Chapter 11. Evo Devo Foresight: Unpredictable and Predictable Futures

The 95/5 Rule: Most Change Looks Evolutionary

What follows is a major insight into how complex systems manage their predictable and unpredictable processes in service to adaptation. Nearly all, or roughly 95%, to a first approximation, of the pathways, decisions or events that occur in complex adaptive systems of all types are bottom-up, evolutionary processes that, though they may probabilistically predictable with respect to the next path, decision, or event, are so contingent and creative that they rapidly become unpredictable in the medium and longer term. Yet a critical subset, on the order of 5% or less, are top-down, hierarchical, developmental processes. These globally coordinated processes, by contrast, are convergent, conservative, and intrinsically future predictable, even over the long term. We can call this a 95/5 (or 97/3, 99/1, or other similar) rule, for different processes. We will stick with the name 95/5 rule for now, until evo devo processes have been much better measured and quantified in a variety of complex systems.

The “Foresight Iceberg” (The 95/5 Rule)

The “Foresight Iceberg”
(The 95/5 Rule)

Why the 95/5 rule exists is obvious, if you think about how evolution and development work as we have defined them. Evolutionary processes constantly branch, or fan out, in a bottom-up way, as each species/system tries to adapt by trying lots of local creative experiments, which are often generated based on their local contexts. Think of all the things you do in a typical day that happen only because of the environment you find yourself in, or the information you’ve just seen or heard. Only a few of these evolutionary experiments are destined fall into funnels, special configurations that will predictably reach higher levels of complexity. These special branches are guided top-down to these higher levels due to the special initial conditions and laws of the universal environment, and the way those conditions and laws have been tuned for future-specific form and function via many previous cyclings of the system (in living systems and the universe as a system).

A good way to remember this rule is the Foresight Iceberg schematic, pictured at right. In evo devo systems, only a small percent of change can be long-term “visible” to foresight professionals, in that it is intrinsically predictable, convergent, and constrained or driven top-down by a few fundamental rules and actors. The vast majority of change is submerged, and significantly harder to predict, except in the short term, or in broad statistical ways, because it happens bottom-up and collectively via the creative action of a vast number of local actors, in interacting in contingent and increasingly divergent ways.

We can see this 95/5 rule operating in complex systems of all types.

A few examples:

  • Almost all the genes in an organism are evolutionary. They recombine unpredictably in offspring to make new variety (phenotypes). But approximately, 3-5% of the genes are instead developmental (the developmental-genetic toolkit). They funnel the organism to one predictable phenotype. To be more precise, roughly 50% of human genes are expressed at some point during complex activities like organogenesis (Yi et al. 2010). But less than 10% of our genome is highly regulated during organogenesis, and only 5% of our DNA is ‘ultra-conserved’ across complex species (eg. human, mouse, rat) (Wagman and Stephens 2004). Preliminary work has shown that this ultra-conserved DNA can no longer undergo change without terminating or seriously damaging developmental processes. It is the core set of “top down” instructions for creating the organism. I would also bet that of the 10% of our genome that is highly regulated during organogenesis, more than half of these genes are evolutionary (still capable of creative, bottom-up change without deleterious effects to the organism). The rest are part of the core “developmental toolkit”. They conserve and funnel biological events into critical and predictable top-down choices and processes in the emergence of modularity, hierarchy, and life cycle for the organism.
  • Almost all intelligence is built bottom-up. In “Modular Cognition,” (Aeon, 2022), Levin and Yuste, in a lovely article that considers the evo-devo intelligence in a single cell, describe intelligence as a network process in which pattern completion, by a few actors (the 5%), activates an entire circuit of interdependent actors (biochemical networks, gene-protein regulatory networks, neural networks). Modular hierarchies of such circuits, built bottom up, under replication, variation, and selection, keep the entire system within predictable developmental parameters. In other words, contingencies of behavior abound, for all organisms in a stochastic world (the 95%). But these ever growing networks guide complex systems, top-down, to an expanding set of predictable adaptive responses.
  • Almost all of the cells in organisms are guided via bottom-up, contingent, local interactions, to form stochastic structure and function. Their positions and fates aren’t predictable in advance, as they differentiate from totipotency based on contingent local cues. A small subset are fated to spatiotemporally predictable structural and functional outcomes, once they emerge. They form a top-down “environment” and “scaffolds” which constrain the way the other cells emerge. Example: Radial glial cells, which generate and direct the formation of neural architecture.
  • Almost all species on Earth evolve “randomly,” with some increasing in complexity-intelligence, and some decreasing (parasites, cul-de-sacs, etc.) as they adapt. Only a small fraction of species (~1%?), those with social brains, language, and the ability to use tools to create niches, are caught in the “funneling” path to greater world- and self-modeling, environmental control, and intelligence development as they adapt. For more, see Conway Morris, Life’s Solution (2003).
  • Almost all the thoughts in a mind are unconscious, guiding the organism bottom-up, in contingent, unpredictable ways. A small fraction (1-5%?) are conscious, guiding the animal top-down as planned, convergent, optimization-seeking behavior. See Mlodinow, Subliminal (2013).
  • Almost all actions in an organization happen by workers acting in bottom-up, contingent, local, unpredictable ways. Management sets top-down policies, plans, and objectives for action, but management’s actions (1-5% of org. action?) create only the critical framework, or envelope, of acceptable behavior. For more, see Kelly, Out of Control (1995).
  • Almost all change in society is driven bottom-up by individuals acting in divergent, contingent, local, experimental ways (markets, democratic politics, other bottom-up behavior). A critical subset (1-5%?) of social change is top-down, planned, optimization-seeking policy set by societal leaders (govt, institutions, corps, church, etc.). Whenever societies get too centrally planned, autocratic, or plutocratic, they lose power, productivity, and collective intelligence to more bottom-up ones. Whenever societies have insufficient top-down rules, planning, and institutions, they become chaotic and unstable (think of the historical transitions to anarchy), and again lose power, productivity, and intelligence to ones with stabler environments and smarter rulesets and institutions that allow for both individual initiative and large scale, coordinated collective action. Bottom-up and top-down societal management always seems to be in a rough 95/5 balance. See Acemoglu, Why Nations Fail (2012).

