Simple Elegance to Wonderful Complexity – A journey (Part 2)

Nov 29, 2012   //   by Pabitra // Blog , Featured , Science And Technology // No Comments

The theory of evolution by cumulative natural selection is the only theory we know of that is in principle capable of explaining the existence of organized complexity.

- Richard Dawkins

Though hinted by many great scientists during the course of their work, it is counter-intuitive to think that the complex systems in Nature (and accordingly thought of as sophisticated) are born out of very simple configurations. It is equally counter-intuitive to think such complexity could have grown out of equally simple rules. Traditional scientific thinking almost always presupposed that a complex and sophisticated system demands equivalent complex and sophisticated processes involved in their geneses. Perhaps this notion limits scientific endeavor to explain many events and processes in nature by considering them not really within its field.

Darwinian Evolution and genetics first put the traditional scientific intuition to a test. It is astonishing that permutation and combination of only four nucleobases give rise to the immensely complex biological systems of life, at least the form of life we know till now. This is exactly where chemistry with its rather simple rules endeavor to explain something as complex as living systems. If that is not all, biological evolution reveals rather dumb trial and error reiterations that bind humans and bacteria to a common ancestry. By dumb, I mean that the reiterations are nothing but very simple rules of by which genetic information updates in each progeny producing meaningless complexity. Only a minute amount of such updated information survives the natural trial and error so that the complex systems that survive ultimately look intelligent and meaningful.

In his 2002 award winning but controversial book A New Kind of Science , British physicist, computer scientist and Entrepreneur Stephen Wolfram claimed that all natural processes are in reality automatons (comparable to cellular automata, for example) which are computable through rather simple rules called simple programs on rather simple initial configurations and many of them develop astonishing complexity in nature showing recursion, self similarity and organization. Wolfram’s work may not be accepted as peer reviewed scientific work following established methodology and mathematical rigor but his idea is revolutionary in the sense that it seeks to add a new tradition to computability (in addition to engineering and mathematical) of that of systematic, empirical investigation of computational systems for their own sake.

Notwithstanding the debate regarding Wolfram’s proposal as to whether it is a coherent fundamental theory, we are beginning to see that vastly complex and sophisticated systems in Nature can emerge out of very simple initial conditions and configurations that go through discrete steps of updates following simple rules. Moreover, we also see that making these rules complex does not, after a threshold, add any further degree of complex feature to the systems under evolution (such a system can be a biological organism, human brain, weather system, traffic or the physical Universe). The implication is clearly that almost all complex systems that we study now were born out of simple initial conditions and with simple rules – it’s only the vast number of evolutionary reiterations that induced the complexity to start with.

In the journey from simple elegance to wonderful complexity we have at one extreme of the spectrum an empty space teeming with virtual particles that wink in and out of existence for extremely short period of time (so much so that this empty space actually weighs! ) and at the other extreme a cosmos teeming with galaxies, stars and planets at different stages of evolution with complex systems like weather, biological organisms and morality (at least in one of them) and all these show self similarity and organization. While science strives to explain this grand drama neither the simplicity nor the complexity seem to have a purpose, much less a divine one, and that is extremely beautiful.


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