Man v nature: Simplicity misunderstood

Here’s an important nuance in our evolving debate about complexity/simplicity: We have to distinguish between organic or natural complexity and manmade complexity.

Manmade complexity is usually bad. There is nothing good to be said about a convoluted and incomprehensible system of health-care administration, tax collection, customer support, software navigation, and so forth.

By contrast, organic complexity seems to be not only inevitable but good.

Here is how natural complexity seems to work: As Lao Tzu said in the Tao Te Ching 2,500 years ago:

The Tao gives birth to One.

One gives birth to Two.

Two gives birth to Three.

Three gives birth to all things.

He was describing what we now call the Big Bang: how energy split into two (yin & yang, electron & positron, matter & antimatter), thence into three and then into the whole bewildering world we see around us.

So the physical (Physis = Greek for nature) world is inexorably becoming more complex, as stars cook up new elements and explode to form new solar systems.

Then, as nature becomes biological (natura = Latin for birth), the pace at which it becomes more complex even seems to accelerate.

Evolution means a) that living organisms constantly reproduce with variations, b) that some of those variations will be more adapted to their environment than others and therefore reproduce more, leading c) to new species, which in turn split into yet more species, until d) entire ecosystems come about, constantly in flux and consisting of uncountably many organisms, all feeding off one another.

We could call this complexity but usually we call it diversity. And we consider this diversity good in the sense not only of colorful but also stable.

We do not say, for example, that a given ecosystem has too many “points of failure”, as a computer system might. The opposite is the case: If any link among the ecosystem’s uncountable permutations fails, another connection replaces it. There are redundancies. The ecosystem is self-correcting.

From the point of view of an individual in this ecosystem — an ant, say — the ecosystem might look Hobbesian in that life is probably poor, solitary, nasty, brutish and short. Well, not solitary, perhaps. (But the ecosystem did not evolve for the ant anyway. It didn’t evolve for anything. It evolved because it could not not evolve.)

Man, to the extent that he arrogates to himself a special place in such an ecosystem, tends to cause trouble. Like the ant, he would like to put himself first. Unlike the ant, he can. So he …. simplifies what should remain complex. For example, he goes from ….

…. horticulture to ….

… to agriculture, to ….

… to monoculture:

We’ve had good reason for this progressive simplification: Simplicity, after all, is more efficient.

But there are costs to organic oversimplification: Monocultures, for example, are the opposite of human societies, in that simplicity can lead to collapse.

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24 thoughts on “Man v nature: Simplicity misunderstood

  1. I would say that humans are part of the ecosystem. But, unfortunately, we are more parasitic than integrated. If were were fully integrated then we could function as a simple organism, as a singular non-complex part of a greater complex organization.

    • For most of our history as a species, we were integrated (ALL species are by definition parasitic to their ecosystems, but good parasites need to keep their hosts alive)

      But now we are arguably destroying our host/ecosystem. = “eating our seed corn”

    • For most of our history as a species, we were integrated…

      I would have to disagree. We merely had room to leave one depleted environment (sub-ecosystem) for another. An example of this is the American Indian population of North America. We are now rapidly running out of environment/resources to exploit. By “rapidly”, however, I would say we had several hundred years to go before the environment forces a population reduction.

      You might also see my last comment at Complexity and Collapse.

      If we can find a way to efficiently and effectively control man’s population size, we can extend that total collapse deadline quite a bit, perhaps indefinitely. Or maybe until we can find a way to expand our environment (colonize other planets).

  2. Hey Andreas, does your notion of organic complexity apply to markets? Or are they man-made? I think the complexity of economic systems seems to parallel ecosystems. After all, I believe Darwin was inspired by Adam Smith. This shouldn’t let us think that the complexity surrounding our organically complex markets is a good thing. The man-made rules and regulations seem stifling – certainly not simple. This “Gordian knot” (*wink*) of trade rules and agreements, for example, led free trader Jagdish Bhagwati to denounce Preferential Trade Agreements in his book Termites in the Trading System. So in honor of Craig Venter’s recent artificial-natural hybrid, do you think markets are comparable to nature with organic complexity?

    • Excellent point!

      I do think markets are “organic”. that is to say, we humans did not actually set out to “design” them. They are “spontaneous orders” (Hayek). Like evolution, they are impersonal mechanisms.

      To the extent that they are complex (also like ecosystems), that complexity is entirely hidden from the “user” (consumer/vendor in a market; ant/human in the ecosystem).

      So the enormous complexity of all determinants of supply and demand is summarized in the simplest possible “user interface”: a price.

      (This logic completely breaks down in an imperfect market, eg health care)

      What do you reckon?

