The Arrival of the Fittest: Evolution of Novelty from a Cybernetic Perspective

The Arrival of the Fittest: Evolution of Novelty from a Cybernetic Perspective

Alexander Riegler (Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Belgium)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-61520-668-1.ch012
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Organizations and organisms are both complex systems exposed to evolutionary changes. The authors challenge the perspective of mainstream evolutionary theory, according to which evolutionary progress is accomplished in terms of blind variation and external selection. Instead, they present a perspective that complies with Bateson’s emphasis on the “negative” character of cybernetic explanation, which offers explanations in terms of constraints rather than causes or forces. His concept of “pathways of viability” is aligned with the work of evolutionary theorists such as Waddington, von Bertalanffy, Riedl, and Kauffman, who reject external physical causation in favor of internally-driven “stimulus-and-response” and therefore move the focus from external selection to epigenetic mechanisms. Such a cybernetic evolutionary theory responds to various open questions in biology and management theory, including the dispute between homogenists and heterogenists as well as “path-dependence” in companies. The authors conclude that the strongest players are not those who adapt to the economic environment but those who emerge from it by co-creating it.
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It would be disastrous for a company [...] to have to rely only upon its customers to find out whether the engine was properly put into a car or whether the cylinders are equal in size. (Riedl, 1977, p. 362)


Current Evolutionary Theory

The current synthetic theory of evolution features two main factors in evolution: variance in terms of genetic mutation (in order to generate “blind” variation) and elimination of phenotypic1 variants in terms of environmental selection. This paradigm has been shaped over several decades. First, by merging Darwin’s original theory with Mendelian genetics resulting in “Neo-Darwinism”, and later, with population genetics and ecology resulting in mainstream synthetic evolutionary theory.

The inclusion of genetics shifted the attention from the macroscopic level down to the level of genes, thus providing a new basis of explanation that was at the time not available to Darwin himself. One of the main achievements was the formulation of the “Weismann-Doctrine” or “central dogma” of molecular biology, according to which nucleic acids act as templates for the synthesis of proteins, but never the reverse. This makes it impossible that characteristics acquired during the development of an individual organism (ontogenesis) can be passed on to the next generation (as Lamarckism claims). Therefore, the dogma lays down the flow direction of genetic information during gene expression, i.e., the process by which the genetic sequence is converted into the structures and functions of a cell: deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) → ribonucleic acid (RNA) → proteins → organism.2 Evolutionary changes only occur due to mutations that modify the structure of DNA or errors in the transcription process. Mutations are saltatory and non-directional and they can be artificially triggered, e.g., through chemical or thermic stimuli. However, this only increases the probability of their occurrence but does not bias the direction of their impact.

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