Essay: A Brief History of Complexity

A Brief History of Complexity and Emergence

by Wendy Wheeler


I’m pretty sure that everyone reading this brief essay has, in fact, a pretty good idea of what a complex system is. A complex system has many interacting elements. Unlike, say, a line of simple cause and effect machines, the ‘billiard ball’ universe of Newtonian mechanics dominant for the past 400 years, relations in complex systems are overwhelmingly nonlinear.


This means that the information and communication flows that characterise complex nonlinear systems feed both forward and back on each other. Such systems are cybernetic. As described by Sue Gerhardt when discussing the close relation between feelings and biological systems (such as the human body and its semiotic environment or meaning umwelt), cybernetic relations can be understood as ‘conversations’.[1] Just as genuine conversations produce feedback which changes initial assumptions, so feedback loops change the interpretation and understanding of original percepts and responses, which then changes the subsequent response of the system, and so on.


Pierre Huyghe’s ‘Umwelt’ (2011) at Esther Schipper, Berlin, considered Jacob von Uexkull’s notion of ‘umwelt’ and the world as experienced through the perceptual apparatuses of different species.


This is how meaningful conversations work; they change and grow us. If we’re lucky (or if the system is in a state of creative, but homeostatic tension), such growth is directed towards the maintenance of healthy and sustaining feedback. Of course, the effect of many inputs is to create responses, or behaviours, that may be unpredictable. Such responses thus manifest emergent features: outputs alter inputs and interpretations (system behaviours) and thus the organism’s and system’s production of meanings in an ongoing conversation we call ‘learning’. Such learning systems – the immune system for example – both learn and, unsurprisingly, have memory.[2] Any complex system, whether natural or cultural, must not have its communication flows and interpretive activity shut down. That is akin to a kind of cancer, for then parts of the system can run out of control. Needless to say, this is a lesson which liberal societies have learnt, but which is now in danger of pathological breakdown. As Charles Sanders Peirce (1838-1914), the philosopher who reintroduced semiotic thinking in the nineteenth century, famously said, ‘Do not block the way of inquiry’.[3]


‘Every human relation is part of a complex system’


In other words, complex systems are made of features which are neither reducible simply to what we imagine to be a simple sum of the system parts, nor to simple mechanical linear cause and effect relations. While such systems can find complex system stability, and their parts may manifest patterned behaviours or responses, in fact they always exist close to the edge of chaos, and the potential for surprise is always present. The relation between chaotic phenomena and order may be at the very heart of different systems that nonetheless can feed into each other. Both informational and energy entropy are the price we pay for life’s persistent adaptability and creativity. Indeed, as I shall come on to say in relation to microcosmic quantum phenomena and the edge they share with macrocosmic Newtonian systems, this existing at the edge of chaos may be integral to the emergence of life from the non-living itself.[4]


Every human relation is part of a complex system. That’s why human relations are often so difficult (and often produce quite startling biological changes when poorly handled. See Gerhardt again); we can’t always predict with absolute accuracy the effects of any particular event or message. Humans are, themselves, complex systems nested in larger natural and social complex systems (ecologies). We can think of complex systems as running on habits, rather than laws. So it’s also worthwhile asking why we all value habit so much. Complex systems exist at the edge of chaos, meaning that pattern, or habit, saves energy in our interactions with the world and with each other by stabilising the system against this tendency to fall into chaos. The Newtonian world is orderly, but it may be edged by two other systems: quantum mechanics at one side and complex and emergent systems at the other.


The existence of complex systems has long been known to philosophers and theologians – although not named as such. To medieval philosophers, it was a matter of faith that ‘God moves in mysterious ways, His wonders to perform’. To those philosopher-theologians, faith meant that not everything about the cosmos and causation was transparent. One of the earliest medieval ‘systems thinkers’, John Scotus Eriugena (c.800-c.877 A.D.),[5] offers a prototype of a sort of ‘cybernetic’ dialecticism of the sort I have been discussing. We know that Eriugena’s system dialectic (another ‘system conversation’) influenced Georg Hegel and, through him, Karl Marx. In fact, medieval philosophers also had a strong sense of the natural and cultural worlds as information rich, or semiosic – i.e. rich in signs and meanings. These were to be understood through God’s two books: the book of scripture and the book of nature.[6] Both were to be read as profoundly informing.


However, the essentially non-semiotic and mechanistically deterministic worldview which marks the decline of medieval philosophy and the growth of the modern world with and after the Protestant Reformation, has been one in which the deterministic idea has dominated. This is the seventeenth-century European world associated with Francis Bacon’s groundbreaking 1620 book Novum Organum Scientiarum, and with the development of the empirical methods of reductionism and inductive testing found in modern science. It is also the seventeenth-century world associated with the radical scepticism of the philosophy of René Descartes. This had the unfortunate consequence of establishing the mistaken idea of mind-body dualism in which non-human (i.e. soulless) bodies were simply machines. As with the Reformation itself, both endeavours were driven by the intensification of long-standing anxieties concerning human capacities for discerning truth – hence the rise of radical scepticism.[7]

Diagrammatic illustration of a complex system.

The idea that all three systems – quantum, Newtonian and complex/emergent – are information systems has been growing throughout the twentieth, and now twenty-first, centuries. One important source of that thinking – in many ways marking a long-awaited return to understanding natural and cultural interactions in terms of complex sign communication systems, a process begun by Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914) in the nineteenth century – has been the mid-twentieth century development of cybernetics. From the Second World War onwards, and with the recognition of cybernetic information feedback systems, complex systems both physical and biological have slowly but increasingly been understood importantly as information systems. Building on the work of complex systems pioneers such as the biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy, those cyberneticians (as they came to be called) attending the Macy conferences between 1941 and 1960 were among the earliest groups of scientists looking for an interdisciplinary unifying principle of systems.


In his famous paper ‘A Mathematical Theory of Communication’ (1948), Claude Shannon tells his readers that he is not going to discuss meaning. The interest for him (he was employed by Bell Laboratories) lay in information understood as code and code-bearing channels. This is a technical understanding of information as information-carrying capacity. But  information is always also a matter of the communication of meanings via signs. For that we require a theory of semiotics. Complex communicational systems exchanging and interpreting meanings are complex semiotic systems: organism and bodies in their meaning-bearing environments. The biologist and ethnologist Jakob von Uexküll (1864-1944) called such a semiotic meaning surround, or environment, an umwelt.[8] Von Uexküll was also an early biocyberneticist. His concept  of the ‘functional cycle’ is precisely a cybernetic understanding of the circulation of feedback and feed forward sign systems.[9]


‘All life encodes something that turns out to be like natural stories. These are the biological metaphors that, as in a poem or a novel, build up, one after another, into an evolved organism’


A theory of natural signs – semiotics – began with the Greek physician Galen of Pergamon (130-210 A.D.) in the first century A.D. Thereafter a more general theory of signs was advanced in the thought of the great Christian philosopher Augustine of Hippo (354-430 A.D.). Augustine was an influence, perhaps unsurprisingly given their common Neoplatonism, on Eriugena. Augustine understood that cultural complex sign systems might function according to the same semiotic rules as natural symptomatologies (the signs of illness) did. Eriugena understood the dialectical ‘conversational’ nature of complex systems.


This general systems theory understanding of complex systems as informational is significant. By the second half of the twentieth century, many general systems theorists had come, in part, to the same effective conclusion (obviously not stated as such) as the medieval Neoplatonist philosophers: complex systems were dialectical, information and communication, systems. Indeed, philosopher of the history of semiotics, John Deely, has suggested that the final contribution of Eriugena’s work may ‘raise a suspicion that the importance of Erigena’s work may well pertain more to some postmodern future than to its Greco-Latin past’.[10] This seems right, not only to the extent that it describes the sources of a wrongly conceived deterministic dialecticism informing Hegelianism and thus Marxism, rather than one open to chance and semiotically interpretive evolution of informational complex systems, but also because it thus also offers a proto-cybernetic model of sorts.[11] Further, tying the growing complex biological and cultural systems philosophy of information to physics, the physicist John A. Wheeler described the universe in cybernetic terms as an information system which is ‘a self-excited circuit’.[12] We could describe an ecology in very similar ways.


