Complexity: A Very Short Introduction

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Oxford University Press, 2014 - History - 95 pages
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The importance of complexity is well-captured by Hawking's comment: "Complexity is the science of the 21st century". From the movement of flocks of birds to the Internet, environmental sustainability, and market regulation, the study and understanding of complex non-linear systems has become highly influential over the last 30 years.

In this Very Short Introduction, one of the leading figures in the field, John Holland, introduces the key elements and conceptual framework of complexity. From complex physical systems such as fluid flow and the difficulties of predicting weather, to complex adaptive systems such as the highly diverse and interdependent ecosystems of rainforests, he combines simple, well-known examples -- Adam Smith's pin factory, Darwin's comet orchid, and Simon's 'watchmaker' -- with an account of the approaches, involving agents and urn models, taken by complexity theory.

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The study of Complexity has been a very engrossing and fascinating field for many decades. Even before it became a trendy academic field in its own right, many research topics that are now subsumed under the umbrella of Complexity were investigated across a variety of other disciplines: Physics, Meteorology, Biology, Mathematics, etc. Over the years similarities and touching points between these topics became recognized, and they were grouped together into one large overarching field.
In “Complexity: A Very Short Introduction” John Holland gives a very interesting and somewhat approachable overview of some of the main themes in current complexity research. The book covers such topics as evolution, weather, predator-pray networks, financial systems, fluid dynamics, etc. Many of these topics have a lot of intuitive appeal way beyond the scientific community and they have fascinated humankind since the times immemorial.
Unfortunately, it has been notoriously difficult to define the exact nature of Complexity, but one theme that constantly comes up is the notion that “the whole is different than the sum of its parts.” There is a lot of “you’ll know it when you see it” attitude going on in the complexity research, and I for one find topics covered in this book all to fall under this rubric. However, I am not entirely sure if that just might be part of my own scientific bias: I’ve been in scientific circles all of my professional life and have come to largely expect these topics to indeed be “complex.”
The book is very well written and covers a lot of profound topics. However, even though it’s not nearly at the level of the current research papers and monographs, it is still not a book that someone who is completely new to the topic will be able to easily wade through. It is still a worthwhile read, especially since it is indeed very short.


Complex systems
Complex physical systems CPS
Complex adaptive systems CAS
Agents networks degree and recirculation
Specialization and diversity
Coevolution and the formation of niches
Putting it all together
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About the author (2014)

John H. Holland is a leading figure in the field of complexity science who pioneered genetic algorithms. He is Professor of Psychology and Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at The University of Michigan, and a member of the Board of Trustees and Science Board of the Santa Fe Institute. He is also the author of Emergence (OUP, 1999).

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