What Is Catagenesis?

In his book “The Upside of Down – Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilization,” Professor Thomas Homer-Dixon uses the term catagenesis to describe “the creative renewal of our technologies, institutions, and societies in the aftermath of breakdown.” This apparent paradox – the notion of renewal being intimately connected with breakdown – is actually a profoundly important dynamic with a long & distinguished intellectual history.

We see it in the Hindu religion with the “Hindu Triador the Great Trinity which Wikipedia describes as “a concept in Hinduism in which the cosmic functions of creation, maintenance, and destruction are personified by the forms of Brahmā the creator, Vishnu the maintainer or preserver, and Śhiva the destroyer or transformer.

We see it in Nietzsche’s writings and his assertion that we can only destroy as creators.

We see it in the entrepreneurial aspects of capitalism as described by Werner Sombart but popularized by Joseph Schumpeter – the notion of creative destruction.

We see it in the field of ecology with Buzz Holling & Lance Gunderson’s theory of panarchy & the adaptive cycle of change.

Simply put, breakdown & renewal; life & death; novelty & habit, chaos & creativity – are intimately connected and it is through their dynamic interaction that evolution occurs.

Having spent a fair bit of time thinking about subjects related to chaos & creativity, I’ve come to think about catagenesis in the following way:

žIn a complex adaptive system, overextension of a systems’ growth phase can trigger dangerous volatility and in many, but not all cases, overshoot & collapse. In the process of this turbulence or breakdown, new interpretations and creative capacities become possible. These creative forces operate as a negative feedback loop which works to stabilize the system’s descent into chaos & entropy. Catagenesis is the process of creative renewal in a complex adaptive system undergoing a phase-transition.

So, this blog and is about exploring the forces of chaos & creativity and to channel them into the genesis of new worldviews, institutions, and technologies. I’ve thought of it almost like “complexity Tai C’hi” – taking the negative energy of breakdown and reversing it in order to achieve a positive outcome. To be completely honest, I have no clue if this is even possible, but it’s such an interesting concept, with so many potentially valuable insights, that I’ve chosen to explore it nonetheless.

What then are the “forces of chaos & creativity”? The graphic below is a visual distillation of the domains that I have taken a keen interest in in recent years (subject to change over time of course). The best way to think about this blog is as an exploration of the intersections between these different ideas, domains, and concepts.

Fellow explorers always welcome.

Check out a list of key works here:


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