Category Archives: Complexity

Preserving personality diversity

Metaphorical application to human communities & policy planning:

Keim, Brandon, and Tristan Spinski. “Meet the Mice Who Make the Forest.” The New York Times, November 25, 2022, sec. Science.

…the personalities of small mammals influence their choice of seeds. Earlier this year the team described how some deer mice, depending on their personality, were more likely than others to cache red oak, white pine and American beech nuts in ways that promoted germination.

In turn, the personality-specific foraging strategies of rodents changed when predators were around…

And land use alters these dynamics.

Asked to define the practical implications of his research, Dr. Mortelliti said, “Preserve a diversity of personalities.” There’s no one ideal personality; rather, different individuals perform different roles. Depending on circumstance — drought, natural disturbances, fluctuations in predator populations — different personality types may come to the fore. …

A study the following year revealed that a more natural forest, with a mix of habitats rather than the uniformity favored by most commercial logging, contained a greater diversity of personalities.

“This diversity of personality types is maintained in populations because it’s a good thing, just like genetic diversity is a good thing,” Dr. Brehm said.

Mortelliti, Alessio, and Allison M. Brehm. “Environmental Heterogeneity and Population Density Affect the Functional Diversity of Personality Traits in Small Mammal Populations.” Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 287, no. 1940 (December 9, 2020): 20201713.

We show that the richness, divergence and evenness of personality traits in wild populations are linked to key characteristics of the environment such as vegetation heterogeneity and a fundamental demographic parameter: population density. Maintaining functional diversity is widely considered a key conservation outcome [67,68] and our study provides evidence to suggest that conservation practitioners should consider vegetation heterogeneity and population density as key factors associated with high diversity of behavioural phenotypes. (Mortelliti and Brehm, 2020, p. 7)

(dear mouse photo from New York Times, “Meet the Mice Who Make the Forest.)

…to see out into a world glimpsed only fleetingly

            in the cosmos
            are as the crystals
            in the gene
            the tree
            which emerges
            is the multifoliate
… Duncan’s creative practice  nourished an approach to writing that, with Olson, struggled to articulate a new  basis for poetics; their shared goal was to reestablish the uses of poetry beyond  the domain of literature to confront a larger cultural and historical field of action.
–Berthoff & Smith, An Open Map: The Correspondence of Robert Duncan and Charles Olson, “Introduction: Love and the Idea of Form.” 1.
…a central element of his poetic stance: individuals are secondary in the permitted documentations of the energy sustained by an  acknowledged flow or movement of perception. The goal is to see out into a  world glimpsed only fleetingly. To hold closely to one’s wisdom is to separate  from that outer force of the world, to be entrapped by confidence and identification rather than to be in submission to outside forces or observable facts.  “Doesn’t it honestly,” Olson argues,
come to, to love? that all springs up, there? And that what springs up is energy, with which to do anything, think (which is to be wise), cut wood  (& i mean for no other reason than to keep warm), push something, ahead,  make it different, etc., anything, all that all the vocabulary—the words you  seek to make gnomic by doublet—are valid enuf as reductive (that is, that  they do analyze validly the worlds love opens one’s eyes to.
–ibid 10.
[Gnomic: used to describe something spoken or written that is short, mysterious, and not easily understood, but often seems wise…
related words:
brusque, concise, cryptic, curt, elliptical, incisive, laconic, pithy, precise, succinct, trenchant, abrupt, aphoristic, boiled down, breviloquent, clear-cut, clipped, close, compact, compendious.
Doublet: set of two identical or similar things; one of two or more words (such as guard and ward) in the same language derived by different routes of transmission from the same source.
In November–December 1959, Olson writes:
            in the cosmos
            are as the crystals
            in the gene
            the tree
            which emerges
            is the multifoliate
For Olson, the cosmos establishes relation; it moves attention away from individual concerns to include an acknowledgment of the interaction of dynamic  energies. The pursuit of his studies increasingly occupies Olson’s attention, particularly as the winter solstice approaches…
–Ibid 17.


In preparation for teaching college field studies in the Wrangell Mountains:

…to speak of atoms, cells, bodies, planets, galaxies, and the whole cosmos in relation to each other…

… a means of attending to one’s own perceptual field, systematically applying a measure to consistently compare the relative appearance of things. Scale is a phenomenological apparatus that permits us to speak of atoms, cells, bodies, planets, galaxies, and the whole cosmos in relation to each other. Scale is likewise a notation, a reference point whereby we relate one object (a galaxy) to our normal perceptual field (a meter). As a notation, scale’s significant rhetorical power manifests in its capacity to transform our understanding of our usual experience: in the capacity to conceive of this world, this body, and oneself according to these different scales. 

I explore scale through the scalar practices of both science and mysticism, with occasional reference to political conceptions of scale. The project finds that mysticism, the perennial aspects of spirituality that aims for union with a higher being, is an unavoidable and essential part of understanding scale since scalar terminologies tend to arise from mystical experience and encountering scale tends to generate decidedly mystical questions. Looking at mysticism in relation to science permits a fresh exploration of why science finds itself struggling with mystical concepts, such as wholeness, vastness, transcendence, hierarchy, or infinity, which are particularly notable within astronomy and ecology. Likewise, looking at how science develops and systematizes scalar descriptions permits a reworking of these mystical concepts in a manner that retains a clearer reference to empirical practices, while not remaining strictly within a material conception of the cosmos.

Joshua DiCaglio, “On Being Scaled: Rhetorical Practices of the Cosmos.” Dissertation, English Department, Pennsylvania State University, 2016. Abstract.

This point of bewilderment…

The disorientation provided by scale and the fact that it relates to a transformation of ourselves means that it launches us necessarily into territory that is less comfortably scientific. This point of bewilderment is where those invested in scientific discourse tend to retreat back to the concrete productions of scientific study. We consider the cellular diagram rather than that my body is made up of cells; we return to studying images of stars and avoid contemplating our relationship to these vast distances; we reinscribe quantum fields as particles rather than consider the interpretive implications of quantum uncertainty. Again and again, the products of scale tempt us to retreat in this way, in part, because to do otherwise just seems too mystical. …But what if scale is mystical? The problem is that we don’t understand why it’s mystical or what this mean. …

… mysticism describes a particular experience, particular practices designed around that experience, and a particular configuration toward reality that arises from and works out a scalar perspective. When scientists take the time to dwell on the larger implications and effects of scale, they find themselves entering the discursive realm of mysticism. In turn, those who have mystical experiences often find that the scalar descriptions of science provide a language that fits their experience. What if, to fully orient ourselves to scale, we have to set aside this repeated dismissal of mysticism? I will show how scale brings some surprising clarity to what mystics have always been going on about and, in turn, that mysticism helps clarify essential difficulties presented by scale.

To this end, mysticism can be defined in scalar terms as that branch of inquiry that aims to induce and integrate encounters with nonhuman scales, particularly the cosmic scale. Mysticism arises in the experience of an existence larger than oneself, in the experience of experience exceeding itself. This glimpse of a vaster totality beyond human bounds reorients the “individual” outside of the typical scale of the human being. This person must then try to make sense of, describe, and develop this new orientation. …

…Scale is not the exclusive purview of science or the technologies that produce any scalar observations. Rather, these modes of inquiry and extensions of observation (e.g., in microscopes, telescopes, and the many more complicated apparatuses) examine basic aspects of experience…

Joshua DiCaglio, Scale Theory: A Nondisciplinary Inquiry. U of Minnesota Press, 2021.

Read as poetry?

Schoepfer, Shane D., Jun Shen, Hiroyoshi Sano, and Thomas J. Algeo. “Onset of Environmental Disturbances in the Panthalassic Ocean over One Million Years Prior to the Triassic-Jurassic Boundary Mass Extinction.” Earth-Science Reviews, November 20, 2021, 103870.


