This blog is the third in a series of posts that focuses on Natures six 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 a Kindle edition and a soft cover edition in early June of 2014.
The previous blog posts are:
Blog #1: Nature’s Tangled Web
Blog #2: Everything Is Connected
“A mosaic consists of thousands of little stones. Some are blue, some are green, some are yellow, some are gold. When we bring our faces close to the mosaic, we can admire the beauty of each stone. But as we step back from it, we can see that all these little stones reveal to us a beautiful picture, telling a story none of these stones can tell by itself.” - Henri Nouwen
I presume that you accept the premise (or at least have some curiosity) that everything in Nature is interconnected. In this series of blog posts we define that interconnectedness in more detail by looking at systems.
We will never understand life until we deal with life as a collection of systems. While we may not realize it, we encounter and connect with systems every moment of our lives. Our bodies are interconnected, self-maintaining systems. Every person we meet, every organization we work with, every animal, every tree, and every ecosystem is a system. Without much analysis, and with few words, we have intuitively acquired a practical understanding of how systems work. We have a pretty good idea of how to work with them.
Simply stated, a system is a collection of objects that somehow interrelate with each other to function as a whole and produce some effect that no single object within the system could do on its own. The configuration of a system’s parts can be physical, logical or statistical.
Nature is composed of an almost infinite number of hierarchal, interconnecting ecosystems. Energy is the operating currency of Nature. Ecosystems are the conduits by which Nature’s energy is transported and transformed. Ecosystems are vehicles for energy flow and energy consumption. They cycle energy and nutrients obtained from external sources. By understanding where and how energy flows within an ecosystem, we can understand how an environment operates. We can build this understanding by studying what modern science has to say about systems.
The study of Nature is the study of her ecosystems and how energy flows within these systems. Using the terminology of Western Science, an ecosystem is a “complex system”. The terms “complex systems” and “ecosystems” are synonymous.
By definition, a complex system has a large number of members capable of interacting with each other and adapting to their environment without a leader or a blueprint.
The interaction between members may occur with immediate neighbors or distant ones. The members can be all identical or different. They may move in space or occupy fixed positions. They can be in one of two states or have multiple states.
Ant colonies are complex systems that are sometimes described as living “super-organisms”. They are extremely complex, leaderless, and unpredictable. Yet they exhibit systematic order. The ant colony is the result of many tiny individual ants working in a community of ants to create and sustain an entire colony. The colony possesses characteristics that none of its individual ants possess.
In contrast to complex systems, simple systems have a small number of components that act according to well understood laws. A pendulum is a simple system because it has one part and operates according to Newton’s equations of motion. Usually, pendulum motion is predictable.
Some systems are defined as “complicated”, but not complex. Like complex systems, complicated systems have a large number of components which have well defined roles and are governed by well-understood rules. But, complicated systems require a leader. My camper is an example of a complicated system where I am the leader (driver) who provides the external force that effects adjustments under varying driving conditions. Nature’s complex systems do not have or need leaders.
Different complex systems in Nature, such as bird flocks, immune systems, brains, and human social systems have much in common.
These commonalities include complex collective behavior, the ability to pass information and energy, feedback, and hierarchal structures.
We can easily view complex collective behavior in bird flocks, animal herds, and fish schools where each individual creature follows relatively simple rules with no central control or leader. It is the collective actions of vast numbers of these individuals that give rise to the complex, hard-to-predict, and changing patterns of group behavior.
In the course of contributing to the group’s collective behavior, every individual in a complex system both transports energy and transforms energy.
A concept that is central to all complex systems is feedback. Feedback provides self-control within a system.
Every object or organism within a system is influenced by its own actions as well as its surrounding environment. One example of feedback is thermoregulation in warm-blooded animals. Cooling of the blood stimulates certain centers in the brain which “turn on” heat-producing mechanisms in the body. Through certain physiological processes, the body temperature is then brought back to the normal level.
Complex patterns can be generated from feedback mechanisms in simple processes.
Nature’s systems are not predictable because the effect of Nature’s feedback loops is non-linear. A nonlinear relationship is one in which the cause does not produce a proportional effect. These non-linear relationships result from the systems feedback mechanisms which are, in turn, usually driven by unpredictable influences external to the organism being affected. The sudden appearance of a predator is an unpredictable event which will cause an organism’s feedback system to respond in a non-linear fashion. Feedback systems that respond to a number of different unpredictable influences result in the complexity and unpredictability that we see in Nature’s ecosystems and their organisms.
Ecosystems are hierarchal. Systems are nested within systems. A given subsystem becomes part of a larger system. With this hierarchal structure comes the connectivity necessary for energy and information flow between systems. The cells in our bodies become organs which operate to serve the entire body. Our body is connected to the energy and oxygen producing systems provided by our environment. And so on.
Because of the complex interrelationships between entities within a system, ecosystems usually produce large events far more often than would be predicted by conventional statistical analysis. Consequently, we see a very different distribution of events than what we have been taught in conventional statistics courses where we utilize the Normal distribution portrayed by the bell curve. Instead, we usually see power law relationships.
One of the most important characteristics of complex systems is their sensitivity to initial conditions. In ecological terms, a small change in how one cares for an ecosystem may ultimately result in unpredictable and catastrophic events later in time.
I raise the question: If we impose our reasoned action on a system that has neither a leader nor predictable results, how can we expect a given outcome? The answer is that we can’t! The idea that man can control Nature is one of the most misguided illusions of those who profess to be stewards of Nature.
Please view these two videos that describe the reasons why the study of complex systems is so important.
Since emergence is inextricably tied to complex systems, the following NOVA videos will help expand your knowledge of Nature’s complex systems.
These videos do an excellent job of emphasizing why Nature’s ecosystems are complex systems. But, what does all this mean to the professional and amateur naturalist?
Complexity in Nature is universal. You cannot describe any complex system such as an ecosystem by doing mathematical equations, by simply using your logic, by soliciting the consensus of the public, or by chatting with government naturalists sitting around the table at a meeting called to decide on what to do about an ecological situation. The only way to find out how any complex system will behave and what will happen is to actually run the system – something that is usually impossible to do.
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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.