Engels and Complexity – III

Image: Cyrus Saurius


the deniesherethe denieshereo: historical dynamics, complexifiesherehey as ideprogress ias

Complexity sciences present some recurring themes: the emergence of qualitatively new behaviors in dissipative systems out of equilibrium, the apparent tendency of complex systems to be located on the edge of phase transitions and bifurcation points, historical dynamics that present punctuated equilibrium, an attempt to complement ideas of Darwinian evolution with certain ideas of progress (increased computational capacity) etc. Such themes, in fact, belong to a long scientific and philosophical tradition and, curiously, already appear in the work of Friedrich Engels in the 70s. We will unfold some points in the form of a comparison.

Increased complexity in the Biosphere

The idea of ​​emergence, so antithetical to much of modern biology, is the main message of the science of complexity and its role in illuminating the patterns of Nature. The emergence of self-organizing dynamics, which, if true, will force a reformulation of Darwin's theory. The emergence of a creativity in the dynamics of nature's complex systems, which, if true, implies the existence of an invisible hand that brings stability from the lowest to the highest level in the ecological hierarchy, culminating in Gaia itself. It is the emergence of an inexorable drive towards ever greater complexity and information processing in nature which, if true, suggests the evolution of an intelligence powerful enough to contemplate all that was inevitable. Life, at all its levels, is not simply one thing after another, but the result of a common fundamental internal dynamic [Lewin, 1994].

The Spencerian worldview is that increased complexity is an inevitable manifestation of the system, and is driven by the internal dynamics of complex systems: heterogeneity from homogeneity, order from chaos. The purely Darwinian view is that complexity is built solely by natural selection, a blind, non-directional force; and there is no inevitable increase in complexity. The new science of complexity combines elements of both: internal and external forces apply, and greater complexity can be expected as a fundamental property of complex dynamical systems. Such systems can, through selection, drive themselves to the edge of chaos, a constant process of co-evolution, a constant adaptation. Part of the allure of Chaos' Edge is an optimization of computational power, whether the system is a cellular automaton or a biological species evolving with others as part of a complex ecological community. On the edge of chaos one can build bigger brains….[Lewin, 1994].

[The ideas of progress and historical self-organization are by no means accepted by biologists today. To prove this, just compare the statements of biologists who defend the most divergent ideological positions, but who agree in emphasizing the role of chance, and the lack of general trends, in history.]

I am hostile to all kinds of mystical impulses towards greater complexity,” said Richard Dawkins when I asked him whether an increase in computational complexity could be considered an inevitable part of the evolutionary process.

Michel Ruse — Can you really say that a brain is better than a shell? [Lewin, 1994].

Stephen Jay Gould — Progress is a harmful, culturally tainted, untestable, non-operational idea that must be replaced if we are to understand the patterns of history. (…) With roots stretching back to the XNUMXth century, progress as a central ethic reached a climax in the XNUMXth century with the industrial revolution and Victorian expansionism. (...) You can't blame us for being fascinated by consciousness, it's a huge interruption in the history of life. I see her as a quirky accident, but most people don't want to see her that way. If you believe that there has been an inexorable increase in brain size throughout evolutionary history, then human consciousness becomes predictable, not a freak accident. Our view of evolution is too brain-centric, a bias that distorts our perception of the true pattern of history.

Edward Wilson [is an exception] “Brain-centric,” he laughed. — Isn't that the ultimate in politically correct thinking? Need I say more? [Lewin, 1994].

A. Lewin — Most species on Earth today are precambrian-like single-celled organisms, and much of the rest are insects. This doesn't sound like relentless progress towards greater complexity, does it?

N. Packard — We're talking about survival. Yes, there are countless niches out there in which species do very well with certain levels of computational ability. But where survival is contested, more often than not, you'll see an increase. Think of it as a constant exploration of the usefulness of greater computational complexity in evolution. Sometimes it brings an advantage, and that's what gives you an arrow [in the historical process].

By then, it had become clear that if Norman Packard is correct in suggesting that an increase in computational power represents an arrow in the evolutionary process, then many biologists will have trouble dealing with the message that the new science of complexity may be bringing them.

Packard — I'm not saying that each organism needs to become more complex: the system as a whole becomes more complex. (…) People don't like it [the idea of ​​progress] not for scientific reasons, but sociological ones.

Brian Goodwin — Suppose you reissue the BigBang. What are the odds of getting the same periodic table of natural elements, the same combinations of protons, neutrons, and electrons? Very good, or so I'm led to believe. I think of a return to the Cambrian Explosion in the same way, not to the same degree, perhaps, but as an image. If there are dynamic attractors in the morphological possibility space, as I believe, then a rerun of the Cambrian Explosion would produce a world much more like the one we know than Steven Jay Gould believes [who emphasizes the accidental aspect of history]. It would not be identical to what we know, but it is possible that there were many similarities, ghosts that we would instantly recognize. In other words, evolutionary history would not be one thing after another, but, to an interesting extent, it would be inevitable. This is now becoming something of a refrain of complex adaptive systems [Lewin, 1994].

This is what Engels says in the book Dialectic of Nature:

“That matter evolves out of itself the thinking human brain is a pure accident to a mechanistic view, though necessarily determined, step by step, where it happens. But the truth is that it is the nature of matter to advance towards the evolution of thinking beings, so that this necessarily occurs whenever the conditions for this (not necessarily identical in all places and times) are present” (DN, Natural Science and Philosophy).

“The movement of matter is not merely crude mechanical movement, mere change of position, it is heat and light, electric and magnetic tension, combination and dissociation, chemistry, life and, finally, consciousness” (DN, Notes).

“No matter how innumerable the organic beings, too, who must come and go before animals with a brain capable of thought develop in their midst, and for a short time find conditions suitable for life, only to be exterminated later without mercy—we are sure that matter remains eternally the same in all its transformations, that none of its attributes can ever be lost, and therefore, too, that with the same iron necessity it will exterminate on earth its greatest creation, the thinking mind, matter must somewhere and at another time produce it again” (DN, Preface).

Yourâmica historyórich: transtionyou are between attractors, revolutions and balanceípunctuated panache

"Guys, I've seen them before," said Chris [Langton]. “You weren't archaeologists. They were biologists. They were linguists. Economists, physicists, all kinds of disciplines. (…) Every time a group of people comes here for one of these conferences, there is some kind of historical process being studied. Evolutionary systems are like that. They are unique processes, so you can't compare them directly to anything. You'd like to repeat the process, see what happens the second time, the third time, and so on. It can't, so that's where we come in [with computational evolutionary models]. [Lewin, 1994].

More complex systems exhibit what mathematicians call attractors, states in which the system, depending on its properties, eventually settles. Imagine floating in a rough and dangerous sea, swirling around coves. Whirlpools settle depending on the topography of the seafloor and the water current. Eventually you will be drawn into one of these vortexes. You stay there until some major disturbance or change in water flow pushes you out, and then you are sucked in by another. This, crudely, is how one might think of a dynamic system with multiple attractors: such as cultural evolution, with tribes, chiefdoms, and states equivalent to the attractors. This mythical sea would have to be arranged so that the poor person who floats would be susceptible to whirlpool one first, followed by whirlpool two, and so on. There would not necessarily be a progression from one to two, three and four. History is full of examples of social groups reaching a higher level of social organization, and then falling [Lewin, 1994].

Langton—There are all these bands of hunters out there, groups of individuals, each capable of doing all the tasks of the group. Each of them knows how to hunt, gather edible plants, make clothes, and so on. They interact with each other, they specialize, and then… Boom!… phase transition… everything changes. There is a new level of social organization, a higher level of complexity. If you have populations that interact, and your fitness depends on that interaction, you will see periods of stasis interspersed with periods of change. We see this in some of our evolutionary models, so I would expect to see it here as well.

Roger Lewin — In that case, history couldn't be described as simply one thing after another, could it? [Lewin, 1994].

The sand pile goes from one configuration to another, not gradually, but through catastrophic avalanches. Due to power law statistics, most landslides are associated with large avalanches. Small avalanches, although more frequent, do not represent much. Evolution in a pile of sand takes place in terms of revolutions, as in Karl Marx's vision of History. Things happen through revolutions, not gradually, precisely because dynamic [complex] systems are tuned in the critical state. Self-organized criticality is Nature's way of making huge transformations on small timescales [Bak, 1997].

Below are some passages from Engels' books:

“Modern materialism sees in History the process of development of Humanity, whose dynamic laws it is its mission to discover. (...) Modern materialism summarizes and summarizes the new developments of the natural sciences, according to which Nature also has its history in time, and the worlds, as well as the organic species that inhabit them under favorable conditions, are born and die, and cycles, to the degree they are admissible, take on infinitely grander dimensions” (SUSC).

“The history of the development of society differs substantially, in one point, from the history of the development of nature. In this - if we disregard the inverse action exercised in turn by men on nature -, the factors that act on each other and in whose play the general law is imposed, are all unconscious and blind agents. (...) On the other hand, in the history of society, agents are all men endowed with conscience, who act moved by reflection or passion, pursuing certain ends. But this distinction, as important as it may be for historical investigation, especially of isolated times and events, does not in any way alter the fact that the course of history is governed by general laws of an internal nature”.

