What is complexity, anyway?

Development Policy26 Nov 2009Pepijn Jansen

Looking forward to this conference about complexity, it might be useful to get back to the basic and simple questions. We are talking about complexity, everything is complex, and we need to be strategic to deal with complex issues, and so on. What, then, is complexity? Where does this notion of complexity come from? That was one of the first questions I raised when I heard about this conference. To me, it seems logical that, for example, social systems are rather complex. But the system itself might not be logical at all. Or at least, (anti-)social behaviour within a system might not be logical. I for one do not always understand why people, say, kill other people. So, does complexity mean we do not, and cannot, understand or comprehend entire systems?

Complexity theory is mostly set against linear thinking, or the deterministic Newtonian notion of science and reality. Some scientists came to the understanding that nature might not follow a deterministic pattern, or linear way of evolving. Although time is irreversible, as Ilya Prigogine nicely points out, order, or disorder, is emergent rather than determined. To put it simply: things come into existence or they don’t; events either happen or don’t happen; and there is no way of saying what will and what will not happen. It just, well, happens.

However, even complex systems can be reduced and related to their less complex parts. Irreducible complexity is often used as an argument by proponents of intelligent design, for example. They claim that some complex organisms are irreducibly complex, which means that the separate parts of a system (an organism in this argument) do not have a function at all. So the system cannot be reduced to simpler parts: somehow, it is designed as it is now. This argues against evolution, as evolutionary theory would imply that the separate parts already had a function before the new organism came into being. Nature, of course, did not have a pre-determined plan to make an organism out of otherwise useless parts. Not the way humans make machines. Arguing against intelligent design, Ken Miller shows how organisms are made up of different parts that all did have a function before. So, the new organism emerged from its separate parts, intelligent design was wrong and evolution did happen. There was no way of telling how it would happen, but it did. Would the same account for social phenomena?

In this conference, we will mainly be talking about social complexity. This would involve some sort of social evolution, where specific social events or functions emerge from their contexts without anyone able to really tell what will happen. However, some more recent applications of power law mathematics might imply the opposite (that is, as far as I understand this rather complex methodology; for an explanation, click here). A team of researchers from different universities set about to study violent, asymmetric conflicts. To their surprise, they found a pattern, even with predictability in it. Somehow, violent insurgent groups seem to have come to a form of ‘best practice’ in realizing maximum damage and casualties (or whatever their goal might be). And this is independent of the context, be it an ethnic conflict on a faraway mountain or a one-time terrorist bombing in a crowded city.

Even when emergent instead of pre-determined, social, biological, natural and human phenomena will thus form a certain pattern. One that is discernable into different parts and can be somewhat predicted beforehand. Perhaps there could be a way of strategically ‘navigating’ such a complex environment, if one is able to recognize the right patterns and follow the strings.