The Fallacy of Complexity

By Doug Marman

Even the simplest organisms are amazingly complicated. This is why scientists who focus on the origin of life often study complexity. They try to find ways that intricate patterns can emerge from simple algorithms. They hope that this will give us clues on how cellular life evolved. This is a fallacy.

The mistake comes from confusing complexity, in general, with the specific kind of intricacies we find in living things. There is so much vague thinking about this subject that many scientists think that generating any kind of complexity can help solve the mystery of life. Countless hours have been wasted on this pursuit.

Professor Sharon Glotzer talks with some engineering students. Photo from University of Michigan.

A recent article raises this issue again. “A ‘Digital Alchemist’ Unravels the Mysteries of Complexity” describes the fascinating work of Sharon Glotzer and her 33-person team, at the University of Michigan.

Glotzer uses computer simulations to study emergence — the phenomenon whereby simple objects give rise to surprising collective behaviors. “When flocks of starlings make these incredible patterns in the sky that look like they’re not even real, the way they’re changing constantly — people have been seeing those patterns since people were on the planet,” she said. “But only recently have scientists started to ask the question, how do they do that? How are the birds communicating so that it seems like they’re all following a blueprint?”[1]

Glotzer specializes in the way inert shapes can naturally align to create surprisingly complex patterns.

For example, if you have a room full of spheres, all the same size, they will naturally assemble into a simple lattice pattern. You only need to shake them gently and they will fall into this simple repeating pattern. What Glotzer discovered is that if you start with other shapes, such as pyramids, made from triangles on all sides, they produce quasi-crystalline patterns that never repeat. Simple shapes can produce surprisingly complex patterns.

Glotzer sees this as a potential new insight into the origin of life. She said:

Most scientists think that to have order you need chemical bonds — you need interactions. And we’ve shown that you don’t. You can just have objects that, if you just confine them enough, can self-organize… So it’s a completely different way to think about life and increasing complexity… I know because I’ve done this, that I can take a bunch of objects and put them in a little droplet and shrink the droplet a little, and these objects will spontaneously organize. So maybe that phenomenon is important in the origin of life, and I don’t think that’s been considered.

This insight about the patterns created by different shapes is valuable for the work that Glotzer does: creating new materials through molecular engineering. Unfortunately, it isn’t going to helps us solve the mystery of the origin of life because it displays the wrong kind of complexity.

This simple mistake happens far too often. It is time to kill this fallacy.

The reason that even smart scientists fall for this error is that they really don’t understand organic life. They can’t explain how even the simplest cells survive. Physics and chemistry don’t give us the tools needed to illuminate the secret of life.

What happens when we face something unknown, something we don’t understand? We naturally compare it to things that we know. That is why scientists keep trying to see if mechanical reactions can explain life.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t help, for a simple reason: Life is complicated in a special way that machines can’t achieve. Once you see this, you will realize why all of the games with computer algorithms, looking for ways to create complexity, are a waste of time.

To understand this, let’s start with one of the best introductions to this problem and how it relates to the origin of life. In Richard Dawkin’s book, “The Blind Watchmaker,” he asks:

So, what is a complex thing? How should we recognize it? In what sense is it true to say that a watch or an airliner or an earwig or a person is complex, but the moon is simple?[2]

Dawkins takes us down this path to show that we have to throw away many of the simplest ideas about complexity if we want to get at what really matters. For example, the moon is simple because it is one homogeneous thing, like a bowl of milk or the endless sands in the Sahara desert. Dawkins suggests that we need a system with many different elements. That is the kind of complication we are looking for.

However, this isn’t enough. A mountain, like Mont Blanc, is made up of many different types of rocks. And every area of Mont Blanc is truly unique and distinct from every other, making it far from simple. But this doesn’t resemble the patterns we find in organisms.

Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in the Alps. Photo from Wikipedia.

He then asks if we can get closer to the mystery of life by looking at probabilities. What if we say something is complex only if it has an arrangement of many different elements in a way that is highly improbable?

[I]f you take the parts of an airliner and jumble them up at random, the likelihood that you would happen to assemble a working Boeing is vanishingly small. There are billions of possible ways of putting together the bits of an airliner, and only one, or very few, of them would actually be an airliner. There are even more ways of putting together the scrambled parts of a human.

This approach to a definition of complexity is promising, but something more is still needed. There are billions of ways of throwing together the bits of Mont Blanc, it might be said, and only one of them is Mont Blanc. So what is it that makes the airliner and the human complicated, if Mont Blanc is simple?[3]

In other words, the complexity we are looking for can’t be found by just throwing things together. We need to see something more than just an accumulation of parts.

