Alexander Chislenko

LIVING SYSTEMS


The goal of this text is to show that there exist common system laws governing the development of various complex objects, ranging from animals and plants to sciences and economies, regardless of details of their implementation in different contexts, and try to foresee future structural transformations of these objects.


1 FROM THE AUTHOR

This is a manuscript that I am now trying to discuss with my friends, while thinking of what of it can go into print, and whether it should. I would greatly appreciate any response, like remarks, references, reading and contact advice etc., including all possible notes on structure and language of the current text. My dream is to have some heavily commented copies of it returned.

I would also gladly contact any person whose thoughts wander in related areas.

Alexander Chislenko 6 McLean pl. apt. 5 Cambridge, MA 02140 USA Tel. (617) 864-33-82 (home)

2 INTRODUCTORY NOTE

In full accordance with written here, I believe that no article can represent an ultimate value, but is always only a part of the growing organism of scientific knowledge that works partly through us, writers and readers; and it is this entity, not us or articles, that is slowly shaping itself towards the Absolute Truth.

So we (I and this article) are trying to unselfishly take part in this process, deliberately leaving some gaps in presentation and too categorical, questionable or unexplained statements, with the aim to provoke further discussion rather than to try prematurely polish our own look.

I have made no efforts to make this text an easy reading, like explaining that one thousand million is a billion, or noting that calling self-replication a necessary feature of all life forms would be insulting for lonely, sick and elderly people. However, the presentation is arranged so that the reader can get used to the ideas.

3 STARTING POINT

The behavior of any object depends solely on its structure, i.e. the number of its elements and the character of their links. This means that if we have two objects with equivalent structures, and the only difference between them is in implementation and naming of their parts and links, then the behavior of these two objects will be exactly the same (except, possibly, the means of its expression).

It is therefore reasonable to speak of classes of objects with equivalent structures; let us call them 'systems'.

4 FEATURES OF SYSTEM STRUCTURES

Human minds seem to be better suited for spotting differences between things than for finding commonalities (it is not by chance that some languages have words like 'pine' and 'birch', but not 'tree'). This may be the main reason of why so little attention is paid to some striking similarities between many natural and artificial systems.

This table briefly illustrates some common features and stages of development of systems in the following three spheres:

Feature\ Sphere Biology Society Computer systems
Starting point: simple and unstructured(*) unicellular organism primitive tribe small single consecutive machine
Mature system: interconnected substructures multicell, multiorgan body interacting social institutions multitasking, networked computers
Dual | basic parts proteins and genes people and memes data and instructions
Parasites microbes crime computer viruses
Anti-parasites antibodies police anti-viral programs
Rudimentary parts appendix, third eye outdated laws &institutions obsolete data and code
Shared external units all tools as shared limbs and sensors inter-state bodies and property databases, code libraries, netware,...
Self-awareness consciousness Social-study institutions system & meta-data & software
Intangible part develops and takes the lead body/ consciousness material life/ culture hardware/software

(*) in the sense of not consisting of parts of the same system level

Some additional features are: backup subsystems, spare parts and capacities, competition of subsystems for resources and attention of higher levels, conflicts over control, aging problems etc., etc...; even the [geometrical average] number of parts in all systems appears to be the same. These commonalities go far beyond basic cybernetical observations of information processing; in fact, one may reasonably suppose that there exist common system laws governing development of morphic entities regardless of the details of their implementation in different contexts.

All of the above listed features appear approximately at the same levels of development of each system; it seems that given the first two columns of the above table and the [well-known] speed of progress in computer systems, we would have been able as long ago as 1950 to predict (and prepare for) the time of arrival of computer networks and viruses - instead of dreaming of big lonely MULTIVACs. Totalitarianists could also keep in mind that their beloved centrally-regulated monolithic societies, just like unicellular organisms and consecutive stand-alone computers, are competitive only as long as they (and their environments) are unsophisticated - and could think (or, rather, could have thought) of how to keep them that way.

But it is of course easy to predict the past.

5 CLASSES OF SYSTEMS

It seems possible to divide systems into general classes, like colony, organism and biocenosis (ecology), judging by their essential features, most important of which seem to be complexity, interconnectedness, clusterization, strength of feedbacks, etc. If a certain system structurally falls into a given class, say, 'organism', then IT IS AN ORGANISM, since God/Nature perceive(s) and guide(s) it as such, while we can call it a rabbit, piece of software, national economy, language, culture or science. The difference between a structurally equivalent computer program and a body (or a culture and an intelligent consciousness) is no more than in our perception. We think we 'see' 'real' living organisms and, hence, they 'exist', while other systems are just 'imaginary entities' (though we never see the structures, but only external properties, like skin color, spatial position etc., and all important features have to mentally derive, anyway).

We can look around and see that our planet is abundant with all kinds of developing life and intelligence, and for much of it we serve as (still, unfortunately, unconscious) carriers or elementary substrata.

All our subsystems and supersystems live their own lives and have little (though gradually growing) interest and knowledge of each other.

We have little understanding of how our own cells or the parts of consciousness work, and no single individual is likely to ever have much more, since the complexity of these systems by far exceeds the capacities of the consciously controlled part of the human brain. But there are other entities, namely, the sciences of citology and psychology, that, once brought to life, continue working as our agents of communication with our own parts, studying and testing them in their own planned and orderly manner, and often pursuing goals that represent their own logic of development rather than the individual understanding of practical value by any single human being.

6 OUR PERCEPTION OF OTHER LIVING SYSTEMS

6.1 Familiar Entities We accept other systems as living if they look just like us, especially if they have the same appearance, age, language and skin color. (This is why much more attention is paid to unborn or mentally retarded representatives of Homo Sapiens than to much more conscious healthy adults of other species).

6.2 Alien Entities We have special names (just like 'birch' and 'pine') for those systems [we think] we understand and use special methods for each type without trying to generalize or recognizing equal rights for all living entities. Usually we take it for granted that cells, cultures, subconscious parts of our minds, etc., work, but do not care whether and how they feel. The Green movement is now broadening its ethical view, starting to think of the rights of insects, bacteria and baking yeast. But there are some things they do ignore: namely, that such entities as philosophy or the Green movement itself are more alive than the baking yeast, in any reasonable sense of the word; that bed-bugs, cockroaches, mafia and urban life-style are also very natural formations, and still the first three of them (or all four, by some opinions) are well worth destroying; that life is a permanent interaction among all living beings, and some of them do, unfortunately, have to lose (I am far from saying they may be thoughtlessly destroyed).

It seems that the process we see unfolding around us is not a destruction of nature by 'non-nature', but a gigantic leap in natural evolution, with an explosive number of new cultural, scientific and technological species pushing some old species (like, alas, spotted owl, and, hopefully, bed-bugs) out of the niches of their original existence, and we have the greatest historical opportunity to observe this process, take part in guiding it - and reap incredible benefits for ourselves.

6.3 Complex Systems If a thing is complex enough, and its analysis seems to be of little practical value, people prefer to perceive/admire/worship it as a 'whole', often hating the very idea of 'disassembling' the sacred object. Music and arts are good examples of this situation. Though there is no such thing as an undifferentiated whole (with, possibly, a few elementary exceptions), and those nice objects would be much better off if there were a place in their admirers' minds for both their beauty and design.

6.4 Supersystems If a system is incredibly complex and its ways cannot be understood to any reasonable degree, its influence can be sensed only by certain events that tend to occur when we follow some vaguely understood rules. In this case, it is easier to simply 'obey' those rules, i.e. to do things expected to bring positive feedbacks, or just try to pray to the supersystem in one's own language and wait until it hears and helps. This is certainly very similar to what we think of God. Let us also look at it from another point of view and imagine what our cells might think about the systems they are parts of. All of them could agree that a system consisting of themselves (and hence not a material object, but, like a society for us, just a structure they support, a way they do things together) cannot think, feel or plan anything by itself. "It may look structurally like it is alive, but it is us who do it all", they might say of us - as people say of grander systems. Most of the cells are unable to collect any information about their environment beyond what is needed for performing their simple physical duties. They keep doing their jobs, exhausting available resources, assuming that before the resources are over, some smarter neighbors or higher powers will take care of the problem. Those with higher abilities (but still in no way capable of comprehending the Great Whole - e.g., a hair root they live in) take part in 'social' development and may choose between improving their environment themselves and sending complaints to some higher 'divine' authority. The results of the first approach are guaranteed but limited by the cell's model of the environment and abilities; the second approach is not always successful, since the gods are not quite almighty and tend to leave the complaints misunderstood or unnoticed - but if the complaints are loud enough and/or supported by neighbors, they may be gracefully acknowledged. In our example, some substances are sent in by local gods(=organs), or the person whose head carries the hair, scratches or washes it, or - an extremely rare case! - there can be a direct interference from some super-authority, like killing of this particular rioting cell by a well-focused X-ray beam, to stop the trouble. It is hardly possible to give a general advice of what can be asked by a part from a whole, but it is possible to note how. By utilizing the part's links with the system; silent prayers are never heard, though they may unintentionally alter the internal state of the subsystem and bring desirable - or some other - results. They may also employ some hidden information channels, like 'talking' to other layers of one's own consciousness or transmitting weak radio messages.

