Self-Organizing Universe

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* Book: The Self-Organizing Universe. Eric Jantsch. Pergamon Press, 1980 pdf

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"an ambitious attempt to synthesize everything that was known at the time (1979) about self-organizing processes, from the Big Bang to the evolution of society, into an encompassing world view." [1]

Contextual Quote

"While structuring the first big history programme, I realised that by doing so I was actually structuring big history itself. This exciting insight led to my 1996 book The Structure of Big History.4 I wrote that book believing I was the first to have formulated such an approach to all of history. A few years later, however, I discovered that the Austrian philosopher Erich Jantsch had got there first, with his analysis The Self-Organizing Universe of 1980.5 In this much neglected classic, Jantsch looked at all of history in terms of what he called 'process structures'. The honour of being the first to design a general structure for big history should therefore go to Erich Jantsch."

- Fred Spier, Big History pioneer [2]


1. From the Wikipedia:

"Jantsch's Gauthier Lectures in System Science given in May 1979 at the University of California in Berkeley became the basis for his book The Self-Organizing Universe: Scientific and Human Implications of the Emerging Paradigm of Evolution, published by Pergamon Press in 1980 as part of the System Science and World Order Library edited by Ervin László. The book deals with self-organization as a unifying evolutionary paradigm that incorporates cosmology, biology, sociology, psychology, and consciousness. Jantsch is inspired by and draws on the work of Ilya Prigogine concerning dissipative structures and nonequilibrium states.

Now out of print for many years, The Self-organizing Universe has been influential in the interdisciplinary fields of biomimicry, holism, co-evolution, and self-organization. It was extensively cited in Ken Wilber's integral philosophy book Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution.

Jantsch was described as "quiet and modest", but as an "original polymath and genius" by Ralph H. Abraham in "The Genesis of Complexity".

Magoroh Maruyama wrote in a eulogy:

Jantsch succumbed at the age of 51 to the material and physical hardships that worsened progressively during the last decade of his prolific and still young life. This makes us realize again the harsh and brutal conditions of life some of the innovators must endure. ... Let us face squarely the fact that Jantsch was given no paid academic job during a decade of his residence in Berkeley—a town considered to be a foremost spawning ground of scientific and philosophical innovations." Jantsch penned his own epitaph: "Erich Jantsch died on __ in Berkeley after a painful illness. He was almost 52 and grateful for a very rich, beautiful and complete life. His ashes have been scattered over the sea, the cradle of evolution."



"Erich Jantsch: (1929-1980) Austrian astrophysicist whose 1979 lectures in System Science at the University of California in Berkeley became the basis for his book The Self-Organizing Universe: Scientific and Human Implications of the Emerging Paradigm of Evolution (Pergamon Press, 1980). This now long out of print work deals with self-organization as a unifying evolutionary paradigm that incorporates cosmology, biology, sociology, psychology, and consciousness. While obviously not the first to present a unified scientific account of the story of creation, it is probably the most ambitious and inspirational, and in my (MAK) opinion still has not been surpassed in imaginative scope. The book contains some amazing diagrams, but my favourite has to be the one at the bottom of this section, a sort of cosmological equivalent of the tree of life! Jantsch is inspired by and draws on the work of Ilya Prigogine concerning dissipative structures and nonequilibrium states. Although superseded by more recent developments in system science, this book exerted a very strong influence on me when I read it in the early 1980s, and continues to inspire, because of Jantsch's elegant presentation of a big picture worldview. From the synopsis at Google Books

"The evolution of the universe - ranging from cosmic and biological to sociocultural evolution - is viewed in terms of the unifying paradigm of self-organization. The contours of this paradigm emerge from the synthesis of a number of important, recently developed concepts, and provide a scientific foundation to a new world-view which emphasizes process over structure, nonequilibrium over equilibrium, evolution over permanency, and individual creativity over collective stabilization. The book, with its emphasis on the interaction of microstructures with the entire biosphere, ecosystems etc., and on how micro- and macrocosmos mutually create the conditions for their further evolution, provides a comprehensive framework for a deeper understanding of human creativity in a time of transition." Cosmic evolution: Of these three stages, Cosmic evolution begins with the Big Bang and progresses through the convergence of macro-evolution (here referring to cosmological scale, not evolutionary theory and speciation) through the condensation of energy and radiation into galaxies, stars, and planets, and micro-evolution through the building up of sub-atomic particles, atoms, molecules, and crystals and rocks. This is shown by the diagram at the left. Here evolution is represented by inorganic, physical and chemical processes.

Socio-biological evolution: The second of three main evolutionary stages, Socio-biological evolution, as the name indicates, is not only about life but about communities of organisms as well. It begins with the convergence of smaller macro-structures and larger micro-structures continues with the formation of the prebiotic Earth and planetary biosphere (Gaia) , and from there ecosystems and so on, down to societies and group and family behaviour (ethology, sociobiology), while at the same time on the micro-scale, pre-biotic dissipative structures lead to prokaryote organisms, then eukaryotes, multicellular life, and so on. Each involves feedback between the macro and micro scales and vice-versa, so for example photosynthesis and respiration by prokaryotes alters the atmospheric and chemical conditions of the Earth which in turn maintain optimal homeostasis for life (Gaia hypothesis). Here existence and evolution is genetic, hereditary, and metabolic.

Socio-cultural evolution which means evolutionary change at the social, cultural, or civilisational level, is the most subtle of all, because here there is an inversion or self-reflection, by which the micro-scale evolution now becomes macro-scale evolution. Evolution now takes the form of the culture, human society, and the transmission of knowledge from one generation to the next (equivalent to Dawkin's memes). At this new macro-level, humans are linked first of all to families (the last link of the previous diagram), then to societies, larger cultures, and finally planetary consciousness.

Although secular and naturalistic in approach, Jantsch does briefly at the end speculate on a pantheistic worldview, his influence here seems to be the process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead, rather than the evolutionary theology of Teilhard de Chardin."



[[Life and Human Culture as Complex Adaptive Systems

Fred Spier:

"Life as we know it is powered either by sunlight or by energy emanating from within the Earth. This means that all life-forms, that is complex adaptive regimes, are powered by complex non-adaptive regimes. It may well be that the first life-forms emerged as a result of energy flows from within the Earth generated by nuclear fission and perhaps also by the original accretion heat. Yet over time, as these energy flows from within decreased in intensity, life became more dependent on solar energy from outside, which is thought to have increased by about twenty-five per cent over the past 4.6 billion years.

As James Lovelock has argued with his Gaia hypothesis, it may well be that life has created conditions favourable to its own continued existence. In terms of the process of natural selection or, as some prefer, non-random elimination, this makes perfect sense. As I see it, surely any organism that created and maintained Goldilocks circumstances favouring its continued existence (or at least not hampering its survival) would have had an easier time surviving than life-forms producing circumstances damaging to their existence. Yet what may be Goldilocks circumstances for one species may well be unfavourable circumstances for another, which, as a result, might be eliminated. The overall result of this process would be a biosphere occupied by species that are not diminishing their own chances for survival to the extent that they go extinct (at least in the short term), while they may actually be improving them. As a result of cosmic influences, the changing condition of the Earth's surface through plate tectonics, and the dynamics of biological evolution interacting with the biosphere, Gaia keeps changing.

Many animals have created what I call forms of 'constructed complexity'. These are mostly means for protecting their own complexity or the complexity of stored matter and energy, such as nests, holes, beehives, etc., as well as devices for harvesting matter and energy such as spider-webs. Any type of constructed complexity can only emerge when there is a sufficient energy flow available, which is usually the bodily energy expended by the animals making it. These types of constructed complexity may not need energy flows for their continued existence for as long as they are not disturbed by outside events. Yet such disturbances are common, of course, and as a result the animals usually have to spend energy maintaining these forms of complexity.

