Emergence of complex systems

How complex, highly-organised systems evolve spontaneously from simple beginnings.

  1. Quantity and complexity.

  2. Brain capacity and complexity.

  3. Complexibility and comprehensibility.

  4. How complexity may emerge spontaneously.

  5. No conscious, deliberate design is required.
Quantity and complexity
First, let’s examine what complexity is, exactly.

We find examples of complexity everywhere we look.

Microscopic particles are complex. Systems composed of interacting particles have complicated properties. Body parts have intricate structures and functions.

Individual organisms are complex; aggregates of individuals even more so. The systems that govern our environmental and planetary conditions are extremely elaborate. The summed interactions between all the systems known to make up our universe strike us as stupendously complex.

We tend to think of complex systems as those that have many components. A system that's comprised of a single identifiable component doesn't seem terribly complex. But if we add more and more components to it, the system expands and eventually reaches a point where it starts to appear complex, and with the addition of yet more components, we truly perceive it to be complex. What sets that boundary between simplicity and complexity?
Brain capacity and complexity
Generally speaking, systems that are easy to understand appear simple, whereas systems that require more effort to understand seem complex. What makes things easy or hard to understand, then?

Our brains have limited capacities. Monitoring multiple objects simultaneously poses a challenge to our brains- the more objects one has to keep in mind, the more demanding the task. This helps to explain why we tend to feel impressed by large quantities, rather than small ones. We often use a technique called chunking- the process of combining individual objects into subgroups. Instead of keep the characteristics of every single element in our memory, we look for traits that allow us to group them, and remember those traits instead.

Often, we're interested in the relationships between components, such as their arrangement in space in time relative to each other. Perturbation of one part of the system may lead to changes in another part. With an understanding of the relationships between elements, we can predict the outcome.

As mentioned before, larger quantities imply more complexity. Similarly, as the number of relationships between components increases, complexity increases. The more convoluted and counterintuitive the relationships are, the more complex we perceive them to be.

Thus, complexity is dependent on the number of components comprising a system, and the number and type of relationships that exist between these components. When the number gets so big that our brains or data management systems have trouble keeping the record straight, that's when we decide that we've got a complex situation on our hands.
Complexibility and comprehensibility
Complexity is often, though not always, correlated with comprehensibility. The more complicated something is, the more there is to understand, and the more time and effort it takes to unravel its mechanisms.

Generally speaking, for a given amount of knowledge possessed about a system, the more complex that system is, the less we know about it in proportion to the amount that there potentially is to know.

This isn’t to say that a complex system always remains less well understood than a simpler one- if resources are devoted to uncovering its mechanisms, then it might eventually be better understood.
How complexity emerges spontaneously
Let’s consider concrete examples how the addition of components takes place and prompts a shift from simplicity to complexity.

Natural systems are in a state of constant flux, perpetually interacting and changing. The genome of the flu virus, for example, mutates rapidly to thwart our body’s defences, while cells in our immune system constantly update their ability to identify and battle modified viral particles.

This is an example of how simple systems spontaneously can acquire components that gradually increase their complexity- they respond to changes in their environment by undergoing modification, and these modifications trigger new changes in the environment, and so on.

When the immune system is working as it should, this indicates that evolutionary changes in both viral and immune system cells have occurred in tandem, and the immune system has kept up with the challenges posed by viral particles.

Alterations of genetic material do not occur magically for no reason. It's not as though viruses undergo immense, abrupt, inexplicable changes, and the immune system finds itself suddenly at a loss (when this happens, it’s an example of a failed immune system, rather than a thriving one). Viral genomes undergo incremental changes that our immune cells are constantly scrambling to identify and tackle.

The fact that our immune system is able to successfully attack and destroy a virus at a particular point in time doesn’t attest to the existence of a supreme designer who drew up blueprints for our body.

It simply shows us that our immune system mobilised its resources, tested a range of defence mechanisms on the viral invaders, and, by making slight amendments to its tools, generated fresh strategies to confront the new challenges. This process took place over an extended period of time, and will continue to do so.

Similarly, in other seemingly complex systems, individual components did not assemble themselves simultaneously and just happen to emerge, perfectly in sync, each in its place. On the contrary, many systems start out with a few units, and gradually accumulate more features and emergent properties, until they become the behemoths that we observe today.

Take the development of social networking sites as another example. Consider the technical infrastructure, the social beings, the interconnections, the top-down organisation, and the grassroots movements, that make up any social network today.

When we trace the history of a complex system, we note how current levels of complexity evolved gradually through contributions from numerous factors over a period of time. One realises that the existence of such advanced levels of complexity is hardly mysterious, though fascinating nonetheless.
No conscious, deliberate design required
Believers are often told that the presence of complexity goes hand in hand with the existence of a designer. Furthermore, the definition of ‘designer,’ refers to an entity that has prescient knowledge of exactly how the system is going to evolve, and how it will look and operate at any given point in time.

Let's take children, for example. Each child has a certain set of physical characteristics and personality traits (personality is a subset of an individual’s physical makeup, by the way). Some people believe that this child must have been designed to look and behave in this particular way by God.

How did God do this? He must have combined a selection of genes from the child’s parents, so that the child inherited certain features from each parent, and now bears a resemblance to both. And why did the two individual parents meet and come to bear a child? God must have arranged for them to come together. And why did they come together? And so on, and so forth.

The belief that God must have planned for the child to look a certain way is groundless- it's perfectly possible for complexity to develop in the absence of prior planning. Yet, it's been parroted mindlessly so many times that it seems to have become a fixture in the lineup of arguments brought out by religious proponents. It's the equivalent of taking any statement of your choice, and adding on the words, ‘and therefore it must have been preceded by deliberate, prior design by God.’

Regardless of the topic under discussion, anyone can choose to add in the belief that God was somehow involved. One may evoke the existence of ‘God’ in combination with any statement. It makes no difference to the meaning and validity of the original statement, and certainly is not a prerequisite for identifying causal relationships between events and making positive contributions to knowledge.

Before the study of genetics was developed, people did not understand how traits passed from parents to offspring. Many were simply forced to attribute the process to God- a move which did nothing to advance our understanding of genetics. It was the application of rigorous observation, experimentation and thought, not the pointless attribution of unexplained phenomena to an external deity, that led to the scientific discoveries which enlighten us today.

A belief in the existence of God, or rather, one’s mental image of Him, is unnecessary for scientific discovery. If anything, progress is impeded by the dogmatic adherence to false, unverifiable beliefs.

A quick note:

Let’s say that one chooses to play around with words a bit, and define a ‘designer’ as something that does not necessarily have a plan in mind before the process of creating a product, and does not have any ability to predict how each stage will look, or the form of the final version, whatsoever.

Going with this definition, the statement that ‘all systems emerged through the work of a designer’ makes sense. In this case, the words ‘the work of a designer’ essentially take on the same meaning as the words ‘coincidence,’ ‘happenstance,’ ‘accident,’ and ‘serendipity.’
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