You Are the Edge of Chaos

As a human being, you either ride the edge of chaos or you perish.

Maybe that’s the wrong verb. It’s not so much that you ride it but that you represent it: you are the edge of chaos.

I’m not exaggerating. No matter how sedate or mundane your life may seem, you literally live in a zone between order and chaos, being a complex adaptive system, or CAS.

What Is a Complex Adaptive System?

We may feel singular, but that’s an illusion. You and I are biological collectives within a social collective within a planet-wide ecosystem. The cells that make up your body and mind are individual agents doing a dynamic dance with one another, an ensemble that is self organizing.

Complex adaptive systems, including yourself,  operate in a transitional space that exists between order and complete randomness. This is the conclusion of various scientists studying the workings of CAS across a variety of disciplines such as mathematics, physics, computer science and biology.

By operating at the edge of chaos, CAS are able to adapt in flexible ways to their changing environments. So, your cells neither fly apart (too much chaos) nor cohere into a changeless whole like a lump of stone or ice (too much order).

For example, when you find yourself in a cold environment, your body reacts in ways that preserve the complex adaptive system that is you. You involuntarily shiver and the blood flow to your extremities may slow to conserve core body heat.

Other Characteristics of CAS

The ability to bestride the edge of chaos is just one of the hallmarks of a CAS. Here’s a list of other characteristics, all of which apply to you:

  • First, you are made of many relatively simple cells, which themselves are made of smaller and simpler elements. In the lingo of CAS, these components are “agents” that are not too complex in themselves but which interact in complex ways.
  • Second, you are nonlinear. That is, the interactions among the multitude of small components of which you are made is nonlinear. This just means that small changes can become big ones and vice versa.  You are a swirl of both positive and negative feedback loops.

In fact, the book Feedback Control in Systems Biology states that “even the briefest consideration of the dynamics which arise from the biological reaction kinetics underpinning almost all cellular processes reveals the ubiquity of non-linear phenomena.”

  • Third, you’re an open system, which means you share information and energy with your environment. You take energy in (for example, you eat an apple) and put energy out (for example, you push a lawnmower).

You also take in and share information. You’re taking in this post, for example, which is information that I’m sending out into the world.

  • Fourth, your behavior is determined by the interactions among your many components. There are, for example, the cells and synapses of the matrix known as your brain as well as the cells in the rest of your body. Although it feels as if you, an individual, are in charge of your behavior, it is really the interactions among your many collective components that determine your thoughts and behaviors.
  • Fifth, you are emergent and, therefore, unpredictable. The interactions among your various components are too complex and nonlinear to be entirely anticipated. What emerges are your behaviors and sense of identity. It’s as if you were your own weather system, and your inner weather person (let’s say your consciousness) can’t always forecast what’s going to happen.
  • Sixth, you have a history. Which just means that one interaction leads to another, and your history largely determines your present state, even if it was unpredictability emergent.

What’s Your Point?

Because you are an open system, you are also part of a larger system, an agent in the global ecosystem.

That whole “I am one with the world” trope? Well, it’s literally true. I guess most of us know that at some level, but the ideas underlying complexity theory make it more explicit.

You and I are CAS but we are also agents in a larger whole. We are parts of the grander reticulum.

Featured Image: "Seeking the edge of chaos is not seeking disorder or randomness but the right balance between order and flexibility" (Joost Pauwelyn); 13 December 2011; WikiImages

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Mark R. Vickers

I am a writer, analyst, futurist and researcher. I've spent most of my working life as an editor and manager for research organizations focusing on social, business, technology, HR and management trends. But, perhaps more to the point for this blog, I'm curious about the universe and the myriad, often mysterious relationships therein.

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