Allen Blog 2

December 15, 2007

The spontaneous emergence of multiple layers of structure and organization in complex systems make exploration and diversity creation inevitable. This is because the forces of selection also only act at the levels of successive “environments”. Providing the aggregate properties of a layer is maintained then the forces and pressures outside it cannot act directly on the interior of the system, spotting “micro-deviants” and novel behaviour and eliminating it if it does not pass some performance test. Because of this protection, then the errors, exploratory behaviors and deviations that occur naturally as a result of the second law will therefore persist for some time, enabling them to explore pathways of behaviour or thought that may initially be of low “fitness” if this could be measured. In order to understand this idea we can think of the fact that as individuals we can think of all sorts of ideas, and providing that we do not speak them, or put them into operation, then we cannot know how good they really are. Indeed the whole idea of setting up a studio or a lab to experiment embodies this idea precisely, since it allows explorations and trials to be made, for ideas that may prove to be initially unpromising, but can be developed further to great success. In reality, even ideas that have been carefully examined, nurtured and financially backed fail in the first few years, so clearly, if success is to eventually emerge from initial thoughts, sudden inspirations, daring or even seemingly mad thoughts then they really need protection for some time. In biology it is the phenotype (the resulting emergent form) that is selected or rejected not the genotype.

Because of this, the emergence of a hierarchy of structural and temporal levels which is both a result and a motor of evolution. If “selection” could reach right in, immediately and judge the fitness of some new microstate, then nothing other than continuous improvement could occur. Each level of structure provides a partial shield within which exploration can and will occur, then “valleys of unfitness” can be crossed and entirely new organisms, markets, and concepts created.

Evolution selects for the capacity to evolve, and so not only will it need to create mechanisms that tend to generate individual variability, like genetics for example, but also which tend to create multi-level organization and structure, since this allows the survival of more of the lower level micro-diversity. We may remark in passing that this means that there will never be a completely clear understanding of any evolving system at a given time, because it will always contain elements that may or may not turn out to be successful.

We understand situations by making creative, but simplifying assumptions about the levels of structure that we are considering. We define a system and its boundary and then make some assumptions about the “components” or “agents” that inhabit it, and whose interacting behaviours will “explain” the behaviour of the system over time. But of course, this assumes temporal stability of the entities that we observe, and the acceptance of some rules of classification (a dictionary) that defines the different types of thing that are present. In reality, over time, as a result of evolution these elements may change and new ones may appear. The amazing thing is that we seek to “understand” a system by reducing its operation to some set of interacting things that in themselves do not change. In other words, we always seek to understand something on the basis of invariance although Prigogine warned us that the Second Law was not a joke and that REALLY today is not yesterday and tomorrow will not be today. And yet we still persist in defining a dictionary and explaining events in terms of the predictable interactions of known and fixed entities. We suppose that the constituent agents and components of a system do neither change nor learn, nor tire of their behaviors. From a succession of assumptions then we arrive at an interpretation of the system as some deterministic, system dynamics. This is in general, non-linear dynamics, and may be cycles or chaos or at equilibrium, but what happens is certain, simple and easy to understand. Figure (1) shows the successive assumptions that take us from incomprehension to “knowledge” and the comforting fallacy that things are predictable.

Figure 1. The “deconstruction” of our understanding of complex, evolving reality.

A succession of models, of levels of understanding, are created by our ingenious, simplifying assumptions, and therefore models on the right are increasingly easy to understand and picture, but increasingly far from reality. Structure and organization are seen as temporary emergent properties of change, as suggested by Tsoukas and Chia, 2002. The operation of a mechanical system on the right hand side of figure 1 may be easy to understand but that simplicity has assumed away the sources of its ability to adapt and change. A mechanical model is more like a “description” of the system at a particular moment, and does not contain the magic ingredient of micro-diversity and multi-levelled selection that really drives evolution and change. The capacity to evolve is generated by the heterogeneity of behaviors, and this is removed by the use of average types and average events. Organizations or individuals that can adapt and transform themselves, do so as a result of the spontaneous generation of micro-diversity within their local contexts, though without knowing which novelties will prove successful or how the larger system will be affected. This captures for us the meaning of Prigogine’s phrase concerning complexity – “From Being to Becoming” between a reality that is dead, a fixed mechanical representation, instead of the unpredictable, living reality of our experience, a reality that is continually “becoming”.

Instead of science being a process of increasing knowledge, a gradual revelation of the TRUTH, we see that our increased “understanding” is, in reality, flawed. The knowledge we think we have is based on assumptions that an element is of average type and will encounter typical events to which it will react in an average way. But such “knowledge” is really farcical since it merely takes a particular situation and represents it as a set of meshing stereotypic elements performing some pre-choreographed dance routine. Life, fortunately, is not like that, and so we spend out time updating our interpretive frameworks as a result of the constant surprises and disappointments that we encounter. Because there is not unique or correct way to incorporate new information into our interpretive frameworks, then we will continue to be different, non-stereotypical and diverse, ensuring that there is no end to history.

P.M. Allen and W. Ebeling, 1983, “Evolution and the Stochastic Description of Simple Ecosystems”, Biosystems, 16, p113-126, Elsevier Scientific Publications

P.M. Allen and J.M. McGlade, 1987, “Evolutionary Drive: The Effect of Microscopic Diversity, Error Making & Noise”, Foundation of Physics, vol 17, No 7, July, pp 723-728.

I. Prigogine. 1981, From being to becoming, W.H. Freeman, New York

H. Tsoukas and R. Chia, 2002, “On organizational becoming:
Rethinking organizational change”, Organization Science. Linthicum: Sep/Oct Vol.13, Iss. 5; pg. 567, 18 pgs

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Recent Posts

About the Cynefin Company

The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

Cognitive Edge Ltd. & Cognitive Edge Pte. trading as The Cynefin Company and The Cynefin Centre.


Social Links: The Cynefin Company
Social Links: The Cynefin Centre
< Prev


- No Comments

Depressing news yesterday in the paper - that modern day Swift, Terry Pratchett has been ...

More posts

Next >

Gwlad, Gwald

- No Comments

I have always enjoyed Robert Paterson's blog, but he has elevated his status to new ...

More posts

linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram