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Thursday, August 20, 2009

Complexity is Self-Limiting… Evolution Says "So What!" But At What Cost?

Complex systems tend towards greater complexity. That is one way, in fact, of defining evolution. But complexity is also self-limiting in obvious and unavoidable ways. What gives?

How, specifically, does an understanding of complexity's natural limits, recast an assessment of where human society is, where it might be going, and what of this potential do our own limitations in understanding complexity and its limits… well, limit?

We tend to gravitate towards a rather cleaned-up image of the future, all stainless steel and gleaming glass, and sexy robots that can't say "no" (puffy clouds, white wings, and lutes?). To be fair, this sparkly and perfect view of the future is something we reserver for "The Future". Excepting for Sunday mornings, we are refreshingly realistic about the process of getting through all of the calendar-able pedestrian futures to the final "The Future"… sometimes even positing an apocalypse or two along the way. Its as though we understand that things of great complexity and stability must be constructed, and that building is a messy and chaotic process, our self-delusion begins and ends with the absolutely fatal assumption that there is some end to the construction process, after which everything will be grand and glorious and perfect in the sense that no major construction will ever again mar the sublime and pristine quite and elegance we have built.

Right. OK.

In light of the magnitude of our self delusion, it seems down right naive to apply the phrase "drink the Cool-Aid"… in some very real sense, we must, each of us, have Cool-Aid factories right smack in the middle of our brains!

The actual future, the sober future, the one we seem hell-bent on ignoring, is a future of greater and greater and more and more constant change. A future we can never get to. A future that will surely go on one day without us. There were after all, a whole bucket-load of futures before we existed, before we declared ourselves the supreme center of everything, the final future. Ultimately, of course, there is a final and absolute future to any system. If you paid attention during your thermodynamics or information science lectures, you know that there will come an ultimate future which can not support any complexity at all.

For now, we will ignore that final future-of-all-futures (heat death)… there are "miles to go before we sleep".

As complexity marches forward and "upward", evolving systems are increasingly characterized by construction and change. A static system, one that can't react to its own constantly increasing experience, is a system that isn't as complex as one that can learn and adjust itself to accumulated knowledge. The romantic vision of a completed and peacefully static future is as laughable as it is understandable.

Some fantasies drive us towards success and influence, and others towards catastrophe and insignificance.

The difference between these two forms of fantasy are, to my mind, the difference between paying attention to the greater reality that is the whole universe (its physical laws, material properties, and configuration), and paying attention instead only to the reality hacked together within our own emotionally contorted and narrowly self-centered minds. The distance that separates the two is probably a good measure of the speed with which nature will replace us with some other form of complexity generating scheme with a more accurate natural mapping of reality to abstraction of reality.

A self-centered and locally weighted perspective is both expectable and self defeating. What works in the short term often gets in the way of what works in the long run. This is one of two oxymoronic misreading of process clouding our understanding of evolution that increasingly threatens our potential as a species. The other (related) self-obfuscation we don't seem to be able to avoid, and central to the thesis of this essay, is the dream-like way we tend to imagine the future as some silicone-enhanced sexed-up version of some glazed-over and romantic version of a past that never was.

What we know, how we comprehend what is around us, is a function of the iterative process of matching the stream of incoming sensation to what we have stored as experience. What comes to be known is always heavily effected by what was known before. Leaning is a local affair. Systems always end up knowing more about the things closest to them. The closest thing to a system is itself! This is a topologically and causally unavoidable fact, leading to difficult to circumnavigate self-centered understandings of the universe around us. I am convinced that evolution ultimately (in the longest run) favors systems that can overcome this local-centrism…though to to this, a system must literally work against itself in the short term. Success in the long run is dependent on the development and protection of genetic structure that frustrates success in the short run. This big-picture learning must be accomplished through the development of an ever more accurate internal analogue (process-able map) representing the most inclusive and location agnostic understanding of the entire universe. This too is an ever receding target, we can chase but never completely capture. Evolution is this back and forth dance between what matters to a system in the hear and now and the capacity to pay attention to, model, and process that which is salient about the entire universe… context in the largest sense.

I don't want to veer too far away from the thread of this essay, but it is important to keep in mind the counter-indicated admixture defined both by the immediate local needs of any given individual and the larger, decidedly non-individual scope of evolution. A decidedly cooperative mixture that is, none the less, achievable exclusively through the lives of and genetic/cultural information carried forward exactly and only by individuals.

