Complex Adaptive Systems
The following account of Complex Adaptive Systems (CASs) is taken from Jack Huber's 2013 book: The Future of the Mind.
"There is as yet no comprehensive theory of these complex systems. But like the elephant partially explored and described by the blind men, these systems have been described in various ways by different scientific disciplines: non-linear systems, chaos theory, complex adaptive systems, network systems, and emergent systems are some of the perspectives given to them. I will use the term ‘complex adaptive system’ and for the sake of brevity, I will abbreviate the term to CAS.
But be warned! CASs can seem counter-intuitive if not incongruous. We have an innate confidence in the regulated processes of life—cause and effect flow everywhere. Perhaps, as Douglas Hofstadter suggested, CASs are a little unsettling. Rudderless, without direction or objective—except for an unceasing urge to reshape themselves, to self-organize and self-organize and self-organize... ad infinitum. Yet, they are where this story begins. CASs are all around us. They are us and they are the environment. They adapt to change in their environment while becoming the changing environment of other CASs. They are a fundamental part of this story and the future of the mind.
CASs are distinct from systems that are only complicated. I may cut the grass with a lawn mower—a relatively complicated machine of numerous interconnected, interacting systems and parts, including starter, fuel, ignition, exhaust, propulsion, cutting, and grass handling. No matter what the conditions or the weather—hot or cold, snow or rain, or the terrain—smooth, flat, or filled with gullies—the machine will attempt to cut. No matter what is encountered—grass or weeds, bricks or twigs, flowers or garden hose—the lawn mower will do the same thing. It will attempt to cut whatever I put in its path. The lawn mower just sits there through rain, snow, heat, or cold, unless I direct it. It does not adapt to change in its environment. But the grass, also complicated in nature, is a self-organizing system. It changes with no outside or centralized direction. It adapts to the stimulation of seasonal change. Grass withers in the face of dryness to preserve its future, grows with nutrients, reproduces, and goes dormant in the cold, saving itself for recovery in the warmth. Over eons of time, grass has adapted to changing environments.
The lawn mower is complicated. The grass is a complex adaptive system.
So why are we interested in CASs? These systems can be found at the cellular level and every other level all the way up to ourselves... and beyond! They are hierarchical. What do I mean by that? We normally think of hierarchies as levels of cooperation or collaboration within an organization like a church, or a firm, or an educational institution. In the case of CASs, the hierarchies come about through an interesting aspect of their organization. A CAS, once formed, is then available to be used as an element in the formation of a higher-order CAS. These higher order levels can carry on without limit. Thus we have cells organized into systems into organs into people. We have individuals organizing into consumers or producers, groups into markets, markets into economies. They are all around us! And we need to understand a few things about this CAS phenomenon before proceeding.
So what makes up these systems? How do they work? If they are not fully understood by science, how can they be useful? There are several known aspects of these phenomena that are of interest to us.
Jack Huber: The Future of the Mind
Maturana and Varela
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