Metasystem Transitions

From P2P Foundation
Jump to navigation Jump to search


From the Principia Cybernetica project:

"In "The Phenomenon of Science" (Columbia University Press, 1977) it is shown that the major steps in evolution, both biological, and cultural, are nothing else but metasystem transitions of a large scale. The concept of metasystem transition allows us to introduce a kind of objective quantitative measure of evolution and distinguish between evolution in the positive direction, progress, and what we consider an evolution in the negative direction, regress (cf. the direction of evolution)."



"For example, here is the sequence of metasystem transitions which led, starting from the appearance of organs of motion, to the appearance of human thought and human society:

  • control of position = movement
  • control of movement = irritability (simple reflex)
  • control of irritability = (complex) reflex
  • control of reflex = associating (conditional reflex)
  • control of associating = human thinking
  • control of human thinking = culture "



From the introduction to the thematic issue, 'Quantum of Evolution':

The Principia Cybernetica philosophical framework is based on a core idea: the Metasystem Transition (MST). This concept was proposed by Turchin (1977) to describe the process whereby, through variation and natural selection, a new control level emerges, integrating a set of subsystems at the level below. A metasystem transition functions as a "quantum of evolution", a discrete jump to a higher level of complexity. It thus provides a general principle to explain evolutionary "progress" or development. The major steps in evolution, such as the origin of life, multicellularity, or the origin of thought, can be viewed as large scale metasystem transitions. Thus, the history of life and the universe can be conceptualized as a (branching) sequence of MSTÍs, leading to ever more complex, adaptive, and intelligent systems: from atoms and molecules, to dissipative structures, cells, multicellular organisms, organisms capable of movement or learning, and finally to human culture (as the provisionally highest level). MST Theory (MSTT) can also be used to make predictions about the future, thereby helping us to anticipate the next level of organization to which we are evolving.

We felt it appropriate to bring together the latest ideas about MSTT developed within the Principia Cybernetica Project and a number of related ideas by other researchers. Therefore, we decided to edit a major collection of papers on the theory, with contributions from ourselves as well as from invited authors. World Futures, which "is dedicated to the study of general patterns of change and development, in nature as well as society, and to evolutionary processes, with special attention to multidisciplinary approaches", seemed the perfect venue for the publication of a collection on such a wide-ranging subject with essential implications for our evolutionary future.

Although the MST concept has shown its explanatory and unifying ability in many domains, several basic questions about MST Theory remain to be addressed. Furthermore, in parallel with Turchin, other researchers have developed similar schemes for analysing evolutionary levels (without focusing on the process of the emergence of a new level). For example, William Powers (1973) has proposed a hierarchy of control levels, and Donald T. Campbell (1974) has introduced a nested hierarchy of vicarious selectors. Our intention was to start a dialogue among these different approaches, and to move towards resolution of the remaining incompleteness and inconsistencies.

This required the clarification of the basic concepts and principles needed to understand levels of organization (e.g., system, control, constraint, variety, hierarchy, model) and the evolutionary transitions between them (e.g., self-organization, emergence, blind variation, selective retention, and the MST itself). Moreover, we wanted to show some of the applications of MST Theory, such as supercompilation in computer science, and the evolution towards future "cybernetic immortality". Although there is as yet no consensus on many of these topics, we hope that this collection of papers provides a least a clear overview of the main issues and the different approaches to this fascinating new domain.

The collection starts (appropriately enough) with a paper by Turchin, the originator of the theory. In the form of a dialogue between himself and an imaginary discussant, he outlines the theory, expounds the main philosophical assumptions underlying it, and answers some common objections. The two subsequent papers, by the other editors of this collection, attempt a more formal and systematic analysis of some of the fundamental concepts. Heylighen develops a classification and definition of supersystem, metasystem and metasystem transition (which is in some respects different from TurchinÍs), and uses it to analyse the most important MST's in the history of evolution. Joslyn then develops some fundamental ideas logically prior to the MST, including the concepts of "system" and "control", the essential role of semantics in control, and the various roles played by "distinction", "constraint", "variety", and other systems theoretical concepts.

Powers opens the series of invited papers by applying ideas from his own Perceptual Control Theory (Powers, 1973) to conceive of a possible, feedback-based scenario for the origin of life, which is also the origin of control systems, and thus a primary MST. Jon Umerez and Alvaro Moreno give an overview of developments in theoretical biology and systems theory parallel to MST Theory, and discuss some difficult philosophical questions about interlevel relations, similarly focusing on the origin of life. Charles François proposes a number of concepts developed outside MST Theory which may help to better understand the MST concept, and discusses the on-going MST in human society as a possible application. Elan Moritz similarly applies MST Theory, in conjunction with memetics (the theory of memes), to discuss the possible evolution of cybernetically immortal "beings". Heylighen and Campbell survey the evolution of social control mechanisms, with the aim of better understanding the patterns of cooperation and competition between selfish individuals, and the MSTs shaping present society. Finally, Robert Glueck and Andrei Klimov review the applications of MST Theory in computer science and mathematics, which are based on the technique of metacomputation: the manipulation of programs (linguistic models) by other (or the same) programs."


Towards a Metasystem Transition Theory

Principia Cybernetica:

"Metasystem Transition Theory (MSTT) is the name we have given our particular cybernetic philosophy. Its most salient concept is, of course, the Metasystem Transition (MST), the evolutionary process by which higher levels of complexity and control are generated. But it also includes our views on philosophical problems, and makes predictions about the possible future of mankind and life. Our goal is to create, on the basis of cybernetic concepts, an integrated philosophical system, or "world view", proposing answers to the most fundamental questions about the world, ourselves, and our ultimate values.

Our philosophy too is based on cybernetic principles.

  • Our epistemology understands knowledge as a model, which is constructed by the subject or group, but undergoes selection by the environment.
  • Our metaphysics asserts actions as ontological primitives.
  • On the basis of this ontology, we define the most important concepts and organize them in a semantic network.
  • At a higher level, we also lay out the fundamental principles of cybernetics in terms of these underlying concepts.

One of the central concepts is that of evolution in the most general sense, which is produced by the mechanism of variation and selection. Another is control, which we define in a special cybernetic sense, and assert as the basic mode of organization in complex systems. This brings us to the central concept for MSTT, that of the metasystem transition, or the process by which control emerges in evolutionary systems.

On this basis we then reconstruct the complete history of evolution, from the Big Bang to the present, as a sequence of MST's. An extrapolation of this sequence provides us with a first glimpse of what the future might bring. Finally, the possible dangers and opportunities of our evolutionary future direct our attention to the need for formulating an ethics, based on evolutionary and systemic principles, that could guide our actions.


More information

  • "The Quantum of Evolution", a collection of papers on the topic of metasystem transitions, published as a special issue of "World Futures".
    • Full citation: Special Issue on "The Quantum of Evolution" Heylighen F., Joslyn C. & Turchin V. (1995) (eds.): The Quantum of Evolution. Toward a theory of metasystem transitions, (Gordon and Breach Science Publishers, New York) (special issue, Vol. 45:1-4, of "World Futures: the journal of general evolution).