The life course as a process of punctuated equilibrium

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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: 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:

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Att vara en när-/frånvarande far

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Det mesta av det vi sparar genom livet betyder ingenting för andra — men kan ibland vara grundläggande för vår egen självförståelse (liksom fotot av förfadern med gitarren spelar en avgörande roll i den fina animerade filmen Coco från 2017).

Det här lilla oskyldiga brevkortet från 1977 eller 1978 påminner mig ständigt om att jag var en alltför frånvarande far till min äldsta dotter. Jag var skild och arbetade i Roskilde, min dotter bodde i Halmstad, och vi sågs bara ca. var tredje weekend och en eller två veckor i sommarferien. Här på fotot är hon ca. 5 år gammal och håller en kakrulle framför sig — troligen är det snart jul (och jag ska inte vara med, för det är en ny ‘far’ någonstans i bakgrunden).

Det gick i och för sig bra i alla fall. Vi förlorade som tur var aldrig kontakten, och nu är hon vuxen och har egna barn (som har en närvarande far). Vi pratas vid på Facetime.

Men det kunde ha gått illa — så nu när har jag en ny kull barn under uppväxt, tittar jag emellanåt på det här lilla kortet som en konstant påminnelse om att barn behöver en närvarande far.

Så banalt — och ändå så lätt att glömma i vardagen när jag försvinner in i texternas värld.

This was posted on Facebook 20  February 2020 (in Swedish) and generated the following 30 comments (in Swedish)

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Visualization of my publication record

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Aside from some experiments with a photo memoir, most of my autobiographical work has so far only been about recalling memories, reading documents and writing texts — words, sentences, sections, chapters, a single story. And so it will remain. I’m a text person.

But I’ve also played with visualizations of the life course. A simple chart can sometimes say more than pages of words. Here, for example, is a diagram of my published academic articles, from the very first in 1967, when I was 20 years old, until 2018 (produced with Visual Paradigm (

Not many words are needed to show that my productive academic career culminated in my 50s and 60s and then went downhill. (The books show the same tendency – a peak at the age of 50-60 and then downhill).

Obviously, such visualizations do not capture the essential qualities of life — creativity, love, anxiety, you name it — but only captures measurable surface phenomena. However, they can be an quantitative complement to the qualitative rendering of the subjective life story. A kind of ‘digital autobiography’, analogous to ‘digital history’.

I am about to make similar visualizations of my unpublished lectures. Stay tuned.

This post is adapted from a post in Swedish on Facebook 28 January 2020, which didn’t provoked any comments.