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Bernd Rosslenbroich, On the Origin of Autonomy, 2014

Bernd Rosslenbroich

On the Origin of Autonomy

A New Look at the Major Transitions in Evolution

Springer, 2014.

This volume describes features of biological autonomy and integrates them into the recent discussion of factors in evolution. In recent years ideas about major transitions in evolution are undergoing a revolutionary change. They include questions about the origin of evolutionary innovation, their genetic and epigenetic background, the role of the phenotype, and of changes in ontogenetic pathways. In the present book, it is argued that it is likewise necessary to question the properties of these innovations and what was qualitatively generated during the macroevolutionary transitions.

The author states that a recurring central aspect of macroevolutionary innovations is an increase in individual organismal autonomy whereby it is emancipated from the environment with changes in its capacity for flexibility, self-regulation and self-control of behavior.

The first chapters define the concept of autonomy and examine its history and its epistemological context. Later chapters demonstrate how changes in autonomy took place during the major evolutionary transitions and investigate the generation of organs and physiological systems. They synthesize material from various disciplines including zoology, comparative physiology, morphology, molecular biology, neurobiology and ethology. It is argued that the concept is also relevant for understanding the relation of the biological evolution of man to his cultural abilities.

Finally the relation of autonomy to adaptation, niche construction, phenotypic plasticity and other factors and patterns in evolution is discussed. The text has a clear perspective from the context of systems biology, arguing that the generation of biological autonomy must be interpreted within an integrative systems approach.

Table of contents

1. What is the outcome of evolution?

The question of qualitative changes during the major transitions in evolution is developed in this chapter. The concept is introduced that among these changes were increases in individual organismal autonomy in the sense of emancipation from the environment with variations in the capacity for flexibility, self-regulation, and self-control of behavior. It is proposed that the relevance of differences in autonomy for understanding macroevolutionary innovations was underestimated in the past.

2. The problem of macroevolutionary trends

Modern biology is ambivalent about the notion of evolutionary progress. Although most evolutionists understand large-scale macroevolution as a process that generated observable qualitative differences between organisms of different evolutionary levels, the term progress is usually avoided. The term carries some historical burden because it is problematic within the modern view of evolution, but at its core it expresses a central aspect of evolution that cannot be ignored if it is intended to build a fairly complete view of the evolutionary process coming close to reality.

3. The concept of biological autonomy

The aim of this chapter is to give a definition of increasing biological autonomy. It is developed in two steps: In the first step, it is looked at biological autonomy in general, without taking changes into consideration. This step focuses on autonomy and robustness as a trait of living organisms. Here, it can be built on an extensive literature that provides a well-established notion of biological autonomy. In the second step, evolutionary changes in autonomy are inspected. There are also several forerunners of this, and some of them are presented with their respective approach and formulation. However, this literature did not generate a particular definition of changing or increasing autonomy; so finally a definition is presented that is used in the chapters to follow. This includes a list of components that are observed during evolutionary transitions. Both of these steps are developed within the framework of systems biology.

4. The major transitions in early evolution

Features of autonomy and robustness in early evolution are brought into focus in this chapter. First, the rudimentary and vulnerable autonomy in prokaryotes is described. How the capacity for self-regulation and self-adjustment increased during the transitions to the eukaryotic cell and to multicellularity is then characterized. In the second part, some early metazoans are compared concerning their organizational closure, showing that metazoan autonomy evolved in successive steps.

5. The Cambrian explosion and thereafter

The different body plans of the phyla that began their evolution during the Cambrian radiation are characterized by varying combinations of the set of resources for autonomy. Body size; movement capacity; environmental seclusion through skins, cuticles, and shells; respiratory organs; circulatory systems; and body cavities contribute to substantial changes in the capacity for homeostasis, robustness, and flexibility in the environment of the individual organism. Furthermore, the special possibilities of movement among the chordates because of the combination of a central axis with its inserting muscles are described in this chapter. This potential was elaborated to different degrees in water. However, during the transition to land, the central axis was the decisive feature to stiffen the whole body, to counterpart gravity, and to generate increasing dynamics and possibilities with, for example, legs or wings.

6. Fluid management in animals

Osmoregulation and maintenance of body fluids are examples of evolutionary changes in homeostasis and stabilization of the internal milieu. These functions were essentially important in animals that invaded terrestrial habitats. They had to establish sturdy management of their fluid balance and their ionic composition.

