Jones & Bartlett Learning Science Blog

    Q&A with Paul Pinet: What is Complexity Theory?

    Posted by Suzy Balk on Oct 14, 2019 9:30:00 AM

    fish and other underwater marine life in vibrant colours

    Now in its eighth edition, Invitation to Oceanography is known as a modern, comprehensive, and student-friendly introduction to the field. One of the key updates to the Eighth Edition is the addition of Complexity Theory—a scientific breakthrough for understanding and managing Earth’s systems. Below, author Paul Pinet walks through the “what,” “why,” and “how” of Complexity Theory.

    Q: What is Complexity Theory?

    A: Science dictates that the natural world is fundamentally chaotic and complex and, hence, the future of ecosystems is impossible to predict. Why is that true? We now know that all of Earth’s natural processes are charged with chaos, including irregularities, turbulence, and unpredictability across multi-scales of time and space. In the past, scientists identified cause-and-effect and then proceeded to use this technique to control and prevent change in marine and terrestrial ecosystems. Scientists now realize that there is no natural equilibrium anywhere on Earth, including its oceans. Constant change is the norm, as ecosystems continually self-organize in complex ways that suddenly emerge and are impossible to imagine. 

    Q: How does Complexity Theory relate to oceanography?

    A: All attempts to reverse the change in marine systems, such as reefs, barrier islands, pelagic fisheries, melting sea ice in the Arctic Ocean, etc. are doomed to failure, because we are applying complicated (not complex) management strategies to restore ecosystems to what people desire. In other words, we force dynamic, ever-changing natural ecosystems to adapt to what humans want. The truth is that perpetual change is an inherent quality of all marine systems. Therefore, we need to develop management strategies that recognize change and adapt human behavior to those changes. There is no other possibility, despite the complicated engineering attempts to restore systems as they were in the past. Scientists are now relying on models of Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS) and stability landscapes, both techniques recognizing that chaos creates self-organization and creativity (emergence)in perpetuity. The engineering lessons of the past are clear; they are inadequate. The key for management is to accept changes in ecosystems and adapt human behavior to those chaotic changes.

    Q: Why is Complexity Theory an important concept for students to understand and apply to their learning?

    A: Homo sapiens are animals. Hence, we are subjected continually to chaos, self-organization, and complexity during our entire lives. Rather than dominating ecosystems with our powerful technologies, we need humility to understand that we must adapt to change as it is occurring regardless of the trajectory of complex behavior. In other words, we need to embrace messiness, confusion, and ambiguity in managing our lives and ecosystems. The future is unpredictable and, therefore, we need to embrace the notion that the diversity of species and processes is the only way that life self-organizes and emerges.

    Q: How can instructors incorporate Complexity Theory into their courses?

    A: Chapter 3 introduces a new box entitled Complexity Theory, which explains how Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS) behave, whether they be tide pools, reefs, ocean currents, or whatever. All-natural systems (CAS) are described to some degree, whereby they self-organize, then grow and thrive, followed by collapsed and finally dispersal of all of its parts. This is true for a cell, biota, communities, ecosystems, and the entire planet itself. In other, words all systems emerge and eventually collapse.

    Chapter 10 examines the tiered nature of multiple CAS across different temporal and spatial scales (Panarchy). This leads to an important concept. The fast and small CAS of the panarchy is connected to the slow and large CAS of the panarchy, the latter trying to impose stability below them, the former trying to revolt against those above them. The panarchy structure demonstrates the chaos and complexity of an integrated system.

    Finally, Chapter 12 introduces the concept of a stability landscape for modeling the complexity of all ecosystems. One learns that all-natural systems have attractors (idealize basins) separated by thresholds and the state of an ecosystem depicted by a ball is ever-changing within an attractor, such as a healthy reef. The reef perpetually changes as the different CAS of the panarchy imposes different scalar changes over time. If the ball approaches the lip of the basin, the system may drop to another attractor, and radical change ensues. Once a healthy reef crosses a threshold it is rapidly transformed into an algae-dominated system and the coral is smothered and die. 

    Q: What are the professional applications of Complexity Theory?

    A: The future according to Complexity Theory is unknowable and, hence, management personnel needs to flex, adapt, and change. Imposing stability on any marine system will prevent proactive adaptive change. According to Carrie Foster, the key for future management of any natural system is as follows:

    • Change cannot be managed in a complex system
    • Change must be supported
    • Leaders must encourage people to learn how to adapt and flex
    • Open connections within a panarchy are essential for self-organization and embracing the diversity of thinking, ideas, approaches, and strategies
    • Understanding feedback loops are essential to prevent the collapse of ecosystems


    Invitation to Oceanography


    Invitation to Oceanography, Eighth Edition introduces students to the key concepts from geology, chemistry, physics, and biology as they relate to ocean environments and processes. This comprehensive text helps students learn how scientists interpret data, taking raw knowledge and transforming it into real understanding. 


    Learn More

    Topics: Environmental Science