On Toy Birds, and The Complementarity Of Predictability And Complexity

A reader (who is also an old friend) emailed me today, in response to yesterday’s post.

That post contained this passage:

In either of these cases — the origin of the stupefying complexity of living systems as either a self-organizing process across “deep time”, or as an act of God — if we turn and apply the metaphor to the obvious complexity of human societies, we should be humbled. We can no more create such a thing from scratch than we can build a fly. Just as the bodies we inhabit are “given”, so are our societies and our cultures. We should appreciate them as precious and mysterious gifts, not as disposable artifacts.

In response, my friend drew my attention to this: a small drone in the form of a hummingbird.

I think his reply, which was very brief, was more tongue-in-cheek than a serious critique, but it deserves some consideration. The little drone — a tiny “ornithopter” — really is an impressive gadget, and I’m sure we’ll even have far better ones before long.

But it is no hummingbird. It is a dead thing, a toy. Can it fly? Yes it can. But if you want to see the difference between this and a hummingbird, turn it loose in the wild and see how it does.

Fine, you might say, but it isn’t hard to imagine a future little ornithopter that might last for years in the wild! And I will say: that’s fine, but eventually it will break down and fail.

Well then, what about ornithopters that can do all the things that hummingbirds do: survive in the wild, combine with others to make copies of themselves, and evolve over time to adapt to changing conditions?

And I will say: when you have done that, you have created the conditions for emergent, chaotic, self-organizing complexity, and you will have no way to predict where it will lead. What this new system will not do is exactly whatever you planned when you turned it loose — and once you have done so you will quickly find that it has moved beyond your control.

It’s a tradeoff: you can have control, and predictability, in a ‘toy’ system so narrowly limited as to be comprehensible — or you can have life, and spontaneous order. The latter is where all the magic happens.

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