Beyond networks: the evolution of dynamic regulatory systems

People involved: Johannes Jaeger

Keywords: process thinking, evolutionary systems biology, organicism,
complex adaptive system, dynamical systems theory

Project Description

I am writing a book on evolutionary systems biology from an organismal,
dynamical systems perspective. It is based on the fundamental notion that
evolutionary dynamics arise from the struggle for survival of goal-oriented
organismal agents. In this radical view, organisms and their perceived
environments co-generate each other. The notion of organismal agency is
based on the organizationally closed but thermodynamically open structure
of living systems. Organismal agents are paradigm examples of complex
adaptive systems. I combine empirical, mathematical, and conceptual
approaches to approach this broad and complicated topic. I start from a
processual ontological perspective, examining the fundamental nature of
change and the patterned dynamics that constitute a system. The book then
develops a graphical and intuitive introduction to dynamical systems, based
on the notion that flow (a generalized mapping through time) is
fundamental, while abstract notions such as instantaneous states or
integral paths through time are derived. It presents a number of examples,
where dynamical systems theory in general, and the geometrical analysis of
configuration space in particular, have been successfully applied to
problems in organismic development, ecology, and evolution. It then goes on
to examine the limits of dynamical systems theory, the validity of
steady-state assumptions, the need for non-autonomous systems, and the
difficulties in integrating organizational closure into the formalism. It
discusses radical notions of organism-environment co-evolution, based on
the idea that living beings are not passive sufferers of evolutionary
processes, but actively engage in autonomous exploratory and adaptive
activities. Such an agent-based view leads to a tight interdependence of a
system and its configuration space. I am developing conceptual foundations
for new mathematical formalisms able to deal with this commingling, while
still remaining amenable to (numerical) analysis that enables novel
causal-mechanistic insights into organisms as autonomous agents and their
evolution.

The book is aimed at an interdisciplinary audience with a wide variety of
intellectual backgrounds. My aim is to make the reader familiar with the
conceptual problems of agent-based evolution without presupposing an
advanced level of technical mathematical skills. The book is based on a
masterclass at the University of Vienna with 14 lectures, each one
providing one of the chapters. The aim of my six-month stay at the CRI is
to work on the book, while turning its content into a massive open online
course (MOOC) with the help of the infrastructure and the multi-media teams
at the CRI.