However, as noted above, in between those medieval philosophers and present systems thinkers in physics and biology lay nearly 400 years that were dominated by mechanistic thinking and reductionism in science. By the nineteenth century this kind of deterministic thinking had crept into social and political thought also via Hegel and Marx. Reducing phenomena to their constituent parts in order better to understand them has been, and remains, an enormously important and powerful tool of modern science. However, not all phenomena are susceptible to full understanding in such non-holistic ways. As already noted, this is because complex systems produce emergent features which are not reducible simply to the simple sum of their parts. Thus the more holistic thinking of General Systems Theorists is often closely associated with organicism and evolutionary understandings of systems – both natural and cultural.


In multi-nodal systems characterised by communication flows and feedback – ecologies of mind and matter, let us call them – relations, causes and effects are so highly complex that perturbations can be very unpredictable in their outcomes. From the seventeenth century onwards, the mechanistic understanding of the Newtonian universe that gradually superseded earlier medieval fidelity recognised increasingly less mystery in the matter of nature. The cosmos was a great machine, albeit one set in motion by God’s almighty hand. But gradually, God dropped away. The great French mathematician and physicist Pierre-Simon Laplace was the first person to express the theory of causal determinism. Author of the five volume Celestial Mechanics which appeared between 1798 and 1827, it is reported that, when asked by Napoleon why he had not mentioned God in his works, Laplace replied ‘I had no need of that hypothesis.’


With the development of quantum mechanics at the beginning of the twentieth century, such confident certainty in simple cause and effect mechanism as the universal model was shaken. It is not that the quantum universe is wholly unpredictable; much of our technology makes use of its behaviours, but it does remain tantalisingly mysterious. Indeed, the work of physicist Roger Penrose and biologist and physician Stuart Hameroff suggests that quantum phenomena in microtubules surrounding neurons may be responsible for the collapse of the wave function as the cause, not the result, of consciousness.[13] Similarly, Life on the Edge: The Coming Age of Quantum Biology (2014) by physicist Jim Al-Khalili and geneticist Jonjoe McFadden argues that life itself may be a quantum biological phenomenon that springs from the intimate difference of two irreducibly different worlds of the Newtonian macrocosm and the quantum microcosm. It seems as though the leap across that edge of difference may be responsible for life as an emergent phenomenon in which biological identity is born.


It’s no coincidence that, when we talk about complex systems, we are talking about both the conservation and dissipation of energy (i.e. thermodynamics) and the use of information. The equations describing both are surprisingly similar. The physical systems which look most like living things – for example, tornadoes and whirlpools – seem to behave like living organisms because, just like living systems (organisms and ecologies), they are dissipative systems which borrow energy from their environments and disperse it as long as they persist. All closed thermodynamic systems lose energy over time. In other words, they are ruled by the iron law of entropy. The same is true of information systems. In information systems, the signal must be reboosted or reiterated in order for it to continue over space and time. But we don’t get either energy or information for free. This means that in the preservation of both life and information (which, as said, may well be more or less the same kinds of things) something must be lost. The thought experiment known as Maxwell’s Demon shows us that what is erased, or lost over time, from the physical and informational ordering of a system is memory. This strongly suggests that physical systems are, at the same time, also information systems. They seem to share very similar features.


‘There is no such thing as “just a metaphor”. Metaphor is real. It begins in our biology (and the biology of all living organisms) before it shows up in our mental lives and in our cultural transformations’


In thermodynamic systems, what is lost is energy, or heat, and information, or memory. A civilisational system wishing to preserve itself must, thus, be able to renew and save energy and also be able to preserve records. What gets passed on must be methods for the efficient preservation of shelter and food (i.e. energy sources) and the efficient preservation of history, and also rules for the preservation of effective rules and histories themselves. Since nature tends to preserve formal solutions to physical and evolutionary problems, we might expect that our biological evolutionary history would be repeated in some form in our cultural lives also. If, as biologist Lynn Margulis proposed, the primal emergence of life depends upon a meeting of differences in the emergence of biological identity via symbiogenesis,[14] we might expect that life and its evolutionary development in nature and culture would tend to repeat that play between difference and identity. Indeed, it looks like this is what happens. Not only the origins of complex cellular life, but also the relationship between umwelt pressures, cellular agency and DNA, appear to be governed in significant ways by that interplay of difference and similarity that humans call metaphor.


