At the Santa Fe Institute, where the field of scientific inquiry known today as complexity science began to coalesce 27 years ago, researchers are exploring some of the world’s most intriguing questions. What are the best ways to head off global climate change? How can we understand, even predict, seemingly erratic stock market behavior? Is cooperation just as important as aggression in human evolution? What are the biodiversity patterns preceding an ecosystem’s collapse? Can ecology tell us which new technologies will succeed in the marketplace and which will fail? Can computers behave more like living systems?
The discovery of common, fundamental principles in complex adaptive systems as varied as global climate, financial markets, ecosystems, the immune system, and human culture requires an inclusive, broad perspective, one that comprehends the components of a system but views those elements as actors in a large, interconnected, often unpredictable world. Today the Institute’s researchers are approaching these problems firmly grounded in the quantitative methods of physics, chemistry, and biology. But it was not always so. The field of complexity science was created, nurtured, and matured over two-and-a-half decades, requiring the passion and dedication of scientists with a yearning for new approaches, an appetite for risk, and the credibility to turn heads.
To be sure, the cadre of scientists who conceived of the Santa Fe Institute in the early 1980s were serious scientists. Most of them – George Cowan, Stirling Colgate, Nick Metropolis, Herb Anderson, Darragh Nagle, Peter Caruthers, Ed Knapp, Richard Slansky, and Louis Rosen – were senior fellows at Los Alamos National Laboratory with distinguished careers in physics, chemistry, and computation.
Their vision for an independent, transdisciplinary scientific institute grew out of informal senior fellows meetings in the lab’s cafeteria. There, some of the lab’s biggest thinkers matched intellects and compared insights. All shared a general dissatisfaction with the stove-piped, bureaucratic, funding-centric approach to science that had taken hold both at the federal laboratories and academia. And each felt that this carrot-and-stick support of science was, on a massive scale, leading their colleagues toward scientific myopia, reductionism, and stagnation. Furthermore, they believed, some of science’s biggest questions, those that required a more expansive perspective, were going unanswered to the detriment of science and mankind.
Similar tensions were growing elsewhere. When Murray Gell-Mann, who discovered quarks and who won the Nobel Prize in 1969 for his earlier work on the theory of elementary particles, heard about the fellows’ notion of an independent transdisciplinary scientific institute, he offered to lend his support and considerable credibility to the effort. So did renowned physicist David Pines and mathematician Gian-Carlo Rota. This top-drawer credibility proved to be critically important as many in the scientific community would naturally be skeptical.
There are as many stories about the Institute’s founding as there are founders. The facts are that in 1984 the articles of incorporation of the Institute were approved by the State of New Mexico under the name the “Rio Grande Institute”; the IRS approved its non-profit designation that fall as well. Cowan, a renowned chemist, stepped forward to become the Institute’s first president. Gell-Mann likewise was elected chairman at the first meeting of the board in October.
At the time the Institute existed only in name, as a post office box, and in the minds of the founders, who had not yet established a specific mission or even a set of congruent research activities. Although they agreed on the independent nature of the Institute, each had a unique and personal take on its proper role in the world.
Elsewhere and independently, other scientists were wriggling under the weight of rigid, time-honored methodologies in their own fields and casting about for new perspectives that would explain the complex systems behavior they observed. At the time many of them, although assertive in their hunches, were rejected by mainstream scientific establishment – the academic departments, government funding agencies, and scientific journals long entrenched in discovery of the ever more elemental, predictably behaving components of systems. No scientific platform existed from which questions could legitimately be asked about the emergent, adaptive, co-evolving behaviors many of these scientists observed in their own fields.
In hindsight, the Institute’s character was to be a product of the notions that gravitated to it rather than those that emanated from its people. The place became a catalyst for powerful combinations of ideas that had previously been kept distinct by the divisions of academic departments and funding agencies. As the Institute’s researchers began to talk widely, and often excitedly, about this new transdisciplinary approach, many scientists who had been disenfranchised by, or at least suspicious of, the establishment began to listen.
In November 1985 the Institute’s acquired its first-choice name, the “Santa Fe Institute,” from a local treatment center. It also convened in that month its first science meeting on superstring theory, an attempt to describe all of the particles and fundamental forces of nature in one theory. A summer 1986 workshop on complex adaptive systems began to define the Institute’s scientific realm. Its primary method of collaboration also began to emerge – several-day gatherings of carefully selected invitees from multiple fields, those with considerable scientific gravitas and curiosity, featuring sessions structured just enough to promote cross-pollination of ideas but not enough to stifle innovative thinking.
In August 1986 a small group of Institute researchers and invited economists met in Santa Fe at the request of Citicorp CEO John Reed, who was frustrated with his own economists’ past failures to foresee market catastrophes. Reed, like many whose intellects gravitated toward the Institute, believed traditional economics was somehow missing the bigger picture, and he was eager to hear whether thinking by innovative economists like John Holland, Kenneth Arrow, and W. Brian Arthur might help his company plan for unexpected market shifts that seemed to defy conventional economic theories. The meeting, and Reed’s resulting monetary support, grew into SFI’s program in economics as a complex system, a program that continues today.
Unrestricted funding like that from Citicorp became an important element of the Institute’s success. Its scientists sought refuge at the Institute from research environments where funding was assigned to individual projects that required specific results. Complexity science has always required freer reign. To nurture this more thoughtful research environment, SFI’s founders began a strategy of balancing unrestricted support, primarily from philanthropists and private foundations, with the more directed support it received from federal agencies and other souces. Such unrestricted grants and endowments, as well as a multi-year umbrella grant from the NSF for broad complexity research that was first awarded in 1988, today remains the core of the Institute’s funding portfolio.
Likewise, the Institute’s setting has always been an inseparable element of its character. Transcending boundaries requires frequent interactions among scientists. In early 1987 the Institute moved from its one-room office in Santa Fe to a former convent amid the art galleries of Santa Fe – giving it a brick-and-mortar presence as well as intellectual home. Here the Institute’s first visiting scholars worked, shared offices, and enjoyed spirited discussions in the convent’s courtyard. Many of the Insitute’s long-term programs in computing, biology, ecology, evolution, and genetics were born of these interactions.
In 1994 the Institute again moved to accommodate its growing community, this time to its current location at the Cowan Campus on Hyde Park Road northeast of and high above Santa Fe. Centered around a hilltop house with an expansive view of north-central New Mexico, it once was the residence of former U.S. Secretary of War and Ambassador to China Patrick Hurley. Today the Cowan Campus, with its hiking trails, courtyards, and informal meeting spaces, is the ideal location for SFI’s unique style of collaboration.
In its initial years the Institute’s transdisciplinary approach, which required a departure from traditional scientific methodologies, was viewed with skepticism by many in mainstream science. But as the number of scientists who participated in the Institute’s workshops grew, and as they carried the insights and excitement they found at SFI back to their home institutions, the word spread. There was at least something interesting going on in Santa Fe. John Holland, a pioneer in genetic algorithms and adaptive computation, said of complexity science at the time: “At this point we are making guesses, feeling our way. But most of us think a science is there.”
Institute-hosted workshops in the late 1980s were among the world’s first to explore from a complex systems perspective such topics as theoretical immunology, biological complexity, evolutionary economics, computational approaches to evolutionary biology, artificial life, global stability, molecular evolution, and theoretical ecology. They helped bring into the Institut’s fold promising young researchers such as Chris Langton, Stuart Kauffman, Alan Perelson, and others who would become its most prominent characters well into the next decade. This generation of researchers also brought with them a passion for developing new scientific tools for understanding complex system, such as adaptive computing and toy modeling. More sophisticated versions of these tools are modern staples of complex systems research worldwide.
The 1990s at SFI was marked by an expanding research portfolio. The economics program remained strong and grew into nearly a dozen subsidiary pursuits. New inquiries into political behaviors and human culture further expanded SFI’s work in the social sciences. Programs in biology expanded as well, exploring new territory in genomics, neurobiology, viral dynamics, biochemical networks, learning and memory in the immune system, and complex systems in ecology. Adaptive computation thrived, as did a dozen new programs in learning and cognition. Theories from physics and evolution began to play a greater roles in all of the Institute’s research as its researchers sought to find parallels among fields and describe, at least metaphorically, complex behaviors they observed.
