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Understanding the Complex Network of Life

The Symbolic Tree Metaphor

This article was based on Manuel Lima’s TED Talk, “The Power of Networks”:


RSA ANIMATE: The Power of Networks


Manuel Lima has a background in industrial design and technology.  He is currently a design lead for Google.  As a frequent lecturer on information visualization, he opened his Ted Talk, “The Power of Networks,” with a discussion on trees.

Trees have symbolized many things throughout the ages.  They have been prominent religious symbols from ancient Babylon, through Judaism and to modern Christianity.  Trees have also played an important part in our knowledge classification systems.  They have been used to map a variety of aspects from main characters and stories in the Bible to the blood ties between people in a ‘family tree.’  In science, trees have been used to map everything from species to the planets.


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The metaphor of a tree to symbolize a network of objects is so widespread because it expresses the human desire for order, hierarchy, and unity.  Trees are an embodiment of the simple way in which we like to look at the world.  One of the oldest trees of knowledge known to man was devised by Aristotle.  This ancient tree of knowledge represents a universal structure for all worldly knowledge.

A Paradigm Shift

Because of our increasing knowledge base, we are at a turning point from the symbolic tree to networks. We are facing a paradigm shift, in the sense that trees are no longer able to accommodate the narrowing complexities of the modern world.

In 1948, American scientist, Warren Weaver, wrote an article on the topic of organized complexity where he divided modern science into three different stages. The first one covered problems of simplicity from the 17th through the 19th centuries. During this period, scientists were primarily concerned with how individual elements influence each other.  The second stage covers the first half of the 20th century and considers problems of disorganized complexity. Scientists became aware that the elements are connected in random and chaotic ways. Moving to the final stage at the end of the 20th century, scientists became much more aware that the elements in our planet are all interconnected and interdependent, giving rise to what Weaver considered to be problems of organized complexity.


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It is in this stage of organized complexity that the tree metaphor becomes insufficient.  As our knowledge of the world deepens, we begin to view ecosystems in a much more complex way. The incredible amount of interaction that exists within the species creates complex ecosystems that can no longer be represented by a simple tree model.

The Problems of Organized Complexity

The problems of organized complexity go beyond our ecosystems and extend into the way we try to decode the human brain. In the past, the brain was considered to be a modular centralized organ, where different areas were responsible for certain actions or behaviours.  Today, we understand that the brain is not a central element, but a complex system of connections that can be likened to a symphony played by thousands of instruments.


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We can also see the problems of organized complexity in the way we categorize knowledge. In the ancient model where a tree represents knowledge, the branches do not touch.  Individual branches spread out, but there are no ties between them.  Now we understand that knowledge is highly interconnected.  There are immense connections between subjects and other disparate areas of knowledge.

The problems of organized complexities are apparent in the ways we try to organize ourselves.  After the industrial revolution, the notion of a top-down culture became prevalent throughout our society. The typical organization chart flows from the president at the top, down to the individual worker below. Presently we realize that we are much more idiosyncratic beings and the internet is drastically changing the paradigm of looking at social structures from a hierarchical point of view in a tree model.

The Network of Life

This paradigm shift can also be seen in the way we look at nature and the way we order nature itself.  The only illustration Darwin used in his book On the Origin of Species was a symbolic tree of life.  Since then, over the past 150 years, many scientists have evolved this tree of life to categorize all living things.

As scientists learn about the interconnectedness of species, this model has drastically changed.  Scientists have discovered that there is a dense network of bacteria that connect disparate species.  When you consider that roughly 90% of the human body contains bacteria, you can understand the significance of this discovery.  The tree of life model has been replaced with what scientists are calling the web of life, which better represents an interdependent network.


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Networks are omnipresent structures.  The brain is a network of nerve cells connected by axons and cells that are networks of molecules.  Societies are networks of people linked by different types of ties.  On a larger scale, we have food webs and ecosystems comprised of networks of species. Other networks exist in technology, from the internet to power grids and transportation systems.  

As our understanding of these complex systems grows, there is the need for a new way of thinking.  In a world where everything is interconnected and interdependent, we must think in a pluralistic way. No longer is it sufficient to be a specialist in one area, you need to create outbound ties that enable you to learn from other disparate areas.  The power of network thinking helps us with the challenge of mapping an increasingly complex world.


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