By Robert Deyes
Roger Lewin's book 'Complexity- Life at the Edge of Chaos' provides an account of one area of research that claims to explain everything from the rise and fall of cultures to the origins of life (Ref 1). Today the center of this scientific enterprise- the Santa Fe Institute- is located in Santa Fe deep in the heart of New Mexico where researchers from a broad spectrum of disparate research fields regularly get together to discuss the unifying topic of 'emergence'. In its simplest description, emergence encompasses the idea of complexity arising from simplicity, and structure and order coming out of chaos (Ref 1). One of the proponents of the new revolution, Chris Langton, defined complexity as the unpredictable emergence of global properties that arise from the interaction of individual, localized components (Ref 1, p.12). In other words the science of emergent complexity claims to explain not only the dynamics of civilizations but also the origins of biological systems such as the cell.
Physicist M. Mitchel Waldrop wrote of emergent complexity as a science that can explain everything from the sizes of families in Bangladesh to the origin of the first living cell and the long term, million year stability of animal species (Ref 2, pp.9-10). Spontaneous self-organization is the supposedly common feature by which such apparently diverse subjects can be unified under one common umbrella (Ref 2, p.49). Theoretical biologist Stuart Kauffman has used computer simulations to demonstrate not only how genes can seemingly settle into stable networks (Ref 2, p.112) but also to show how ecosystems can move from a chaotic phase to one of stability between interacting individuals (Ref 1, p.69). In his model, such a chaotic phase eventually reaches a stable state in which only a small degree of change can be tolerated- a state that Langton calls, "life at the the edge of chaos" (Ref 2, p.230).
While Lewin's and Waldrop's accounts present emergent complexity as a scientific revolution with a bright future, others have told a different story. 1995 was to be a year of celebration for the Santa Fe Institute (Ref 3). The museum of Indian Arts and Culture in Santa Fe hosted a dinner to bring together scientists from all over the United States for a celebratory toast of success. This dinner was attended by all the big names of the Institute- Brian Arthur, Chris Langton, Stuart Kauffman and Nobel Laureate Murray Gell-Man famous for his work on quarks and particle physics (Ref 3). David Liddle, the chair for the board of trustees, ushered in the celebrations with a speech of much optimism and hope. And yet behind Liddle's introductory note lay a growing restlessness over, "the gap between such rhetoric and reality" (Ref 3). Jack Cowan from the University of Chicago was one of those whose feelings of unease had become all too apparent.
Respected throughout the scientific circles as a fine biologist who had done much to reveal the underlying neurochemistry of the drug LSD, Cowan was quoted as saying that much of what the Santa Fe institute was about was nothing more than "tremendous hype" with many of its enthused members displaying a too high "mouth-to-brain ratio" (Ref 3). As Cowan saw things, too many of the institute's members suffered from 'reminiscence syndrome', their computer simulations being mere reminiscences of the biological and physical realities they claimed to represent. Indeed science writer John Horgan wryly commented that had Darwin been at the meeting he would have learnt a lot about computers but very little about nature (Ref 3). Horgan's criticism seemed justified- after all, much of the experimentation at Santa Fe has been about computer simulations and little about real, hands-on studies of nature (Ref 3).
'Fact Free Science', no less, was the phrase used by the late British biologist John Maynard Smith in a review in which he made it clear that natural selection and not emergent complexity, must retain pride of place as the mechanism through which life had evolved (Ref 4). For proponents of complexity theory, "a fact for them", added Maynard Smith, "is, at best, a computer simulation [and] rarely a fact about the world" (Ref 4). As he later commented,
"I do not know what observations complex systems dynamics is trying to explain. It is a theory looking for a question to answer" (Ref 4).
Ian Stewart's humoring of the purely theoretical approach of emergent complexity likewise carried with it a serious note. According to Stewart, "[Complexity theorists] theorise about games, analyse them,...determine optimal strategies,...[and] advise governments on how to run their economies and biologists on how dinosaurs evolved. What [they] do not do is play games" (Ref 5).
To be fair, those that look at emergent complexity as a way of explaining the origins and existence of life perhaps do so only because they have identified profound insufficiencies in the alternative claims of evolutionary biology. And yet for its most vehement critics, computer models are an insufficient representation of the behavior of complex biological systems. There is clearly much work to be done if the Santa Fe Institute is to convince others of the relevance of its models to real life biology. Its members could not do much better than to start with real life compounds, real life reactions and real life experiments.
1. Roger Lewin (1992), Complexity- Life at the edge of chaos, Macmillan Publishing Co, New York
2. M. Mitchell Waldrop (1992), Complexity, The Emerging Science At The Edge Of Order And Chaos, Simon & Schuster, New York
3. John Horgan (1995), From Complexity To Perplexity, Scientific American, Volume 272 p104
4. John Maynard Smith (1995), Life At The Edge of Chaos? New York Review, 2nd of March, 1995, pp28-30
5. Ian Stewart (2000) Game On, New Scientist, 23/30 December, 2000, pp.40-43
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