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A critical problem in applying the evolutionary paradigm in dynamic models is defining the selection criteria a priori. In its basic form, the theory of evolution is circular and descriptive (Holling 1987). Those species or cultural institutions or economic activities survive which are the most successful at reproducing themselves. But we only know which ones were more successful after the fact. To use the evolutionary paradigm in modeling, we require a quantitative measure of fitness (or more generally performance) in order to drive the selection process.
Several candidates have been proposed for this function in various systems, ranging from expected economic utility to thermodynamic potential. Thermodynamic potential is interesting as a performance criteria in complex systems because even very simple chemical systems can be seen to evolve complex non-equilibrium structures using this criteria (Prigogine 1972; Nicolis and Prigogine 1977, 1989), and all systems are (at minimum) thermodynamic systems (in addition to their other characteristics) so that thermodynamic constraints and principles are applicable across both ecological and economic systems (Eriksson 1991).
This application of the evolutionary paradigm to thermodynamic systems has led to the development of far-from-equilibrium thermodynamics and the concept of dissipative structures (Prigogine 1972). An important research question is to determine the range of applicability of these principles and their appropriate use in modeling ecological economic systems.
Many dissipative structures follow complicated transient motions. Schneider and Kay (1994) propose a way to analyze these chaotic behaviors and note that, “Away from equilibrium, highly ordered stable complex systems can emerge, develop and grow at the expense of more disorder at higher levels in the system's hierarchy.” It has been suggested that the integrity of far-from-equilibrium systems has to do with the ability of the system to attain and maintain its (set of) optimum operating point(s) (Kay 1991). The optimum operating point(s) reflect a state where selforganizing thermodynamic forces and disorganizing forces of environmental change are balanced. This idea has been elaborated and described as “evolution at the edge of chaos” by Kauffman and Johnson (1991).
The concept that a system may evolve through a sequence of stable and unstable stages leading to the formation of new structures seems well suited to ecological economic systems. For example, Gallopin (1989) stresses that to understand the processes of economic impoverishment “…The focus must necessarily shift from the static concept of poverty to the dynamic processes of impoverishment and sustainable development within a context of permanent change. The dimensions of poverty cannot any longer be reduced to only the economic or material conditions of living; the capacity to respond to changes, and the vulnerability of the social groups and ecological systems to change become central.” In a similar fashion Robinson (1991) argues that sustainability calls for maintenance of the dynamic capacity to respond adaptively, which implies that we should focus more on basic natural and social processes, than on the particular forms these processes take at any time. Berkes and Folke (1994) have discussed the capacity to respond to changes in ecological economic systems, in terms of institution building, collective actions, cooperation, and social learning. These might be some of the ways to enhance the capacity for resilience (increase the capacity to recover from disturbance) in interconnected ecological economic systems.
As discussed earlier, cultural evolution also has the added element of human foresight. To a certain extent, we can design the future that we want by appropriately setting goals and envisioning desired outcomes.
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