Metaphor is based on the identification of (new) similarities between different categories of being. It seems that searching for similarities in essentially different things or ideas is a fundamental organising principle not only of human mind, but of ‘cognition’ wherever it occurs (i.e. in all living things). On metaphor, the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur has noted that:


Can one not say that the strategy of language at work in metaphor consists in obliterating the logical and established frontiers of language, in order to bring to light new resemblances the previous classification kept us from seeing? In other words, the power of metaphor would be to break an old categorisation, in order to establish new logical frontiers on the ruins of their forerunners.[15]


The Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist Santiago Ramón y Cajal (1852-1934) was the first person to recognise neurons, which he saw in infinitesimally thin slices of brain tissue before drawing and photographing them.

Denis Noble’s similar description of resemblance (i.e. the work of metaphor) appears when he notes not only that organisms and their constituent parts such as cells have goal directed agency, but also that the basis upon which cells manage umwelt pressures and adaptive change is via the work of finding similarity, or resemblance in the midst of difference. Discussing organisms’ use of randomness to generate functionality, Noble points to the ways in which cells choose to harness stochasticity in order to adapt. He likens this to a fruit machine where the cell is able to ‘hold’, or retain, wanted genetic sequences whilst allowing room for random ‘spin’ in the hope that something will be found that will be similar enough to work with the ‘held’ DNA sequences.[16] This play of similarity and difference to produce new knowledge and insights is precisely the work of metaphor in human understanding. It’s precisely what human also do when trying to solve various practical and conceptual problems: ‘What is this like?’ is one of our most primal questions. In other words, there is no such thing as ‘just a metaphor’. Metaphor is real. It begins in our biology (and the biology of all living organisms) before it shows up in our mental lives and in our cultural transformations.


As I outline in my 2016 book Expecting the Earth: Life, Culture and Biosemiotics, all life does indeed encode something that turns out to be like natural stories. These are the biological metaphors that, as in a poem or a novel, build up, one after another, into an evolved organism: a coherent story that has functionality or, ‘makes sense’.[17] In Mind and Nature, Gregory Bateson writes:


Now I want to show you that whatever the word “story” means…, the fact of thinking in terms of stories does not isolate human beings as something separate from the starfish and the sea anemones, the coconut palms and the primroses. Rather, if the world be connected, if I am fundamentally right in what I am saying, then thinking in terms of stories must be shared by all mind or minds whether ours or those of redwood forests and sea anemones. Context and relevance must be characteristic not only of all so-called behavior (those stories which are projected out into ‘action’), but also of all those internal stories, the sequences of the building up of the sea anemone. Its embryology must somehow be made of the stuff of stories. And behind that, again, the evolutionary process through millions of generations whereby the sea anemone, like you and me, came to be – that process, too, must be the stuff of stories. There must be relevance in every step of phylogeny and among the steps.[18]


Nature, said the great biologist François Jacob, is a bodger and a tinkerer. When something – a genetically encoded sequence in DNA, a function, a biological meaning – no longer works, evolutionary nature will light upon something sufficiently similar that can do the same job. Of course, that introduction of difference in the similar introduces other kinds of newness, and thus the story of life twists and turns on its sometimes chance-like way into the future. Thus we can talk about how natural metaphors and stories become cultural ones for Homo sapiens. Our first human encodings lie in sacred stories, myth, religion and folk tales. Their transformations are made by metaphors. As many biologists have noted, Noble, Khalili and McFadden included, life is much more like a symphony than an iron machine. Above all, emergence in complex living systems is an act of biological and cultural interpretation constrained by the boundaries of evolutionary reality on planet Earth in the midst of a cosmos which may also be evolving.


Wendy Wheeler is Emeritus Professor of English Literature and Cultural Inquiry at London Metropolitan University, Wheeler’s most recent book Expecting the Earth: Life, Culture, Biosemiotics (2016), formulates a history and theory of biosemiotic and proto-biosemiotic thinking in order to open up new possibilities of contemporary social, philosophical, aesthetic and technological engagement.






[1] On how the new systems ‘paradigm’ helps us think about relations, see Sue Gerhardt, Why Love Matters: how affection shapes a baby’s brain, London & New York: Routledge, 2004, p.8ff. On thinking about ecological and body-mind relations in complex systems as ‘conversations’, see Gerhardt, op. cit., chapter 3: ‘Corrosive Cortisol’.

[2] On mind and immune system interaction, see Gerhardt ibid.; For general biological systems and emergence discussion, see also Denis Noble, chapter 2: ‘Biological Scales and Levels’ in D. Noble, Dance to the Tune of Life: Biological Relativity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017.

[3] Charles Sanders Peirce, ‘The First Rule of Logic’, The Essential Peirce: Selected Philosophical Writings, Vol 2 (1893-1913), ed. The Peirce Edition Project, Bloomington & Indianapolis, 1998. p.48.

[4] Jim Al-Khalili & Jonjoe McFadden, Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology, London: Bantam Press, 2014.

[5] Not to be confused with John Duns Scotus, a different and later medieval philosopher.

[6] See Wendy Wheeler, Expecting the Earth: Life/Culture/Biosemiotics, London: Lawrence & Wishart, 2016; Peter Harrison, The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

[7] For a detailed discussion of these developments, see Wendy Wheeler, chapter 2: ‘The Wrecked Vessel and Earth Repudiation: Gnosticism, Nominalism and the Semiotic Scaffolding of Modern Scientific Consciousness’ in W. Wheeler, Expecting the Earth: Life/Culture/Biosemiotics, op. cit.

[8] Jakob von Uexküll, ‘A Stroll through the Worlds of Animals and Men: A Picture Book of Invisible Worlds’. Ed. and tr. C.H. Schiller, Instinctive Behavior: The Development of a Modern Concept. New York: International Universities Press, 1957; Uexküll, J. von. (1982 [1940]). ‘The Theory of Meaning’. Semiotica. Vol. 42 No. 1: pp.25-87.

[9] Kalevi Kull, ‘Jakob von Uexküll: An Introduction’. Semiotica 134, 1/4 (2001), 1-59. Article available online at

[10] John Deely, chapter 5: ‘The Five Centuries of Darkness: c.525-1025’ in J. Deely, Medieval Philosophy Redefined: The Development of Cenoscopic Science, AD354 to 1644 (From the Birth of Augustine to the Death of Poinsot), Scranton & London: University of Scranton Press, p.112.

[11] On the contribution of Eriugena’s dialectical model to Hegelian and thus Marxist philosophy, see chapter 1: ‘The Origins of Dialectic’ in Leszek Kolakowski, Main Currents of Marxism: The Founders, tr. P.S. Falla, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978.

[12] John A. Wheeler, ‘How Come the Quantum?’, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 12/1986, Vol.480, pp.304-316.

[13] Stuart Hameroff, 2013. ‘Quantum Cognition and Brain Microtubules’.

[14] Lynn Margulis, The Symbiotic Planet: A New Look at Evolution, London: Phoenix, 1999.

[15] Paul Ricoeur, The Rule of Metaphor: The Creation of Meaning in Language. [1975 La métaphore vive],Tr. R. Czerny with K. McLaughlin and J. Costello. London: Routledge, 2003, p.233.

[16] Denis Noble, Voices from Oxford Lecture to The Physiological Society on Dance to the Tune of Life: See also, Denis Noble, Dance to the Tune of Life: Biological Relativity. Op. Cit. See also Karl Popper’s little known intervention in the mistakes made by Neo-Darwinism and its genetic reductionist and determinist principles in a lecture to The Royal Society – ‘A New Interpretation of Darwinism’ in 1986. In this regard, see Hans-Joachim Niemann, Karl Popper and the Two New Secrets of Life, Tubingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2014. A discussion of the latter by D. Noble, can be found in Noble, op. cit., chapter 7: Dancing Nucleotides – Natural Genetic Engineering, esp. pp.197-200.

[17] On natural stories, see Jesper Hoffmeyer, A Legacy for Living Systems: Gregory Bateson as Precursor to Biosemiotics. Dordrecht: Springer, 2008.

[18] Gregory Bateson, Mind and Nature: a Necessary Unity, Cresskill N.J.: Hampton Press, 2002 (orig. 1979), pp.12-13. Also quoted in Jesper Hoffmeyer, ‘Introduction: Bateson the Precursor’ in, J. Hoffmeyer, ed. A Legacy for Living Systems: Gregory Bateson as Precursor to Biosemiotics, Dordrecht: Springer, 2008. p.2.

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