Chapter 3. Evo Devo Foresight: Unpredictable and Predictable Futures

Development is an Accelerated and Condensed Version of Past Evolution

One of the great insights about development is that it can be understood as a rapidly accelerated and informationally condensed version of a select set of prior evolutionary searches of an environment. This is not to claim that organizational development retraces all of the evolutionary processes or forms that led to it, but rather a specially condensed and minimalist version of those processes. An indefensibly strong form of this idea, proposed in the early 1800s Romantic-era as recapitulation theory, was popularized in the 1860s by the embryologist Ernst Haeckel and is captured in his phrase “Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny”.

Haeckel’s interesting phrase proposes that ontogeny, or how an organism develops, recapitulates (retraces many of the same steps as) phylogeny, or how the precursor species for that organism emerged over macroevolutionary time. The key question of course is what is recapitulated. The bottom line is that we aren’t smart enough to really say, today. Certainly any kind of strong recapitulation model has been discredited by critics of Haeckel’s proposal since its origination, but the weak recapitulation version has many admirers to this day. It seems obvious to anyone who looks at the developmental similarities among embryos of very different species, that some degree of previously expressed morphology and genetics is being rapidly retraced during development. This recapitulation is a highly accelerated, informationally lossy, and cartoonish version of the evolutionary processes that led to that particular organism’s arriving on the scene.

Wallace Arthur (Creatures of Accident, p. 79) offers an illuminating example of such recapitulation: Evolution needed 600 million years to discover a path, via contingent trial and error, from the first cell to the first humans. Development recapitulates that path from a single fertilized cell to an adult human in 20 years, a process that is 30 million times faster. Examples like this suggest to me that development itself is the deepest cause of acceleration in the universe. Development also uses a far more informationally-condensed, predictable, and convergent set of activities in this transition. If our universe replicates, evolves, and develops, as we’ve proposed that it does, we can understand many processes that involve sustained accelerating change to be developmental.

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