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What invisible laws govern the human circulatory system, coordinating hierarchical networks of blood vessels as they pump blood throughout the human body? What shapes the exquisite flocking patterns of birds in a swarm, swaying in unison like a sheet in the breeze? This is complexity. And it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the field of complex systems research is just as expansive and, well — complex — as its name suggests. For centuries, scientists and philosophers alike have attempted to understand the nature of humanity and the existence of life in our universe. Stemming from this field of scholarship is complex adaptive systems theory, which provides a method for understanding the order that governs social and ecological systems, extending to both human and non-human populations. 

A new John Templeton Foundation-commissioned research paper produced by the Santa Fe Institute and written by Environment and Society scholar Dr. Stefani Crabtree delves deep into the field of complexity research, specifically examining how complex adaptive system science can be used to understand the cascading effects of choices made by individuals and societies, and how they come to shape our culture. At the outset of the review, Crabtree offers a broad definition, “A complex adaptive system is something that is greater than the sum of its parts that cannot be predicted based on the priors of its constituent units. There are actions and interactions among the units that can lead to non-linearities, where a system experiences something unpredictable — and emergent — behavior.”

The research review systematically follows a line of inquiry probing the question of humanity’s place in ecosystems and the principles of organization in our world. Crabtree spends a chapter respectively on each of the following questions: “Where do we come from?”, “What are we?”, and “Where are we going?”. In these chapters, she describes fascinating concordance in the development of ancient and modern cities, explores the impact of cultural and environmental constraints on the development of 81 different languages, and examines the position of humans in the food web. Ultimately, her conclusion reveals the value of complex adaptive systems science as a tool for understanding humanity, emphasizing that “a complex adaptive systems approach… can help us understand our place in the web of life, the ways we modify environments to our own needs, and how our cities, our relationships, and even our bodies scale according to universal principles.”

To learn more about complexity research, visit the landing page or read the full research review by Dr. Stefani Crabtree.

Read more from the Santa Fe Institute

This research review is the first installment in a three-part series of research reviews produced by the Santa Fe Institute and the John Templeton Foundation.

Stay tuned for the release of Part II in March 2022.