“Social Entrepreneurship has Complexity Written All Over It”

That’s the title and conclusion of this paper by Jeffrery Goldstein et al which was presented at  this talk at the Skoll Foundation International Social Innovation Conference 2009.  Here’s a slide from that talk that I like:


If you like the theme of “Social Entrepreneurship, Systems Thinking and Complexity” — and I know that you do because that’s what this blog talks about a lot of the time — then you may want to attend (or even submit a paper/talk abstract to) the eponymously named conference at Adelphi University in New York (April 30 – May 2, 2010).  Hope to see you there!

hat tip: Jerri Chou: @jchou


As readers of my blog posts know, I talk a lot about evolutionary systems, the formal structure of cooperation, the role of both in emergence of new levels of complexity, and I sometimes use cellular automata to make points about all these things and the reification of useful models (here’s a summary of how they all relate).  I’ve also touched on this “thing” going on with the system of life on Earth that is related to technological singularity but really is the emergence or (or convergence) of an entirely new form of intelligence/life/collective consciousness/cultural agency, above the level of human existence.

From The Chaos Point. Reproduced with permission from the author.

In a convergence of a different sort, many of these threads which all come together and interrelate in my own mind, came together in various conversations and talks within the last 15 hours.  And while it’s impossible to explain this all in details, it’s really exciting to find other people who are on …

Inoculating Against the Anti-Vaccine Meme

The debate over vaccination is raging (c.f. Wired article) and it smacks of one of those conundrums that is unlikely to get resolved by scientific inquiry.  I offer the following hypothesis and a way out of the dilemma.

Hypothesis: Vaccination is something that is good at the societal level but bad at the individual level.  That is, it is a tragedy of the commons.  You want all your neighbors to get vaccinated so they don’t pass on the germs to you, but there is enough risk from the vaccination process (at least for certain ones) that you’d rather not do it yourself.

The mathematics of the commons tragedies suggests that there are two ways out.   One is to change the payout/incentive structure, in other words, make the vaccine’s less risky to the individual, or at least change the perception of the individual risk (as the Wired article suggests).  The problem with manipulating perception is, what if you’re wrong?  The marketplace of ideas …

What Obama Needs to Do

The old philosophical theory says that reason is conscious, can fit the world directly, is universal (we all think the same way), is dispassionate (emotions get in the way of reason), is literal (no metaphor or framing in reason), works by logic, is abstract (not physical) and functions to serve our interests. Language on this view is neutral and can directly fit, or not fit, reality.

The scientific research in neuroscience and cognitive science has shown that most reason is unconscious. Since we think with our brains, reason cannot directly fit the world. Emotion is necessary for rational thought; if you cannot feel emotion, you will not know what to want or how anyone else would react to your actions. Rational decisions depend on emotion. Empathy with others has a physical basis, and as much as self-interest, empathy lies behind reason.

This is part of a brilliant article by cognitive science and linguistics pioneer, George Lakoff (emphasis mine).  His argument about what …

The Diamond Rule

We all know the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  TED Prize Wish winner, Karen Armstrong, even laudably proposed that a Charter for Compassion based on the observation that all three Abrahamic traditions (Christianity, Judaism and Islam) have the Golden Rule at their core.

I do believe that if we all followed the Golden Rule as the basis for how we treat one another the world would be a better place.  But I also think there is a a more fundamental rule, call it the Diamond Rule, which is even better:

Treat others as you believe they would want you to treat them, if they knew everything that you did.

The difference is subtle, and may not practically speaking yield different action that often.  But when it does, the difference can be significant.…


Yesterday, from the Director of the National Cancer Institute, addressing one of the two largest cancer research conferences of the year:

NCI commenced a series of workshops that began to bring aspects of the physical sciences to the problem of cancer. We discussed how physical laws governing short-range and other forces, energy flows, gradients, mechanics, and thermodynamics affect cancer, and how the theories of Darwinian and somatic evolution can better help us understand and control cancer.

Read more on my Cancer Complexity Forum post.…

If Rafe Were In Charge: Major Medical Edition

Kevin started an interesting discussion that included a thoughtful proposal for the problem of major medical care costs risk mitigation.  You should read that here before reading my proposal below.

Part 1: Major Medical Annuities. Federally mandated/funded (similar to SSI/Medicare), with a specific initial lifetime value that is the same for everyone. The concept is that you pick a number slightly bigger than the average expected lifetime major medical bill and set aside that pot of money for everyone individually. At some point (e.g. 65) you can choose to start drawing down from your pot as taxable income. Prior to then, the only way the fund can be used is for major medical expenses not covered by other insurance you may have. Such payments go directly to providers and are tax-exempt. When you die, any leftover amount gets transferred to the MMA accounts of your heirs (per your desired breakdown, or according to probate law in the absence of a will).…

Asymmetry Is the Root of All Value

It’s not hard these days to find vignettes like this one (starting at minute 1:45) that describe a microeconomic chain of events that give you a glimpse into the recessionary dynamic.  I think it’s a good starting point to explain my personal theory of why asymmetry is the root of all value (economic and otherwise).…

The Vanguard of Science: Bonnie Bassler

The import of this talk goes way beyond the specific and stunning work that Bassler and her team have done on quorum sensing.  In my mind, this is the prototype for good biological science:…


Tribes are hot.

Kevin has referred more than once to the famous Dunbar number for limits on optimal human tribe size.

One of my favorite books recently is Seth Godin’s book on leadership, called — you guessed it — Tribes.

Yesterday I heard a great talk by David Logan, co-author of Tribal Leadership.…

How to Change the Climate in 3 Years

Oh, and re-grow the rainforrest, strengthen the social, political and economic climate, save endangered species and increase biodiversity and resilliance all at the same time without any budget.…

Red Pill or Blue Pill?

