Francis Heylighen  

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Francis Heylighen (born 1960) is a Belgian cyberneticist. He works as a research professor at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, the Dutch-speaking Free University of Brussels, where he directs the transdisciplinary research group on "Evolution, Complexity and Cognition."



His research focuses on the emergence and evolution of complex, intelligent organization. Applications include the origin of life, the development of multicellular organisms, knowledge, culture, and societies, and the impact of information and communication technologies on future social evolution.

Basic principles

This impressive variety of ideas is held together by two basic principles. The relational principle notes that phenomena can only exist in relation (connection or distinction) to other phenomena, and thus only make sense as part of a complex network or system. The evolutionary principle notes that variation through (re)combination of parts and natural selection of the fitter combinations results in ever more complex and adaptive systems.

The two principles come together in Heylighen's concept of a distinction dynamics, which he first formulated in his PhD thesis (and later book), "Representation and Change". In Heylighen's analysis, classical scientific methodology is based on given, unchanging distinctions between elements or states. Therefore, it is intrinsically unable to model creative change. But the evolutionary principle makes distinctions dynamic, explaining the creation and destruction of relations, distinctions and connections, and thus helping us to understand how and why complexity emerges.

Principia Cybernetica

Together with Cliff Joslyn and Valentin Turchin, he is editor of the Principia Cybernetica Project, which is devoted to the collaborative development of an evolutionary-systemic philosophy. He created its website, the Principia Cybernetica Web, in 1993, as one of the first complex webs in the world. It is still viewed as the most important site on cybernetics, systems theory and related approaches.

Global brain

Together with his PhD student Johan Bollen, in 1995 Heylighen was the first to propose algorithms that could turn the world-wide web into a self-organizing, learning network that exhibits collective intelligence, i.e. a Global brain. He is also one of the first to formulate a theory of memetics that can be empirically tested. He is one of the founders, and the present editor, of the Journal of Memetics.

See also


Heylighen's scientific work (he published over 90 papers and a book) covers an extremely wide range of subjects, exemplifying his intellectual curiosity and fundamentally transdisciplinary way of thinking. In addition to the topics mentioned above, subjects include the foundations of quantum mechanics, the structure of space-time, hypermedia interfaces, the psychology of self-actualization and happiness, the market mechanism, formality and contextuality in language, causality, and the measurement of social progress.

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