Hoping for Change, Biologist Reveals Study of Complexity

The Register Guard (Eugene, OR), January 30, 2004 | Go to article overview

Hoping for Change, Biologist Reveals Study of Complexity


Byline: Susan Palmer The Register-Guard

Think of Alder Fuller as a butterfly, fluttering in his small corner of the planet with the hope of changing something really big.

On a global scale, in fact.

Fuller is a slender, 52-year-old evolutionary biologist who grew up outside Memphis and holds master's degrees in math and biology and a doctoral degree in evolutionary biology.

He's worried about climate change and intrigued by a developing discipline known as complexity - studying connections between things rather than the individual parts that make up life. So, he's started a school for adults in Eugene with classes on the sciences of complexity.

Understanding complexity, he says, will help people see how their choices affect not just the immediate environment but the planet. That understanding could lead to changes for the better.

Can one guy make such a difference? If you trust the math of chaos - maybe so.

It was a Massachusetts Institute of Technology meteorologist who in the 1960s accidentally discovered that a tiny change at one end of a system can create a huge change in what follows.

Meteorologist Edward Lorenz called it "the butterfly effect" in the initial paper describing his discovery.

A butterfly flapping its wings in Beijing could affect the weather thousands of miles away, he wrote.

The study of chaos and the complexity of systems have engrossed scientists across disciplines ever since.

Fuller stumbled into this realm just after he finished his doctoral degree in 1992. He'd begun teaching math and biology at a New Mexico community college when a row of volumes in a bookstore caught his attention. The topics included chaos theory, fractal geometry, complexity, nonlinear dynamics and dynamical systems theory.

"I walked out with $230 worth of books," he said.

Those books filled in the blanks of 16 years of university lectures and texts, he said.

"It was like every other page was blank," he said. "Complexity filled in the missing pages."

Complexity, for example, focuses on metabolism rather than the individual components of a cell, whole ecosystems rather than individual species, genetic networks rather than individual genes.

Complexity includes chaos - the science that finds order in seemingly random phenomenon; geophysiology - the notion that life on Earth plays a role in regulating the atmospheric conditions that sustain it; and fractal geometry - the math that describes systems where the small parts mirror the large parts.

While most universities offer bits and pieces of complexity scattered throughout various disciplines, few have brought them together under one broad umbrella.

That's what Fuller wanted to do, and when an unexpected inheritance came his way, he gave up teaching at Evergreen State College in Olympia, moved to Eugene and set up his own school.

He calls complexity "one of the most important new ideas of science in 300 years" and believes that human survival may depend on how well people grasp the ideas.

For a little more than two years now, he's been teaching 10-week classes in complexity, math, biology and geophysiology.

The setting is a chilly warehouse in west Eugene where comfortable sofas and chairs and soft lighting give the classes a relaxed atmosphere.

The courses have attracted a mix of people with varying backgrounds. …

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