Recommended by Ricochet Members Created with Sketch. Why Does Life and Civilization Have a Fractal Signature?


“The commuters with faint effort maneuvered onto the onramps of the 5 and 405 freeways and melded into the hundreds and thousands of other vehicles destined for Anaheim, Costa Mesa, Huntington Beach, Long Beach, Torrance, Los Angeles and beyond. The lifeblood of the greater southern California heart being fed every morning with chrome fiberglass, and rubber blood cells. Every cell with a purpose — a destination in the greater host organism to perform, shine, bluster, bully, hide-out, survive, commiserate, and exchange information in their eight-hour, stress-laden, boredom-laden slice of time in their collective, deceptively un-choreographed effort to keep the sprawling city-state alive.”

The excerpt above is from another unfinished novel that I started several years ago.

When seen from a distance (as in the video clip from the 1982 film Koyannitsqatsi above … about 1:12 into the video clip), the pulsing flow of freeway and street traffic pumping packets of human energy encased in automobiles into cities and other urban clusters are virtually identical, when sped up, to the pulsing flow of blood coursing through the arteries, veins, blood vessels and capillaries of the human body giving life sustaining biochemical energy to the heart, the brain, and all the other organs and tissue.

The flow of energy coursing through a community, a town, a city, a cluster of cities visually and quite literally approximates the inner workings of the human body. We recognize it. Not only do the two systems, one at the micro level, the other at the macro, rhyme in a visual sense but they are performing virtually identical functions. Resources, energy, information transfer to keep the human body or the civilization alive and functioning as entities with the potential and the need to continue to replicate.

Here’s a quick fractal quiz:

The fractal patterns of certain branched river systems when seen from space look virtually identical to the pattern of blood vessels in animals or the xylem or phloem vessels in many plants that distribute water and mineral nutrients that they need to live and grow and replicate.

Nature, whether on the scale of an individual organism – an ant, a butterfly, an elephant, a human, a flower, a stalk of wheat, a giant sequoia, a forest, a system of rivers, a chain of mountains, canyons, oceanic trenches – conforms to mathematically ordained fractal patterns. Image A (above) is a color manipulated satellite image of rivers and tributaries. Image B is a photograph of trees. Images C and D are images of blood vessels.

One of the singular achievements in human history was French mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot’s discovery that nature creates and replicates similar and closely approximate predictable “roughness” patterns of physical matter on a sequence of scales from the micro to the macro somehow invoking or relying upon a mathematical feedback loop … a replication code.

From (emphasis mine):

As set out in his highly successful book The Fractal Geometry of Nature (1982) and in many articles, Mandelbrot’s work is a stimulating mixture of conjecture and observation, both into mathematical processes and their occurrence in nature and in economics. In 1980 he proposed that a certain set governs the behaviour of some iterative processes in mathematics that are easy to define but have remarkably subtle properties. He produced detailed evidence in support of precise conjectures about this set and helped to generate a substantial and continuing interest in the subject. Many of these conjectures have since been proved by others. The set, now called the Mandelbrot set, has the characteristic properties of a fractal: it is very far from being “smooth,” and small regions in the set look like smaller-scale copies of the whole set (a property called self-similarity). Mandelbrot’s innovative work with computer graphics stimulated a whole new use of computers in mathematics.

Mandelbrot’s discovery has led to advances in wireless communication, medicine (particularly in cardiology when cardiologists noticed the fractal patterning of heart rhythms), agriculture and other disciplines. His work has also been relied on by mathematicians and physicists working in the areas of cosmology as they try to understand what the underlying mechanism is that creates those similar patterns — why a nautilus shell and a spiral galaxy conform to the same Fibonacci* sequence — and that infinite fractal feedback loops may be a necessary component in understanding space-time, causality, consciousness, and might possibly lead to an acceptable or at least a coherent Theory of Everything.

Branching fractal patterns, as just one example, are evident as the quiz above shows in trees, blood vessels, lightning bolts, and the multi-branch structure of evolution showing how species originated and over time branched off into other species. One can choose to ignore the similarities that human anatomy shares with other animal species over hundreds of millions of years but why would one choose to do so?

Life Finds A Way.

What is the underlying force that pushes the internal molecular mechanism to program a tree to branch out with another set of limbs at a mathematically predictable distance? What is the force behind the DNA replicating mechanism that programs a mammal’s fetus to form a mathematically predictable system of branches and tributaries to create the lungs or carry blood through the animal or create a recognizable pattern of nerves and a fairly predictably designed human?

