Why degeneracy?

In time, I hope to detail precisely what I mean by degenerate state. For now, below are some words on what is an evolutionary definition of degeneracy, and its importance as a property of evolvable, robust systems. Try to imagine, what might such an institutional system look like?

Degeneracy – a partial overlap in the functioning of multi-functional components – plays a central role in the evolution and robustness of complex forms. It is a fundamental source of robustness, it is intimately tied to multi-scaled complexity, and it establishes conditions that are necessary for system evolvability.

Within biological systems, degeneracy refers to circumstances where structurally dissimilar components/modules/pathways can perform similar functions (i.e. are effectively interchangeable) under certain conditions, but perform distinct functions in other conditions. Degeneracy is thus a relational property that requires comparing the behaviour of two or more components. In particular, if degeneracy is present in a pair of components then there will exist conditions where the pair will appear functionally redundant but other conditions where they will appear functionally distinct.

Complex adaptive systems (CAS) are omnipresent and are at the core of some of society’s most challenging and rewarding endeavours. They are also of interest in their own right because of the unique features they exhibit such as high complexity, robustness, and the capacity to innovate. Especially within biological contexts such as the immune system, the brain, and gene regulation, CAS are extraordinarily robust to variation in both internal and external conditions.

This robustness is in many ways unique because it is conferred through rich distributed responses that allow these systems to handle challenging and varied environmental stresses. Although exceptionally robust, biological systems can sometimes adapt in ways that exploit new resources or allow them to persist under unprecedented environmental regime shifts.

A deeper understanding of CAS thus requires a deeper understanding of the conditions that facilitate the coexistence of high robustness, growing complexity, and the continued propensity for innovation or what we refer to as evolvability. This reconciliation is not only of interest to biological evolution but also to science in general because variability in conditions and unprecedented shocks are a challenge faced across many facets of human enterprise.

A full accounting of biological robustness remains elusive; both in terms of the mechanisms by which robustness is achieved and the forces that have caused robustness to grow over evolutionary time. Although its importance to topics such as ecosystem services and resilience is well recognized, the broader relationship between robustness and evolution is only starting to be fully appreciated.

(Taken from: Whitacre Theoretical Biology and Medical Modelling 2010, 7:6)

I think this provides a very interesting perspective on the economic question. In this context, the centralising nature of the modern nation state reduces degeneracy, stifles institutional innovation, threatens robustness, and ultimately fragilises the system to external and internal shocks. This is due to the fact that centralisation necessarily reduces diversity and redundancies in a system, which are characteristic of degeneracy. On the other hand, a competitive market order comprises richly redundant networks of overlapping organisations (horizontally and vertically) and thus cultivates the capacity for experimentation and adaptability – not to mention evolvability and robustness to the injurious effects of shocks or discontinuous change. On the question of public good provision and the traditionally-conceived functions of government, a polycentric public service order has much the same properties – degeneracy, robustness, evolvability. And let’s not forget the familiar Olsonian tale of special interests and ossification that occurs when private and public actors combine to sap the system of degeneracy (also know as crony capitalism). Institutions – whether private or public (or commons or clubs for that matter) – should be degenerate, as this fosters the desirable properties of robustness and evolvability.

There are, of course, other well known criticisms of economic and political centralisation, dating back to the socialist calculation debate, indeed further. Some of these are about static efficiency and the limitations of central planning and control. Others have highlighted the evolutionary aspect in terms of the innovative capabilities of comparative systems and dynamic efficiencies that follow. The concept of a degenerate state, as to be pursued in this blog, takes an explicitly evolutionary approach to this question, in an attempt to integrate complexity theory with political economy. It is an entry into what might be called the socialist evolvability debate. In this sense, it may be old wine in a new bottle, but good wine nonetheless.

Taken as an evolutionary system – which, of course, it is – the current political-economic system could not be structured any more differently. A degenerate system would be radically decentralised in terms of both private economic production (i.e., markets that are unmonopolised and genuinely competitive) and the scale and scope of government control over the economy (i.e., less market interventionist, less micro-management of the economy, less ambitious governmental programs and spending, particularly as a means to allegedly stimulate the economy, territorial functions of government devolved to the lowest possible scale of organisation, often the local level, and not performed at the central federal level, indeed privatising many of the traditionally-conceived functions of government where feasible).

This represents an abrupt change in perspective to that which is dominent in practically all societies today. Look at the United States, massive amounts of government intervention, spending, and debt – unprecedented in their history. The government has effectively managed to strangle many areas of the economy. Not to mention the terrible drain to prosperity the tax burden will impose on future generations, should it ever need to be paid back. The very notion of the EU is antithetical to this position. And anyway, many of the European nations themselves are in precarious positions, with similarly calamitous levels of debt, mass unemployment and widespread economic stagnation. All this following similarly interventionist and centralising principles of governance.

Then, is there little wonder these economies have been struck by economic turmoil (i.e., lack robustness) and are flailing in their attempts to recover (i.e., adapt and evolve)?

It is an interesting hypothesis indeed – the synthesis of complexity and evolutionary theory with political economy – and one deserved of contemplation and criticism. Presently, this is but the spark of an idea, and – to put it mildly – a fairly speculative one at that, and so, in need of further elaboration. Given the relationships between degeneracy, complexity, and robustness to periods of instability – whether triggered by external shocks or indeed even inherent internal causes – would a not altogether different image or conception of society begin to emerge?


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