“Complexity, as any scientist will tell you, is a slippery idea, one that defies almost any effort to hold it down and pin it in place.
Things that seem complicated can be preposterously simple; things that seem simple can dizzyingly complex. A manufacturing plant– with its clanking machinery filling acres and acres of hangar-sized buildings– may be far less complicated than a houseplant, with its micro-hydraulics and fine-tuned metabolism and dense schematic of nucleic acids. A colony of garden ants may similarly be more elaborate than a community of people. A sentence might be richer than a book, a couplet more complicated than a song, a hobby shop harder to run than a corporation.
Human beings are not wired to look at matters that way. We are suckers for scale.
Things that last for a long time impress us more than things that don’t, things that scare us by their sheer size strike us more than things we dwarf. We grow hushed at, say, a star, and we shrug at, say, a guppy. And why not? A guppy is cheap, fungible, eminently disposable, a barely conscious clump of proteins that coalesce into a bigger clump, swim about for a few months, and then expire entirely unremarked upon, quickly decomposing into the raw chemicals that produced them in the first place. A start roars and burns across epochs, birthing planets, consuming moons, sending showers of energy to the limits of its galaxy.
Yet the guppy is where the magic lies. A star, after all, is just a furnace, a vulgar cosmic machine made up of three layers of gases that slam hydrogen atoms into helium, release a little light and fire in the process, and achieve nothing more than that. It may last for a billion years, but to what animating end?
A guppy, by contrast, is a symphony of systems.
Circulatory, skeletal, optical, neurological, hematological, metabolic, auditory, respiratory, olfactory, enzymatic, reproductive, bio-mechanical, behavioral and social. Its systems are assembled from cells; its cells have subsystems; the subsystems have subsystems. And if so elegant an organism lives for no more than a handful of months, what of it?