Complexity theory is a a fairly new science that has emerged in the last 50 years or so. It attempts to understand “messy” systems that on the surface appear to be chaotic and disorganized, such as the weather or the geometry of coastlines or clouds, yet when understood properly is highly ordered.
The most famous part of complexity science is no doubt fractal geometry, which is a kind of mathematics developed by Benoit Mandelbrot to explain self-similar patterns in nature. But in this article I will talk about lessons from complexity theory that can be applied to human systems, to society.
Lesson #1: order may be produced bottom up
One of the most important lessons from complexity theory is that you don’t need a top down planner to produce order. In complex systems order spontaneously emerges bottom up from local interactions between distributed components in the system. This is sometimes called self-organization.
Lesson #2: complex structures often arise from simple rules
Simple rules give rise to simple behavior, right? Wrong! One of the key lessons from complexity theory is that surprisingly simple rules may give rise to highly complex patterns. Fractals are perhaps the most visual examples of this. All throughout nature we find stunningly beautiful fractal patterns (clouds, trees, leaves, flowers) that are governed by a few simple rules.
Lesson #3: maximum diversity at the edge of chaos
An important lesson from complexity theory is that too much regulation results in very fixed and boring patterns, whereas too little regulation results in chaos, which is also fairly useless and boring. However, if the rules are tweaked just right there is a narrow zone in which the mixture of connectivity, rules and randomness produces a remarkably complex and interesting behavior.
Ice is an example of a too much connectivity. Every water molecule is so tightly connected to other water molecules that the result is pretty boring. Liquid water is slightly less well connected and slightly more interesting, but still pretty boring, and in water vapor the connectivity between water molecules is too lose resulting in just random, chaotic behaviorm which is dull too.
But consider the human brain. Neurons follow certain rules that do not just connect them to other neurons but actively prevents connections to be formed or activity to spread. This results in very interesting and intelligent behavior. The human brain and the mind it runs is capable of designing skyscrapers and moon rockets.
Lesson #4: complexity is not the same as chaos
Just because something appears to be highly chaotic and complex doesn’t mean that there is no structure and order to it. Consider the map below of all the internet connections in the world. At first glance it appears highly chaotic like a tangled web.
However, if you go into any node in this network you will find that it is entirely ordered. Information is not simply mushed together into one giant soup. On the internet millions of individuals can keep their information separate and interact only with a highly limited number of people if they wish. Viewed globally the picture is pretty messy, but the way to evaluate the order within a network is not to look at the whole picture, but to look at the rules that govern each individual nodes. Is the information just a mess at the node level? No, on the contrary. Viewed locally it is highly organized.
The lesson to draw from complexity theory is that once one shifts perspective from the global network to the node level, the complexity disappears and order emerges.
Lessons for the organization of society
There are many lessons for politics in complexity theory. To the creationist or the central planner the notion that order can arise from below without intelligent design and without a central coherent plan is anathema. They believe only in intelligent design. This is the reason why creationists reject the theory of evolution and why central planners reject the free market. However, complexity theory gives a scientific foundation for how and why order my arise bottom up. There is nothing magical about it and when done correctly the bottom-up approach produces far superior results to the so-called intelligent design.
As a rather odd side-effect of the misplaced belief in intelligent design and top down control, some of the poorest cities in the world have a much better traffic flow than rich, Western cities, simply because the government cannot afford to set up traffic lights and signs. As a consequence the traffic becomes self-organized. Watch the video below from Hanoi, and notice how smoothly the traffic flows, because no single person is in charge of traffic. Rather, the flow of traffic emerges from the interactions and independent decisions of local agents.
Second, politicians believe that the more rules the better the outcome. A rule, to a bureaucrat or a politician is something that orders the universe. The lack of rules results in chaos and disorder, they believe. Complexity theory shows that often the best and most intelligent results are achieved with the simplest of rules. One such set of very simple rules is: be peaceful, respect other individuals’ lives and property, and apart from that you can do whatever you want. If someone breaks this rule, retaliate.
This method of social organization has evolved many times independently of each other in various species. Individuals in a social species are peaceful to each other and typically only resort to violence in self-defense, sometimes known as tit-for-tat. The rules are very simple, yet produce stunning order in nature, and given that it has arisen so many times and survived for a long time it must be a very efficient and productive rule set.
These rules are precisely the rules of the free market. They are so simple that everyone in society can understand them easily and respect them and the result is something similar to what we see in the traffic video from Hanoi above: apparent chaos, which is surprisingly efficient and versatile.
Third, complexity tells us exactly at which level we find maximum creativity and pattern creation, namely with the right mixture of freedom and rules. If there are too many rules, the result is stifling tyranny, producing nothing of value to anyone. If there are too few rules the result is social disorder and civil war.
A variety of research implies that the optimal rules for human creativity is the tit-for-tat rules of the free market. Here the normal function of the government is to stay out of people’s lives, and only resorts to violence to maintain peace and order and to secure the lives and properties of the individuals in society.
The social planners will object to this and claim that this is “too simplistic” and that the world “is more complex than that.” They will say something like the following: “to separate out the contribution of one person from another is impossible. The industrial society is too complex with too many interdependencies to talk about separate individuals, separate properties and separate contributions. It is all just a big messy soup where everything is part of everything else, and nothing is truly real except the group.”
But what complexity theory teaches us is that complexity is not the same as chaos. Being intertwined in a web of relations is not the same as being merged into one big soup. This can be proven quite easily. Suppose you have a brain and you place it in a mix master which truly transforms it into a soup. Would that brain still be as intelligent as the un-mixed brain? Of course not, because that web of relations between neurons really matters. They are crucial to the intelligent behavior of the mind.
It is only when one tries to take the global perspective of the Intelligent Designer that the self-organizing network looks chaotic, much like the splatter map of the Internet above. But this complexity disappears when one takes the view of each individual inside that network. Each transaction in the free market is ordered and logical, and the result is therefore a wonderful emergent logic machine which preserves the identity of properties.
Therefore, rather than thinking of the world in terms of a supernatural Intelligent Designer creationists and social planners should try to appreciate the beauty and efficiency of the natural, self-organized world.