"Food is fabricated soil fertility."

- William Albrecht, 1888-1974

We are complex adaptive systems (so let’s evolve)

"Nothing is, everything is becoming" - Heraclitus

"Whatever we know will someday be yesterday’s knowledge, and whatever forms we establish will one day pass away." -Tom Atlee in Reflections on Evolutionary Activism

Recent years have seen an unprecedented coalescence between wide-ranging fields of study, from cosmology to culture, quantum physics to social networks. A core binding principle is the evolution (“change over time”) of complex systems, or in other words complex, adaptive systems. We see that many complex systems, from physical to biological to social to ecological, evolve through time in strikingly similar ways. In fact, sometimes we can see patterns of these interactions over time, like the Lorenz attractor (below), a plot of chaotic weather patterns. Increasingly, we are observing these patterns real-time in our social systems, in various types of graphs, including social network graphs. Below is an essay about how we can embrace our complexity and consciously co-evolve with a rapidly changing world.

Lorentz attractor

We are complex, adaptive systems

Systems are groups of interacting parts, following particular sets of rules. Importantly, these ‘rules’, or ‘guidelines,’ between parts are not preordained by an intelligent creator, nor are they rigid, but instead emerge from the creative, adaptive process itself - very much like how our language evolves over time. The more distinct parts, the more interactions, the more complex the system. Compared to simpler systems, more complex systems create more nuanced rules, relying much more on context: (“if…then, except, as long as, etc…”)

Out of this rich, shifting web of interactions arise patterns that are much grander, much stranger, than simply the sum of the distinct parts. Like all living things, our ultimate design is to find those patterns that are useful for our own continuity, and encourage the survival of these useful patterns over time. Sometimes these patterns are within us (cell signalling, gene networks, digestion, affection, jealousy), and other times they are around us (ecosystems, climate, fashion, and next month’s rent). These patterns are us, in the sense that we are taking part in a great evolutionary story from the “big bang” until now.

To help illustrate my points, I have outlined 3 concepts central to complex, adaptive systems.

1. Complex systems are evolutionary systems - Evolution tells us that living entities only exist if they can maintain their presence through time, whether through re-production (making self-copies), or adaptation (modifying rules of interaction). We, the people, represent the current manifestation of a strange line that traces back to some hazy beginning of the universe, and we are only alive today because that line was never broken. We are shaped by countless interactions (between atoms, supernovae, water, DNA etc.) that ultimately yielded an entity that can reflect on and observe its deep past. Like the rest of the organisms on this planet, we are here today because we have struck a balance between (i) stable rule-maintenance, (ii) constant rule-changing, and (iii) a healthy dose of random luck. Thus, living systems appear to straddle that murky area between rigid order, and random chaos. 

2. There are many (infinite?) levels of organization - Organization is the way in which individual parts interact. We can visualize this concept by considering orders of our organization: subatomic particles > atoms > molecules > genes > cells > tissues > humans > populations > culture. For example, atoms behave the way they do because of the rules followed by their constituent sub-atomic particles, just as a human culture is an expression of constituent human meanings and relationships - the key difference being that that each atom only behaves in one way (thankfully, otherwise we would not be around to talk about it), and people may behave in many different ways (thankfully, or else we would be long extinct). Thus, each higher level of organization is more complex, interacting with ever more levels of organization, and requiring ever more information to describe it.

3. Interactions breed emergence - Individual systems interact by particular rules, which tend to change over time through adaptation. Based on these rules of interaction, arise unique emergent phenomena, which are patterns at a higher level of organization than that system (like the process of nutrient cycling arises from interactions of many organisms). Emergence occurs due to interactions between constituent parts, but also interacts with other levels of organization. For example, our society emerges out of interactions between people, but it is also molded by other patterns of organization such as microorganisms, geology, and technology.

