Evolutionary transitions instead of revolutions

Did humans create civilization and discover all its technology? Or, did evolution and life’s patterns provide avenues into which human behavioral adaptability stumbled? In my estimation the former of these is the default answer of most of us and even of evolutionary theorists. However, it is hard to answer with the second option above since it has hardly been explored. My own answer is the second of these, and I want to do as much as possible to investigate this alternative in order to put the two choices above at least on an equal footing.

The upshot of this second option is that recent human evolution signals an incipient and huge pattern change in evolution on the order of the formation of some type of superorganism. The collective dynamics such as the obvious massive coevolution with domesticated species herald an unknown pattern such as a super-society of multiple species. Instead of “revolutions” like the Agricultural Revolution or the Industrial Revolution we should be talking about transitions that are likely part of a more general transition.

On the critical side, evolutionary theory has ignored civilization. Civilization was ignored evolutionarily because of theological and humanist trends to elevate humans. Myths of human superiority come from many cultures. Prometheus stole fire from the gods to give to humans, for example. With the birth of science and with the progress seen from the Industrial Revolution humans took on a renewed confidence that we were very smart and accomplished beings. Into this mix Darwin introduced the Origin of Species that showed that we descended from apes. But this leveling of human status with other species did nothing to take away from humans as the “successful” species and as potentially the rational escapees from the simple struggle for existence. Evolutionary theory is a backwards look for humans; it hardly speaks about the forward view of what are we humans becoming. From the view of evolutionary theory the humans that were alive with hunter gatherer bands before the early civilizations of Uruk and the Yellow River valley are not really any different from the humans alive today shuttling in airplanes while shuttling mentally across the globe on the internet. This is crazy. This is hubris. And this is dangerous. And this is a stain on science for not investigating ourselves.

On the positive side this is a call for a deep study of the self-organizing yet evolutionary dynamics that are appearing with humans over the last 6,000 years or so. There are dynamical changes going on with us whether they are globalization, technology, population growth, transportation, or food distribution that are accelerating.

So, what would an evolutionary exploration of civilization look like? There are events over the course of evolution that are major changes in direction and that are treated as macroevolutionary trends or transitions. This is not a well understood aspect within Darwin’s framework of evolution by changing species. But it acknowledges the big qualitative changes such as the birth of the first cells, the acquisition of photosynthesis, or the change from unicellulars to multicellulars. A current direction for macroevolutionary thinking is from major transition in evolution theory (Szathmary & Smith 1995; Smith & Szathmary 1999). This theoretical umbrella at least extends a wing within theory to explore events such as our own historical epoch as a qualitative change. And this theory already designates human societies with language as one of the few major transitions across the four billion years of evolution on earth. The one surviving founder of this theory has recently updated the concepts (Szathmary 2015) including a stronger recognition of the role of synergy for the initial dynamics of a transition (Corning & Szathmary 2015). But even without this theoretical opening, civilization’s dynamics are so strong and potentially autonomous that they should be explored on their own and not just as human accomplishments. This path of exploration is all the more viable when one considers that there are potentially many autonomous dynamics that are now being addressed under talk of a new synthesis in evolution (A).

As a sample of avenues that can be explored for their evolutionary contours the following trends within late human evolution and history deserve to be studied as evolutionary processes:

  • The coevolution with domesticates (Zeder 2012).
  • New energy and chemical pathways of industrial “metabolism” (Gonzalez de Molina & Toledo 2014).
  • Interactive behavioral dynamics (Favela & Chemero 2016).
  • Behaviors that involve mental time travel (Suddendorf & Corballis 2007).
  • The reinforcement of the built environment to all of these (Skibo & Schiffer 2008).
  • Synergies of the economy (Berger 2009).
  • The electronic commons (Heylighen 2008)
  • Institutional structures (Powers et al 2015).

These will be pursued in later posts.

Other alternative frames to conceptualize the human major transition is as a multibehavioral transition or as a transition to a species-externalized metabolism.


Berger, Sebastian. 2009. The Foundation of Non-Equilibrium Economics: The Principle of Circular and Cumulative Causation. Routledge.
Corning, Peter & E. Szathmary. 2015. “‘Synergistic selection’: A Darwinian frame for the evolution of complexity.” Journal of Theoretical Biology. 371: 45-58.
Favela, Luis & A. Chemero. 2016. “The Animal-Environment System.” Pp. 59-74. From: Coello, Yann & M. Fischer (Eds). Perceptual and Emotional Embodiment: Foundations of Embodied Cognition, Volume 1. Routledge.
Gonzalez de Molina, Manuel & V.M. Toledo. 2014. The Social Metabolism: A Socio-Ecological Theory of Historical Change (Environmental History). Springer.
Heylighen, Francis. 2008. “Acelerating socio-technological evolution: From ephemeralization and stigmergy to the Global Brain.” Pp. 284-309. From: Modelski, George, T. Devezas & W. Thompson, eds. In: Globalization as Evolutionary Process. Routledge.
Powers, Simon, C. van Schaik & L. Lehmann. 2015. “How institutions shaped the last major evolutionary transition to large-scale human societies.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society: B. 371: 20150098.
Skibo, James & M. Schiffer. 2008. People and Things: A Behavioral Approach to Material Culture. Springer.
Smith, Maynard & E. Szathmary. 1999. The Origins of Life: From the Birth of Life to the Origin of Language. Oxford University Press.
Suddendorf, Thomas & M. Corballis. 2007. “The evolution of foresight: What is mental time travel, and is it unique to humans?” Behavioral and Brain Sciences. 30: 299-351.
Szathmary, Eors & Maynard Smith. 1995. “The major evolutionary transitions,” Nature, V. 374, March 16, pp. 227-32.
Szathmary, Eors. 2015. “Toward major evolutionary transitions theory 2.0” PNAS. August 18. V. 112. No. 33. 10104-10111.

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