Engels and Complexity – I

Image: Thelma Lessa da Fonseca


Engels as a precursor of the sciences of complexity

Complexity sciences present some recurrent themes: the emergence of qualitatively new behaviors in dissipative systems out of equilibrium, the apparent tendency of complex systems to be situated 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. Thus, the apparent novelty of complexity sciences seems to lie not so much in their fundamental ideas, but in the use of mathematical and computational models to illustrate, test and develop such ideas.


“As expected, many of our current themes on complexity have not arisen again, but may have been around for a long time, often in unexpected places” (Harold Morowitz, Complexity, 2, 7-8, 1997).

One of the ideas suggested by complexity sciences, in particular by studies that explore the parallels between cultural evolution and biological evolution, is that concepts or ideas are never completely new, being always the result of a long historical process [Haas, 1998]. This idea, in fact, is also not new and, insofar as it is valid, it could not be. Thus, despite the assertions of scientific popularization articles and books, the approach to complexity sciences itself is not new, but has a long history that, sometimes, its own enthusiasts ignore.

I will stick here to the version of the complexity sciences closest to the perspective of Santa Fe Institute (SFI) and that can be known, for example, through the magazine Complexity. SFI is a private academic entity whose aim is to catalyze transdisciplinary collaborations in the study of so-called complex adaptive systems (CAS). One could hardly consider the SFI ideologically close, for example, to the American academic left. Due to a great historical irony, however, the SFI could be considered today as one of the most active centers for the dissemination of a worldview very close to the historical-dialectical materialism developed by Marx and Engels. Particularly, we could recognize in Friedrich Engels a precursor, already in the XNUMXth century, of the complexity science approach à la Santa Fe Institute, an approach that intends to be one of the great innovations of the XNUMXst century.

Friedrich Engels (1820-1895) is an interesting historical figure. The son of a successful German merchant, he received a strong religious upbringing linked to Pietism, the Christian fundamentalism flourishing in Barmen, his hometown. Upon being sent to Bremen to continue his training as a businessman, he is influenced by the cosmopolitan atmosphere of this city. He comes into contact with the ideas of radical theologians such as Strauss and Schleimacher. Aged about 21, he joined the Young Hegelian movement, intellectuals eager to use Hegel's ideas in criticizing contemporary religion and politics. In 1844, he meets Karl Marx in Paris, beginning a lasting friendship and collaboration, the landmark of which is the Communist Manifesto (1848). It was he, in fact, who drew Marx's attention to the importance of economics in understanding historical and social processes. Without the support and financial help of Engels, most likely the magnum opus of Karl Marx, The capital, would never have seen the light of day.

From 1850 to 1870, Engels resided in Manchester, leading a dual life as a businessman and communist activist. He regularly participates in the Cheshire fox hunt; he is a prominent member of two thriving clubs, the Albert Club and the Schiller Institute, of which he was once director [McLellan, 1979]. His circle of friends includes the jurist Samuel Moore and Karl Schorlemmer, holder of the first English chair in Organic Chemistry. At the same time, he lives a particularly happy relationship with a young Irish woman of working-class origin, Mary Burns, and continues his intense activities as a revolutionary journalist and adviser to socialist parties. In the 70s, already in London, he spent most of his time studying natural sciences and Mathematics, an interest that appears in the book Anti-düring (1878), polemic against a certain socialist intellectual, and in his unfinished work Dialéethics of nature, published posthumously only in 1927. In addition to works in collaboration with Marx, he also wrote The Situationherethe oper classálaugh in england (1844)The Origin of Família, Private Property and the State (1884)Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Philosophy CláGerman musicã (1888) From Utopian Socialism to Scientific Socialism (1890)

Today, one hundred and twenty-five years after his death (which occurred in 1895), Engels is a marginalized and forgotten author. Throughout the XNUMXth century, his ideas were criticized and ultimately rejected by Liberalism, Eurocommunism and the Romantic Left. Basically, this is due to the fact that Engels' thought, simplified and vulgarized, was adopted as official doctrine by Stalin. The end of the cold war and bureaucratic socialism, however, perhaps allows for a more serene reassessment of Engelian thought. It now seems possible to recognize certain virtues in their scientific and philosophical ideas without this being seen as a symptom of a narrow political-ideological alignment. After all, perhaps it is easier to separate and recover Engels from Stalinism than to do the same with Nietzsche in relation to Nazism, a task in which countless contemporary philosophers have dedicated themselves.

Perhaps Engels' most original idea — and the one that arouses the greatest rejection — is what he called the 'Dialectic of Nature'. This is not a closed theory or conception, but rather a kind of conceptual framework that provides certain key ideas and heuristic suggestions to be explored in transdisciplinary research. But it is not only in this aspect of an alternative scientific paradigm, heuristic and somewhat loose, that Engels' conceptions resemble those of the modern complexity sciences. The parallels are much stronger: for example, Engels is fascinated by the emergent properties and phase transitions revealed by thermodynamics and statistical physics, and tries to apply these concepts (not just metaphorically) to biology, economics, sociology and history. He emphasizes that the evolution of matter historically takes place through transitions between qualitatively different levels of organization. His perspective on natural and social processes is dynamic, systemic and ecological: Engels defines Dialectics as the general science of changes and interconnections.

The emphasis on historical processes is so strong in Engels that he goes so far as to suggest that the laws of physics are not fixed, but evolve over the history of the universe, a conjecture that current cosmology has only recently explored. His conception of historical dynamics, inspired by Hegel, is perhaps one of the first more concrete formulations of the so-called punctuated equilibrium. For Engels, the stability of economic and social configurations gives rise, intermittently, to rapid and dramatic changes generated from internal dynamics of the system. And this dynamic is due not to a single causal factor[I], but to the co-evolution of several factors. For example, Engels sees the process of hominization as a co-evolution, accelerated and feedback, between biological, social and cultural characteristics.

Methodologically, Engels is a theorist, critical of that narrow empiricism that fails to realize that it is theories that allow us to define and see the 'facts'. Engels sympathizes with ideas and simple mathematical models (one of his favorite examples is the Carnot engine) that reveal the core of a process behind the multitude of irrelevant details. He emphasizes the importance of the broadest and most unifying theoretical formulations, in contrast to the empirical accumulation of mountains of data collected without theoretical criteria. Hence perhaps his enthusiasm for Darwin's ideas[ii], passion that earned him severe criticism from other Marxists for trying to apply concepts taken from Biology to society. It is because Engels believed that the great paradigmatic changes would take place through the transfer of concepts between different disciplines and even between philosophy, human and natural sciences. Finally, his belief that the advancement of Cosmology would overcome the pessimistic views derived from the second law of Thermodynamics (the so-called 'thermal death of the Universe'), which curiously is true in the context of the Theory of Cosmic Inflation and the Multiverse, and its insistence on postulating a tendency, inherent in matter, towards self-organization and increasing complexity, seemed to many to be a kind of covert spiritualization.

All these positions are so close to those of the sciences of complexity (see, for example, [Waldrop, 1992]) that certainly some readers must be asking themselves if I am not doing a too forced reading of Engels, projecting on the XNUMXth century thinker concepts and ideas typical of the end of the XNUMXth century that would be strange to him. Thus, the following strategy will be used in this work: I will place side by side, with a minimum of comments, a large number of quotes from Engels and authors who have made the dissemination of the ideas of complexity to the general public. The use of science popularization texts instead of technical articles is intentional, as in these texts the discussion about the world view and the philosophical implications of the complexity sciences appears more clearly, that is, their ideological aspects are presented in a more transparent way. Furthermore, let us remember that Engels is not a professional philosopher or scientist, having acted more as a journalist and disseminator of ideas, so that the comparison between the texts is more balanced. In particular, I will pay attention to authors linked to the perspective of Sleaf Fe Iinstitute and the magazine Complexity. I believe the quotations are extensive and numerous enough to escape the charge that they are out-of-character statements taken out of context.

If there are convergences, there are also divergences between the Engelian worldview and the emphases of contemporary complexity sciences. At the end of the article, I briefly discuss the most significant differences, those that perhaps had perverse consequences when they were 'officially' adopted by techno-bureaucratic socialism. Finally, I suggest that the unexpected convergence between the SFI perspective of complexity and the Engelian Dialectic of Nature, developed in very different historical and social contexts, is perhaps a sign that such ideas are moving beyond the stage of transient, recurrent, epidemic fads, to become more grounded, rooted, culturally endemic. After all, the development of such ideas gains new momentum and motivation in an increasingly complex, dynamic, globalized and interconnected world. That the social-economic world constitutes the selective environment in the ecology of ideas, strongly influencing their dissemination, acceptance and establishment, is also an Engelian idea…


For Engels, the Dialectic of Nature consists of a worldview or general perspective whose usefulness will have to be shown a posteriori, insofar as it bears fruit in concrete scientific advances. This world view, due to Hegel (in turn influenced by Aristotle, Heraclitus and Chinese philosophy) is essentially dynamic and systemic, seeing the world more as a network of processes than a collection of objects, preferring to use fluid concepts rather than fixed and well-delimited categories. In particular, Engels suggests three recurring heuristic themes ('laws of the Dialectic'):

1 - Transformation of quantity into quality: small quantitative changes can induce dramatic qualitative changes; the aggregation of small quantities can generate qualitatively new properties.

2 – Interpenetration of polar opposites, identity and struggle of opposites: it is in the dynamic conflict between polar opposites that more complex forms are generated.

3 – Development through internal contradiction, or negation of negation: the internal dynamics of complex systems produces the very conditions for their overcoming, that is, the main source of change is endó For Engels, this overcoming has, in the long term and despite all setbacks, an ascending, progressive trend, towards the emergence of new levels of organization of matter.

My suggestion is that the complexity science approach à lá SFI has similar heuristic themes, namely:

1 – Emphasis on the study of emergent collective properties and phase transitions in non-equilibrium dynamical systems.

2 – Presumed tendency of complex adaptive systems to be located on the border (critical points, bifurcations, etc.) between two antagonistic behaviors. Examples of bipolar categories: inactivity/activity, order/disorder, periodicity/Chaos (edge ​​of Chaos), memory/innovation (mutation window), competition/cooperation, etc.

3 – Complexification, or apparent 'spontaneous' tendency towards increased organization in complex systems due to a process of diffusion in (abstract) space of possible self-organized structures.

It is clear that the sciences of complexity are much richer, theoretically and experimentally, than this set of generic ideas. It would be an exaggerated caricature to say, paraphrasing Lenin, that the sciences of complexity equal the Dialectic of Nature plus computers.[iii]. My intention, however, is not to revere the memory of Engels but only to present him as a forerunner, in the XNUMXth century, of a certain worldview or paradigmatic matrix also shared, partially, by Darcy Thompson's Morphological Biology, Biology- Alfred Lotka's Physics, Gestalt psychology, Cybernetics, Systems Theory, Thom's Theory of Catastrophes, Haken's Synergetics, Prigogine's self-organizing systems, Connectionism (Artificial Neural Networks), Self-organizing Criticality Organized from Bak and the studies of Adaptive Complex Systems. Although often constituting scientific fads that flourished and went into ebb, I suggest that what these movements have in common is a certain thematic core that can also be found, now in a more well-founded and permanent way, in modern Statistical Physics and Theory of Dynamic Systems.

In the next sections, I feature typical excerpts from authors sympathetic to the SFI approach, followed by quotes from Engels[iv]. The common idea between the selected excerpts is placed in the title of each subsection, however, there is a great overlap of themes between them so that each section illuminates and clarifies the others, forming a network of cross-references. It is important to note that the texts in the next sections are not mine.[v], but from the authors cited at the end of each paragraph. I hope that the simple superimposition of these texts, combined with the reader's effort to see the interrelationships between them, will produce an understanding in the form of an emerging Gestalt pattern that may be more effective than the direct, explicit, linear and ordered discussion of each one. from them.

Methodology: dialética in nnature, in ssociety, No. pteaching and the êemphasis on ttransdisciplinarity

[The principle of Universality] says that in critical states there is a kind of universal organization in which the details of particular systems cease to be important. Molecules, atoms, magnets or spins — it just doesn't matter what is interacting. (…) Universality gives us a new understanding of how apparently very different systems can behave in the same way. If you want to model something like a magnet or a fluid near the critical point, you don't have to worry about accurately representing how each component interacts with its neighbors. Any model, no matter how abstract or ridiculous, will do, as long as it belongs to the same universality class as the original system [Buchanan, 1997].

The behavior of an economy, a company or an ecosystem arises from the interactions between the individuals that compose them. Cooperative systems are everywhere, whether it's flocks of birds or colonies of bacteria. And, according to the principle of universality[vi], the exact nature of the elements that make up these systems and how they interact is often irrelevant. Universality gives us confidence, says [physicist H. Eugene] Stanley, that we really can model and understand complex systems like these [Buchanan, 1997].

“In the present work, Dialectic is conceived as the science of the most general laws of all motion. This implies that its laws must be as valid for movement in nature and human history as the movement of thought. A law of this kind may be recognized in two of these three spheres, indeed in all three, without the philistine metaphysician being aware that the law he has come to know is one and the same.

The Dialectic has hitherto been most closely investigated by only two thinkers, Aristotle and Hegel. But it is precisely Dialectic that constitutes the most important form of thought for contemporary natural science, for it alone offers the analogy, and therefore the method of explanation, for evolutionary processes occurring in nature, interconnections in general, and transitions of one field of investigation to another” (DN, Old preface to Anti-Düring).

to Dialéethics, which focuses things and their conceptual images substantially on their connectionses, in your concatenatedhereo, in your dinâmica, in its process of birth and expiry, fenôless like those exposed nãyouãthe more that so many others confirmçtions of your genuine wayínot to proceed. The nature é the dial's touchstoneéethics, and the modern natural sciences offer us an extraordinarily copious collection of data for this test, which is enriched with each passing day, thereby demonstrating that nature moves, in úlast instância, by the ways dialéticos enãor by metaphysical paths, whichão moves in the eternal monotony of a constantly repeated cycle, but traverses a true history.lakelaugh. Here é neededáI would like to quote, first of all, Darwin, who, with his proof that all organic natureâonly existing, plants and animals, and among them, as é lógico, the man, é the product of a development process spanning millions of years, set the stage for the conceptherethe metaphysics of nature the hardest blow (SUSC).

The Dialética, the dial calléobjective ethics prevails in all Nature; and the Dialéethics called subjective (dialectical thinkingético) é only the reflection of movement throughés of contradictionçions that appear in all parts of Nature and that (in a accountfine conflict between opposites and their fusionãthe final, higher forms) conditions the life of Nature (DN, Notes).

2.2 Methodology: reducationism, holism, pproperties sisêmicas and uuniversality

So, from earthquakes to evolution, the notion of universality lies behind these theories that are adding an extra dimension to our understanding of the world. But the consequences of this idea may turn out to be even more profound. For hundreds of years Science has followed the notion that things can always be understood — and can only be understood — by breaking them down into smaller parts, and knowing those pieces completely. Critical state systems — and they seem to be very common — fly in the face of this principle. Important aspects of their behaviors have little to do with the detailed properties of their components. The organization in a magnet, a company or an ecosystem is not due to the particles, people or species that compose these systems [Buchanan, 1997].

1 – Langton — A rigorous mechanist sees all arrows going upwards, showing that local interaction causes some global property, such as life or a stable ecosystem. And a rigorous vitalist sees the arrows pointing downwards, indicating some kind of mystical global property that determines the behavior of the entities in the system. What the science of complexity gives you is the understanding that both are important, linked in a tight, never-ending loop of feedback. The entire system represents a dynamic pattern, with energy being dissipated through it. Vitalists are going to be disappointed if they look at this kind of pattern to support their position, because if you take away the energy, the whole thing comes crashing down. There is nothing external driving the system; the dynamic comes from within himself [Lewin, 1994].

We see that cause and effect areãrepresents himtionwhich only govern, as such, in their application to the concrete case, but which, examining the concrete case in its concatenation with the total image of the universe, come together and dissolve in the idea of ​​a universal web of ationthis is realtiones, in which causes and effects change frequencyenfearing of place and in what what now or here é effect acquires then, here or there, the caráhave cause, and vice versa.

The análysis of Nature in its various parts, classifies itherethat of the various processes and natural objects in certain categories, the internal research of organic bodiesâunique according to the various anatomical structuresômicas, there were many othersconditionfundamental principles to which the gigantic progress made during the úlast four hundred years, in scientific knowledgeíI am from Nature. Those Iall of investigateherethe, byém, they transmitted us oháhabit of focusing on the things and processes of nature in isolation, subtractingíof à concatenatesherethat of the great whole; therefore, noãor in your dinâmica, but statically; nãor how substantially it variesásee, but how consistencies fixed; nãnot in his life, but in his death.

the endéevery metafíphysical to think, however justified and evené neededáriver that is in many zones of thought, (...), tropeçalways, sooner or later, with a barrier, crossed which he becomes méall one-sided, limited, abstract, and is lost in insolenceúyou contradicttiones. Absorbed by concrete objects, nãcan you understand its concatenationhereO; worried about your existenceêno, noãattacks it in its origin or in its expiry; obsessed by átrees, noãcan you see the forest (SUSC).

Among the men of ciênic, the movement é always considered (...) as mechanical movementânico, how do they changeçthe place. That é amazedçthe séXNUMXth century, pré-químico, and makes it much more difficultíeasy to understandãthat of the processes. The movement, applied à matelaugh, é transformhereor in general. of the sameíyou proveém tooém this fúlaugh at reducing everything to mechanical movementânico, what destroysóio caráhave specíI stay away from other forms of movement. É I don't needãor if you interpret, on the face of it, that each of the higher forms of movement does notãis always necessarily connected to a mechanical movement.âunique real (exterior or molecular); (...) but the presenceçone of these subsidi formsálaugh nãexhausts it, in each case, to essêmain form. Someday we will experimentally reduce it safely.ça, thought to molecular movements and whatímonkeys, noérebro; but by chance it runs outá to thisêthought? (DN, Notes).

2.3 Methodology: empiricism versus general theories, and the role of simple models.

Chris Langton —We're looking for the ground rules that underlie all these systems [macroevolution, morphogenesis, ecosystems, social organization, cognition], not just the details of one of them (…). Chris, and others like him at the Institute [SFI] are looking for universal principles, fundamental rules that shape all complex adaptive systems.

I asked Stuart [Kauffman] if he is really looking for universal truths: — What I am looking for is a profound theory of order in biology. If you consider the world as John [Maynard Smith] does, then our only option as biologists is the systematic analysis of basically accidental machines and their basically accidental evolutionary histories. I know it's not just that. There is something else. (…) There are things that Darwin had no way of knowing. One was self-organization in complex dynamical systems. If the new science of complexity succeeds, it will broker the marriage of self-organization and [natural] selection. Biologists will find it quite difficult to assimilate the idea of ​​self-organization into their current worldview [Lewin, 1994].

For physicists and mathematicians, theory is what counts. Experiments merely provide a rough [test] framework for the theory. In Biology, this tradition is reversed. Data production is the priority, and any theorizing is heavily deferred until experimental evidence is available. The new problem for both, however, is letting these traditions converge [Steimetz, 1997].