    • A certain amount of the difference between organic complexity and designed complexity can be understood by noticing where one is bottom up and the other is top down generation – you’ve covered this a bit before. The bottom up method builds complexity by “cumulative selection,” which provides a built-in organization method – top down complexity often results from, say, legislators designing 1 rule to “fix” 1 problem over and over again without efficiently accounting for previous rules. (Even explaining it is complex)

      Imperfect markets certainly cause difficulty; they often cause cumulative selection to select the “wrong” thing. Imperfect markets are imperfect because there is no price or there is the wrong price because of incomplete knowledge. For example, the externalities of using carbon don’t accurately price in pollution (here’s my plug for a pigouvian carbon tax! links to Mankiw).

      Healthcare, as you point out, isn’t a perfect market either. I often can’t wrap my head around this issue. I certainly see a role for price to allocate resources efficiently. The difficulty arrises during cases of catastrophic or prolonged care, when dignity, as you note, and human solidarity become most important. A national catastrophic insurance pool like David Goldhill recommends (see: previous link) might work or a state organized voucher system that guaranteeshealth coverage but still allows competition may also work. So I don’t see price as not working – it’s working fine – we have just priced the wrong thing! No matter what the solution to healthcare is, we can all agree that the current payment delivery system is not organic, not simple, and its complexity is in part responsible for its failures.

    • I can certainly and wholeheartedly join you in endorsing a Pigovian carbon tax!!

      Amazing: Mankiew’s post is from 2006, and some of us have been advocating this for a decade or more, and yet our politics have not moved an inch in the right direction.

      Yet another failure of democracy.

  3. I know you’re talking nuance, so I probably missed the point.

    Is the benefit of simplicity (also known as organic complexity), stability (simplicity is energetically favorable)? Conversely, is complexity (also known as man-made simplicity) unfavorable due to certain collapse? Alan Watts has a nice lecture about Lao Tsu (and Adam and Eve), that relates to this matter of stability. Let’s say every thing is simple and stable. Who cares? Complexity defines simplicity (like Yin/Yang).

    I’m reminded of George Carlin saying that humans are in an evolutionary cul-de-sac. Maybe humans are an example of overly complex nature. Anything we make, therefore, could be flawed (and organically complex). Similarly, things that aren’t flawed can be made so by human ‘flaws’ (greed, dementia, creativity, etc.). Maybe humans could approach stability to the extent that any biological system can (or can’t): (a) In a stochastic manner, over a very long time period; (b) By intention, not skipping Lao Tsu’s steps 2, 3, 7, 458, etc.

    • Dear Mr. Crotchety (that has such an nice ring to it!):

      You mentioned Adam and Eve, and I began to imagine it like this:

      Nature (which is a kind of divinity, really) creates complex systems. And it is good.

      Man, always thinking that he, too, is a god, tries to do the same. But we know–from Adam to Raskolnikov–that whenever man presumes to be a god, the result is exile, several hundred pages of punishment, or, I guess, collapse.

    • I’ve got a lot of Alan Watts in my library. Will look for an Adam/Eve lecture.

      (Quite a lad he was was — I’m talking about Watts, not Adam — as I recall hearing when I spent a week at Esalen, a hippie-ish conclave for Buddhists and shamans and such. A man who wanted to have his Kate and Edith too, as they say. ;))

      You’ve asked a thoughtful question, but right now I’m picturing Adam and Eve and … a user manual translated from Korean. The Apple, made complex.

      So regarding stability: What I was saying is that nature seems to get stable through complexity, whereas complexity makes human systems unstable. By human systems I really mean just those banal bureaucratic insanities that, oh, Empire Blue Cross or Verizon or the Bureau of Land Management might put you through…..

  4. andreas,

    did you recently come across the documentary “food inc.” ?

    it’s about the mono-cultivation of corn and the instability/imbalance which has come out of it.

    your reference was dual purpose?
    1. The cultivation of a single crop on a farm or in a region or country.
    2. A single, homogeneous culture without diversity or dissension.

    (please excuse my poor wording)

    • No, I hadn’t come across it.

      Sounds like it must be inspired by Michael Pollan, my old colleague at the Berkeley J-School.

      But yes, “monoculture” is extensible. For instance, they used to call Microsoft Windows a “monoculture”, which is therefore more susceptible to bugs than a diverse system would be.

      Human cultures, too, seem to fare badly as monocultures — ie, non-diverse.

    • Monocultures certainly don’t fare well. North Korea, possibly the purest culture/race today, is horribly poor and dysfunctional. I plan on doing a blog post on it when I finish reading it, but B.R. Myers’ “The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves And Why It Matters” demonstrates that the DPRK isn’t a “hard-line communist state,” despite constant lazy reference to it by the media as one, but has military-first race-based ideology. Here’s what a North Korean officer said about South Korea welcoming a half-Korean American soccer player: “Mono-ethnicity [tanilsong] is something that our nation and no other on earth can pride itself on… There is no suppressing the nation’s shame and anger at the talk of “a multi-ethnic, multi-racial society”…which would dilute even the bloodline of our people.”

