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Thoughts on Complexity

December 18th, 2005

I recently watched March of the Penguins a fantastic documentary about the life and times of Emperor Penguins. Turns out to be an amazingly complicated process involving tremendously long marches to and from the ocean. They always gather in the same place year after year. Males and females take turns on the march bringing food to keep the chicks alive. The penguins also make use of some clever physical attributes, like a flap of skin near their feet that allows them to hold the egg on top of their feet and cover it with the flap.

The whole process is amazingly complex. It’s no wonder that the Intelligent Design community latched onto the Emperor Penguin as Exhibit A of the necessity for a grand designer. The thought is surprisingly tempting… an easy way out of a complicated problem. Watching the film I couldn’t help but think it made the question so much easier. I mean, how else could all this interconnectedness come to be?

But that got me thinking about something else: the economy and computers. The global economy is an amazingly complicated beast. The economy we know today is nothing like the economy we knew 20 years ago. That economy was nothing like the economy of the 19th century. That economy unlike that of the 15th century… and so on, and so forth. From the first economic transaction (agricultural division of labor?) we eventually arrived to where we are today (internet stock trading). The complexity of today’s market is mind boggling. Thousands of people in today’s market exist for the sole purpose of speculating on the availability of goods, purchase and sell short, which in turn prevents oversupply and shortages keeping prices relatively consistent. The job can only be done with an amazingly amount of information and sophisticated understanding of other actors.

This complexity is entirely of our own design. We built every piece, wrote every rule, explored every niche of our economy on our own. There was no intelligent designer beyond those in the system.

The same is true for computers. Not a single person exists on the face of the planet who could take the raw materials and build a modern day computer complete with operating system. The complexity inherent in a computer’s construction is simply too much for one person to understand. Electronics, circuitry fabrication, compilers, operating system design, memory management, CRT displays, networking, security, mice, printers… every piece is necessary to create a modern computer. 10 years ago we didn’t know about any of the technology we take for granted today. But that didn’t matter… no intelligent designer was required to take small, tiny steps forward, evaluate that step, and then decide to follow that path or retreat and try again. The process is so successful that it took us to the moon.

So, intelligent designer boosters of the world, I think you’re wrong. There is amazing complexity all around us, and much of it is our doing. If the flawed human race can create something as complex as the global economy, I’m happy to believe that life as a whole can accomplish things even more complex.

probonogeek Uncategorized

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