Earlier this year, renowned historian Niall Ferguson authored a piece in Foreign Affairs which presented human civilisations as complex adaptive systems, in contrast with the traditional view of civilisations as moving through a gradual cyclical of growth and decline.

As Ferguson argues, the cyclical model of civilisations has been long shared by historians, political theorists, anthropologists, and the public at large. Writers as diverse as Vico, Hegel, Marx and Toynbee shared a common belief and assumption that the history of humanity had some kind of natural rhythm to it. There is a rather standard theory underlying all of this – that all societies will inevitably move through a number of stages, a kind of grand narrative of rise and fall.

“Rome” – the archetypal ‘rise and fall of civilisation’ story (in the West at any rate)

Different disciplines have their own distinctive take on this rise and fall, but with some strong underlying resonances. So, for example, economic historians such as Paul Kennedy suggest that great powers rise and fall “according to the growth rates of their industrial bases and the costs of their imperial commitments relative to their GDPs.” By contrast, ecological historians such as Jared Diamond argue something like this: “population[s] grew larger than their fragile and inefficient agricultural system could support. More people meant more cultivation, but more cultivation meant deforestation, erosion, drought, and soil exhaustion. The result was civil war over dwindling resources and, finally, collapse.”

Easter Island, one of the civilisations described by Jared Diamond in Collapse

However, alternatives theories are available, which are based on a more realistic understanding of how change actually happens. As Ferguson asks:

What if history is not cyclical and slow moving but arrhythmic — at times almost stationary, but also capable of accelerating suddenly, like a sports car? What if collapse does not arrive over a number of centuries but comes suddenly, like a thief in the night?”

Ferguson argues that great powers and empires can be characterised as complex systems, made up of a very large number of interacting components, that “more resembles a termite hill than an Egyptian pyramid.” As such, they operate between order and disorder, on “the edge of chaos”, and while they may appear to be stable and in equilibrium for long stretches, they are in fact constantly adapting to maintain the overall sense of stability.

But there comes a moment when complex systems “go critical.” A very small trigger can set off a “phase transition” from a benign equilibrium to a crisis.”

Bond Trader, London, 2008

This so-called sandpile effect is, according to Ferguson, all too often misunderstood and misrepresented by those who seek to explain past events.  The fundamental problem is that analysts who analyse such crises tend to explain low-frequency, high-impact moments – wars, crashes, collapses – by misunderstanding complexity and how it works.

Instead of looking at the interconnectedness of the events and the prevailing context, most analysts try to explain crises in terms of linear, long-term causes. This is the ‘narrative fallacy’ identified in popular works such as the Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, and this gives rise to a much more cyclical, and perhaps more comprehensible, model of change.

As Ferguson suggests:

Drawing casual inferences about causation is an age-old habit. Take World War I. A huge war breaks out in the summer of 1914, to the great surprise of nearly everyone. Before long, historians have devised a story line commensurate with the disaster: a treaty governing the neutrality of Belgium that was signed in 1839, the waning of Ottoman power in the Balkans dating back to the 1870s, and malevolent Germans and the navy they began building in 1897. A contemporary version of this fallacy traces the 9/11 attacks back to the Egyptian government’s 1966 execution of Sayyid Qutb, the Islamist writer who inspired the Muslim Brotherhood.

In reality, according to Ferguson, the proximate triggers of a crisis are often sufficient to explain the sudden shift from a good equilibrium to a bad mess. So, from his perspective:

World War I was actually caused by a series of diplomatic miscalculations in the summer of 1914, the real origins of 9/11 lie in the politics of US and Saudi Arabia in the 1990s… Most of the fat-tail phenomena that historians study are not the climaxes of prolonged and deterministic story lines; instead, they represent perturbations, and sometimes the complete breakdowns, of complex systems.


Ferguson concludes that “an understanding of how complex systems function is an essential part of any strategy to anticipate and delay their failure…” On the other hand, according to Taleb, the profound misunderstanding of the causal chains between policy and actions – what he terms ‘aggressive ignorance’ – can lead to triggering a multitude of Black Swans: “like a child playing with a chemistry kit”.

There is a lot of uncertainty in the application of ideas in complexity to social, economic and political problems (see for example the debates kicked off by Bill Easterly using fractals to describe inequality last week on Aid Watch). What is clear, however, is that establishing the kind of understanding Ferguson and Taleb call for is far from straightforward:

causal relationships are often nonlinear, which means that traditional methods of generalizing through observation (such as trend analysis and sampling) are of little use… Some theorists of complexity would go so far as to say that complex systems are wholly nondeterministic, meaning that it is impossible to make predictions about their future behavior based on existing data.”

