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The life course as a process of punctuated equilibrium

My remote FB-friend Mark Hineline came up with an interesting idea the other day. “It occurs to me”, he wrote, “that the self can develop over time in the manner of punk eek – punctuated equilibrium,” and then gave an example from his own life before summing up: “It’s almost as though my 1989 self was a substrate on which that new layer stuck as though epoxied. The point is that these weren’t gradual accretions. They were jumps.”

The theory of punctuated equilibrium was first proposed by Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould in 1972. Based on their empirical studies of the fossil record, they opposed the mainstream idea of gradual evolution, and suggested instead that once a species appears in the fossil record it will become morphologically stable (stasis). Significant evolutionary change occurs only rarely, but rapidly (punctuations). There have been lots of discussions about the theory (read more here: http://www.scholarpedia.org/article/Punctuated_equilibria) but basically I think it’s sound.

But what about transferring the theory to developmental psychology and life-writing, as a metaphor for the life-course? I do indeed think it catches an important aspect of our lives. A life-course can be described as a mixture of long periods of mental and emotional stasis interrupted by short periods of rapid personal development (punctuations). I guess I could describe my own life in these terms, and I remember how other autobiographers have viewed their own lives in terms of long periods of stagnations and bursts of rapid change, although I have never seen it described in terms of punctuated equilibrium.

The only reason for my mild skepticism is that I’m generally wary of importing metaphors from the natural sciences. This one is particularly problematic, because even though it may be an interesting analogy for those of us who are familiar with evolutionary biology, it may not be equally useful for someone who isn’t.

Nevertheless it made me think. Thanks, Mark, for giving me a creative start of the day.

Originally published on Facebook 26 March 2020, this post generated the following comments:

Sverker Lindblad: Kolla gärna Jean Piaget och ackomodation! Och ha det fint!

Thomas Söderqvist: I know nothing about Piaget – thanks, Sverker, that’s what you’ve got FB-friends for

Thomas Söderqvist: Sverker, I’ve made a superficial read-up on Piaget’s idea — I wonder if this catches what Mark is up to. But very stimulating, nevertheless. I’ve never seen Piaget mentioned among autobiography ‘theorists’.

Sverker Lindblad: Thomas, neither have I. But he has an impact on systems theory – or rather “closed systems” á la Luhmann. And i think Piaget is quite right in understanding how we organise and reorganise ourselves in relation to the world around. A new piece of information might have big reorganizing effects on your way of understanding this world or yourself. Actually, I think so!

Thomas Söderqvist: Maybe emotional experiences have even bigger effects – makes me think of Wilhelm Reich and his idea of body armour which contributes to a kind of emotional ‘stasis’ which can be broken through by therapeutic interventions (punctuations).Nederst på formularen

Thomas Söderqvist: Mark, do you think Piaget’s concepts of assimilation and ackommodation catch your point about punctuated equlibria? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Piaget%27s_theory_of_cognitive_development#Assimilation_and_Accommodation)

Henrik Lübker: Quite interesting! A thought: Although life may indeed be a process of jumps rather than gradual development, the reason why it retrospectively seems like it is the latter is because of our own embeddedness in our here-and-now-self: The past is organized as a meaningful tale leading progressively to the person we are today. This, for me to see, is also the basic problem of historical narratives. It becomes a semblance of the past – in reality a colonization of the past by the present. We need narrative forms that explores disruptions and jetztzeit rather than continuity.

Ken Caneva: My experience has been of rare episodes of rapid change and long periods of both stasis and gradual change in different spheres of my life.

Thomas Söderqvist: So it does make sense for you, Ken, – ever thought about it before?

Ken Caneva: Not in those terms, but with the same appreciation.

Thomas Söderqvist: Henrik Lübke: This leads to the much larger question of the narrative structure of life, where I’m leaning heavily towards to non-narrative end of the spectrum. So even if I (partly) agree with your criticism of the habit of organizing the past as a meaningful tale towards the present, think the task is to find forms that aren’t necessarily narrative.

Henrik Lübker: Yes exactly, it was badly phrased by me asking for new _narrative_ forms!

Thomas Söderqvist: Henrik Lübcker: I actually made a short posting about non-narrativity a few years ago – and your comment above just stimulated me to upload it as a blog post here: http://www.canities.dk/autobiography/episodic-memory-and-narrative-reconstruction – as you can see it generated quite a few (141) comments, some pretty interesting one (FB-originalen her: https://www.facebook.com/thomas.soderqvist.90/posts/10154144526989325.

Thomas Söderqvist: Erik Svensson: do you guys still think macroevolution in terms of punctuated equilibria?

Erik Svensson: Thomas, sorry for replying late! I think that today many accept punctuated equilibria (including myself) mainly as a pattern in the fossil record, but the underlying process causing this pattern is source of disagreement and discussion. Here is a critical review from a few years back: https://www.cell.com/trends/ecology-evolution/fulltext/S0169-5347(13)00199-7

Thomas Söderqvist: Erik, thanks – will read it tomorrow (ping Mark Hineline).

Thomas Söderqvist

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