7 EVOLUTION OF A SUPERSYSTEM

At the very beginning, parts voluntary form some joint structure, following their own logic of development. This is already a birth of a supersystem, though it is still weak and vitally dependent on its creators; its life seems to be in the hands of a few of them. Then, after some time, it grows to become their more or less equal partner, with its own needs and logic, but still understandable by the conventional wisdom of the parts - if they choose to study and respect the laws of the new formation they found themselves in. At this stage, they may choose to occupy one or another niche in the system. They are still more or less free, counting personal balances of participation in different kinds of activities - a market phase of development. At further stages, with new strengths and runaway complexity, the new superorganism develops its own ideas of progress. Its creators lose track of its development, but go on taking part in it, since now they are supported by the system for their loyalty - and punished for lack of it. An integrated system can seldom abandon its parts, even if they are inefficient; rather it provides them with additional resources and attention. So the competition for resources and records of local accounts lose their leading roles to more complex and distributed decision-making schemes. Meanwhile, parts see their safety and wealth rapidly increase at the expense of their freedom, until none of them is able to abandon the system and live 'in the wild'. This is what happened to our cells. This tends to happen in totalitarian societies, with their overdeveloped social structures (or just well developed, from their own point of view), in well-integrated corporations, in software packages, in happy families and is gradually happening in advanced economies. "The Futurist" once discussed a possibility that technology can turn humans into cyborgs - creatures, 'consisting by more than a half of artificial parts'. I would define a cyborg nation as one with more than half of its individuals artificially kept alive. Technology has really made us healthier and better off - within the economic system, but how many of us would survive if all of it suddenly disappeared? Hardly half would be left. And not only because we are unprepared; there are simply too many of us, and it is likely that more than 95% of us would rapidly die out in "natural" (?!) conditions - and this percentage has been increasing throughout all of the human history - with an obvious upper limit.

8 OUR ATTITUDE TO SUPERSYSTEMS

The prefix 'super' in this context means no more than a shorthand for 'upper-level' and reflects our view on the system from inside, rather than from outside. So, 'super' means just a metaphenomenon and shouldn't be confused with 'superior'. In fact, the upper-level structure of a system can be much simpler than the internal structures of many of its parts. Hence, we should not be shocked that the systems we are in - like a scientific community, United Nations or Gaia - are, at the first stages of their development, inefficient and often waste the precious resources they are going to badly lack in their near future. We may learn what it feels to live within a primitive beast - or, rather, a child. Children are often inexperienced, clumsy and short-sighted - but they grow, especially when properly taught.

9 NETWORKS AND ECOLOGIES

The now popular word 'network' doesn't describe a special type of systems, but just means a multiplicity of relatively stable ties between neighbor elements, i.e. the 'local complexity' of the system, and hints at presence of multiple feedbacks - a feature also present in many other types of structures.

There were free-trade networks of merchandize flow between tribes and city-states in ancient times; later they were replaced by non-network, but much more complex and efficient systems of international trade, though we can still find their remnants in grey-market structures.

There also are highly deterministic governmental, computer, or sewage networks that demonstrate predictable responses for known inputs and are different from plain tree-like hierarchies in complexity, but not in nature.

And there are flexible ecological networks based on cooperation and commitment (though quite not free from conflicts), and instinctive, if not conscious, feeling of common destiny. But networking is not the most important word here; a scientific community corresponding through one central computer is much easier to call an ecology than, say, a complex early-warning defense network. The real difference here lies in the nature of the links rather than in their number.

Among different system types, biocenotic (ecological) systems seem superior in many respects: they combine greater freedom of parts with overall complexity, flexibility and stable performance within very wide limits of tolerance. But all planning in an ecology is local and is performed by non-ecological participating entities. And the human mind seems to resist the very idea of creating a [social] system it cannot directly control...

10 CONSEQUENCES OF THE LIVING SYSTEMS VIEW

Suppose we can really look at many things as living entities; but what difference does it make?

First, it attempts to present a common basis for holistic and rational paradigms; it might be called 'demystified holism'. Second, it seems to be a platform for building a kind of transhuman ethics. Third, we can try to formulate some generic methods for contacting other living - and thinking - entities.

11 A SCENARIO FOR FURTHER SOCIAL DEVELOPMENT

Most existing objects employ a combination of various structure types for performing different functions. Therefore, it seems reasonable to build the classification of structures on the analysis of system functions, rather than objects themselves.

Let us consider three basic types of system functions on the examples of social and biological structures:

Feature \ Function Life support Regulation Development
Social structures Market system Institutions Community
Biological systems Free colony Organisms Symbiosis to ecology
Control methods Facilitation Direct interference Participation
Oscillation patterns Smooth, wave-like Cubistic, very regular cycles Slight intricate oscillations (within limits of tolerance)
Phase portraits Periodic attractors Quasi-linear shapes Chaotic attractors

Let us try to assess future social roles of these three types of functions:

- traditional life-support, such as local trade and services, is likely to be provided by good old market forces well into foreseeable future, and institutional and technological influence is not likely to translate into any drastic structural change in this sphere.

- regulatory functions will be carried out by the developing network of institutional hierarchies - with some structural changes, especially on the global level; here we should beware of cancer-like growth of simple centralized structures, despite of anti-totalitarian shots timely made by History into some parts of the developing global social organism (I mean painful socialist experiments in the East) to make the rest of it more resistant to evilly attractive ideas of centralization.

- structural social and technological changes - the essence of the coming age - will be provided by more and more biocenosis-like systems; hence, we can expect corresponding changes in phase portraits, such as economic cycles. The innovations have never appeared in the society by means of free exchange or direct orders, that can only take care of allocation of necessary resources and spreading the novelty. With innovations becoming the core of the social life we will see increasing role of non-market and non-governmental groups with common interests and knowledge in various special areas. We can also expect that economic (= monocriterial) considerations will continue losing their indicative and guiding roles.

In the evolution of any system, new parts appear to better reflect existing (and planned) functions; ideally, the system's structure should reflect its functions; we can observe that functions are getting incorporated into new structural entities: separation of flowers from leaves; arts, advertisement and money from material production; information from its carriers, etc. This transition becomes possible after new features become ripe enough to be acknowledged, or the old ones grow complex enough to require further structurization, or there appear breakthroughs in the speed and ease of internal communications system.

In the socio-economic sphere it means that while the walls between functionally homogeneous entities, until recently represented by high costs of material and information interchange, continue to crumble, thus altering the effective metrics of the social space, we will see more and more institutions based on similarity of interests of their members rather then on their spacial proximity, with the old-fashioned organizations based on territorial sovereignty rights (state and local governments) rapidly losing their roles. Among other things, it means that the readers with investments into local media might win from moving them into special interest editions.

12 SEEDS FOR THOUGHT

- How do we teach other systems: by training and testing them; just as we do with children, with our own cells and organs (morning exercises), with parts of our minds (lessons and tests), with computers, sports teams, military divisions, etc. - by giving them relatively small but structurally important tasks. All these spheres can share their experience.

- Can we teach UN using cognitive psychology?

- An analogy between social/scientific development and yoga: trying to bring consciousness into every cell of the body

- The ultimate goal of evolution: God - through integration of all systems from quantum to cosmic scale and harmonization of their relations? And how do we know when it is (or whether is has already been) achieved?

13 FINAL NOTE

Let us try to guess what other complex entities could do when they at last develop some real intelligence and attempt to openly contact us, humans. A good idea would be to start with a message carrying a manifest of their conscious life. The only way of making such a message understandable to us would be to pass it through our regular information channels, like mind patterns or this printed article. And, as always, all of the agencies employed in carrying this message - philosophy, language, society, the human author, his neurons, word processor, U.S. Postal Service and others - perceive it as belonging to them. The question is how many of them are developed enough to do it consciously? While writing this text, I had a queer sensation of someone guiding my hand. Could it be one of them? Or someone else?..

14 HABITATS FOR LIFE

Each of us has read something about possibilities of non-human intelligence and 'even' non-carbon life; but I failed to find any interesting ideas about general conditions necessary to support life. I would close the problem of intelligence by saying that it is an attribute common to all life-forms, with differences in features and sophistication. We can also more or less easily define such things as a reflective consciousness (as a feeling of a system of itself, or storage of the information on the global state of the system on a local level, etc.) and other attributes of intelligence in general system terms.