“Here, too, an apparent chance reigns, on the surface and as a whole; Rarely does what you want happen, and in most cases the many purposes proposed intersect with each other and contradict each other, (...). The collisions between innumerable individual wills and acts create in the field of history a state of affairs very analogous to that prevailing in unconscious nature (…). For this reason, taken together, historical events also seem to be presided over by chance. However, where on the surface of things chance seems to reign, this is always governed by hidden internal laws, and what is at stake is discovering these laws”.

“Therefore, if one wants to investigate the driving forces that (...) constitute the true supreme impulses of history, one should not focus on the motives of isolated men, however relevant they may be, but on the impulses that move great masses, to peoples en bloc, and, within each people, to whole classes; and not momentarily, in quick explosions, like a flash in the pan, but in continuous actions that translate into great historical changes” (LF).

Historical dynamics and cosmology

The most important way in which twentieth-century cosmology differs from the cosmologies of Newton or Aristotle is that it is based on the understanding that the universe has evolved dramatically over time. (…) The success of the Big Bang model, together with the failure of the Steady State theory, leaves us with a universe whose present state must be understood as the result of physical processes that occurred in earlier times, when it was very different. Thus, cosmology became a historical science (…). The notion of evolution has not yet played a similar central role in elementary particle physics. This seems unnatural, given the intimate relationship that is developing between particle physics and cosmology. Of course, we would need to ask ourselves what the traditional notion that the laws of physics represent ahistorical truths means in a universe whose origin we can literally almost see [Smolin, 1995].

Engels, in the book dialectic of natureSays:

“The eternal laws of Nature are increasingly becoming historical laws. The fact that water is present in the liquid state between 0oand 100oC is an eternal natural law, but for it to be valid, there must be: 1) water; 2) certain temperature; 3) normal pressure. On the Moon there is no water, on the Sun there are only its elements; for these heavenly bodies the law, therefore, does not exist. (...) On the Sun, due to its high temperature, the laws of chemical combination of the elements do not prevail or only operate momentarily, within the limits of the solar atmosphere, dissociating the compounds again, when approaching the Sun. In nebulae, perhaps there are not even all those 65 elements that we know [at the end of the XNUMXth century], which, in turn, could be of a composite nature”.

“Consequently, if we want to speak of general natural laws, uniformly applicable to all bodies – from nebulae to man – we are left with only gravity and perhaps the most general form of the theory referring to the transformation of energy, that is, the theory heat mechanics. Even this theory, however, converts (with its general logical application to all natural phenomena) into a historical representation of the successive modifications that take place in a celestial system, from its origin to its disappearance; therefore, in a history in which, at each stage, different laws prevail, that is, different phenomenal forms of the same universal movement; and, this being so, there remains nothing else, constant and universally valid, but movement”. (DN, Notes).

Music, order and chaos

Osame Kinouchi: It is perhaps a trivial observation that what we call music is neither a totally random sequence of sounds (white noise) nor an excessively repetitive and periodic sequence. If we think of white noise as disorder and the periodic sequence as order, the order-to-disorder transition and criticality heuristic suggests that interesting music should be related to the edge of this transition, i.e., noise. pink (or 1/f), which has fractal properties (critical systems also have fractal properties). Indeed, several studies try to relate musical structural characteristics with noise 1/f and fractality [Voss & Clarke, 1978; Gardner, 1978, Hsü&Hsü, 1991, Manaris et al., 2005]. Although the issue is much broader and even controversial, it is interesting that such ideas are consistent with the proposal that complexity arises on the edge of chaos, the SFI, and that creativity arises in the interpenetration of polar opposites (order/disorder), by Engels.


Perhaps the main difference between the SFI approach and Engelian thinking is that researchers linked to that Institute have a greater interest in self-organization and information processing in decentralized systems: ecosystems, markets, insect societies, the immune system, nervous system, morphogenesis, etc. That is, there is an emphasis in the distributed parallel information processing paradigm, without central control, on bottom-up self-organization. So, the approach of Santa Fe Institute, by emphasizing a decentralized, self-organizing economy, it is perhaps more compatible with liberal economic views [1] or with anarchist ideas of self-management. Engels believed that complex anarchic systems were subject to cataclysms (crashs financial crises, depressive and destructive economic cycles, etc.) and that the cost in human lives of these processes was very high. The solution would be the scientific control of the economic system, the control of complexity.

