Murmuration of starlings. (photo: Tanya Hart, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

Complexity science is essential to understanding many of the deepest and most perplexing questions facing humankind — and hence the John Templeton Foundation, which is devoted to addressing just such questions, is sponsoring a series of three essays on complexity by Santa Fe Institute researchers, accompanied by stories written by freelance writers.  

In the first essay, SFI Fellow Stefani Crabtree (Utah State University) explores how complex adaptive systems science is useful for understanding the order that governs social and ecological systems. When Homo sapiens spread out of Africa as early as 125,000 years ago, our species began to rapidly modify environments as it encountered them, with the impacts compounding and intensifying over time. Complex structures among tens of thousands of distinct cultures grew. Yet despite differences among these varying societies across the 510 million square kilometers of land on earth, Crabtree argues that human action may be in fact subject to unifying principles of organization.  

In the second essay, Wim Hordijk, a former graduate student connected with SFI, examines “autocatalytic sets,” which are key to the origin of life. The arising of life depends crucially on chemicals interacting with one another in precise ways. In particular, life depends on catalysts, molecules that speed up and regulate chemical reactions. When the molecules in a chemical reaction network mutually catalyze each other’s formation from a basic energy source, the network is called an autocatalytic set. Hordijk analyzes autocatalytic sets as complex systems, ultimately asking how chemistry becomes biology.  

The third essay, by former SFI Postdoc Joshua Grochow (University of Colorado Boulder), will be published later this spring.

Read the essays through the John Templeton Foundation.