A World in Flux

Viewing the world as composed of a series of bell-curve populations (e.g., the members of a species or a political faction) where the curves touch at the tails and oscillate offers a more realistic view than the simple view of the world as a set of fixed categories. The view of the world as being in flux also reveals adaptation mechanisms of complex systems.

Studies of the current evolutionary mechanics of animals suggest that all categories (e.g., species) are ambiguous and in flux. This is a far better model for political categories (e.g., allies, friends, enemies, those we consider “good” or “evil”) than the precisely defined and rigid categories which people so commonly assign. The view of reality holding that categories are in flux, which sees everything as potentially transforming into something else, offers a vast array of new possibilities and reveals some of the mechanisms by which complexity operates.

Careful analysis of annual demographic data for non-migrating sparrows on the British Colombian island of Mandarte has revealed a complicated and highly dynamic double pattern of natural selection as it is currently unfolding – elimination of male outliers (of both the largest and smallest individuals) and oscillating selection (population crashes for differing reasons) of females. [Jonathan Weiner, The Beak of the Finch, 107-8.] Natural selection worked intensely and rapidly in a contradictory series of ways that could add up, over a period of years, to no long-term impact at all but could also add up to disaster under different circumstances or a different period of analysis. Either way, the reality was intense selection pressures, i.e., an “exciting” existence for the sparrows. Weiner concludes that “life is always poised for flight” [112]. Rather than being in equilibrium, life is constantly undergoing tiny, delicate, rapid oscillations in highly sensitive reaction to small selection pressures. Usually, the many different selection pressures may average out, causing no long-term trend, but the interesting point is that the potential for extremely rapid evolution is there, waiting for a consistent pressure. The resultant picture is one of vastly more dynamism in the world of biology than we had previously had in our minds.

Is this highly dynamic disequilibrium at the fine scale also characteristic of our political world? If it is, might the rising intensity of global interactions (e.g., culture clashes, superpower military interventions in formerly marginal backwaters, exposure of formerly isolated social groups to global trends) be expected now to introduce more frequent and more intense biases in a consistent direction that do not average out? In other words, might we anticipate more sudden, long-lasting, radical shifts with real consequences for our personal and national security?

Complex-adaptive systems are not all equal, nor does any given system necessarily behave the same all the time. Even if micro-dynamics of the adaptive process tend to average out, the nature of those micro-dynamics is still important for what it tells us about the potential for significant change, for the kind of fundamental change that we need to prepare for. At the same time as we study the micro-dynamics of a complex system, we also need to study the environment within which the system exists to see if the environment itself is undergoing a significant evolution. Micro-dynamics of political systems appear intuitively to be highly variable, though little if any serious analysis has been attempted from a complex-adaptive systems perspective. As for the question of how the global political environment is evolving as the world becomes “smaller,” the existence today of a significant evolutionary trend appears beyond doubt.

Weiner notes, of finches:

The force of fission works toward the creation of a whole new line, a lineage that could shoot off into a new species. The force of fusion brings them back together. [176]

Here are dynamics of complex systems adapting. Once stated, it seems utterly intuitive, but in daily life, we often make the crucial assumption that things (e.g., our nature, our adversaries’ nature, culture, the attitudes of members of a given political faction, or the characteristics of a ‘species’) are constant. Indeed, it seems that the definition of “human” must include a bias in favor of this simplifying assumption, despite endless amounts of evidence that the opposite is probably most often the case. Life evolves, individuals change their tastes and behavior over a lifetime, rocks erode, the ocean has tides, the atmosphere has storms, ice ages occur, continents change their shapes, and political factions come and go. Why should any thinking creature ever assume that anything is constant?

A far more intelligent assumption, lacking evidence to the contrary, would be that everything is in flux and, corollary assumption, that boundaries are fuzzy. Think of membership in a faction or the goodness of fit of those members to be a current, with, like all currents, curves, changes in intensity, and back eddies. As the current flows through time, membership boundaries shift, degree of personal commitment shifts. Such a worldview opens endless opportunities for imagining ways to, for example, skim off parts of an adverse (political) current to one’s advantage. From a few landmark and tediously precise data-collecting studies in recent years, we now know that species can, and perhaps always do, oscillate in response to varying short-term changes in the environment (a drought, a cold spell). This may tell an intriguing story from one generation to the next but is likely to lead nowhere as the typical cold spell is soon followed by a hot spell or a reversion to the norm. But it shows the potential for adaptability in the rare situation of a consistent shift: real and rapid adaptation can occur, given sustained selection pressure.

Prolonged military occupation of a foreign society constitutes one political example of sustained selection pressure. It is not a matter of suppressing enemies; that view is far too simplistic. Rather, the longer the military occupation, the greater the likelihood that this selection pressure will provoke the emergence of a new political animal. Rather than simply forcing a shift from Category A (e.g., a hostile state) to Category B (e.g., a friendly state), the military occupation is increasingly likely in the modern, tightly integrated world, to generate the incremental evolution of the occupied socio-political system. The occupiers would do well to contemplate that which they are responsible for creating.

That is just one example from the political world of a reality where categories are in flux. The policy implications of such a perspective are fundamentally different from the policy implications of a Manichean worldview that asserts the existence of immutable categories, leaving one with little choice but to attempt to destroy whatever is classified into the category “evil” and with little choice but to hand a blank check to whatever is classified into the category “good.” In either case, one surrenders one’s freedom of choice.

In terms of complexity theory, the “world in flux” perspective reveals something often opaque in discussions of complexity: how it works. Simply, if individuals belong to bell-curve classes with the tails merging with the tails of the closest neighboring classes, like waves on the ocean, then the complex system adapts at the tails. This is intuitive: the individuals at the adjoining tails of two classes are almost the same anyway, so even a slight selection pressure may well nudge them over the line from Class A (a Galapagos finch species that eats big seeds; a fundamentalist party demanding reform) to Class B (a Galapagos finch species that eats small seeds; a civil liberties party demanding reform). The bell loses its tail and becomes both smaller and more purified, very possibly setting the stage for further evolution as the growth of new tails is provoked, and the process of complex-adaptive behavior continues…

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