We live in a world of stunning biological complexity. Molecules of all varieties join in a metabolic dance to make cells. Cells interact with cells to form organisms; organisms interact with organisms to form ecosystems, economies, societies. Where did this grand architecture come
For more than a century, the only theory that science has offered to explain how this order arose is natural selection. As Darwin taught us, the order of the biological world evolves as natural selectionsifts among random mutations for the rare, useful forms. In this view of the history of life, organisms are cobbled-together contraptions wrought by selection, the silent and opportunistic tinkerer. Science has leftus as unaccountably improbable accidents against the cold, immense backdrop of space and time.
Thirty years of research have convinced me that this dominant view of biology is incomplete. As I will argue in this book, natural selection is important. but it has not labored alone to craft the fine architecturesof the biosphere, from cell to organism to ecosystem. Another sourceself-organization—is the root source of order.
The order of the biological world, I have come to believe, is not merely tinkered, but arises naturally and spontaneously because of these principles of self-organizationlaws of complexity that we are just beginning to uncover and understand.
The past three centuries of science have been predominant'y reductionist, attempting to break complex systems into simple parts, and those parts, in turn, into simpler parts. The reductionist programhas been spectacularly successful, and will continue to be so. But it has often left a vacuum: How do we use the information gleaned about the parts to build up a theory of the whole? The deep difficulty here lies in the fact that the complex whole may exhibit properties that are not
readly explained by understanding the parts.
The complex whole, inacompletely nonmystical sense, can often exhibit collective properties,"emergent" features that are lawful in their own right.
This book describes my own search for laws of complexity that govern how life arose naturally from a soup of molecules, evolving into the biosphere we see today. Whether we are talking about molecules cooperating to form cells or organisms cooperating to form ecosystems or buyers and sellers cooperating to form markets and economies, we will find grounds to believe that Darwinism is not enough, that natural selection cannot be the sole source of the order we see in the world.In crafting tbe living world, selection has always acted on systems that exhibit spontaneous order. If I am right, this underlying order, further honed by selection, augurs a new place for usexpected, rather than vastly improbable, at home in the universe in a newly understood way.
At Home in the Universe
Out my window, just west of Santa Fe, lies the near spiritual landscape of northern New Mexicobarrancas, mesas, holy lands, the Rio Grandehome to the oldest civilization in North America. So much, so ancient and modern, pregnant with the remote past and the next millennium mingle here, haphazardly, slightly drunk with anticipation. Forty miles away lies Los Alamos, brilliance of mind, brillianceof flashing light that desert dawning in 1945, half a century ago, half our assumptions ago. Just beyond spreads the Valle Grande, remains of an archaic mountain said to have been over 30,000 feet high that blew itstop, scattering ash to Arkansas, leaving obsidian for later, finerworkings.
Some months ago, I found myself at lunch with Gunter Mahler, a theoretical physicist from Munich visiting the Santa Fe Institute, where a group of colleagues and I are engaged in a search for laws of complexity that would explain the strange patterns that spring up around us. Gunter looked northward, past pinon and juniper, taking in the long view toward Colorado, and somewhat astonished me by asking what my image of paradise was. As I groped for an answer, he proposed one:not the high mountains, or the ocean's edges, or flat lands. Rather, he suggested, just such terrain as lay before us, long and rolling understrong light, far ranges defining a distant horizon toward which gracefuland telling land forms march in fading procession. For reasons I do not completely understand, I felt he was right. We soon fell to speculations about the landscape of East Africa, and wondered whether, in fact,we might conceivably carry some genetic memory of our birthplace, our real Eden, our first home.
What stories we tell ourselves, of origins and endings, of form and transformation, of gods, the word, and law. All people, at all times must have created myths and stories to sketch a picture of our place under the sun. Cro-Magnon man, whose paintings of animals seem to exhibit a respect and awe, let alone line and form, that equals or surpasses dhose of later millennia, must have spun answers to these questions: Who are we? Where did we come from? Why are we here? Did
Neanderthal, Homo habilis, or Homo erectus ask? Around which fire in the past 3 million years of hominid evolution did these questions first arise? Who knows.
Somewhere along our path, paradise has been lost, lost to the Western mind, and in the spreading world civilization, lost to our collective mind. John Milton must have been the last superb poet of Western civilization who could have sought to justify the ways of God to man in those early years foreshadowing the modern era. Paradise has been lost, not to sin, but to science. Once, a scant few centuries ago, we of the West believed ourselves the chosen of God, made in his image, keeping his word in a creation wrought by his love for us. Now, only 400 yearslater, we find ourselves on a tiny planet, on the edge of a humdrum galaxy among billions like it scattered across vast megaparsecs, around the curvature of space-time back to the Big Bang. We are but accidents, we're told. Purpose and value are ours alone to make.