The private sector began to find value in the Institute’s work as well. Collaborations with Proctor & Gamble, Citicorp, and other large corporations to understand production streams and market behaviors resulted in concrete recommendations adopted by the companies. To accommodate the growing interest from industry, the Institute formed its Business Network and signed on its first five members in 1992.
The 1990s also saw several Institute-affiliated researchers start up their own technology firms. Their goals were to put ideas from complexity science, such as pattern recognition in massive data sets, to work for industries as widespread as drug discovery and manufacturing – a trend that for a short time had the Santa Fe area nicknamed the Info Mesa (a premature comparison to Silicon Valley’s promise in early 1980s; most of the Info Mesa companies succumbed to the dot-com bust in the late 1990s).
As the Institute’s research interests and reputation grew, so did its list of detractors. Exploring new scientific territory meant that some lines of inquiry failed to live up to expectations. Some researchers in mainstream science felt that complexity science was long on promise but short on results. The criticism culminated in a June 1995 Scientific American article by senior writer John Horgan that openly mocked not only the science of complexity but the scientists doing it. The article, today regarded at the Institute as a wakeup call, caused many in the complexity community to do some soul searching about their field.
The criticisms reminded its practitioners to respect the still-emerging field’s scientific obligations – that doing complexity science required a commitment to observation, experience, and experiment that is in balance with the transdisciplinary, out-of-the-box curiosity that gave rise to the original question. It’s not that outcomes in complex adaptive systems are repeatable as they are in many scientific disciplines; complex systems are by definition unpredictable, and often downright squirrelly. But finding the patterns embedded in complex systems requires a distinct brand of scientific rigor and methodological approaches that in many cases haven’t yet been invented.
That’s been SFI’s focus for the last decade. Even as it has expanded into what some consider the softer sciences and the humanities – political science, psychology, sociology, history, archaeology, to name a few – thereby gaining an ability to address some of the world’s most pressing problems, the Institute’s scientists also are relying increasingly on well established quantitative methodologies in physics, chemistry, and biology. In fact, looking at any problem through an empirical lens and seeking quantitative patterns is, today, the Institute’s most recognizable brand.
True transdisciplinary research also is a norm at SFI today. The Institute supports programs that seek, for example, to understand financial market dynamics through the principles of evolution and ecology. It explores relationships among innovation in technology, genes, and human culture. Mathematics and network theory are applied to complex problems as diverse as disease propagation, terrorism, the Internet, and molecular signaling. Human culture change is studied as a biologist would examine genetic mutation. Changes in language are studied across time and space scales never before considered. A growing program in sustainability draws from archaeology, paleontology, sociology, psychology, ecology, and physics, among others.
The Institute has always sought to influence the broader scientific community with complex systems thinking. To that end, it welcomes researchers from many fields and many institutions, and it actively seeks the fresh perspectives of notable young scientists. Postdoctoral researchers have been a feature of the Institute’s community since 1988, when the first visiting postdoc joined the rolls. Today’s Omidyar Fellows program supports more than a dozen visiting postdocs at any one time. Regular educational workshops, such as the annual Complex Systems Summer Schools for undergraduates started in 1988, ensure that hundreds of young scientists pass through the Institute’s doors annually on their way to their degrees, and that they return to academia with a proper introduction to the Institute and complexity. George Cowan said it best in a 1994: “People like to come here. People like to come back.”
Today, complexity science is widely accepted as a worthy scientific endeavor. Dozens of scholarly and popular books have been published about it. Universities offer degrees in complex systems. Numerous scientific journals publish papers related exclusively to the study of complexity. Hundreds of mainstream news reports each year cover work done by scientists affiliated with the Institute. The lead character in the blockbuster film Jurassic Park was a scientist at the Santa Fe Institute; his most famous line: “Life finds a way.” Probably most indicative of the Institute’s success over time has been the emergence of dozens of SFI-like institutes around the world dedicated to the study of complex systems, many of them led by former Institute faculty.
But complexity science itself is still emerging and, by its nature, continually probing the seams between mainstream disciplines and the boundaries of human knowledge. In 27 years it has transformed the scientific landscape and made possible the pursuit of new understandings of the complex, messy world in which we live. Today it is asking the questions humankind will need answers to 25 years from now.