The golden age of complexity science books

Here is a list of complexity science books in a popular science style from when the hype was the biggest—from 1987 and a decade further*—and some very brief comments. Several of them are available at, as linked below. I’m pretty sure I forgot a few. If so, I’ll add them later.

* I’m no longer the film buff I used to be, but note that this almost overlaps with the golden age of Hong Kong police action, which most fans agree, with surprisingly little discussion, was from 1984 to 1993. (And, yes, John Woo’s Hard Boiled is the crown jewel of the genre.)

Covers of some of the books in this post.

J Gleick, 1987. Chaos: Making a New Science. Viking Penguin, New York.
The name aside, Gleick’s Chaos is the quintessential complex systems book, providing a prototype for the golden age. It does an excellent job of capturing the frenzied mid-80s dynamical-systems scene, culminating* in Jeff Goldblum’s chaos theorist character in Jurassic Park (allegedly inspired by Gleick himself). But Chaos spans adjacent fields too, namechecking future Santa Fe Institute luminaries like Doyne Farmer and Jim Crutchfield and statistical physicists like Ken Wilson and Leo Kadanoff. All-in-all still a worthwhile read, not only for the zeitgeist.
* This is a bit of a tease—I should have mentioned some scientific breakthrough, of course. (And thanks to Hang-Hyun Jo for reminding me of this book.)

HR Pagels, 1988. The Dreams of Reason: The Computer and the Rise of the Sciences of Complexity. Simon and Schuster, New York.
Next on the stage is the most remarkable of all these books (and the most interesting for the seasoned complexity scientist who feels she knows the stuff). The central thread is the same as the others below, but there are plenty of digressions and personal interpretations. Published in a new-age book series, often Pagel’s theories reach spiritual dimensions. (Despite this, Pagel made a name for himself as an opponent of pseudoscience and mysticism, even in court.) Elsewhere (in addition to complexity topics), the book covers the drugs and sex of Stanford students during the summer of love, Pagels’ humanitarian awakening on the streets of Calcutta, continental philosophy, and a host of barely related topics. The tone is mostly sunny, freethinking, and West Coast, which adds to the paradox of Pagel since he finished the book around the time his only biological child died from a protracted illness. (Then Pagels himself was killed in a mountaineering accident just before the book was published.)

R Solé, B Goodwin, 1988. Signs of Life: How Complexity Pervades Biology, Basic Books, New York.
A true trailblazer! Signs of Life focuses primarily on biology, but contains most of the components later, more general complexity science books have. It was the first book about complex systems I read from cover to cover and the first I used as reading material for a course. Ricard Solé was only 26 years old when the book was published. Over thirty years later, he still seems to be a dynamic, up-and-coming prof.

K Mainzer, 1992. Thinking in Complexity: The Complex Dynamics of Mind Matter and Mankind, Springer, Berlin.
This is a book I wish I wrote myself, and (maybe the only book here that is) still a great reference. Mainzer traces back some key ideas of complexity science to their roots in the antiquity and Renaissance. It isn’t only a history book as it also takes a lot of space explaining the hip theories of the day.

R Lewin, 1992. Complexity: Life at the Edge of Chaos. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
As I recall, Lewin’s book mainly covers ecological complexity (and, in extension, social systems, and human ecology). It also does an excellent job of capturing the inspiring interdisciplinary vibes of the early Santa Fe Institute.

SA Kauffman, 1992. The Origins of Order: Self Organization and Selection in Evolution. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Probably the scientifically most influential of all the books here. As far as I know, it was crucial in setting the research agenda for complex systems biology and unified many different directions in theoretical biology under the complexity-science umbrella. It would be a bit heavy for the general reader, and some sections are probably too dated for it to be a worthwhile read. (The random grammar / lambda-calculus stuff feels like a dead end; still, it’s interesting to really try to refute it.) In sum, it’s a classic all complexity scientists should be familiar with … and a tome.

MM Waldrop, 1993. Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos. Simon and Schuster, New York.
The second book called Complexity is a fantastic account of the early days of the Santa Fe Institute told as a torch relay through the sciences run by the legends of complex systems. Brian Arthur meets Stuart Kauffman and gets an epiphany, Stuart Kauffman meets John Holland and gets an epiphany, and so on. Highly recommended for anyone who starts doubting the power and joy of interdisciplinary science.

S Kauffman, 1993. At Home in the Universe: The Search for Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Much gentler to your brain than Origins of Order, but still very Kauffmanesque. At Home tries to paint the big picture of where we come from with complex systems science the glue. It also has some spiritual overtones—themes Kauffman would return to in Reinventing the Sacred. My reaction to that religious stuff would always be: “but why?” Only that sometimes I utter it with a sigh, sometimes with curiosity.

