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Enthusiastic complexity theory
on 29 October 2000
An eye-opener on how closely certain mathematical models can reproduce, or mimic, real life behaviour. Kauffman describes and discusses the complex behaviour exhibited by autocatalytic sets - webs of interacting chemicals and catalysts (real and simulated), individually with simple behaviour and rules of interaction, but en masse producing complex systems with non-trivial reactions to environment and other systems.
This leads naturally into a discussion of evolution where we are treated to a more refined, but perhaps less real-world, discussion of the mechanics of evolution than that provided by more popular authors (e.g. Dawkins). Kauffman describes evolution not only as a process of natural selection, but also as the interaction of complex systems with their environments, discussing how single systems or entire species may move around and interactively modify fitness landscapes to acquire the highest peaks. These necessarily general models are convincingly tied to specific, real-world examples, and the result is a clear impression of a fast developing field with relevance to real life, the extent of that relevance remaining to be seen.
Unsurprisingly, the book ends up somewhat speculative, but unfortunately chooses to direct this speculation at economics. The writing occasionally becomes somehwat "gee gosh darn". And while I'm on petty complaints, I found the occasional stabs at human interest to be distracting and unnecessary, but that's a common problem with popular science writing.
Finally, I don't think this is the kind of book to change lives. Interesting, certainly, occasionally surprising, and full of fairly new ideas, but I found that Kauffman repeatedly stopped short of saying anything really profound. Yes, "we the expected" is a fascinating concept so why _end_ the chapter with it? Likewise, the "invisible hand" is a leading analogy, then so what...? Fundamentally, I think the book sits firmly on the fence when it comes to religion, or lack thereof, other reviewers notwithstanding.