Without Satan and God, the universe now appears the neutral home ofmatter, dark and light, and is utterly indifferent. We bustle, but are no longer at home in dhe ancient sense. We accept, of course, that the rise of science and the consequent technological explosion has driven us to our secular worldview. Yet a spiritual hunger remains. I recendy met N. Scott Momaday, a Native American author, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, at a small meeting in northern New Mexico intended to try to articulate the fundamental issues facing humanity. (As if a small group of thinkers could possibly succeed.) Momaday told us that the central issue we confront is toreinvent the sacred. He told of a sacred shield of the Kiowa, sanctified by the sacrifices and suffering of the warriors who had been honored to hold it in battle. The shield had been stolen following a battle widhU.S. cavalry forces after dhe Civil War. He told us of the recent discoveryand return of the shield from the family home of the post-Civil War general who had taken it. Momaday deep voice fell gendy over us as he described the welcome set forth for dhat shield and dhe place it holds, quiet, somber, still, revered for the passion and suffering distilled within its arc.
Momaday's search for the sacred settled deep on me, for I hold the hope that what some are calling the new sciences of complexity may help us find anew our place in the universe, that through this new science, we may recover our sense of worth, our sense of the sacred, just as the Kiowa ultimately recovered that sacred shield. At the same meeting, I suggested that the most important problem confronting humanity was the emergence of a world civilisation, its profound promise, and the cultural dislocations this transformation will cause.
To undergird the pluralistic global community that is aborning, we shall need, I think,an expanded intellectual basisa new way to think about origins, evolution, and the profound naturalness of life and its myriad patternsof unfolding. This book is an effort to contribute to that new view, for the emerging sciences of complexity, as we shall see, offer fresh support for the idea of a pluralistic democratic society, providing evidence that it is not merely a human creation but part of the natural order of things.
One is always wary of deducing from first principles the political order of one's own society. The nineteenth-century philosopher James Mill once succeeded in deducing from first principles that a constitutional monarchy, remarkably like that in England early in the last century,was the highest natural form of governance. But, as I hope to show, the very laws of complexity my colleagues and I are seeking suggest that democracy has evolved as perhaps the optimal mechanism to achieve the best attainable compromises among conflicting practical, political, and moral interests. Momaday must be right as well. We shall also need to reinvent the sacredthis sense of our own deep worthand reinvest it at the core of the new civilization.
The story of our loss of paradise is familiar but worth retelling. Until Copernicus, we believed ourselves to be at the center of the universe. Nowadays, in our proclaimed sophistication, we look askance at a church that sought to suppress a heliocentric view. Knowledge for
knowledge's sake, we say. Yes, of course. But was the church's concern with the disruption of a moral order really no more than a narrow vanity? To pre-Copernican Christian civilization, the geocentric view was no mere matter of science. Rather, it was the cornerstone evidencethat the entire universe revolved around us. With God, angels, man, the beasts, and fertile plants made for our benefit, with the sun and stars wheeling overhead, we knew our place: at the center of God's creation. The church feared rightly that the Copernican views would ultimately dismantle the unity of a thousand-year-old tradition of duty and rights, of obligations and roles, of moral fabric. Copernicus blew his societyopen.
The emerging sciences of complexity begin to suggest that the order is not all accidental, that vast veins of spontaneous order lie at hand. Laws of complexity spontaneously generate much of the order of the natural world. It is only then that selection comes into play, further molding and refining. Such veins of spontaneous order have not been entirely unknown, yet they are just beginning to emerge as powerful new clues to the origins and evolution of life. We have all known that simplephysical systems exhibit spontaneous order: an oil droplet in water forms a sphere; snowflakes exhibit their evanescent sixfold symmetry. What is new is that the range of spontaneous order is enormously greater than we have supposed. Profound order is being discovered in large, complex, and apparently random systems. I believe that this emergent order underlies not only the origin of life itself, but much of the orderseen in organisms today. So, too, do many of my colleagues, who are starting to find overlapping evidence of such emergent order in all different kinds of complex systems.
The existence of spontaneous order is a stunning challenge to our settled ideas in biology since Darwin. Most biologists have believed for over a century that selection is the sole source of order in biology, that selection alone is the "tinkerer" that crafts the forms. But if the forms selection chooses among were generated by laws of complexity, then selection has always had a handmaiden. It is not, after all, the solesource of order, and organisms are not just tinkered-together contraptions,but expressions of deeper natural laws. If all this is true, what a revision of the Darwinian worldview will lie before us ! Not we the accidental,but we the expected.
The revision of the Darwinian worldview will not be easy. Biologists have, as yet, no conceptual framework in which to study an evolutionary process that commingles both self-organization and selection. How does selection work on svstems that already generate spontaneous
order? Physics has its profound spontaneous order, but no need of selection. Biologists, subliminally aware of such spontaneous order,have nevertheless ignored it and focused almost entirelv on selection. Without a framework to embrace both self-organization and selection, self-organization has been rendered almost invisible, like the background in a gestalt picture. With a sudden visual shift, the background can become the foreground, and the former foreground, selection, can become the background. Neither alone suffices. Life and its evolution have always depended on the mutual embrace of spontaneous order and selection's crafting of that order. We need to paint a new picture.