Evolution is all around us - can we model how big changes happen in nature and society?

A multidisciplinary group of researchers is embarking on a project to investigate how evolution in nature compares to evolution in human activities across different fields of society.

The notion of evolution extends far beyond biological species. Languages change, music and fashion tastes continuously evolve, civilizations emerge, prosper and go extinct, economies rise and decline, financial and societal crises come and go.

Now researchers want to know in which ways evolutionary processes are alike across different fields.

“We want to know whether the same mechanisms operate across different time scales from financial markets spanning hours to extinctions of species spanning thousands or even millions of years. Do species, economies, languages and cultures age in the same way, and could their decline ever be predictable?” asks Indrė Žliobaitė, assistant professor of Computer Science at the University of Helsinki. She leads a new research project that aims to compare evolutionary processes in nature and society.

“These processes have great societal implications. Epidemics, societal crises, natural disasters or military conflicts arise suddenly and change common ways of living. What policies should and can be adopted in the long run? How to prevent and manage crises? How to balance resources?”

Evolution meets economics and culture

Seven teams of seven researchers will cover computer science, evolutionary biology and palaeontology, economics, linguistics, music and history. The principal investigators of the project in addition to Indrė Žliobaitė are Leo Lahti, Mirva Peltoniemi, Silva Nurmio, Antti Laaksonen, Björn Kröger and Aura Raulo.

“As the world is changing at unprecedented rates, we can no longer hope to learn in a meaningful way how the world is at any given time, since by the time we learn, the world has already changed. We need a process-level understanding of how to think about the rapidly changing world, and how to think about the signs of change that we can observe”, Žliobaitė says.

Quantitative research meets arts and metaphors

The research project will integrate questions and answers that the scientific community already has from individual disciplines.

“This project enables us to borrow knowledge and intuition across multiple systems to understand how change happens and what it means for a system to change. To what extent can we use humankind's accumulated wisdom on, for example, evolutionary change of species to predict rapid changes in economy or culture? This remains an open question but still holds exciting potential for enhancing our understanding of the world”, says Aura Raulo, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Oxford.

The researchers will describe change events across multiple domains, predict change from one system to another and combine theoretical analysis with computational simulations. This will enable them to understand the processes that determine the lifespan of complex natural and social systems.

“Studying change in complex systems is crucial not only for fundamental scientific understanding but also for our efforts to potentially alter the course of catastrophic events in ecosystems, climate, and societies. Characterizing the universal patterns of change across domains and understanding their unique variations will inspire and enable new forms of co-creation in research as well as artistic expression”, says Leo Lahti, an Associate professor at the University of Turku.

How to talk about evolutionary processes?

In addition to quantitative research and scientific discussion, the project will foster equal research collaboration between arts and sciences to aid recognition and develop language to talk about the patterns of evolutionary processes.

“We use metaphors like the tree of descendance both in biology and linguistics and we talk about networks or waves when referring to the interconnectedness of entities in space and time. Just like we need these metaphors to talk about the invisible forces of the world, we need artistic processing of complex system patterns to give them a chance to affect our world-view. We will organize events for artists and scientists and workshops for art and science students to work together in building in-depth understanding of the shape, nature and meaning of change in complex systems”, Raulo says.

The research project is funded by Kone foundation.

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Get the latest updates on the project in the HAT research blog