Complexity Theory, Chaos, Self-Organization, and Ants

When I was in elementary school I used to be obsessed with ants. During the spring they would come and swarm our kitchen and raid our refrigerator. While my parents mostly ignored them, setting out traps for them and calling it a day, I would watch them and how they behaved. While my own behavior can be understood as me having nothing better to do on a Tuesday afternoon, theirs seemed much harder to comprehend. Sure they were after food, but why our house? What compelled them to enter our house and how did the rest of the colony know where our fridge was and where our food was stored? These questions, put on hold for several years, were revived by the emergence of an idea of complexity theory.

Complexity theory analyzes the associations between systems and their interactions. Through the study of these systems patterns and structure become apparent. Independent agents within the system are understood as being parts of a coherent system which can, in turn, be better understood overall. Ideas within complexity theory which will be used to understand the actions of ants are: chaos, and self-organization.

Chaos within complexity theory describes how small differences in initial conditions of the system can lead to large outcomes to the system’s overall trajectory. This is most commonly understood through the butterfly effect, but it also extends to the behaviors of ants. As a colony establishes itself, scouts are sent out to determine the locations of food and water. Once a scout makes contact with a potential source of sustenance, they return to the colony. As they make their return trip they leave a trail of pheromones that allows future ants to follow the route to the food source (see figure 1). Workers then follow this pheromone trail to the food/water and proceed to collect it, bringing it back to the colony. This whole process is an example of chaos at work, as the actions of individual scouts during the initial conditions of the colony lead to ants in my fridge and an infestation in the kitchen.

Self-organization is often understood as to operate in conjunction with chaos, but the difference between these two aspects is that self-organization is more focused on changes within the system. An ant finding leftover pizza in the fridge is very dependent on external conditions, and would fall under the aspect of chaos. A queen ant dying and the colony collapsing is an example of change within the system and would serve as an example of self-organization (see figure 2). While the collapse of order within the colony system may be observed, this nature is very much part of how the ant colony is organized. This change in the conduct of the system carries over and effects the conduct of individuals.

Through the observation of ants, complexity theory and its components can be better understood. The system which is the colony is naturally a good example to see how the actions of individuals within and without can effect the trajectory of the system. It also helps to explains why ants one day are stealing leftovers and the next have disappeared.

Figure 1: Scout ants creating pathways from the colony to a food source
(Sempo, Grégory, et al. “Fig. 2. Trail Recruitment in Ants. An Ant Scout (in Black) Which Has…” ResearchGate, 1 Aug. 2018,
Figure 2: An example of a queen ant dying and the colony system collapsing
(Belam, Martin. “Museum Posts ‘Queen Has Died’ Notice to Explain Vanished Ant Colony.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 19 Oct. 2016,

Social Distancing Field Notes

As the act of social distancing increasingly becomes the accepted norm, a look into the behaviors of practicing persons is necessary to understand what this means for individuals. I interviewed three persons around my age (18-19) about: how they were practicing social distancing, what their social distancing space looks like, and how they are using this time. Their responses help to provide a window into a college student’s thoughts and actions about social distancing.

The first person to be interviewed was Faith Fraley, who lives in Stafford County. When asked how they were practicing social distancing, she remarked “I’m staying in my house with parents, and I only go out if it’s a necessity.” In response to what their space looks like, Faith remarked how the entire household was her social distancing space. She has spent her time “uploading pictures from my winter break trip”, “learning origami”, and planning on a “movie marathon of the Pirates of the Caribbean series”.

Faith Fraley Interview Notes

The next person to be interviewed was Jack Holt, a neighbor of mine in Arlington. “Being bored at home and not doing fun things” was how he responded to the question of how was he practicing social distancing. When asked what his social distancing space looks like, he remarked that it’s “a PC where I can waste my time”, a desk, and “helluva lotta of paint” for his Warhammer plastic models. Since he has started to practice social distancing, he has been “playing a lot of video games, painting Warhammer models, and working on [his] abs.”

Jack Holt Interview Notes

The final person to be interviewed was Kennan Butcher, a friend of mine from high school. Like Jack, he remarked how social distancing to him means “not spending as much time with friends” and “relying on digital means for socialization”. His space is similar to Jack’s minus the paint for plastic models (see picture below).

Kennan Butcher’s Social Distancing Space

Kennan’s time has been spent “running in the park”, “school work”, and “playing videogames”. To further emphasize the changes social distancing has made in his daily routine, he made a mental map of where he would normally go in Arlington (see picture below).

Kennan Butcher’s Mental Map of Arlington

While three data points are not necessarily indicative of an entire group’s behavior, it’s still a window into those individual’s experiences with social distancing. Space between themselves and persons outside their family are being minimized, and large gatherings are being avoided. Through the conducting of interviews, insight is gained on individual’s thoughts and feelings about the change in behavior necessary to curb the spread of disease.

How Experiences Shape Geographic Thinking

Philmont Boy Scout Camp, New Mexico

Phenomenology, in geography, is defined as how an individual experiences a geographic space through their senses. These senses are not limited to the basic five, but also extend to more subjective feelings. This includes emotions, the flow of time, the self, and the significance of objects. Such concepts are linked to studies of geography as an individual’s senses influences their relationship to their geographic space and thinking.

When it came time to reflect on the concept of phenomenology I could think of no better experience than that of my Rayado trek in the summer of 2019 at the Philmont Scout Ranch in Cimarron Mountain Range of New Mexico. I spent 20 days backpacking and camping with people I had never met before. This was all part of the challenge presented by the Philmont Scout Ranch: travel incredibly long distances with people you’ve never met before while not knowing where tomorrow’s destination will be.

Black Mountain Peak, Courtesy of Russel Scow

These challenges influence an individual’s outlook on an experience and shape it. In this way, challenges can be understood as a particular kind of phenomenon. The degree and type of the challenge will alter the way in which the senses understand and record the event. To further explain this, I’ve recalled an event from the Rayado trek that illustrates this principle.

Comanche Peak is a mountain leading up to Mount Phillips, the crown jewel of the southern portion of the Philmont Scout Ranch. It was while we were on Comanche Peak on the way to Mount Phillips that everything went wrong. We had to take shelter underneath a tarp to prevent hypothermia as a hail and lightning storm caught us in the open. This was the result of my collapsing onto the ground under an over-burdened pack and splitting migraine. It was nothing more than an hour-long experience, but I swear I had spent half my life praying that I be spared from being struck by lightning. This space, too, would be greatly exaggerated in my mental map; Comanche would be a larger area than it actually was, while all the mountains we surmounted that day would be smaller.

Mount Baldy Peak, New Mexico

When asking several members of the Rayado trek what they thought of the trek, every conversation always lead back to Comanche Peak. “It felt so long” said Russel Scow, a member of the Rayado trek, “with the lightning, it was brutal.” In the memory of John Palmer, it was, “pretty chaotic” on that mountain top. Doug Scott recalled the immense weight of the tarp that he had brought out to keep us warm on Comanche to keep the crew warm; it was, “the only time I handed something off.” John Lesko, one of our rangers, simply summed up the experience at Comanche through stating: “Philmont can be beautiful 90% of the time…the other 10%, it can be pretty miserable.” It is that statement by John Lesko that I feel best summarizes Philmont as a whole, Comanche Peak included.

It is this shared sense of chaos and suffering that was experienced on Comanche peak that brought us together. We would commonly joke that the rangers accompanying us were “Mom” and “Dad”, but after that day it took a whole different meaning. As we all huddled underneath that tarp, we couldn’t help but laugh at the situation. This stark memory of camaraderie in such adverse conditions stands out to me as we came to form a collective identity from that event. From there, it would only grow and strengthen. There was even a moment when we lost one of our members, Alex Barteo, due to health complications. After not hearing from him for several days, we held a mock-funeral for him, pouring out a precious carton of chocolate milk in solidarity. To our surprise, not even a minute after our funeral, Alex came back after being dropped off by base camp staff members. This sense of loss and then rejoice upon his return only goes to show this developed sense of a collective identity of hikers, cemented that fateful day on Comanche Peak. In the words of Russel Stow: “I could definitely do it again with the same group of people.” And I do not, for even a moment, disagree with him.

Little Costilla Peak, New Mexico


Below are the recordings of the conversations between myself and those I interviewed for this blog post.

Doug Scott: March 8, 2o2o
John Palmer: March 8, 2020

Russel Scow: March 9 2020 (Part 1)
Russel Scow: March 9 2020 (part 2)

John Lesko: March 8, 2020 (Part 1)
John Lesko: March 8, 2020 (Part 2)

Describing Urban Landscapes

As is well established by now, geography extends beyond just mountains and rivers and the like, but also the built environment. And it can be easy to overlook this as we take aspects of these built environments for granted. This is all the more true as between myself and Fredericksburg.

The attached images are notes from my field notebook describing the phenomenon of spatial differences in urban geography, and at an especially small scale. More specifically, why it is that between two parallel streets in the same town such different environments exist.

And please forgive my poor attempts at sketching. I’m not even close to being an artist.

Writing About Data

When it comes to writing about data, language can become a bit tricky. Conversational/casual language like “kind of” and “should” must be avoided and be replaced by definitive statements. This means phrases such as “indicates” and “states” are to be used instead. These words are far more certain in their definition and have less suggestive connotations attributed to them.

To illustrate this point I’ve compiled several images/graphics pertaining to income distribution of households by county in New Mexico and will give examples of describing data.

If we were talking about data clusters, a statement like this would be made: “It can be observed that median household income by county over $55,625 exists in two clusters: one by the capital of New Mexico, Santa Fe, and the other by the border of Texas and New Mexico.” This bit clearly delineates what is being studied and where. This is necessary when talking about data because it draws the reader exactly to where you want them to look, and not anywhere else.

“For example, the counties of Eddy and Lea have household earnings averaging $15,000+ more than their neighbors in Otero, Chaves, and Roosevelt counties.” The purpose of this bit is to describe that difference, and bring it into context with numbers. But the number $15,000 is useless on its own. That’s when the word “averaging” comes into play. It puts the difference of 15,000 into context and acknowledges outliers (through the nature of its being). It’s calculated and is applicable in this situation, making it the linchpin when describing the difference in household income earnings.

“This is likely because of the counties of Eddy and Lea are in close proximity to Texan oil fields, where New Mexican employees may commute to from their homes.” While this statement does not discuss data directly like in the previous example, it instead gives reasons for its distributions and clusters. This is an example of indirectly discussing data, but in a proper way. Statements are declarative and are based on solid assumptions due to realities of the county’s physical location.

All of this goes to show how one could go about describing data. Direct discussion is always the most convincing way to get a message across, but indirect statements about the data are also effective. Just always be sure that the phrases you do use to discuss your data are declarative and leave no room for misinterpretation.

What Geography Is.

In my own words, geography simply means “how people and the earth interact with each other.” In reality, the definition of geography is far more complicated. To geographers, the study is about not only the interaction between humans and the environment, but how it is used, how populations are distributed, and their effects. Why and how all of these aspects behave like they do is a subject for debate within the field, and one that will tackled in later posts. Yet, their methods all remain relatively the same: observation. What should be observed and how is up for debate (as always), but the methods of note-taking, interviews, scientific collection, and analyzing are a constant within the field.

Why Geographic Thinking?

Geography is simply the study of terrain and its features like rock formations or rivers. It can also include man-made features such as bridges, roads, and buildings. Most importantly, Geography relates land formations to their use/ how they are interacted with. This principle was brought to my attention through my historic preservation class, actually. These interactions between living and non-living entities are just as important as understanding terrain.

I want to study geography because I spend a lot of time interacting with it, and may end up having to understand it better as part of my future job. To be more specific, most of my time in the summer is spent hiking around in the mountains of New Mexico with Boy Scouts, teaching them about experiencing the outdoors as a way to explore and relax. It would enhance my teaching capability if I were able to incorporate geography into my repertoire. In regards to future careers, I am looking to become a part of a conservation team out west in New Mexico. I would be a part of a team who would be doing surveys of the land, de-marking areas for trails, and identifying areas with excessive undergrowth that may prove to be a risk in future forest fires. If I were to understand geography, and how people interact with it, I would be able to perform my future job better.