The Nature of Irreversibility in Complex Systems

A frequent complaint of CONservatives, both white and non-white, is that things were much worse in the “old days” and people should just “suck up” and slave away. This particular view might superficially appear to have merit because many conventional indices of life quality have improved over the 60 years. However a deeper examination of the entire issue of reveals something that most people, including all CONservatives, are not capable of comprehending. Let me use an example from another branch of knowledge to explain what I am alluding at. And yes, I have previously written about some other aspects of this issue- Irreversibility in Complex System: 01 and Evolution is Driven by Attrition not Optimization: 1.

Consider the evolution of life on earth. While mineral-eating anaerobic unicellular life probably evolved with a billion years of the earth’s formation, complex and differentiated multicellular organisms don’t appear till almost 600-700 million years ago. So why did evolution on earth slow down for almost 3 billion years, only to speed up in the last 600-odd million years? Understanding the overall mechanism of this phenomena is relevant to why established equilibria often hold for a long time only to fall apart in an irreversible manner.

It comes down to an increase in the range of possibilities for complex systems and therefore a much broader spectrum of outcomes, including those caused by emergent interactions.

A simpler way to see it goes something like this- In the beginning there was no life, very few complex organic molecules (if any) and the environment was unlike anything we can imagine. Once proto-life/life evolved, or was seeded from outside the earth, things changed a bit- but not by much. The first forms of unicellular life were still dependent on extracting their energetic needs from minerals, and therefore were likely rather slow growing- but they did not have an option. Gradually the amount of life and its complexity increased to the point where some organisms start using the sun for photosynthesis- but with a chemistry very different from present day plants and algae. While many of these biological reactions generated oxygen, most of it reacted with minerals that could be oxidized rather than accumulate in the atmosphere. The concentration of atmospheric oxygen started increasing only after all exposed minerals that could be oxidized were oxidized.

Once things reached that point, a unicellular biochemistry built around oxygen became a viable proposition, as did the most common type of photosynthesis. However the oxygen concentration in the atmosphere was still not high enough to allow complex multicellular life as we know it today. Slowly the atmospheric oxygen concentration increased to the point where the amount dissolved in shallow water was enough to support true multicellular life- albeit bizarre looking species with peculiar physiology. Then we had a super ice age which put an ice sheet over most of the world for a few million years and somehow the end of this era and the beginning of the Cambrian era (about 540-550 million years ago) was linked to a resurgence of life and the appearance of organisms that are somewhat familiar to us. Of course it took a few million years after that for the first fish to appear, a hundreds million more for the first amphibian and then maybe 50-60 million years for the first reptiles. All of your reptiles, dinosaurs, mammal-like reptiles, mammals, birds etc evolved within the last 300-odd million years. What we commonly think of as living occupies lies than 8% of the time life has actually existed on earth.

So what is the purpose of this longish description of the evolution of life on earth? and what is its relevance to the topic of this post?

Well.. for once even watching something for 3 billion years is inadequate to predict what will happen in the next 600 or 300 million years. It is hard to extrapolate the present based on the past, even if you were watching it for 3 billion years. There is however an even bigger issue which I have hinted to in a couple of my older posts.

While every change was due to the unforeseen consequences of what occurred before it, it did something odd to the palate of possibilities. While change created new possibilities in one metaphorical direction, it also closed down links to the dominant ways of the previous era. Once oxygen became more than a trace atmospheric gas, the whole ecosystem that had generated was quickly driven to niche status. Anaerobic mineral-eating microbes went from being ubiquitous to niche rather quickly and all microbes which anoxygenic photosynthesis which had dominated the worlds oceans also suddenly became a niche. Similarly whatever caused the super ice age about 650 million years ago, basically trashed the majority of the bizarre animal life that had evolved before it. Sponge like half-plant/ half-animal organisms might have existed for 200 million years before that event- but they are gone. Closer to our era- a host of life forms from birds with true teeth, flightless monster birds, giant marine reptiles, super sharks are gone.

I could go on, but do you understand what I am trying to get at? Permanent changes in the basic rules and possibilities in a given system due to the unintended consequences of actions from the previous era can screw up what used to be the optimal way to do things. When conservatives talk about returning to some era in the past, they cannot seem to understand that whatever occurred in that era set things in motion which caused the demise of that era and its future non-viability. Changes that occurred in the 1940s and 1950s gave you the 1960s and 1970s, while simultaneously making it impossible to go back. For better or worse, we are stuck with the world we live in today.

While things can be changed, it is not possible to direct the overall direction of change towards the past. You cannot undo a complex system that has crossed certain points without trashing it to the point of destruction.

What do you think? Comments?

  1. Chris Travers
    May 2, 2012 at 5:53 pm

    So in the end, destruction may be what’s necessary. Dr. Joseph Tainter has written very interesting works on the nature of the collapse of complex societies (including Rome) suggesting that complexity itself leads to the destruction of complex societies, particularly when transitioning from wealth/energy generated elsewhere (tribute, pillage, fossil fuels) to current yields. He credits the collapse of Rome with the complexity of the state itself and the necessity to make it more complex to maintain the current way of life without conquest and looting foreign treasuries.

