SFI External Professor David Krakauer reviews “The Evolution of Complexity and Intelligence on Earth” project.

SFI hosted a two-day review in late August of research projects supported by the three- year, $5 million John Templeton Foundation grant, “The Principles of Complexity,” that began in fall 2011.

The grant’s goals were to pursue fundamental understandings of the regularities in complex biological and social systems and
to generate new concepts and quantitative methods of general scientific and social value. It supported three major SFI research projects and one major education project.

“This grant has been hugely important to science at SFI,” says SFI President Jerry Sabloff. “It has allowed us to begin to take full advantage of the influx of new data available in multiple fields, and it has allowed our researchers to make important new connections between fields. Together, this has led to significant advances in our theoretical understanding of a variety of complex systems.”

Complex early societies

Sabloff co-leads the “Universal Patterns in the Emergence of Complex Societies” project with former Omidyar Postdoctoral Fellow Laura Fortunato. As part of the project, SFI researchers are developing a database of archaeological survey data to explore the timelines for the evolution of social complexity across many cultures and geographies and seeking to identify the critical factors that led to the rise of early states.

“In recent years, there really has been a dearth of broad, cross-cultural studies of the rise of early states,” said Sabloff. “We need to develop a general theory to explain why states arose in some regions and to explain why they did not in other areas.”

SFI’s Eric Rupley summarized his takeaway from the project: “What we’re seeing is a great deal of regional integration occurring before the state is built up. This suggests that there are underlying social processes that lead up to the growth of the state over a period of time, before a primary urban center becomes the ‘big place’ where people go.”

Team members include Jerry Sabloff, Laura Fortunato, Paula Sabloff, Anne Kandler, Scott Ortman, Tim Kohler, Stefani Crabtree, Charles Perreault, Eric Rupley, and Paul Hooper; in addition, the project relied on the advice of Peter Peregrine, Chip Stanish, and Henry Wright and the research support of a host of interns, assistants, and volunteers.

SFI External Professors David Krakauer and Jessica Flack co-lead “The Evolution of Complexity and Intelligence on Earth” project, which seeks a rigorous way to understand the role information, energy, and environment play in biological complexity.

Flack said their approach views biological systems as being part of an information hierarchy in which components with partially aligned interests interact in multiple time and space scales. Information (often manifested in rough predictions biological systems make about their future environments) serves to couple these multi-scaled systems.

The team, Flack said, has begun to develop a computational approach that relies on “effective theories” to make rough, course-grained connections between the microscopic behavior of the components of a biological system and the macroscopic “outputs” that arise from many components interacting in multiple time and space scales.

“We can then ask questions like ‘how tunable or controllable is the macroscopic behavior?’ and ‘can small perturbations at the microscale induce large-scale changes to the macro behavior of the system?’”

Team members include David Krakauer, Jessica Flack, Bryan Daniels, Philip Poon, Chris Ellison, Eddie Lee, Evandro Ferrada, and Peter Stadler.