Species in modern science are defined by the type of body and often by their DNA, and they evolve through random mutations and natural selection by the environment. Cracks in this notion of evolution appear when one zooms out to look at ecosystems. An ecosystem is defined by interrelations between species and the study of ecosystems is concerned with their stability. The stability points in an ecosystem are defined collectively and not individually, which means that no individual species can change independently; rather the ecosystem evolves as a whole, and the individual members of the species adapt to the ecosystem changes. This idea about evolution posits that the big things—i.e. the ecosystem—change before the small things, i.e. the individual members of species. This post explores the many implications of this understanding of evolution on the species, including how species can be defined in a different way than in modern science.
How Ecosystems Control Behavior
Consider a predator-prey system comprised of lions and deer. If some lions develop a larger appetite but the deer do not change their rate of reproduction, then as the lions eat more, the jackals will not find enough food. The jackals will then eat insects, which will reduce plant pollination, which then reduces plants and deer, and food supply for lions. By eating more food, the lions reduce their own population.
Conversely, if the lions eat less deer, the deer population will grow, and the jackals will now replace the lions as the primary carnivores. As the jackals shift from insects to deer, the insect population also grows, which increases plant pollination, thus increasing the plant and deer population, but jackals are now the primary carnivores. Meanwhile, the lions are becoming weaker and the jackals are stronger contenders for the increased amount of food available. Eventually, the jackals begin to eliminate the lions from the race for the food.
Therefore, if lions eat more deer, then there will be lesser deer to eat, and the lion population must decline. If the lions eat less deer, then they are replaced by jackals in the competition for food (if you don’t do your job, someone will replace you—not partially but completely). Either way, deviating from the normal state is not conducive to the lions; it applies backpressure to reverse things to the original state.
This fact flies in the face of evolutionary ideas wherein little changes accumulate to become bigger changes. When instead we look at ecosystems, change ripples through the system and retaliates with a reversal because there is a feedback loop for every change. Change is sustainable only when multiple species change their behavior at once—e.g. lions reducing their consumption of deer, jackals eating more insects instead of deer, plant pollination declining leading to reduction in plant and herbivore population, which matches the reduced lion consumption. Such a system will not retaliate—provided the insects do not develop new methods of escaping consumption by jackals, and plants do not find new ways to pollinate themselves. The likelihood of multiple orchestrated changes occurring at once is very low, but not impossible, and this is the only scenario in which the species can evolve collectively rather than individually.
The Stability of Ecosystems
When a collection of species are entangled in a web of interrelations in an ecosystem, no species can change individually without hurting itself because every change creates a negative feedback. Change is possible when the ecosystem as a whole evolves into a new state. This evolution entails that the big things—i.e. the ecosystem—must change before the changes to small things are sustainable. It is an anti-reductionist fact that creates stability in the ecosystem because unilateral changes are always reversed by the evolutionary process.
Now, to describe the evolution of species, we have to talk about the evolution of ecosystems. Since the ecosystem either evolves collectively from one state to another, or remains in that same state, we have to conjure a new model of biology that imitates such a type of behavior.
The Model for Collective Change
Such a model can be found in vibrations of strings and surfaces, and indeed any kind of stable vibrational state. Think of the surface of a drum; it comprises point particles or parts that oscillate synchronously. The drum has many vibrational modes, which are called its normal modes, and constitute the states in which the drum has a stable pattern. When the drum is hit by an external force, one of the possible normal modes is excited into vibration. The surface of the drum is a closed region of space (membrane) with well-defined boundaries. The normal modes of the surface of the drum emerge because of this closure; an open surface can vibrate in arbitrary normal modes.
An ecosystem has all the properties of the closed surface. There is a well-defined boundary within which the cycle of energy exchange occurs; this cycle in the case of the drum is the standing wave comprising of forward and backward movements. The backward movement constitutes the feedback for the forward movement and in a standing wave they don’t interfere destructively. Owing to the nature of interaction between the action and its feedback, there are only certain states which can remain stable; the rest will be destroyed by the feedback or the backward movement. The actions that are not destroyed by the feedback constitute the stable states.
