Books on complex systems
This is a list of some books related to complex systems science.
It is an extension of an earlier version that I produced for the CSIRO
Complex Systems website.
Some of the books are specific to complex systems. Others describe
areas which are whose development has proceeded without specific
reference to complex systems science, but which raise many of the
issues and problems that seem to be important in the study of
complex systems. These areas include evolution, embryonic development
and the combination: the evolution of embryonic development.
There are also books on statistical physics and a few on some
of the key mathematical concepts.
Hopefully this list will help some people.
Entries without any description mean that I haven't got around to writing
A separate list at the end includes
books that I have yet to read it but which someone else has recommended, or which have had intersting reviews.
Arnold, V.I. (1984) Catastrophe Theory. Springer-Verlag
(Berlin). ISBN 3 540 16199 6
Catastrophe theory describes (and classifies) the types of singularities
that can occur with the 'emergence' of thresholds in response to smooth
Results from the statistical physics of phase transitions (not discussed
in this book, but see Sornette's book below) show that some (or even
many) such transitions involve interactions at all scales and thus lie
outside the classes considered in catastrophe theory.
Bak, P. (1996) How Nature Works: The Science of Self-Organized
Criticality. Springer Verlag (New York).
- Bak is the co-inventor of the 'sand-pile model' which he believes
provides a paradigm for 'how nature works'.
Personally I remain unconvinced. As a sub-text, Bak argues for
the importance of preserving funding for "small science" in the
face of competition for "big science" funding.
Barabasi, A.-L. (2002) Linked: How Everything is Connected to
Everything Else and What it Means for Business, Science and Everyday Life.
Plume (Penguin: NY)
- This is a non-technical description of network analysis and its
applications. The end-notes are a valuable source of references to original
work in this area. (see also review article by Albert and Barabasi
in Reports on Progress in Physics, 2002).
- Barlow, C. (ed). (1991) From Gaia to Selfish Gene:
Selected Writings in the Life Sciences MIT Press (Cambridge, Mass).
A collection of almost 40 extracts and essays by 'the usual suspects':
Dawkins, Margulis, Lovelock, Hofstader, Wilson, etc.
As well as Gaia and Selfish genes, is touches on sociobiology,
systems theory, game theory and symbiosis.
- Biggs, N. (2nd end 1992?) Algebraic Graph Theory. CUP (pbk).
- This is a mathematical textbook on algebraic techniques for characterising graphs and networks.
The Meme Machine OUP (Oxford). ISBN 0-19-286212-X (pbk)
The 'meme' is the term coined by Richard Dawkins for self-replicating
units of culture, subject to evolutionary processes of selection.
Bossomaier, T. and Green D. (Eds). (2000) Complex Systems.
CUP (Cambridge, UK). ISBN 0 521 46245 2
- The articles in this volume cover many of
the main strands of complexity.
Buchanan, M. (2000) Ubiquity: The Science of History - or Why
the World is Simpler than We Think.
- Buchanan is a convert to Per Bak's view of self-organised criticality
as a way of understanding much of the world. He emphasises the role of
contingency (cascading effects of small causes).
The theme of contingency is important in evolution with the importance
of contingency argued by S.J. Gould (Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale
and the Nature of History) with a counter-view put by S. Conway Morris
The Crucible of Creation
Bunde, A., Kroppe, J. and Schellnhuber, H.J. (2002) The Science
of Disasters: Climate Disruptions, Heart Attacks and Market Crashes.
- The title pretty much sums up the content. In the area where I have
some competence the work seems sound. Overall, the apparently disparate
topics seem to hang together.
Chaisson, E. (1995) The Hubble Wars (Harper Collins) ISBN:
- This is an account of the early days of the Hubble Space Telescope,
written by the deputy director of the Space Telescope Science Institute.
The book takes a historical perspective, noting that the two big advances
in astronomical resolution were from 60 arc seconds (human eye) to 6 arc
seconds (Galileo's telescope), and from about 1 or 2 arc seconds (best
ground-based) to 0.1 arc seconds (HST). Most of the 3 centuries of progress
in between was in sensitivity, not resolution. Each chapter begins with
a substantial extract from Galileo. The other comparison that is quoted
is the advice to the author about the value of writing the book including
describing NASA as so thoroughly bureaucratized as to give the Curial
Inquisition a good name. Much of the account in the book serves to
support this last comparison.
The book covers the trials and conflicts arising from the mis-ground
main mirror, as well as the early science results that were achieved in
spite of the difficulties. It contains, perhaps, many lessons to be learned
about the conduct of 'big science' and a lot of discussion about what constitutes
good and bad communication of science. Overall, it's a great read.
