Complexity Science

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Brendan Graham Dempsey:

"From the 40s to the 60s, the effort to find a more scientifically rigorous holistic framework for life and mind continued with the development of new disciplines like cybernetics and general systems theory—key paradigms within the neo-holistic science of complexity.

As its founder, Ludwig von Bertalanffy, put it: “General system theory is a general science of ‘wholeness’ which up till now was considered a vague, hazy, and semi-metaphysical concept.” Cybernetics and general systems theory succeeded in breaking out of the limitations of the reductionist paradigm by considering the relational dynamics of complex systems, and pioneered important theoretical concepts like non-linearity, self-organization, and autopoiesis (or “self-construction”).

Key to von Bertalanffy’s systems-view of living organisms was the insight that they are decidedly not “closed systems,” such as the ones reductionistic scientists liked to study, but were in fact “open systems,” allowing free exchange of matter and energy with their environment. As he put it:

[T]he conventional formulation of physics are, in principle, inapplicable to the living organism being open system having steady state. We may well suspect that many characteristics of living systems which are paradoxical in view of the laws of physics are a consequence of this fact.

That is, life had escaped understanding in terms of classical physics precisely because it was, contrary to the “isolated systems” studied in fields like thermodynamics, connected to and in direct relationship with its environment by flows of matter and energy.

All of this would eventually lead to a truly revolutionary discovery—beginning a whole new field called non-equilibrium thermodynamics—which would contribute immensely to a radical re-conception of how energy behaves, and thus how life itself emerges and operates.

These paradigm-shifting breakthroughs were pioneered by a Belgian chemist named Ilya Prigogine. By Prigogine’s time, science had established clearly how energy behaves in closed systems: The fixed amount of energy dissipates, order and organization dissolve, and everything reaches a featureless, disordered balance called equilibrium. Such was entropy, whose increase was demanded according to the second law.

But, Prigogine wondered, what if the system isn’t closed, but opened up to a flow of energy? That is, let’s say we’re not looking at water in a closed thermos anymore, but a pan of water over a lit stove. How does the system behave now?

Simple as the idea was, the results were truly extraordinary. For, rather than spontaneously dissolving towards the disorder of equilibrium, the water in this scenario does the opposite: it spontaneously self-organizes, and structure emerges!

Structures like this (called Bénard cells, after their original discoverer Henri Bénard) arise naturally, fueled by the energy flowing into the system. In fact—and here’s the amazing part—they arise precisely in order to dissipate that energy and generate the entropy demanded by the second law of thermodynamics! They emerge naturally because such configurations are simply more efficient at producing that entropy than more chaotic, disordered ones.

A much more familiar example of such a dissipative structure (as Prigogine called them) is the whirlpool that appears in your bathtub when you pull the stopper. This highly ordered spiral gyre emerges naturally and spontaneously as the result of countless water molecules self-organizing. Why? Because such a configuration actually allows the water to drain faster.

The natural tendency of the universe to seek balance and equilibrium can actually propel systems to become temporarily more ordered to achieve this end. That is, the same law that drives closed systems towards disorder and equilibrium actually drives open systems to generate order and complexity—and to remain “far from equilibrium,” in fact, as long as that flow of energy into the system persists.

If this dynamic sounds familiar, it should. This is precisely the way that all living organisms operate, too! For life to accomplish all of the complex processes it must perform to resist entropy and stay highly ordered, it must be continually taking in new energy sources to metabolize.

Or, in terms more familiar to us: If you don’t eat, you die. Life is always in relational exchange with its environment—a complex, open system, in which the second law operates to facilitate self-organization, keeping it far from equilibrium (i.e., death).

This revolution in our conceptualization of thermodynamics has fueled a spate of discoveries related to the question of how life emerged in the first place. In 2013, for instance, Japanese researchers showed that shining a light on silver nanoparticles caused them to spontaneously self-organize into more orderly configurations that could capture and dissipate the light’s energy more efficiently.

In 2015, it was shown that introducing an electric charge to conduction beads in oil caused them to self-organize into a dissipative structure with “wormlike motion,” which continued as long as the flow of energy persisted.

In 2017, Jeremy England of MIT published findings from computer simulations showing “dissipative adaptation,” in which molecules spontaneously self-organized into improbable configurations specifically adapted to the frequency of the energy source they were dissipating. The configurations that were maintained did so by outcompeting other possible configurations by more effectively producing entropy, suggesting a proto-Darwinian process of variation and retention in the struggle for energy consumption.

Evolution itself, then, can be understood in thermodynamic terms: specifically, as the goal of organisms to remain far from equilibrium. To do so requires them to effectively extract and dissipate free energy from the environment. Because energy resources (i.e., food) is limited, this competitive process fuels the Darwinian “struggle for existence,” in which successful organisms breed and unsuccessful ones are weeded, leading to further organization and the complexification of species.

Based on such discoveries, an additional law of thermodynamics has been proposed (first by Alfred Lotka and later by H. T. Odum) that includes the evolutionary implications of energy: “During self-organization, system designs develop and prevail that maximize power intake, energy transformation, and those uses that reinforce production and efficiency.”

Energy self-organizes matter into life, and life self-organizes by maximizing energy. Or, as complexity scientist Harold Morowitz put it, “The energy that flows through a system acts to organize that system.”

In this way, the dynamics of life became considerably clearer—not by looking at smaller and smaller parts (the way reductionism sought—and failed—to make sense of things), but by considering precisely the opposite: the relationship with the broader whole in which parts are embedded.