Thus, in the ecosystem, a collection of parts are tightly interlinked due to which the parts cannot change independently of the other parts. Similarly, the whole drum has a single state, comprising the separate states of the parts. The ability to give the ecosystem a single state—apart from the states of the individual parts on the drum—gives us the theoretical framework to describe the ecosystem as a whole.
Rethinking the Nature of Evolution
Modern evolutionary theory describes the changes to the parts and tries to construct the evolution of the whole from these parts. Under this reduction, we lose the ability to talk about ecosystem stability because we can speak about the local harmony between an organism and its environment, not the global harmony between all species. Changes from one part propagate to the other parts, and are then reflected back by the ecosystem boundary. Due to this reflection, accompanied by a delay, the ecosystem will oscillate in unpredictable ways leading to grave instabilities. Species cannot survive in this unstable environment because of the requirement for constant adaptation.
Vedic notions of evolution can be understood once we grasp the ecosystem stability problem, and what it entails. In this new model of evolution, the ecosystem as a whole evolves with passing time; that is, new societies, cultures, environments, flora, and fauna are created collectively and simultaneously. They also evolve collectively which means as the ecosystem transitions from one state to another, some new species may be automatically visible while previously visible species are now extinct. This is now called the Cambrian Explosion.
All the observed facts about evolution—namely that species are created and destroyed—are consistent in the current and the new models. However, only the new model explains why such ecosystems can exist for long periods of time without evolution, and why many species can be created suddenly without gradual step by step evolution from one species to another. This is now called Punctuated Equilibrium.
In Punctuated Equilibrium, rapid change occurs in very short periods, followed by stability for long periods. Both the relative stability for long periods and the rapid change in short periods present problems for traditional models of evolution. These problems, however, are easily resolved if we look at the ecosystem as a whole. For instance, we can compare the ecosystem to a drum that is being hit by a performer’s hands but between two hits, the drum produces a stable sound. Hence, when the drum is hit, there is rapid change, but afterward the drum remains in a stable state and only gradually dissipates it energy before it is hit again to create a new sound. Therefore, even at the macroscopic level, the changes are discrete and not continuous. Our problem is to describe this discrete or punctuated evolution that moves discontinously rather than continuously. The need for macroscopic discontinuity is not achievable in current evolutionary models.
A General Theory of History
Biological evolution is only one of many types of changes over history, including cosmic, geographical, cultural, social, economic, ideological, and other types of evolution. Nature cannot employ different models of evolution for different types of historical changes. Nature has to have one model for how change occurs, which has to cover every type of conceivable change—including biological.
In a sense, we require a general theory of history or time, which accounts for various types of changes. The models of change already follow Punctuated Equilibrium in the case of ideological evolution, for example. As data gathers against a certain type of ideology, there is a sudden paradigm shift from one type of thinking to another, followed by the stability phase of the new paradigm. Societies are suddenly created and destroyed, as evidenced by the birth and death of civilizations. Fashion trends are suddenly born, live for certain time and then suddenly die. New technology suddenly emerges to replace the older technology but enjoys stability after the gestation only to be replaced suddenly.
The notion that the ecosystem as a whole is evolving—based on the influence of external forces represented by the hand which hits the drum to create a vibration—can help us model history as a whole through a unified theory. In this theory, the most important feature of the ecosystem is stability or equilibrium for long durations of time. The ecosystem, however, discretely jumps from one equilibrium state to another due to an external force that reorganizes the ecosystem as a whole, and thereby all the members within it.
Changes – Big vs. Small
Big change therefore doesn’t occur incrementally through the aggregation of small changes. Rather the big changes occur through history and small changes occur within that big change and follow from the emergence of big changes. The small changes can get smaller and smaller, and this makes the reductionist think that the small things are accumulating to create a big change. This reliance on the small, however, forces the continous model of change. We cannot conceive discontinous changes if small changes accumulate into big shifts. When the changes are discrete, then the bigger changes are longer lived, and the smaller changes are shorter lived. Therefore, we are able to account for microscopic continuity and the macroscopic discontinuity using the same theory of change.
