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Complexity Changes the Nature of Things
I think I first heard it during a YouTube discussion with Nassim Nicholas Taleb and Naval Ravikant, and I’m pretty sure it was Naval who laid it out in the following way…
‘Sufficiently complex systems express themselves differently at different levels of complexity’.
And I had one of those rare intellectual moments where my jaw dropped open, and I paused the video and stared at a wall for the next ten minutes, trying to process what I’d just heard. Because in that short sentence was encompassed an explanation for something I’d been observing for most of my life, but had been unable to put into words.
Scale changes the nature of things. This will seem very simple and self-evident to any physicist who has studied the difference between emergent properties and reductionist ones. But for my social-science oriented brain, the effect was like a bomb going off.
The phenomena appears somewhat well understood in the technical disciplines of economics and hard science, but seems largely ignored when it applies to the many other realms of social science. Some of these manifestations include, but are not limited to, why wars happen, how international relations are conducted, bullying, political radicalism, gender relations, economics, comedy and just about every facet of society that I can think of.
So where to begin? Let’s start with my own best explanation of the concept.
Imagine that we’re scientists. The object of our scientific study is water. To study water, we’ll have two choices — we can study it at the large scale, or the small.
To study water at the small scale, we’ll need to break it down to its smallest possible component — the water molecule. Sure, we can break a water molecule down further, but then it becomes one hydrogen and two oxygen atoms, and thus no longer water.
Studying water at this scale can teach us many things. We can learn freezing temperatures, boiling temperatures, and various related behaviours. But nowhere in the study of individual water molecules will we encounter anything that will tell us about the existence of waves, or currents, or bubbles.
It’s only when we increase the scale of water, to countless trillions of water molecules in a pond, river or sea, that waves and currents become visible. To study waves and currents, we’ll need fluid dynamics, meaning physics, whereas the study of individual molecules is primarily chemistry. So, by increasing the scale, water moves from expressing itself as chemistry, to expressing itself as physics.
Because sufficiently complex systems express themselves differently at different levels of complexity.
Once I’d identified the concept in my head, I began seeing its manifestations everywhere — or rather, I’d always been seeing its manifestations everywhere, but I hadn’t resolved the issue to this level of clarity where it applied to social science. Here are a few places where they seem to me most obvious.
Human civilisation is considerably more complex than water, and thus the same phenomena of complexity can be seen writ large across our history and our present. Politicians, artists and philosophers have long observed the contradiction between what is good for the individual, and what is good for the state. Artists have long cried that war is a senseless waste of human life, while masters of statecraft have insisted that wars can be understood as a matter of reason and logic.
In ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ (the book, not the vastly overrated Netflix movie) the main character Paul meets, and kills, a French soldier, whom he learns through examination of his personal documents while he slowly dies, to be named Gérard. And as Paul sits in the shell hole, contemplating the slow death of a young man not unlike himself, with whom he may have become friends under other circumstances, he contemplates the enormous, terrible waste of it all, and how none of it makes any rational sense.
All humans perceive events most immediately on the individual scale — translating them into the larger, group-complexity scale takes much longer. In the shell hole, there are no patriotic songs and marches, no cheering crowds, no fervent patriotism and cries to defend the fatherland. In the mud and blood, the larger scale does not exist. There is only this — the sad, lonely pathos of two good men, one of whom has just killed the other, and is now struggling to recall why.
Recent history has given rise within the modern arts to an understandable revulsion at the prospect of war. This is a relatively recent development, as many past artists from Shakespeare to Tchaikovsky have done their bit to glorify war, no doubt in part to appease their various state sources of funding. But modern Western art is now almost entirely a celebration of the individual, and is perhaps as poorly equipped to appreciate larger-scale social phenomena as chemistry is to appreciate waves.
Recent strands of Western pacifism, often led by the artistic Left, have lately been joined by a resurgent American isolationism, which belongs perhaps more to the Right. It should be remembered that America was isolationist, and possessed a very small military by global standards, for most of the period from 1776 until 1941, so this latest isolationist resurgence is really just a slow reversion toward the previous norm.