S. Conway Morris (1998)
The Crucible of Creation: The Burgess Shale and the Rise of Animals
- This book disputes the claim by Gould (in Wonderful Life)
of the overarching importance of contingency. He suggests that
physical and enviromental constraints restrict the evolutionary
options leading to much convergent evolution, both at the species
level and, based on examples such as South America during
the period of isolation, at the functional ecosystem level.
Cohen, J. and Stewart, I. (1994). The Collapse of Chaos: Discovering
Simplicity in a Complex World. Penguin (London).
- This is a free-ranging discussion, generally non-mathematical, of
many aspects of complexity.
One of the major strands of discussion is that the DNA in our chromosomes
does not per se provide a blueprint for the organism. It is the combination
of the DNA code and the decoding mechanism that produces the organism.
(A simple example of the importance of code and decoder is given by
the perverse pass-time of writing fragments of computer code that are meaningful
in two different computer languages.)
D'Arcy Thompson, W. On Growth and Form
Dawkins, R. (1989 new edition)
The Selfish Gene OUP. ISBN 0-19-286092 (pbk). (First edition 1976).
The term "selfish" is great for the title (see comments below
on Gleik's Chaos, but has led to a lot of mis-understanding.
Replacing "selfish" by "self-preserving" or "self-sustaining"
gives a less value-laden description of what is going on.
The Blind Watchmaker
Dawkins, R. (1982)
The Extended Phenotype OUP (Oxford). ISBN 0-19-286088-7.
Dawkins' more technical (but still accessible) account
of the material in The Selfish Gene.
- Dennett, D. Brainchildren
Dennett's concept of consciousness as the result of a set of competing
- Dennett, D. Freedom Evolves
Addresses the question of the meaning of free will in a deterministic
world. Some of the key steps in the argument are:
To sumarise, "free-will" is something that we
we have evolved to use it. Complete determinism may represent the
underlying structure of the universe (in contexts where quantum
effects average away) but, due to chaos, we only experience
- Quantum indeterminism is irrelevant for this discussion.
- In particular, for all purposes except cryptography, there is no
difference between "genuine" randomness and pseudo-randomness from a
- If our descision-making depends on randomness (which may as well
be pseudo-randomness) then whether we generate this internally
or get it from the external environment has no bearing on whether
or not we have free-will.
- Pre-determined does not mean inevitable, i.e. unavoidable --
we can avoid things -- we are here because our ancestors were
sucessful in evolving avoidance capabilities.
- To the extent that the world is deterministic, we do not
experience it in that way because we do not have the intelligence
of the entity postulated by Laplace, capable of inferring the
entire future of the universe starting from its present state.
Gleik, J. Chaos
Unfortunately I have forgotten the source of the remark:
Gleik would have been a lot less succesful with the title
"Sensitive Dependence on Initial Conditions".
Gould, S. J. (1981) The Mismeasure of Man
This book provides a cautionary tale about the risks of self-delusion
in the practice of science. Covers craniometry and intelligence.
An interesting 'take' on Cyril Burt, suggesting that his real
error was not in faking his data, but rather in believing that
there was an actual thing (general intelligence) represented
by the largest vector in his factor analysis.
Gould's arguments concerning racial differences in intelligence are worth
- There is no evidence that intelligence exists as a single
thing to be measured and ranked - assigning a name does not
mean that something with that name actually exists.
- The causes of differences between groups need not be
the same as differences within groups. (e.g. within a national
population, variation in height has a strong herediary component --
between populations, much of the difference reflects nutrition).
- It is unfair to judge an individual person on the basis of the mean
for their group.
- Gould, S.J. Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale
and the Nature of History
- This argues for the central role of contingency in evolution.
For a counter-view see S. Conway Morris Crucible of Creation.
- Gould, S.J. (2002) The Hedgehog, the Fox and the Magister's Pox:
Mending and Minding the Misconceived Gap Between Science
and the Humanities ISBN 0 09 944082 2.
- Gould's last book. Counter-arguments to Wilson's Consilience.
Green, D. and Bossomaier, T. Patterns in the Sand
- An accessible introduction to complex systems science.
Kaufmann, S. (2000) Investigations. OUP (Oxford). ISBN 0
19 512104 X
- This book dicusses the origins and evolution of life and uses this
perspective to consider more general complex systems.
Two important concepts that he introduces are:
Life as autocatalytic chemical cycle;
The emergent possible: the concept that the available
phase space expands as each new chemical-compound/gene-complex/technical-innovation
creates the possibility for new interactions with what previously existed.
Lorenz, E. (1993) The Essence of Chaos. U.C.L. Press (London).