The generic value of a 95/5 rule in building and maintaining intelligent systems, if one exists, would explain why the vast majority of universal change appears to be bottom-up driven, evolutionary and unpredictable in complex systems, what systems theorist Kevin Kelly described as “out of control” in his prescient work Out of Control (1994). The operation of this rule is the reason the evolutionist, chaos, and random accident perspectives have been so dominant in society for so long. Yet a critical subset of events and processes in evo devo systems is top-down/systemically directed, developmental, and intrinsically predictable, if you have the right theory, computational resources, and data. Discovering that developmental subset, and differentiating it from the much larger evolutionary subset, will make our world vastly more understandable, and show how it is constrained to certain future destinies, even as creativity and experimentation keep growing within all the evolutionary domains.

Fortunately, as our science and computing abilities advance, theories of universal evolution and development will be deeply tested, and proven or falsified, by simulation. For now, you must use your own knowledge and intuition to ask whether the 95/5 rule (hypothesis) makes sense. Science is a long way from being able to verify or refute it, or any alternative. We can only cite evidence and argument.

Showing 2 comments
  • Lukas

    I’m not saying that the word “anarchic” mentioned in the text refers to “political anarchism” (as defined in terms of political philosophy), but since this association comes to mind so readily I think that the present wording could be improved.
    (Why? Anarchism in the political sense does, arguably, have top-down organization — but on a much smaller, local scale (compared to todays nation-states), and maybe not through written laws. There are also examples (historical and current) of anarcho-syndicalist communes which function well enough that they should not be ruled out as viable forms of societal organization.)

    Better wording could, imo, simply cut out “anarchic”, and leave only “chaotic”:
    “Whenever societies have insufficient top-down planning, they become chaotic.”

    A fitting substitution for “anarchic” might be “unstable”, or something along those lines.

    • John Smart

      Thanks for this feedback Lukas. I see your points, but I do think the transition to anarchy fits here. Let me try to reword it. A breakdown of large scale coordination and transition to smaller scale, unwritten coordination (anarchy) always seems to me to be due to a failure of top down control (not getting the critical rules and institutions right), and there is a tragic loss of societal power, productivity, and intelligence as a result. Warm Regards, John

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Table of Contents


Chapter 2. Personal Foresight – Becoming an Effective Self-Leader

Chapter 2: Personal Foresight

Becoming an Effective Self-Leader

Chapter 4. Models – Foundations for Organizational Foresight

Chapter 4: Models

Foundations for Organizational Foresight

Chapter 7. Acceleration – Guiding Our Extraordinary Future

Chapter 7: Acceleration

Guiding Our Extraordinary Future (In Process)

II. Global Progress: 5 Goals, 10 Values, Many Trends

Innovation: Our Abundant Future
Intelligence: Our Augmented Future
Interdependence: Our Civil Future
Immunity: Our Protected Future
Sustainability: Our Rebalanced Future

III. Universal Accelerating Change

Great Race to Inner Space: Our Surprising Future
Entropy&Information: We’re Running Down & Up
The Puzzle of Meaning: We Have No Einstein Yet
Trees, Funnels & Landscapes: Intro to Evo Devo
Big Picture Change: Five Scales of Accelerating ED
Transcension Hypothesis: Where Acceleratn Ends?
IDABDAK: Social Response to Accel & Developmnt
We’re On a Runaway Train: Being Accelaware

IV. Evo Devo and Exponential Foresight

Seeing It All: Accel., Diverg, Adapt, Convrg, Decel.
Natural (I4S) Innovation: The Evolutionary Drive
Natural (I4S) Intelligence: The Human-AI Partnership
Natural (I4S) Morality: Why Empathy and Ethics Rule
Natural (I4S) Security: Strength from Disruption
Natural (I4S) Sustainability: The Developmental Drive
S-Curves: Managing the Four Constituencies
Pain to Gain: Traversing the Three Kuznets Phases
Hype to Reality: Beyond Hype Cycles to Reality Checks
Exponentials Database: Measuring Accelerations
TINA Trends: Societal Evolutionary Development
Managing Change: STEEPCOP Events, Probs, Ideas
A Great Shift: A Survival to a Sentient Economy

V. Evo Devo and Exponential Activism

Building Protopias: Five Goals of Social Progress
Normative Foresight: Ten Values of Society
Top & STEEPCOP Acceleratns: Positive & Negative
Dystopias, Risks, and Failure States
Three Levels of Activism: People, Tech & Universe
A Great Opportunity: Exponential Empowerment


Chapter 8. Your Digital Self – The Human Face of the Coming Singularity

Chapter 8: Your Digital Self

The Human Face of the Coming Singularity (In Process)

I. Your Personal AI (PAI): Your Digital Self

Digital Society: Data, Mediation, and Agents
Personal AIs: Advancing the Five Goals
PAI Innovation: Abundance and Diversity
PAI Intelligence: Bio-Inspired AI
PAI Morality: Selection and Groupnets
PAI Security: Safe Learning Agents
PAI Sustainability: Science and Balance
The Human Face of the Coming Singularity

II. PAI Protopias & Dystopias in 8 Domains

1. Personal Agents: News, Ent., Education
2. Social Agents: Relat. and Social Justice
3. Political Agents :  Activism & Represent.
4. Economic Agents:  Retail, Finance, Entrep
5. Builder Agents :  Work, Innov. & Science
6. Environ. Agents : Pop. and Sustainability
7. Health Agents :  Health, Wellness, Death
8. Security Agents :  Def., Crime, Corrections

III. PAI Activism & Exponential Empowerment

Next Government: PAIs, Groupnets, Democ.
Next Economy: Creat. Destr. & Basic Income
Next Society: PAI Ent., Mortality & Uploading
What Will Your PAI Contribution Be?

Chapter 10. Startup Ideas – Great Product & Service Challenges for Entrepreneurs

Chapter 10: Startup Ideas

Great Product and Service Challenges for Entrepreneurs (In Process)

I. 4U’s Idea Hub: Building Better Futures

Air Deliveries and Air Taxis: Finally Solving Urban Gridlock
Ballistic Shields and Gun Control: Protecting Us All from Lone Shooters
Bioinspiration Wiki: Biomimetics and Bio-Inspired Design
Brain Preservation Services: Memory and Mortality Redefined
Carcams: Document Thieves, Bad Driving, and Bad Behavior
Competition in Govt Services: Less Corruption, More Innovation
Computer Adaptive Education (CAE): Better Learning and Training
Conversational Deep Learning Devsuites: Millions of AI Coders
Digital Tables: Telepresence, Games, Entertainment & Education
Dynaships: Sustainable Low-Speed Cargo Shipping
Electromagnetic Suspension: Nausea-Free Working & Reading in Cars
Epigenetic Health Tests: Cellular Aging, Bad Diet, Body Abuse Feedback
Fireline Explosives and Ember Drones: Next-Gen Fire Control
Global English: Empowering the Next Generation of Global Youth
Greenbots: Drone Seeders and Robotic Waterers for Mass Regreening
High-Density Housing and Zoning: Making Our Cities Affordable Again
Highway Enclosures and Trail Networks: Green and Quiet Urban Space
Inflatable Packaging: Faster and Greener Shipping and Returns
Internet of Families: Connecting People Over Things
Kidcams: Next-Gen Security for Child Safety and Empowerment
Kidpods: Indoor & Outdoor Parent-Assistive Toyboxes
Microdesalination: Democratizing Sustainable Fresh Water Production
Noise Monitors: Documenting and Reducing Noise Pollution
Oceanside Baths: Sustainable Year Round Beach Enjoyment
Open Blood Scanners: DIY Citizen Health Care Sensor Tech
Open Streaming Radio: User-Centered Audio Creation and Rating
Open Streaming Video: User-Centered Video Creation and Rating
Open Values Filters: Social Rankers, Arg. Mappers, and Consensus Finders
Personal AIs: Your Private Advisor, Activist, and Interface to the World
Pet Empowerment: Next-Gen Rights and Abilities for Our Domestic Animals
Safe Closets: Fire-, Earthquake-, and Intruder-Proof Retreat Spaces
Safe Cars: Reducing Our Insane 1.3M Annual Auto Deaths Today
Safe Motorcycles: Lane Splitting in Gridlock Without Risk of Death
Shared Value Insurance: User-Centered Risk Reduction Services
Sleeperbuses and Microhotels: Demonetized Intercity Travel
Space-Based Solar Power: Stratellite Powering and Weather Management
Stratellites: Next-Gen Urban Broadband, Transparency, and Security
Touch DNA: Next-Gen Home Security and Crime Deterrence
View Towers: Improving Urban Walkability, Inspiration, and Community

Chapter 11. Evo Devo Foresight – Unpredictable and Predictable Futures

Chapter 11: Evo Devo Foresight

Unpredictable and Predictable Futures

Appendix 1. Peer Advice – Building a Successful Foresight Practice