Chapter 3. Evo Devo Foresight: Unpredictable and Predictable Futures

The 95/5 Rule: Most Change Looks Evolutionary

The reason the evolutionist, chaos, and random accident perspectives have been so dominant for so long, in my estimation, is because of a fundamental property of evo devo systems that we will now consider. Nearly all, or roughly 95%, to a first approximation, of the pathways, decisions or events that occur in complex systems in our environment appear to be bottom-up, evolutionary processes that are unpredictable-in-specifics. Only a critical subset, 5% or less, are top-down, hierarchical, developmental processes. We can call this a 95/5 (or 97/3, 99/1, or other similar) Rule, for different processes. We will stick with the name 95/5 Rule for now, until evo devo processes have been much better measured and quantified in a variety of complex systems.

The “Foresight Iceberg” (The 95/5 Rule)

The “Foresight Iceberg”
(The 95/5 Rule)

Why the 95/5 Rule exists is obvious, if you think about how evolution and development work as we have defined them. Evolutionary processes constantly branch, or fan out, in a bottom-up way, as each species/system tries to adapt by trying lots of local creative experiments. Only a few of these branches are destined fall into funnels, special evolutionary configurations that will predictably reach higher levels of complexity. These special branches are guided top-down to these higher levels due to the special initial conditions and laws of the universal environment, and the way those conditions and laws have been tuned for future-specific form and function via many previous cyclings of the system (in living systems and the universe as a system).

A good way to remember this rule is the Foresight Iceberg schematic, pictured at right. In evo devo systems, only a small percent of change is easily “visible” to foresight professionals, in that it is predictable and controlled or driven top-down by a few actors. The vast majority of change is submerged, and thus harder to see, because it happens bottom-up and collectively via creative action of a vast number of local actors, and is unpredictable, except in broad statistical ways.

We can see this 95/5 Rule operating in complex systems of all types.

A few examples:

  • Almost all the genes in an organism are evolutionary. They recombine unpredictably in offspring to make new variety (phenotypes). But at most, 3-5% of the genes are instead developmental (the developmental-genetic toolkit). They funnel the organism to one predictable phenotype.
  • Almost all of the cells in organisms are guided via bottom-up, contingent, local interactions, to form stochastic structure and function. Their positions and fates aren’t predictable in advance, as they differentiate from totipotency based on contingent local cues. A small subset are fated to spatiotemporally predictable structural and functional outcomes, once they emerge. They form a top-down “environment” and “scaffolds” which constrain the way the other cells emerge. Example: Radial glial cells, which generate and direct the formation of neural architecture.
  • Almost all species on Earth evolve “randomly,” with some increasing in complexity-intelligence, and some decreasing (parasites, cul-de-sacs, etc.) as they adapt. Only a small fraction of species (~1%?), those with social brains, language, and the ability to use tools to create niches, are caught in the “funneling” path to greater world- and self-modeling, environmental control, and intelligence development as they adapt. For more, see Conway Morris, Life’s Solution (2003).
  • Almost all the thoughts in a mind are unconscious, guiding the organism bottom-up, in contingent, unpredictable ways. A small fraction (1-5%?) are conscious, guiding the animal top-down as planned, convergent, optimization-seeking behavior. See Mlodinow, Subliminal (2013).
  • Almost all actions in an organization happen by workers acting in bottom-up, contingent, local, unpredictable ways. Management sets top-down policies, plans, and objectives for action, but management’s actions (1-5% of org. action?) create only the critical framework, or envelope, of acceptable behavior. For more, see Kelly, Out of Control (1995).
  • Almost all change in society is driven bottom-up by individuals acting in divergent, contingent, local, experimental ways (markets, democratic politics, other bottom-up behavior). A critical subset (1-5%?) of social change is top-down, planned, optimization-seeking policy set by societal leaders (govt, institutions, corps, church, etc.). Whenever societies get too centrally planned, autocratic, or plutocratic, they lose to bottom-up ones. Whenever societies have insufficient top-down planning, they become anarchic, and chaotic. Bottom-up and top-down management is always in a rough 95/5 balance. See Acemoglu, Why Nations Fail (2012).

The generic value of a 95/5 Rule in building and maintaining intelligent systems, if one exists, would explain why the vast majority of universal change appears to be bottom-up driven, evolutionary and unpredictable in complex systems, what systems theorist Kevin Kelly described as “out of control” in his prescient work Out of Control (Basic Books, 1994). Yet a critical subset of events and processes in all these systems also appears to be top-down/systemically directed, developmental, and intrinsically predictable, if you have the right theory, computational resources, and data. Discovering that developmental subset, and differentiating it from the much larger evolutionary subset, will make our world vastly more understandable, and show how it is constrained to certain future destinies, even as creativity and experimentation keep growing within all the evolutionary domains.

Fortunately, as our science and computing abilities advance, theories of universal evolution and development will be deeply tested, and proven or falsified, by simulation. For now, you must use your own knowledge and intuition to ask whether the hypothesis makes sense. Science is a long way from being able to verify or refute it, or any alternative. We can only cite evidence and argument.

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