Wednesday, March 5, 2008

The Complexity of Nature

In my last post, I discussed the apparent paradox of “creative destruction” that was ingrained in ecosystems. And I left off with a question about what it meant to us, to humanity. Issues like global warming, species extinction, and new diseases. Should we intervene? Or let nature take its course? Or have we already inadvertently interfered through actions of ignorance and greed?

We can’t expect the natural world around us to run smoothly and safely for our benefit. New diseases, pollution, species extinction, and climate change are all results of unexpected impacts, whether caused by humanity’s activities or not. Though incredibly elegant, Nature is not simple, or “simple-minded”; Gaia has a complex agenda that we really aren’t terribly privy to yet.
 I mentioned scale in my last post. Scale is something you can’t see or easily measure and assess if you are in it. Scale is like hindsight. Perspective is another matter, and often connected to scale. According to research at the University of Bristol, a major extinction event (and climate change) at the end of the Permian (about 250 million years ago) killed over 90 percent of life on Earth, including insects, plants, marine animals, amphibians, and reptiles. Ecosystems were destroyed worldwide and this was the nearest life came to being completely wiped out. It apparently took 30 million years for ecosystems to fully recover, according to the Bristol study.

The systems of Gaia are complex from the tiniest cell to the complex planet itself. Weather, for instance, is a “chaotic system” that displays a fractal structure and a range of chaotic behaviour on many scales. Temperature, air pressure, wind speed and humidity are all sensitive to initial conditions and interrelated in multi-scales. Says Brian Arthur, professor at Stanford University: the complex approach is total Taoist. In Taoism there is no inherent order. “The world starts with one, and the one become two and the two become many, and the many led to myriad things.” The universe in Taoism is perceived as vast, amorphous, and ever changing. You can never nail it down. The elements always stay the same, yet they are always arranging themselves. So, it’s like a kaleidoscope: the world is a matter of patterns that change, that partly repeat, but never quite repeat, that are always new and different.

Western scientists are just beginning to appreciate this through the application of complexity theory and chaos theory, something the eastern world has “known” since ancient times: humility before nature, respect for richness and diversity of life, generation of complexity from simplicity, the need to understand the whole to understand the part. To live your life with integrity.

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit Visit for more about her writing.


Anonymous said...

A wonderful post! Your blog is a trove of wonderful ideas! Now I've found a favorite!

Nina Munteanu said...

Thank you archetyper. Yours is wonderful too. Go here for excellent reflections on patterns, interconnectedness, syncronicity, fractals and such...

Jean-Luc Picard said...

Beautifully told. So many indeed expect the world to be tailored to our suitability.

Nina Munteanu said...

Yes, Jean-Luc... but we are learning and so are scientists... Brian Arthur also said that western science and scientists are "beginning to lose our innocence, our naivite." That science is coming back to non-Western viewpoints.

Anonymous said...

They say a writer should even read the stuff they don't like...I don't like Biology (even though I did exceptionally well with it at school).
I've been forcing myself to read Scientific explanations, etc.

Your blog is the only (and first) interesting point of view on science stuff. Thank you for making it more digestable and readable! Will definitely come back a lot. Thank you!

my blog:
I would love it if you leave a comment, thanks!

Nina Munteanu said...

Hats off to you, Vicki for persisting in reading what you don't like. It's a very good thing to do. I try too... though not very successfully. Appreciate your kind words on my palatable science.

constab said...

The TAO, The Void, is not structured but the NOT-TAO, the Material World is highly structured. It enfolds in the Fractal Pattern of the Trinity just like the citation is telling.

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