In any given population of individuals at any given locality, there exists a range of differences that enable some individuals to make more efficient use of the resources in their surroundings, and some individuals to be better equipped to contend with and exploit the resources of their children's inherited environment. Those better matched to the current environment will out-compete those with a better match to the environment of the future. Ultimately, of course, what matters is the capacity of the entire mélange to both survive in the present and present morphotypes that meet the demands of the future.  The demands of the present vs. those of the future are often at odds with each-other. A successful evolutionary scheme must "waste" a sizable chunk of its structure and energy on strategies that may have no immediate positive effect on fitness (and might in all actuality hinder success in the moment). Maintaining a long range understanding of evolution itself, and our place in it, is the example of this dangerous opposition that best fits the scope of this essay.

It seems obvious to me that the amount a system must "waste" anticipating changes in the future of its environment is inversely relational to the accuracy of its internal mapping of the universe in total. Systems that know nothing of the universe, must produce a great variety of random solutions. A very expensive prospect that best fits very very very simple individuals produced in absurd numbers. Atoms, molecules, single celled organisms.

Understanding the process, "THE" process, evolution, is probably the most salient predictive mechanism an organism might seek to internalize. We seem to have limited capacity as a species to model and abstract and then effectively navigate an abstraction of this "THE PROCESS". Especially when it comes to understanding the limitations and usefulness to "THE PROCESS" of any one scheme, species or individual.

The spirit of this essay isn't Nietzschein pessimism or a catastrophist's Cassandra; "I told you so!". I am an eternal optimist, so these words are intended instead as a wake-up call, and offered up as a Windex Wipe to the foggy lens through which we view reality… in the hope that we use it, adjust our behavior, and rectify the self-defeating distance between what is and what we want to see.

Nature doesn't stand still. Not at least until the very end. Heat death isn't at all like my fantasy of an endless Mediterranean resort vacation. Any system that bets its future on stasis, no matter how advanced, is betting against its longevity or influence on the real future.

I've compiled a list (below) of some of the most obvious side effects that haunt complexity, that push back against its growth. If we illuminate these barriers we might be better equipped to consider ways to get around them, and we might discover something of how systems get better and better at finding cheats in the march towards greater complexity.

For a system to be complex, it must have structure and difference within that structure. A crystal has structure, but its lack of capacity for internal differentiation means it can never be complex. But differentiated structure isn't enough, it has also to have some way of protecting and maintaining that structure, that shape or behavior over time. Shit happens. A complex system must employ some set of mechanisms in a constant fight against entropy. Without which, a system's complexity will be short lived, and short lived complexity isn't very complex at all.

Which brings up an important and much ignored aspect of an evolving system. We have a tendency to over emphasize the moment, the present situation or system. Nature on the other hand doesn't care about the individual or the moment except as a vehicle for the transmission of structure into the future. What matters isn't how complex a system is today, but the potential of a given configuration to influence the greatest complexity in the longest future across the widest expanse of the material universe. Many aspects or measures of complexity cross over between the here and now and the deepest future… but not all and not always.

Back to our list.

1. One way to maintain structure is to build yourself out of stuff of great material integrity – say titanium, stainless steel, or diamond.
2. Another is to adopt a vigilant and obsessive Mr. Fix-It program of self maintenance. Yet another option is to replace yourself with a pristine copy before you dissolve into an entropic heap.
3. A simple cousin of this replacement scheme is playing the numbers game… make sure there are so freak-n many copies of you in the first place that one or two of you make it into the distant future by virtue of the dumb luck of large number.
4. Or, you can choose to live a life of extreme isolation – limit your interaction with other systems and you limit the deleterious effects the second law dictates.
5. Then there is wall building. Wall building is a self-made form of the isolation scheme… instead of finding a place to hide in a pre-existing landscape, dig yourself a tunnel or build yourself a wall or a mote or a shell or a nest or fast legs or wings with which to run away with.

And then there is the problem of resource acquisition. Anything of value to a complex system tends to be reactive. Reactive things are destructive. Installing your self within a reactive environment means you have more access to energy and materials, but it also means you have to spend more energy and structure just to protect yourself from your environment. As your energy demands increase so too does your need to locate yourself closer and closer to more and more reactive and ever changing environments. A cave full of grain is great at first, but as you eat your way through it, its original attractiveness decreases. Better to install yourself at the mouth of a river, next to a mid-ocean vent, or on the floor of a flood plane. As your complexity increases, so to does your appetite for energy and materials. Access means proximity. Proximity to greater and greater concentrations of energy demands protection. Protection is expensive in terms of the self-protective physical structure and its maintenance.

