. The situation, however, is changing; and similar to the
continuity of life and environment as a varied distribution of system
aspects as described above, agency in a systems world seems headed for
some type of continuity with the environment. This trend is a welcome
relief from a tendency to see the concept of agency swing to diametrical
opposites from the independent person to cases of environmental
determinism that accompanied the rise of Behaviorism. (Cziko 1995, 117)
Backing up through the concept of causality, materialism only speaks of
a never-ending chain of causes where no step is the beginning of
anything. Agency was supposedly the special human talent for escaping
this law of no beginning causality. The concept of causality assumes
some sort of intervention, actual or hypothetical (Pearl 2000, 349).
Here complex systems concepts can save a continuity/discontinuity
impasse since there is a proven system effect, bifurcation. This does
away with the need for a distinct source but it also removes the sense
that agency comes from a distinct locus. In archaeology (Jones & Boivin
2010; Olsen 2010) and environmental policy studies (Connolly 2011;
Pickering 2008) [and geography?] one speaks of distributed agency and
material agency. The first emphasizes that agency comes from more than
one source and the second that material objects can influence events. As
mentioned above, Wegner & Sparrow (2007) also speaks of coaction where
agency is distributed among people as in partner dancing.
All of these aspects are amenable to a world impregnated with systems
features. A useful concept of agency in light of these views of its
distribution is that of control (Clark, A. 2007). Shepherding an action
to completion is much different, more prolonged than just simple
initiation of action that might be an inadvertent accident. And when
people act as agents in controlling a process to an ending, then we are
a system that does all the reinforcements and supplies the energy
required to move events along possibly to a state with features like an
attractor. And such views of agency in distribution are what would be
expected from the hypothesis of a behavioral-environment systemic
Supporting this view is the concept of self as niche construction for
the useful accounting of authorship for social and psychological reasons
are the contributing authors in the Ross et al (2007) collection
(Ainslie, Pettit, A. Clark, Thalos). Ross is very clear (2007, 13):
“... the self is depicted as virtually created in niche construction, in
order to perform the function of simultaneously stabilizing and
intermediating the micro-scale dynamics of the distributed individual
mind/brain and the macro-scale dynamics of society and culture. Selves,
in my view, do not exist despite the complexity of these dynamics at
both scales, they exist because of it.”
Niche construction then in this context is the bundling of micro
actions, memories, perceptions, and so forth into a whole that allows us
to treat ourselves and others as continuous units. Selves are niche
constructed simplifications of cognitive complexities. The literature on
niche construction expands the concept into the cultural arena where
social habits and communicative habits have been listed as niche
constructions that are also passed on intergenerationally (Odling-Smee &
Laland 2009; Feldman 2008).
3.6.3 Philosophical promise in light of the hypothesis
Even in a brief manner, it is important to show that the hypothesis has
promise in tackling current philosophical issues and with giving other
studies a fresh perspective.
The subtley of coupled behaviors and social affordances is not always
appreciated in the modern world. Each human interaction or each place of
our human environment is overlain with thick webs of expectations,
individual preferences, future plans, legacies connected to others not
even present, individual idiosyncracies of habit, the social alliances
and disagreements that look for magnification, resonant memories from
similar events, chance arrangements of people and material that evoke
alternative perceptions, moods that change our priorities, and so forth.
All these are not epiphenomenal to a specific event or mere "idols"
following Bacon (1620) but are the time signature of dynamic complex
systems written in constraints and possibilities (Ceruti 1994).
This rich profusion of shared and divergent expectations give the
interface of the real a vitality that is missing in substance
metaphysics. Trading differences and looking for interesting couplings
with the real is constitutive of values. More than that, these
preferences, these preferred affordances show us to be extended beings.
Our habits of environmental intervention and arrangement and our habits
of interlocking our behaviors with others effectively extends our bodies
as body-behavior integrated complex systems. Finding work-life and
body-mind balances are resulting challenges. The reality interface is
not a fixed plane; it is a theater of care in which we are inseparably
enmeshed. Values and character are not extras; they emerge directly with
our engagement in common ground. Even when written records were used to
transmit the behaviors from the past with the environmental responses as
when books began to be stored in libraries, monasteries, madrasas, and
universities, strong traditions of debate and oratory co-existed
revealing a deep connection to direct behavioral formation (“The written
word, by contrast [to face-to-face speaking as espoused by Socrates], is
untrustworthy and corrupting because it is detached from the actions,
honor, and character of whoever uttered it.” McNeely & Wolverton. 2008,
10). Today, despite extensive written and technological records to
prompt human engagement, the joint attention of conferences and business
online slide shows keep the focus required for maintaining common ground
The human material environment is massively built up with constraints to
prompt our behaviors. Finding unadulterated raw nature verges towards a
receding frontier. The challenge of most human environments is rather to
keep them from being boring or stultifying. An easy way to see the
effect of the heavily structured environment on ourselves is the
observation by De Zengotita (2005) that the environment is addressed to
us. Street signs, stairs, advertisements, computer programs, prepared
food, etc. are the staples of this humanized environment that are
prepared for us. In fact, the issue from our environment is less
“representation versus reality, phony versus authentic, artificial
versus natural” and more of how flattered we are by the solicitations
and how much attention, the new scarce commodity, we give to them (De
Zengotita 2005, 11 & 143; Lanham 2006; xi). In effect, the new humanized
environment “wants” our attention as opposed to its traditional hostile
or indifferent relationship. This same ‘environment’ is now supplying
energy needs as well as allowing the off-loading of cognition through
computers. The reinforcement from this material component is a key
component of common ground.
