Two Meanings of Complex Adaptive Systems


In complex systems theory, two meanings of a complex adaptive system (CAS) need to be distinguished. The first, CAS1, refers to a complex system that is adaptive as a system; the second, CAS2, refers to a complex system of agents which follow adaptive strategies. Examples of CAS1 include the brain, the immune system, and social insect colonies. Examples of CAS2 include multispecies ecosystems and the biosphere. This chapter uses multilevel selection theory to clarify the relationships between CAS1 and CAS2. The general rule is that for a complex system to qualify as CAS1, selection must occur at the level of the complex system (e.g., individual-level selection for brains and the immune system, colony-level selection for social insect colonies). Selection below the level of the system tends to undermine system-level functional organization. This general rule applies to human social systems as well as biological systems and has pro- found consequences for economics and public policy.


From “Complexity and Evolution: Toward a New Synthesis for Economics”, August 2016, MIT Press

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