Much of this new isolationism seems to share the previous isolationism’s conviction (proven devastatingly wrong by the Japanese) that international events do not affect the United States. Much of this presumption today, I think, is born not merely from the distrust of official policies that brought about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but a broader, more philosophical distrust of the counter-intuitive nature of higher levels of complexity.
If one only studies water at the chemistry level, waves can be alarming, and often deemed unnecessary. If chemistry is all that you know, then physics may seem like a scam. Prior to 1941, American distrust of large scale government (the only kind of government at which international diplomacy takes place) led many to believe that the outside world could be kept at bay simply by a mass declaration by the American public that it didn’t exist, or at least did not matter. Today, people question whether any of America’s Pacific treaty allies should be defended with American lives, because war is bad, and people will die.
Is war in fact bad? These days it is almost sacrilegious to ask the question.
At the individual level, of single water molecules and frightened young men dying in shell holes, war is unquestionably very, very bad. But then there’s all that Greco Roman architecture in Washington DC. How did it get there? Certainly neither the ancient Greeks nor the Romans spread their culture around the world by asking nicely.
Is that a bad thing? Perhaps, but given past eras when all civilisation was spread at the point of a sword, the question becomes ‘compared to what?’ If not the Romans and Greeks, then who? Would a modern civilisation based on the Huns, or the Visigoths, have delivered a superior system? The Chinese? Genghis Khan, should various ancestors have obeyed today’s universal diktat that ‘war is bad’, and thus laid down their arms and allowed him take every last bit of the planet that eluded him at the time?
The point here is not to argue that war is good, when plainly it is not. It’s merely to observe that this level of analysis, the level of the individual, is poorly equipped to answer questions about phenomena that take place at higher levels of complexity. Like the scientist using chemistry to try and explain the behaviour of waves on the ocean, the tools are lacking, and all answers derived from their use seem incomplete and unsatisfying.
War can be both terrible, and a primary reason why many of the best things about Western civilisation currently exist. This contradiction is brought about by the fact that positive and negative outcomes are operating at different levels of complexity within human civilisation. Wrestling with the contradiction is difficult, and it would be nice to imagine that an alternative form of social and political evolution could be found in the future. But what if a Brave New World of endless pacifism eliminated humanity’s collective ability to evolve beyond disfunctional models of civilisation? What if, drugged into a pacifist stupor where violence can never be the answer, we allow far worse tyrannies to slowly boil us alive as we are robbed of the ability to fight back? Far more people these days die from bad government economic policy than from war.
Observing how the different levels of complexity change the nature of the processes involved, and thus the nature of analysis necessary to understand them, will not make these questions any less confusing and contradictory. Rather, it creates a template for understanding why these issues are so difficult — because they are taking place in two or more completely different ways, in completely different places.
When the feminist revolution hit, and waves of women stormed into the previously male-dominated workplace, many thought it was just a matter of time until women were equally represented in all fields, except perhaps for those involving the lifting of heavy objects. But in STEM fields, and some others, female representation remains stubbornly low, while in many more traditionally feminine fields, women are the overwhelming majority.
Some feminists have claimed that this is due to male oppression, which may certainly have been true sixty years ago, but seems far less plausible now.
Recently, psychology has turned to the level of individual analysis to explain this phenomenon. Women, Jordan Peterson and many others tell us, are on the average more interested in people, while men are more interested in things. Thus, it seems reasonable to explain the accumulation of women in people-related jobs, and of men in more technical professions, by reference to the individual preferences of workplace participants.
Problem is, this level of analysis is again like the chemist, studying water, who precludes the existence of waves. Large groups of people do not behave the same as individuals, as anyone familiar with peer pressure and group psychology could observe, from school teachers to politicians to stand up comics. Obviously individual temperaments and preferences are enormously important, as there cannot be a forest without trees. But is a tree an accurate model of a forest? An individual water molecule an accurate model of an ocean? There are other forces at work here, for which no field of science or social study that I’m aware of truly possesses the tools to measure.
Cracks appear in the individual-preeminent gender model of analysis if you know where to look.
