» THE BUG IS THE SYSTEM: A Freewheeling Romp Through the Natural and Social Implications of Chaos Theory

by Clare Lacy (from the extended online release of Tipping the Sacred Cow – The Best of LiP: Informed Revolt)

Human civilization supposedly thrives on order and predictability; it means that people will obey traffic laws and pay their taxes, show up to work on time, and keep their word. Predictability gives us a sense of order, and order lends itself in varying degrees to unity, to nationalism, to legality, and to community. Whether we like it or not, much of our lives are governed by these ideas of order and predictability, and by our assumptions that these ideals are universal and natural. And indeed, nature does follow its own order with periodic population swells, predictable animal behavior, and food chains, but in attempting to mimic or find equilibrium with natural conditions, humans never seem to be able to get it quite right.

With all variables seemingly accounted for, chaos often predominates over predictive systems, and we are left wondering what clue we are missing in our search for order in natural systems. In every field of inquiry, scientists have come up against certain problems that until the advent of chaos theory were written off as unsolvable.

These bugs in the system were most often attributed to inaccurate equipment and unforeseen or unknown variables, and were generally written off as anomalies. Such anomalies could be found in everything from weather simulators to the rhythms of dripping faucets, in everything that we took for granted to be steady, linear, and predictable. But systems don’t tend toward predictability and sameness, according to chaos theorists: While they do seem to follow certain patterns, a “sensitivity toward initial conditions” (many of which seem to be outside the power of humans to detect, or control) means that the exact same thing will almost never happen twice.

These conditions could be as simple as an extra number after a decimal in a mathematical calculation, or vague enough to be still unidentifiable by humans. It is these sensitive initial conditions, chaos theorists believe, that nature depends on for genetic diversity and adaptive behaviors that lead to evolution; in looking for predictability, the connection that scientists were missing was the presence in every field of a point in linear systems where things become disorderly. Chaos theorists began exploring and graphing the similarities between these forms of disorder, as well as the boundaries of their behaviors. Graphed one way, a line representing seemingly random disorder in a given system seems to spiral into chaos; graphed another way, it outlines a distinct and repeating form, but never along the exact same path.

It is this unique dissimilarity that makes for the instantly recognizable forms of fractals, of snowflakes, and of the leaves of ferns, and for the uniqueness of each of these from others. Not only was it a new and uncharted area of science, but it was universally applicable, and cast new light on old problems.

The initial resistance from the scientific community toward this idea of an underlying order in problems previously dismissed as unsolvable was strong. Not only did it call to mind past failures at further exploration, but it sorely impeded the ability of scientists to play god. The idea that there is a certain amount of chaos or sensitive dependence on initial conditions theoretically meant that if we could just figure out what those conditions were, we could duplicate any system. On the other hand, if we couldn’t identify those conditions, we would have to acknowledge the presence of a code that we could not crack; it was not complete chaos, but neither was it order in which we could interfere.

If chaos theory has a general lesson to impart to us, it’s that uniformity and conformity are literally unnatural. In monoculture crop plantations, large tracts of land are planted with the cloned seed of a single “perfect” organism. In the event of disease, there is no genetic variance among these identical plants that may include a predisposition to resistance, but the reaction has been to deal with this outcome through large amounts of pesticides. Forest fires spread easily through trees of one species planted over clear-cut areas; generally, one pine tree is planted for every tree in a diverse forest that is cut down (or so the propaganda goes). Grown close together with no variety of height and spacing, natural fires are suppressed until the buildup of underbrush leads to widespread fires that rage out of control.

To the extent that societies must find equilibrium with the natural world and its principles, it’s worth noting that we tend to see differences rather than similarities, and to miss overarching, sometimes monstrously obvious themes. Aberrations from the “normal” brand us as malcontents, troublemakers, or threats of various ilks. Racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, and a whole slew of other mentalities spring from a denial of the natural diversity of the universe. It is a problem that affects our society beyond the scientific community, and will continue to do so as long as we attempt to impose an order that disregards the world’s natural and observable affection for unique dissimilarity.

For nature, chaos theory tells us, deviation is the norm.


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