Complexity Thresholds and Complexity Transitions

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Cadell Last:

"(Through) complexity science ... we can read a story articulating the notion that our universe undergoes fundamental transformations described as ‘complexity thresholds’ (Christian 2008). Complexity thresholds occur when a form of structural organization emerges and stabilizes a novel regime of phenomena (a new level of the materialist hierarchy). Dominant descriptions of these complexity transitions have been grounded in either an informational base (universal complexity as best understood in algorithmic terms) (Baker 2013), or with an energetic base (universal complexity as best understood in thermodynamic terms) (Spier 2005). In these respective frames we seek to understand the way in which the universe generally processes information and the way in which the universe generally organizes energetic flows of matter.

The most common linear demarcation of these information-energy complexity thresholds into a universal narrative includes the following fundamental distinctions:

(MB: I adapted line 8 and 9)

  • 1 Origin of the universe (spacetime)
  • 2 First stars and galaxies (heterogeneity)
  • 3 Formation of chemical elements (diversification)
  • 4 Formation of Earth, solar system (localization)
  • 5 Emergence of life (self-reference)
  • 6 Emergence of humanity (narrativization)
  • 7 Transition to agriculture (civilization)
  • 8 Modern industrial revolution (national to international)

(note MB: I would add

  • 9: informational (global to cosmo-local)



Three Fundamental Types of Complexity

Fred Spier:

Three major types of complexity can be discerned: physical inanimate nature, life and culture. Let us start with physical nature. First of all, it is of great importance to see that most of nature is in fact lifeless. The following example may help to grasp the significance of its sheer size. For the sake of simplicity, let us assume that the Earth weighs as much as an average American car (about 1000 kg). The weight of all planetary life combined would then amount to no more than seventeen micrograms. This equals the weight of a very tiny sliver of paint falling off that car. Seen from this perspective, the total weight of our Solar System would be equivalent to the weight of an average supertanker. Since the mass of the Universe as a whole is not well known, I refrain from extending this comparison any further. But even if life were as abundant in the Universe as it is within our Solar System, its relative total weight would not amount to more than a tiny sliver of paint falling off a supertanker.

All this cosmic inanimate matter shows varying degrees of complexity, ranging from single atoms to entire galaxies, and it organizes itself entirely thanks to the fundamental laws of nature. Although the resulting structures can be exquisite, inanimate complexity does not make use of any information for its own formation or sustenance. In other words, there are no information centers dictating what the physical lifeless world looks like. It does not make any sense to wonder where the information is stored that helps to shape the Earth or our Solar System.

The next level of complexity is life. In terms of mass, as we just saw, life is a rather marginal phenomenon. Yet the complexity of life is far greater than anything attained by lifeless matter. In contrast to the inanimate Universe, life seeks to create and maintain the conditions suitable for its own existence by actively sucking in matter and energy flows with the aid of special mechanisms. As soon as living things stop doing this, they die and their matter and energy return to lower levels of complexity (unless they are consumed by other life forms). Life organizes itself with the aid of (mostly hereditary) information stored in molecules (mostly DNA). While investigating living species, it does make a great deal of sense to wonder where the information centers are, what the information looks like, and how the control mechanisms work that help to translate this information into biological shapes.

The third level of complexity was reached when some complex living beings began to organize themselves with the aid of cultural information stored as software in nerve and brain cells. The species that has developed this capacity the furthest is, of course, humankind. In terms of total body weight, our species currently makes up about 0.005 per cent of all planetary biomass. If all life combined were just a tiny sliver of paint falling off a car, all human beings today would jointly amount to no more than a tiny colony of bacteria sitting on that flake. Yet through our combined efforts we have learned to control a considerable portion of the terrestrial biomass, perhaps as much as 25 to 40 per cent. In other words, over the course of time this tiny colony of microorganisms residing on a sliver of paint has succeeded in gaining control over a considerable portion of that flake. We were able to do so with the aid of culture. In its barest essence, culture consists of accumulated learned experiences stored as software in our brains and nerve cells or in human records. In order to understand how human societies operate, it is therefore not sufficient to look only at their DNA and their molecular mechanisms. We need to study the information humans use to shape both their own lives and the rest of nature."



A Critique

Fred Spier:

"The idea of thresholds of increasing complexity as the principal organizing principle for big history contains important flaws, and should be abandoned. A proper understanding of this controversial theoretical issue is vitally important not only for a good understanding of academic big history but also for teaching it both within academia and in secondary schools.Over the past ten years I have offered earlier versions of this criticism many times in private but expand on them here in public for the first time. While I differ on this issue with David Christian, who is the originator and principal advocate of the Thresholds Approach, I continue to respect and highly value his pioneering work in big history.

To understand the issues involved, first a history of the Thresholds Approach will be sketched. This will be followed by a critical examination of this concept. When and how did the concept of thresholds of big history emerge?

On March 2, 2011, David Christian gave a TED talk summarizing all of big history called “The History of World in 18 Minutes.” This was part of a session with the title Knowledge Revolution that was guest-curated by Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates. This TED talk was intended to launch their joint initiative, called the Big History Project (BHP), to create a secondary school project for teaching big history by providing online all the needed materials.

In this talk, Christian suggested a structure for big history based on what he called thresholds of complexity, with each threshold indicating a further rise of complexity within big history. A total of eight thresholds were chosen.

In his TED talk these thresholds were

1. Big Bang;

2. The stars light up;

3. New chemical elements;

4. Earth and the solar system;

5. Life on Earth;

6. The appearance of our species;

7. Agriculture; and

8. The Modern Revolution.

In his book Origin Story: Big History of Everything (2018) these thresholds became

1. The Big Bang;

2. The emergence of stars;

3. The emergence of the first heavy elements forged in large stars;

4. The emergence of our solar system;

5. The emergence of life on Earth;

6. The emergence of Homo sapiens;

7. The emergence of agriculture;

8. The emergence of the Anthropocene (starting in the 20th century); and

9. A future sustainable world order?

In the time line of the same book, Threshold 8 is also mentioned as the ‘emergence of the fossil fuel revolution.’ In his TED talk, Christian announced the Thresholds Approach as follows: Each stage [of rising complexity in big history] is magical. They create the impression of something utterly new, appearing from almost nowhere in the Universe. We refer in big history to these moments as thresholds moments.

In this article, the concept of Thresholds of Big History is critically examined. It should be abandoned because it is fundamentally flawed."


More information

  • Article: Major transitions in ‘big’ history. Robert Aunger. Technological Forecasting & Social Changed, 2007


"‘Big’ history treats events between the Big Bang and contemporary technological life on Earth as a single narrative, suggesting that cosmological, biological and social processes can be treated similarly. An obvious trend in big history is the development of increasingly complex systems. This implies that the degree to which historical systems have deviated from thermodynamic equilibrium has increased over time. Recent theory suggests that step-wise changes in the work accomplished by a system can be explained using steady-state non-equilibrium thermodynamics. This paper argues that significant macro-historical events can therefore be characterized as transitions to steady states exhibiting persistently higher levels of thermodynamic disequilibrium which result inobservably novel kinds or levels of organisation. Further, non-equilibrium thermodynamics suggests that such transitions should have particular temporal structures, beginning with sustainable energy innovations which result in novelties in organisation and in control mechanisms for maintaining the new organisation against energy fluctuations. We show how events in big history which qualify as historically significant by these criteria exhibit this internal structure. Big history thus obeys law-like processes, resulting in a common pattern of major transitions between steady-state historical regimes. This common process from cosmological to contemporary times makes big history a viable and relevant field of scientific study."