John Holland in Santa Fe

In the current issue of Communications of the ACM, External Professor Stephanie Forrest and Science Board member Melanie Mitchell recount the legacy of John Holland, a complexity science pioneer who passed away in August 2015.

An “active evangelist of computational thinking,” Holland recognized the interdisciplinary nature of computation even in 1959, when he received “what was arguably one of the world’s first computer science Ph.D.s,” Forrest and Mitchell write. His work incorporated insights from diverse fields such as biology, economics, psychology, and philosophy, and influenced these disciplines in turn. 

While Holland is best known for inventing genetic algorithms, the authors portray GAs as a happy byproduct of his broader quest to understand adaptation within complex systems.

They conclude that “Holland's focus on understanding the mechanisms by which complex patterns emerge and change, rather than simply characterizing the patterns themselves (such as describing chaotic attractors or power laws), reflected his determination to get to the heart of complex adaptive systems. This determination represents the best of science. Holland's willingness to tackle the most difficult questions, develop his own formalisms, and use mathematics and simulation to provide insight sets a high bar for scientists in all disciplines.”

Read the full article, including Holland’s key insights, in Communications of the ACM (August 2016)