Evolving Complexity

Reply Tue 13 May, 2003 06:25 pm
It's a given within the theory of evolution, that the process of evolution itself doesn't work towards any particular goal in a finite sense.

In other words, the process of evolution on Earth didn't start out trying to produce whales or mice or oak trees or mushrooms, these are just the things which happen to have resulted from the process at this point in time.

However, there still seems to be some question as to whether most evolving systems lead to an increase in complexity in a general sense. Most people would say that there has definitely been an increase in biological complexity on this planet. Even if the resultant designs were not planned, they are in general, more complex than their predecessors. But
is there really an overall increase in complexity? And if so, why?

The theory of evolution by means of natural selection says something about the survival of relative fitness, but it doesn't say anything about survival of the more complex. So why would there be an increase in overall complexity?

The following link (which is long; I'm sorry) details the basic arguments of this discussion. It may also provide the answers to the questions, or maybe just points for debate.

If you don't want to read the whole thing, then read the intro and the conclusion for a quick summary.


The questions in this discussion are focused on biological evolution, but need not be restricted to this particular evolved system. The evolution of human culture as well as the evolution of technological systems (computers/networks/information systems) appear to show the same increase in complexity, though on a much tighter time line.

The article above may address the questions of "Is there an increase in complexity as a result of evolutionary systems", "And, what are the mechanisms which cause the increase?"

But it doesn't look beyond those questions to speculate on what it means in the scheme of things, if all the processes of natural evolution tend to result in an increase of complexity. What then?
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Reply Tue 13 May, 2003 07:50 pm
On a molecular level like a virus being resistant to certain antibiotics IMO you have to say yes, at some point it must be extinction for our species.
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satt fs
Reply Wed 14 May, 2003 06:26 am
As Pascal's triangle shows, the number of unit elements increases the possible number of combinations increases. For example,


nCp: number of cases

From 4 take 2:
6 (cases)
From 8 take 4:
From 16 take 8:
From 32 take 16:
From 64 take 32:
(This is not Pascal's triangle itself.)

With the increase in the number of the population, possiblity of combinations increases dramatically. It is natural to expect the augmentation of complexity.

One of remarkable things is, on the contrary, that in the cultural aspects languages seem to have a tendency to become more simple, both in grammar and pronunciation, as time goes on.
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Reply Wed 14 May, 2003 07:54 am
This is old news much better said by MAyr. Its not a subject thats attainable by a simple expansion. Remember the genomes of animals preserve the genomes of the parent species. So from data where we can see evolution, like in cichlid fish and pongids (my Gould quote about bookkeeping) shows that the genome of the surviving species across any of the mass extinction boundaries preserves some of the precedents genome. It does it in no specific plan or order, its just a "lucky break"
As Dave Raup said, "Weve seen increase in complex forms many times in earths history".Each time life gets more complex, it increases its chances to get knocked off in a minor environmental change.
For example, by the end of the Cretaceous, dinosaurs had already dwindled down to a few top species with large numbers. This is a dangerous place to be , evolutionally speaking. For if the environment changes beyond a nice adaptation range for the living species, they get whacked. So the Alvarez theory of the "Comet of Doom" at the Cretaceous end, may have been nothing more than a terminal event that capped the liives of the dinosaurs.
RAup always said that , of the dinosaurs extinction
"Dinosaurs were a bad idea to start with , and they had gone on quite long enough" Now thats science.
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Reply Wed 14 May, 2003 09:42 am
I'm a neophyte in the realm of Complexity but very interested. In reading the article it struck me that I could view the topic in two very different ways.

As each species developed there were mutations and evolutionary gains. The simple evolved into the more complex on an individual basis.

At the same time thousands of species have died out alltogether - many more so in the history of our planet, than currently exist so there is a lower total number of classifiable species in existance. That would seem to make the overall less complex.

Instead of having billions of simple life forms we have fewer, but more individually complex, life forms. Would it be totally out to lunch to suggest that the general level of complexity is in stasis?
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Reply Wed 14 May, 2003 09:04 pm
Fishin-an estimate on total number of living species is about 50 million.. Based on the relationship among similar groups of animals through time and the occurences of groups of fossils (and estimating the number of species of intermediates that arent seen in fossils), that number is between 0.1 and 0.5 PERCENT of all the species that ever lived. Nothing is in stasis, neither speciation, nor extinction.
We are blamed for the causation of extinction of numbers of animals and plants. The act of extinction creates new niches left open and some organism will begin to fill it.
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Reply Wed 14 May, 2003 09:52 pm
Why can't the general complexity level remain in stasis ? You say nothing remains in stasis but that isn't quite true. Energy can not be created nor destroyed. While energy can be converted in form, the total energy level of the uninverse remains a constant.

