International Encyclopedia of Systems and Cybernetics

2nd Edition, as published by Charles François 2004 Presented by the Bertalanffy Center for the Study of Systems Science Vienna for public access.


The International Encyclopedia of Systems and Cybernetics was first edited and published by the system scientist Charles François in 1997. The online version that is provided here was based on the 2nd edition in 2004. It was uploaded and gifted to the center by ASC president Michael Lissack in 2019; the BCSSS purchased the rights for the re-publication of this volume in 200?. In 2018, the original editor expressed his wish to pass on the stewardship over the maintenance and further development of the encyclopedia to the Bertalanffy Center. In the future, the BCSSS seeks to further develop the encyclopedia by open collaboration within the systems sciences. Until the center has found and been able to implement an adequate technical solution for this, the static website is made accessible for the benefit of public scholarship and education.



The accumulative transformation of systems undergoing irreversible changes.

Evolution is a global process: Any change in some part of a system inevitably evokes correlated changes in other parts until a new type of dynamic stability is attained… if ever!

Evolution seems to correspond to a very general trend in nature tending to shape open algorithms: biological, but also behavioral and even technical ones.

By open it is meant: having the potential to produce emergent and radiating levels of organization, nevertheless necessarily based on the formerly established ones.

It should never be forgotten that "evolution" is a concept. W. REEVES writes in this sense: "Evolution is a general way of conceptualizing the self-organizing selection process of the universe displayed in the increasing complexity which occurs as a result of the dynamic balancing effort of entropy and negentropy through the process of fluctuation, amplification and subsequent bifurcation allowing successful phase transition and emergence" (1992, p.1102).

Many definitions more or less at variance with the proposed one are used by biologists, paleontologists, anthropologists and sociologists.

In any case, it seems basic to understand that individuals do not evolve: they merely adapt in accordance with their genetic inheritance, characterized by their organizational closure (in very unfrequent cases, affected at its very beginning by some mutation, which introduces a measure of randomness in the process). On the contrary, populations, species or societies evolve, as connected wholes, but through their individual members, who act as possible transmitters of changes, eventually inhibited, limited or favored by circumstancial environmental conditions. This again is in part a stochastic process.

H.G. BURGER expresses it in this way: "… all types of evolution… consist of a rivalrous polymorphism that awaits environmental change" (1967, p.209).

A. LOTKA's discussion, in 1924, maintains still its validity, specially in systemic terms. He stated in his chapter on this topic: "Evolution is not a mere changeful sequence… (this) is insufficient to define the direction of evolution.

"… the thing to mark is that what has imparted to the process its directed character is frictional resistance, dissipative forces, typical irreversible effects, to speak the language of the physicist…

"… such internal changes in a material system… lag behind the determining external changes" (1924, p.22- 26).

LOTKA bases thus his views of evolution on his undertanding of irreversibility and of the ambiguous character of the concept of reversibility: to obtain reversibility (this is, a return to a previous condition), a process of (timely) change of the condition of the function or system is necessary. Thus, while some states of a system, or values of a function may be repetitious, is it confusing to qualify them as "reversible".

LOTKA concludes: "The law of evolution is the law of irreversible transformations; that is, the direction of evolution is the direction of irreversible transformations. And this direction the physicist can define or describe in exact terms. For an isolated system, it is the direction of increasing entropy. The law of evolution is, in this sense, the second law of thermodynamics" (p.26).

He observes that this is in accordance with CLAUSIUS since the Greek word from which he derived 'entropy' precisely means 'evolution'.

Let us however observe that he also writes: "… we should constantly take in view the evolution, as a whole, of the system (organism plus environment)"(p.16).

Still more generally, he parallels evolution with a "law of maximum energy flux", meaning that still unused energy is the power house of evolution and implying that it tends to transform free energy into higher levels of organization.

As PRIGOGINE demonstrated many years later, there is no contradiction between the general increase of entropy and the local increase of complexity in systems, by structuration through energy dissipation. PRIGOGINE even sees this feature as the basic operative way in evolution: instability induced through growing fluctuations → increasing dissipation of energy → threshold → bifurcation → emergence of new and more complex forms.

In E. LASZLO's words: "Evolution… exploits energy-flows which possess inherent stability in certain highly specific configurations. It takes place in open systems with inputs and outputs, whereas the laws of thermodynamics apply to closed systems" (1974, p.206).

LASZLO synthetizes his views as follows: "… separately investigated branches of evolutionary disciplines… disclose a dynamic that is isomorphic in its essentials with the nonlinear dynamics of bifurcations in the complex system investigated in nonequilibrium thermodynamics and dynamical systems theory" (1993, p.113).

Of course, the laws of thermodynamics apply also to open systems, but in a different form. See: "Entropy production in a system". The concept of evolution through use of intrinsically well configurated energy flows (in fields?) is quite close to LAVILLE's concept of form shaping through energy vortexes, or D. Mc NEIL's toroids.

Evolution seems to be related to:

- Adaptability in self-organizing systems by reaction to environmental noise through random mutations some of which prove to possess adaptive value.

- Interaction among such transformed self-organizing systems, which then react reciprocally within the constraints of their common environment and eventually (but not necessarily) diffuse their new characteristics. H. LABORITwrites:"… it is difficult to conceive that evolution could occur only by random reorganization of the interrelations within a set, but more easily by addition of new elements to this set, by way of its intersection with another set" (1972, p.114).

P. WINIWARTER and C. CEMPEL thus summed up the general characteristics of macro-level evolution, as applicable to technology:

"1) A global optimization of energy flows (load optimization) for a set of "running" or "living" units;

"2) Design or code modification for the next generation of units (adaptation);

"3) Re-design, complete recoding or code-creation for an entire new technology (evolution)" (1992, p.32).

Still another interesting insight on evolution is D. LEPINARD's: "The evolution of the behavior of cells and animals through time can be understood as a progressive rolling up on the causal chains. Living beings tend more and more to stand back on vital acts, like eating or movilizing energy" (1993, p.25).

In other words, processes, perception and memory, and in man's case, increasing understanding of the past allows for a growing internalization and control of vital processes, which could define the "arrow" of evolution.

However, evolution is also an accumulative process: once a really basic evolutive groove has been traced, it becomes fixed and is used as a baseline for further development.

Finally, quoting P.M. ALLEN, K.DE GREENE makes the following very basic observation: "Newtonian mechanistic systems can only function; they cannot evolve… The Newtonian machine cannot restructure itself or insert new components. It appears the cybernetic/servomechanism systems are just such Newtonian machines that can only function and that cannot generate the emergence of qualitatively new properties" (1994, p.7).

This comment can be extended to Hamiltonian mechanics. It explains why the mechanistic- reductionist paradigm is in need for the complementary systemic one.


  • 1) General information
  • 2) Methodology or model
  • 3) Epistemology, ontology and semantics
  • 4) Human sciences
  • 5) Discipline oriented


Bertalanffy Center for the Study of Systems Science(2020).

To cite this page, please use the following information:

Bertalanffy Center for the Study of Systems Science (2020). Title of the entry. In Charles François (Ed.), International Encyclopedia of Systems and Cybernetics (2). Retrieved from www.systemspedia.org/[full/url]

We thank the following partners for making the open access of this volume possible: