Are Complex Systems a Higher Form of Intelligence?

In everyday life we tend to think of intelligence in terms of hierarchies, with the smartest people at the top. We measure IQ scores and make reverse-coherent stories about the qualification of our leaders based on our perception of their intelligence and influence. When systems fail to deliver the results we expected, leaders take the brunt of our blame. 

When we consider big-ticket issues like politics, disasters, economics, climate, inequality, and other major complex systems from a polarized perspective, aren't we putting too much stock into the agency of an individual? Many paradigm changes are the result of systemic shifts that have a single personality at the crest of a wave--movements that already had momentum as a network. Where there's drama, it's easy for us to find causality through its players, yet even our myths tell a different story: in Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet, it was a series of interrelated events, feedback loops ("Mis-shapen chaos of well seeming forms!") and misplaced narratives weaving through a network of families that brought about the downfall of the star-crossed lovers.

Now I'm not saying that we should blame the planets when things go wrong (I'm not saying I haven't, either), but as we band together in groups to trade the stories that become our shared realities, retelling and reinforcing and reacting to them through feedback loops, I have to wonder if those networks of stories are not a better measure of our collective intelligence than the people at the top shouting the loudest. 

Although we like to say we're at the top of the food chain, in all of nature's complexity we human beings are somewhere in the middle of nature's hierarchy. Structural information precedes our understanding of matter. Our cells do not understand our life plans, and yet they function just the same; likewise we do not always understand how the larger systems we create and participate in affect us individually. 

And yet there's hope. Key to our evolutionary resilience is direct perception, our precognitive, sensory ability to recognize complex patterns and discern higher orders at work. What's more, our computing power has now advanced to the point where we can make sense of billions of data points. Networks and ecosystems are beginning to have a voice and tell stories that transcend our individual politicking. Can we hold back on reductionist reasoning long enough to find truth in emergence?

Consciousness (as we know it) is not a requirement for a complex adaptive system to do its thing on some pretty impressive scales. As we have looked at higher powers than our own individual means and, not understanding them, called them angels, perhaps we are beginning to perceive new patterns of collective intelligence at work through the systems we have created, which live nowhere and everywhere in physical space, and still somehow affect all of us. 

What do you think? How will new technologies and new waves of thought change the way we think of (and act on) principles of leadership, organization and problem-solving?

The HumanCurrent podcast is hosted by Angie Cross & Stacy Hale. Subscribe in iTunes or listen at