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on 20 December 2000
I bought this book back in 1994, when it was released as a paperback in the UK. I liked it tremendously, and although I let a dozen friends or so borrow it from me to read, I was keeping its track very meticulously in order to get it back every time. Complexity is one of those books that easily gets lost if you are not careful, you know.
In short, the book is a chronicle of at the time seemingly unrelated ideas that finally led to forming of the Santa Fe Institute in 1984, and the people who created them: the economist Brian Arthur and his lock-in theory of "increasing returns" (better known to engineers as "positive feedback"); Stuart Kaufmann and his "autocatalytic" models for evolving biological systems; John Holland and his genetic algorithms and genetic programming; Christopher Langton and his "artificial life"; Doyne Farmer with all his experience with chaos theory; and of course the "founding fathers" of the Santa Fe Institute: George Cowan, Kenneth Arrow, and two Nobel-prize winners, Murray Gell-Mann and Philip Anderson.
With a PhD in Physics, MA in Journalism and over ten years of service as a senior science writer for one of the world's most prestigious science journals - Science - M. Mitchell Waldrop seems like a role-model science writer. Complexity is his second book, being predecessed by Man Made Minds, a survey of artificial intelligence. This book, however, bears much greater resemblance in style with James Gleick's bestseller Chaos than with his own previous work.
Some "historical distance" allows us also a somewhat more critical view on the complexity theory itself. Contrary to the popular expectations of the time, complexity was since forced to follow the same path that chaos, fractals or catastrophe theory - to name a few - traveled before it, and admit that is not The Great Universal Theory of Everything. On the other hand, while the hype is gone, we have to admit that complexity - or "nonlinear science", if you want - is still very actively worked on.
So is this book for you? Yes, if you want vivid explanation of one of the most important ideas that shaped the end of the 20th century, and colorful portraits of the people behind it. If nothing else, it will wet your mouth. If Complexity will succeed in winning your interest, you may want to proceed with other popular reading on this topic - almost everyone of the people mentioned before has himself published at least one book. For learning more hard science, however, you should reach for other science monographs and papers.
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Complexity by M. Mitchell Waldrop, Simon and Schuster, USA, 1992; Penguin, UK, 1994, 384 ff.

The way the world works
By Howard A. Jones

Mitchell Waldrop qualified initially with a PhD in particle physics but since then has pursued a career in science journalism. This book is essentially anecdotal and biographical. It described the formation in 1984 and history over the following decade of the Santa Fe Institute, an organization devoted to a study of complex systems in whatever field they may occur. Many of its principals, whose biographies are briefly described here in the context of the Institute, worked previously at the nuclear facility of Los Alamos.

The author makes it clear in the opening chapter that "complexity" is a subject that is relevant to most aspects of life, from economics to ecology, and from politics to particle physics. It's about `the incessant urge of complex systems to organize themselves into patterns'. Biologists have turned to the spontaneous emergence of complexity as their way of countering scientifically the arguments of creationism and "intelligent design" in the natural world. The innate quest for complexity that is built into atoms and molecules is used to explain the emergence of polymers like proteins and nucleic acids from the simple building blocks of amino acids, bases and sugars which, in turn, arise from even simpler molecules and their constituent atoms, obviating the need for divine intervention.

Complexity theory explains how chaotic systems often reach a "tipping point" such that a further small change in the system can produce huge consequences. The well-known `butterfly effect' - the metaphor of a butterfly flapping its wings in southern England producing a snowstorm in the Andes - is an example of these globally interactive but chaotic complex systems. We are continually being told that the global warming of our planet may be another such example and that a few more parts per million of CO2 or a couple of degrees rise in temperature will produce catastrophic climate change.

Economics is one subject that recurs frequently in this book. The author actually begins in Chapter 1 with the tale of Brian Arthur whose economic theory of increasing returns first met with great resistance from conventional economists wedded to the idea of diminishing returns. The idea of increasing returns quickly leads to a proliferation of pathways that requires complex network theory to model it. Much of Chapter 3 is devoted to the contributions of biologist Stuart Kauffman to how the order within living systems is a consequence of self-organization of their constituents. Chapter 5 focuses on John Holland and his complex adaptive systems and how they can be modelled by computer programs. Chapter 6 is about Chris Langton's struggle to construct computer programs to model what he called `artificial life'. In all complexity studies, computer modelling is the one necessarily constant factor, whatever field it is to be applied to. Chapter 9, the final chapter, is an overview of challenges waiting to be met by the Institute in the 1990s. For a highly readable introduction to the study of complex systems with the minimum of technical jargon I know of no book better than this one.

Dr Howard A. Jones is the author of The Thoughtful Guide to God (2006) and The Tao of Holism (2008), both published by O Books of Winchester, UK.

How the Leopard Changed Its Spots: The Evolution of Complexity (Princeton Science Library)
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on 11 September 2002
I bought this book in August 2002. Although edited in 1992, the book is still an excellent introduction to the subject of Complexity Theory. It takes a discoursive style, centered around the lives and thoughts of key individuals (Brian Arthur, Stuart Kauffman, John Holland, etc.) as main representatives of this relatively new "strain" of scientific and economic thought.
An interesting feat of the book is its broad inter-disciplinary approach including physics, economics, biochemistry, neurology/psychology and information sciences.
Definitely money well spent!
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on 25 August 2000
Very anecdotal, which might put off some people, but which adds a nice personal touch to the book. It helps that Waldrop is a trained physicist - he makes sure that he explains concepts in careful detail and with appropriate analogies. The book should appeal to any readers who have a natural inclination towards scientific and philosopical issues, or who are fascinated by the world they observe around them. Might not appeal to some mathematician types who are more interested in theorem/proof than real life phenomena. Overall, a great read.
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on 7 June 2007
Don't ask me why I picked up this book - it just happened to be in the library next to some Philosophy of Science books that I was looking at. I had no idea what complexitity theory was but after reading it I am enthralled by its appeal to shed some light on the workings of our world. If it were a tv show it would be a documentary as it is pretty much an account of the inception and development of the Santa Fe institute in the US. And it is this documentary style of writing that makes something that could be incredibly dry absolutely riviting. It is an insight into the lives and minds of those scientists, economists and computer programmers who were at the forefront of a scientific revolution in the 1970s to the early 1990s. This revolution occured exactly because a couple of like-minded and driven guys saw that academics working in completely separate fields were studying different phenonena but understanding their underlying mechanisms in the same way and using similar metaphors to explain their findings. This is one of the few times where separate disciplines were contained in the same department and therefore they had (have) a much better chance in coming up with the elusive unifying theory that overcomes the limitations of simple reductionism and yet is more stable than pure chaos - hence the sub title 'edge of chaos'.

It is one of those books that is readable yet highly enlightening and historically interesting. I just regret the fact I've now finished it...
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on 29 May 2007
The principal tenets of complexity theory could be stated - to be trite - as follows: the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Waldrop's book examines the broader picture, explaining how collections of differing systems can interact to produce a dynamically stable state, emerging spontaneously from their interactions with no external management, and how the most interesting stuff (in biology, economics, physics, etc.) happens at the point where there is neither too much nor too little order or disorder. It offers an introduction to the science behind the now-familiar buzzphrases 'emergent behaviour' and 'self-organisation'.

While Gell-Mann's 'The Quark and the Jaguar' is an important but slightly challenging read, Mitchell Waldrop's overview is a stimulating journey though the key ideas and origins of an interdisciplinary science which has affected our thinking across a number of disciplines, and our view of the natural world.
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on 29 June 2014
Zoran Perkov, the Croatian Head of NASDAQ’s Global Operations in 2011, defines complex systems as “places where shit will break and there is nothing you can do about it”. His job was to make sure shit did not break. His inspiration and favourite read is Complexity by Mitchell Waldrop. Published in 1993, unavailable on Kindle and out of print, I found it on Amazon’s second hand bookstore. The content is riveting and it reads like a thriller. Published 20 years ago, why had I not come across the concepts it advances before?
Complex systems include the creation of life from the primordial soup of amino acids; they include families and tribes flourishing on cooperative behaviour; they include ecosystems like that which fostered dinosaurs that remain stable for millions of years and then suddenly die out, or hurricanes or flocking birds; they include intricate structures like the eye or kidney: they include the Soviet Union’s forty year hegemony which collapsed in a few months in 1989; they include the sudden stock market crash in 1987 after decades of growth.
Essentially the premise of the book is that conventional theory, whether it is Darwin’s theory of evolution or the linear laws of physics or economic theory based on rational decision makers operating with perfect knowledge do not adequately represent complex systems. Neoclassical theories either assume no dynamics with everything in equilibrium or assume negative feedback – the economic law of diminishing returns. Complex systems deal with constantly coalescing, decaying and changing structures. Positive feedback (increasing returns) results in self organising systems. But it is not chaos theory. Complex systems that survive keep a balance on the edge of chaos – always in danger of falling off into too much order on one side or too much chaos on the other.
The book reads like a thriller because it recounts the personal and group endeavours of the world class physicists, biologists, geneticists, economists and computer scientists who formed the network of researchers at the Santa Fe Institute where complex systems are studied.
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on 26 July 2011
This is an historical account of the development of the so-called "science of complexity" in the USA. It is well written but has a vein of enthusiasm that is not justified by its subject and is clearly related to the feeling of its author. One should also be aware that the book is almost twenty years old and reflects the expectations of the nineties, expectations that the science of complexity failed to bear out.
The "science of complexity" and its predecessor, the "general theory of systems", may be traced back to the fifties and are overall wrong ideas dressed up in fashionable words. They refer to the study of complex systems, i.e. systems constituted of different parts or organs and whose functioning depends on their interactions; in biology organisms whose physiology depends on the anatomy, but biology is not the only field at which the science of complexity is aimed (but biology is the expertise of the author of this review, who is therefore biased in this direction). The idea of a "general theory of systems" is intrinsically paradoxical because by system it defines something which has an anatomical organization of different interacting parts, and by general it means applicable to every system, i.e. irrespective of anatomy. This does not mean that complex systems do not share some abstract level of organization that can effectively be generalized, e.g. the presence of feedback control mechanisms; however these have to be studied separately in each system.
There are two evident defects of the theories of complexity (or of systems, which I here use more or less as synonymous): first and foremost, all post-renaissance scientists who tried to dissect complex systems to study their parts were perfectly conscious that only the whole integer system possessed its intact functionality: Vesalius, who in 1543 published the first modern treatise of human anatomy, was well aware that the organs he described were fully functional only within the intact organism. In this sense the science of complexity is not as innovative as its proponents (and the author of this book) pretended it to be. Second, in the majority of cases the parts in the entire, undissected complex system do not lend themselves to an easy study: they are opaque and only dissection and isolation allows their quantitative study, even though under non-physiological conditions.
In spite of its sixty years of life, the science of complexity (or of systems) has essentially failed to yield the astonishing results it promised, and has instead attracted, together with Nobel prize-winners, many false scientists: homeopaths, psychoanalysts and the like. The Santa Fe' Institute, to whose members and activities many pages of this book are dedicated, is no exception, at least as far as biology is concerned.
The account of the scientific enterprise of complexity presented in this book is historically reasonable but absolutely uncritical: it is part of a wave of enthusiasm that is now fading away and as such is in itself historical, rather than actual.
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on 5 January 2016
A book that is absolutely fascinating about extraordinary people and wonderful initiatives to explore new ways of looking at things and feeding off each others ideas in quirky and wonderful ways. The world and us humans and the universe itself is a lot more remarkable than most of us think and we owe a debt of gratitude to those who are exploring it for us. A book to read and re-read and refer to again and again.
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on 17 February 2004
A comfortable bed time reading that gentally introduces the new phase of science to you through its 'real events' stories. Reading this book opens up a window to possible paths that science could take in the near future. It gives you a break from all the analyitical books. It gives you the opportunity to get familiar with the terminologies in this new field of science. By reading this book you wouldn't have to put any effort into learning the concepts. They're described in such 'easy to understand', and 'interesting' ways. Enjoy it!
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