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John H. Miller & Scott E. Page – Complex Adaptive Systems

An Introduction to Computational Models of Social Life

“Adaptive social systems are composed of interacting, thoughtful (but perhaps not brilliant) agents. It would be difficult to date the exact moment that such systems first arose on our planet—perhaps it was when early single-celled organisms began to compete with one another for resources or, more likely, much earlier when chemical interactions in the primordial soup began to self-replicate. Once these adaptive social systems emerged, the planet underwent a dramatic change where, as Charles Darwin noted, “from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.” Indeed, we find ourselves at the beginning of a new millennium being not only continually surprised, delighted, and confounded by the unfolding of social systems with which we are well acquainted, but also in the enviable position of creating and crafting novel adaptive social systems such as those arising in computer networks.

What it takes to move from an adaptive system to a complex adaptive system is an open question and one that can engender endless debate. At the most basic level, the field of complex systems challenges the notion that by perfectly understanding the behavior of each component part of a system we will then understand the system as a whole. One and one may well make two, but to really understand two we must know both about the nature of “one” and the meaning of “and.”

The hope is that we can build a science of complexity (an obvious mis- nomer, given the quest for simplicity that drives the scientific enterprise, though alternative names are equally egregious). Rather than venturing further on the well-trodden but largely untracked morass that attempts to define complex systems, for the moment we will rely on Supreme Court Justice Stewart’s words in his concurring decision on a case dealing with obscenity (Jacobellis v. Ohio, 1964): “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it.”


The field of complex systems must direct its “flight from wonder” toward discoveries that “make the wonderful and complex understandable and simple.” We hope that there is a complex systems equivalent of Newton’s Laws of Motion that will one day make our current computer simulations appear to us as archaic as machines implementing Ptolemy’s epicycles. Even when the fundamental laws of complex adaptive social systems are uncovered, however, it is unlikely that our flight from wonder will be complete. Knowing Newton’s Laws of Motion reveals a key simplicity in the world around us, and while we may take delight in the power of so simple an idea to explain the motion of our universe, the thrill of the discovery quickly wanes with the mundaneness of the outcome. Laws emerging from complex adaptive systems have an entirely different character—knowing Darwin’s theory of evolution in no way diminishes the wonder that ensues as we observe its implications. ”

John H. Miller and Scott E. Page
Complex Adaptive Systems: An Introduction to Computational Models of Social Life

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