BOOKS : Mess, wonderful mess

FRONTIERS OF COMPLEXITY:The Search for Order in a Chaotic World by Peter Coveney and Roger Highfield, Faber pounds 18.99

AT a recent management conference, the Chief Executive Officer of one of the world's largest oil companies advised his fellows, "The world is a messy place. If we want to stay on top of the corporate ladder, we must plunge into the mess. We must learn to work with the mess."

The theme of Peter Coveney and Roger Highfield's book, too, is mess - the wonderful messiness of the natural world and how nature works with that mess to generate the rich complexity of ourselves and our environment. Their writing makes it obvious why a wise corporate leader should want to focus on mess. They also describe attempts to found a new "science of complexity", and make clear the profound implications that holds for our understanding of science itself.

Traditional science of the Newtonian sort is reductionist. It assumes that every whole, or every system, can be broken down into its most simple working parts, and that the whole can then best be understood through understanding the parts. Thus my body consists of a heart, lungs, kidneys, a brain and so on. Reductionist medicine holds that I am an assemblage of these parts, and that an illness in me originates with a malfunction in some part. Western medical experts who understand the whole body as an interrelated system are very rare. Western universities that teach the interrelationship of academic disciplines are equally rare.

Newtonian science is also linear. Things move from A to B along smooth paths. Progress develops through smooth and steady increase, systems evolve in predictable, rule-bound ways. The world is an orderly place offering no real surprises to the scientist with tools to understand its few simple laws.

But the sciences of the 20th century - relativity theory, quantum mechanics, and more recently the "new sciences" of chaos and complexity - try to cope with the fact that some natural phenomena are not inherently simple. There are some wholes or systems that are greater than the sum of their parts. Attempts to reduce them to simple bits lose something vital. There are kinds of development and progress that are not linear - they happen in sharp, dramatic, cascades of change, in "quantum leaps". Nature and the man-made environment contain some systems that defy reductive analysis and predictability: things like beehives, ecological systems, economic trends, the human brain and nervous system, computer networks and so on. All have a tendency to self-organise, to follow inner patterns of development inherent within, or specific to their unique evolution. These complex systems demand a new kind of respect, almost humility, from the scientist who hopes to study them. They inspire awe rather than a confident urge to control.

But scientists will be scientists, and science writers will continue to laud their Faustian dreams of all-embracing, simple understanding. So Frontiers of Complexity is as much about "brave efforts" to found a science of complexity as it is about the wonder and intricacies of complex systems themselves. This throws a shadow over the book, and raises some doubts about the philosophical sophistication of its authors.

The "science of complexity" is a computer science. Non-linear equations that apply to complex systems are too difficult for human beings to solve. But if they are run through computers, amazing trends and patterns begin to appear out of the "mess". The illusion is given that there are, after all, quite simple laws at work within the complexity. The computer simulation of one complex system, a beehive, appears quite similar to that of another, the human brain, and voila! - the scientist has found a "unifying principle". The grave doubts now being raised in the scientific community focus on the question of whether all that's being discovered is the unifying principle behind how computer-generated simulations look.

Coveney and Highfield bring their own major assumption to the surface when they say: "The ultimate test of our understanding of the brain will come with the design and simulation of an artificial one which displays such attributes as intelligence and consciousness." But if I design my computer to produce a cackle every time I type a joke, it does not mean that the computer has a sense of humour. It simply behaves as though it does. There is a world of difference here. Just as there may be a world of difference between the genuine complexity of a beehive and the "artificial life" program of a complexity scientist which simulates that complexity.

Complexity is real, and perhaps genuinely very complex. "Complexity science" may be no more than a disguised effort to apply reductionist science to that which cannot be reduced. Frontiers of Complexity describes many good examples of the real thing, but it is too much in thrall to the claims of those who would simplify it.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor