A Potted History Of Complexity Science: From 540m Years BPE to Present

A Chronological Presentation of Significant Events, Thought and People in the Context of Complexity Studies: Part 1: 540million years before present, to and including the 19th Century


This humongous and almost tongue in cheek blog post presents seemingly disconnected ideas about science and philosophy in chronological order in order to build to a creative crescendo of an introduction to complexity science. I have outlined key events in history, key people and their contributions to knowledge pertaining to these, actually, very related areas. This first part (it really was too big to present as one whole thing) covers the massive time period from 540 million years before our present era, to and including the 19th Century. This takes you through a potted history from the Cambrian Explosion up to and including the next big thing on the fossil record, Emile Durkheim.

Part 2 will give extra commentary on people, events and contributions framing the subsequent ‘timeline’ in the context of complexity studies and organization theory. The concluding part (part 2, which I will post another day) focuses on recent literature and events that connect ideas from complexity Studies with business strategy until 2002, which was when I first put this timeline together. It was quite a fun thing to do. I also used it to create a gargantuan wall chart, a visual mind map version of the same thing. The wall chart since became rather dog-eared and I had to throw it away, which is rather a shame. However, this remained in the appendix of my PhD nine month review. Enjoy! :-))

Whole Timeline Overview:

540 Million years before present Cambrian Explosion

427 BC – 347 BC – Plato, Greece.
384 BC – 322 BC – Aristotle, Greece.
900 AD – 1150 AD – The rapid rise of Chaco Canyonas an important regional centre.
1642 – 1727 – Isaac Newton, England
1646 – 1716 – Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Germany
1707 – 1778Carolus Linnaeus, Sweden
1723 – 1790 – Adam Smith, Political Economist, Scotland.
1809 – 1882 – Charles Robert Darwin, England 
1815 – 1864 – George Boole, England
1849 WashingtonExpedition to Chaco Canyon.
1867 – Karl Marx, Philosopher-Economist, Germany
1877 USGeological survey to Chaco Canyon
1879 – 1955 – Albert Einstein, Germany/Switzerland/US
1893 Emile Durkheim, Sociologist, France
1900s – 1950s: ‘Classical’ organization theory
1911 F. W. Taylor, ‘Founder of Scientific Management’, America
1919 – Henri Fayol, Engineer, CEO, and Administrative Theorist, France
1924 – Max Weber, Sociologist, Germany
1932 – Niels Bohr discovered the basic structure of the atom
1938ChesterBarnard, Management Theorist, America
1950s à‘Modernist’ organization theory
Early 1960’s – Breakthroughs in genetic understanding
1961 – Conrad Waddington quote
1961 Stuart Kauffman goes to Oxford
1963 Brian Goodwin publishes his book, ‘Temporal Organization in Cells.’
1964 Stuart Kauffman at Berkeleyfor premedical education
1965 Stuart Kauffman, a 2ndyear med Student @ uni of California, San Fran’
1968 Ludwig von Bertalanffy
1971 – 1982 Multi-disciplinary research on Chaco Canyonbegins
1980s à  ‘Symbolic-interpretive’ organization theory
1983 Informal lunchtime discussions at Los Alamos National Laboratory
1987 Gleick, J. “Chaos: Making a new science.” Viking Penguin
1988 Pagels, H. “The Dreams of Reason”.
1989 October 20; Science. Cambridge University geologist Simon Conway Morris, ‘Burgess Shale Faunas and the Cambrian Explosion”
1990s à‘Postmodern’ organization theory
1990 Spring – Stuart Kauffman telephones Roger Lewin
1991 Conference: “Organization and Evolution of Southwestern Prehistoric Societies.”
1991 August 19 – J. Baden, The Wall Street Journal – Newspaper article
1992 Book by Lewin, R. “Complexity: Life at the edge of chaos.”
1992 The Harvard Business Review. ‘Is Management Still a Science?’ David Freedman,
1992 The Business Network – established by the Santa Fe Institute.
1995 P F Drucker, ‘Managing in a Time of Great Change’
1995 Stuart Kauffman became associated with Ernst & Young’s Centre for Business Innovation.
1995 June, Scientific American, “From Complexity to Perplexity”, J Hogan
1995 September. Unilever Research, Merseyside, UK, join SFI Business Network.
1996 The Mckinsey Quarterly, 1996, Number 1, 6 & 15. “Spider Versus Spider”. J Hagel
1996 A Brandenburger and B Nalebuff, ‘Co-opetition’, New York: Doubleday Currency, 1996.
1996 Harvard Business Review. Article written by Brian Arthur of Santa Fe Institute
1996 March. American Programmer. “Strategic Planning in the Contemporary World”. C. Crook.
1996 July 17-19 – CBIConference: Embracing Complexity 1. San Francisco, CA.
1996-8 Study of companies using complexity ideas.
1997 May 1 – Roger Lewin interviews Stuart Kauffman, in Cambridge, MA. 
1997 June. Ruggles & Little: “” “s Littles, : “mbracing Complexity 5: Growing the Adaptive Organisation. x Adaptive Systems to Business a ‘any ways analogous Enabling Complex Adaptive Process through Knowledge Management 
1997 August 3-5 – CBIConference: Embracing Complexity 2, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
1997 September – BTexact Technologies, Ipswich UK, join SFI Business Network.
1998 January – Roger Lewin, Teresa Parker, Birute Regine: “Complexity Theory and the                                       Organisation: Beyond the Metaphor.”
1998 May 1 – Roger Lewin interviews Stuart Pimm
1998 August 2-4 – CBIConference: Embracing Complexity 3: Exploring the Application of Complex Adaptive Systems to Business. Cambridge, Massachusetts.
1998 winter. Sloan Management Review. ‘Strategy Innovation and Quest for Value’. G Hamel
1998 J H Holland, ‘Emergence: From Chaos to Order’. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1998.
1999 Lewin, R. “Complexity: Life at the edge of chaos.” 2nd ed.
1999 April 2 – Science.
1999 April 11 – Warsh, D. “Untangling Economic Complexity” in BostonGlobe, Sec. F, P1.
1999 July 25-27 – CBIConference: Embracing Complexity 4: The Adaptive Enterprise.
2000 Lewin, R., & Regine, B. “The Soul at Work: embracing the power of complexity science for        business success.”
2000 April 25-27. CBIConference: Embracing Complexity 5: Growing the Adaptive Organization.
2000 June. Menno Marien, Jeroen Kemp and Frank Wagner submit Kompass proposal
2000 – 2001 Chaco synthesis project
2001 April. LISS submitted
2001 August. Baillie Gifford, Edinburgh, Scotland, join SFI Business Network
2001 October/November. RODEO project proposal submitted and accepted 
2002 March 13. CBINetwork Global Web Cast: The Adaptive Enterprisein Action
2002 April: RODEO, an EC project gets started. The project I ended up working on…

Key metaphors used in complexity Studies discussions and described here refer back to 540 million years before present, to the ‘Cambrian Period’. This is where the timeline begins.

540 Million years before present

 “The Cambrian Period marks an important point in the history of life on earth; it is the time when most of the major groups of animals first appear in the fossil record. This event is sometimes called the “Cambrian Explosion”, because of the relatively short time over which this diversity of forms appears.”[1]For 3 billion years, from soon after the Earth cooled sufficiently, the highest form of life was the single cell. A degree of complexity had emerged a little more than a billion years ago, when cells developed packaged nuclei and included mitochondria, but there was eon upon eon of sameness. Then, cellular differentiation and aggregation into multicellular organisms evolved. An ‘explosion’ of new forms occurred, with a large variety of complexity[2].

This ‘Cambrian Explosion’, which occurred about 540 to 500 million years before present, is often cited in complexity studies literature as a metaphor of complex evolution. Stuart Kauffman, now a key figure in the field of complexity science, said: “The pattern of the Cambrian explosion is fundamental to all innovation. You get an initial scatter of new forms, and then it gets harder and harder to improve on them. You see it in biology. You see it in industrial economies.” Lewin also compares this idea with the evolution of social complexity.[3]

The use of the Cambrian Explosion as a metaphor of complex evolution sheds more light on a debate on the perception of order that can be traced intellectually to at least the third century BC.

427 BC – 347 BC – Plato, Greece.

An image of an ordered world where organisms are arranged from the lowest to the highest forms is to be found in Plato and implicitly in the order of creation in Genesis.[4]Plato’s main contributions are in philosophy, mathematics and science.[5]Platonics agreed that living organisms obeyed physical laws, and that the essence of life itself was something extra – a vital force breathed into material. To vitalists many of the more interesting properties of organisms were by their nature beyond scientific analysis. For two millennia, an intellectual divide separated scholars’ views of the natural world, one essentially Platonic, the other Aristotelian.[6]

384 BC – 322 BC – Aristotle, Greece.

Aristotle made important contributions by systematizing deductive logic and he is important in the development of knowledge.[7] He is now thought of as one of many scholars fascinated with the phenomenon or order, the morphological similarities among groups of organisms, and in the way in which individual organisms operate within their environment.[8]Aristotelian thinkers are typified as mechanists, since they asserted that living organisms are ‘nothing but machines’ and are completely explicable by the laws of mechanics, physics and chemistry.[9]This mechanical view became embedded in much scientific thought. But over the last two centuries the debate concerning the validity of this view has been revived time and again. In some ways a mechanical view of the world is seen to be diametrically opposed to one which includes ideas about complex evolution.

