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Chapter Two: The Evolution of Societal Structures

Section 4: Complexity and Competence in Living Systems


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 Scottish Highland Dance Competition, Campbell, California, June, 1998.



At this point the discussion requires some narrowing. We are primarily concerned with living systems at this point -- i.e. organisms and populations of organisms. Rather than delving into all the complexities of competition which would require comparisons among diverse types in various environmental contexts, we will limit our concerns to the issues of system competence (which avoids a plethora of comparisons). The task is further narrowed by focusing on the effect of system complexity on competence.



If it is not obvious now, it will be, that complex systems are not inherently more "fit" than simpler systems. However, because there are more possible complex systems, and because complex systems often embody simpler systems, complex systems have the potential to be more competent. In particular, complex systems have the potential for more specialized exchanges among the subsystems and between the system and its environment. This allows a more precise reading of and reaction to the environment.



 The more precise reading gives rise to the powers of anticipation, and the more precise reactions increase the system's control over its environment. For example, the eye is a highly specialized subsystem that allows a precise reading of the environment. A fox can foresee a potential meal: a rabbit can foresee a potential attack. Each can use its highly specialized motor organs to change the environment in a favorable direction. While one cannot say in the abstract that is more competent, the fox or the rabbit, one can say that either is better off than their blind or paralyzed counterparts.



More specialization can lead to better anticipation and control. For an extreme example, this paper can be seen as the product of a highly specialized organ (the human mind) which is a subsystem of another system (a human being) which is a subsystem within a hierarchy of systems which includes the entire human race. The specialized organ has read subtle aspects of the environment (scholarly books, lectures, current events... ) and has organized this data into a system (GS framework) that is then applied to anticipate environmental contingencies (the future world). The framework is then applied to the anticipation to form a plan of action which is to be shared with other human subsystems -- many of whom are developing their own plans of action. Each of these plans will have some (maybe-negligible) impact on the world system -- which will then act to control its environment in some way or another.



However, there are disadvantages to specialization. Specialized organs may require specific environmental entities for their maintenance. If the entire system has become dependent on this organ, the absence of the specific may impair the entire system (Witness the pain to families and to institutions as the money dries up -- and is no longer capable of supporting necessities that were once luxuries.)



Secondly, any specialization requires some energy or cost to support it. The return in competence may not compensate for the cost. Similarly, the competence may not be useful under current environmental conditions. Thus, a population of Mexican tetra (tropical fish) have lived in total darkness within caves for countless generations. Darwinian selection has apparently favored those fish, now called blind cave fish, which efficiently allowed their eyes to degenerate, redirecting their energies to the development of a sonar-like sense. Of course, it is not always possible to reallocate energies so efficiently -- so sometimes the inefficiency can send the entire system the way of the dinosaurs and full-sized cars.



Thirdly, simple systems are more flexible in a developmental sense Complex systems are more flexible as they stand. However, since transformations which lead from simple to complex are not reversible, each development forecloses other developmental options. Thus, children can be educated for a great variety of roles -- but the more complex adults appear less flexible -- when a railroad or defense contractor shuts down, society suddenly has a bunch of engineers with nothing to do. Again, the results can be more dramatic: when you slice a relatively simple young starfish in two you end up with two adult starfish; when you slice a relatively complex young human in two, you end up with life imprisonment.



Both simple and complex systems have their advantages. Reproductive populations, it might be noted, combine the advantages of both. The population may have a complex structure. However, each new conception (ontogeny replicated phylogeny) reopens the possibilities lost to the elders -- and those possibilities may be critical to the species should a severe and lasting change in the environment occur.



This may partially account for the success new insect generations have countering the insecticides that decimated their elders -- although the usual explanation is genotypic rather than phenotypic. Human civilization is the best example of a super complex system with simplicity built in through reproduction. Each generation builds upon the works of the prior generation, and has the opportunity to improve upon the educational system so that the next generation will surpass it in complexity. Whether or not this will help us outlive the fruitfly remains to be seen.



It should be noted that while human society continues to evolve ever more complex forms, the mechanism is not primarily genotypic, as it is with most species. In fact, in some countries, the poor, who may be considered the least fit, tend to have the most children. However, natural selection operates on social forms through economics and political competition. Thus, the most important evolutionary events of our age are social and societal development -- and, although the mechanisms may not be the same, the principles of evolution outlined above still apply.







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