    Today, humans have created by far the most constructed complexity on this planet. A major distinction between the ways humans and other animals have constructed complexity is that as early as perhaps three and a half million years ago, humans started using tools to create complexity (or to destroy it). Moreover, in contrast to other animals, over the course of time humans have also learned to employ external energy sources for doing so, first of all through fire control. This allowed humans to expand the range of constructed complexity far beyond anything other animals have achieved, for example with pottery and cooking, and even by changing the complexity of entire landscapes through burning. Fire control also helped humans to increase their destructive capabilities. Subsequent external energy sources included animal power as well as the energy that could be harvested from wind and water flows. It is only very recently that humans have begun using fossil fuels for such purposes.

The agrarian revolution, which took off about ten thousand years ago, can be seen as a process involving two types of complex adaptive systems, humans on the one hand and plants and animals on the other, mutually adapting to each other under human dominance, with the human aim of harvesting increasing amounts of matter and energy from the biosphere within a certain area. This process began about ten thousand years ago and is still continuing today, with the result that humans may now control between twenty-five and forty per cent of the energy flows within the web of life.

The subsequent process of state formation and development, starting between about six and five thousand years ago, can be seen as the institutionalisation of inequality among humans by social means. Within the emerging states, increasing numbers of humans derived their basic matter and energy flows no longer from working the land but from other humans. And since these matter and energy exchanges have always been based on the power and dependency relations prevailing, they have usually been unequal. As a result, to our knowledge there have been no states in human history in which humans have lived based on a more or less equal exchange of matter and energy anything like what was observed to be the situation among certain groups of hunter-gatherers in the very recent past.

State formation may have happened as a result of the fact that by practising agriculture, humans became tied to the land, while it also led to population growth. Among agrarian societies, it is profitable to have a considerable number of children – they are productive at an early age at the same time as, with luck, providing your retirement fund. Furthermore, as Robert Carneiro pointed out, the first states all emerged within very restricted ecological conditions, usually river valleys surrounded by deserts.16 These were, apparently, the Goldilocks circumstances for state formation. As a result of the emergence of states, humans learned to adapt to one another as part of an unequal power structure. These social structures were, of course, never completely uncontested. In addition, states as a whole and their neighbours in whatever form of societal development can be seen as complex adaptive systems in continuous need of adapting to one another depending on their power resources, ranging from attempts at complete destruction of neighbours to almost complete submission to them.

For thousands of years, humans have been constructing forms of complexity using external energy sources to perform certain tasks, ranging from treadmills, wind- and watermills, to steam engines, electric motors, jet engines and moon rockets. This has been a unique human achievement: to my knowledge, in nature no examples exist of animals constructing forms of complexity that employ external energy sources to perform tasks. This has allowed humans to expand their constructive and destructive capabilities way beyond anything other life-forms have achieved, as well as to adapt nature to their wishes and desires for as long as there is sufficient matter and energy available, and while there is also enough space to get rid of the inevitable entropy that comes as a result of these efforts. All such human enterprises can be seen as efforts to produce certain Goldilocks circumstances for themselves, while sometimes seeking to destroy those of others, if not their entire complexity.

As a result of the process of non-random elimination, in biological nature Gaia has produced a global trash recycling regime that allows life to deal with its entropy problem. Humans are now making some efforts to do this too, but as yet we do not appear to have found a lasting solution to this problem. At the same time, both matter (in the form of important natural resources) and energy may well become scarce in the near future. These may well be the most important issues facing humanity today. Are we able to adapt ourselves sufficiently to the changing circumstances we have brought about by our collective actions and maintain our complexity with the aid of different matter and energy sources, or will humanity be eliminated by Gaia as a result of a failure to do so?17 In sum: are humans perhaps genetically hard-wired by Darwin's process of natural selection to always harvest a little more matter and energy to overcome the lean times, and if so, will we be able through our culturally acquired capacities to counter this genetic tendency?"