Michael Crichton and the Irreducible Complexity of the Natural World

 

When he died in 2008, Michael Crichton, the medical doctor-turned novelist, was at work on a new novel, Micro.  Crichton’s publisher hired Richard Preston–best known, perhaps, for his novel The Hot Zone–to complete the manuscript.  Over the Thanksgiving weekend, I started the book, just completing it a day ago.

Preston did such a skillful job that it’s impossible to say where Crichton left off and Preston picked up.  I grant that no one would ever confuse Micro with a work of literature.  In many ways, for that matter, it’s a repeat of Jurassic Park. Whereas in Jurassic Park a cool new technology makes it possible to re-create dinosaurs from ancient DNA, in Micro the cool new technology makes it possible to shrink human beings to height of a couple of centimeters. Instead of ordinary humans fleeing dinosaurs, Micro gives us teensy-weensy humans fleeing wasps, beetles and spiders.  But the natural science is so beautifully deployed–did you ever wonder what it would be like to have a wasp plant her eggs inside your body?–that I just loved it.

micro.jpgYet perhaps the finest passage in Micro comes at the very beginning, before the action proper even starts, in an introduction by Crichton, “What Kind of World Do We Live In?”, that Preston wisely reprints in its original, incomplete form.  An excerpt:

In 2008, the famous naturalist David Attenborough expressed concern that modern schoolchildren could not identify common plants and insects found in nature, although previous generations identified them without hesitation.  Modern children, it seemed, were cut off from the experience of nature, and from play in the natural world….It was ironic that this should be happening at a time when there was in the West an ever greater concern for the environment, and ever more ambitious steps proposed to protect it.

Indoctrinating children in proper environmental thought was a hallmark of the green movement, and so children were being instructed to protect something about which they knew nothing at all….

If you have a chance to play in nature, if you are sprayed by a beetle, if the color of a butterfly wing comes off on your fingers, if you watch a caterpillar spin its cocoon–you come away with a sense of mystery and uncertainty.  The more you watch, the more mysterious the natural world becomes, and the more you realize how little you know….

Perhaps the single most important lesson to be learned by direct experience is that the natural world, with all its elements and interconnections, represents a complex system and therefore we cannot understand it and we cannot predict its behavior. It is delusional to behave as if we can, as it would be delusional to behave as if we could predict the stock market, another complex system….

Human beings interact with complex systems very successfully.  We do it all the time.  But we do it by managing them, not by claiming to understand them.  Managers interact with the system:  they do something, watch for the response, and then do something else in an effort to get the result they want.  There is an endless iterative interaction that acknowledges we don’t know for sure what the system will do–we have to wait and see.  We may have a hunch we know what will happen.  We may be right much of the time.  But we are never certain.

Interacting with the natural world, we are denied certainty.  And always will be.

As representatives from 130 nations meet for climate talks in Durban, attempting, yet again, to impose vast costs and slow growth on the West–as environmentalists once again seek to impose their dubious views on the rest of us–Crichton’s are wise words to ponder.

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  1. Profile Photo Inactive
    @JB

    Thanks for posting, Peter. As a long time Crichton fan, disappointed only once by his pirate novel (that he himself may have been disappointed by, as he chose not to publish it), I’ll definitely pick it up. I’ve always been impressed by his ability to create tension while simultaneously working with big ideas, and showing how human error will without fail mess with those ideas once we start trying to put them in play.

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  2. Profile Photo Member
    @MisterD

    Good post, awful headline. “Irreducible Complexity” is term used almost exclusively by the ID and Creationist movement, something Crichton never did and never would be associated with.

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    @KCMulville

    The difference between predicting natural behavior and predicting human behavior is that natural behavior is (functionally) static, while human behavior is dynamic.

    • The practical reality is that there may be a billion factors that change the weather in New York if a butterfly flaps his wings in China, and so it’s impractical to calculate all the interactions – but theoretically, it isn’t impossible.
    • Human beings, however, are dynamic – they can vary their response to the same set of stimuli, depending on what they want (and sometimes, just for the fun of it).

