Getting to Grip with Complexity


A Theory of Everything Else...


A book by: -


Derek Hitchins


2000©Derek Hitchins

Note: I retain both the copyright and the intellectual property rights to all the material, figures and ideas expressed in this book. Readers are welcome, of course, to read freely, may down load parts or whole of the book for their own personal use. If they wish to use any ideas or quote any part, they may do so by referring to the book in the accepted, standard manner.




Part 1. Understanding Complexity

Chaper 1. Introducing Complexity

Chapter 2. Variety

Chapter 3. Connectivity

Chapter 4. Disorder

Part 2. Getting a Handle on Complexity

Chapter 5. Systems Thinking

Chapter 6. Developing a Standard Approach

Chapter 7. Vantage Points

Part 3. The Social Genotype©

Chapter 8. Models of Evolution

Chapter 9. The Social Genotype©

Chapter 10. Beliefs and Behaviours

Part 4. Towards a Theory of Complexity

Chapter 11. Stability and Chaos

Chapter 12. The Dynamics of Order and Disorder

Chapter 13. The Law of Entropic Cycling



You do not have to look beyond the shelves of any popular bookstore to find works on the so-called Theory of Everything. This hoped-for universal theory seeks to explain the fundamental forces which have shaped the Universe - gravity, electromagnetic, weak, nuclear...and perhaps some forces yet to be revealed. The Theory of Everything would answer many of our deepest questions, it is believed, and might lead us to understand gravity, the creation of the Universe, even perhaps the ultimate fate of the Universe. There is much to be commended in such a search - it plumbs the depths of our limited understanding, and makes the human mind soar at the prospects it unfolds. It is a "noble venture". And yet...

Given such a theory, would it explain our everyday experiences? Would it explain those simple, yet puzzling, phenomena, such as the seemingly-endless propensity for things to get more complicated, self-awareness emerging from the brain, or the diversity and endurance of life?

The answer seems to be "no". While the Theory of Everything searches for the root causes of existence, it appears to be less concerned with phenomena which emerge from the variety and interaction of things that exist. Things, it seems, can work together in so many different ways that sometimes the results are an almost incomprehensible exuberance of behaviours.

Without wishing to "put down" the noble quest for a Theory of Everything, I would suggest that it is misnamed - and to be fair, the name is one beloved more by the media than by many of the scientists involved in the search. To deal with our everyday world, we need another theory - let us call it the Theory of Complexity.

What would a Theory of Complexity be about? To be useful, it would have to help us understand how and why complexity arises, how we can react to it, how we can manage it, control it, reduce it, predict it, live with it, benefit from it, and many more.

What might a Theory of Complexity be about? Where might we search for such a theory? Can we, like the physicists and mathematicians, use contemporary science to probe the mysteries of complexity? Looking around the planet, we see many complex systems. As Charles Darwin noted, the profusion of life, the web of interactions that sustain life, these are exceedingly complex. Perhaps, then, we may look to the natural world as a model of complexity. After all, the natural world has evolved over some three thousand million years, with plenty of time to develop its current characteristics. In looking at the evolving natural world, then, we may find ourselves emulating those seekers after the Theory of Everything, since they too regress several thousand million years, by observing remote stars, galaxies and quasars. True, they can see further back than we can, and their information may at times be less confused, but there is a parallel.

Biology and ecology study today’s highly evolved natural world, and many clever people have deduced, from observation and experiment, underlying mechanisms that create some sort of dynamic order. Complexity exists in our human world, too, and it would be natural for us to be concerned, even primarily perhaps, with understanding this human world of economics, politics, technology, business, organization and culture. If we start with a biological or ecological model, can we justify transferring the data from those domains to the human activity world? Do organizations behave as organisms: do economies behave as ecologies?

Clearly we have to be careful in making any such assertions. There may be parallels, but we must use them cautiously. Moreover, in many of the areas where we might be interested, clinical experimentation is not viable. Can we, for instance, experiment with the complex situations invoking genetic engineering? Can we entertain social engineering, in the sense of experimenting with people’s lives? To be sure, politicians do it all the time, but the results can prove horrendous as in Russia between the wars.

On the other hand, there is no risk in developing sensible working hypotheses about our complex human existence, nor in testing these hypotheses against historical and contemporary human experience. In the real, complex world, it is often not practicable to conduct neat, clinical experiments such as those which scientists and engineers generally employ. The notion of neat experiments to address complex issues is, perhaps, a non sequitur, since the very complexity of the issue confounds the process of simplification essential to neat models and experiments. In other words, if we make the problem simple enough to model or for experiment, are we then addressing complexity at all?

Seekers after the Theory of Everything face not-dissimilar problems. Many of the phenomena about which they would like to experiment are galactic or super-galactic in nature, laboratory experiments are not feasible, and researchers must resort to developing theories and models which, if they behave as the observed Universe, offer potential insight. There is, at the time of writing, for instance, no direct evidence for the existence of Black Holes, although many scientists behave as though they are real stellar objects.

Lack of experimentation is anathema to many engineers and hard scientists - perhaps that is why we lack a Theory of Complexity. On the other hand, the ubiquitous computer is coming to our rescue as new machines continually increase our ability to model more and more complexity in greater and greater detail. It is not yet possible to consider a complete representation of almost anything in a computer model. The number of molecules and their mutual interactions in a single drop of water would defeat representation in most computers. A complete computer-model of a human would have to be as complex as the human, thereby defeating the object. The complete model of a society would contain not only the complexity of each human, but the complexities of their mutual interactions, and is out of the question. Modelling of some sort, involving some abstraction, is valuable; the nature and validity of that abstraction is crucial.


Derek K Hitchins