Our conscious evolution

Our conscious thoughts and subconscious actions are shaped by our interactions with each other. Much like ant colonies are super-organisms that emerge from simple rules of each individual ant, human cultures are highly complex systems that emerge out of a simpler set of rules followed between each individual person. Emergent behaviors of our complex social systems are very difficult to predict - stock markets, viral media, and uprisings being some clear examples. In fact, complex adaptive systems may be inherently unpredictable. Rather than trying to predict, or “preempt,” complex emergent phenomena by building elaborate, costly towers of babel, perhaps we should embrace our complex, evolutionary nature and consciously adapt through engaging in grounded conversation. If we are to engage in conscious evolution, we must be able to ‘see’ (i) the diverse set of rules governing our interactions, (ii) the diverse sets of patterns that emerge out of our interactions, and (iii) connections between interpersonal interactions and emergent organizational patterns.  

Some patterns are very difficult to see (requiring advanced logic and computer models), or impossible to observe due to system constraints (such as limits to physical laws, perception, cognition, or computation). Luckily, as we are inherently social beings, many social patterns can be observed with individual and/or collective knowledge, and can be described with common metaphors or languages. Moreover, given the endless amounts of rules people COULD possibly follow, it is striking how each culture ever known to exist converges on a finite, describable set of patterns. The key at this point is to collectively arrive at common languages to seamlessly describe, contemplate, and intuit the patterns of our collective evolution so that we may adapt if needed - in other words, we need to become conscious of our social DNA.

A parting word of caution. We can be limited or misguided by the metaphors and language we use as a society. For example, the ‘machine’ metaphor has permeated most all levels of our our society with words like optimal, efficient, precise, maximum, minimum, normal, standard, average, and percentile. Machines have historically utilized clear, simple physical rules, many of which were first described by Newton. Being relatively simple, these patterns are easily exploitable by adaptive complex systems like ourselves, and many other “pesky” organisms that quickly adapt to exploit our mechanized system. Not surprisingly, the machine metaphor has been (over)extended so far as to ‘engineer’ complex systems such as food, ecosystems and ourselves - challenging the resilience of people, species, and ecosystems alike. What’s a normal diet, a normal life, a normal appearance, or a normal ecosystem anyways? We are made to believe that there is an ‘optimal operating efficiency’ of culture and economics, and other modes are abnormal, inefficient, deviant, and unproductive. Indeed, our societal machine has been efficient, but it has not been flexible in its rules, a constraint that will need to change if it is to evolve in these times.

Our Collective Ecosystem

Introducing my Scoop.it site, curated webpages to help you inform yourself on issues involving ecology, society, and emergent change

"Nothing is, everything is becoming"

Tree/web of life

White elm mycelia in sawdust and wheat berries. Will go in the garden with brassicas to help them grow (Taken with Instagram)

We the Earthworms

We are unseen, anonymous, everywhere and always, toiling and praying.

We give heated oxygen to smothered discussions, shine life into neglected clay.

We hug the darkest corners of the blackest tilth, expand our minds, recoil in pain.

We occupy the fissures of fleeting structures, feel them swell and let them wane.

We dig deep, soothe empty insides with ancient bounties of collective roots.

We occupy ourselves, till up dormant thoughts, germinate the seeds of truth.

                                                                                    By Lucas Nebert

Bolivia enshrines natural world's rights with equal status for Mother Earth

If our legal system can grant giant, impersonal corporations the status of legal “persons” then surely we can grant the same to living ecosystems? The people of Bolivia think so.

How Small, Mostly Conservative Towns Have Found the Trick to Defeating Corporations

Interesting article where U.S. communities can have legal defense against corporate land/water buyouts.


from Harold Fisk, Geographical Investigations of the Alluvial Valley of the Lower Mississippi, 1944.

a closer crop of PLATE 22 SHEET 7.  every way you crop it, it’s a work of art.

Urban ecologists document evolution in action (NYTimes)


"The amount of differences you see among populations of mice in the same borough [of NYC] is similar to what you’d see across the whole southeastern United States"

“We get police called on us a lot,” said Dr. Munshi-South, an assistant professor at Baruch College. “Sometimes with guns drawn.”

"One hazard of urban evolutionary biology, said Dr. Dunn, is having your aspirator mistaken for a piece of drug paraphernalia."