Evolution and World-Systems: Complexity, Energy, and Form

Peter E Grimes


World-Systems Theory and Complexity Theory are siblings from the same parent of Von Bertalanffy’s foundational work on general systems theory.  But they were ideologically separated at birth. World-Systems emerged out of dependency theory, itself a product of and reaction to neocolonialism after World War Two.  Wallerstein’s historical analysis of the origins of unequal exchange in the “long” 16th C., first within Europe, and then encompassing its colonies, extended dependency theory’s exposure of exploitation by demonstrating the systemic consistency of geopolitical parasitism well before the modern era.  Christopher Chase-Dunn has furthered that insight by using empirical research on the unequal exchange between the earliest known polities.  His work has additionally shown how the methods of cross-polity parasitism have changed over time, both creating and undermining the empires of history in response to changing ecological and climatic constraints. His work also shows how systemic change often starts in the creative conditions unique to semiperipheries.  The other child of general systems theory evolved in the worlds of physics and computer science, becoming known first as Chaos and later Complexity theory.  It too expanded, demonstrating that positive causal feedback loops of energy and information could explain the life-processes of biology and evolutionary theory.  Given their common ancestry and attention to the flows of energy and information, their re-connection was inevitable.  This paper seeks to merge them.  The approach will be to use complexity to explain how entropy builds structures on a physical level, then how those same dynamics created life, drove evolution, and continue to drive social complexity from our nomadic roots to our current global strife.  The work of Chase-Dunn will be shown as logically consistent with complexity theory, and ideally a marriage of the traditions completed.  As a former student and life-long colleague of Chase-Dunn’s, the author is also paying homage while pointing a way forward.

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.5195/jwsr.2017.728


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