I wouldn't like to argue here about the definition of life; there is a number of them, and even a few general features that almost everyone seems to agree on, sound very questionable. Thus, growth and self-replication apply to crystals, rumors, puddles and clouds, but not to elderly people... Instead, I would suggest a view that 'life' is a certain stage of developmental processes, and all processes inevitably come to (and pass) this stage provided certain basic conditions are met. So let's try to discuss these conditions, see what kind of environments can provide them, and what changes in the conditions can lead to the development of really (i.e. in essence, not implementation) different forms of life and intelligence.

Definition of terms. In mathematics, a space - whether topological, linear or other - is just a set of points with a structure; here let's think of a 'space' as the basic uniform structure of the environment, and 'objects' or 'entities' as [epi]structures 'immersed' in this space. The readers with some understanding of mathematics can derive stricter meaning themselves, and those without it won't understand it anyway...

Here are the basic 'life conditions' - i.e. attributes of the environment that ensure that the development will go far enough:

1) Large enough living space - in terms of the number of elementary units.

2) Ability of units/elements to interact

3) Relative stability of structures (links between elements) - so that new emerging entities could survive long enough to communicate to others and/or give life to new forms.

4) Relative mobility of structures - to ensure that some change can occur.

5) Long enough life time in terms of relative units of time

I do not claim that this is a complete set of necessary and sufficient conditions for life development (which doesn't mean it isn't), and they are not even strictly defined here, but this is already enough to present one more system table, and draw certain conclusions.

Space elements size stability mobility time
planetary surface Atoms (C,O,H,etc.) 10*40? Good fair excel.
planetary body Atoms (Si,O,etc.) 10*60? Fair Fair excel.
Universe Galaxies 10**11 Poor Good Bad
Universe Vacuum Fluctuations Perfect 10**200 ? ? Perfect
science bits / memes/ideas Fair 10*20 ? Good Good Good
Star plasma currents Good 10**40? Fair Poor Good
Sea Waves Fair 10**20 No --- Good

The space structure and interaction details have a strong influence on all structures living in the given environment; let's just sketch some differences that can arise in other environments:

- if the space allows teleportation, we can expect to see bodies consisting of physically unconnected parts, more ethical societies (since otherwise they would be simply killed by the omnipresent and uncathable crime), impossibility of totalitarianism (which is strongly dependent on the ability of the government to keep the citizens from getting out of its control area), absence of cities and other big clusters of population (all places are equally close to each other), etc.

We can also note that all our bodies, social organizations, and even concept structures reflect the structure of the space we live in; research shows that the average number of parts in a whole in all human classifications is very close to number pi, which seems to reflect the relations of proximity of different parts of the human brain, as well as individual neurons, living in the Cartesian space.

Here it is probably time to note that spaces in which many other structures reside, are effectively non-Cartesian. For example, the computer memory space is essentially a discrete set of points, and it takes [approximately] the same amount of time to get from one [memory] location to another.

The success of transportation and communication systems is based on their changing the effective metrics of social space; originally designed to shorten the distances between the [participants], they often entirely change the structure of the space they operate in; for example, effective structures of telecommunications networks (with time and ease of access as measures of distance) are essentially discrete, and not only our regular notions of distance and dimensionality are irrelevant here, but the whole telecommunications service industry operates according to new laws: there are no local monopolies, at least within a calling area, there is no need to put the communications equipment on the cross-roads (or even keep it visible in the physical world); the market niches are purely functional, without territorial considerations; there is no such thing here as differential rent; the number of competing services is different from one in regular 3-D businesses, which affects the degree of monopolization in the industry, decision-making processes, business cycles, etc. One of the major reasons of transition from decision-making based on participatory democracy to representation schemes and multilevel bureaucracies is the limitations of Cartesian space that do not allow sufficiently large assemblies of citizens - namely, inability of two objects to occupy a single space, and travel expenses - and these limitations simply do not exist in many other spatial structures.

Most of our concept structure is based on our 3-D notions of localities, weights, shapes and appearances, and there seem to be few people and concepts that ever leave the limitations of the Cartesian space, or generalize enough to make any sense outside our particular spacial implementation of functional structures.

-basic structures of spaces - location of 'body', mimics speeds, possibility to occupy 1 space for several bodies;

-connected body as a design restriction/flaw semantic space.

15 FURTHER PLANS:

- critical state; escape forward

- features of systems of next levels of complexity;

- development criteria: energy -> info -> ... ?

- timing of processes.