While the end-Triassic mass extinction has been linked to emplacement of the Central Atlantic Magmatic Province (CAMP), evidence for environmental stresses appears hundreds of thousands of years prior to the extinction in some sections from the Panthalassic Ocean. In this study, we measured carbon, sulfur, and mercury concentrations in the Kurusu section, near Inuyama, Japan. These bedded radiolarian cherts are part of the Mino Terrane, an accretionary complex of late Paleozoic and Mesozoic sediments deposited at abyssal water depths in the open ocean, providing a unique window into the Triassic-Jurassic transition in pelagic settings. The rhythmically bedded nature of the sediments allowed construction of a floating astronomical age model tied to the radiolarian-defined Triassic-Jurassic boundary. Average linear sedimentation rates (LSR) of 0.07–0.48 cm kyr−1 and total organic carbon (TOC) concentrations of 0.07–0.22% yielded estimates of primary productivity rates (PPR) based on published transfer functions ranging from 2400 to 63,000 mg C cm−2 kyr−1, which are generally comparable to PPRs in the modern equatorial and subtropical Pacific. While mercury (Hg) concentrations are strongly correlated with sedimentary sulfide content throughout the section, a distinct increase in the ratio of Hg to sulfide near the Triassic-Jurassic boundary may record Hg input from CAMP volcanism. Below this level, a series of discrete spikes in sulfide content appear during the ~ 1.2 Myr before the extinction, recording a precursor interval of environmental stress that also correlates with changes in the composition of the planktonic community. We infer that these changes reflect the development of stratification in the water column, with more reducing conditions characterizing the thermocline below the surface mixed layer. Based on the evidence from Kurusu and comparisons to other Panthalassic sections, we propose a model in which water-column stratification began to develop in the open Panthalassic Ocean over one million years before the Triassic-Jurassic boundary. Evidence from sections deposited at slope depths suggests that this rising chemocline may have begun to impinge on the slopes of island arcs and the South American continental margin by ~ 400 kyr before the boundary. The end-Triassic extinction coincided with both the main phase of CAMP eruptions and the irruption of acidic, reducing deep waters into photic zone and shelf environments.


CAMP Central Atlantic Magmatic Province Inuyama Mercury Volcanism Paleoproductivity


Featured image credit Elenarts/Shutterstock

Compare Scotty Hendricks, “Rock Study May Have Just Revealed Cause of Triassic Mass Extinction.”

The “Grand Myth of Scientific Superrationality” and Pinkwater’s Borgel (a Christmas story)

Shanghai Skyscape
Shanghai, China
photo by Peter Morgan

Seoul, Korea
Seoul, Korea, near by Han River
photo by Patriotmissile at the English language Wikipedia

New York City
New York City, Overview of Manhattan from the Empire State Building
photo by Hakilon

Starting into Murry Code’s book on Whitehead today, I have the sense that Euro-American imperialism hasn’t ended, but has shifted to a pervasive form that is transmitted culturally, so global now that it is generally taken as a given, invisible as the ocean is to the fish in the sea. At its core is

…a Grand Myth of Scientific Superrationality – the idea that science exemplifies the epitome of rational thought.

This powerful myth appears to be the principal support for an inherently violent and imperialistic reason. It would therefore be well for me to try to spell out what I mean by imperialism. Following Edward Said, I understand this to refer to ‘a political philosophy whose aim and purpose for being is territorial expansion and legitimation.’ But he goes further and notes that the term refers not merely to a violent conquest of foreign
territory; it also alludes to attempts to subjugate the belief systems of others. No modern mode of thought seems more efficient in this respect than science, whose usurpation of the vital function of meaning-making tends to be legitimated by contemporary natural philosophers who style themselves as naturalists even as they turn their backs on nature and anchor their philosophical investigations in scientific theories.

A culture that is in thrall to a burgeoning technoscience recalls, in other words, the Eurocentric imperialism of the nineteenth century that, as Said puts it, granted itself the right to intervene wherever and however it chose. Acting under the assumption that they were representatives of a superior culture, its agents set out with the conviction that ‘laying claim to an idea and laying claim to a territory – given the extraordinarily current idea that the non-European world was there to be claimed, occupied, and ruled by Europe – were . . . different sides of the same, essentially constitutive activity, which had the force, the prestige, and the authority of science.’ It is therefore ‘a serious underestimation of imperialism,’ says Said, to overlook the fact that a ‘hegemonic imperial design’ also presumes a right ‘to treat reality appropriatively.’ The importance of this observation is borne out by non-Western critics of the scientistic ideology who maintain that a sanitized violence has been institutionalized on a worldwide scale in the name of scientific values (e.g., efficiency, cost-effectiveness, and economy of effort).