Why is it, by and large, consistent and only goes off the rails when some internal flawed or recessive gene or external agent causes a gene or set of genes to mutate thus disturbing the replication code pattern that the rest of the organism is conforming to as it develops? Globally, children born with birth defects represent just 3 percent to 6 percent of all births. Which means that 94 percent to 97 percent of births are considered physically normal. Not to consider birth defects a normal state of affairs that shouldn’t be addressed and minimized, that’s a high degree of consistency.

Why does it appear that successful replications occur at that rate across virtually all forms of life? Clearly advances in diet, medicine, hygiene, architecture, and the eradication of certain viruses have helped to improve the chances for the propagation of the human species. How does one understand the replication of life, the creative force in the universe in the immediate example of life on Earth with the massively destructive and violent forces also evident in the universe – on both a microscopic and macroscopic scale?

Dr. Ian Malcolm (chaotician) from Jurassic Park:

“If there is one thing the history of evolution has taught us it’s that life will not be contained. Life breaks free, it expands to new territories and crashes through barriers, painfully, maybe even dangerously, but, uh … well, there it is.”

If Civilization Has a Fractal Signature — To What End?

From the film Crocodile Dundee when the unworldly but wise Mick Dundee is immersed in the first city he’s ever visited:

Richard Mason: New York City, Mr. Dundee. Home to seven million people.

Dundee: That’s incredible. Imagine seven million people all wanting to live together. Yeah, New York must be the friendliest place on earth.

Humor aside about the apparent naïve but actual sarcasm intended in Mick Dundee’s line, think about the first of his two sentences and ask yourself why all those people would want to live together. To what end?

Note especially the segment of the video below starting at the 18:00 mark:

Does the fractal structure of the human brain mean that it is inherently mathematical? Why does the human species have a desire for harmony or harmonic resonance and order rather than discord, dissonance and cacophony? Why are we more attracted to the music of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Vivaldi, Debussy, Saint-Saens, Tchaikovsky, and dozens of other composers and celebrate their work decade after decade more overwhelmingly than say John Cage or Arnold Schoenberg?

At the same token why are most of us attracted to the paintings of Da Vinci, Raphael, Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Vermeer, Degas, Monet, Manet, Renoir, Courbet, Van Gogh and hundreds of other artists who concerned themselves with depicting the natural world and human beings rather than artists like Jackson Pollock, Rothko, or de Kooning?

Why does the human brain seem to be more attracted to ordered and coherent art and music and find it more appealing? Is it the same reason that humans, even many physicists, may concede that there is a necessary element of consciousness at play in the seemingly structured behavior of the universe even when it appears at first to be chaotic and random?

Can the same, consistency that favors life be seen in the spread, not just of the human species, but of human civilization, in essentially relatively well-functioning societies?

The discovery of agriculture expanded the human communities from tribal units to cities. Subsequent revolutions – the Industrial, the American, electronic/Internet — created quantum advances that would stun and enthrall people who lived merely a hundred years ago as they look at the images in the films that are produced, the technology that makes it happen that is widely accessible to millions of people all over the planet, the advances in transportation and space exploration, in medicine, and more.

How would our ancestors, say from circa 1600 react? Enthralled? Amused? Terrified? Shocked? Saddened? What have we cast away as we accelerated forward? The Divine? Respect? An understanding of evil and the capacity for evil? An acknowledgement of guilt? A desire for forgiveness? An ability to identify truth from lies? And the courage to say what is a lie?

What are the components of civilization’s DNA? That citizens and authorities and politicians all speak the truth? Do many politicians and bureaucrats speak the truth? College professors? Does the Pope? Do some Muslim clerics who seem to know little to nothing about basic science and human nature? Do the people you work with speak the truth?

What else is part of civilization’s DNA? That laws and codes of conduct are followed by everyone? That children are loved and respected and encouraged to achieve and succeed and not encouraged to be victims? Would speaking the truth necessitate that they learn the truth about history and that the horrors of history – particularly of the millions who were enslaved and slaughtered by communism and socialism — be presented to them rather than be hidden away?

Is it just coincidental that we use terms like harmony to describe societies that are able to, by and large, adhere to codes of conduct but still allow for a high measure of expression and self-determination? What is the way that life should find for the continued benefit of humankind? For its harmonious interaction? For its replication? For its continued refinement of what it means to be civilized?


