This blog is the fifth in a series of posts that focuses on Nature’s organizing principles. The material in each of these posts has been condensed from the text of my new book entitled “Nature’s Patterns: Exploring Her Tangled Web“. The book will be published in both an Amazon Kindle edition and a soft cover edition later this year. You are encouraged to comment and to offer critiques. I would also love to engage in a dialog with you on these subjects.
The previous blog posts are:
Blog #2: Everything Is Connected
Blog #4: Nature Is Both Ordered and Chaotic
From the most minuscule atomic particle to the grandest galaxies, the past, the present, and the future of every animate and inanimate being in our universe is defined by its connection to everything else. It is with this premise that the complexity of Nature is defined.
“Complexity” is a very important idea to those who are stewards of Nature because it implies both the constraints and the opportunities that are available when one interrelates with Nature at all levels. The notion of complexity guides the casual Nature buff as well as the professional naturalist who is making ecological decisions.
Complexity in Nature is the combination of both order and randomness in Nature. Complexity is not just some abstract philosophical concept. It is a very real part of Nature and the societies of all creatures. Complexity is why Nature is what she is.
Let’s start by looking at Nature’s order and things that science has discovered which helps describe her order. Western science offers a catalog of facts, and concepts about how our Earth is held together. These facts include our origins — the stars in our universe. Science describes and explains much of Nature’s order as “laws”. The laws of gravity and electromagnetic forces limit, constrain, guide, organize, and direct all things. These laws are described as “information” because they tell our world what it can and cannot do. Nature’s laws require the force of energy.
All of Nature consists of atoms that have been sorted, arranged, and rearranged. These processes come from our sun’s energy and is delivered to us as sunlight. This sunlight conveys energy that is used to bond things together and transform objects from one form or state to another. This energy has the power to rearrange atoms into birds, plants, animals, and rocks. Everything we see and everything that we are is matter that has been rearranged by the sun’s energy. This process produces connections and bonds. That is why energy is the operating currency of Nature. Every being and action is defined by its relationship to the entire universe – both past and present. We humans are simply an ordered mosaic of bits and pieces that are found in everything else on our Earth.
Everything on Earth, including every atom in our bodies, originated in the stars. The origin of the stars represents the limit of human knowledge. Starting with the hydrogen atom, the nuclear furnaces within the stars either created or were the precursors to other atoms, such as the carbon in our bodies. By looking at the hydrogen atom located in a star, we begin to see organizing forces. The elementary particles in the hydrogen atom are not independent entities. Instead, they are a set of relationships that reach outward to each other. The electrons in an atom can spontaneously arrange themselves themselves into self-organized orbits around the nucleus. A famous idea, the Pauli exclusion principle, accounts for the absence of collision invoked chaos in the spinning and orbiting electrons that are part of all matter. Pauli describes order in Nature at its most basic level. It is a definable force that develops life. The Pauli principle suggests that, inside the atom, there is both self-awareness and a sensitivity to other particles. Because the state of one electron excludes any other electron from occupying that state, even the tiniest matter responds to relationships. In togetherness, the laws of behavior are different from the laws that govern isolation. In its essence, matter may be aware of its environment. And, this awareness may be a basic trait of the universe. From this atomic structure, matter, energy, atoms, and molecules have joined to become organizational patterns that, in certain cases, become human beings.
So far, we’ve discussed Nature’s order. However, order is only one side of Nature’s complexity. The only certainty that we have in life and in Nature is that uncertainties and probabilities abound. Much of the Nature that we see is an ongoing approximation. Our world is built on the probability of occurrence more than on the certainty of things. Some of this uncertainty comes from our lack of basic knowledge. But, much of our uncertainty and the inability to predict Nature comes from Nature herself. Each organism on Earth, including ourselves, is a product of one sperm cell randomly selected from a huge number of sperm cells. We are all the most recent appearance that has unfolded from long chains of chance and luck.
Nature’s complexity is a combination of predictable order and inherent uncertainty. Nature’s “laws” are constraints and opportunities that limit or expand Nature’s unpredictability. It is this interplay of structure and apparent randomness that defines complexity. Western science calls the study of this interplay between order and disorder “chaos theory” – the search for order within apparent disorder.
An example of this combination of order and uncertainty is a horse corral. We can predict that a group of horses will not move outside of the corral that is contained by the fence. This is the known and predictable part of the “corral ecology”. But, within the corral, horse behavior is not predictable despite the ordered boundary that the fence imposes.
The horses, like most of life’s phenomena, reveal zones of deterministic limitation that the fence imposes, and the zones of unpredictable freedom within the bounds of the fence. Inside the fence, the horses follow horse-specific culture and laws, such as how they relate to the other horses. Horse behavior is partly a product of the laws of molecular, cellular physics and chemistry that make the cells in their bodies. The horse is partly a product of mammalian evolution , partly a product of the human created fence, and partly a product of their own behavior. There is a mixture of predictable deterministic behavior and unpredictable behavior.
The so called fixed laws within any ecosystem are not always fixed. A human family lives according to a fixed set of cultural rules that interleave with unpredictable events. However, when a new baby arrives, the family’s fixed cultural rules can change to adapt to the new child. Roles of the mother might change. The relationship between husband and wife might change. The family does not evolve in a linear or predictable way. The parents create the family. But, the family system partly recreates the parents. The entire family reshapes the parts of the family that gave birth to it. Indeed, the family is a complex system that contains both predictable and non-predictable influences..
The fixed cultural laws in ecosystems are also affected by unpredictable occurrences like predation. From Sandhill Cranes to Prairie Dogs, the fixed cultural behavior of an animal group changes to ward off random predation. Individual behavior includes both scouting for predators, warning the group, and sometimes sacrificing themselves.
We humans are the largest group of invasive species on Earth. Atmospheric pollution, deforestation, species extinction are three examples of how previously fixed ecological parameters have been changed and rearranged on a large scale. Humanity has changed the predictable order in Nature with its unpredictable behavior. Complexity in Nature changes character as impacts from outside of a system change. Nothing is fixed.
This leaves us with a big question. How does complexity affect our ability to deal with the environment? Complexity is living proof that, because predictions are impossible, mankind cannot control Nature. Despite our intelligence and increased knowledge, Nature’s complexity prevents successful human intervention. Human intelligence often does more harm than good simply because, from the ecosystem’s perspective, intervention is a random event.
A better way to deal with Nature’s ecosystems is to let Nature take care of herself. While this is a very difficult idea for the controlling human population to accept, passive restoration does work because Nature’s own interactive complexity takes over. The best recent example is the reintroduction of wolves at Yellowstone National Park .
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My name is Bill Graham. As a Marine Biologist who has worked in the US and Mexico for 30 years, I am a student of Nature, a teacher, a researcher, and a nature photographer. Through my work, I have acquired an ever growing passion for how everything in Nature is connected. Today, I travel extensively contemplating about, writing about, and photographing Nature’s connections. I also work with conservation projects in the USA and Mexico and mentor talented youth.