(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

According to its proponents, complexity theory will change the way humans think about the biological and the social worlds. Relationships to nature and to each other could be altered. The theory will demonstrate the great unity that underlies apparently disparate spheres of human and nonhuman behavior. It will prove the power of computer modeling even in the very messy and resistant realm of human social organization. Even Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection will be put on the trash heap of history, next to vitalism and natural theology. Much of the accepted knowledge in the fields of ecology, economics, political science, anthropology, and evolutionary theory will become obsolete. In short, complexity theory will be the vehicle for a great scientific revolution, one perhaps unequaled in the twentieth century.

The science of complexity is an attempt to explain the observed self-generated order that permeates natural systems. Examples of this self-generated order include the ordinal emergence of life, the development of a forest, and the evolution of a national economy. The science has been described as the point at which physics meets biology to create a new science. It might also be thought of as the arena of the application of mathematics and computer modeling to natural history. From the lay perspective, there are two points to remember. First, many aspects of the natural world—molecular behavior, the development of organisms, the rise and fall of civilizations, even the balance of nature on the planet—can be viewed as different forms of the working out of complex systems. Second, if the supporters of the theory are correct, there is a set of relatively simple rules underlying all these systems. Local changes lead to global properties. Discovering the rules governing complexity would provide a grand unified theory of the life and human sciences, analogous to the cosmological Grand Unified Theory for which Stephen Hawking is searching.

The eye is a case in point. William Paley, a nineteenth century natural theologian, used the eye as his starting point for his argument that the world was the result of action by an almighty creator. The existence of such a complex, well-adapted organ as the eye has been a problem to evolutionists going back to Darwin. They explain it as the result of a series of random mutations; successful mutations survived because they improved an organism’s ability to survive. Complexity scientists reject this view. Having identified some forty instances when eyes developed in different organisms, they question how this could be the result of chance mutations. They argue that the form of the eye is actually highly probable, given the observed dynamics of tissue development. The same computer model that explains the morphology of a species of algae can explain a human eye. Put more technically, “Eyes are the product of high-probability spatial transformations of developing tissues.” To complexity scientists, there is nothing mysterious or unlikely in their existence.

Complexity is both a travelogue and a series of dialogues between the author, an experienced science writer with a Ph.D. in biochemistry, and many of the key figures in the field. It opens and closes with picturesque descriptions of the archaeological remains of the pre-Columbian Anasazi society in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, highlighting an effort to apply complexity theory to the rise and fall of that society. In between, the author visits rain forests in Costa Rica, laboratories and offices in the United States and England, and the center of research on complexity, the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico, a multidisciplinary research center preoccupied with artificial intelligence and computer modeling of the natural world. Lewin also provides a selective but excellent bibliography. The quoted conversations are better described as dialogues rather than as interviews, because they include almost as...

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