Addressing issues around conformity and idiosyncratic experiences and in
searching for a general ethics, Fox (2006) finds that complex systems
theory offers the best possible guide. An important guiding principle is
what he calls “responsive cohesion” as opposed to “fixed cohesion” or
rigid structures and to “discohesion” or everything goes. In his view
this applies to epistemology as well where “...there is an ongoing
mutually modifying chicken-and-egg interplay–or responsive
cohesion–between theories and observations.” (Fox 2006, 90) Similarly
Hooker (2011, 51): “Culture requires a particular relationship between
the responsive, constructive capacities of individuals and the globally
binding capacity of the emergent society; too little binding and the
society falls apart into a mere aggregate, too much binding and culture
is squeezed out by merely rigid habits.” These are in the old territory
of not too much and not too little, the yin and yang of existence. The
literary critic and historian Auerbach (1953) similarly points out that
literature has gone through swings from high style (coherence on the big
principles) to low style (delight in the details, often burlesque) that
flourishes in periods when both are blended. This reinforces Fox’s point
about aiming for responsive cohesion, and they both underline how
building commonality in behaviors, expectations, and constraints is a
dynamic of our world. This dialectic of details and common ground is put
well by Boyd (2009, 411) in describing art’s place in evolution. “If art
is ‘unnatural’ variation, science is ‘unnatural’ selection.”
The debate around social constructivism can show how the hypothesis of a
behavior-environment interface can avoid the extremes of overly
universalized concepts and overly relativized social regularities. Both
sides already embrace the value of consistency. What the hypothesis
brings is the language from evolution of convergence and selection.
A good analysis of the constructivism debate is provided by Hacking
(1999). He pulls out three different points of disagreement: contingency
of paths to discovery, the importance of the already given inherent
structure of the world, and whether stable sources of explanation come
primarily from internal (phenomenon derived) or external (arguments from
other fields, say) considerations. For him, neither constructivism nor
objectivism will go away (Hacking 1999, 101); nor will these dimensions.
It will help to begin with examples of convergence. Campbell (1974) is
cited as noticing that the jaws of the worker termite and ant adhere to
Archimedes’ principle of levers where the muscle attachment and hinge
surface optimize force at the useful point of the jaw (cited in Murphy &
Brown 2007, 57). If two species “discovered” the principle of levers as
did Archimedes, then convergence of ideas to some inherent structural
universal is possible. The hypothesis with its systemic frame where
robust structures are selected supports such optimal structures. On the
other end of the spectrum are what Hacking (1999, 123) calls
“interactive kinds” by which he means things that are more subject to
human interactions than are others. For example, the definitions of
mental health or child abuse are more subject to feedback loops from
their adherents, their commercial interests, and their social stigmas
than are Maxwell’s equations in electromagnetism. Such a distinction
reflects similar distinctions such as physis and nomos for the Greeks or
materialism and social reality for Searle (2010). Such interactive kinds
show that some things are more subject to the pure patterns of human
coupled behaviors as suggested by the hypothesis. Since the hypothesis
begins interactively with matter and with social coupling, the two
Hacking dimensions that recognize contingency in the temporal path of
discovery and mixed forms of support (from, say, historical precedent,
political leaders, fields of research, etc.) both figure as capturing
real people and environmental relational factors.
Philosophically, it has been clear for some time that materialism with
its dualistic tail is broken. Systemic materialism is an alternative in
plain sight. And already supported (Bunge 2003; Bickhard 2011; Thalos
2011). Embracing it forces us to look beyond the ad hoc applications of
complex systems concepts for specific instances and towards its
ontological dimension. Embracing it and looking clearly at the cognitive
complexity of our environment forces one to think about an understanding
of reality like this hypothesis.
Just as a conception of life as special category is incommensurate with
life’s having an origin, so reality with a default conception as a
determinate landscape is incommensurate with a general theory of
evolution or with its being a lived-in arena. A big advantage from the
hypothesis is that the indefensible independence of subject and object
in modern philosophy is broken and explained. Another is that the
material inventions and creations of humans are brought into continuity
with nature as a material dialectic from and to behavior.
Adding a complexity dimension to ordinary reality, as the hypothesis
does, is similarly unsurprising to everyday life, trends, and ancient
wisdom. The surprise is to bring an archaic philosophical background
concept, reality, into evolutionary thought and into the new field of
complexity science, now studied only for specific phenomena. The rich,
interactive, shared nature of our environment is best brought out by a
technique such as complex systems theory even if the calculational
models themselves shift to new generalities. And the hypothesis is also
not necessarily dependent on a full integration of biology and systems
theory, but it is strongly supported by the already deep intrusions of
systems theory as highlighted. The claim, however, that a large scale
behavioral-environment systems interface emerged in evolution does
strongly suggest deep systemic mechanisms in nature.
The intuitive view should also be apparent. The environment between us
and external structures is astoundingly complex. The combinations,
possibilities, fleeting thoughts, fleeting shared structures that could
be called cognitive ephemerals, overlain individual memories and
preferences, unknown but in-built behavioral biases of objects,
processes set in motion by distant behaviors, and so on reveal a swarm
of complexity that exists within our mapping efforts. We are creatures
who are builders of and products of a uniquely complex environment – a
collective interface of behaviors, structures, and mutually but
imperfectly recognized potential behaviors. When the furniture of the
world is viewed from the vantage of the handles to interaction that it
allows us, that world of staggering afforded possibilities that we live
in is revealed as much more of an interactive feast than an observer’s
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