    That’s why science dwells on causes, and economics dwells on incentives.

    • When a meteor travels through space, you can predict its destination once you know it’s direction and any gravity curves ahead in its path. It goes where it was propelled by its input.
    • Human beings behave according to interests as much as input.

    Natural systems are complex, but human systems are dynamic. No matter how much information you acquire, it won’t predict a market, because a market’s behavior is created on the fly.

    To succeed in a market, therefore, incentive is everything.

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    @GeorgeSavage

    For those who may have missed it, I have several times cited Crichton’s wonderfully compact dissertation on the origins of the decidedly unscientific “settled science” of anthropogenic global warming. His 2003 Caltech lecture, Aliens Cause Global Warming is distributed all over the Internet, but I link to “Watts Up With That?”, meteorologist Anthony Watts’s excellent climate website. Read the lecture, then take a spin through the latest ClimateGate 2 developments.

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    @MatthewGilley

    Following on Dr. Savage’s post, I really enjoyed reading Crichton’s final novel, “State of Fear,” which went nose-to-nose with the AGW “consensus.” I can’t recall another work of fiction that had footnotes.

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    @GiveMeLiberty

    Without meaning to Crichton describes perfectly the hubris of the technocrat.

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    @LowcountryJoe

    Serious question: do human beings transcend nature? Are we supposed to rise above the natural world [yet ‘forced’ to operate by its constraints as we interact with it] because we have a conscience?

    I do believe in God and am a Christian — believing that God has intervened very sparingly. I guess this means I’m a deist. But I cannot help but think that we’re every bit like our fellow animals; evolving, propagating, surviving, and competing for Earth’s scarce resources. If human beings are really a scourge to the ecosystem it’s because something had to rise to its evolutionary pinnacle and if it wasn’t us it would have been something else. Perhaps God planned it that way. Or maybe he just set the rules of the universe in motion and is eager to see how His ‘ant farm’ turns out. Reptiles had their turn. Maybe canines are next!

    Dog-Poker.jpg

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    @LowcountryJoe
    Tom Lindholtz: “Liberty”, I rather believe that Chrichton fully intended that. It is a common theme of his books. One of the things I always enjoy in Chrichton’s novels is that he always puts in a character who serves as the author’s mouthpiece for stating the big ideas and philosophical points. That what makes his stories so enjoyable for me. Great review, Peter. · Dec 4 at 11:59am

    Nailed it!

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    @BrianWatt
    Mister D: Good post, awful headline. “Irreducible Complexity” is term used almost exclusively by the ID and Creationist movement, something Crichton never did and never would be associated with. · Dec 4 at 8:34am

    Thank you for pointing this out. If you hadn’t I would have.

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    @BrianWatt
    KC Mulville: The difference between predicting natural behavior and predicting human behavior is that natural behavior is (functionally) static, while human behavior is dynamic. [edited for space]

    • Human beings, however, are dynamic – they can vary their response to the same set of stimuli, depending on what they want (and sometimes, just for the fun of it).

    KC – Sounds like too pat of an explanation of species behavior. It’s one thing to say that complex systems, like economics created by human beings is unpredictable and one can only posit probable and not certain outcomes but to say that individual animal species, unlike humans, exhibit static behavior rather than dynamic behavior (which you seem to infer is not predictable behavior) is a bit weak.

    Of course, you can test your idea by closely observing mountain gorillas in their natural habitat and jot down the number of times the seemingly static dominate silverback attacks you or leaves you alone but all you’ll end up with is a probability chart of the silverback’s behavior not his static, certain or predictable behavior..even though one outcome could be that you may certainly end up dead.

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  11. Profile Photo Inactive
    @BrianWatt
    KC Mulville: [edited for space]

    That’s why science dwells on causes, and economics dwells on incentives.

    • When a meteor travels through space, you can predict its destination once you know it’s direction and any gravity curves ahead in its path. It goes where it was propelled by its input.