A typical excerpt from Engels on this issue is the following, where a non-linear thought is clear: “In the face of Nature, as in the face of Society, the current mode of production only takes into account the initial and most palpable success; and yet many people are still astonished by the fact that the remote consequences of activities thus oriented are entirely different from, and almost always contrary to, the intended object; they are astonished that the harmony between supply and demand is transformed into its polar opposite, as can be seen in the course of each decennial cycle of industry and as Germany also experienced, with a small prelude, in the krash; they are surprised that private property, based on their own work, necessarily develops towards the lack of property among workers, while all property is increasingly concentrated in the hands of those who do not work... (DN).

In a way, the SFI approach proved both Adam Smith and Engels right. The invisible hand (self-organization) in economics and ecology certainly exists, and yet it is not necessarily beneficial to humans and the species of the Biosphere. Self-organization towards the critical state, if it optimizes the adaptability and creativity of the system, also leaves it susceptible to economic, social and ecological cataclysms (destructive chain reactions in the Economy, crashes financial, collective extinctions in the Biosphere, etc.). Thus, the idea of ​​an “invisible hand” really present in the market, adaptive, creative, but which does not optimize collective well-being and which is actually dangerously self-destructive, could place liberal and Marxist perspectives on a new level of discussion.

The self-organizing complexity approach emphasized by the SFI, when applied to the macro-ecological system, also seems to support in some way the speculations of Vernadsky [1926], Lovelock [1990] and Margulis [1997, 2000] regarding the emergence of cycles geophysical-chemical-biological self-catalytic and self-regulating (Gaia) [Ghiralov, 1995]. This type of systemic view centered on the Biosphere, defended by environmental movements, contrasts with an anthropocentric view in which economic production is the primary value and ecological concerns only make sense to the extent that they affect the well-being of Humanity. The Engelian emphasis on the importance of maximizing economic productivity was somehow reflected in the industrial policies of techno-bureaucratic socialism. However, this is perhaps a partial and unfair reading of Engels. The following texts reflect both a certain economic anthropocentrism and a broader and more careful ecological perspective: “Animals, as we have already indicated, modify, through their activity, the surrounding nature, in the same way (but not to the same degree) as the man; and these transformations produced by them in their environment, act, in turn, on the causal elements, modifying them. That's because, in Nature, nothing happens in isolation. Each being acts on the other and vice versa; it is precisely because they forget this reflex movement and this reciprocal influence that our naturalists are unable to see the simplest things clearly” (DN, Fromapetoman) [2].

“The animal only uses Nature, producing modifications in it only by its presence; Man submits it, putting it at the service of his determined ends, making the modifications he deems necessary, that is, he dominates Nature. And this is the essential and decisive difference between Man and other animals; and, on the other hand, it is the work that determines this difference. But let us not rejoice too much in the face of these human victories over Nature. With each of these victories, it exacts its revenge. Each of them, in fact, produces, in the first place, certain consequences which we can count on; but, secondly and thirdly, it produces very different, unforeseen consequences, which almost always nullify these first consequences. The men who in Mesopotamia, Greece, Asia Minor, and elsewhere destroyed forests to obtain arable land, could not imagine that they were thus bringing about the present desolation of these lands by despoiling them of their forests, that is to say, , from the moisture collection and accumulation centers. (...) Potato propagators in Europe did not know that, through this tuber, they were spreading scrofula. And so, we are warned at every step that we cannot dominate Nature as a conqueror dominates a foreign people, as someone situated outside of Nature; but rather that we belong to him, with our flesh, our blood, our brains; that we are in the midst of it; and that all our dominion over it consists only in the advantage we take over other beings of power to get to know its laws and apply them correctly (DN, Fromapetoman).

The coincidence with the perspective of the SFI is literal:

Brian Arthur, SFI economist — One of those [worldviews] is the equilibrium view that we inherited from the Enlightenment — the idea that there is a duality between Humanity and Nature, and that there is a natural balance between them that is great for the man. And if you believe in that view, then you can talk about optimizing policies regarding natural resources, etc. […] The other point of view is that of complexity, in which basically there is no duality between Humanity and Nature. We are part of Nature. We are in the middle of it. There is no division between who acts and who is acted upon because we are all part of this interconnected web. If we as humans try to take action on our behalf without knowing how the total system will adapt — for example, cutting down the rainforest — we set in motion a sequence of events that will come back to us and form a different pattern for us. we adjust, just like a global climate change. (…) It is a worldview that, decade after decade, is becoming more important in the West – both in science and in general culture. Very, very slowly, there has been a gradual shift from an exploratory view of Nature — Humanity versus Nature — to an approach that emphasizes the mutual accommodation of Man and Nature. What has happened is that we are starting to lose our innocence, our naivety, about how the world works. As we begin to understand complex systems, we begin to understand that we are part of an ever-changing, interconnected, non-linear, kaleidoscopic world. (…) So, what is the Santa FeInstitute's role in all of this? Certainly not that of becoming another think tanks of policy, although there are always some people who expect it to be. No, the Institute's task is to help us look at this ever-changing river and understand what we are seeing [Waldrop, 1992].

