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Complexity in the absence of design: the very idea

Complexity in the absence of design: the very idea

Before Darwin, the observation of complexity and particularly complexity which appears to have some purpose, in any aspect of the world, was typically assumed to imply the existence of a designer, who created that complexity.

William Paley (1743-1805) in his book Natural Theology famously noted that, on observing the elaborate mechanism of a watch and that this mechanism serves the purpose of accurately telling the time, we naturally infer the existence of a watchmaker. By analogy, Paley argued, observing the far greater complexity of plants and animals should imply that these two have been designed with constructive with deliberate intelligence: that is, we should justifiably infer the existence of an intelligent Creator.

Charles Darwin’s (1809-1882) spectacular intellectual achievement was to show, at least in principle, how purposeful complexity can arise without a designer through processes of variation, selection and heredity. So, for example, if moths vary in colour; moths that are better camouflaged reproduce more than those that are not (e.g. are selected) and their offspring inherit the camouflage colour, then, over two successive generations, the population of moths will become well camouflaged (colours which yield poor camouflaging will largely have been eliminated). Darwin argued that the astonishing complexity of an entire organism can arise via the same process, through a sequence of small steps, each making the organism better designed to cope with its environment and to reproduce more successfully.

We may be equally entranced by the complexity not just of the natural world, but of the world of human culture. We observe the astonishing complexity of human language, customs, conventions, economy and society. Complexity which, again, appears to have some purpose, for language: to convey information; for customs and conventions: to regulate behaviour and maintain social order; for the economy: to generate efficiently the goods and services that people want and so on. It is equally natural to imagine that these too must have an intelligent designer or designers.

Here, too, a great deal of interest has centred on how such phenomena can arise without design and after all most aspects of human language, culture and society are far too complicated for any of us to understand, let alone design.

We shall discuss two ways in which purposeful complexity can arise in a social world without a designer. The first parallels Darwin’s theory of natural selection: the idea is that languages, customs, conventions can ‘evolve’ through a process of cultural (rather than natural) selection, depending on how well they are reproduced by successive generations. Language provides a particularly clear case: this historical study of language change shows continual variation and selection of that variation (some words, shortened forms, pronunciations, etc. are selectively preferred over others), which is then transmitted to future generations of language learners. Note that this is very different from biological evolution, of course: rather than our brains evolving through natural selection over genes, our language, customs, conventions etc. are evolving through cultural selection.

The second way in which complexity can arise in society without a designer is generated through the operation of markets. Rather than tracing back to Darwin, this line of thinking goes back to the great economist and philosopher Adam Smith’s (1723-1790) concept of ‘The Invisible Hand’, the hidden process that allows each of the participants in a market economy to contribute to the welfare of others even when pursuing their own self-interests, as he explains in the following quotes.

The Wealth of Nations:

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our necessities but of their advantages.

The Theory of Moral Sentiments:

Every individual… neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it… he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention.

The same line of thought has been developed further by the Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek (1899-1992), in his notion that prices convey the information that orders the activities in the economy appropriately, so that, to choose a somewhat fanciful example - a sudden fashion for emeralds in Hong Kong will push up the price of emeralds and hence lead to additional production in the emerald mines of Columbia (and this will work perfectly well even if the wealthy buyers in Hong Kong know nothing about where their emerald’s come from and the miners in Colombia knowing nothing about where their emeralds are sold). The change in price is, so the story goes, enough to match up supply and demand.

So we have at least two ways in which apparently purposeful complexity can arise in society, without being the product of deliberate design: we might call these the evolutionary and economic routes to complexity.

Of course, perhaps there are other routes to the spontaneous emergence of complexity. And we should certainly not underplay the role of deliberate (re)design of human society: we can attempt to shape our society by passing laws, actively attempting to change attitudes, implementing, government policies and so on. Such attempts to shape and regulate our own society are hugely important.

It may be more appropriate, though, we think of these deliberate actions as attempts to push a complex and spontaneous process along a particular direction (typically with all sorts of unexpected and unintended consequences), rather than providing a blueprint for society.

Indeed, arguably, the history of attempts to design languages, cities, or entire societies according to central plan has not been a happy one, whether we are thinking of the legacy of Esperanto, Le Corbusier or of the Soviet 5-year plan.

Now how does all this connect with the idea that the mind is flat? The link is a simple one. It is that the meaning and justification of many of the things we do, comes from the complicated patterns of language, convention, culture, and society, not from inside our own minds.

Let’s consider a couple of examples, one focusing on cultural evolution and one focusing on invisible hand.

For the first case, consider crafts, such as baking, cooking or weaving. This involves highly complex sequential processes, which can take a long time to learn. But most of us can justify each step in the process only in the vaguest terms. Why do we use these particular ingredients? Why do we add the yeast at this point rather than earlier or later? What does yeast really do anyway? What is the point of kneading? And so on? The answers to these questions require quite sophisticated science, but which most of us, certainly including me, are pretty much utterly ignorant.

Our understanding of cookery is a bit like our understanding the air conditioner. We know a bit, enough to know what to do, not what not to (e.g. we know that the air conditioner cools us down; we know the yeast makes bread rise, but we have no idea how). So, within our own minds, most cooking actions do not have a deep justification at all: we do it this way, because we have always done it this way and this is the way we were told to do it.

But, of course, most aspects of the procedure that we go through, rather slavishly, do have a justification: they do make sense! If we did things much differently, we would get a different and most the time, inferior, result. The reason that these procedures make sense is, to some extent at least, because of forces of cultural evolution: bad variations of the procedure get abandoned; good variations are repeated. Now, of course, people engaged in craft activities do engage in creative experimentation; they fuse together different methods to see what works and they actively and deliberately learn from their mistakes. The collective effect of these cultural forces is amazing.

But it is achieved through a collective process typically over many generations, which no individual understands or can really justify. Even with our ‘flat minds,’ we are still able to make soufflés and knit sweaters, even though we quite literally have almost no idea why we are doing what we are doing.

Next, consider the astonishing global collaboration across many individuals required to make even the simplest modern artefact. The wonderful essay ‘I, Pencil’ by the economist Leonard Read imagines a pencil narrating its staggering complex origins and noting while a pencil seems such a simple thing, that ‘…not a single person on the face of this earth knows how to make me’.

Read was an advocate of the idea that markets should be left to themselves, rather than centrally planned. Of course, his point about the power of markets as sources of spontaneous organisation still holds, even if one suspects that markets needs to be pretty severely controlled, regulated and supplemented. So you do not, of course, have to buy in to Read’s political agenda, which lurks close to the surface in places. But that is beyond our scope here, of course.

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This article is from the free online course:

The Mind is Flat: the Shocking Shallowness of Human Psychology

The University of Warwick

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