Murry Code, Process, Reality, and the Power of Symbols: Thinking with A.N. Whitehead, Palgrave Macmillan, 2007, p. 2.

Alternative ways of being and doing are suppressed in the presence of this myth and its cultural and material expression. But I suspect, like the mammals living in the shadow of dinosaurs, that they will continue to evolve and survive, to re-emerge when conditions change in their favor.

Looking at the extent of religious expression in the midst of the Grand Myth of Superrationality, it seems that the dominant paradigm develops its own counter-currents as it becomes apparently monolithic, and within that complexity there is hope, actually more than hope: the expectation of possibility. I’m reminded of the Great Popsicle in Daniel Pinkwater’s Borgel (one of the great novels of all time), whose joyous life-giving characteristics re-appear in new forms when the previous form is suppressed and presumed exterminated.

Re-reading what I’ve written here, I realize it’s Christmas day, celebration of the liberating incarnation entering the world. It’s an appropriate time to reflect on dominating paradigms, the tendency to be constricted by them unaware of alternatives, and also their  impermanence and the possibility of release.

Should a young scholar with an interdisciplinary bent go into a standard grad program to attain full proficiency in a single discipline first?

Is interdisciplinarity a skill in itself?

Enjoyed a conversation yesterday with my long-time friend Yaakov Garb, who does interdisciplinary research at Ben Gurion University in the Negev. He does great research, I think, integrating multiple frameworks and perspectives to address complex situations, ranging from Eastern Europe urban sprawl issues to green building standards and sustainable organic farming in Bedouin villages. He and I have been able to attain pretty good, but not excellent proficiency in the variety of fields required to understand such topics. Yaakov commented he can see ways his incomplete proficiency has limited his work.

So, we discussed, what advice do we give a young person who wants to engage complex issues? Better to go into an interdisciplinary grad program, gain experience working with that complexity, and attain maybe a 60% expertise level in multiple subjects? Or first put the years into a standard, single-discipline program to get full professional skills there?

I’m not sure of the answer (probably depends on the individual student and the specific academic program), but reflecting on that conversation, it seems to me that the ability to do interdisciplinary work requires skills equivalent to what’s required for expertise in a discipline. These include ability to see & understand context and ability to work back and forth between multiple frames, seeing analogies, overlaps, differences and implications.

Given the time and effort required, it’s difficult if not impossible for a single person to attain highest proficiency in both interdisciplinary skills and in a discipline. Also, some people are genetically predisposed to be proficient in contextual thinking/multiple frames. So, encourage the abductive thinker to go the interdisciplinary path? –while also emphasizing respect for disciplinary expertise, the need to consult with those experts, the importance of getting to that 60% level which enables conversation with them, and the interpersonal skills for engaging in that conversation.

Chaisson Relational Thinking Styles coverThe wife of my friend Hal here in PT, Phyllis Chiasson, an expert in thinking styles, reports that it’s about 1 in 20 people who genetically are abductive thinkers. (See her Relational Thinking Styles and Natural Intelligence.)

On the value of getting multiple diverse learning experiences, rather than a single one in greater depth, there’s Einstein’s story: Failing to get an academic physics position, he worked in the patent office, reviewing ideas for synchronizing railroad clocks. That put him in position to apply the railroad  line & clock model to the physics situation, helping enable the theory of relativity. But his math skills were only good, not great, so sometimes he had to get help from more narrow thinkers with full expertise in math.

In most institutional settings, the abductive thinker’s role wlll be unusual, difficult, and perhaps uncomfortable, because it is intrinsically (and necessarily: imagine a society of just abductive thinkers!) a minority position and challenging to the status quo. There will be the temptation to conform. But the role is probably necessary for essential functional creativity in human communities. In our Saturday morning discussions here with Hal, Dr. Kimber Rotchford, et al., we’ve talked about how that 1/20 proportion of abductive thinkers in the population probably evolved as optimal for both maintaining ongoing stable function and generating sufficient innovation.

