The life cycle of a complex adaptive system and its implications for human life


  • Victor Ronald David MacGill University of the Sunshine Coast


Complex adaptive system, adaptive cycle, autopoiesis, requisite variety, rebel


The models and theories used in the systems sciences tend to follow a structural approach of describing parts and wholes and the interactions between the parts or a process approach focussing on the developments over time. This paper attempts a synthesis of models and concepts from both approaches to form a generalised mapping over time valid for all complex adaptive systems (CAS). The adaptive cycle is used as the prime process-based model highlighting the underlying tensions active at a given time that drive the changes of state from phase to phase of the adaptive cycle. The applications of this model will be focused on living systems or systems that include living systems to be applicable to the world we live in.


CAS with only a few members need no formal infrastructure. As the number of parts grows, difference increases and requisite variety grows larger improving the effectiveness of the system, however, conflict arising from the difference between the parts and the level of inequality also grows. Eventually, the gains of requisite variety are overshadowed by the increase in conflict. The system must then find a way of re-organising itself to contain the entropy or face extinction.


A common strategy is for some members to take on a co-ordinating role by agreement or force that can absorb the entropy that individual members are unable to contain. While this increases effectiveness, it further increases inequalities of power and control over resources. We now have systems of systems each with their own priorities and values that can clash, often observed as the changing dynamical balance of autonomy and connectivity, where one or other can dominate to the detriment of others. If the co-ordinating group is still not able to contain the entropy of the system a further hierarchical controller level might emerge, containing chaos but yet further exacerbating inequality.


Many aspects that are critical to human life are already evident in the underlying dynamics of systems. Even the most basic CAS has identity, value, conflict, error and error detection, future orientation, will to live, purpose, agency/power, need to connect, rules and enforcement, tensions of commitment to various levels, attenuation and more.

All CAS have an identity and values enshrined in a worldview, belief, or value system that operate as mapping, which is often mental, to guide decision making. Behaviours that support the worldview are enhanced and supported. Typically, there will be rebel members challenging the dominant worldview, who must be managed for the system to maintain sufficient coherence. As soon as an identity forms marking the uniqueness of the CAS, the concept of “other”; that which is not selected beyond the boundary of self-identity also arises. That which is selected is familiar and known and more likely to be trusted. The marginalised other which is not selected is less known and less familiar and therefore less trusted. The fear and distrust of strangers and their difference is evident at all levels of life.


Over time the seemingly limitless growth phase of a CAS will hit constraints that herald the conservation phase and then a release phase where many structures previously established are no longer viable. The system falls apart, but this dissolution carries the possibilities of reorganising in new and better ways into a new cycle and a new growth phase. Once the theoretical foundation is set, the implications at the biological, psychological and social levels are investigated.

Author Biography

Victor Ronald David MacGill, University of the Sunshine Coast

PhD candidate


2022-02-24 — Updated on 2022-02-24




Special Systems Track 1: The Future of the Human Social System