The Genealogy of Complexity – Cosma Shalizi (2003/2021)

The Genealogy of Complexity 22 Dec 2021 10:09

The Genealogy of Complexity

The Genealogy of Complexity

22 Dec 2021 10:09

The construction of the universe is certainly very much easier to explain than is that of a plant. — Lichtenberg

Pinky: What are we going to do tonight, Brain?
Brain: The same thing we do every night, Pinky — try to take over the world!

This is an outline for a book which I drafted in 2003. (The notes say they began 7 March but I kept working on it for a while that year and perhaps even the next.) This was, naturally, when I was a post-doc at the University of Michigan’s Center for the Study of Complex Systems (after being a grad student and post-doc at SFI), and writing “Methods and Techniques of Complex Systems Science”. Since then, while I’ve mined ideas in it for some weblog posts (some of them linked to below), I’ve basically left it alone for 18 years, only to be reminded of it recently. Because an outline that’s old enough to vote is not one I am likely to get around to any time soon, I thought I might as well toss it out, in case someone else can make any use of it. Beyond adding those links, and correcting some obvious typos, I have made absolutely no attempt to bring my old outline up to date. Looking back, the biggest deficiency is that it doesn’t give enough attention to the genuinely interdisciplinary aspects of the movement, and how that came about. Also, yes, the networks stuff proved to be a success story!

might take up this project at some future point — stranger things have happened — but no promises.

The preamble

In this book, I try to answer some questions about a curious phenomenon. At the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st, a fairly large number of theoretical physicists, primarily trained in statistical mechanics, began to work on subjects which had traditionally been regarded as outside the domain of physics, generally under the rubric of “complex systems”. The most prominent targets of this disciplinary imperialism were evolutionary biology, financial markets and other areas of economics, and social networks, but there were also expeditions into social psychology, linguistics, information theory, neuroscience, immunology and organismal biology. In all these areas, the physicists proposed mathematical models, as one might expect of people exhaustively trained in mathematical modeling, but they systematically ignored the existing theories and models, in favor of new, simple models of the sort which had been familiar in statistical mechanics since the 1920s. Why did the physicists think this was a good idea? Why did they want to study complex systems, instead of the traditional topics of statistical physics? How were they able to make the switch? And, finally, did it do any good?

Self-exemplification: this is a study in the history and sociology of science by somebody with absolutely no credentials in the field, but who is (if I say so myself) a highly trained statistical physicist, specializing in complex systems, who spent five years as a graduate student and post-doc at the Santa Fe Institute, the organizational center of the movement described. Clearly, any pretense of disinterested neutrality would be laughable. But I try to be fair.

Continues in source:

The Genealogy of Complexity