More than that, a consideration of how the whole is changing can inform our understanding of the parts. In this case, the whole is the universe itself and the parts are everything in it. The fact that the universe as a whole is expanding means that the second law does not require that everything one day end in heat death. This assumption was likely far too hasty. The great complexity scientist Stuart Kauffman summarizes this point in reassuring terms in his 2016 book Humanity in a Creative Universe:

The second law says free energy is running down. But we know now that the expansion of the universe is accelerating due to the mysterious dark energy that comprises about 70 percent of the energy of the entire universe. The implications of this accelerating expansion is that we do not have to worry about enough free energy. As the universe becomes larger, its maximum entropy increases faster than the loss of free energy by the second law, so there is always more than enough free energy to do work.

The takeaway? The initial conclusions scientists had drawn from the laws of thermodynamics were wrong: the universe was not destined only to grow more and more disordered with time. That idea arose on the false assumption that isolated systems could tell us everything we needed to know about energy.

But opening the system changes the whole story: energy also spontaneously organizes things—a revolutionary insight, considering that there are no truly isolated systems in nature! In the real world, everything is connected, everything is permeable, everything flows. Even that insulated thermos will dissipate its energy eventually. The universe is not a laboratory of isolated variables, but a tapestry of endlessly interweaving relations.


The second law leads to order, not disorder, and the interconnected universe is seen for the continually self-organizing process it is.

This self-organizing dynamic is a naturally cumulative, snowballing process that keeps building on itself—a process Prigogine called “order through fluctuation.” As energy pushes open systems farther from equilibrium, fluctuations in the energized system lead to threshold “bifurcation points,” at which the system is presented with novel, higher-order configurations as potential next stages of its evolution.

As systems scientist Erich Jantsch explains in his book The Self-Organizing Universe:

At each transition, two new structures become spontaneously available from which the system selects one. Each transition is marked by a new break of spatial symmetry. The path which the evolution of the system will take with increasing distance from thermodynamic equilibrium and which choices will be made in the branchings cannot be predicted. The further the system moves away from its thermodynamic equilibrium, the more numerous become the possible structures.

In this way, more and more complex structures evolve as energy flowing through the system naturally and spontaneously pushes it ever onwards, toward increasingly novel forms. The universe organizes itself.

With these insights (still unknown to many in the general public even today), the apparent conflict between thermodynamics and evolution was resolved. There was indeed an arrow of time, and the question of which direction it was heading in was clear.

Evolution had suggested an increase in novelty, diversity, and complexity; now, thermodynamics agreed. More than that, it actually helped explain why and how complexification occurs, by linking the evolutionary process to free energy and emergent self-organization.

In this way, evolutionary development was no longer something unique to life, but a process that could be expanded to include less complex matter, too. In his book Cosmic Evolution: The Rise of Complexity in Nature, Eric Chaisson writes:

Life is an open, coherent, spacetime structure maintained far from thermodynamic equilibrium by a flow of energy through it—a carbon-based system operating in a water-based medium, with higher forms metabolizing oxygen. Although the second part of this definition pertains to the living state as we know it, the first part could well apply to a galaxy, star, or planet… And that is the crux of our argument: Life likely differs from the rest of clumped matter only in degree, not in kind.

The degree to which it differs is one of complexity—for which Chaisson employs a specific metric, one that can be used to measure the complexity of anything from stars to living organisms: free energy rate density.

As systems theorist Ervin László summarizes it in his pioneering book Evolution: The Grand Synthesis:

Free-energy flux density is a measure of the free energy per unit of time per unit of mass: for example, erg/second/gram. A complex chemical system retains more of this factor than a monatomic gas; a living system retains more than a complex chemical system. This indicates a basic direction of evolution, an overarching sweep that, together with the decrease of entropy and of equilibrium, defines the arrow of time in the physical as well as in the biological and the social world.

Free energy flows through systems, organizing them into more orderly configurations. Order builds upon order, and complexity mounts—until whole new emergent levels appear, like life from matter. In this way, complexity is really just a measure of how energy organizes matter—something it has been doing to exponentially greater degrees as time passes.

In Cosmic Evolution, Chaisson charts this evolutionary increase in free energy rate density, offering a compelling visualization of the complexification of the universe to date."


More information

See: Book: The Big Picture. On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself. By Sean Carroll.


Key Book

* Book: The Romance of Reality. HOW THE UNIVERSE ORGANIZES ITSELF TO CREATE LIFE, CONSCIOUSNESS, AND COSMIC COMPLEXITY. By Bobby Azarian. Penguin / Random House, 2022


"According to the prevailing scientific paradigm, the universe tends toward randomness; it functions according to laws without purpose, and the emergence of life is an accident devoid of meaning.

But this bleak interpretation of nature is currently being challenged by cutting-edge findings at the intersection of physics, biology, neuroscience, and information theory—generally referred to as “complexity science.” Thanks to a new understanding of evolution, as well as recent advances in our understanding of the phenomenon known as emergence, a new cosmic narrative is taking shape: Nature’s simplest “parts” come together to form ever-greater “wholes” in a process that has no end in sight.

In The Romance of Reality, cognitive neuroscientist Bobby Azarian explains the science behind this new view of reality and explores what it means for all of us. In engaging, accessible prose, Azarian outlines the fundamental misunderstanding of thermodynamics at the heart of the old assumptions about the universe’s evolution, and shows us the evidence that suggests that the universe is a “self-organizing” system, one that is moving toward increasing complexity and awareness.

Cosmologist and science communicator Carl Sagan once said of humanity that “we are a way for the cosmos to know itself.” The Romance of Reality shows that this poetic statement in fact rests on a scientific foundation and gives us a new way to know the cosmos, along with a riveting vision of life that imbues existence with meaning—nothing supernatural required."