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Complexity and Evolution

This is a course taught by Francis Heylighen for the Bachelor's students in philosophy, but can also be attended by others.


This course proposes an introduction to the basic concepts and principles of the evolutionary-systemic world view, in an as simple and clear possible manner. A review is presented of recent approaches in a variety of disciplines that offer new insights into the evolution, self-organization and adaptation of complex systems: systems theory, cybernetics, complex adaptive systems, chaos, biology and others. These approaches replace the Newtonian, mechanistic worldview by a paradigm, in which the emphasis is on creative processes, i.e. the spontaneous appearance of novel systems, structures and functions. This generally gives rise to an increase in complexity. The course will present various examples of such processes from different domains, and focus on the underlying concepts and principles that allow us to understand how complexity evolves. These include natural selection, variation, self-organisation, positive and negative feedback, goal-directedness, integration and differentiation, order and disorder, hierarchy, entropy, information and fitness. These concepts will be explained in an as clear and general possible way, using concrete illustrations, while technical and mathematical aspects will only be mentioned insofar that they are strictly necessary for understanding. Finally, the course will show how the evolutionary mechanisms that generate complex systems can offer us a foundation for an integrated worldview that is neither theistic nor mechanistic. By showing how the major transitions in evolution have led to emerging levels of complexity, it becomes clear how humanity fits into the larger scheme of evolution, and which forces are likely to steer future developments.

Extensive illustrated lecture notes with a bibliography are freely available for download:

Heylighen, F. (2018). Complexity and Evolution: fundamental concepts of a new scientific worldview. Brussels: Vrije Universiteit Brussel.