    When you “predict” the destination that a meteor traveling through space will be you are stilling making a probable guess as to where it will travel or land based on a limited, finite set of assumptions and calculations and you may be correct virtually every time. But there is still a degree, either minor or significant, that other factors may present themselves during the course of the meteor’s trajectory that may alter its “predictable” path, that were “unpredictable” and not taken into account.

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    @Midge
    KC Mulville:

    • Human beings, however, are dynamic – they can vary their response to the same set of stimuli, depending on what they want (and sometimes, just for the fun of it).

    But are humans the only creatures to do this? What about your cat or dog? Or the gulls playing down at the beach?

    KC Mulville:

    That’s why science dwells on causes, and economics dwells on incentives.

    Animal scientists are often preoccupied with training the animals they work with to respond to incentives. Does that make them not scientists?

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  13. Profile Photo Inactive
    @BrianWatt
    KC Mulville: [edited]

    • Human beings, however, are dynamic – they can vary their response to the same set of stimuli, depending on what they want (and sometimes, just for the fun of it).

    I seem to recall a worker at SeaWorld who was killed by a Killer Whale (a.k.a. Orca) because it responded differently to the same set of stimuli…it may have even killed the SeaWorld employee for the fun of it. We may never know.

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    @MarkWilson
    Brian Watt

    KC Mulville:

    That’s why science dwells on causes, and economics dwells on incentives.

    • When a meteor travels through space, you can predict its destination once you know it’s direction and any gravity curves ahead in its path. It goes where it was propelled by its input.
    …there is still a degree, either minor or significant, that other factors may present themselves during the course of the meteor’s trajectory that may alter its “predictable” path, that were “unpredictable” and not taken into account.

    An orbiting meteor is certainly “static” using your definitions, KC (my inner engineer cringes), but your analogy does not represent the difference between “static” and “dynamic” systems. The orbiting meteor is actually a very simple system compared to a living organism, and pales in comparison to the entire biosphere or the geo-climate system.

    For as little as we understand, for practical purposes the geo-climate system might as well be composed of constituents that have free will and respond to incentives just like the stock market. Modelers of each system use laws that they believe represents the behavior of the constituents, but they don’t really know what’s going on.

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    @BrianWatt
    LowcountryJoe: Serious question: do human beings transcend nature? Are we supposed to rise above the natural world [yet ‘forced’ to operate by its constraints as we interact with it] because we have a conscience?

    I do believe in God and am a Christian — believing that God has intervened very sparingly. I guess this means I’m a deist. But I cannot help but think that we’re every bit like our fellow animals; evolving, propagating, surviving, and competing for Earth’s scarce resources. If human beings are really a scourge to the ecosystem it’s because something had to rise to its evolutionary pinnacle and if it wasn’t us it would have been something else. Perhaps God planned it that way. Or maybe he just set the rules of the universe in motion and is eager to see how His ‘ant farm’ turns out. Reptiles had their turn. Maybe canines are next! · Dec 4 at 10:10am

    If you’re a Deist it’s difficult to understand how you could also be a Christian since the divine intervention of Christ isn’t typically characterized as a “sparing”, slight or modest intervention.

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    @CoolHand
    KC Mulville: The difference between predicting natural behavior and predicting human behavior is that natural behavior is (functionally) static, while human behavior is dynamic.

    This is not entirely true.

    Physical systems (continental drift, terrestrial gravity, etc) may be static (when viewed in our time scale), but many (if not most) biological systems are not static when it comes to behavior and interaction with their environment.

    How can you tell? Look at how wild creatures deal with encroachment of human civilization.

    If their behavior was strictly static, most critters would be driven to extinction when they bump up against man’s version of the world, yet they are not.

    If the much lauded (and lamented by loggers) Spotted Owl were as static in its behavior as the environmentalists had assumed (IE they can only live in a single kind of tree in a single area), they’d be long extinct by now.

    Instead, we find them years later living atop radio towers, inside highway billboard sign boxes, and just about anywhere else they can get enough purchase to land a nest.

    In other words, their behavior changed and adapted to their changing environment. They behaved dynamically, just as humans do.

