Main   Terms   People   Interviews   Resources   Events

Self-Organisation and the Development of Complexity

Here the most important figure is Stuart Kauffman, whose ideas are most accessibly presented in his At Home in the Universe (1995).Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1995.Kauffman’s work stems principally out of his analysis of non-linear systems - the mathematics of chaos, as modelled on the modern computer and applied to biological systems. In a sense his conclusions complement Stephen Jay Gould’s (see Punctuated Equilibrium and Radical Contingency):

  • Gould’s stress is that the evolution of higher organisms is not a matter of inevitable progress to greater sophistication, but rather that higher systems are always vulnerable to environmental change (most famously when a massive impact from space, 65 million years ago, led, it is thought, to the extinction of the dinosaurs).

  • Kauffman has made use of the work by Prigogine on complex chemical systems held far from equilibrium. The surface of the early Earth contained many such systems (because energy was continually pouring in from the sun). It is now known that these systems are always likely to give rise to greater complexity. So the particularly elaborate systems that are self-replicating cells were, Kauffman alleges, very likely to arise.The details of how a system as intricate as a single cell arose remain frustratingly obscure. What Kauffman has shown is that autocatalytic systems (where each of the components speeds up the reaction...Not merely that, but such evolving systems will tend to move to a special ordered state near to ‘the edge of chaos’, representing the ideal balance between stability and propensity to explore change.See also Bak, P, How Nature Works (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997) on ‘self-organized criticality’.

So one of the properties that organisms may be expected to evolve is ‘evolvability’ - the capacity to try out new properties without prematurely losing the benefit of the old. Although the course of evolution will always be influenced by selection, and radically altered by any sudden climatic or geological change, it will be much influenced by the mathematics of self-organisation. Yes, evolution does depend on all sorts of chances, but also yes, a thermodynamic system like the surface of the Earth will keep throwing up the possibility of complexity.

An extension of the concept that organisms evolve evolvability is the perception that they develop information-processing systems which can analyse the environment and respond not just to stimuli which have occurred in the past but to conditions not met before. The immune systems of higher organisms would be an example, but in a sense the clearest case is the human intellect itself - a product of natural selection which is so versatile and creative that its activity affects the environment of millions of other species.

Email link | Feedback | Contributed by: Dr. Christopher Southgate and Dr. Michael Robert Negus
Source: God, Humanity and the Cosmos  (T&T Clark, 1999)

Topic Sets Available

AAAS Report on Stem-Cells

AstroTheology: Religious Reflections on Extraterrestrial Life Forms

Agency: Human, Robotic and Divine
Becoming Human: Brain, Mind, Emergence
Big Bang Cosmology and Theology (GHC)
Cosmic Questions Interviews

Cosmos and Creator
Creativity, Spirituality and Computing Technologies
CTNS Content Home
Darwin: A Friend to Religion?
Demystifying Information Technology
Divine Action (GHC)
Dreams and Dreaming: Neuroscientific and Religious Visions'
E. Coli at the No Free Lunchroom
Engaging Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence: An Adventure in Astro-Ethics
Evangelical Atheism: a response to Richard Dawkins
Ecology and Christian Theology
Evolution: What Should We Teach Our Children in Our Schools?
Evolution and Providence
Evolution and Creation Survey
Evolution and Theology (GHC)
Evolution, Creation, and Semiotics

The Expelled Controversy
Faith and Reason: An Introduction
Faith in the Future: Religion, Aging, and Healthcare in the 21st Century

Francisco Ayala on Evolution

From Christian Passions to Scientific Emotions
Genetic Engineering and Food

Genetics and Ethics
Genetic Technologies - the Radical Revision of Human Existence and the Natural World

Genomics, Nanotechnology and Robotics
Getting Mind out of Meat
God and Creation: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Perspectives on Big Bang Cosmology
God, Humanity and the Cosmos: A Textbook in Science and Religion
God the Spirit - and Natural Science
Historical Examples of the Science and Religion Debate (GHC)
History of Creationism
Intelligent Design Coming Clean

Issues for the Millennium: Cloning and Genetic Technologies
Jean Vanier of L'Arche
Nano-Technology and Nano-ethics
Natural Science and Christian Theology - A Select Bibliography
Neuroscience and the Soul
Outlines of the Science and Religion Debate (GHC)

Perspectives on Evolution

Physics and Theology
Quantum Mechanics and Theology (GHC)
Questions that Shape Our Future
Reductionism (GHC)
Reintroducing Teleology Into Science
Science and Suffering

Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action (CTNS/Vatican Series)

Space Exploration and Positive Stewardship

Stem-Cell Debate: Ethical Questions
Stem-Cell Ethics: A Theological Brief

Stem-Cell Questions
Theistic Evolution: A Christian Alternative to Atheism, Creationism, and Intelligent Design...
Theology and Science: Current Issues and Future Directions
Unscientific America: How science illiteracy threatens our future
Will ET End Religion?

Current Stats: topics: >2600, links: >300,000, video: 200 hours.