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May 19, 2013


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One of the things that has long haunted my mind scape is when reading Odum, he says that all scales exhibit the same level of complexity. The atoms of every level shift because certain aspects of sub systems become irrelevant and understandings in lower levels cannot be just aggregated together to create models of higher levels. New models of the relevant actors (aggregates of lower levels) at every level become necessary. I really wish I could formulate it as a question other than, thoughts George? Also, depreciation might be a better catch all than entropy.


First: great job George! We've been watching and waiting as this tome of yours "evolves" to fruition. So glad to see that the end is near (actually the beginning - of the book's "life").

Two points: adding to what Brian said above, the second law of thermodynamics seems to be underlying all systems and directing them to distribute the heat of the universe, so I imagine that complexity can only go so far before it becomes its own problem. For example we biological units have overshot the carrying capacity of the planet we live on so we keep devising more and more ways to find energy to keep going (rather than being wise and not getting into this predicament) - but there's a limit on a finite planet (which we'll be finding out soon).

Secondly: regarding heat and adaptability - with all the CO2 and other gases burgeoning from our continued use of fossil fuels - plants, animals, birds and mammals (and probably many more) will have a hard time (maybe impossible) adapting to the rapid increase in heat over a relatively short time span.

To wrap up my comment - I think you should address heat in your systems book (even if only a mention).

Bodhi Chefurka

George, very nice indeed.

Can you explain why human civilization, when considered as a CAS, appears to have abandoned homeostasis as a goal, and adopted perpetual growth instead?


The Second Law doesn't mandate that entropy only increase, except in isolated systems. In open systems (like the Earth and all Earthly sub-systems) local entropy can decrease in the presence of energy gradients, so long as the resulting entropy can be exported to the environment.

This seems to be why human civilization has increased in complexity due to the energy gradient supplied by fossil fuels, along with the inevitable increase in environmental entropy such as CO2 levels.

George Mobus


I'll have to dig a bit to see what Odum said about this. Levels of complexity usually means the hierarchy levels from the "atoms" up through the highest observable level (as in the figure above). The lowest level could start with individual humans (for example) in a society. Economists have long believed one did not need to decompose them beyond the assumptions of rational agent theory. Now we know that isn't the case, at least as far as psychological behavior is concerned.


In the book we examine complexity, first in a chapter all its own, and then as part of the chapters on emergence and evolution. Yes as complexity increases in systems there is a point at which there are diminishing returns on increases in complexity, ala Joe Tainter's treatment of civilizations (we use that as an example in the book). Eventually the system either goes into a steady state with no further development (no new complexity) or goes into decline (more often) as complexity usually causes more trouble internally. However, if the system evolves to find a new source of energy to exploit, then it can undergo a reorganization and a new level of emergence giving rise to an actual reduction in complexity at lower levels and new potentials within the new level. The figure above attempts to show how higher levels of organization effectively consolidate lower levels' complexity. It is sort of like abstraction - subsuming numerous bits and pieces under a new structure.

This is what the discovery and exploitation of fossil fuels got us. Civilization could actually generate yet newer levels of complexity by utilizing machines to take over human labor. I suppose if by some miracle someone discovers a new even more powerful source of high potential energy, then we, as a species, might actually be able to transcend our current conundrum and achieve some higher level of organization in spite of being not so sapient on the whole.

In the book I certainly cover thermodynamics and energy flow in several different chapters, namely the one on dynamics (now titled "behavior") and in the two chapters I've briefed you on here. Notice in two of the figures I explicitly show waste heat emerging from the processes. As for heating the environment from global warming, we are on the fence on making that explicit. There are so many books on the subject already. However we do mention environmental impacts of energy flows through man made systems (i.e. machines). Perhaps an example box showing how low frequency photons are absorbed by greenhouse gasses might be in order. Thanks for the suggestion.


First let me say I was excited when I saw your name on the program for the environmental economics meeting in June. I was looking forward to meeting you in person at long last! But then I saw that you were only represented by your paper on Thermodynamic Footprint. That was a disappointment.

As to your question, in my experience only living systems that have achieved a holistic organization, usually formed by cooperating agents, actually settle on homeostasis. That is individuals (organisms) have internal mechanisms that keep them from growing boundlessly as individuals. But populations and organizations do not have such internal mechanisms. They are evolvable and in order to evolve the first element in my list above has to be operative. And the only way biological systems have to generate many redundant components is reproduction. Reproduction (especially where parental protection is involved) immediately carries with it the need to extract more resources and in competition with both conspecifics and other species. In my prior post on envisioning a future Homo eusapiens I posit that we have evolved our interpersonal communications, empathetic feelings, and understanding of regulatory structures to the point of realizing a more ideal hierarchical control system that would make our population (and societies) more like an individual being. The forces that are at work are the same ones that led some prokaryotes to learn to cooperate to produce eukaryotes (endosymbiosis) and some insects (and naked mole rats) to form eusocial societies.

We humans, our populations and social units are just at the threshold of eusociality. We have some of what it would take to be non-automaton cooperators, but still some of the more individualistic propensities (magnified in the current republican party!) that keep us in a kind of limbo. We want to form societies, but we can't give up our feelings that we, as individuals, are the most important things in the universe. Our species is an unfortunate mix of selflessness and selfishness. Of course, my conjecture about how we evolved this way is that we were on the trajectory toward developing stronger cooperation tendencies when we stumbled into technology and especially agriculture. These required and exploited the level of cooperativity we had achieved, but now put emphasis on merely operational and logistical/tactical level management thinking and forewent strategic (big picture, long term) thinking which I claim is part of the evolution of eusapience.

Good description of the exploitation of energy gradients. Have you read Harold Morowitz? Energy Flow in Biology. Of course others have taken up this theme, but Morowitz was foundational.


Bodhi Chefurka

George, I fully intended to go to Burlington, but then my favourite niece decided to advance her wedding by a year, to June 10th. Scratch one conference... I'm disappointed too, there will be a lot of people there I'm very eager to meet - especially you. Next time for sure.

No, I haven't read Morowitz yet. Thanks for the pointer.

Do you know astrophysicist Eric Chaisson's "power density" marker for complexity? It's the system's energy throughput per unit time per unit mass (his unit is ergs/sec/gm). He has analyzed and plotted everything from galaxies and stars through all sorts of life forms up to humans and their technology, on a log-linear plot. He doesn't say why this works, but empirically it seems to hold up - at least for common-sense observations of "complexity".

One of the problems I have in all this is that there are so damn many definitions of "complexity" out there. I like the one you use - mine is similar, but not nearly as tight: "A complex system is a system consisting of a non-trivial number of interacting sub-systems". The definition is obviously both recursive and fractal, but at its heart it's still a layman's definition.

Oh, and if you don't mind a tiny bit of blog-flogging, I posted a very brief article about this on my Facebook writer's page: Some thoughts on complexity and motivation. It's still early days, but my thermodynamic theory of civilization is making some progress.

I'll post a follow-up to your comments as soon as I've digested the new information. Thanks again!


George - I am barely qualified to comment at all on this posting, but I would like to opine that, should your work survive the neck-squeeze coming up, I am sure future thinkers will scratch their heads in puzzlement that you, your collaborators and a handful of others "got it" about the evolutionary basis of systems development, and yet the society in which you lived pursued unconstrained growth seemingly in zero awareness of "how systems really work". That is if future inhabitants have evolved beyond the normative deaf-ears level of current hominids.

To this end, what progress towards finding a means of preserving knowledge for a post-grid world?

George Mobus


I wonder if Chaisson's approach is at all related to Priogine's dissipative systems? Thanks for the tip.

My basic definition of complexity is based on Simon's hierarchical depth, but I've tried to incorporate the energy flow/embodied energy perspective as well. I'll send you something on this via e-mail attachment for your comments.

Also, Melanie Mitchell's "Complexity: A Guided Tour" covers various approaches/definitions to/of complexity.


Actually the progress is very promising. Had you heard of the recent developments in encoding data in DNA molecules? Here is a news story about it.

My own hope is to find a way to compress knowledge in the form of systems science. That is I am looking for a basic description of systemness that can then expand into its application to systems the new people will find in nature. And then to systems they might create - like governance. Woring on the book is really helping me think about this.

I liked Carl Sagan's version of this kind of encoding that he described in "Contact". Really COOL!

The only real problem now is readout of the DNA molecules in some distant future where the technology we have now is long forgotten (mercifully much of it!) I'm searching for a genetics engineer who can figure out how to develop an organism that under the right conditions will express the seed knowledge - like a few symbols emerging on the leaves of some kind of plant. I'm pretty confident that we can find a self-extracting mechanism like that, but it will take a lot more consideration and knowledge and talent than I can bring to the table. If you know anyone interested in tackling a non-tenurable research program...!