    Critters may not be sentient, but they are far from helpless.

    This is why I find the dire predictions of mass dies offs and other environmental doom and gloom so ridiculous.

    The Trans Alaskan Pipeline was supposed to decimate reindeer populations by cutting off their migration paths (’cause I guess big pipes are supposed to be scary to reindeer or something).

    But in reality, their population has exploded because the warmth that the pipeline radiates offers both expectant mothers and their new born calves a refuge from the bitter cold while they regain their strength.

    Unadaptable creatures would never have noticed the new source of warmth, much less taken advantage of it for birthing and recovery.

    By and large, the environment and the critters in it will take care of themselves, regardless of what we want, say, or do.

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  17. Profile Photo Inactive
    @LowcountryJoe
    Brian Watt

    LowcountryJoe: Serious question: do human beings transcend nature? Are we supposed to rise above the natural world [yet ‘forced’ to operate by its constraints as we interact with it] because we have a conscience?

    I do believe in God and am a Christian — believing that God has intervened very sparingly. I guess this means I’m a deist. But I cannot help but think that we’re every bit like our fellow animals; evolving, propagating, surviving, and competing for Earth’s scarce resources. If human beings are really a scourge to the ecosystem it’s because something had to rise to its evolutionary pinnacle and if it wasn’t us it would have been something else. Perhaps God planned it that way. Or maybe he just set the rules of the universe in motion and is eager to see how His ‘ant farm’ turns out. Reptiles had their turn. Maybe canines are next!

    If you’re a Deist it’s difficult to understand how you could also be a Christian since the divine intervention of Christ isn’t typically characterized as a “sparing”, slight or modest intervention.

    In frequency. But, yes, I know; I’m conflicted.

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    @MarkWilson

    (Warning: Math)

    A side comment: Coincidentally I’m watching a lecture on state-space control techniques for linear dynamical systems.

    The professor just took a question from a student, which was “What happens if you can observe all the system states but you can’t control all of them?” (A state is a changeable property of the system like temperature, speed, etc.)

    The professor answered that if the states are coupled (they interact with each other), then you can regulate all of them to an equilibrium point using a single control input (to control speed and acceleration, use just the gas pedal). But if they are coupled and you want to want to control them to independent values, you need at least as many inputs (knobs to turn) as there are states.

    He concluded the answer by saying “If you don’t have as many inputs as there are states, when you control the first state how you want it, the other coupled states will go wherever they want to go.”

    It’s interesting that even when talking about deterministic systems (KC’s “static” systems), we use the same personal language that describes human behavior, “wherever they want to go”.

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    @Midge
    Brian Watt

    LowcountryJoe: Serious question: do human beings transcend nature? Are we supposed to rise above the natural world [yet ‘forced’ to operate by its constraints as we interact with it] because we have a conscience?

    I do believe in God and am a Christian — believing that God has intervened very sparingly.

    If you’re a Deist it’s difficult to understand how you could also be a Christian since the divine intervention of Christ isn’t typically characterized as a “sparing”, slight or modest intervention.

    I think it’s possible to be Christian and to believe that God intervenes (that is, does something contrary to “the usual laws of nature”) only sparingly in the material world. The divine intervention of Christ is primarily a spiritual intervention, manifested by certain material signs which act as tangible metaphors of God’s love, but other than that, not much disturbing the material “natural order” — certainly not disturbing it as much as an all-powerful God could disturb it.

    Anyhow, to a Christian, the laws of nature are God’s creation, too. So any talk of “intervening” in the natural order is metaphorical to begin with (though it’s usually clear what’s meant).

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  20. Profile Photo Inactive
    @BrianWatt
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake

    I think it’s possible to be Christian and to believe that God intervenes (that is, does something contrary to “the usual laws of nature”) only sparingly in the material world. The divine intervention of Christ is primarily a spiritual intervention, manifested by certain material signs which act as tangible metaphors of God’s love, but other than that, not much disturbing the material “natural order” — certainly not disturbing it as much as an all-powerful God could disturb it.

