Humans Have Not Evolved to Intuitively Understand Complexity

Often while looking at random flora and fauna (including humans), I marvel at evolution’s work. To think that all these intricate living systems have evolved without conscious design. The more I learn about biology, the more amazing it seems!

But then, I have to remember that I am an evolved creature myself, and my species has not evolved to be able to easily grasp the levels of complexity involved with the evolution of biological lifeforms (long time scales, interactions of complex systems, etc).

The primeval savanna where selection pressure formed my brain had no need for this; it’s just a lucky side-effect that I’m now able to think about it at all, and in the grand scheme of things, my understanding is superficial and forced. I can’t simply hold all the elements in my head and run simulations in the way that I can effortlessly know where a falling baseball is going to hit the ground. To my limited mind, on some level, it all seems almost impossibly complex, even if I know more abstractly how it happened. It’s like trying to visualize large numbers. You know what a trillion is in the abstract, but you don’t really grasp it.

But that fact says as much about me, about us, as about the phenomenon itself. A higher intelligence (an AI that could hold a whole planet’s worth of quarks in its mind, for example) might not find life (or other complex phenomena) so special. Its reaction might be more like “duh”.

9 Responses to “Humans Have Not Evolved to Intuitively Understand Complexity”

  1. Wally Glutton Says:

    Well put. This is a difficult truth.

    And as for the higher intelligence, would we be capable of communicating with it across this chasm of complexity?

  2. Tim Plodinec Says:

    Try Genesis 1. It really helped me in understanding all this.

  3. Alejandro Vasconez Says:

    I keep hearing that we can’t conceive really big numbers. How so? I know what a trillion is. I can write it down. I can perform addition and subtraction to it. I can compare it to other numbers. I can factor it to its constituate primes. I can convert it to binary.

    Imagine a hypothetical primitive person that can visualize 8 bananas but can’t divide it into portions for four people. Would you say he can conceive the number 8? No the whole idea of a “number” has to be considered with the rest of our knowledge of numbers. “Numbers” only have meaning in context of the Number Line.

    It that sense, yes, we really can conceive of “really big numbers”. They’re just like every other number.

  4. Michael Graham Richard Says:


    I think what most people mean when they talk about big numbers is that we can’t visualize them in the same way that we can with small number, and thus it limits our perception of their real scale.

    I know in the abstract that a billion is a thousand times bigger than a million, but I don’t quite see it.

    If I think of “five”, I can see five things at the same time in my mind’s eye. But if I think of a trillion, it’s just a concept. I don’t “see” it.

    If you can, you probably are exceptional in that regard.

  5. crazyasuka Says:

    Grasping complex things like these wasn’t essential in our survival, so we lack them, of course.

    I like the whole post but I especially like the last paragraph about a different kind of intelligence and its reaction to the world. It’s fascinating.

  6. Jessica Says:

    “Its reaction might be more like “duh”.”

    Love it.

    I agree with crazyasuka. The last paragraph was great. The more I think about it, it’s touching, really.

    Either way, great post.

  7. Tim Says:

    “Humans have not evolved to intuitively understand complexity” – then why are you writing about the intuitive understanding of complexity?

    • Michael Graham Richard Says:

      I know you’re just trying to be a smartass, but the real answer to your question is: “Because we can understand why we’re having a hard time with complexity, and knowing our innate limitations can help us develop tools and techniques to do better (as with everything else, really).”

  8. Improfane Says:

    I agree with your post immensely!

    Have you heard of the monkeysphere? It’s the same concept: humans beings are only designed to interact with a small tribe of people, say a clan or a village. Modern culture requires we potentially interact with people from any country, social group or community. Take the internet for example.

    Our brains cannot comprehend the number of people in the world and we can only care about a limited number of factors or properties. If you ask me, complexity is why there is evil!


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