Book Review: Complexity — Life at the Edge of Chaos

1. Genre

“Complexity — Life at the Edge of Chaos” is a popular introductory science book on complexity science. Lewin is a prolific writer and a magnificent storyteller, and you can feel his enthusiasm springing from the pages of his books.

2. Who Should Read This Book

“Totally ordered over here… Totally random over here”, he sketched with broad strokes. Complexity happens somewhere in between.

— Roger Lewin, Complexity — Life at the Edge of Chaos

I remember grabbing the book “Complexity — Life at the Edge of Chaos” from the bookstore shelf with the utmost delight. Having read “Origins Reconsidered“, which Roger Lewin, the author of this book, has cowritten with world-renowned paleoanthropologist and conservationist Richard Leakey, I had no doubts this would be an equally fascinating reading.

The insights are profound, to the point, and highly intelligible to the uninitiated. “Complexity — Life at the Edge of Chaos” is a book for anyone who has just started on Complexity.

3. Contents

The book was published in 1992, almost 30 years ago, and has aged tremendously well. This is because Lewin has decided to stick to the basic principles of biology, anthropology, ecology, and complexity science, which had already been established.

“I am not denying Natural Selection”, he said. “I am saying it does not explain the origins of biological form, of the pervasive order we see out there”.

— Roger Lewing, Complexity — Life at the Edge of Chaos

“Complexity — Life at the Edge of Chaos” is divided into nine chapters as follows:

  • Chapter One: a general introduction to complexity and complex adaptive systems, with examples of biological and social phenomena such as the Cambrian explosion, the evolution of ancient societies, and cultural evolution.
  • Chapter Two: the emergence of complex behaviour from simple rules and many interacting agents. This chapter focuses on Kauffmann’s Boolean networks, strange attractors, and morphogenesis.
  • Chapter Three focuses predominantly on the “Edge of Chaos”, an intermediary state between total randomness and order where interesting phenomena lie. The dynamics of complex systems seem to drive them into that region of “space” as, in that region, they are at the peak of their fitness, performance, or information processing capabilities.
  • Chapter Four: Lewin explores species explosions and extinctions in Earth’s history and tries to understand whether complex dynamics can explain these phenomena without recurring to cataclysmic events such as asteroids crashing into the Earth. For me, this was one of the book’s most interesting chapters.
  • Chapter Five: Tom Ray’s artificial life software program “Tierra” is the central theme of this chapter. Lewin describes the project’s evolution and results.
  • Chapter Six explores James Lovelock’s ideas on Gaia, Earth’s biosphere, and how biology, geology, and climate coevolve to maintain favourable conditions for life.
  • Chapter Seven discusses biological complexity and the arrow of progress, specifically whether more complex beings are necessarily more advanced, fit, or adapted to their environment. This chapter also describes two rigorous definitions of complexity that can be measured and compared between systems.
  • Chapter Eight covers consciousness and whether it can be described as an emergent feature of a complex system of neurons and networks (the brain). Unlike all the other chapters of “Complexity — Life at the Edge of Chaos”, the hypotheses promoted in this chapter were not as solid as the others.
  • Chapter Nine is divided into a discussion on ant colonies and superorganisms on the one hand and the extent to which complexity explains the biology of living animals on the other. While strong Complexity proponents like Kauffmann describe Complexity Science as nothing less than a revolution, others view it as an exciting distraction.

4. Writing Style

Fitnesses change, landscapes changes. “It’s the classical biological arms race”, explained Stu. Predators and prey constantly trying to be one step ahead of the other.

— Roger Lewing, Complexity — Life at the Edge of Chaos

Lewin wrote “Complexity — Life at the Edge of Chaos” in a conversationalist style, typically between him and the leading minds on Complexity Theory. His interviewees included Stuart Kauffmann, Christopher Langton, Edward O. Wilson, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennet, Steven J. Gould, Murray Gell-Mann, Brian Goodwin and many other towering intellects of biology, ecology, etymology, and complexity.

Roger Lewin’s capacity for presenting profound insights on Complexity Theory in highly accessible prose is unparalleled. No fluff, no personal anecdotes or vanity, only science, illustrated with the most exciting stories.

5. Author’s Biography

Roger Lewin is a British anthropologist and science writer known for his contributions to anthropology and his authorship of various influential works. While he has written extensively on a range of topics, some of his most significant works include:

  • People of the Lake: Mankind and Its Beginnings” (1977): This book explores the origins of human beings and their early history, focusing on the East African region. It provides insights into the early development of Homo sapiens.
  • Bones of Contention: Controversies in the Search for Human Origins” (1987): This work delves into the controversies and debates within the field of paleoanthropology, particularly regarding the study of human evolution and the discovery of hominid fossils.
  • Origins: What New Discoveries Reveal about the Emergence of Our Species and Its Possible Future” (2010): In this book, Lewin discusses the latest discoveries and research related to human evolution, shedding light on the emergence of Homo sapiens and the potential future of our species.
  • The Origin of Modern Humans and the Impact of Chronometric Dating” (1993): This academic work focuses on the dating techniques used in paleoanthropology and their impact on our understanding of the timing of key events in human evolution.
  • Human Evolution: An Illustrated Introduction” (2005): A comprehensive and accessible introduction to the field of human evolution, this book is richly illustrated and provides a clear overview of the subject.

Roger Lewin’s works have contributed to our understanding of human evolution and its controversies. He is respected for his ability to communicate complex scientific concepts to a broader audience, making these topics more accessible to the general public.

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