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In Memory of John Holland: Complexity Science Pioneer

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, August 13, 2015

A Grand Intellectual Legacy from a Complexity Science Pioneer

 John Holland Explored “Ideas at the Interface of Disciplines” 

John Holland, pioneering scholar of complexity science and a professor who taught computer science, engineering and psychology, died August 9, 2015, at the age of 86. He devoted decades of scholarship to the examination of complex adaptive systems and formulated what became known as genetic algorithms. He was a long-time science advisor to Plexus Institute.

Dr. Holland was a professor at the University of Michigan, where he founded and led the Center for the Study of Complex Systems.  He was also a professor and member of the executive committee of the board of trustees at the Santa Fe Institute. His honors included a MacArthur "genius" fellowship in 1992.

His books included Adaptation in Natural and Artificial Systems (1975), Hidden Order: How Adaptation Builds Complexity (1995), Emergence: From Chaos to Order (1998), Signals and Boundaries: Building Blocks for Complex Adaptive Systems (2012), and Complexity: A Very Short Introduction (2014).

His groundbreaking 1975 book has been cited more than 50,000 times and has been published in several languages. Intended to be the foundation for a general theory of adaptation, this book introduced genetic algorithms as a mathematical idealization that Dr. Holland used to develop his theory of schemata in adaptive systems. Later, genetic algorithms became widely used as an optimization and search method in computer science. Most optimization textbooks now include a chapter on such evolutionary algorithms, and his insights led to the field of evolutionary computation.

A tribute from the National Center for Science Education says Holland's work was inspired by the work of the evolutionary biologist R. A. Fisher. According to Kevin Kelly's Out of Control (2009), he regarded Fisher's The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection (1930) as opening "a new world of human knowledge by subjugating nature's most potent force — evolution — with humankind's most potent tool — mathematics," and accordingly "began the job of trying to code evolution into a machine." The interaction between evolution and computation in Dr. Holland's work was bidirectional.

In the Santa Fe institute's memorial notice, David Krakauer, the president of the institute, commented that Holland was "unique in that he took ideas from evolutionary biology in order to transform search and optimization in computer science, and then he took what he discovered in computer science and allowed us to rethink evolutionary dynamics. This kid of rigorous communication between two communities of thought is a characteristic of very deep minds. And John’s ideas at the interface of disciplines continues to have a lasting impact on the culture and research at SFI.”

 In a 2007 Q&A session with NOVA, Dr. Holland noted that complex behavior emerges naturally from genetic algorithms that model evolution, adding, "Such concrete illustrations of emergence give little comfort to those advocating intelligent design." 

Holland was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana, on February 2, 1929. He attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he received his B.S. in physics in 1950, and the University of Michigan, where he received his M.A. in mathematics in 1954 and his Ph.D. in communication sciences in 1959. At the University of Michigan, he was a professor of computer science and engineering from 1967 onward and a professor of psychology from 1988 onward.

In 1994, Holland gave the first SFI Stanislaw Ulam Community Lectures in Santa Fe, an annual series that continues to this day. (Read about Holland's Ulam lectures in theWinter 1994 issue of theSFI Bulletin.)

"For those of us who knew him personally, John's enthusiasm for ideas was contagious,"says SFI External Professor Stephanie Forrest, one of his PhD students at Michigan in the 1980s. "He leaves us not only with a grand intellectual legacy, but with memories of the pure joy he brought to his research, cheerful disregard of academic dogma, and a great sense of fun and mischievousness."





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