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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