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.

Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished

TV reviewGrace Dent: Jimmy McGovern's new drama sheds light on sex slavery in the colonies

Arts and Entertainment
Larry David and Rosie Perez in ‘Fish in the Dark’
theatreReview: Had Fish in the Dark been penned by a civilian it would have barely got a reading, let alone £10m advance sales
Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
filmFirst look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month
TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel
film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
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.

    Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
    Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

    Lost without a trace

    But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
    Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

    Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

    Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
    International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
    Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

    Confessions of a planespotter

    With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
    Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

    Russia's gulag museum

    Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
    The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

    The big fresh food con

    Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
    Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

    Virginia Ironside was my landlady

    Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
    Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

    Paris Fashion Week 2015

    The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
    8 best workout DVDs

    8 best workout DVDs

    If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
    Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

    Paul Scholes column

    I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
    Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
    Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

    Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

    The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable