the adjacent possible

The adjacent possible is a concept I first heard from Stuart A. Kauffman's Reinventing the Sacred. It represents the space of available "next steps" in any system, be it a chemical reaction, an ecosystem, or a society.

Kauffman's book argues that there are systems that are "critically" dynamic are ones capable of exploding from a small set of actors into a massive diverse set by sitting on the boundary of chaos, maximizing their adjacent possible.

His larger point is about the possibility that these kinds of systems are the seemingly self-guided, infinitely generative things that we collect into our definition of god. I agree with his conclusion, but I often find myself reaching for the concept as a social activist. I believe that when we create new art, or when we publish novel ideas, we are contributing to a wider adjacent possible for society. Maximizing this adjacent possible is, in my view, key to building a more resilient and more just society.

In his own words

I want to introduce an idea that will become of the deepest importance in the rest of this book: the adjacent possible. As we will see later, history itself arises out of the adjacent possible. Consider a reaction graph with N molecular species, polymer sequences of A, and B monomers of diverse lengths. Call this initial N the actual. Now ask the organic chemist to draw all the reactions that these N specis might undergo (in conditions defined as above). It may well be that the products of some of these single-step reactions will not be among the initial N in the "actual" but will be new molecular species. Call the set of new molecular species reachable in a single-reaction step from the actual, the adjacent possible. ā€”p 64

Here I note that the early Earth almost certainly had only a small diversity of organic molecules, perhaps a hundred or a thousand different compounds. Today there are trillions of different organic compounds spread among the roughly 100 million living species. The biosphere has exploded into its chemical adjacent possible. We will find similar explosions in economics, human history, and elsewhere. In general, we have no theories of the explosions, yet they are central to the evolution of complexity. The creativity in the universe is tied to the explosions into the adjacent possible. ā€”p 64

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