    What happens to current society when fossil fuels become more scarce relative to demand? Even leaving out peak oil production it seems that peak oil supply relative to demand is a threshold we crossed in 1973 and consequently oil markets have been volatile ever since. The more interesting question is how thermodynamics comes into play regarding human societies and energy consumption. Perhaps one can see complex societies as artificially low-entropy systems through the application of energy. As energy becomes more scarce, then what?

  2. May 2, 2012 at 9:27 pm

    “You cannot undo a complex system that has crossed certain points without trashing it to the point of destruction.”

    that seems similar to the concept of a “tipping point” that the global warming types talk about….

  3. May 2, 2012 at 9:37 pm

    some general observations…

    while electronics have gotten cheaper, many other things like food, gas and housing have risen in cost….

    about 2 generations ago, you could get a job for life, you show up and put in an honest days work, the employer pays you, sets aside a decent retirement. Short of the company going bankrupt there was a contract in place–that loyalty no longer exists…

    Americans are getting fatter and probably more stressed out. One could make an argument that the quality of life is going down. I believe that this generation is forcast to be the first generation to do worse than their parents….

  4. May 2, 2012 at 9:44 pm

    anyways advipoops…

    as a “survival strategy”-it seems it would be best to find a country which has more equitable divorce laws. Where it is acceptable for an older man to marry a younger women. where children are expected to take care of their parents and grandparents. where there is low obesity rates.

    So I guess the polar opposite of the us….

    I guess I should save a bunch of cash, find this place, move there. Find the kindest, most attractive woman I can. Have babies with her. Treat my kids well, then hopefully they or the grandkids take care of me. Does this place exist?

  5. Matt Strictland
    May 2, 2012 at 10:38 pm

    Of course you can’t go back. That does not preclude deliberately simplifying systems or trying (and of course possibly failing) to create new systems that give closer to the desired outcomes.

  6. asdfasdfsfad
    May 3, 2012 at 3:19 am

    The same is true of liberalism.

    This article presupposes that liberalism is the best way of doing things. Perhaps it is not, and perhaps in the near future extreme right attitudes and strategies will become optimal.

    Source: 30 years of complex systems study.

  7. Webe
    May 3, 2012 at 11:22 am

    Does this mean you consider a return to sturdy nineteenth century values as unlikely? When silver coins was money and nobody was on welfare, a man was a man and a word was a word, before all this decadent cultural Marxism got started.

  8. InT
    May 3, 2012 at 9:19 pm


    Check out the Status of Men Index:

  9. cognosium
    May 3, 2012 at 9:40 pm

    What you say is true, dissention, but the irreversibility is not so much a characteristic of complex systems as of evolutionary processes. Each step of such process being a function of the dynamic equilibria of the biosphere (or society,for that matter) at any point in time.

    Furthermore, it is possible to trace an evolutionary continuum right from the formation of the chemical elements in stars and supernovae right through to the development of technology within the collective imagination of our species.

    This broad evolutionary model is outlined, very informally, in “The Goldilocks Effect: What Has Serendipity Ever Done For Us?” , a free download in e-book formats from the “Unusual Perspectives” website

  10. JamesFun
    May 6, 2012 at 8:36 pm

    There are two different but similar concepts in this; Physical involving physics and biochemistry, and Mental involving beliefs and society, but both change over time. No, I’m not an expert, I’m just making a few quick opinion comments on blogs, so to those who pick apart every sentence of other peoples comments, go chill out. The physical changes seem more set in happening in certain ways. Mental beliefs and the structure of societies seem more flexible, but tend to be established by those in power over the masses. In millions of years in the future or sooner it is likely that humans will not be able to live on the earth because of changes with the sun. It is funny how so many people say they want society to go back to say the 1950’s (and most of these insecure self-righteous control freak fanatics are also on the current stupid shaming bandwagon and they are desperately trying to shame others back into a 1950s type society, and whenever I hear them say shame I know they are weak idiots) when they were not even around then anyway. It’s like when I sometimes tell people, and I know what their belief system reaction is going to be even before I mention it especially to the hyper religious fanatics, that I have decided in my own best self interest as a man to never get married, and they cannot comprehend how a good looking guy says he has decided based on my own beliefs that I will never get married, and I just smile knowing they don’t understand or think as Pitbull says, “playboy to the death – uh Yes, is he really worldwide – uh Yes,” espeicailly when they then say how they are so unhappy in their marriages, and how myself not being married I am so grateful, free, and happy for the rest of my days. On a note that will sound unintelligent to many; The other day I wondered if the movie John Carter did aweful at the box office was becuase it was old fashioned/boring, and the movie The Avengers did so well was because it was futuristic/technological/interesting, yet putting this in the context of this post, many people say and believe that they want society to return to the past while in reality it is changing into the future.

  1. May 6, 2012 at 1:02 am
  2. August 28, 2012 at 5:40 pm

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