As argued in a previous aid on the edge of chaos post, the biggest challenges to the wider take-up of such complexity-inspired suggestions is that, if they stay both sensible and true to the principles of complexity, they tend not to provide recipes which can be followed. Rather, complex adaptive systems theory:

  • provides a set of lenses with which to look at the world,
  • helps pose questions which can help better understand the dynamics of real world systems, and
  • helps generate insights as to how these dynamics can be ‘sensed’ and ‘navigated’

There is much of relevance here for thinking about development and humanitarian work. As a recent interviewee suggested to me, complexity theory helps us understand processes of development as continuous, emergent and full of surprises.

But aid efforts – sometimes deliberately, sometimes unintentionally, sometimes because of contractual necessity, sometimes through sheer incompetence – tend to misrepresent these evolutionary processes of change in the complex systems that are developing countries.

And so at its simplest, the lesson to draw from Ferguson’s essay is that in order to….


…first we have to understand better exactly how history is made.


(Thanks to Rick Davies for bringing the original article to my attention)

Join the conversation! 9 Comments

  1. I think that the lesson to be learned here is perhaps that collapse is inevitable. Joseph Tainter’s work on the Collapse of Complex Societies lays out the dynamics quite elegantly. This is of course absolutely not desirable, yet I think inevitable, or at the least the scenario must be considered as a very serious possibility. Perhaps the only question is when. I think the only way to avoid such a phase transition would be to intentionally unwind the complexity of our global civilization over a very short time period – I see very little chance of this occurring. At this point in time, between the climate shocks we are now seeing globally-when we are not even at 450ppm, let alone the 650ppm that we are realistically likely to see without the cessation of industrial, consumer society. Then there is the ongoing slow motion financial collapse, possibly impending peak oil, a large proportion of the worlds salt water fisheries in serious decline, and biodiversity loss that is orders of magnitude above the ambient level. I would posit that, given all of this, the likelihood of what Thomas Homer Dixon calls synchronous failure is incredibly high within the relatively near term. So within this scenario what is the strategy to follow from a global humanist perspective? I believe that we have to start thinking about development from a deep resilience frame if we wish to achieve the best possible outcome for the citizens of the world over the next century.

  2. Is your Rome pic a John Martin? Looks like one of his, but don’t recognise it. (sorry for the tangent)

  3. Another very interesting post. I would add a couple of elements.

    First, Thomas Homer-Dixon (The Up Side of Down) is another analyst of civilizations viewed with a complexity lense but he points to energy as one of the key drivers of collective fortunes (or misfortunes) over time. Human density requires energy concentrations. They build in key areas and are driven by complexity dynamics such as you characterize above.

    Second, The Atlantic ran a story in June 2010 called “How to Save the News” and one of the intriguing elements it contains is the nature of global news reporting as analysed by Google News. Stories tend to condense fairly early in a cycle and that drives more of the same interpretations, even with the supposed inherent diversity of the web where the old industrial information economy Yochai Benkler exegetes so well is thought to not exist (it doesn’t, but the ‘condensation’ of patterns appears to produce inherent convergence in some cases). History research and writing, as you suggest, appears to follow a similar strange attractor pattern but at a slower rate.

    Third, the key capability given what complexity theory is teaching us about how systems evolve, is not the predictive element that has featured heavily in modernistic/Newtonian thinking but rather the sense of preparation for the unknown. This kind of organizational resilience and the adaptive leadership responsibilities that come with it are going to rank among the most vital sets of capabilities for the rapidly arriving future even though most of our institutions are fully invested in predictive thinking and practice.

  4. There are many reasons to expect dire outcomes. a polycentric approach ala Ostrom is, i think what we can reasonably do. it is a global problem with a multiple local solution.

  5. ok. one more thing about news. back when i worked in newsrooms, editors loved things they called “savegets.” those were one or two sentences summaries they save in a digital editing system of a newspaper and could plug in to continuing timely coverage of ongoing stories. so that the wisdom summed on day one, or maybe day two, became reified in the digital editing systems back in the 70’s and 80’s. it made life easier for editors who knew that many people would be seeing this story for the first time in the 6th or 7th iteration of its ongoing coverage in the legislature, or the courts or wherever persistent attention lodged through the efforts of a persistent beat reporter. reification simplifies life for editors, for newbies and for those who want a smooth channel for understanding stories where attention becomes deeper and broader over time.

    stories get more solid over time, and digital technology is a rapid reinforcing agent. but it can also be a catalytic, bond loosening agent if applied in a culture jamming framework. culture jamming the climate change response seems a fruitful area to look at.

  6. […] the face of change have also been covered here on numerous occasions, including a piece on ‘History on the Edge of Chaos’. However, there is another dimension to complex adaptive systems that does not get enough coverage […]


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About Ben Ramalingam

I am a researcher and writer specialising on international development and humanitarian issues. I am currently working on a number of consulting and advisory assignments for international agencies. I am also writing a book on complexity sciences and international aid which will be published by Oxford University Press. I hold Senior Research Associate and Visiting Fellow positions at the Institute of Development Studies, the Overseas Development Institute, and the London School of Economics.


Chaos, Financial crisis, Knowledge and learning, Public Policy, Reports and Studies, Strategy