(Photo: Bonniebel B/Unsplash)

For SFI Professor Jessica Flack and SFI Davis Professor Melanie Mitchell, the COVID-19 pandemic prompts us to revisit the ways that complex systems retain stability in the biological world. By learning from biological systems, we can begin to shore up the vulnerability inherent in the complex systems that undergird human life.

As Flack and Mitchell explain in their recent essay for Aeon, complex systems are characterized by instability, uncertainty, randomness, and information flux. As we see in the pandemic, complex systems are coupled systems. A decision in one part of the system, say, social distancing policies, reverberates in another part, say, stock market fluctuation, which reverberates in another part, say, governmental stimulus, and so on. Anyone looking at either the unfurling pandemic or the list of terms that characterize complex systems might wonder if we could detect clear patterns of stability in either place.

Yet as Flack and Mitchell illustrate, many complex biological systems help us see that nature regularly responds to destabilization with strategies that help life systems remain robust and adaptable. Schools of fish, when met with the threat of a shark, experience what scientists call a tipping point. The threat prompts the fish not into chaotic panic, as one might expect. Rather, it compels them to shift from shoaling, a weakly aligned formation, to school formation, which is highly aligned and allows the group more easily to evade the predator.

Understanding how biological systems respond to uncertainty and destabilization can help us discover strategies to engineer stability in our human complex systems—for the pandemic and beyond.

Read the article in Aeon (August 21, 2020)