This shows why Glotzer’s discovery is not going to help. She researches the results of tossing things together. Yes, they can make amazing patterns that never repeat, which are fascinating, but it is still just a pile of parts. By itself, this pile doesn’t do anything special.

Therefore, it isn’t the improbability of a non-repeating pattern that we are looking for. We need something more. As Dawkins says:

If we see a plane in the air we can be sure that it was not assembled by randomly throwing scrap metal together…[4]

Intentional flight requires a different type of complexity. A plane allows people to travel around the world. That is what jumps out at us. Jets can’t be created by just throwing things together and hoping that something special is going to emerge.

But this is where I part ways with Richard Dawkins, because even this isn’t the kind of complexity we are looking for in living creatures. Why? Because planes are designed and constructed by human beings from a plan, from a blueprint. On the other hand, multicellular creatures, such as animals, fish, even trees and plants, develop from single cells, into complex bodies, made up of many organs that work intricately with each other. We don’t see the same thing in even the most sophisticated machines.

Can we explain the difference between the complexity of machines and organisms? Let’s look.

Planes don’t grow from seeds. That’s one difference. Here is another, plants and animals are not assembled by outsiders.

Airliners don’t seek for food or fuel on their own, while creatures are able to overcome incredible obstacles to find nutrition. Jets don’t develop unique ways of defending themselves from predators. And planes don’t reproduce by mating with other aircraft, or by dividing into two.

Organisms clearly show us a different kind of complexity than machines. Scientists keep trying to treat creatures as if they are sophisticated machines, but the metaphor fails in important ways. For example, biologists have been forced to abandon the old idea that DNA contains a blueprint for constructing the body of animals. It simply doesn’t work.

When DNA was first discovered, biologists expected to find one gene for every protein and enzyme needed in the human body. Once they mapped the whole genome, however, they found that there aren’t even close to enough genes to pull this off.

Every gene is involved in multiple roles. They also need to work with countless other genes. Many times, parts of one gene are used with parts from another, to get what is needed. And genes are turned on and off from outside the DNA.

Look at trees. They don’t follow a blueprint or a plan. That’s why the branches, leaves, and seeds emerge spontaneously at different places, making each tree unique. The blueprint idea simply doesn’t work as an explanation. This is one of the many failed attempts to compare living things to machines.

So we need to find a different kind of complexity than we see in machines. How do we describe this difference? Here is one way: You can’t take a creature apart to study how all of its organs and cells work together. If you try to do this, you will kill it.

That leads us to an even bigger difference: If a bird dies, it can no longer fly or search for food. Its body is just as complex as it was the moment before it died, but now it no longer hops on its feet, flaps its wings, or sings.

Robert Rosen’s description of complexity brings us closer to the mystery of life that we are searching for: A living organism is a system that cannot be fully explained by reducing it to its parts because it can only live when its parts work in a relationship with each other as a whole.

Rosen puts it this way:

It has turned out that, in order to be in a position to say what life is, we must spend a great deal of time in understanding what life is not. Thus, I will be spending a great deal of time with mechanisms and machines, ultimately to reject them, and replace them with something else. This is in fact the most radical step I shall take, because for the past three centuries, ideas of mechanism and machine have constituted the very essence of the adjective ‘scientific’; a rejection of them thus seems like a rejection of science itself.

But this turns out to be only a prejudice, and like all prejudices, it has disastrous consequences. In the present case, it makes the question ‘What is life?’ unanswerable; the initial presupposition that we are dealing with mechanism already excludes most of what we need to arrive at an answer. No amount of refinement or subtlety within the world of mechanism can avail; once we are in that world, what we need is already gone.[5]

This helps us see the enigma of life more clearly. This is the puzzle we need to solve. Now that we understand the mystery we are up against, it is easy to see why most discussions about complexity and the origin of life completely miss the point. Complex mechanisms and chemical reactions are not enough. Even random events won’t help because the puzzle we need to solve is to explain what makes living things alive.

No one has found a mixture of chemicals that alters its course, avoids threats, or replenishes itself. Chemical reactions simply stop when the energy driving them runs out. Then where does the remarkable desire for life come from?

