From Cells to Societies, Complexity Research Factors into Solving Pressing Problems

Resource depletion. Climate change. Political turmoil. Failing financial markets.

Simon Levin from Princeton University
Simon Levin

These issues result from the varied interests and behaviors in complex adaptive systems.

Simon Levin, George M. Moffett Professor of Biology at Princeton University, thinks there’s much to be gained by tapping into complexity research — a growing area of study that examines complex adaptive systems and how individuals within the system act or make decisions collectively, or individualistically, with collective consequences.

Levin visited WID to give a C4 Public Lecture titled, “The Ecology of Society — From Microbes to Public Goods,” in Fall 2013.

While in Madison, he shared reflections on how complexity research influences how we solve large, global problems as well as our individual problems.

Collective Computation

Levin: First of all, computation now allows us to do many more things than we could a few years ago. Therefore, we can address complex problems that involve multiple scales for which intuitions are not sufficient. I am talking about problems such as: How do organisms do computation? How do societies do computation and collective decision-making? We can learn from exploring these questions, involving systems that are not computational in the simple way, but involve collective computation.

Collective computation raises challenges if you’re trying to manage systems, for example in international relations, because of the difficulties posed by the fact that one can no longer focus just on two major powers, or on a small number of major powers. There is, for example, a large and distributed number of entities such as terrorist groups without a single head. How do you manage systems like that? You don’t just go to the Wizard of Oz and say, “Let’s make a deal and control this.” You don’t even go to Vladimir Putin and say that. You have to know how to deal with networks of individual agents. In financial and environmental systems, we have the problem of the headless horseman. Those systems do not have a central control. That makes things much harder.


I’m very interested in sustainability. It is multi-dimensional and includes financial systems and ecological systems, and the services they provide. These services include direct benefits such as food, fiber, fuels and pharmaceuticals, but also indirect benefits such as clean air, the maintenance of climate and much more subtle benefits, including the aesthetic value we place on biodiversity, the value of nature for its own sake and the importance of other species.

In my talk [on campus], I alluded to the fact that there are a lot of interesting problems that are parallel to what we study in evolutionary biology, including how birds and fish collectively make decisions, how micro-organisms collaborate, and indeed how individual organisms make their own decisions and resolve conflicts.

Business and collective computation

Many of the ideas I talked about and many other ideas that emerge from ecology are directly applicable to the corporate sector. Some of the players act in their own self-interest; some of them have a view to the greater good, at least some of the time. I’ve been doing a lot of consulting in the corporate sector recently and frequently explain what sustainability means to a company. I talk about what the sustainability of a sector means and how that’s related to society. We see in many instances that companies might want to do something in a positive way for the collective good, but they need to find a way to do so that doesn’t put them at a competitive disadvantage. They have to report to shareholders and have a bottom line to consider. I think it’s a challenge and a place where government should encourage companies to be sustainable through incentive structures

“Many of the ideas I talked about and many other ideas that emerge from ecology are directly applicable to the corporate sector. Some of the players act in their own self-interest; some of them have a view to the greater good, at least some of the time.”

— Simon Levin

Companies talk a lot about business ecosystems. How do they partner with another’s expertise to build a multi-cellular organism? In evolutionary biology, one of the most fascinating questions is how did multi-cellularity arise? I mentioned briefly in my talk that societies are multi-cellular organisms with specialization of function, but the same thing is true in the business world and in business ecosystems. Analogously, companies that bring different things to the table form partnerships and are, in effect, much more complicated organisms.

The purposes of partnership

In evolutionary biology, the “purpose” of multi-celled organisms is existential, not determined by selection for some external functionality (although such functionalities can emerge, and feed back to reinforce the associations). Collective benefits may emerge from these partnerships, and hence evolution serves to sustain them. In the business community, it’s a little less simplistic than that because much depends upon payoffs to individual agents, and hence such factors as the discount rate or how much the present is valued. We all discount the future, and corporations do so much more steeply than we do as individuals. This is one of the challenges. The CEOs of companies discount the future even more because they have to produce results on a much shorter time scale, so how is the collective good served? Or is it?

Risk and uncertainty

I am interested in exploring how we deal with risk and uncertainty and how institutions deal with them. How have societies reduced risk and uncertainty by spreading the risks? In our lives, we have to make decisions about how risky to get. If we’re too conservative, then nothing ventured, nothing gained. We all find our own balance between what in behavioral ecology is called exploration vs. exploitation. How much do you invest in searching? So we face such decisions every day. Do I take a new job, or am I happy with the job I have? Do I need to look at something else in order to grow? Do I take this airplane trip, involving some risks, balanced against the potential gain? What’s the balance?

We know there’s a spectrum among people, and some people are big risk takers, and ultimately that’s not a good idea. Some people are too conservative and that’s not a good idea either. Companies face the same sort of challenge. In evolutionary biology, we also see these strategies played out. In the oceans you will see species like hard corals that are very rigid, and others like kelp that go with the flow. These represent two different strategies to deal with the environment. How do you trade these off? What’s the balance between the yin and yang of exploitation vs. exploration?

Interview conducted by Marianne Spoon