This presentation introduces the theory and principles of Complex Adaptive Systems and Living Systems.
In this lecture we first provide you with the definitions of complex adaptive systems and living systems, and then we turn to the presentation of their properties and characteristics.
A complex adaptive system is a system that consists of a number of interacting elements. The elements are able to examine and respond to each other’s behavior using a set of rules that aim at improving their own behavior as well as the behavior of the overall system. It is important to note that the behavior of a complex adaptive system is not coordinated by any centralized control mechanisms. Instead, it is based on non-linear processes and multiple intertwined feedback loops between elements.All living systems are complex adaptive systems but the reverse, however, is not true. For instance, the weather, galaxies, and the universe as a whole are complex adaptive systems but they are not living systems.The complexity of a living system such as a bacterium — one of the simplest organisms on Earth — can be contrasted to a simple non-living system such as a crystal. A bacterium contains a handful of DNA molecules, hundreds of thousands of RNA molecules, a million molecules of protein and some hundred million smaller organic molecules. Describing the interactions that occur between the elements forming a bacterium is a huge endeavor and scientists are still learning today about the behavior of such simple systems. In contrast, the systemic nature of a crystal can be described quite well just in terms of the combination of its chemistry and atomic arrangement.Let’s turn now to a consideration of the main characteristics of complex adaptive systems and living systems.
The components of a complex adaptive system are nested: each individual component is itself a complex system of interconnected parts. An individual component is called a holon – a term first introduced in 1967 by the author Arthur Koestler in his book The Ghost in the Machine. Taken together, holons form a holarchy. An example of a holarchy can be seen in the sequentially embedded order that involves cells-tissues-organs-body-family-community-ecosystem-bioregion-planet-star system-galaxy-and so on.
Complex adaptive systems and living systems are open systems: this means that their components interact with one another as well as with their embedding environment to exchange the resources, information and energy necessary to maintain the system’s internal balance. In all living systems, this is the process of homeostasis — a process of self-regulation that uses control mechanisms or feedback loops to move the system toward its goals. In other words, the system adjusts its behavior to better achieve its purpose and maintain its ongoing existence.One might also say that complex adaptive systems and living systems are dissipative structures: that is to say, they use a metabolic process to take in energy and matter from their environmentwhile ‘dissipating’ or returning to their environment degraded or less useable forms of energy. They do this spontaneously, without requiring any external intervention, and as a result they increase their levels of internal organizational complexity, coherence, and order.
Adaptation, self-organization and emergence operate in concert in complex adaptive systems and living systems. It is these characteristics that, when taken together, help identify those systems that are the most dynamic agents of evolution and change.Under certain environmental conditions, the individual elements of a complex adaptivesystem interact with each other and with the systems environment to self-organize and form new emergent structures.
Complex adaptive systems and living systems display the properties of chaotic systems, in particular, a sensitivity to initial conditions. The behavior of chaotic systems presents certain regularities and patterns, but their specific behavior over time cannot be predicted. In other words, chaotic systems defy determinism, because you can never predict the exact state of the system at any given point in time. This property was demonstrated by the meteorologist Edward Lorenz while working on providing weather forecasts. Lorenz showed that a tiny deviation in the dynamics of a weather system could produce a very large effect, which itself was unpredictable. This phenomenon has become known as the “butterfly effect.”
This diagram illustrates the non-linear and discontinuous evolutionary path of complex adaptive systems and living systems. Most systems operate within boundaries or parameters of meta-stability –– that is to say, at or around a state of dynamic equilibrium. However, it may also happen that, under conditions of environmental pressure, reinforcing feedback loops operating within the system push the system toward a state of disequilibrium; when this occurs, the system exemplifies completely random behavior. However, a system may enter into a state that is neither that of dynamic equilibrium nor of disequilibrium. Under the influence of what is called a “strange attractor” — a set of balancing and reinforcing feedback loops acting simultaneously within a system — the system may enter a paradoxical state called “the edge of chaos.” The interesting thing about this state is that it is neither stable nor instable. When the internal conditions of the system are favorable, the components of the system will self-organize spontaneously, without any blueprint, to create more ordered structures. The creative emergence of order out of chaos is one of the main characteristics of living systems. Note that the edge of chaos is a bifurcation point where the future of the system cannot be determined. At that point, the system might either collapse (a path of regression) or undergo a rapid evolution toward new dynamic stability at a higher level of structural complexity: an emergence. The alternation of periods of dynamic stability and critical instability is typical of evolution throughout the universe. On Earth, the progressive buildup of complexity has led to biological systems based on macromolecular and cellular components, and then to ecosystems formed by those biological systems, and finally to socio-cultural systems emerging from humans interacting with one another.
The complex adaptive systems and living systems principles presented in this lecture have hopefully provided you with a few critical tools to help you understand the process of evolution — whether it is the evolution of the universe and life on Earth or the evolution of consciousness. As Fritjof Capra points out, “rather than seeing evolution as the result of random mutations and natural selection, we are beginning to recognize the creative unfolding of life in forms of ever-increasing diversity and complexity as an inherent characteristics of all living systems.” Now we can turn our focus to the question of creativity, and to life’s constant reaching into the unknown and exploration of its own unbounded potential. Onward!