Were one to list individual gender preferences, a love of participation in contact sports would surely be assigned primarily to men. Men are measurably more aggressive, on average, and love crashing into each other more than women do. How, then, to explain the enormous surge of female participation in Australian Rules Football, where female junior numbers are in many parts of Australia approaching the levels of males? Australian Rules Football is a ferociously physical sport, with no pads or offside rule, so the hits could come from anywhere, frequently at high speed.
Rock music is another field overwhelmingly male-dominated in the West. There is obviously no doubt that women are capable of playing rock music at very high levels, given that so many of the best classical musicians today are women — a musical genre that is frequently, if not always, of superior technical difficulty. Yet since its inception, women appear to have chosen, rather than been forced, to stay off the rock-and-roll stage.
On the individual-level of analysis, this seems predictable. Much has been remarked about how rock music functions as a male mating ritual, with electric guitars as penis extensions, to be thrust in the willing direction of women in the audience. Clearly if any cultural field qualifies for an explanation driven by the psychological makeup of individual participants, this is it.
Save that the argument suffers from one enormous, paradigm-destroying exception — the entire nation of Japan. Rock music in Japan probably captures no greater share of the music audience than it does in the West, but the participation of all-female bands, and individual female musicians in mixed-gender bands, is so common today as to be unremarkable. Furthermore, while most female musicians in Western rock bands seem to be either singers or bass players, in Japan they run the gamut from drummers to solo-shredding lead guitarists as well.
If the explanation for rock-and-roll’s overwhelmingly male character in Western nations is to be found on the individual genetic level, then one must obviously believe that Japanese women are born with a rock-and-roll gene that Western women lack. This is a pretty cool idea, but by my understanding of genetics, improbable.
A third example can be found in Indian commercial airline pilots, where women account for %15 of the Indian total, compared to the global average of %5 (%5.5 in the USA). This crack in the individualist argument is less clear, as psychologists have observed previously that women in less developed nations will often pursue traditionally ‘male’ professions in greater numbers, but that the ratio of female participants actually declines in more developed nations, contrary to what many feminists previously predicted would happen.
The argument made for this phenomenon is that in poor nations, women have less freedom to pursue their interests due to financial insecurity, and will thus take jobs in fields outside those natural interests in exchange for greater pay. With greater financial freedom, however, women in developed nations will prefer the pay cut in exchange for taking jobs closer to something approaching the mean average of female preference.
This sets us up for an opportunity to make predictions, or even to place bets, on future outcomes in real time. The psychologists, operating at the individual level of analysis, will no doubt predict that the number of Indian female pilots will fall as India develops, and the world’s newly most populous nation certainly looks set to develop rapidly for the next few decades.
On the other hand, I’m inclined to predict that the number of female pilots in India will rise and keep rising, irrespective of India’s growth trajectory. Already that female percentage is up %3 from %12 as recently as 2021, a trajectory that may see Indian female pilots accounting for a quarter or even a third of all pilots within ten years or so, a number extraordinarily beyond the global average. To me, these look like ocean waves large enough to surf on.
There are good arguments to be made about why so many Australian girls play a hard-hitting contact sport, or Japanese women play rock music, or Indian women fly airliners, that make compelling explanations. All of them are descriptions of large-scale social phenomena, rather than individual psychological phenomena. Here are just a small number;
Girls love friendships, and contact sports breed closer friendships among teammates than non-contact sports through the greater appearance of danger. Australian girls playing Australian football have reported anecdotally that they make a better quality and number of friends (due to the large numbers of players on an Australian football field) than in other sports. Yes, fear-bonding with friends is partly an individual psychological thing, but it takes an organised sport, and large groups of people in specific circumstances, to make it happen.
Plus, there is also the fact that Australian Rules football is an endurance and skills-based sport just as much as a contact sport. This requires a lean body-type that is a much easier sell to young women as an athletic ideal than the heavy-set, powerful physique required by most other contact sports.
Japan has a much more well-developed system of musical education than any Western nation, for which students gain academic credit. That system is co-educational, and offers instruction in all popular music forms, including rock. It, plus some prominent cultural touchstones (the anime show K-ON being one, where a group of high-school girls form a rock band) appears to have a played a large role in rock music becoming co-ed like every other arts stream in Japan’s school system.