The laws of history and evolution have to be understood as the theory of such discrete changes. This is described in Vedic texts as the dawn of ages when nature suddenly reorganizes things. Within each age there exists an equilibrium—i.e. each age has a particular characteristic about life. This equilibrium is punctuated by a relatively short period of rapid transformation from one age to another.
The theories of biology, sociology, economics, anthropology, and culture describing change have to be inverted to account for this kind of model; in these theories a new age dawns with the manifestation of completely new ideas, methods, technologies, species, culture, and ideals. These novelties have a short gestation period after which they overtake and replace the old system completely.
Such a theory cannot be founded on reductionist ideas—e.g. that the big is built from the small. It can only be developed on an anti-reductionist understanding of nature in which the big is divided into small parts to create continuity from discontinuity and the theory of nature devolves from the evolution of the big into the evolution of the small creating a hierarchy of change in which the bigger things remain stable under smaller changes, but when the big change occurs it naturally drags and forces the smaller changes.
The Understanding of Species
The species are parts of an ecosystem created by dividing the whole into the parts. If the whole is changed, then the parts must be changed in most cases. As a result, species will appear and disappear over time, not because one species evolves into another, but because the ecosystem as a whole evolves, and with this evolution natural room for different species is created suddenly, removing other species.
Biologists have struggled to find many intermediate species to bridge the gap between various forms. However, in the approach outlined here, there is no need for such bridges. Just like a drum has discrete modes of vibration, and the drum doesn’t smoothly shift from one state to another, similarly, the ecosystem changes are never smooth. As a result, we will never find the transitional species in many cases, because there is in fact no transitional species because the species are appearing and disappearing suddenly via discrete changes.
Instead, we can describe the species by dividing the ecosystem into smaller parts, just as we can describe the vibrational state of the parts of the drum based on the overall tone of the drum. However, when the cause of the change is the hand hitting the drum, then the evolution of parts is not the cause of evolution. Similarly, the notion that species are evolving from one to another is false. In the new model of changes, species appear and disappear, just like the parts of the drum can exist in many possible states but one state is chosen for the whole drum, and that macroscopic choice for the entire ecosystem naturally produces the states of the participating member parts.
A species is simply a type of role in the ecosystem—i.e. the relationships of give and take with the other roles. The ecosystem evolution creates new roles, and material bodies enter these roles. The body is constrained by the role’s expectations on behavior. The same body can exist in a different role and behave differently. The body is only a set of possibilities combined with the opportunities presented by the role. The combination creates the facts that we observe, but underlying these facts are two kinds of possibilities—abilities and opportunities.
Genotype vs. Phenotype
The genes of the species constitute the abilities which can be expressed in the suitable environment. The genes are simply embodiments of what is possible, not description of the facts about the species (e.g. the form and functioning of the body). The genes are expressed differently in different environments, thereby creating the phenotypes.
Therefore, the phenotype is the thing we observe, based on two things that remain as possibilities—the genes and the role the gene is subjected to in relation to the environment. This fact has now come to light in modern science through epigenetics where all the genes present in the body are not expressed. Rather, the genes are selectively expressed based on the environment, like a person who is both an artist and a musician will only be expressing the musical talent if the opportunities are limited to expressing those traits. The artistic talents will remain hidden due to lack of opportunities.
Since the genotype is not alone in describing the outcome, we have to take into account the role and relation to the environment. The latter is represented in biology by epigenetic factors that control gene expression. These epigenetic factors are also heritable which means children of parents who grow up in certain circumstances are preconditioned to only express certain behaviors, even though they have the genes to express different behaviors that are currently being hidden by epigenetics.