7. Reproduction

Evolution generated different levels of protection and internalization of embryonic development. Just how these features correlate with other processes of internalization and with further features of autonomy in adult organisms is described. As examples, the generation of the amnion and the generation of viviparity are discussed in more detail.

8. Nervous systems and the flexibility of movements

This chapter describes how the development of nervous systems in metazoans expanded their capacities for indirect and modulated reactions to environmental situations. An uncoupling of signals and reactions occurred in them during evolution, which increased their ability to process information before reacting. This increased self-determination and flexibility of animals developed in different degrees. The generation of complex centralized ganglia and brains, which enlarge the capacities of neuronal processing, correlates with sophisticated movement capacities and widened behavioral flexibilities.

9. Endothermy

A brief overview of reasoning in evolutionary biology on how and why the complex of endothermy might have evolved is given in this chapter. The overview exemplifies that often single causes are sought for evolutionary events, but that evidently a more synthetic systems view is needed to develop appropriate theories. This is apparent for the transition from ectothermy to endothermy. Then, it is demonstrated that this functional complex has a common denominator, which is the generation of increased autonomy and environmental independence.

10. The evolution of brains and behavior: is there a trend?

Any form of complex behavior enables organisms to respond to their environment in a self-determined and flexible manner. This self-determination can be enhanced in some organisms so that the responses become more flexible in the sense that the type of reaction is less fixed and that it is possible to generate new combinations of actions and reactions. The variety of possible answers to the environment is larger than necessary at any particular moment. This correlates with the evolution of more complex and sophisticated central nervous systems in different varieties of design, which increases the scope of self-referential, intrinsic functions within the system as more sophisticated internal processing becomes possible. Against this background, several examples of flexible behavior are discussed.

11. The evolution of man

Features of increasing autonomy during the evolution of man are brought into focus in this chapter. With his special combination of such features, man has the biological prerequisites to generate highly flexible activities, techniques, and mental abilities, finally generating culture. It is proposed that the theory of autonomy can be an important component of the answer to the outstanding question of how man and his cultural capacities can be linked to the evolutionary history of life. Thus it is suitable to build a bridge between nature and culture. The biological underpinnings are the basis we constantly use and act on, whereby the relative autonomy of our physical and physiological organization forms the prerequisite for all those attributes that are specifically human, including certain degrees of freedom.

Conclusion and implications.

This chapter summarizes the different aspects of the theory of increasing autonomy in evolution. The relationship of autonomy to adaptation and natural selection is described, and questions for further research are identified. The evolutionary theories that are presently under discussion in the field are briefly outlined, and the contribution of the theory of autonomy to these new developments is considered.

Source: Springer Verlag.



  • Argyris Arnellos, “Biological Autonomy: Can a Universal and Gradable Conception be Operationalized?”, Biol. Theory (2016) 11, pp. 11-24.
  • Craig Holdrege, “Evolution as a Movement Toward Autonomy”, In context, Newsletter of the Nature institute, #32, Fall 2014. PDF document.
  • Daniel W. McShea, “Bernd Rosslenbroich, On the origin of autonomy: a new look at the major transitions in evolution”, Biology & Philosophy (2015) 30, n°3, pp. 439-446.
  • Mark Riegner, “On the Origin of Autonomy by Bernd Rosslenbroich”, The Quarterly Review of Biology (March 2015) 90, n°1, pp. 77-78.
  • Martin Lockley, “Bernd Rosslenbroich: On the Origin of Autonomy: A New Look at the Major Transitions in Evolution”, Acta Biotheor. (2014) 62, pp. 537-541.

Other papers of Bernd Rosslenbroich

  • 2013 : “Patterns and processes in macroevolution”, Annals of the History and Philosophy of Biology, 16. Deutsche Gesellschaft für Geschichte und Theorie der Biologie. Universitätsverlag Göttingen, pp. 171-184.
  • 2011 : “Outline of a concept for organismic systems biology”, Seminars in Cancer Biology 21, pp. 156-164.
  • 2009 : “The theory of increasing autonomy in evolution: a proposal for understanding macroevolutionary innovations”, Biology and Philosophy 24, pp. 623-644. PDF document.
  • 2006 : “The notion of progress in evolutionary biology – the unresolved problem and an empirical suggestion”, Biology and Philosophy 21, pp. 41-70. PDF document.
  • 2005 : “The evolution of multicellularity in animals as a shift in biological autonomy”, Theory in Biosciences 123, pp. 243-262. PDF document.
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