A New Kind of Science?

After earning a Ph.D. from Caltech at age 20, Stephen Wolfram founded the corporation that produces Mathematica, the world's leading technical mathematics software. For nearly ten years, Wolfram has -- by his own description -- been "an almost complete recluse." Wolfram became a recluse because he wanted to spend time thinking about a problem that science had failed completely to explain: the origin of complexity -- the vastly intricate systems, especially in biology, which so excite our curiosity. Now Wolfram thinks he's found the answer to this puzzle, and he's published it in an encyclopedic book, A New Kind of Science. Almost overnight, A New Kind of Science shot to the top and stayed at the top of the rankings. Wolfram is convinced that it's only a matter of time before the rest of the scientific community grasps that the puzzle of complexity requires an entirely new approach. And this is especially the case, Wolfram argues, in biology. Ask nearly any evolutionary biologist what assembled the human eye, or the three billion base pairs of DNA in our genome, and that biologist will answer, "Natural selection, of course." But Wolfram is not entirely persuaded by this answer. "No clear understanding has ever emerged," he writes, "of just why such processes should in the end actually lead to much complexity at all." After twenty years of studying the problem, Wolfram no longer views natural selection as a wonder-working process. "I have increasingly come to believe," he argues, "that in fact its power is remarkably limited." Does this mean that Wolfram accepts the theory of intelligent design? No -- not yet anyway. Although he writes, "Just how complexity arises was never really resolved" by Darwinian evolution, and "I have come to have some sympathy for the creationists," Wolfram thinks all the complexity in nature will arise naturally from simple rules. He illustrates this by "cellular automata," pattern-generating systems that churn out complexity from a handful of rules. Because cellular automata can make complex patterns, Wolfram thinks he's solved the complexity puzzle. But other scientists are skeptical. Scientist and inventor Ray Kurzweil, for example, points out that we aren't interested in complexity simply as complexity. The exact pattern of jellybeans in a bag of candy is exceedingly complex, but no one really cares to explain it. We do want to explain what design theorist Bill Dembski calls "the specified complex patterns" -- the patterns that do things. On that score, Kurzweil argues, Wolfram's cellular automata fall short. "They do not evolve," he says, into "insects, or humans, or Chopin preludes, or anything else that we might consider of a higher order of complexity." Wolfram's cellular automata, Kurzweil concludes, "are not capable of solving interesting problems." To do that, Dembski and other design theorists argue, intelligence is absolutely necessary. The book, A New Kind of Science, starts with an important problem: Science has not explained the origin of biological complexity. Wolfram's solution may fall short, but at least this brilliant man acknowledges the immensity of the puzzle. And in time, he may join others in seeing that intelligent design means an intelligent Designer. Additional reading and resources: Stephen Wolfram, A New Kind of Science (Champaign, IL: Wolfram Media, 2002). William Dembski, Signs of Intelligence: Understanding Intelligent Design (Brazos Press, 2001). Raymond Kurzweil's review of A New Kind of Science. "Is this man bigger than Newton and Darwin?" Telegraph (UK), 15 May 2002.


Chuck Colson


  • Facebook Icon in Gold
  • Twitter Icon in Gold
  • LinkedIn Icon in Gold

Sign up for the Daily Commentary