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Saturday, 14 December 2013

110. Cultural Evolution and Complexity Transitions

A vast number of our social institutions are shaped by the principles of self-organization. In recent times, the development of the Internet and the increased capacity for creating new information and spreading existing or new information has propelled us into a new era of social organization. For example, the dynamics of information exchange creates new social trends organically, without any top-down directionality. The lessons gained from studying the emergence of such complex institutional entities from the actions of individuals acting out of self-interest can be harnessed towards achieving efficiency in corporate management or when drafting public policy.



Investigation of one type of complex system can provide insights into what may be happening in other complex systems. An obvious case in point is: How to understand human intelligence as a kind of swarm intelligence. Human intelligence emerges from the interactions among neurons, in spite of the fact that any particular neuron is as dumb as can be.

Understanding any complex system is a 'hard' research problem, and therefore progress usually comes in small increments, and also by comparing the behaviour of one complex system with another, looking for common threads. And in the evolution of complex systems one can often identify the so-called ‘complexity transitions’ (Bar-Yam 1997), which usually have far-reaching consequences. Emergence of life from nonlife was one such transition. Another complexity transition, which is still not complete, is that from monarchy or dictatorship to democracy.

[In Part 30 I had explained that 'bifurcations in phase space' is a more general term than 'phase transitions'. 'Complexity transitions' means the same thing as 'bifurcations in phase space'.]



In the corporate sector, and also in other human organizations, there is occurring a transition away from hierarchical control. In a hierarchical complex system it is implied that the degree of complexity of the controlling individual is more than that of the organization. As the complexity of the subsystems, as also their interdependence and communication channels, increase, such a scenario becomes untenable. The result is ‘horizontally’ interacting subsystems, rather than top-down control systems.

Human civilization can indeed be regarded as a single complex system (Bar-Yam 1997). A hurdle to the investigation of such a system is that it is one of a kind; there is nothing similar to compare it with.

Our ever-increasing cultural complexity has also resulted in a highly networked global economy. This is a case of complexity transition from hierarchical control to networked transactions.

Shown below is a complexity transition in human organizations (after Bar-Yam 1997).


As depicted in this diagram, the ever-increasing complexity of human organizations has resulted in a (still ongoing) complexity transition:

(a) A single person (king / dictator / big boss) takes all the decisions and directs the behaviour of all persons under his domain. The actions of the controlled persons are simple at both the individual and the collective level.

(b) As the complexity of options and behaviour increases, intermediate layers of hierarchical control emerge. The intermediate layers filter the information reaching the top layer, and also elaborate on the nature of the commands down the line. This can work only if the collective behaviour can be simplified in an effective manner.

(c) There is a veritable complexity transition when the maximum degree of complexity of an individual becomes insufficient, i.e. is less than, the collective complexity. Then the filtering of the information way up, and the elaboration of the directives on the way down, become ineffective.

(d) Ultimately there is a network of individuals, in which everybody can communicate with everybody else directly. This results in qualitatively new emergent behaviour and characteristics. An analogy with the neural network of the human brain immediately points to the possibility of emergence of supra-human intelligence in the human network.

Consequences of this complexity transition in our civilization

Prior to the transition, the complexity of the various organized structures was less than the complexity of a typical human being. After the transition the opposite is the case. There is now practically a weakening of the central control. This has consequences for the individual, as well as for the more complex environment in which the individual must function (Bar-Yam 1997).

The individual was, till recently, the most complex single organism. But now the environment is more complex than what was the most complex so far. An analogy with the rest of the animal kingdom can help us understand the response of the human individual. All the other animals are less complex than the environment. They survive as species by reducing their interaction with the complex environment (e.g. by creating for themselves certain ecological niches), and also by reproducing excessively.

The humans have also been striving for more and more specialization, so that they can sell their skills competently and survive. This also helps them limit their exposure to the highly complex modern civilization. Specialization also helps tackle the problem of the ever-increasing mass of information and knowledge.

The individual may tend to develop a sense of insecurity when exposed to the environment more complex than him/her. But the situation is mitigated by the fact that, since the entire system is one big complex system, this superorganism has the usual tendencies like the motivation to survive. This purpose is served better if the superorganism (namely the human civilization as a whole) attempts to protect and nourish its components, namely the human beings. An example is our better health and life-expectancy.