A crystal, a candle flame, a hurricane, or a Bénard cell does not seek resources when the material conditions for continued catalysis runs out; they cease. Living things do so until all options are exhausted. Some of the simplest organisms engage in surprisingly elaborate behaviors to forestall cessation.[6]

How did a self-organizing, autocatalytic chemical system come to persist in such a way that it could be described as self-preserving…? We do not know. Moreover, we do not appear to be overly concerned that we do not know. The answer cannot be, it just did.[7]

One way to make this point even clearer is by distinguishing between “self-ordering” systems and the kind of organization that we see in living organisms, where cells and organs form responsive relationships, as they work with each other toward a common goal.

Self-ordering should not be confused with self-organization.[8]

A flame on a candle, the vortex that forms in tornados and hurricanes, and crystalline shapes are all examples of self-ordering. They are all the result of physical dynamics that can be explained with physics and chemistry.

No truly sophisticated function has ever arisen from self-ordered states.[9]

Living organizations are different. They require relationships between responsive life forms. For example, human beings work together for a common purpose. Cells and organs work together as a whole. And flocks of starlings fly together as a group. These types of living organizations can’t be explained by simple cause and effect mechanisms or principles of chemistry.

Swarm of starlings. Photo from Wikipedia.

What Glotzer is talking about is clearly self-ordering, not self-organizing. Glotzer’s work is fascinating, but there is no great mystery in the way objects self-order and arrange themselves. This isn’t going to help us solve the enigma of life. Even a well-planned blueprint isn’t enough.

Living organizations and living organisms have a special form of complexity that can never be fully understood by taking them apart.


[1] Natalie Wolchover quotes Sharon Glotzer, “A ‘Digital Alchemist’ Unravels the Mysteries of Complexity,” Quanta Magazine, March 8, 2017.

[2] Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1986), p. 6.

[3] Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1986), p. 7.

[4] Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1986), p. 8.

[5] Robert Rosen, Life Itself: A Comprehensive Inquiry into the Nature, Origin, and Fabrication of Life (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), p. xv-xvi.

[6] Lyon, “To Be or Not To Be: Where Is Self-Preservation in Evolutionary Theory?” Major Transitions, p. 106.

[7] Ibid., p. 122.

[8] Abel DL, Trevors JT. Self-Organization vs. Self-Ordering events in life-origin models. Physics of Life Reviews. 2006;3, page 211. Also available from http://lifeorigin.academia.edu/DrDavidLAbel.

[9] Abel, DL. Life Origin, A Scientific Approach, edited for the non-scientist. Available from http://lifeorigin.info/whats-the-difference-between-self-ordering-and-self-organizing.html – _ENREF_21

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11 thoughts on “The Fallacy of Complexity

  1. Hi Doug , both this website and spiritualdialogues.com have been exceptionallly easy to navigate from simply my iPhone which has been a big plus for convenience.

    -Tim-

  2. Hi Doug,
    From ‘The Fallacy of Complexity’ article which references Glotzer and the study about the starling bird’s movements together. They’re trying to determine what enables these flocks to move all together into patterns that are apparently beneficial for the entire group. How do the birds communicate with one another as a group. It’s as if the birds can effortlessly sense what to do, I do not think they hold a meeting with the top leader bird(s) and so come up with a plan. Complete with architectural designers and choreographer birds. It’s something about their behavior and starling’s nature as a whole that just happens. Whether it be instinctual or learned, probably a combination of both these as well as that other ‘force’ that connects this species together. And in turn the species is connected and interwoven into their larger environment of the world. Something about man’s overreach into the natural environment is that disruption of these other smaller societies of creatures has created a world that becomes out of balance. We must put emphasis on the importance of these not so easily determinable forces at play within our world.

    Some other thoughts about how creatures can sense each other. When alone in a room or quiet place, if another person or creature comes into your proximity it’s often times possible to detect the presence. This sensing of another is possible without actually seeing or hearing the viisitor. And the sensing can even occur just before or after the arrival. The presence trails the living being. And can be a larger or smaller presence depending on the person’s own activities. So is the presence detected by the subconscious then, through shadows, or slight sounds made from the visitor as it moves through your own space being occupied at that time? Is it through simply our five identifiable senses of sight, sound, smell, taste and touch and the combination of these five ? Is there another sense or feeling that we have independent of the five. There was for a time in the 1970’s and 80’s when studies about extra sensory abilities were being publicized in media. I was wondering if you had ever explored much about extra sensory perceptions ?

    • Tim,

      One of the issues that scientists struggle with is how quickly and effortlessly the starlings follow each other and innovate new changes in direction. I believe their problem comes from the assumption that there must be some form of thought before the birds act, but there doesn’t seem to be enough time for that. It just happens, as you said.