George - Fascinating stuff, thanks. If I ever manage to pick the locks of Bill & Melinda Gatekeepers or get some crumbs off Warren's Buffet Table, I shall stuff a brown envelope forthwith and pass it on to the genetics engineering project. There is no greater cause today!

Bodhi Chefurka


You have speculated that our evolutionary development of sapience was interrupted by the requirements of agriculture. That position raises a couple of fascinating questions.

If the development of agriculture was thermodynamically inevitable, then the development of cleverness over sapience may have been similarly foreordained. Do you think that the development of agriculture was “inevitable” in that way? In other words, what’s your take on the idea that a thermodynamically driven “stochastic determinism” is the underpinning for human culture?

The second question is, had we gone on to develop a deeper sapience, would that have given us enough of a mental toolkit to resist the thermodynamic impulse towards growth that seems to be behind the complexification of civilization?


George Mobus


That is a tough call! Given the 2nd law, the flow of energy is certainly inevitable, but the form of the pathways through the evolving system may be variable, it seems to me. As I think about the sequence of developments that must have taken place in the evolution of Brodmann area 10 and the recurrent effects it had on other prefrontal areas as well as the rest of the brain as a whole, it does seem to me that cleverness had to precede higher sapience, so in that sense I suppose, our turn to technology (including agriculture) before developing eusapience was inevitable. I'm often torn between a vision of a noble savage and the not-so-noble one we ended up being as alternative pathways. But, then, I consider the "forced moves" hypothesis that Dan Dennett put forth in "Darwin's Dangerous Idea" as a basis for convergent evolution. There are some structures/behaviors that are in fact inevitable. They are just so good at what they do that no other alternative comes close. Then I think, yes it was inevitable!

As to the second question, given that we probably agree on that position re: the first question, rather than Homo sapiens having progressed to eusapience in the past, the current situation might provide exactly the conditions for putting us back on track -- well some of us!

I am now convinced that this will have to happen because the coexistence of our level of cleverness and eusapience would be essential to enter into a steady-state dynamics with respect to energy flows available in the future. Namely, we have to learn to live on an equitable fraction of real-time solar influx.

My thought is that eusapience is what will lead humans to live in eusocial conditions. As I pondered in my post, Can We Envision Future Homo eusapiens? eusociality occurs when society members are dominated by cooperative motivations -- communalism vs. individualism. Under those conditions I suggest that there would be no further need to complexify civilization per se. Though I think refinements of appropriate technologies are still possible in a steady-state. I just don't think eusapient beings would pursue doing something just because they could do it. They would use more global judgments to verify that doing something novel would lead to an overall improvement in life (not quantity but quality) without overreaching our proper energy allotments.

Cooperativity greatly dominating over competition is the key to eusociality and reaching and staying within a limit - the steady-state. That is what our bodies do with internally imposed restrictions on further growth after maturity. I imagine a future society that, like an individual organism's body, reaches a natural limit and grows no more. Recognizing that limit may be the job of future cleverness. Deciding to obey it would be the job of eusapience.

That, at least, is my dream.


Bodhi Chefurka


Humanity seems to be edging closer to chaos. In chaos there is the potential for both disaster and rebirth. It's like Schroedinger's cat - the states are superposed, and we won't know which we're going to get until we open Pandora's box and look inside (if you'll pardon a somewhat transgenic metaphor).

I think this is the one factor that makes the possibility of collapse so exciting to me - the opening of new possibilities, most of which are utterly unpredictable. That's why I like the idea of preparing the ground for the possibility of eusapience - we can't know which butterfly might flap a new humanity into existence.

Hmmm. I must have left my pessimism in the pocket of my other pair of grouchy old man pants this morning... :-)

Martin Gisser (Florifulgurator)

Hello George,

looking forward to your book! In the meantime I might have a look at Memory Evolutive Systems by Ehresmann and Vanbremeersch. Some nice abstract maths (category theory) inside, but not too hard, it seems. Alas that book is very expensive. Do you know this stuff?


I don't know if any of you guys are familiar with Geoffrey West and his work.


Hi. I just found your site (Google image search for a Simon hierarchy - excellent diagram!). Very interesting. Good luck with the book. (I'd say more but I'm not supposed to get too deep until next year, though I am doing a lengthy comment on your recent Lack of Sapience post.)

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