However, modern complexity sciences place a little more emphasis on the limits of prediction and control of complex systems such as economics. There is an attitude of greater humility towards the complexity of the studied systems. Currently, researchers are satisfied with a qualitative understanding of the emergence of certain properties and, many times, it is understood why quantitative prediction is not possible even in principle (see for example, the impact of the idea of ​​deterministic chaos in Meteorology, known as the butterfly effect, or the idea of ​​self-organized criticality in earthquake prediction, both justifying the unpredictability of major events). In this sense, Engels was overly optimistic, and this humanist optimism about the power of human reason and conscience ended up crystallizing in the ideas of a planned society and economy. Engelsian communism, with its dream of a rationally planned society, would be the apogee of the Enlightenment.

Engels was to some extent right. A scientifically planned society can be, in certain cases, more economically efficient. However, in the long run, perhaps adaptability is a more important factor than simple efficiency. Let us remember that large companies, in their tendency towards bureaucratization and rational organization, seem to have a certain tendency towards rigidity and ageing: companies pass, the market remains. Engels wanted an economy run like a big business, lubricated and rationally organized. Lenin wanted the Party to be the CEO of society. The refractory attitude of both towards, for example, anarchist ideas, is of a technobureaucratic nature: the workers would not have the technical-administrative capacity to promote an efficient self-management of companies or of society.

Perhaps the great historical irony is that science itself now suggests that the most rational long-term strategy, for societies and companies alike, is a dialectical combination of organization and disorganization, control and decentralization, planning and adaptation, rationality and apparent irrationality. the simple laissez-faire, the free evolution of market forces, would lead the global economic system inevitably to the critical state, with its inevitable instability, its susceptibility to chain reactions and crashes. To avoid such instability, it would be necessary, at the very least, to have mechanisms to control capital flows on a global scale. Such controls might be capable of producing a quasi-critical system: an economic system that has the same flexibility as a critical system without necessarily showing bubbles, crashes and self-destructive global chain reactions.

The question of the globalization of markets, however, involves another little-analyzed problem: although ecosystems are seen as paradigms of adaptive and evolutionary distributed systems, and are often taken as metaphors for thinking about markets, we must remember that, in rich and creative ecosystems (such as rainforests and coral reefs), local species are never in direct competition with species from similar ecosystems: the American cougar and the Asian tiger do not directly compete for the same resources, and one of them would inevitably become extinct if they did. In the jargon of Statistical Physics, these self-regulating systems are “spatially extensive”. There is simply no previous experience in the Biosphere of strongly interconnected systems, where spatial distances are abolished. It is quite likely that systems such as globalized markets imply a great decrease in diversity and the formation of monopolies, while at the same time there is an increase in the speed of propagation of disturbances and consequent instability.

The question of the unequal distribution of income (and, mainly, of power) in the form of power laws (Pareto's Law) is not solvable within the capitalist framework, since the concentrating mechanisms detected by Marx, Engels and Pareto (curiously called the Engels of the bourgeoisie), namely, multiplicative processes of capital accumulation, are inherent in this type of system and could only really be overcome in alternative economic systems. However, it is to be expected that the most adaptive systems, whatever they may be, continue to be decentralized, conflictive and dialectical systems: allegedly harmonious systems of human coexistence will always be authoritarian, as they privilege the pole of order and repress the pole of disorder. Here is the suggestion from the sciences of complexity and Dialectics: the most robust human society in the long run is one that is close, but not too close, to the edge of chaos.

*Osame Kinouchi is a professor at the Department of Physics at FFCLRP-USP.

To read the first part go to: https://aterraeredonda.com.br/mudanca-endogena/

To read the second part go to: https://aterraeredonda.com.br/engels-e-a-complexidade-ii/


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[Voss & Clarke, 1978; Gardner, 1978, Hsü&Hsü, 1991, Manaris et al., 2005]


[1] Liberal thought often falls into the individualist conception of society, that is, that society is simply the (linear) superposition of individual behaviors. This conception certainly does not correspond to the non-linear and emergentist perspective shared by the sciences of complexity and the Engelsian dialectic.

[2] The full title of the chapter is The part played by labor in the transition from ape to man.


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