Beyond Complexity 

The New Sciences of Ontogenesis 

Principal Coordinators: Adam Nocek (ASU), Sha Xin Wei (ASU), Stuart Kauffman (Former SFI)

Steering Committee: Cary Wolfe (Rice), Phillip Thurtle (Washington), Giuseppe Longo (École Normale Supérieure), Gaymon Bennett (ASU), Michael Epperson (Sacramento State) 

This research group is animated by the growing consensus in the sciences and the humanities that the living world in all its modes—biological, semiotic, economic, affective, social, etc.—escapes finite schema of description. Based on a deep and sustained engagement with biological, physical, and computational sciences, operating in conjunction with anthropological, philosophical, and artistic modes of inquiry, the researchers believe that the reigning paradigms of complexity science cannot adequately capture the processual and emergent unfolding of the living world.

Rather than building a new cage to trap these multiple and entangled species of process and emergence, we’re feeling our way toward an unnamed scienza nuova that traverses a wide range of practices sharing certain features: non-reductiveness, extra-algorithmic experience, non-probabilistic randomness, and processuality.  While our growing network of researchers and practitioners is indebted to the institutional model of the Santa Fe Institute, we aim to develop a research institute for theoretical frameworks that exceed complexity and that can be marshaled to have a profound and lasting impact on how we engage and solve problems in areas as diverse as economics, law, medicine, religion and spirituality, urban development, biotechnology, surveillance and security.


First Meeting: Santa Fe, New Mexico, April 19-23, 2017 (Next Meeting: Tempe, Arizona, November 13-15, 2017)


Theme for First Meeting

The Biosocial After the Digital: Emergence, Ontogenesis, Individuation

This seminar addresses the growing consensus in the sciences and the humanities that the complexity of living matter cannot be adequately captured by information theoretic explanations. To engage this complexity, this seminar brings together a vibrant and diverse group of scientists and scholars from across North America and Europe to participate in a series of workshops and public events hosted by Arizona State University and The Santa Fe Institute. Participants in the seminar will use the meetings to reflect on the limits of these explanatory frameworks and to examine the concepts, methods, and practices that are best suited to express the complexities of living phenomena. Of particular interest to the seminar is the fact that computational theorists, theoretical biologists, mathematicians, and humanists increasingly share the goal of discovering (or inventing) alternatives to information theoretic accounts of the living, considering that biosocial phenomena cannot be reduced to digital computational models.

It is in an effort to bring this shared perspective into sharp focus that the seminar pays special attention to the rich conceptual terrain shared by the biological sciences, nondiscrete mathematics, and the theoretical humanities. Over the course of the seminar participants weigh in on concepts from theoretical biology—such as developmental complexity, the adjacent possible, niche construction, symbiogenesis, and extended inheritance, among others—that attempt to account for the fact the living systems emerge outside of predictive models constructed on pre-given categories — e.g., “no law entails the evolution of the biosphere” (Longo, Montévil, Kauffman 2012). Participants also direct their attention to concepts from the theoretical humanities that have been marshaled to account for the motors of dynamic change that exceed mathematical models—e.g., ontogenesis, individuation, concrescence, virtuality. The seminar therefore aims to bring these different conceptual registers into closer proximity through their mutual engagement with dynamically evolving systems.

In doing so, this seminar does not aim to disregard or reduce the importance of mathematical, physical, or computational frameworks. Rather, and in keeping with the spirit of Stuart Kauffman’s latest book, Humanity in A Creative Universe, the goal is also to discover the relevancies, in addition to the limits, of these frameworks. It is for this reason that the work of Alfred North Whitehead will be a particularly powerful lure for us moving forward. In the Concept of Nature, Whitehead famously resisted the modern temptation to bifurcate nature into mental and physical “stuff” by placing “everything in the same boat, to sink or swim together” (CN 148). Similarly, this seminar wishes to put living and physical stuff into the “same boat,” without reducing one to the other.


Major Themes Covered at First Meeting (by subject area):

-Quantum Physics: actual/potential/probable, the measurement problem, the poised realm  

-Mathematics: topology, sheaf theory, measure theory

-Theoretical Biology: radical emergence, exaptation (spandrels), beyond complexity, autopoietic systems, biosemiotics

-Media Arts: responsive media environments, enchanted matter

-History of Biology: gene regulation, mutation, computation  

-Anthropology: synthetic biology, human practices, participatory ethnography

-Philosophy: speculation, concept building, mind/consciousness, materiality, ecology, process, ontogenesis