900 AD – 1150 AD – The rapid rise of Chaco Canyonas an important regional centre.

Proponents of complexity Studies cite the rapid rise of Chaco Canyonin South West America to explain theories about complex evolution.

Chaconever reached the level of social complexity that can be called a city-state, such as had arisen earlier in Mexico, Central and South America, and in the Old World. But unquestionably it included elements of social and economic organization that are pre-cursors to state formation, a subject that has long enthralled pre-historians.”[10]

Chaco Canyon, for all its wild beauty, seems an unlikely place for a major center of ancestral Puebloan culture to take root and flourish. This is high desert country, with long winters, short growing seasons, and marginal rainfall. Yet, a thousand years ago, this valley was a center of community life, commerce, and ceremony. People built monumental masonry buildings that were connected to other communities by a wide-ranging network of “roads.” In architecture, complexity of community life, social organization, and regional integration, the master builders of Chaco Canyon attained a unique cultural expression. … By 1050, Chaco was well on the way to becoming the political, economic, and ceremonial center of the San Juan Basin. Its sphere of influence was extensive. … After prevailing for 300 years, Chaco Canyon declined as a regional center during the middle 1100s, when new construction ceased. Chacoan influence continued at Aztec Ruins and other centers to the north, south, and west into the late 1100s and 1200s. In time, the people shifted away from Chacoan ways, migrated to new areas, reorganized their world, and eventually interacted with foreign cultures.“[11]

Chris Langton, a member of the Santa Fe Institute, compares what has since been called the ‘Chaco Phenomena’ with the ‘Cambrian Explosion’, and as such it becomes another analogy to explain the metaphor of complex evolution: “Cellular specialization happened in the Cambrian, and… Bang! … All hell broke loose. How about that for an analogy of what happened in the Southwest?” he asked. “Maybe there’s something fundamentally the same about the two systems, so that the patterns are the same, no matter what the details of the system are”.[12]

1642 – 1727 – Isaac Newton, England

Another proponent of the mechanical view of order was Isaac Newton. “Newtonhas been regarded for almost 300 years as the founding exemplar of modern physical science. Newton‘s work in mechanics was accepted at once in Britain, and universally after half a century. Since then it has been ranked among humanity’s greatest achievements in abstract thought. It was extended and perfected by others, notably Pierre Simon de Laplace, without changing its basis and it survived into the late 19th century before it began to show signs of failing (compare quantum theory and relativity).”[13]For three centuries science has successfully uncovered many of the workings of the universe, armed with the mathematics of Newtonand Leibniz.[14]

1646 – 1716 – Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Germany

“Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz was a German philosopher, mathematician, and logician who is probably most well known for having invented the differential and integral calculus (independently of Sir Isaac Newton). In his correspondence with the leading intellectual and political figures of his era, he discussed mathematics, logic, science, history, law, and theology“.[15]The world as seen by Leibniz and Newtonwas a clockwork one, characterized by repetition and predictability and linearity.[16] These characteristics are, again, diametrically opposed to those put forward in a view which includes complex evolution.

1707 – 1778 – Carolus Linnaeus, Sweden

“Carl Linnaeus, also known as Carl von Linné or Carolus Linnaeus, is often called the Father of Taxonomy. His system for naming, ranking, and classifying organisms is still in wide use today (with many changes). His ideas on classification have influenced generations of biologists during and after his own lifetime, even those opposed to the philosophical and theological roots of his work.”[17]Linnaeus grouped known organisms according to similarities they displayed and produced his ‘Systems of Nature’, a classification biologists still use today.[18]Linnaeus’ work was used by Darwin and others in conjunction with mechanical philosophies to formulate evolutionary theories.

1723 – 1790 – Adam Smith, Political Economist, Scotland. Key quote: “As if guided by an invisible hand”. 