ISBN 185728 454 2 PB
- This is a very readable account of the basics of the phemomena known
as chaos. The book includes some description of Lorenz's own role in the
development, and has a reprint of his talk: Predictability: does the
flap of a butterfly's wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?
Lovelock, J. Gaia
"Gaia" represents the concept that the earth's biogeochemical
system is self-regulating, with life controlling the physical
environment (and in particular the climate) to maintain the
planet as a suitable habitat for life.
McMichael, A.J. (2001) Human Frontiers, Environments and Disease:
Past Patterns, Uncertain Futures. CUP (Cambridge, UK).
ISBN 0 521 00494 2 (pbk).
- This is not a book about complex systems science although it does
note the potential of complexity theory for shedding light on some of the
issues. Apart from the explicit topic, this book is a beautiful example
of the need to take a systems approach to complicated problems. For example,
he notes the differing perspectives of a doctor with a particular patient,
a public health official managing issues such as antibiotic resistance,
immunisation programs etc, and an evolutionary biologist studying the
co-evolution of diseases and societies.
Mandelbrot, B.B. (1977) Fractals: Form Chance and Dimension
W. H. Freeman (San Francisco). ISBN 0-7167-0473-0
This is the book that introduced "fractals" (both the term and
the concept) to the English-speaking world. Fractals are
objects with structure on all scales.
Morgan, M.G. and Henrion, M. (1990) Uncertainty:
A Guide to Dealing with Uncertainty in Quantitative Risk and
CUP (Cambridge, UK). ISBN 0-521-42744-4 (pbk).
Not specifically complex systems, but the comprehensive
scope (over the different types of uncertainty) make it
very valuable for anyone working with a real-world complex system.
Sornette, D. (2000) Critical Phenomena in Natural Sciences: Chaos,
Fractals, Self-Organization and Disorder: Concepts and Tools. Springer
- This book is really about statistical physics rather than complex
systems science. However since many aspects of complex systems science
draw on concepts from statistical physics, this book is a valuable resource.
The topics include: power-law distributions, fractals and multi-fractals,
spin models and transitions, percolation models, rupture models, power-law
mechanisms, self-organized criticality, and random systems.
Stauffer, D. and Aharony, A. (1991) Introduction to Percolation
Theory. (2nd edition, 1991. First edition was Stauffer)
- This is a good general introduction to percolation theory, with
mathematical descriptions, but without extensive mathematical derivations.
Sterelny, K. Dawkins vs Gould: Survival of the Fittest
Waldrop. M. M. (1992) Complexity: The Emerging Science at the
Edge of Order and Chaos. Viking. ISBN 0 670 85945 4
- This is largely a history of setting up the Santa Fe Institute.
The description tracks the way in which the participants
came to appreciate a degree of commonality in the complex problems in their
Watts, D. Six degrees
- An account of the small worlds phenomenon: a bit wordy.
Watts, D. Small worlds Princeton
- Rather better than Six degrees
Wilson, E.O (1998) Consilience Abacus (UK). ISBN 0 349 11112 X.
This book looks forward to a merging of the combined knowledge of the
sciences and the humanities. Wilson's vision is (in my massively
oversimplified one-liner) that this will happen as neurophysiology allows
objective answers to questions such as "what is beauty". It is
not neccessary to believe that this is possible, let alone
iminent, to appreciate this book. It contains many well-written
analyses of the nature of science.
Wolfram S. (1986) Theory and Applications of Cellular Automata.World
Scientific (Singapore). ISBN 9971 50 123 4 (pbk).
- This is a valuable collection of reprints, many by Wolfram, but
including important joint contributions with others.
It also includes tabulations of properties of cellular automata.
An alternative collection of Wolfram reprints was published in 1987.
Wolfram S. (2002) A New Kind of Science.Wolfram Media (Champaign,
Illinois). ISBN 1 57955 008 8
- This work contains many pictures and reports extensive searches
of behaviour of cellular automata. It adds disappointingly little to the
results known in the mid 1980s (see Wolfram 1986).
These are mostly books that I have not read but which have been
recommended to me or for which have seen interesting reviews.
Casti, J. Complexification
Devlin, The Math Gene
Dyson, F. The Origins of Life
Dyson, F. The Sun, the Genome and the Internet
Gell Mann, M. The Quark and the Jaguar.
Kauffmann, S. At Home in the Universe,
Kaufmann, S. Origins of order,
Strogatz, D. Sync Penguin.
This page, its contents and style, are the responsibility of the author and do not represent the
views, policies or opinions of The University of Melbourne.
Ian Enting: Last update: 8/8/05.