The Process of Gene Expression
The epigenetic factors effectively acts as filters on the gene; they filter out certain genes and don’t allow them to be expressed, and the phenotype we observe is the outcome of what is expressed. The epigenetic markers exist inside each cell, as the representations of the environmental conditions. Therefore, the environment is not ‘outside’ the body. It is embedded within each cell as the knowledge of the environment and it suppresses and expresses different possibilities within the gene.
This embedded knowledge of the environment requires us to view matter as symbols of meaning. The meaning is not just in the brain; it exists in every part of the body as conditioning by the environment. Thus, as the environment changes, the whole body is conditioned to act differently by the epigenetic markers. When the environment is again altered, the same gene expresses differently.
Under the influence of the environment, the phenotype changes, even though the gene is the same. Therefore, the species can be said to have evolved without a change in the genotype! The epigenetic factors that surround and filter the gene expression thus constitute the ‘environment’ of the gene, and by changing this environment we can alter gene expression. Normally, the external environmental changes cause changes to the epigenetic factors and thereby to the gene expression.
The Ontology of a Role
A role is an entity that sets normative expectations of behaviors—the judgment of right and wrong. However, just like we can speak about the role through language which involves words which can be seen and heard, similarly, objective measurements on a role reveal material objects. It is for this reason that epigenetic markers are also described as molecules. However, these molecules have to be given a different kind of meaning—they are the filters of the gene—that suppress gene expression.
Unless we induct meaning into science we cannot distinguish between the type differences between genetics and epigenetics; they will both remain molecules governed by reactions. Biologists will call these molecules by different names attributing them different functions but how the external environment comes to be represented as filter within each cell would remain elusive.
The species can hence be described in two ways—(1) as all the possibilities in the gene, and (2) as all the filters in the epigenetics. We need a new language in science to describe these things through a model in which the genes represent abilities and the epigenetics denotes expectations. As the environment changes, the expectations are altered which entails a different gene expression.
The Vedic Description of Species
A species in Vedic texts is described as the combination of three things—guna, karma, and prakriti. The guna represent the desires of the organism, karma is the counterpart of the environment in which the organism is placed, and prakriti represents the abilities in the organism. Karma restrains or filters the expression of abilities, under the control of the desires or guna present in the organism.
The environment can be described in two ways—(1) semantically as what is possible, and (2) morally as what is expected. When an organism does the things that are possible, but are not expected, karma is created. According to karma the soul is placed in a different kind of environment where it is able to express or suppress the prakriti. Thus, the genes are the prakriti or possibility, and the normative role and the desires of the organism are the epigenetics. It has been observed, for example, that the change in the emotional state or a change in environment causes changes to epigenetics.
Ideally, the ability, role, and desire must be matched, which means that if I desire to be a musician, then I must get the talent, and then opportunities to display that talent. However, these are not necessarily matched. The outcome we see is the intersection or combination of desire, ability, and opportunity.
Accompanying each kind of role is a body and desire. However, since the role can be filled by an alternative body type—other bodies can behave in the same way—the real definition of the species is the role. Vedic texts describe that life is divided into 8,400,000 life forms created by Brahma who defines the dharma of this universe. The species created by Brahma are templates of roles and duties. Just by knowing the species, therefore, we can set normative expectations of behavior.
The 8,400,000 life forms are not body types but role types. In this role, we can prescriptively say that the answer to “What is it to be a human?” has a definite answer provided by the types of duties and roles which the human is supposed to perform in the entire ecosystem comprising of other species.
This is a social notion of a species in which humanity is described in relation to the other life forms. Vedic texts describe that there are 400,000 types of human forms, which means there is considerable variety in the possible behaviors that characterize different types of humans.
Not everyone in a human body is a human, but every human must have a human body. This is because to fulfill the roles and duties of human life, we have to have the abilities. But, just because we have the abilities doesn’t mean we actually perform the duties. The human form is therefore primarily defined by the types of duties we have to perform, and secondarily by the type of body we possess.