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Why does Complexity Increase in Life?

In our quest to explain the diversity of life, we have always stumbled when
faced with an intriguing question: why do more complex beings evolve from
simpler ones? This question was posed from the very earliest days of the
Theory of Evolution and was perceived as an argument against the theory
at the time.

With the passage of the years and the decades, many ideas were put forth
in an attempt to explain the increasing complexity.

The earliest of those efforts centered around adaptivity; mutations oc-

curred, and those that helped a species thrive would spread through the
species [Zimmer, 2013]. According to this idea, complexity was the result
of the fundamental processes of evolution: mutations and natural selection.
This continues to be the accepted view among most evolutionary biologists.

More recently, attempts have been made to create a universal complexity

theory that ties together more than one field. The Unified Theory of Com-
plex Systems Would be able to describe emergent complexity in computing,
economics, biology, and all other human pursuits [Horgan, 1995]. This idea
does not enjoy much support, however, due to its massive ambition. Several
scientists consider it too grand a vision to ever be realized [Horgan, 1995]. It
is not helped by the failure of other unified theories in other fields to be an-
alyzed and tested for their validity, most notably the Grand Unified Theory
and Theory of Everything.

Some scientists have attempted a less ambitious task of creating a defi-

nition for complexity that spans multiple fields. At least 31 definitions had
been suggested by 1995 [Horgan, 1995], many of them attempting to tie the
complexity of different types of systems to those of algorithms. However, a
frequent criticism of those efforts is that the complexity of a system is decided
by whoever is studying the system. Thus any attempt to create a unifying
quantitative measure is bound to fail.

A specific theory that tries to give a universal cause for complexity is self-
organized criticality, which posits that complexity grows in a way similar to
that in which a terrain develops; when items are dropped onto a pile, there is
going to be an avalanche at some point, and that will introduce some level of
complexity [Horgan, 1995]. Like the previous theories which try to unify the

complexity of several fields, this one is criticized for being too reductionist.

A modern theory that attempts to explain the complexity of life was

put forth by McShea and Brandon. This theory concerns itself with the
complexity of life alone, and defines complexity as the number of different
parts in an organ. For example, an eye is composed of a retina, a lens,
muscles, jelly, nerves, etc. That makes an eye more complex than a hand
[Zimmer, 2013].

The theory states that the complexity of living organisms grows not only
because of random mutations which are advantageous to the adaptation of
individuals, but that life has an inherent tendency to build complexity.

Given two close and similar parts within an organism, those parts are
likely to diverge as time goes on and become two different parts. When
that occurs, the complexity within the individual increases. If this increase
helps the individual, it is carried forward. If its negative, the change dies
out. In the majority of cases, however, the change is neutral and is thus a
possible stepping stone to higher complexity. This offers an explanation to
the increasing complexity of life [Zimmer, 2013].

The conclusion of the last theory mentioned above is a very exciting one.
If evidence is found to support it, the implications would be that life tends
toward complexity. Thus if we were to ever find life on another planet, it
would likely be a life as rich and as varied as life on Earth. It also raises the
question: how will the life we see around us today increase in complexity?

[Horgan, 1995] Horgan, J. (1995). Trends in complexity studies: From com-
plexity to perplexity. Scientific American, 272(6):104109.

[Zimmer, 2013] Zimmer, C. (2013). Evolution: The surprising origins of lifes

complexity. Scientific American, 309(2):8489.