“Adam Smith was the great Scottish philosopher and economist best known for “The Wealth of Nations”, his pioneering book on free trade and market economics.”[19]“Smith described techniques of pin manufacturing and in so doing was the first to record and explain the efficiencies inherent in the division of labor (DOL). DOL has to do with the differentiation of work tasks and the resulting specialization of labor, ideas that are central to the concept on social structure in organizations. This is why many organization theorists give Smith a place of honor in their intellectual histories.”[20]

Complex evolution proponents make use of Smith’s famous quote, ‘as if guided by an invisible hand’ to explain the idea of emergence that comes out of interaction in a complex system. The invisible hand becomes a metaphor for explaining the unseen transition between apparent ‘chaos’ and ‘self-organization’.

Lewin likens the idea of ‘order arising out of a complex dynamical system’, or ‘global properties flowing from aggregate behavior of individuals’ to the way that ‘in industrial societies, the aggregate behavior of companies, consumers, and financial markets produces the modern capitalist economy, “as if guided by an invisible hand” as Adam Smith put it.[21] Stuart Kaufman said: “Collective adaptation to selfish ends produces the maximum average fitness, each species in the context of others. As if by an invisible hand – Adam Smith’s phrase about markets in a capitalist economy – collective good is ensured.”[22]

1809 – 1882 – Charles Robert Darwin, England 

 Darwin‘s theory of evolution was published in the Origin of Species in 1859. As its implications sank in, late Victorians saw the ‘very foundations of human thought’ being re-laid, affecting ‘the entire intellectual life of our Western civilization’.”[23] Darwinprovides the conventional explanation of order: Natural selection – considered the force that fits organisms to their niches in the world. Similarities among groups are seen as common descent, ‘descent with modification’ as Darwindescribed it.[24] Complex evolution contrasts starkly with Darwin’s ‘descent with modification’.

1815 – 1864 – George Boole, England

Boole was a “mathematician and logistician who developed ways of expressing logical processes using algebraic symbols, creating a branch of mathematics known as symbolic logic.”[25]  Relevant to ideas surrounding complex evolution are random Boolean networks – named after George Boole. The Boolean network theory was a key factor in the understanding of complex evolution as it is currently perceived in complexity Studies. Stuart Kauffman, now a key figure in complexity Studies, applied Boolean networks to his ideas about embryology and cellular automaton computer programming.

A cellular automaton computer program is a row of cells that change attributes according to set rules. E.g. colour – if a cell is white and its immediate neighbours are white, then the cell remains white. Alternatively, if a white cell’s neighbours are both black then it turns black. And so on for all the possible arrangements of adjacent cells. Stack successively generated rows on top of each other, and you get a 2D representation of how the automaton changes over time. The resulting pattern of cells depends on the rules. Some rule sets may churn out a repetitive chessboard, others a series of stripes. Some produce complex patterns and this is an example of how complex behaviour can emerge from simple systems governed by simple rules.[26]

Essential to grasping ideas about complex evolution arising from knowledge of Boolean networks, is the following: “The network proceeds through a series of so-called states. At a given instant, each element in the network examines the signals arriving from the links with other elements, and then is active or inactive, according to its rules for reacting to the signals. The network then proceeds to the next state, whereupon the process repeats itself. And so on. Under certain circumstances a network may proceed through all its possible states before repeating any one of them. In practice, however, the network at some point hits a series of states around which it cycles repeatedly. Known as a state cycle, this repeated series of states is in effect an attractor in the system, like the whirlpool in the treacherous sea of complex systems dynamics. A network can be thought of as a complex dynamical system, and is likely to have many such attractors.”[27]

Terms seen repeatedly in complexity Studies literature extracted from above are, ‘network’, ‘state’, ‘state cycle’, ‘attractor’, and ‘complex dynamical system’.

1867 – Karl Marx, Philosopher-Economist, Germany

Hatch[28]labels Marx as a ‘classical’ inspiration to organization theory. Hatch says[29]In his theory of capital, Marx argued that capitalism rests upon a fundamental antagonism between the interests of capital (capitalists, e.g. the owners of factories and the means of production) and those of labour (i.e. the workers whose activities form the core of the production process).  Marxist theory considers control to be one of the key themes of organization theory, which in Classical management theory and modernist organization theory is interpreted as a primary function of the executive, and in postmodern theories become a foundation for critiques of managerialism.

Marx’s interpretation of the foundations of the capitalist system was in line with a mechanical view of the world. The workplace was another machine to be run efficiently by an engineer. The cogs in the machine were the workers, who were alienated from the process of production. The only way the workers could fight this process, Marx argued, was by unionisation. Unionisation in turn caused antagonism between the owners of capital and its slaves. In essence, Marx elucidated the relationship between the components of this machine-like system.