An important type of simulation in the Social Sciences is agent-based modeling. This type of simulation is characterized by the existence of many agents that interact with each other with little or no central direction. The emergent properties of an agent-based model are therefore the result of processes bottom-up instead of a direction top-down. (…) The goal of agent-based modeling is to enrich our understanding of fundamental processes that can appear in a variety of applications. It is important to keep the model as simple as possible (…). The complexity of agent-based models must reside in the simulation results, not in the assumptions of the models [Axelrod, 1997].

An example notálevel of what is unjustified in the claimsãthe second to which the induhereo é to shape úonly or still predominant part of researchherethe scientistístands, can be found in Termodin's landâmica: amsteam engine was the demonstrationherethe most astonishing of which, from the heat, é canextractable without mechanical movement. but the truth é that 100.000 másteam machines nãoo demonstrate better than one; they only create, for physicists, the increasing need to explain the phenôless. Sadi Carnot was the first to proposeôsa doêit seriously. But noãor through inductionhereO. He studied the steam engine, analyzed it, and found that the process of its functioning, what interested it, did notãit was found on a simple form but covered by a singleéseries of secondary processesrivers; Pôs aside all circumstancesâextraneous to the essential process and built a mideal steam engine (or gas engine) of construction certainly tãthe diffeasy, such as a line or surfacecie geométric, but which, in a way, provides the same serviceçwhat this abstractionare killpractical: it presented the process in a simple, independent, nãor adulterated. And suddenly stumbled upon the mechanical equivalentâheat nick... (DN, Notes).

In the study of electricity [in the mid-XNUMXthéXNUMXth century] a confused miscellany reignsâno old experiencesênces, ideThings neither definitively confirmed nor definitively disproved, an insecure groping in the dark, an uncoordinated investigating and experimenting, of many isolated men, who attack a territory.óunknown river, scattered, like a herd of wild horses. (...) É especially this situationherethat of abandoning the study of electricity, which makes it impossibleísee, in this período, the outlineherethat of a general theory; situateherewhat doá origin, in this terrain, to the giftínition of unilateral empiricism, that empiricism which, as much as possible, promotesíhimself from thinking and that, precisely for this reason,ãyouó think falsely, as wellémnãput yourself in conditiontiones to faithfully follow the facts or to faithfully inform about them; and which, therefore, becomes the contraáriver of true empiricism (DN, Electricity (I)).

Marx and I were, without dúany life, the úthe only ones who saved from German idealist philosophyã the dialéconscious ethics, including it in our conceptionherethe materialist of Nature and Historyólaugh. But a concepthereHistory'sólaugh, at a time dialéethical and materialistic, requires knowledge of the mathematicsátips and tricksênatural dents. Marx was a consummate mateático (…). When doing the recapherethe das matemátics and ciênatural sciences, I tried to convince myself of a singleélaugh at concrete points about the set i nãthe had dúlives that, in Nature,õand, in the confusionãthe de das mutationyou are without númere, the same laws dialépractices of the movement that, alsoém in historyólaugh, preside à apparently fortuitous plot of events. (…) These laws were first developed by Hegel, but in a form that resulted inística, which our effortçtried to make accessígo to espírite, in all its simplicity and universal value (AD, preface).

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



[I]Engels' emphasis on the centrality of economic factors was much nuanced in his later writings.

[ii]After reading the Origin of Species, Marx wrote to Engels that "this is the book which provides the natural history basis for our concepts".

[iii] The aim of every caricature is to reveal, through exaggeration, something that would go unnoticed in a more faithful portrait.

[iv] The acronyms AD, DN, LF and SUSC refer, respectively, to the books Anti-during, Dialéethics of nature, Ludwig FüErbach and the End of Philosophy CláGerman musicã e Of Socialism UtóPeak to Scientific Socialismífico.

[v]When necessary, personal observations will be placed in square brackets.

[vi]Buchanan uses the idea of ​​Universality in a looser and broader sense than that used in Statistical Physics, where this principle is better grounded.

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