      Psychologists, however, have seen this same behavior in human beings. When someone learns a new skill, such as walking on your hands or ice skating, they learn through a process that has very little thought involved. They simply try over and over again, and gradually they just get the hang of it. If you ask them to tell you what exactly they are doing, they won’t be able to answer, because they haven’t figured it out through conscious thought. They actually learned the process unconsciously.

      This is important for another reason: Conscious thought is way too slow to deal with the responsiveness necessary to make all the subtle adjustments in muscles to keep balanced while walking on your hands. The corrections to maintain balance must be almost instant. This is exactly how the unconscious works. It is so fast that it seems like an immediate response. This appears to be exactly how the starlings move as well.

      As you said, they recognize all the subtle signs, that the group is starting to shift directions, and with no hesitation or thought, they instantly adjust. It happens unconsciously, which is why it seems so effortless.

      I agree with you completely, that the actions of starlings are just one out of millions of subtle responses that use this same process in nature. In fact, this unconscious responsiveness appears to be the norm for nature. It is human beings who stop to think about everything before acting, making even the simplest actions far more work. And, as you point out, when we are not acting with the same unconscious responsiveness, then we are much more likely to interfere with the natural process. We disrupt the subtle balance that keeps everything flowing.

      The other question you raise, whether these processes all depend on physical senses alone, is also a good one. According to the Lenses of Perception model, these same processes of unconscious responsiveness also exists at the quantum level between the smallest particles. There we find what is called quantum entanglement, where particles can instantly respond to the state of a partner, even if that partner is miles away.

      For example, two electrons, when they are entangled, can have opposed spins. When one electron changes its spin, the entangled partner immediately changes its spin to match. The question is how can a particle miles away know the spin of their partner without sending or receiving signals? This, I believe, is the same question you are asking. And the way two entangled electrons track each others’ spin is surprisingly similar to what we see starlings doing.

      The Lenses of Perception model says that the shared entangled state exists between the particles, but this dynamic relationship between them does not exist in our space-time universe. Other physicists have proposed similar solutions, so I am by no means the first to suggest this. If this is true, it answers your question by saying yes, there is something else beyond physical senses that keeps them aligned. Some researchers have already proposed that there might indeed be a connection between ESP and entanglement, and they have run some experiments with produced positive results.

      All of this suggests that you might be on the right track.

      Thanks.

      Doug.

      • Would the two electrons with opposing forces have to have been previously joined and working together? For these two seperate and identifiable physical particles to act and react to each other similarly when seperated by a physical distance of miles, as they do when joined would they first have to have been joined at some time previously?
        Do electrons from inanimate objects such as a rock have this same characteristics as do the electrons that make up living things such as plants and animals ?

        • Tim,

          Excellent question, and your intuition is right. For electrons to become entangled, they must begin in a state where they are “working together,” as you put it.

          To create entangled electrons for their experiments, physicists use pairs of electrons that have come from the same atom. If they want to experiment with entangled photons, they use pairs of photons that come from the same atom.

          “Working together” in an atom is exactly what causes both electrons and photons to become entangled.

          Yes, electrons from inanimate objects have the same characteristics, as long as those electrons are coming from the same atom. In fact, most of the entangled particles used in experiments come from special crystals, which are inanimate.

          This might surprise you, since living things show us this same trait of working together that naturally leads to entanglement between live forms. However, the Lenses of Perception theory shows that all of the quantum mysteries make sense if we assume that all particles possess some quality of sentience. In other words, everything is alive and responsive. This is why it makes sense that electrons would become entangled with each other.

          The key is to understand atoms. They are formed by what is called “the strong force,” where quarks “work together” as a group to create protons and neutrons. Those protons and neutrons then work as a group to form the nucleus of atoms, which hold the atom together and causes the atom to act as a single entity.

          If the lenses of perception theory is right, then everything is animate. However, there is growing evidence that there are more cases of entanglement going on in living organisms than in inanimate rocks. For example, recent experiments with photosynthesis in plants suggests that entangled electrons find their way to where they are needed through the process of entanglement. There is also some evidence that the homing ability of birds, and our sense of smell, may be related to quantum processes. Biologists are just beginning to explore this because it suggests that there may be a lot more quantum processes, such as entanglement, in living organisms than anyone suspected.

          Thanks.

          Doug.

          • Maybe some further research is in order for me to more fully understand what’s going on with quarks. It’s not really my main interest though. The way you have intertwined the science aspects into your books LOP and The Spiritual Flow of Life has helped me more readily grasp the concepts explored.

