Complex Systems Theory

Links to Abstracts, Files, published papers, and power point presentations concerning defining and teaching deterministic chaos and complex systems theory

From: Lynn S. Fichter and Eric Pyle

Department of Geology and Environmental Science
James Madison University, Harrisonburg, Virginia 22807 MSC 6903

Since 2010 Lynn Fichter, Steve Baedke, Eric Pyle, and Steve Whitmeyer have presented a series of articles, oral presentations (abstracts), and power point presentations explicating the properties of complex systems. The list below provides links to all these presentations. Sometimes they overlap, but they all present different aspects of systems thinking and definitions.

Some of the presentations are designed for a professional audience, but in addition we include the class room power points that develop the principles of deterministic chaos and complex systems theory for introductory students. We give permission for any of these materials to be used by anyone for educational purposes so long as the source is acknowledged. They may not be used for commercial or profit-seeking activities.

1. GSA Abstract and Power Point (2015).

  • “It’s the System! Yes. But What Kind of System.” Exploring the various ways "system" can be definied, identified and recognized.
  • Link to GSA abstract:
  • Link to GSA power point:

  • 2. Published paper.  Three Evolutionary Mechanisms

  • Lynn S. Fichter, E. J. Pyle, and S. J. Whitmeyer (2010), Expanding Evolutionary Theory Beyond Darwinism with Elaborating, Self-Organizing, and Fractionating Complex Evolutionary Systems. Journal of Geoscience Education: March 2010, Vol. 58, No. 2, pp. 58-64.

  • Traditionally there is only one “theory” of evolution: Darwinian evolution, a.k.a. the Modern Synthesis. Yet biological evolutionary principles and mechanisms do not apply to non-biological systems. This paper develops 3 mechanisms of evolution based on complex systems theory, and explains how they apply to a variety of earth systems.

  • 3. Published Paper: Teaching Chaos and Complex Systems Theories

  • Lynn S. Fichter, E. J. Pyle, and S. J. Whitmeyer (2010) Strategies and Rubrics for Teaching Chaos and Complex Systems Theories as Elaborating, Self-Organizing, and Fractionating Evolutionary Systems. Journal of Geoscience Education: March 2010, Vol. 58, No. 2, pp. 65-85.

  • a. This is the source paper for the web site listed next, Number 4.

  • 4. Web Site: Teaching Chaos and Complex Evolutionary Systems Theories at the Introductory Level

  • Fichter, Lynn S., Pyle, E.J., and Whitmeyer, S.J., 2010.
  • This web site contains a learning progression for teaching chaos and complex systems theories to introductory students. It contains strategies, rubrics, learning outcomes, computer models of various chaos/complex systems, and sample lab experiments. (Note, most of the computer programs linked at this site were written for older 16 bit computers while new ones are 32 or 64 bit. These programs will not run on a 64 bit machine.)

  • 5. Excel Computer Model: the Logistic system.

  • The essence of (deterministic) chaos theory is the harder a system is pushed the more unstable and unpredictable it becomes. This can be demonstrated two ways, with a series of time series diagrams, and with a bifurcation diagram. The links below give access to programs to calculate both. There is also a link to a lab exercise used in an Environmental Systems class.

  • Excel Logistic Model: We use this as a class demonstration/seminar. Beginning with r = 2.7 we slowly increase it eventually to 4.1, asking at each r, “Based on what you have seen so far what do you think this system will do next?” Invariably when we get to r = 3.5 and above they are amazed.

  • Logistic System Lab Exercise

  • Bifurcation Diagram. The best way to see the total behavior of the logistic system in one diagram is to calculate a bifurcation diagram. Our method is a bit clunky. We have an old DOS program - XnextBIF - (written by Will Frangos) that creates the data file, and then we import it into Grapher.

  • Bifurcation Diagram Lab Exercise

  • 6. Pdf. History of Complex Systems Theory.

  • Historically and analytically concepts of complex systems can be traced back to the 1940's and 1950's. For example, the Wikipedia page titled Complex Systems has a very nice flow chart showing the evolutionary history of complex systems. It shows that the concept of complex systems has many parents all of which have fed into and off of each other.

  • Wikipedia Complex systems the source of the chart developing complex systems theory

  • Chart: History of complex systems the chart in a pdf file

  • 7. Power Point Lectures (Introduction to Chaos and Complex Systems Theory:

  • Chaos Theory, Complex Systems Theory, and Evolutionary Dynamics are presented in two introductory classes taught at JMU. The power points are made available below. Depending on how in depth we go they take 3 to 5 classes:
  • Geology 230: Evolution of the Earth: geology majors course

  • i. Chaos Theory Part A
    ii. Chaos Theory Part B
    iii. Complex System Theory
    iv. Bistable Behavior

  • ENVT 200, Environmental Systems Theory: course that draws students from across campus, many without a lot of scientific background. Lectures focus on applying chaos and complex systems to understanding environmental systems.
  • Chaos Theory + lab debrief
  • Bifurcation Diagrams + lab debrief
  • Complex Systems Theory - cellular automata plus boids
  • Bak-Sneppen Ecosystem Model
  • Scale Free Networks and fitness landscapes
  • Bistable systems and overshoot leading to collapse.

  • 8. Keynote Address, Teaching Chaos and Complex Evolutionary Systems Theories at the Introductory Level

  • Lynn S. Fichter , Geology and Environmental Science, James Madison University
  • Keynote Address: Complex Systems Theory: Cutting Edge Workshop on complex systems, Carlton College
  • On the Cutting Edge Reviewed Teaching Collection:

  • 9. Power Point: The Hidden Evolution in the Virginia SOL’s - 2011:

  • CTA Earth and Environmental Science Academy, James Madison University, Wednesday, June 29, 2011

  • 10. Power Point: Strategies and Rubrics for Teaching Complex Systems Theory - 2011

  • AGU Strategies and Rubrics for teaching Complex Systems Theory to Novices 2011 AGU meeting, San Francisco


  • FICHTER, 2011, Lynn S., Geology and Environmental Science, James Madison University, Harrisonburg, VA 22807, and BAEDKE, Steve J., Geology and Environmental Science, James Madison University, MSC 6903, Harrisonburg, VA 22807
  • 2011 GSA Annual Meeting in Minneapolis (9/12 October 2011)
  • This presentation specifically shows how complex systems theory can be aplied to earth systems.
  • Abstract
  • Power Point
  • 12. Abstract/Power Point: Earth Systems Do Not Evolve to Equilibrium - 2008

  • FICHTER, Lynn L.S., WHITMEYER, S.J, and PYLE, Eric J., 2008 2008 Joint Meeting of The Geological Society of America, Soil Science Society of America, American Society of Agronomy, Crop Science Society of America, Gulf Coast Association of Geological Societies with the Gulf Coast Section of SEPM Houston, Texas
  • Abstract
  • Power Point - Earth Systems Do Not Evolve to Equilibrium