This recognition of the degree of command and control operating in a machine-like business sets the scene for the ensuing century of industry and commerce. Complexity studies permit an entirely different view of the world, one away from where everything is seen to run optimally like clockwork under the domination of a ruling class determined by ownership. Someone versed in complexity studies might see a power struggle as defined in Marxian terms as, instead, extremely dynamic turbulence – verging on chaos. They would look at the interaction of the ‘agents’ and expect to see some kind of emergent structure of order arising from this near chaos. Any number of solutions and opportunities might present themselves as options, but relatively few of those would actually become realised and most closely serve the self interests of those involved.

1893 Emile Durkheim, Sociologist, France

Hatch[30]labels Durkheim as a ‘classical’ inspiration to organization theory.  She says “Durkheim extended the concept of the division of labour beyond manufacturing organizations to explain the structural shift from agricultural to industrial societies that accompanied the industrial revolution. Durkheim described this shift in terms of increases in specialization, hierarchy, and the interdependence of work tasks. Early modernist organization theorists regarded these concepts as key dimensions for defining and describing complex organizations… Durkheim helped lay positivistic methodological foundations, not only for sociology, but also for modernist organization theory.”[31]

Although the world in which Durkheim lived and breathed was still largely seen in mechanistic terms, he imposed an organic methodological perspective. He saw units of society and organisation as interdependent, and he conceptualised the level of interdependency on a progressive scale ranging from primitive to modern. This in turn facilitated a view incorporating social evolution, so that one society or organisation could be compared in relative terms with another on this scale. Therefore, the next stage of social organisation could theoretically be anticipated. This perspective on society and organisation created an intellectual shift that coincided with Darwinian views of a ‘descent with modification’ type of evolution, which linked in quite well.

The organic view of organisation is also taken by proponents of complexity studies, as is the recognition of the interdependency of its units (which is spoken of in terms of network alliances). However, complexity studies hold that no next stage in evolution is predictable, since evolution is complex and emerges from the interaction of ‘agents’ relative to time and place.
Stay tuned for part 2… 1900’s modernism on…

[1] http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/cambrian/camb.html– accessed week commencing 2nd September 2002.
[2] Lewin (1999:17-19)
[3] Lewin (1999:17-19)
[4] Lewin (1999:133)
[5] http://www-gap.dcs.st-and.ac.uk/~history/Mathematicians/Plato.html– accessed week commencing 2nd September 2002.
[6] Lewin (1999:178)
[7] http://www-gap.dcs.st-and.ac.uk/~history/Mathematicians/Aristotle.html– accessed week commencing 2nd September 2002.
[8] Lewin (1999:24, 178)
[9] Lewin (1999:24, 178)
[10] Lewin (1999:9) 
[11] http://www.nps.gov/chcu/chacoan.htm– accessed week commencing 2nd September 2002.
[12] Lewin (1999:17-19)
[13] http://www.newton.cam.ac.uk/newtlife.html– accessed week commencing 2nd September 2002.
[14] Lewin (1999:11)
[15] http://mally.stanford.edu/leibniz.html– accessed week commencing 2nd September 2002.
[16] Lewin (1999:11)
[17] http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/history/linnaeus.html– accessed week commencing 2nd September 2002.
[18] Lewin (1999:24)
[19] http://www.adamsmith.org/– accessed week commencing 2nd September 2002.
[20] Hatch (1997:28)
[21] Lewin (1999:13)
[22] Lewin (1999:59)
[23] http://www.bbc.co.uk/education/darwin/leghist/desmond.htm– accessed week commencing 2nd September 2002.
[24] Lewin (1999:24)
[25] http://www.digitalcentury.com/encyclo/update/boole.html– accessed week commencing 2 September 2002.
[26] The Guardian, London. August 3, 2002,Chris Lavers, Guardian Saturday Pages, Pg. 12,  Review: How the cheetah got his spots: A New Kind of Science by Stephen Wolfram, Wolfram Media.
[27] Lewin (1999:27)
[28] Hatch (1997:5)
[29] Hatch (1997:28)
[30] Hatch (1997:5)
[31] Hatch (1997:30)

3 thoughts on “A Potted History Of Complexity Science: From 540m Years BPE to Present

  1. As someone trying to get my head around complexity, this is a brilliant summary. Its also filled in a few gaps in my history knowledge. Thank you!


      1. I teach in various outdoor and environmental ed settings, but I’ve just finished my PGCE and I’m just starting to tug on the first few threads of an action research project around diversity and intersectionality. My gut feeling is that complexity scientists are coming up with clearer explanations of the ‘its complicated’ message than diversity activists, so looking at them side by side might throw up something interesting and useful.
        Was very pleased to see your latest post, I’ll be diving into that list next!


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