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What's in a Name?


Years ago, when I first started this blog, my goal was to explore ways in which the study of complex systems might inform our understanding of life. That, in a nutshell, is the origin of my blog’s name, Complexity Simplified. However, new readers may not have seen my early posts, so I thought it useful to review some of the concepts I explored years ago when the blog was new.

I’ll start with some definitions: the science of complexity is the study of complex adaptive systems. This type of science is concerned with understanding how complex systems evolve and change, especially when they self-organize and new behaviors and properties emerge. To delve into this type of science, we first need to define what is meant by a complex system.

Complex systems are “smart.” This means that they adapt when conditions change, rather than merely reacting to those changes. A thermometer is not a complex system, since an increase in temperature merely causes liquid to rise up the thermometer’s glass tube a certain distance in proportion to that temperature change. The thermometer simply reacts to the change. It is not smart enough to adapt to the changing temperature.

Our bodies, of course, are smart enough to adapt—within limits. Other complex systems can do this as well. Consider, for example, an ecological system. This collection of plants, animals, microbes, bodies of water, wetlands, deserts, and so on is a system in which the parts are connected and interdependent. An ecological system can adapt to temperature changes. It is smarter than a thermometer.

Every time the season changes, as temperatures plummet at the approach of winter or soar when summer arrives, an eco-system adapts and survives. Even if those changes become long-term or even permanent, an ecological system has ways to adapt. Eco-systems are smart because they can adjust to a change in climate by, for example, shifting the mix of species. In this way, the system as a whole survives. The end result of this adaptation could be a very different eco-system than the original, though. Individual animals or plants, or even entire species within that system may not make it, but the system as a whole will likely survive. It has adapted.

This is not to say that climate change is “okay.” In order for an eco-system to adjust to something as severe as the warming of the entire planet, it is highly likely that some species will go extinct. One of those species could be our own.

Our immune system is another example of a smart, complex system. It will adapt by ramping up to an activated state when a virus or bacterium enters our body. All systems in the body are adaptable and, thus, complex. Social systems are also considered to be complex systems, since they have the ability to adapt to changing conditions. In fact, social systems, in many ways, act more like a living organism than like a machine. All of these complex systems have one characteristic in common: they are capable of adapting to change, sometimes in creative and unexpected ways.


This post is an excerpt from the Introduction to my book Spiritual Insights from the New Science: ComplexSystems and Life. I hope to provide additional excerpts in future blog posts. Get your copy anywhere books or sold, or directly from the publisher, World Scientific Publishing.



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