      North Korean males are approximately 5 inches shorter than South Korean males. Their closed-non-diverse-economy leads to food shortages and dependency (the latter of which they don’t necessarily see as a bad thing). Meanwhile, South Korea as an open diverse society has thrived.

    • Monocultures certainly don’t fare well. North Korea, possibly the purest culture/race today, is horribly poor and dysfunctional.

      I would disagree. Not about North Korea exactly, I would say that it is a catastrophe because of the nature of its culture rather than it being a monoculture. Monocultures can be successful if they can avoid interaction with other cultures. At that point, competition sets in.

      The American Indian tribes are monocultures, each tribe being its own with rare inter-breeding. Some thrived, some failed. It is only when they were forced to interact with a stronger force (European cultures) did they all run into problems.

  5. First of all Lao Tzu’s words, that you say it is a description of the Big Bang, are just super. Question: are the ideograms on the left related to the text, or are they just random? The former could be true, since you have an Oriental wife.

    Another thing. When you say:

    We have to distinguish between organic or natural complexity and manmade complexity.

    Is this distinction appropriate? – I am asking myself: mind, I’ve started earlier today to drink my Danish beer 🙂

    And in case Man is nature – I wonder if it is the Bible who taught us we are ‘outside’ nature, I might be totally wrong here, not enough into Bibles – aren’t man’s capabilities, and the products of such capabilities, ‘nature’ themselves?


    • The characters mean “Tao Te Ching”. Just interpreting the characters (ideograms, basically, would be fun).

      Humans are of course part of nature. But let’s just say that we’re a very unusual part. No other part has dominated the others to this extent, thus throwing the balance of the whole into question.

      But more importantly, your Danish beer reminds that I have some Belgian variety in my fridge. Seeya later…

    • I don’t know why I’m sticking to Danish beer these days.

      In any case, are we sure WE are the dominating species? And rats? Insects? And how about bacteria? I sort of agree with you, but, these are just doubts I have 🙂

  6. Dear Master Cactus

    “We could call this complexity but usually we call it diversity.” A great sentence, even greater statement, yet I dare challenge you on this one. Isn’t complexity also determined by the variety of elements in a system, the velocity of interaction and exchange between these elements, the time between changes of status and order, and other things? I do not necessarily find these in your discussion.

    But nevertheless, this is a great blog and as long it continues I will stay close. This thread also reminded me of a story in The Economist a little while ago. About “blatant spending” and “conspicuous consumption”. I get excited at the thought it might have been written by you, Master Cactus.

    Best regards,

    • “… I do not necessarily find these in your discussion…”

      🙂 🙂

      You guys crack me up: Each individual post on this blog must tackle the whole shebang?

      As it happens, you give a great description of complexity, so perhaps that is where the thread should be headed.

      So I am now “Master Cactus”? A new nickname. Honored.

  7. Many years ago I attended a seminar on problem solution. The lecturer was an engineer for a plane constructor. He began his lecture with a distinction between complex and complicated. Building a plane and drawing plans, he said, was “complicated” but making sure every strand of spaghetti in a plate is uniformly coated in tomato sauce is “complex”. I conclude that what appears to be simple is most complex.

    • The lecturer may have been drawing a distinction between hard-to-understand systems of a kind containing many similar components, and those that contain many different components. Spaghetti is an example of a “system” of the first type; a Boeing 747, the second. 

      Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS) must always be comprised of many similar components and are said to be “self-similar”. So an ant colony with its many ants may be a CAS, or a business with its many employees, or the human brain with its many cells, as they all adapt and are self-similar.

      Note that when Niall Ferguson’s Foreign Affairs essay

      quoted in an earlier post by Andreas,

      introduces “complex system” (immediately under his heading: “When Good Systems Go Bad”) he mentions that they have a “very large number of interacting components”, but does not specify that the components are necessarily similar. Which definition is he using for his “complex system”: the “spaghetti” definition, or the “Boeing 747” definition?   

      I have still another quibble with Niall Ferguson’s essay. He appears, in Andreas’s quote, to say that:

      All CAS “function in apparent equilibrium for some unknowable period. And then, quite abruptly, they collapse.” 

      If he’s saying this he’s mistaken: some CAS decline without collapsing. For example, Western Union once had a virtual monopoly on communication via electricity; they haven’t abruptly collapsed, but have declined. Also, a brain with Alzheimer’s typically declines without abrupt collapse.

    • Two excellent points.

      So perhaps the real distinction is to be made between systems composed of similar parts and those composed of heterogenous parts.

      I wonder how I would apply that to bureaucratic systems (health care, tax, etc).

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