The Technium

The Evolution of Evolution’s Evolution

[Translations: Japanese]

The evolution of evolution? That sounds like a bad case of doubletalk. At first glance evolution’s evolution may seem oxymoronic (self contradictory), or tautological (needlessly repitetive). But on close inspection the evolution of evolution is no more oxymoronic or tautological than say the network of networks, which is what the internet is.

Surely there must be genes that control other genes, and software code that governs software. There must be a system of all systems, or a form which all forms adhere to, or some kind of control for controls, some way to organize all organizations. The structure of proofs must be provable, types of categories must fall into some kind of categories.

And there must be laws to change laws. One could think of the evolution of evolution as a type of meta-law. To illustrate the paradoxical, but astounding, power of meta-laws consider Article V of the US Constitution.


Whereever people live, they make rules. They make rules about who gets water first in their fields, or how to settle disputes about land boundaries, or how fast you can drive. Larger societies require another level of rules that govern the procedure for making rules. This higher level of law, a meta-law called a constitution, creates a framework for everyday laws by articulating the limits of law, by bringing consistence to multiple contradictory laws, and by providing the lawful authority that stands behind the laws. The Romans and Ahsoka in India first invented legal constitutions around 400 BC.

The good thing about a constitution is that it brings stability to laws. The bad thing about a constitution is that over time this enduring set of laws governs entire generations of people who did not ratify it. Circumstances change, and if the constitution does not change as well, its authority over newer generations diminishes. The solution to this problem is a constitutional amendment clause. When you craft a constitution you include a provision for changing the constitution.

The US Constitution has such a clause, Article V. Article V is a single short paragraph which provides the procedure by which the rest of the constitution can be changed, and also what parts can’t be changed. It requires three quarters of the states to ratify an amendment.

The evolvability of a constitution is a marvelous invention. The device of using a law to change itself was first invented by William Penn in 1682, inserted in his state’s first charter and later designed into Pennsylvania’s state constitution in 1776. The idea spread to other state constitutions and eventually was incorporated into the US Constitution in 1787.

The idea of a law that codifies how laws can be changed is a type of recursion. Its strange circularity is sharpened when you contemplate the prospect of amending the amendment clause. That would be a code that changes the code for making change to the code. You can immediately sense its paradoxical nature. Can the amendment clause declare itself immutable? Sort of like, you can change any rule you want except this rule? As soon as you try to grasp that kind of logic, it unravels. And because it is an autognostic (self-knowing) recursive loop, self-amendment laws are rife with necessary paradoxes.

In philosophy a constitutional self-amendment law would be called a meta-rule, the rule that governs the rules. Whenever you shift to higher level of organization you unleash both paradox and power. Indeed the prospect of amending a constitutional amendment clause is deeply intoxicating because changing the rules of change can drastically alter a system. There have been 11 unsuccessful congressional bills to modify Article V (curiously all were initiated between 1978 and 1982). Most of these were aimed at changing the threshold for getting a constitutional amendment passed. One school of thought (which I agree with) holds that in order to retain a constitution’s authority over time, changing a constitution should be no more and no less difficult than ratifying the constitution in the first place.

As of 2010 there has been no change in the rules of change for the US Constitution. But according to Peter Suber, who has tracked the paradoxical nature of self-amendments, 47 of the 50 US states have amended the amendment clauses in their state’s constitutions at one time or another. These have played one round in the infinite game of changing how change happens.

The evolution of evolution in life’s evolution is the same game as amending the amendment clause. It is a way of bootstrapping up greater complexity, and accelerating change. Technology is evolution’s Article V. It is the way the rules of evolution are being changed.

When we look at technology we tend to see pipes and blinking lights. But in the long-term view, technology is simply the evolution of evolution’s evolution.

  • Benjamin Dumez

    Good article!

    @Kevin Kelly and Baji. I would say : ““technology evolves by cannibalizing nature (Human, animal and plant).” It creates a bond with nature through human beings. That which is “garbage” is destroyed. That which is food/fuel is over consumed/produced and has a monopoly placed on it. How does it do this? By constantly giving us the “matrix”. As long as there is a technological monoploy “married” to any Monarchy, Oligarchy, Representative “Democracy” (I was unsure of which word to place in quotes) or any form of hierarchical government/over-structure there will be people willing to live constantly connected to and dependent on this false connection that we are “communicating” through.

  • Aaron Davies

    There was an attempt just before the Civil War to pass an amendment forbidding passing an amendment to ban slavery.

  • Bill Seitz

    Have you looked at Suber’s NomicGame?

  • Mary E. Ulrich

    I can see it now, a computer-geek terrorist slips an apps into the backend programming and since few even read the constitution, no one would notice it for years.

  • nick gogerty

    this concept makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. One can view it as nested niches. Each meta niche must be stable enough to support the nested ecosystem of rules and behaviour subsets within it. One of the interesting things about the legal system in the US (tri-partite) non-transitive (congressional, Judicial and executive) branches is that each has a management ability over the other. within the confines of the constitution.

    It is a very clever system that allows evolution but within bounded constraints and considerations.

    Another interesting system is the British evolved monarchical democracy which still has a few barnacles (house of lords and some procedures such as the requirement for the prime minister to meet the queen etc) left over.

  • clay

    “technology is simply the evolution of evolution’s evolution”… “Technology is evolution’s Article V”

    sorry i fail to fallow your line of thought.

    1. when you say “evolution” in what context do you mean it in ?
    2. same for the term “Technology”?
    3. can you please give an example of how the rule for chaneg is changed { in the context of evolution and technology}

    thank you :)

  • baji kulkarni

    sounds eerily like ‘ set of all sets ‘ a maize for logicians to emerge out with Godellian undecidability .

    If ‘ bootstrapping up greater complexity ‘ is the role of technology in being ‘ evolution of evolution’s evolution’ how do you reconcile Brian Arthur’s assertion yhat technology evolves by cannibalising itself ?

    • Kevin Kelly

      @baji: “assertion yhat technology evolves by cannibalising itself.” I don’t know what that means.

  • baji kulkarni

    I might have put it rather crudely but that’s what seems to emerge from his (Brian Arthur’s )
    analysis of’ how technology evolves as laid out
    in his book ‘ The Nature of Technology ‘ or his paper ‘The Evolution of Technology within a Simple Computer Model’ .

    • Kevin Kelly

      @Baji: I read Brian’s book pretty carefully in mss form (and have read many of his other papers over the years we’ve known each other) but I never saw anything remotely like this idea: “technology evolves by cannibalising itself.” If fact, I would say Brian’s idea is the opposite of something consuming itself; instead it expands itself. (I don’t know that the opposite of cannibalism is?)

  • baji kulkarni

    sorry to be coming again.I see your point. would it be alright to say that newer versions of technologies include the older ones in developing.which is not to say that they cannibalise.Trying to understand !

  • Tom Crowl

    You’re on to something central here.

    While I’m not a follower of any religion that doesn’t mean I don’t see the great wisdom in many key figures…

    I believe that at the core of the Sermon on the Mount was a recognition of a failure in technology

    A failure to address the disconnection that arose in the social organism when it moved beyond the hunter-gatherer level.

    Specifically as that relates to fundamental drives. In short, self-interest scales in a way that biological altruism does not. That’s because biological altruism has a less (but still) definable connection to Dunbar’s Number.

    And that makes for BIG problems.

    E.g. “Hierarchy in the Forest” by Christopher Boehm, or “The Ascent of Humanity” by Charles Eisenstein suggest that in hunter-gatherer societies and even in smaller sedentary tribal groupings, the ’sheep’ make the rules, and the would-be alphas were ‘ruled.’ Boehm calls it ‘inverse hierarchy.’

    This may be an assertion difficult to prove, and I make no suggestion here that a return to a hunter-gatherer existence is desirable.

    Nevertheless, I would suggest that it’s at least possible that this scaling problem in biological altruism may be quite literally universal.

    See my very brief post:
    The Problem in Scaling Altruism: Where’s the Intelligent Life?

    Jesus was (knowingly or not) pointing out that the technologies of politics and economics were stuck functioning on a lizard-brain level.

    This does NOT suggest that the technologies of money and politics (and they are very definitely technologies) form the central meaning of life…

    But rather that as social decision-systems they were failures for far, far too many and very definitely were NOT contributing to a meaningful life.

    Over the centuries some progress HAS been made. Essentially by utilizing various systems and structures to combat this scaling problem. No perfect solution has yet been found… and I believe none will be… so we tinker… as we must.

    Civilizations, we could say are the things we see as the net result of countless individual and group decisions… very definitely NOT all going in the same direction.

    BTW, this variety is essential and can be analogized to biological ‘criticality’… (the balancing of stasis and chaos in a complex, living system for optimal resistance to disease)… sorry to those looking for simple ideological formulas for existence.

    As for my little effort at tinkering…
    The Individually-controlled / Commons-dedicated Account*

    *A Commons-owned neutral platform for both political and charitable monetary contribution… which for very fundamental scaling reasons must allow a viable micro-transaction (think x-box points for action in the Commons). The resultant network catalyzes additional functionality for co-ordination of other ‘social energy’ utilization. (P.S. Its the most neutral and ultimately politically viable method for the public finance of elections.)

    If I could give an update.
    wanted to touch on something sort of ‘here-and-now’.

    My patent attorney and I had a very fruitful discussion with the patent examiner and his supervisor yesterday. I cannot give details here but suffice to say they ‘got’ the mechanism and understood the need. There may be some reason for optimism.

    There are many here with interest in new ideas for improving our social and cultural ‘mechanisms and systems’ so if there should be any curiosity concerning details, and with suitable non-disclosure stuff all handled (my attorney says I need to do that) I believe its time for me to seek some additional advice and associates. Really at this point I just need a couple of thousand dollars for the patent extension and minimal attorney fees (he’s been working almost for free so far).

    It’s a simple idea. But so was the lightbulb… just heat up a wire until it glows.

    So far neither government, the two-parties nor large corporations are interested. I believe this may be seen as too disruptive.

    P.S. I’ve been perhaps too careful about NOT presenting this to any VC or Angel network because I don’t want this mechanism “Jerry Springerized” which is something that gives me some concern.

    Personal Democracy: Disruption as an Enlightenment Essential


    P.S. I’ve hoped for an opportunity to present this concept to both O’Reilly Media and the Personal Democracy Forum but so far no luck. These seem obvious targets since I believe the development of the Internet provides the foundational technology for the first opportunity to meaningfully address this social scaling problem. And I’ve wanted to make this case before ‘lizard-brain’ approaches solidify the landscape… (as largely happened with television).

    Extinction requires only inertia.
    We’ve reached that critical point now where…
    Evolution requires tools…
    Carefully thought out tools.

    P.P.S. I have no illusions that I’m proposing some panacea… but I do believe its a potential tool with more utility than may be apparent at first.

  • Tom Crowl

    A couple of recent posts from have interesting implications!!!

    Quantum Entanglement Can Be A Measure Of Free Will, Say Physicists


    Fine Structure Constant Varies With Direction is Space, Says New Data

    Leading to:

    Quantum Politics: Crazy Speculations on the Physics of Decision