If a single celled species evolves into a species with 10 cells and forces 9 other single celled species into extinction as a result, what is the overall effect? Is one 10 celled species more or less complex than 10 different single celled species in the overall picture? If the net result in the general complexity level of the universe (or on our planet..) is a zero as a result of the change then you have stasis.
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Reply Fri 16 May, 2003 07:03 am
I've got a book for you on this very subject.

The Cooperative Gene by Mark Ridley. 100% on-point re what you're talking about.
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Reply Fri 16 May, 2003 04:40 pm
fishin--good ideas, however, no evidence to support your point. Evolution of organisms just is not in stasis.
read Mayr "What Evolution Is"

Gould and Eldridge talked about long periods of stasis punctuated by rapid evolution. This has shown not to be true. Especially is viewed in light of the planet today.

Theres no reason why everything you say couldnt happen. Its just not.
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Reply Fri 16 May, 2003 07:38 pm

You may be a neophyte, but you make some good points.

It isn't easy to define "comlexity" at such a large scale. As you suggest... what *if* one multi-cell organism replaces thousands of single cells? How did those thousand cells work in their environment, vs how the same thousand work in their multi-cellular community? Has complexity increased? It probably all depends on how you define complexity, and within what context.


I always love your input, but after having read the article referenced, are you sure you know the answers? There are a lot of debatable points buried there.

All that having been said... my personal opinion is that I *do* believe there is an increase in complexity on this planet, and within the baryonic universe (atoms and such). I'm not so sure there's an overall increase on a "cosmic" (cosmos=dark energy making up a majority of *stuff*) scale, because I suspect that *information* is a little bit like *energy*, in that it cannot be created or destroyed. it only changes shape, and accumulates unevenly in the Universe.
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Reply Tue 20 May, 2003 06:15 am
Re: Evolving Complexity
rosborne979 wrote:
But is there really an overall increase in complexity? And if so, why?

Actually, the increase in average complexity isn't that impressive. After all, most organisms in the world are viruses and bacteria, which are no more complex today than they were a billion years ago. What has increased, however, is the maximum complexity of organisms that have lived at any given time.

This increase in complexity is possible for two reasons. First, there are ecological niches that can be filled out by complex organisms but not by simple organisms. Second, evolution favors genes which produce organisms that fit well into their environment. Because other implementations of the same gene are part of that enviornment, genes which produce organisms who cooperate with one another can have a selective advantage over genes that don't. Carry that cooperation to an extreme, and you get multicellular organisms.

Moreover, for any given gene, organisms produced by other genes are also part of their selective environment. Therefore, by the same logic as in the above case, genes which "are nice to each other" can have a selective advantage over those who don't cooperate well. That kind of cooperation created the kind of symbiosis that gave our cells mitochondriae and our intestines bacteria that help us digest.

This phenomenon is discussed in great detail in Richard Dawkins' The selfish gene.

Hope that helped

-- Thomas
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Reply Tue 20 May, 2003 07:09 am
Evolving Complexity
Differing factors affect evolution. An example is the fossilds found in Iceland of mammoths. Since they were in an environment where migration was not an option and the food supply dwindled a dwarf mammoth evolved in order to sustain a viable population but reduce the intake per capita.
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Reply Sat 24 May, 2003 10:54 am
A most important factor in complexity, especially the "limits" of complexity, is feedback systems. The greater the degree of complexity, the greater the need for a functional range of feedback systems, to regulate, and control various functions in concert with others, so the "whole" functions without detrimental variations in functional values from the various component parts; organs, body systems, etc. With increasing feedback complexity comes a relative increase in breakdown, and partial "downtime" interuptions which can be detrimental to the suvival of the mechanism as a whole. Thus there is an optimum level of relative complexity vs the frequency or "likelyhood" of failure which rises with the complexity of any organism, or mechanism produced.
As for the suggestion that our affecting the extinction of species leaves many niches available, this is not the case as we are destroying the niche, not killing off the individuals of the specie.
As we simplify the complexity of the biosphere of this planet we will shrink the potential complexity of special differentiation possible.
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