Monday, February 17, 2014

Book Review: Complexity and the Arrow of Time

Collections of essays on meta-level aspects of science are like attending a conference (and many times originated that way): everyone gets equal time and some chapters/presentations drone on while some are so interesting that you wish they had more time. The collection Complexity and the Arrow of Time has more entries that I wish had more time, so that counts as a win in my book. It helps that the topic at hand is inherently multi-disciplinary and the many perspectives in the book ultimately reinforce each other even when they disagree. The last essay in particular, about how complexity will always be complex (surprise!), gives a narrative form to the book. I could argue that, for example, Michael Ruse's historical essay should come first, and in fact, I wish there was more on history in general, but the bottom line is that this collection does what collections should do and was an accessible and pretty much comprehensive view of what people are thinking about when they think about the development of complexity. Given the diversity of disciplines and authors there does seem to be a decent, coherent theme throughout the book and so I consider it a success. My favorite chapters were 4, 7, 8, 9, 11, 12, and 14.

Chapter by Chapter quick thoughts:
2. Directionality principles from cancer to cosmology Paul C. W. Davies: One interesting idea, that cancer is more complex (yet also more primitive) than its originating cells.
3. A simple treatment of complexity: cosmological entropic boundary conditions on increasing complexity Charles H. Lineweaver: Concept of gravitational entropy still doesn't fit with the others, but that may be because we don't know enough about it to make it fit.
4. Using complexity science to search for unity in the natural sciences Eric J. Chaisson: The most universal yet most succinct of the entries, and my vote for the best single mathematical approach to quantifying complexity, very interesting.
5. On the spontaneous generation of complexity in the universe Seth Lloyd: The quantum computer argument, which I didn't find convincing and seemed more setup than payoff.
6. Emergent spatiotemporal complexity in field theory Marcelo Gleiser: Some good thoughts about energy landscapes in general and how dynamics can create order but could have been summarized more succinctly/applied more specifically.
7. Life: the final frontier for complexity? Simon Conway Morris: Vintage Conway Morris, rapid-fire examples of convergence with a wit usually absent from scientific discourse.
8. Evolution beyond Newton, Darwin, and entailing law: the origin of complexity in the evolving biosphere Stuart A. Kauffman: Too much emphasis on physics and biology without enough emphasis on chemistry; Kaufmann makes a big deal about noncomputability and nonpredictably but the middle to the argument goes missing; directly engages Conway Morris which I'd like to see more of.
9. Emergent order in processes: the interplay of complexity, robustness, correlation, and hierarchy in the biosphere D. Eric Smith: This had some good original thoughts for how things go together and categories for comparing across disciplines; one of the better essays.
10. The inferential evolution of biological complexity: forgetting nature by learning to nurture David C. Krakauer: Cultural evolution, kind of par for the course in my opinion.
11. Information width: a way for the second law to increase complexity David Wolpert: Not as much about information width per se but the underlying argument has legs (and fits with Chaisson's and Gleiser's in productive ways)
12. Wrestling with biological complexity: from Darwin to Dawkins Michael Ruse: Helpful "two kinds of people" argument and application from history, but doesn't really get down to the heart of the difference between Darwinians and Spencerians -- still, the categories seem to have legs for further reflection.
13. The role of generative entrenchment and robustness in the evolution of complexity William C. Wimsatt: Generative entrenchment has aspects that make sense but wasn't clearly defined enough; other essays approached similar ideas more clearly but the fact that someone else has similar ideas is worth the time for this.
14. On the plurality of complexity-producing mechanisms Philip Clayton: excellent philosophical summary and plea for true discussion rather than verbal brickbats thrown back and forth, takes a stand on not taking a stand but, given the state of the speculations, I think it's the best way to end this book and suspect that Clayton's right, no overarching "law" for complexity will work, although ideas like Chaisson's should still help understand some aspects, even a majority of aspects.

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