The Collapse of Chaos
by Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart
Sub-title: Discovering Simplicity in a Complex World
Jack Cohen is a biologist and Ian Stewart is a mathematician. It is interesting to see the impact of chaos theory and complexity theory to their specialized areas. This book represents thoughts beyond the new science made popular by James Gleick in his far reaching book Chaos: Making a New Science, in which his description of Edward Lorenz’s notion of Butterfly Effect dramatically altered the perception of many people from a orderly world to a chaotic world. The overwhelmingly numerous occurring phenomenon of chaos in nature was brought to the attention of the scientific circle. Chaos was found to be actually complexity beyond the comprehension of our mind but there is also naturally emerging simplicity out of the complexity. The collapse of chaos is the path of the development of our thinking from chaos/complexity towards simplicity. The opening of the book presents the intertwining phenomenon of complexity and simplicity.
The first half of the book is devoted to explaining the current reductionist paradigm by which cosmology, evolution and human intelligence are the consequences of lower level and simpler theories of quantum mechanics, chemistry and the genetic code. The content of the chapters on prevailing science is amazingly rich. It gives a concise and clear description of the foundation of modern science. Just these few chapters alone, before examining the authors’ arguments on the collapse of chaos, make the money spent on the book worth.
On physics, it is Newton’s laws of motion and gravity, Einstein’s theory of relativity and also the basis of quantum mechanics, explaining in their own way the cosmos starting from the Big Bang and all the way down to atoms and sub-atomic matter.
On chemistry, it is Mendeleev’s periodic table, supplemented by the explanation of electron shells, and also the versatility of the carbon atom which make up the complex hydrocarbon molecules: the origin of life.
On evolution, it’s Darwin’s natural selection, DNA and the genetic code, and in particular the interaction between genes and the environment.
These are strong illustrations of the complexity around us. The simple rules from our discovery of the laws of nature do not necessarily and adequately explain all the observed occurrences of natural phenomenon. We are therefore living in a chaotic world full of events we do not understand, but we choose to explain a very small proportion of the chanced events which happen to fit our perceived laws.
Science explains complexities as the interaction of a huge quantity of possibilities by finding simple causes which could produce a proportion of the predictable complex effects, and call them the laws of nature. The result is used to explain predicted large-scale simplicities observed, among the complexities. We think that the laws of nature represent the underlying simplicities, and therefore these simple causes produce simple effects, despite complexities involved. However, we ignore the reality that our laws also produce complexities which are not accordingly explainable.
Cohen and Stewart explain that reductionism, i.e. the use of reducing behavior to the interactions of the smallest entity, has brought forth great advances in biology, chemistry, and physics. They believe, however, that the potential of such scientific approach is exhausted.
Starting from the middle of the book, the authors expand the new science of chaos theory and complexity theory to show how inadequate our laws of nature in dealing with complexity which is all around us. Chaos theory, made popular by the butterfly effect on the sensitive dependence on initial conditions, shows that simple causes can produce complex unpredictable effects. Whereas complexity theory suggests the opposite, that complex causes can produce simple effects.
Here, there are two main features emerging from the style of the authors. First, owing to the biology background of Jack Cohen, there are detailed examples and explanations on the complexity of evolution, the embryological growth and the development of consciousness and intelligence. They are eye-openers. Second, the authors introduce a conversation between human: the spaceship crew, and the alien: inhabitants of another planet. The core of the conversation is the difference in culture and the laws of nature between lives in different world. It proposes that our world is not unique and life form in another world may be developed along a completely different path, including the atom composition and DNA composition. The conversation is quite inspiring and humorous. However, it attracted criticism from some reviewers who have expectation of more serious writing from a supposedly science book.
The interaction between simplicity and complexity gradually escapes the paradigm of reductionism and the authors introduce two new terms: simplexity and complicity.
Simplexity refers to the tendency of a simpler order to emerge from complexity. It is the emergence of large-scale simplicities as direct consequences of rules. It covers any features that emerge from sets of similar ground rules.
Complicity is a kind of interaction between co-evolving systems that supports a tendency toward complexity. It is more like convergent evolution: different sets of rules generating similar features. Both concepts of simplexity and complicity bring about a collapse of chaos.
The moral of the book is on the inadequacy of reductionism, building toward the two explanatory principles of simplexity and complicity. For example, one cannot simply map a lower level of organization, such as the DNA code, into a living organism. There is a dynamic in which both content and context are critical.