Intuition, uncertainty, doubt, trust, confidence & happiness

Excerpts from today’s reading  (boldface mine):Minding the Markets book cover

Doubt, trust, and confidence are subjective mental states which intertwine with the stories we tell ourselves about what is going on. Economic life involves human relationships of exchange of longer or shorter duration. Such relationships are accompanied by the stories we tell ourselves about what is happening to them and the mental states that are stimulated. At their simplest, human relationships of exchange involve a story being told to create a belief that continued attachment to the relationship will be excitingly rewarding or a source of danger and disadvantage. The word ‘credit’ is actually based on the Latin verb ‘to believe’.

In summary my argument is that what happened in the recent financial crisis (like in many before) was the product of a shift in mental states.

organizational failures followed from the power phantastic objects exert on mental states and the way institutions have increasingly stimulated this power for advantage and then increasingly become ruled by it.


Hsee, Christopher K., Luxi Shen, Shirley Zhang, Jingqiu Chen, and Li Zhang. “Fate or Fight: Exploring the Hedonic Costs of Competition.” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 119, no. 2 (November 2012): 177–186. doi:10.1016/j.obhdp.2012.07.005.

Contrary to lay intuitions, we found that individuals in an unequal assignment condition, including the disadvantaged individuals in that condition, were happier than individuals in an equal competition condition, but that this effect held only if the inequality was irreversible, the advantaged and the disadvantaged were segregated, and the disadvantaged were given some enjoyable alternative resource to consume.

current research advances the peace-of-mind notion that irreversible fate prompts one to make peace with it and feel happy. Furthermore, it breaks down the peace-of-mind idea into two different varieties: choice-free peace and opportunity-free peace. Although previous research has documented extensive evidence for choice-free peace, the present research offers initial evidence from a controlled laboratory experiment for opportunity-free peace.


Dane, Erik, Kevin W. Rockmann, and Michael G. Pratt. “When Should I Trust My Gut? Linking Domain Expertise to Intuitive Decision-making Effectiveness.” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 119, no. 2 (November 2012): 187–194. doi:10.1016/j.obhdp.2012.07.009.

Research suggests that even for tasks well-suited to intuition, the effectiveness of intuitive decision making may relate to the level of expertise one has attained in the focal domain.

for certain tasks (and, perhaps more generally, for certain expertise domains), the effectiveness of intuition may begin to approach the effectiveness of analysis well before one achieves task (or domain) mastery.

It is conceivable that when individuals have at least a moderate level of domain expertise, analytical decision making disrupts or disengages the intuitive operations that typically serve experts well.

our studies suggest that, on non-decomposable tasks, intuition may indeed prove effective – to the extent one has accrued expertise within the focal domain

the greater one’s expertise within the focal domain, the more likely one’s intuitions will prove effective – particularly if the task at hand is non-decomposable. By extension, however, individuals should be cautious of ‘‘trusting their gut’’ when these conditions are not present. Likewise, organizational managers should be wary of prescribing intuitive decision making indiscriminately, even on non-decomposable tasks. Given that individuals differ in their tendency to favor intuition and analysis respectively …, domain novices who are naturally inclined to take stock in their intuitive judgments may do so with misplaced haste, particularly when intuitive decision making is widely accepted or advocated within their work context

our results suggest that as individuals attain what might be viewed as a moderate level of domain expertise, the effectiveness of intuitive decision making on non-decomposable tasks increases.


Milkman, Katherine L. “Unsure What the Future Will Bring? You May Overindulge: Uncertainty Increases the Appeal of Wants over Shoulds.” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 119, no. 2 (November 2012): 163–176. doi:10.1016/j.obhdp.2012.07.003.

This paper examines the effect of uncertainty about the future on whether individuals select want options (e.g., junk foods, lowbrow films) or instead exert self-control and select should options (e.g., healthy foods, highbrow films). Consistent with the ego-depletion literature, which suggests that self-control resembles an exhaustible muscle, coping with uncertainty about what the future may bring reduces self-control resources and increases individuals’ tendency to favor want options over should options. These results persist when real uncertainty is induced, when the salience of naturally-arising uncertainty is heightened and when individuals are able to make choices contingent upon the outcomes of uncertain events. Overall, this work suggests that reducing uncertainty in a decision maker’s environment may have important spillover effects, leading to less impulsive choices.

Can information expand to enable solving complex social problems, without requiring unsustainable energy consumption?

graph from Tainter, Complexity, problem solving and sustainable societies
Figure 4.1: Diminishing returns to increasing complexity, in Tainter, “Complexity, problem solving and sustainable societies.”
Would considering the potential consequences of information flow, instead of or in addition to energy, affect this graph?