Related reading and viewing:

There are 13 comments.

  1. J.D. Snapp Coolidge

    When I was going through my Computer Science classes, the most interesting lectures were the ones regarding fractals.

    • #1
    • January 13, 2018, at 5:16 PM PST
  2. DocJay Inactive

    Quite a fascinating post.

    I’ve seen a lot of arterial systems via medical tests and always been intrigued.

    • #2
    • January 13, 2018, at 5:58 PM PST
  3. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    An amazing and remarkable post, Brian.

    • #3
    • January 13, 2018, at 6:25 PM PST
  4. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    I just linked this post in the PIT. I know, I know, it’s like linking the script of “2001: A Space Odyssey” to a smoky, seedy pirate’s bar on a dubious foggy street on the waterfront.

    • #4
    • January 13, 2018, at 7:00 PM PST
  5. Arahant Member

    Gary McVey (View Comment):
    I just linked this post in the PIT. I know, I know, it’s like linking the script of “2001: A Space Odyssey” to a smoky, seedy pirate’s bar on a dubious foggy street on the waterfront.


    • #5
    • January 13, 2018, at 8:39 PM PST
  6. danok1 Member

    I read James Gleick’s Chaos: Making a New Science back in 1988 and asking these same kinds of questions. To my regret, I never really pursued the answers, because deep-down I knew I could never find them.

    Great post, Brian!

    • #6
    • January 14, 2018, at 8:00 AM PST
  7. Nanda "Chaps" Panjan… Inactive

    Perfect for a Sunday afternoon, Brian…Thank you!

    • #7
    • January 14, 2018, at 10:39 AM PST
  8. Larry3435 Member

    Good questions. My answer to all of them is, “I haven’t got the faintist idea.” But the analogy you draw between cars on the Los Angeles freeways and blood cells in the body does lead me off on a tangent. Since I fled Los Angeles and California a couple of years ago, I have enjoyed wallowing in the schadenfreude of watching the former Golden State and its greatest city descend into socialist squalor. One of the initiatives of the politicians who have appointed themselves the task of destroying California in order to save it has been an effort to drive cars off of the streets through a variety of measures. Higher gas taxes and registration fees, closing traffic lanes to replace them with bike lanes, onerous regulations, and so on, are being adopted monthly. If the roads of Los Angeles are the vascular system of the city, then the politicians who are trying to drive out the cars are the medieval “physicians” who tried to cure the patient by bleeding – in order to release the evil humors from the body. In this case, the evil humors are climate change, urban sprawl, politically independent suburbs, and anything that gets in the way of creating a Manhattan-esque life of 600 square foot apartments packed together in intolerable density. The analogy to those medieval “physicians” is just too precious for words.

    • #8
    • January 15, 2018, at 6:36 AM PST
  9. Susan Quinn Contributor

    I sometimes stand in awe of the interconnectivity of all things, Brian. Only so much can be explained. And then we can only stand back and admire and be humbled.

    • #9
    • January 15, 2018, at 6:47 AM PST
  10. Nick H Coolidge

    We’ve spent billions and billions of computer hours analyzing radio telescope data to see if we can find a signal in the noise, something more than just the random output of stellar objects and cosmic background radiation. So far, there’s nothing to be found. No information, no signal. But all around us we see that the universe has structure and organization. We study the quantum interactions of elementary particles to explain the behavior of galactic superclusters, and vice versa. Our every cell contains an immense amount of information – enough to completely encode the design of our bodies inside and out. The signal exists, the information is there. We just blindly ignore it and look elsewhere. Great post.

    • #10
    • January 15, 2018, at 8:40 AM PST
  11. James Lileks Contributor

    One of these is a simulation of the distribution of light in galactic superclusters; the other is Earth at night.

    • #11
    • January 15, 2018, at 11:53 AM PST
  12. Ralphie Member

    I just came across a book about geometry and tried to construct my first Koch Snowflake.

    • #12
    • January 15, 2018, at 1:01 PM PST
  13. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor

    Ralphie (View Comment):
    I just came across a book about geometry and tried to construct my first Koch Snowflake.

    I spent one finals week at college (after having been sick for much of the fall semester) catching up on old problem sets (math) and cutting out Koch snowflakes as breaks in between, while the snowdrifts piled higher and higher. It’s one of those magical memories of perfect peacefulness. All wasn’t right with the world, but for that time, I had peace.

    • #13
    • January 15, 2018, at 2:33 PM PST