          • Tim,

            Not everyone has heard about quarks. However, I’m sure you have heard of electrons and protons. Electrons have a negative charge and protons have a positive charge, so they tend to be attracted to each other. This is what keeps electrons inside of atoms, because they are attracted to the protons in the nucleus of the atom.

            Electrons are fundamental particles. This means that as far as anyone knows, electrons are not composed of smaller particles. In other words, you can’t break electrons down to into smaller particles.

            Protons are different. They are not fundamental particles. Each proton is made up of three quarks. Each quark has a partial electrical charge. Some are slightly positive and some are slightly negative. This is part of the reason they are attracted to each other. However, there is another much stronger force that binds them together. It is called the “strong force,” because it is the strongest force known to physics.

            For example, the strong force is also the force that holds protons together, along with neutrons, in the nucleus. Normally protons would repel each other because they all have positive charges, and like charges should repel. However, the strong force is so powerful that protons are packed together closely in a nucleus.

            That gives you a quick overview of quarks. I write more about them in the middle of the Lenses of Perception book, if you are interested.

            If this is not your main interest, then it isn’t important. But I thought I would offer a quick explanation.

            Thanks for your comments. I am enjoying them.

            Doug.

          • I’ll be looking forward then to more direction regarding quarks later on in Lenses of Perception, it looks to also be touched on again in The Spiritual Flow of Life. Both reads have been helping bring on some very helpful realizations.

  3. Doug,

    As usual I agree with more or less everything you say. You’ve shown why current approaches can’t explain what life is. But the next step might be more difficult: telling us the right approach. Personally, I don’t think there is one. Life can’t be defined scientifically. Basically, the key factor that distinguishes life from a machine is consciousness. It provides the purpose, the “remarkable desire for life”. But it can’t be detected objectively. You can’t even know – for certain – that another human is conscious, much less something like an insect. Another human behaves as though they’re conscious, of course. But so could a sophisticated robot (I suppose). And don’t forget a paralyzed human, who is conscious and alive, but you can’t tell by external behavior.

    Assuming you try to give such a definition, ask yourself: will my definition look silly 100 years from now? Thus you correctly point out that “You can’t take a creature apart to study how all of its organs and cells work together. If you try to do this, you will kill it.” Today that’s true, and distinguishes life from machines. But in the future some scientists hope to be able to revive long-dead organisms. For instance, Ted Williams’ head is cryogenically preserved. Now, I’m very sure that head will never live again; the Slugger has hit his last home run. But can a more advanced science kill a human, take him apart, put him back together, and revive the result? Maybe, who knows? Similarly, you can try to define the behavior of a living creature in terms of purpose, creativity, apparent survival instinct, or whatever. But can you be sure that a robot won’t be created, something like Data on Star Trek, with such behaviors? True, Data isn’t conscious. But how can you know that? True, no matter how much he mimics someone like me, he can’t mimic my consciousness. But – how do you know I’m conscious?

    Well, I’m looking forward to seeing how you attack this puzzle. Here’s a relevant quote from Johannes Kepler. He had been talking with Epicureans who held that everything was just a random grouping of atoms, some of which accidentally seemed to exhibit self-organization and purpose. He wrote:

    Yesterday, when weary with writing, and my mind quite dusty with considering these atoms, I was called to supper, and a salad I had asked for was set before me. ‘It seems then’, said I aloud, ‘that if pewter dishes, leaves of lettuce, grains of salt, drops of water, vinegar, and oil, and slices of egg, had been flying about in the air from all eternity, it might at last happen by chance that there would come a salad.’ ‘Yes’, says my wife, ‘but not so nice and well dressed as this of mine.’

    Mrs. Kepler had more good sense than all those Epicureans and scientists put together.

    • George,

      I agree, chance alone can’t make a great salad, or anything alive, for that matter.

      I believe I can answer your questions about whether we will someday be able to take apart a living body and put it back together and revive it. And whether we will ever see computers become conscious.

      But the real problem, as I see it, is that people don’t have a way to see these things that clearly shows what the answers are.

      We understand machines very well and can say with certainty that we can take machines and put them back together and they will continue to operate as they should. Until we truly have a clear way of seeing what life is, we have no way of answering your questions.

      I am now working on a paper to lay out the challenges and show how the pieces come together in such a way that it does give us a way of seeing the essential ingredients of life.

      With the right lens, it all makes sense. But it takes time to tell the story clearly.

      Hopefully I will have something to share soon.

      Thanks.

      Doug.

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