Worse still is the negative feedback that metabolic waste presents. The more you eat, the more you go. The more you go, the harder it is to find food. As complexity increases, guess what happens to the magnitude of this problem and the need therefore to spend more and more energy on waste removal schemes?

The focus of this essay are the aspects of complexity (and complexity's demand for energy and structure) that put counter-productive limits on strategies that would otherwise allow for greater and greater complexity… and how evolving systems find work-arounds. The fact that we are here at all is proof that evolution finds a way.

What interests me is the way increases in complexity puts increased demand on energy and material resources, and how these processes are self-limiting and at the same time actually define the purpose that drives evolution.

In the particular, real systems manifest great creative variety in the fight for the extension of structure and integrity over time. For instance, once brains appear, trickery and guile become the standard approach to wall building. You don't need to go the long and arduous course of developing poison and some specialized hollow teeth through which to deliver it, if you can just tweak your skin coloration or shape to mimic those who have. Or you can become invisible by adopting a color and texture scheme that mimics your less vulnerable or edible surroundings. In essence, trickery schemes are the same as isolation or wall building except the wall you are hiding behind is within the brain of another creature (either it's already there or you build it in your foe's brain through behavioral conditioning).

But here is the rub. No matter which scheme a system adopts in the maintenance of structure… that scheme hardens their structure, making it more difficult and expensive to adapt to an always changing environment. In a very real way, what makes you stronger in the present makes you vulnerable over time.

Example: When Teflon was developed it was obvious to its creators that its extreme inert-ness, its aversion to chemical interaction, would make it an ideal lining for any reaction container (including frying pans and irons). But this same property made it almost impossible to figure out how to affix Teflon to the surface of a container (it took over 10 years to solve this problem).

On the opposite end of the isolation spectrum is metabolism. When a system seeks a means of extracting and drawing energy or structure from its environment, it needs to maximize its reactive interface to that part of its environment that has the most entropic potential. In earth biology, this usually manifests as an active interface to oxygen and or sunlight – both of which are highly corrosive to structure. In order to both exploit the energy of these highly reactive sources, biology has adopted a myriad of selectively self protective (and expensive) mechanisms. Playing with fire is an attractive AND expensive proposition. Simple systems have no option but to hide from highly reactive environments – to dig themselves into deep cracks in the earth. Only a system of great complexity has the structural and behavioral leeway to adopt the complex and selective mechanism necessary to both use and avoid concentrated reactive resources.

As a system becomes more complex it reacts faster to internal and external change. It evolves faster. This is a circular definition of "complexity"… configurations that facilitate faster development of configurations that facilitate faster development of configurations… ad infinitum. The capacity to do things faster always comes at a cost. To mitigate that cost, the system must learn to be efficient and effective in its environment. This means going with the flow. This means fitting in. This means doing what the environment is already doing. This means not fighting the system. To work with a system (instead of against it) means internalizing and abstracting a model of the environment's most salient structures. If you have some knowledge of what a lion will do when you enter a clearing it is sitting within, you have a better chance of surviving the encounter. If you have legs and eyes, your very structure is an acknowledgment of the physical constraints of your environment.

An accurate assessment of this whole concept becomes increasingly complex as we realize how system and environment blend in a co-evolutionary super-system.

In science fiction, the future is presented in one of two ways. Either the world has devolved into some filthy post-appocolyptic entropic mess, or it is a perfectly complete stainless steal and glass uber-infrastruture with everything in its place and everything perfectly maintained. Both projections are impossible, but the hermetically sterile one is the most problematic as it seems to resonate more completely with human emotional projections.

The problem is this; the more complex a system becomes, the faster is its capacity to change, leading to a system that is constantly in flux, constantly reworking itself, constantly under construction. Try to find a day in a modern city devoid of numerous construction cranes marring its skyline. This situation will only become more intense as human society evolves.

Biological systems have learned to accommodate the constancy of change, deterioration, ware and tear, construction, etc., through complex molecular mechanism of growth and repair played out at the (largely microscopic) cellular level. Furthermore, these anti-entropic mechanisms are largely automatic and do not therefore overly burden the larger and more overarching consciousness and behavioral control mechanisms (our mind).

Though humanity has reached a level of complexity that supersedes the capacity of its infrastructure to effectively carry its own complexity demands, we don't seem, as a species to be able to see this problem as systemic.

[more to come…]

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