Energy has always been the basis of cultural complexity and it always will be.

Getting Down to Earth coverJoseph Tainter. “Complexity, Problem Solving and Sustainable Societies.” In Getting down to Earth: Practical Applications of Ecological Economics, Island Press, 1996.

horizontal white space

The common view of history assumes that complexity and resource consumption have emerged through innovation facilitated by surplus energy. This view leads to the supposition that complexity and consumption are voluntary, and that we can therefore achieve a sustainable future through conservation. Such an assumption is substantially incorrect. History suggests that complexity most commonly increases to solve problems, and compels increase in resource use. This process is illustrated by the history of the Roman Empire and its collapse. Problems are inevitable, requiring increasing complexity, and conservation is therefore insufficient to produce sustainability. Future sustainability will require continued high levels of energy consumption to address converging problems.

Tainter, Joseph A. “Energy, Complexity, and Sustainability: A Historical Perspective.” Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions 1, no. 1 (June 2011): 89–95.


If readers have leads to answers to the following questions, please let me know. I’d guess the literature may well address the first set of questions. Applying physics and information theory to spiritual asceticism may be opening new ground? Unless the Dalai Lama’s seminars have gotten into it? —

What would happen if Tainter substituted the notion of “information” for “complexity?” Can information expand to support sustainability, without requiring high levels of energy consumption? Can major shifts in the organization of society, or some parts of society, result in a much greater level of function, without increase, or maybe even with decrease, of energy and materials use?

What happens if an analysis like Tainter’s, or one that considers information along with or instead of energy input, is applied to problem-solving methods practiced in spiritual communities such as Christian monasticism and Buddhist sangha?

Also, I’m curious about what happens if ecological and evolutionary notions are applied to developing organizational responses to complex management issues, such as, for example, wildlands management in a complex national park like Wrangell-St. Elias, which is the size of Switzerland, with many engaged landowners, jurisdictions and stakeholders, and conservation and preservation issues. Would it be useful to evaluate networked/collaborative management models vs hierarchical/authoritarian approaches, using information and energy input-output considerations? Could doing that give insights into how best to respond to agency budget and staffing declines, which are happening at the same time that management issues are becoming more difficult and complicated?

Networked/collaborative vs hierarchical/authoritarian management also likely differ in outcomes, beyond those typically identified in agency or business planning, but which other cultures, including but not limited to Christian or Buddhist ascetic communities, might feature. I wonder if applying information & energy input/output analysis in the planning process might tend to open up the process to an expanded set of alternatives. Maybe just by breaking set patterns of thinking & behavior?

I realize all this needs much more research and thinking to be clear & useful. Comments welcome.

Risk landscapes


which looks at the risk of spotted owl extinction in landscapes of various patterns, including evaluation of mathematical landscape models used for that purpose:

Leads me to the notion of “risk landscape”  —
To what extent can understanding the physical landscapes of the owl forest, and the mathematically modeled landscapes developed to approximate them, be useful in seeing other risk situations as metaphorical landscapes, e.g. medical treatment decisions or political strategy decisions. If so, then terms like “paths” through these metaphorical landscapes could apply, and factors could be added to the model equivalent to climate in physical landscapes, the adaptability characteristics of the traveler through the landscape, etc.

diagram of an adaptive landscapeEcologists have used “fitness landscapes” to visualize how natural selection brings populations to optimal points. (See also, e.g.,  Chris Colby 1996.) I wonder how much further the landscape metaphor can be expanded to other uses.

But also perhaps flip this around:
Taking it another step, is it (or to what extent is it) that what we perceive as physical landscape is our human way of modeling incoming information or data. In other words, could it be that the physical landscape, as we know it, is a model that we create to make useful sense of the incomplete, diverse, complex information that comes into us, and that we combine with what’s inside of us already? The physical landscape, the physical world, as we understand it, is in that sense a human construction. Worth remembering that all models are simplifications, usually created to be useful for specific purposes.

What is the reality beyond the model? Is there a way of accessing that, other than through other models? Religious answers beyond modeling include faith, and practice.