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Biosystems. 2007 Nov-Dec;90(3):769-82. Epub 2007 Apr 13.

Complex adaptation and system structure.

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Honda Research Institute Europe GmbH, Carl-Legien-Strasse 30, 63073 Offenbach/Main, Germany.


The structural organization of biological systems is one of nature's most fascinating aspects, but its origin and functional role is not yet fully understood. For instance, basic adaptational mechanisms like genetic mutation and Hebbian adaptation seem to be generic and invariant across many species and are, on their own, fairly well investigated and understood. However, it is the organism's structure - the representations these mechanisms act upon - that bears the complex functional effects of these mechanisms. While typical technical approaches to system design require detailed problem models and suffer from the need to explicitly take care of all possible cases, the organization of biological systems seems to induce inherent adaptability, flexibility and robustness. In this discussion paper we address the concept of structured variability, particularly the role of system structure as implementing a certain representation on which basic variational mechanisms act on. The functional adaptability (or search distribution) depends crucially on this representation.

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