Santa Fe Institute Collaboration Platform

COMPLEX TIME: Adaptation, Aging, & Arrow of Time

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Contact: Caitlin Lorraine McShea, Program Manager,

Complex Time:About

From Complex Time

SFI Adaptation, Aging, Arrow of Time Research Theme (2017–2022)

Made possible with generous funding from the James S. McDonnell Foundation


The SFI Adaptation, Aging, and the Arrow of Time (AAA) research theme seeks to transform our understanding of phenomena bearing on the “arrow of time” using fundamental complexity insights and tools. The concept of time pervades everything that we know about the physical and biological universe. However, adaptive phenomena cannot be trivially reduced to the simple timescale of physics and chemistry. In adaptive systems, aging is explicitly viewed as a consequence of information gain (adaptation) and information loss (entropy). This research theme will investigate both living and non-living systems, including connected subsystems that operate concurrently at different scales and rates.

Examples of key questions that this project seeks to address include:

a. Is aging of organisms and social systems an inevitable consequence of the physical processes of entropy production during adaptation? That is, does the creation of one system imply the destruction of another system?

b. What are the key mechanisms of adaptation and aging and how are they coupled? And is advanced age in one system required for adaptation of another?

c. Are there new structures that emerge to offset the gain and loss of function, such as modularity, network connectivity, redundancy, and hierarchy?

d. Is the inflexibility of older systems a generic feature of tight coupling in regulatory and control networks, and what are the mechanisms that engender this coupling in physiology, ecology and technology?

e. How do concurrent aging processes interact across scales of space and time, including genetic, epigenetic, cellular, organismal, and ecological systems?

f. What is the relationship between metabolic energy and biological information – can excess metabolic energy be used to preserve information, hence youthfulness, indefinitely?

g. Are there simple data-based diagnostics that allow us to assay system age, maladaptability, and adaptability, and can simple devices capture appropriate metrics for a variety of settings?

h. Can we develop intervention strategies to compensate for the evolution or loss of system function with time, to include compensation through collective effects, social support, and technology building on control theory?

i. Can we predict and control catastrophic shifts in system function, to include shifts in the neural, cognitive, and behavioral correlates of age, and what are the early warning signs of these transitions?

j. How do infectious processes age and what is the relationship of the swift adaptation of microbes to their long-term persistence or extinction, and how is this coupled to aging of the immune system?

k. How do institutions and social norms remain adaptive and what are the mechanisms through which they lose or preserve flexibility through time?

l. How do technologies age, to include physical infrastructure, solid-state hardware, and software, and can these processes be overcome?


Each year the program is bookended at the start by a General Conference (GC), and at the end by a Core Theory (CT) Conference. Application Area (AA) meetings that take place throughout the year are organized by topical area experts. The GC explores and integrates a number of topical areas of research connected to Complex Time, while the CT seeks to consolidate data sets and tools across AAs. Each year SFI will host an Advisory Board meeting to monitor and provide feedback on the program progress. The program also has funding to support visiting scientists to SFI who might want to collaborate with SFI resident scientists and or learn more about complexity science.


As of July, 2018, the project supports the following Application Areas:

Aging Brain

Infectious Diseases

Population & Environment

Human Resilience