    Primarily a “spiritual intervention”? I was under the impression that the prevailing Christian belief (at least from the approved Catholic canon) was that Christ was God made flesh who walked upon the earth as man. Wasn’t Thomas encouraged to touch Christ’s wounds after he rose from the dead after the crucifixion (the Gospel according to John)?

    The miracles that Moses and Christ were said to have performed are considered sparing interventions that are contrary to the usual laws of nature? Really? Sparing? Or just sparing in the sense that we haven’t see such violations of the usual laws of nature since Christ’s resurrection?

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  21. Profile Photo Contributor
    @Midge
    Brian Watt

    Primarily a “spiritual intervention”? I was under the impression that the prevailing Christian belief (at least from the approved Catholic canon) was that Christ was God made flesh who walked upon the earth as man. Wasn’t Thomas encouraged to touch Christ’s wounds after he rose from the dead after the crucifixion (the Gospel according to John)?

    Christ was God made flesh to dwell among us not because God wanted to show off how much He could meddle with nature (which, to a Christian, would just be meddling with Himself, anyhow), but because God coming to mankind as a man is a living metaphor of God’s love for us. Likewise, Christ rising from the dead wasn’t just a supernatural stunt, but communicated God’s power over Perdition. Even Christ inviting Thomas to touch His wounds to show that the Resurrection was a physical reality was part of the larger metaphor of salvation.

    My point is that physical miracles, to the extent they exists, exist to serve a spiritual purpose, so their nature is primarily spiritual. They are, as I said, tangible metaphors, word made flesh. They communicate truths about a God who transcends material reality.

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    @KCMulville
    Brian Watt But there is still a degree, either minor or significant, that other factors may present themselves during the course of the meteor’s trajectory that may alter its “predictable” path, that were “unpredictable” and not taken into account.

    Your example suggests that there may be factors that we didn’t take into account, which may arise and affect behavior. But as my post said, that’s a practical limitation, not theoretical. And, frankly, so what? If we knew every possible factor, it still wouldn’t matter to predicting human systems, because human beings can vary their responses to the same stimuli. It’s sometimes an advantage to behave opposite to what’s expected, especially in a market.

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    @Midge
    Brian Watt

    The miracles that Moses and Christ were said to have performed are considered sparing interventions that are contrary to the usual laws of nature? Really? Sparing?

    Was the law of gravity suspended? Were the elements catastrophically altered? Did those miracles cause a major rift in time and space and leave a bunch of Twinkie wrappers all over the place? No. Mostly nature went on as it always had, as in W.H. Auden’s poem Musee de Beaux Arts.

    Use your imagination, and it’s not hard to think of how much less sparing the miracles of an all-powerful God could be.

    Brian Watt

    Or just sparing in the sense that we haven’t see such violations of the usual laws of nature since Christ’s resurrection?

    I suspect it’s easy enough to rationalize a miracle away. Many of us have had experiences that seem contrary to nature that we’re happy to explain away. I know I have.

    Plus, the point of miracles isn’t to demonstrate God’s power and majesty. Creation in its natural state already does that. The point is communicating something more, like love. Which the Jesus story has already done.

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  24. Profile Photo Inactive
    @BrianWatt
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake

    Christ was God made flesh to dwell among us not because God wanted to show off how much He could meddle with nature (which, to a Christian, would just be meddling with Himself, anyhow) …

    My point is that physical miracles, to the extent they exists, exist to serve a spiritual purpose, so their nature is primarily spiritual. They are, as I said, tangible metaphors, word made flesh. They communicate truths about a God who transcends material reality. · Dec 4 at 5:48pm

    Still, some pretty boffo stuff, what? Makes Cecil B. DeMille look like a hack. And a very telling remark…”…to the extent they exist…” because that’s the crux of the issue, isn’t it? To the extent they exist. You could have taken the easy way out and simply said that all of creation exists to serve a spiritual purpose; that way you’ve got all your bases covered and you wouldn’t have to deal with that nagging thought about the extent to which miracles exist. :-)

    One might even suggest that “physical miracles” might even be an oxymoron. But we stray far from Mr. Crichton.