As we approach the inauguration of a new leader who trying to be truly post-partisan, I think Jonathan Haidt’s TED brilliant talk is apropos:…

The Conflict Between Complex Systems and Reductionism

The following is a recent paper by Henry Heng published in JAMA.  I’ve linked concepts mentioned in the paper to corresponding explications from this blog.

JAMA. 2008;300(13):1580-1581.
The Conflict Between Complex Systems and Reductionism
Henry H. Q. Heng, PhD
Author Affiliations: Center for Molecular Medicine and Genetics, Wayne State University School of Medicine, Detroit, Michigan.

Descartes’ reductionist principle has had a profound influence on medicine. Similar to repairing a clock in which each broken part is fixed in order, investigators have attempted to discover causal relationships among key components of an individual and to treat those components accordingly. …

Complex Systems Concept Summary

I figured it was time for a reset and so the following is a summary of much of the foundational posting that I’ve done on this blog so far.  As always, a work in progress, subject to refinement and learning……

Response to "Thoughts on Ants, Altruism and the Future of Humanity"

[ This is an edited version of a blog comment on Brandon Kein’s Wired Science post here ]

The question of whether we will “break through” to a superorganism or collapse through any number of spiraling cascades or catastrophic events is the subject of Ervin Laszlo’s book, The Chaos Point, which I highly recommend.  In it, he gives a sweeping view of the complex evolutionary dynamic (focusing on human society), and makes a solid argument that we are at an inflection point in history right now, similar to the “saltation” that begat multicellularity.…

Complex Links: TED

I attended the TED Conference this year for the first time.  It was a transformative experience, one that I hope everyone can have in some form or another before too long.  One way to simulate being there is watch as many of these incredible talks from past TED conferences as you can in a short period of time.  If you are inspired, check out the TED Prize and how you can be a part of a growing global meta-movement for positive change in the world.

I will be blogging about things that piqued my interest at TED, but below are some cool links that I came away with:…


I posted earlier on emergent causality. One aspect that needs to be elaborated on is the concurrent, self-interdependent nature of emergence, or in other words the chicken and egg problem.…

Evolution Favors Cooperation Over Competition

There is a myth in evolutionary biology, as well as in the zeitgeist, that evolution by natural selection is all about competition.…

Three Kinds of Cooperation

Ecologists speak about two types of cooperation — mutualism and commensalism — which distinguish whether both or just one of a pair is benefiting. I’d like to look at a different dimension of cooperation that has to do with communication. There are at least three different types of cooperation along this dimension, though perhaps you can distinguish more (if so, please post a comment!)…

The Logical Necessity of Group Selection

There has been a long-standing debate about the notion of group selection, the idea that populations of organisms can be selected for en masse over competing populations.  The Darwinian “purists” claim that natural selection (NS) only acts at the level of individuals.  But if that’s true, then how can multicellular organisms be subject to NS?  After all what are multicellular organisms if not a group of single cell organisms?…

Types of Emergence

Stability can be thought of as a measure of agency. That is, the more stable a system is, the better we are able to recognize it as a distinct agent, a system that actively, structurally or by happenstance persists through time, space and/or other dimensions. Burton Voorhees defines a concept of virtual stability as a “state in which a system employs self-monitoring and adaptive control to maintain itself in a configuration that would otherwise be unstable.” He clarifies that virtual stability is not the same as stability or metastability and gives formal definitions of all three.* By making a distinction between stability, metastability and virtual stability, we can gain further clarity on agency itself and the emergence of new agents and new levels of organization.…

Dangerous Ideas

Daniel Horowitz just forwarded me an interesting article in which Steve Pinker is debating and defending the merits of exploring dangerous ideas even though they may threaten our core values and deeply offend our sensibilities. What struck me most interesting (and laudable) was Pinker’s willingness to play devil’s advocate to his own argument and suggest that maybe exploring dangerous ideas is too dangerous an idea itself and thus should not be adopted as a practice:

But don’t the demands of rationality always compel us to seek the complete truth? Not necessarily. Rational agents often choose to be ignorant. They may decide not to be in a position where they can receive a threat or be exposed to a sensitive secret. They may choose to avoid being asked an incriminating question, where one answer is damaging, another is dishonest and a failure to answer is grounds for the questioner to assume the worst (hence the Fifth Amendment protection against being forced to testify against oneself). Scientists

Cooperation and Competition

It is well-understood that the primary relationship between agents in an evolutionary system is that of competition for resources: food, mates, territory, control, etc. It is also recognized that agents not only compete but also cooperate with one another, sometimes simultaneously, for instance hunting in packs (cooperation) while also fighting for alpha status within the pack (competition). If we look at inter-agent behaviors as existing on a continuum of pure competition on one end and pure cooperation* on the other, it is clear that there is broad range both within species and between agents of different species. Originally, cooperative behavior was explained away as an exception to the general competitive landscape and happened only when two agents shared enough genetic code (such as between parent and child) that cooperation could be seen as a form of genetic selfishness. While this true in a narrow sense, it misses the larger point which is that cooperation between any two or more agents can confer advantages to all …

Generalized Evolutionary Theory

Over the years evolutionary theory has itself evolved to encompass new and more disciplines: social Darwinism, genetic algorithms, co-evolution of biology and culture, evolutionary psychology, economics, psychoanalysis, and more. Attempts to formalize evolution typically have focused on several elements or preconditions for natural selection:

  1. a POPULATION of individual agents
  2. a REPRODUCTION mechanism
  3. a MUTATION mechanism that yields differential fitness of agents
  4. a SELECTION mechanism which favors highly fit agents over others for reproduction