A list of concrete examples of open-endeness?

Having a list of concrete examples of open-endeness might be a handy tool for the future, particularly for testing models/measures across several systems. Here are some that I often think about:

Patents and technology
Fossil records of phenotypic expressions
Law/government systems
Game strategies in games with rules that change
Stories (literature/film/gossip/folklore)
Religious institutions

What else?

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Hi Alyssa! I can’t believe I’m only finding this community now.

So obviously you listed some huge umbrellas there, and I’m a bit biased as my head’s in socioeconomic systems at the moment, but really the emergence of any meso-level social institution (this is inclusive of law/gov systems and religious institutions but really a whole bunch of other things) is open-ended and terribly inexplicable in traditional economic theory. One area I’m working in right now is how observed polycentricity in governance is indicative of open-ended evolution in governance systems and really how people come together to solve problems about, well, anything.

So, self-organized solutions to common-pool resource problems, whose study won Elinor Ostrom the Nobel, fall squarely into examples of open-ended evolution. Really the self-organized solving of any human problem through some product offering is also an open-ended system: “the market” is an open-ended evolutionary system.

Anyway, just some examples from my neck of the woods.

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This is a very interesting example! Would be very helpful to have a pointer or two into this literature. Or should I just search “Elinor Ostrom common-pool resource” on google scholar?


Actually, that search generated a bunch of good refs. @Samsun008 will soon install a sample of them.


Hi Alyssa,

Interesting list! The comprehensive feel of your list reminds me of S Ulam’s remark regarding nonlinear science, “Using a term like nonlinear science is like referring to the bulk of zoology as the study of non-elephant animals.” Perhaps the realm of open-ended phenomena dwarfs the realm of non-open-ended (closed-ended?) phenomena?

Where would social media like Twitter, TikTok, etc. fit? Maybe ‘stories’, but maybe not, as there is both more and less going on.

You mention fossil records, but an obvious generalization is all phylogenetic records, whether fossil or derived from genomes.



If biology is open-ended, does this imply that the realm of all physical phenomena is open-ended?

Really fantastic examples! This reminds me of Stanley et al’s essay from 2017 on how the strongest forms of open-ended systems not only solve problems, but they also generate new problems to be solved. Governance and law systems are really fascinating because as new laws/rules/norms/precedents are introduced, it immediately creates new problems to be solved.

In economic theory, is there ever such a thing as a “perfect” set of rules/laws such that all possible issues are clearly addressed within that set of rules? I don’t know much about economic theory, so I’ll use the US law system as an example. It seems that regardless of how comprehensive a set of rules is, it will never encompass every possible issue that can come up because technology and social norms are ever-changing. So in economic theory, is this similar?

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Great points! I think the more I dive into any one of these single examples, the more I realize that their evolution and trends depend so much on other open-ended factors. Twitter/TikTok are driven by responses to social trends which are driven by tons of factors like news, political changes, and evolving technology, just to name a few.

It makes me think of Flack’s ALIFE talk that Complexity Begets Complexity, but here I suppose I would say that open-endedness begets open-endedness. Which really makes me wonder if understanding open-endedness is even possible without considering the dynamics of an entire system. But where would that boundary end? All of Earth? On the other hand, if open-ended systems create more open-ended systems, then I have to wonder what the “first” open-ended system looked like, or if it was even open-ended at all. :thinking: :thinking: :thinking: Really fun things to think about!

It seems that regardless of how comprehensive a set of rules is, it will never encompass every possible issue that can come up because technology and social norms are ever-changing.

Yes. And this issue has been known in economic theory for a long time. In his Theory of Moral Sentiments (1750), Adam Smith relays a warning about Casuism. Casuists were Catholics who had developed–and were continually developing–a sort of ultimate rulebook of how people can absolve themselves given particular confessed sins. The point of it all was that in addition to the every-growing nature of the rulebook, there are instances and situations that Smith called “vague and indeterminate” that are not and cannot be concretely assigned rules, a kind of anticipation of an undecidable disjunction. So both novelty borne of open-endedness and the inevitable undecidable disjunctions make the development of some be-all end-all rulebook an exercise in futility. What one might call an anti-Hari Seldon theorem.

I find thinking about evolutionary open-endedness is easier in terms of affordances and the adjacent possible. The idea is that given what exists and the scope of the possible, the adjacent possible is the subset (of the possible) of more probable affordances of what exists. Even then, not all the adjacent possible is realized, i.e., becomes part of what exists in the next time “step”. This doesn’t rule out the idea that randomness is everywhere, and by implication doesn’t prove some kind of progressive trend of history. It also doesn’t imply the adjacent possible is computable by some given individual in the system.

Apparently the term “affordance” comes from James Gibson’s work on visual perception?

Your description of “affordances and the adjacent possible” sounds a little like a population wandering on a neutral fitness landscape. Nearby states (affordances) are visited, probabilistically if there are many of them, with no particular preference or directionality. This is definitely one mode of change/evolution found in open-ended systems. But there seems to be more, especially in the most interesting cases, with a “pressure” to explore particularly interesting / useful / functional affordances. Pressure is in scare quotes because a precise definition is lacking, and one of the holy grails.