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    @KCMulville
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake But are humans the only creatures to do this?

    Fair point. I was focused on the difference between complex deterministic systems (like weather) and those that involve decisions from participants. I wasn’t trying to argue that human beings are the only ones who can make self-interested decisions.

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  26. Profile Photo Inactive
    @BrianWatt
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake

    Brian Watt

    The miracles that Moses and Christ were said to have performed are considered sparing interventions that are contrary to the usual laws of nature? Really? Sparing?

    Was the law of gravity suspended? Were the elements catastrophically altered? Did those miracles cause a major rift in time and space and leave a bunch of Twinkie wrappers all over the place? No. Mostly nature went on as it always had, as in W.H. Auden’s poem Musee de Beaux Arts.

    This conclusion that miracles don’t harm or cause a major rift in time and space only works if you believe in miracles in the first place. The sun stopping in the sky would have had catastrophic consequences for the Earth. So, you can choose to believe that it stopped and caused no harm or that it was merely a fanciful tale devoid of any real physical truth.

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  27. Profile Photo Inactive
    @BrianWatt
    KC Mulville

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake But are humans the only creatures to do this?

    Fair point. I was focused on the difference between complex deterministic systems (like weather) and those that involve decisions from participants. I wasn’t trying to argue that human beings are the only ones who can make self-interested decisions. · Dec 4 at 6:05pm

    Yeah, you should have focused on complex systems like the weather and market economics. Ascribing the term “static” to individual species other than humans was what generated the responses from me and others to challenge you…and as Mark Wilson has pointed out, living organisms are complex systems and less static and predictable than you have posited.

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    @PeterRobinson
    Brian Watt

    Mister D: Good post, awful headline. “Irreducible Complexity” is term used almost exclusively by the ID and Creationist movement, something Crichton never did and never would be associated with. · Dec 4 at 8:34am

    Thank you for pointing this out. If you hadn’t I would have. · Dec 4 at 3:03pm

    Dear Brian and Mister D,

    I hadn’t thought of that, but of course you’re right. It’s the end of the day and too late to put up a new headline, but if I had it to do over I’d have called the post something like “Michael Crichton and Nature as a Complex System.”

    Anyway, thanks for the catch.

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  29. Profile Photo Inactive
    @BrianWatt
    KC Mulville

    Brian Watt But there is still a degree, either minor or significant, that other factors may present themselves during the course of the meteor’s trajectory that may alter its “predictable” path, that were “unpredictable” and not taken into account.

    Your example suggests that there may be factors that we didn’t take into account, which may arise and affect behavior. But as my post said, that’s a practical limitation, not theoretical. And, frankly, so what? If we knew every possible factor, it still wouldn’t matter to predicting human systems, because human beings can vary their responses to the same stimuli. It’s sometimes an advantage to behave opposite to what’s expected, especially in a market. · Dec 4 at 5:59pm

    Hey, I’m with you on the unpredictable nature of complex systems. I posted a Ricochet discussion a few months ago about Hayek’s thoughts on this very topic. So, I’m not arguing with you there. I am taking issue (as others are) with your opening remarks that human beings are the only species on the planet who behave dynamically. Not sure where you get that or how you support the notion.

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  30. Profile Photo Inactive
    @BrianWatt
    Peter Robinson

    Brian Watt

    Mister D: Good post, awful headline. “Irreducible Complexity” is term used almost exclusively by the ID and Creationist movement, something Crichton never did and never would be associated with. · Dec 4 at 8:34am

    Thank you for pointing this out. If you hadn’t I would have. · Dec 4 at 3:03pm
    Dear Brian and Mister D,

    I hadn’t thought of that, but of course you’re right. It’s the end of the day and too late to put up a new headline, but if I had it to do over I’d have called the post something like “Michael Crichton and Nature as a Complex System.”

    Anyway, thanks for the catch. · Dec 4 at 6:17pm

    No worries, Peter. You can still be in our club. :-)

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