JL Casti, 1994. Complexification: Explaining a Paradoxical World Through the Science of Surprise. Harper Collins, New York.
This book is my least favorite on the list. It has a dizzyingly jumpy narrative (even more than Pagels), very far-fetched examples, and tries to mystify core concepts like emergence. Even worse is that Casti alludes that complex systems could explain paranormal/pseudoscientific phenomena like premonitions of the sinking of the Titanic. The only plus is that Casti mentions networks, simplicial complexes, and other currently popular concepts that other authors don’t. (Maybe complexity science gave him some soothsaying abilities after all.)

M Gell-Mann, 1994. The Quark and the Jaguar: Adventures in the Simple and the Complex. WH Freeman, New York.
The Quark and the Jaguar is foremost Gell-Mann’s memoirs and is just as much about his Nobel-prize-winning prediction of quarks as complexity science. I like it because it doesn’t try as hard as the others to sound remarkable, and it does a good job of capturing the vibes of SFI back in the day.

J Cohen & I Stewart, 1994. The Collapse of Chaos: Discovering Simplicity in a Complex World. Viking Penguin, New York.
This is another random walk through complex systems research except for the computational side. The bulk text is well-written, and the explanations are among the best. The central thesis is that the constants of dynamical systems theory (Feigenbaum constants, fractal dimensions, etc.) are a new simplicity found in otherwise uncontrollable chaos. However, Cohen and Stewart can’t resist stylistic experiments—witty (?) theatrical dialogues, a la Gregory Bateson or Douglas Hofstadter, and silly jokes. I guess the point is to show that they appreciate (and master) many styles, but it is uncomfortable for the reader to follow these changes of pace.

JH Holland, 1995. Hidden Order: How Adaptation Builds Complexity. Basic Books, New York.
Hidden Order is one of the most influential of these books because of how much it helped to popularize genetic algorithms. This is hard to believe, given how demanding the book is. Essentially the entire book is a long, worked-through example of a simulation with adaptive, interacting agents.

P Coveney & R Highfield, 1995. Frontiers of Complexity: The Search for Order in a Chaotic World. Fawcett Columbine, New York.
This is probably the most complete and well-researched of these books. AFAIK the authors are science journalists, lacking an inside perspective. The writing is very clear and consistent, making Frontiers of Complexity the best introduction to the topic among these books, perhaps also at the expense of being interesting for readers with much previous exposure to the topic.

P Bak, 1996. How Nature Works: The Science of Self-Organized Criticality. Copernicus, New York.
As I have blogged elsewhere, I have a love-hate relationship with How Nature Works. It’s not a book about complex systems in general but Bak’s theory of self-organized criticality. Still, it irrevocably changed complexity science and opened the door for statistical physicists and a new scientific methodology. For short, Bak’s thesis is that the theory of critical phenomena of statistical physics can explain a vast array of phenomena in nature and society. Although criticality happens at only single points in environmental variables (like temperature), Bak showed that critical points can be attractors to certain dynamics. Since some physical properties at criticality—like exponents of power-law probability distributions—are insensitive to details, Bak argues that anything can be studied by abstract toy models. The spirit and boldness of How Nature Works are incredible. We have heard of grand unified theories in physics, but could there be something like that spanning all of science? The feeling that the answer could actually be yes is the reason to read Bak today. But it is also a painful read, for almost every argument requires logical leaps of faith or a highly uncritical interpretation of data. Twenty-five years later, it’s relatively clear that self-organized criticality is how nature doesn’t work, except in some very particular cases (earthquakes?). Still, I’ll never give up abstract toy models, but for other reasons.

8 thoughts on “The golden age of complexity science books

  1. This is an awesome list of books, I will definetly pick some of them.
    On Bak’s book: I thought self-organized criticality is showing to explain phenomena in nature more and more these years, e.g. brain activity and animal collective behavior.
    Can you give us an example where criticality does not explain nature?


    1. This is a long story, but here’s an outline of an answer.

      Bak’s core arguments are: (1) Power laws are ubiquitous in nature. (2) SOC can explain power laws. (3) And for any criticism, we can invoke the “universality principle”—details don’t matter.

      What has become clear over the years is that. Regarding (1), many of the power laws claimed in the SOC literature simply fit much better to other distributions. The size of wildfires, the time between extinction events in evolution, etc. Regarding (2), many, often simpler, models can also explain power laws: Finally, about (3), it was already 1996, a gross over-interpretation of statistical physics. (See: ) I feel this argument is bordering on pleading to refrain from critical thinking, which raises a bit of a religious warning flag. And if we can just waive all criticism, statements are not falsifiable, then SOC does not provide scientific explanations anyway.

      Still, I think SOC could be the mechanism behind some power-laws or not-power-law-but-right-skewed-and-fat-tailed distributions. Maybe neuronal activity, as you mention. (Not many phenomena in animal collective behavior through? Bird flocks are emergent phenomena that aren’t critical.)


      1. Thank you for the detailed answer!
        Regarding animal behavior, I was thinking of this article suggesting that criticality might be a plausible principle of distributed information processing in large animal collectives.. which is not necessarily collective behavior, sorry for the wrong statement.


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