And in India, economic development is just now hitting a point where flying has become a status symbol, indicating that a person is wealthy enough to afford the ticket. Airline pilots thus possess a glamour in India that perhaps only existed in the West until the ’70s, when flying indicated a similar social status. But in the ’70s, female airline pilots were largely unthinkable, and by the time that changed, the moment was passed, and the glamour faded. India is thus perhaps the only nation where the rise of women to the workforce in large numbers, and the glamorous status of flying, have coincided with a massive boom in commercial aviation. Also, having discovered this story, the Indian media have promoted female aviators in a way that Western media never did, making it impossible for young Indian women seeking good jobs to miss.
These are more educated guesses than scientific fact, but for the purposes of this article, they are illustrative of the ocean waves that the chemistry analysis of water failed to predict. Societies are complicated, and many things happen to individuals living in those societies that shape their lives far beyond the rudiments of a psychological survey.
A lot of individual-level analysis aimed at gender, in my opinion, is simply making category errors driven by too small a frame of reference at a too-low complexity level. Contact sports don’t necessarily require the player to be aggressive — she might just be there for friends. Neither does rock music require macho hyper-sexuality — given sufficient exposure to it, many women just love the energy. Contrary to what people unfamiliar with modern aviation might think, being a pilot these days has little more to do with things, and technical skills, than it has to do with people and communication skills, which given the increasing levels of automation in the cockpit is perhaps the primary reason for the modern pilot’s continued existence.
Jobs with many traditionally ‘feminine’ characteristics don’t become ‘masculine’ just because a psychologist says they are. They may be perceived to be masculine, in spite of their many feminine characteristics, but again, that’s a category error. I’m caffeine-free. Drinking it gives me bad headaches and other things. I’m told decaf is caffeine-free, but that’s a category error, because when I drink it, headaches, poor sleep, etc. You can call something whatever you like, but real world factors will eventually prove you wrong. Substance drives the world, not labels.
The inability to distinguish between different levels of complexity plays a role in creating false labels, by creating the appearance of congruities at one level that would be dispelled at the next, if only an observer thought to look. The study of individual characteristics alone makes for an incomplete picture. Societies generate currents and waves in a similar way to oceans, and the over-obsession with the individual can lead us to assume things about natural social outcomes that are not necessarily true.
The point here is not to claim that traditional expectations of gender play no role in currently observed outcomes. It’s to claim that all of those traditional expectations of gender may in fact be true, and yet outcomes may still surprise and confound, as in all of the above examples, because those traditional expectations, and their final outcomes, manifest at entirely separate levels of social complexity. As societies become more complicated, we should expect these counter-intuitive results to increase, not as a function of social justice, but as a function of that complexity.
As modern society increases in complexity, cause-and-effect becomes less intuitive to the human brain. Living in hunter gatherer societies, cause-and-effect was much more simple. If you picked up a rock, and dropped it, the human brain would logically expect the rock to fall straight down, thanks to long experience of watching rocks, and other dropped objects, doing exactly that.
But in modern societies, objects and events put in motion are far less predictable. The consequence is often the equivalent of picking up the rock, and being astonished when it falls sideways, or levitates impossibly in the air.
This phenomenon is everywhere, and caused often by the inability of observers to distinguish between differing levels of complexity within the process being observed. It’s particularly common in economics, where nearly everything is counter-intuitive, from the fact that printing more money actually makes people poorer, to the fact that raising taxes often results in less revenue as businesses shut down or move elsewhere. The primitive human brain observes a thing that seems obvious at first glance (more money equals more wealth) and is then astonished when the opposite happens, because it fails to comprehend that the ‘obvious’ remedial action is only the first in a sequence of increasingly complex events, most of which happen off-stage.
I’m certain that many readers will be able to name their own examples of counter-intuitive phenomena they’ve experienced in their own work or life. Someone should really compile them into a single resource, because I’m sure the many and varied examples would be fascinating, if written up by people with far more expertise in those fields than I. Here, however, are a few of my favourites.
In very early aviation, the most deadly thing that could happen to a pilot was for his airplane to fall into a spin. It’s called ‘falling’ into a spin because that’s exactly what happens. Wings generate lift by remaining level with the ground, so they can directly counter the downward force of gravity. When an airplane spins, its wings are no longer consistently generating lift in the desired direction, and so the airplane literally falls from the sky.
