- Hardcover: 272 pages
- Publisher: Basic Books; 1 edition (January 5, 2016)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0465055699
- ISBN-13: 978-0465055692
- Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 1 x 8.5 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 12 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #311,266 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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A Crude Look at the Whole: The Science of Complex Systems in Business, Life, and Society 1st Edition
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"[A Crude Look at the Whole is a] succinct, elegant study of systems thinking, the newish science examining basic principles, such as emergence, that govern physics, biology and economics."―Nature
"A Crude Look at the Whole presents most of the starter-level examples of complexity. Social insects are an illustration crucial to Miller's economic focus. He gives an engaging account of how the simple behaviour of individual ants produces something that looks a bit like intelligence in the nest as a whole."―New Scientist
"Miller's whirlwind tour is...well-grounded; he stresses complexity theory as an approach and a complementary way of thinking, not as a cure-all."―Slate
"Miller...provide[s] a thought-provoking introduction to the study of complexity."―Publishers Weekly
"Miller offers a vigorous survey of the tools, techniques, and ideas underlying complex systems and their study."―Kirkus Reviews
"A Crude Look at the Whole is a delightful tour of the core principles of complex systems. You will see the world differently, and more clearly, after reading this erudite and wondrous romp."―Michael J. Mauboussin, Head of Global Financial Strategies, Credit Suisse
"Miller's book is a fine introduction to complex systems thinking in the context of social systems."―Jim Rutt, past Chairman of the Santa Fe Institute and Director of the Proteus Foundation
"Well-written, interesting, and stimulating. This book shows us how individual elements--bees, traders, neurons--interact to produce 'endless forms most beautiful.' John Miller makes complexity seem simple."―
"The 'sciences of complexity' crystallized about thirty years ago, partially at the Santa Fe Institute. John Miller was the first postdoctoral fellow at SFI. His A Crude Look at the Whole is a superb "look." Miller's range is synoptic. More, the topics are essential for the world of today. Read this book."―Stuart Kauffman, Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, emeritus professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics at the University of Pennsylvania and author of At Home In the Universe
About the Author
John H. Miller is a professor of economics and social science at Carnegie Mellon University and the head of the university's Department of Social and Decision Sciences. He received his Ph.D. in Economics from the University of Michigan, and serves on the faculty of the Santa Fe Institute.
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John Miller's book tackles complexity in its broadest sense by considering a dazzling variety of complex systems, from neurons to honeybees, from irrigation canals in Bali to stock markets, from drug cocktails to manicured lawns in suburbs. His idea is to devote each one of the chapters in the book to a few examples which taken together illustrate a central feature of complex systems. Thus, the various chapters deal with hallmarks of complexity such as feedback, network effects, self-organized criticality, noise, scaling laws and cooperation. None of these qualities are independent of each other, each one builds on top of the other. The title of the book - "a crude look at the whole" - is actually a quote from the physicist Murray Gell-Mann and it very accurately describes how we need to deal with complex systems. We do need to take a look at the whole, but this look also cannot be too fine-grained; it needs to be pointillistic and crude.
Some of the examples which Miller uses to illustrate these qualities of complex systems are fascinating. For instance he talks about how the concept of rugged landscapes where making errors (adding noise) can actually lead to more productive outcomes helps one design drug cocktails for complex diseases like cancer and AIDS. Similarly he talks about how both positive and negative feedbacks can cause huge changes in financial systems: he uses the examples of both the great market crash of 2008 and the 'flash crash' of 2010 to describe such sensitive feedbacks. When talking about heterogeneity vs homogeneity, Miller posits that heterogenous systems can be potentially more resilient to shocks because of differential reactions to stimuli, but homogenous systems may be easier to manage.
The book also illustrates how simple intelligence is not limited just to human beings by citing the example of slime molds and bacteria which can perform very complex tasks that are mediated through relatively simple molecular interactions. This discussion leads to one on self-reproducing automata in the chapter on cooperation - one of the best in the book. Miller sets up an abstract model based on intelligent agents which can either defect or cooperate. Seen through the lens of the classic prisoner's dilemma of game theory, a somewhat involved analysis shows us that defection (or selfishness) can make us somewhat better off in the short term while cooperation can make us much better off in the long term. Another fascinating example of cooperation comes from Balinese agriculture. The Balinese people have built a complex system of irrigation canals, aqueducts and terraced agriculture. There are upstream and downstream farmers in the system, and the upstream farmers can decide to withhold water from the ones downstream for their own benefit. However it becomes clear that in order to utilize water most efficiently as well as to fight pests, a cooperative strategy in which the water is judiciously shared can work best. This kind of analysis has very important implications for understanding and engineering all kinds of systems, from predator-prey networks to urban communities.
Scaling laws are another very interesting aspect of complex systems. These are essentially power laws that relate various aspects of a complex system to one of its basic features. Over the years researchers have observed remarkable similarities in scaling laws over multiple components of a system. For instance in case of animals, important features like metabolic rate, height, heartbeat rate and reproductive capacities are simple power functions of the animals' masses, and this trend holds irrespective of what animal we are talking about. Similarly the size of cities is observed to be related to disparate parameters like electricity and fuel consumption, waste disposal, crime rates and transportation efficiency. Thus whether in case of animals or cities, knowing one critical parameter can allow you to estimate many others. This principle shows us that while simple systems can often be very complex, supposedly complex systems can also lead themselves to relatively simple laws. Finally, self-organized criticality refers to the kind of "tipping points" that Malcolm Gladwell has talked about. The idea is that sometimes a single, relatively trivial phenomenon can tip a system into a complex new state: examples include phenomena as different as the behavior of sand piles, the Arab Spring and the fate of Mayan civilizations.
The one limitation of the book is that sometimes it slides over too easily into jargon that will be impenetrable to an an uninformed layman; I myself had trouble understanding some of the analysis of financial systems for example. Nonetheless, this limitation is not significant if one looks at the book not as a comprehensive and self-contained treatise but as a tour of topics in complexity and as an invitation to further study. The tour shows us how each rung of the natural and social sciences is truly connected to each other, how hidden relationships can explain relationships between neutrons and neurons, between ants and market players, between urban communities and sand piles. Most importantly, it shows us how the great age of reductionism which unearthed so many truths about the world by breaking it down into parts and understanding these individual parts must now be complemented by one in which we understand systems not by breaking them down but by building them up and understanding their connections. The book is really an invitation to a future which should excite all of us.
The author manages, nonetheless, to give an overview of diverse systems –none of them having neurons– that behave following similar principles and rules and that, the reader will be convinced, think and make decisions. It really makes a case for the central pretension of complex sciences, which is that leaving aside idiosyncratic aspects of a system, one can find truths also valid in multiple other systems, regardless of their differences in molecular composition (they could even be immaterial) or scale, and that complexity is really the 'study of everything'.
Markets, single cells, agents with cooperative dilemas, hives or algorithms finding low energy states in a group of molecules; systems that could be found in nature or culture, artificially set on a laboratory or simulated on a computer; they all run equivalent rules that allow them to explore solution landscapes, plagued with dangerous mediocre local maxima, for which these systems deploy surprisingly similar strategies to escape. Fascinating.