The Fractal Self

Science, Philosophy, and the Evolution of Human Cooperation

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John L. Culliney, David Jones
  • Honolulu, HI: 
    University of Hawai'i Press
    , July
     248 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


According to The Fractal Self, survival of the fittest is not the reason behind evolution. Instead, the universe evolved because there is a tendency for its reduced particles and forces to cooperate. The patterns that exist within chaos form because of nature’s cooperative constant, metaphorically speaking. Ever since the Big Bang, say John L. Culliney and David Jones, forces of the universe cooperated amidst chaos to be creative in making atomic bonds for complex patterns of structure. This affinity of forces, energy, and particles to cooperate in the chaos allowed these patterns to emerge naturally from chemical reactions. Ultimately, at the biological level, these atomic bonds allowed for single-cell organisms to exist and further evolve into multi-cellular organisms. The whole universe appears to dance through this participatory attraction from the microcosmic to the macrocosmic level. It is not a selfish gene in species, say Culliney and Jones, that allowed its survivability; no species exist all alone. The whole ecosystem of the biosphere needs to cooperate for the mutual benefit of all that is in it. This, in a nutshell, is the thesis that this book proposes.

The cooperative constant is not explicitly defined in The Fractal Self, beyond that it is the natural predisposition of patterns to sprout out of chaos. For example, the nucleobases’ attraction in DNA and RNA happened to provide the blueprint of life. These attractions were only natural, just like when helium atoms attracted each other to create hydrogen, and so forth to bring all the elements that make up the universe.

Culliney and Jones are very courageous in proposing such a thesis that the natural cooperative constant is somehow the fuel behind the universe’s evolution. This thesis gives a better understanding of the evolution of altruism and the rise of empathy. The book, in that regard, is fascinating in its attempt to prove that cooperation is the natural root of the making of the universe.

The Fractal Self consists of eleven chapters divided into four parts. The first two parts introduce the cooperative property in the universe and then examine it biologically. The book could have stopped at this point by bringing evolutionary biology and philosophy together in making its argument, and it would have been complete. However, the authors further expanded their thesis, showing its intersection with religion, especially Eastern philosophies.

The third part of the book interweaves its cooperative constant thesis with elements of Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism. The authors argue that these Eastern philosophies teach that opposites should not truly be seen as opposites, as there is harmony and unity between extremes. This section of the book introduces the sage who acts as a catalyst in the evolution of human history. The sage’s ability to comprehend the mysteries of the interconnectedness and interdependence between the self and all that is ushers in their enlightenment and unlocks their potential in creating a butterfly effect that brings forth positive change.

The book could have also stopped at its third part, after having engaged its thesis with Eastern philosophies. However, Culliney and Jones wanted to interface their thesis with the current state of affairs that faces humanity, and especially politics, which comprises the fourth part of the book. It is natural for a book with a thesis on a cooperative constant that caused the evolution of the universe to discuss how Homo sapiens need to be cooperative not only among themselves, but within the whole biosphere, lest they face extinction. Yet the fourth part of the book is weak in its arguments. It carries the sort of emotion and passion that one would expect in a blog rather than in an academic book. It appears to have an anarchist agenda. Cooperation amidst diversity is the book’s thesis, but that does not provide the authors a license to label as the “anti-sage” those unenlightened beings who seek to go against the natural force of the cooperative constant. Actually, the last part of the book does not blend very well with the previous one, which discusses the unity of opposites. The whole cooperative constant comes smashing down in the last part when those opposing harmony are relentlessly opposed. Are these people not a part of the universe, made and governed by a cooperative constant?

Generally speaking, the first two parts of the book are an essential resource to any evolutionary biologist. The third part of the book is fairly reasonable in dealing with how their thesis engages with Eastern philosophies. The fourth part of the book is best ignored because its apocalyptic eschatology should not be used against the book’s original thesis and purpose. Nonetheless, the cooperative constant, whatever it is, seems like a plausible thesis, and I would like to see further empirical research on it in the future. The evolution of altruism from a competitive evolutionary perspective is highly debatable, and perhaps this cooperative constant can provide us with an alternative thesis. Culliney and Jones have provided us with the seeds, and hopefully more water in the future will bring them to fruition.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Abdulla Galadari is assistant professor at Khalifa University, United Arab Emirates, and a research fellow at Al-Maktoum College, Scotland.

Date of Review: 
October 6, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

John L. Culliney, a biologist educated at Yale and Duke Universities, is professor emeritus of biology at Hawai‘i Pacific University.

David Jones is professor of philosophy at Kennesaw State University, Atlanta.



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