If you’re curious about what the “cutting edge,” in evolutionary theory is, this book should be on your reading list — for while it purports to be about complexity and complexity theory, it is actually an extended defense of evolutionary theory. Specifically, the author focuses on the idea that complexity is just a part of the natural order, or rather than life, and everything else we see exists, because “the universe naturally creates complex things.” The book begins with a chapter defining complexity, and ends with the admission that no single definition of complexity exists.
Many think the word complexity is not meaningful; some even avoid using it. Most do not believe that there is yet a “science of complexity,” at least not in the usual sense of the word science—complex systems often seems to be a fragmented subject rather than a unified whole.
The first section focuses on background; this section is primarily an explanation of various models used in physics and evolution, such as chaos, computation, evolution, and genetics. The author does cover some useful material here for those who don’t understand the various bits and pieces of modern evolutionary theory. The second section considers computational theory and the history of computers (starting with Turing). The idea is put forward that a software engineer can create self replicating computer code, an idea that is picked up in the third section.
The third section compares self-evolving computer software with genetic programming, hence tying the way computers run code to the way evolution works (in theory). Finally, in the fourth section, the author takes on the concept of networks, and complexity in networks. The general idea is that a lot of not-very-intelligent creatures can create vast amounts of complexity without leadership (such as ants). This brings in the culminating point:
Complexity happens when enough not-so-intelligent things work together; the universe is just built that way.
There are a number of problems with the author’s line of argument, however.
First, while criticizing reductionism, the author offers a reductionist view of reality. It doesn’t much matter if matter self-organizes or not — if matter is all there is, then what we think of as “mind” really doesn’t exist. It might appear to exist because of higher levels of complexity achieved each generation of the evolutionary program, but nonetheless, if organization is just a part of the way things work, and hence organization is nothing special, then the mind is just a myth. This is still open to the standard criticism of all reductionist lines of thought — “if my mind is just a product of self-organization, then why should I trust my thoughts about self-organization?” To say that we “think” is, itself, an oxymoron in the face of this sort of reductionism.
Second, the author confuses complexity with organization. Just because things in nature can form complex forms doesn’t mean they are organized — for the term “organized,” implies intent. Organized for what? The entire thesis here — that matter self-organizes — leaves no room for the question, “for what?” There can be no teleological purpose in self-organization. Moving from individuals to networks doesn’t change the underlying reality.
Third, the author assumes that if science can’t see it, it doesn’t exist. While she never says this explicitly, it’s clear in the entire discussion, for instance, around ants and their behavior. To shorten and paraphrase, “We know the intelligence level of ants, and we know there are no leaders in an ant colony, because we know how ants work at a physical level. Given that we know there is no leader, and no plan, the observation that ants self-organize can be generalized to all things self-organizing.” In other words, if we can’t see the genetic code or the “program that programmed the program,” that makes ants act the way they do, there must not be any such thing, leaving the only explanation, “ants self-organize just because they do.” This is like looking for Shakespeare in a Shakespeare play, and saying, “since I didn’t see Shakespeare, these plays must self-organize.” Or, to use another point the author makes, just because a programmer can write a self replicating program doesn’t mean self replicating programs arise of their own accord.
This is one of those instances where you can subsume the real questions in a lot of fancy explanations, but you still end up where you started. We don’t know why things self-organize. We don’t know if they’re designed that way, or if it “just happens.” The author makes much of the parallels between various fields, assumes those correlations are “just part of the universe,” and then goes on to use these parallels as proof of evolutionary theory. Circular logic is still circular logic no matter how large and circuitous the route back to the beginning is.
An interesting book; worth reading if you want to understand the current state of explaining the origin of life from “nothing.” Ultimately, however, the author offers not much more than what the ancient Greek atheists offered.
Life must have arisen through natural processes, because we’re here, and we “know” there is no god. It’s well seasoned, but still thin, gruel.