- The Origins of Order: Self-Organization and Selection in Evolution, and: Complexity: Life at the Edge of Chaos, and: Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos
Apparently there just are not enough of us who are fairly competent, intelligent, conscientious enthusiasts of new developments in science. At least Simon, Schuster, and Macmillan, in their distributed wisdom, must think so. For they have somehow persuaded two very talented people, Mitchell Waldrop and Roger Lewin, both of whom could easily have written books intelligently introducing the new thinking on complexity, to write scientific soap opera. Instead of something like Ian Stewart’s Does God Play Dice? we get something like James Gleick’s Chaos. It has been decades since I read the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew, but they came back to me in a flash as I tried to read Lewin. That is, we get Stu, Jack, Murray, and their chums pursuing their jolly adventures in science. What we need instead is the foundation for a systematic understanding of the science. We are being treated like children, and I guess we are going to have to put up with it.
Given that, what is all the noise about? Well, the second generation of complexity theory is at hand. The first generation produced chaos theory, better thought of as the maturation of nonlinear dynamics, Mandelbrot’s theory of fractals, and Prigogine’s investigation of the thermodynamics of systems far from equilibrium. We have seen the pictures; we may even have begun to get a feel for a world that is deterministic yet unpredictable. At the very least we have been tuned to look for complex patterns rather than simple regularities.
Always lurking at the edges of first-generation complexity theory was the realization that within nonlinear dynamics and nonequilibrium thermodynamics were explanations for the emergence of stable structures, including living things. The picture is a “This is the house that Jack built” one: the singularity at the beginning of the universe yields the right stuff to “build” stars (eventually), yielding the right stuff to “build” planets (eventually), yielding the right stuff to “build” organic molecules, and eventually organisms. Now, all that has to be figured out is how the “building” goes on.
The first generation of complexity theorists had made some guesses (some of them reasonably educated ones, some not) about how complex stable structure could emerge under the right conditions. The second generation has gone beyond the guesses to the stage of theory, hypothesis, and simulation. The current state of the art is Stuart Kauffman’s work. He has been at it for longer than almost anyone else, and has had the benefit of productive association with many of the other major players. Anyone wanting to know what the new thinking looks like ought to pick up The Origins of Order and work through it. Although it is not easy, it is rewarding every step of the way. I will make a quick try at motivating the effort.
Start by thinking of scientific explanations as rigorously constrained narratives, stories about why things happen written primarily in the language of mathematics. Enlightenment science, Newtonian/Cartesian science at root, taught us how to write responsible stories about the flight of ballistic objects of [End Page 576] all sorts, and these are still amazingly successful stories—in a restricted realm. In this century, quantum mechanics has been developed to provide the stories of very small things and very high energies; it too is extremely successful. But up until recently, the stories told by these theories were simplistic in a particular way: they were linear. Linearity shows up in different ways for different phenomena. For “building,” the sort of thing we care about here, linearity shows up as a picture of piling...