In the very early days, when airplanes were made of wood, fabric and wires, spins were nearly always fatal. Partly this was because airplanes were not very strong, and could fall apart when subjected to involuntary violent manoeuvres, but mostly because pilots had little idea how to get out of a spin once inside one.
This was made worse by the fact that a pilot’s intuitive response was almost always wrong. First, early pilots would pull back on the stick, to bring the airplane’s nose up and avoid crashing into the ground. Secondly, pilots would push the stick in the opposite direction to which the airplane was spinning. This seems entirely logical, as this is what the control stick is for — to tilt the wings to one side or the other, and commence a turn.
Neither worked, and many pilots died because they were unaware of how the complex forces working upon their machine contrived to make the most obvious responses ineffective.
Eventually it was discovered that increased airspeed is essential to recover from spins, so pilots should not attempt to immediately pull up. Instead, they should apply full opposite rudder (which controls sideways yaw), wait for the spin to neutralise, and only then pull back on the stick once airspeed has increased and wings become levelled. Once this method was discovered, spins decreased in lethality until they became, and remain today, only fatal when entered at an altitude too low to recover from.
Why does opposite rudder work when the ailerons operated by the control stick do not? I don’t know, I’m not an aerodynamics expert. But that’s the point, and is much of the reason why experts became more necessary in modern civilisation in the first place — because when complex systems are encountered, expertise drawn from the experience of many iterations becomes necessary, as intuitive guesses fail.
Some counter-intuitive things are so not because of complexity scaling, but because of human unfamiliarity — like plants that thrive instead of dying when pruned to the point of annihilation, or bears that try to eat you only if you run away from them, or wartime ambushes that should be attacked into rather than taken cover from. These are interesting, but not examples of counter-intuitiveness due to complexity.
In racecar driving, some forms of oversteer (drifting) require the driver to turn the steering wheel in the opposite direction to the way they are turning. In social media, applications designed ostensibly to increase social contact, friendship circles and thus emotional wellbeing have instead increased incidences of anti-social behaviour, depression and suicide. Widespread pornography, denounced by the political Right and Left in the ’80s as the precursor to everyone having too much sex, is now denounced by the Right in particular as a cause of people not having enough sex, leading to a declining birth rate. And in stock trading, just about everything most people instinctively do is wrong, most notably when joining in with panics or exuberance, or listening to anything suggested on business news channels.
All of these are examples not so much of false assumptions proven wrong, but rather of deductions that might have been correct at a lower level of complexity becoming incorrect at a higher level.
Some enormous portion of social analysis gets tangled in these confusions between one scale and the other, because analysts refuse to specify which scale they’re analysing, or even that a differentiation of scale exists. This in turn leads to situations where analysis becomes confused by the fact that correct answers to questions about social phenomena can be both ‘yes’ and ‘no’, due to the fact that what works at one level of complexity won’t work at another.
The control stick does bank the aircraft left or right, but not in spins. The steering wheel does turn the car in the direction of the wheel, but not in drifts. Social media in small scales can enhance emotional wellbeing, but in large scales becomes pathological. Pornography can increase libido, but also cause declines in birth-rate. And while the market crowd must be listened to, as it determines trading prices, it must rarely be respected, as the thing that most people are doing is rarely where the money is made, and is frequently where the greatest sums are lost.
This makes true expertise, in a modern context, a very hard sell. Simplicity sells, as it appeals to our emotional, narrative-driven brains. ‘Experts’ who pronounce things to be simple, and emotionally seductive, are granted the limelight by those who profit from ratings, clicks and views, while those pushing the more complicated, nuanced explanations are ignored or even punished.
Politicians in particular are condemned if they explain why things are complex, and praised if stating that they’re straight forward. As all social explanations become more complex in our ever-more technical society, we should sadly expect this disconnect between reality and popular messaging to increase as well.
Unless, of course, I’ve made a simplistic deduction based on current trends at one level of complexity, and missed others at a different level that will create a different outcome. Let’s hope so.