Oxford University Press, 2015

pbk, 288 pp

ISBN: 978-0-19-956526-9

Reviewed by Ian Mowll

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 We have, in our western society, the god of science. So often we hear “scientists say…” in the press. And, for many people, this implies a statement of authority. But the problem is that western science is essentially value-less. This mind-set has led to such things as testing on animals, factory farming and the proliferation of deadly weapons. How did we get to this place and what can be done about it? Whilst the book covers a lot of territory, for me, this is the key question that this book addresses.

The reader may be relieved to know that there is not a single mathematical equation in the book. This is because the book is essentially about seeing the world through the lens of Complexity Theory rather than the maths. It is about understanding that many things in life do not follow a linear trajectory, things can change unpredictably, there are tipping points and there are thresholds that can only be passed through once. The book encourages us to do such things as to allow room for experimentation, to be aware of unexpected outcomes and encourage diverse thinking.

After introducing Complexity Theory in some depth, the book says that a type of complexity world view was understood pre Plato and has resonances in Daoism and Buddhism. But that due to influences such as Plato and then onto Newton, the world was (and in many ways still is) seen as a machine, open to understanding with deterministic mathematical models that help control and order. In reality, these models have limited use in specific situations and often they do not help us understand the systems in nature and in many spheres of human activity.

Essentially, the book says that we need to take all factors into account when modelling a situation as the world is interconnected. This includes (but is not limited to) human values. So, if values are included when looking at a situation, this is likely to lead to a more ethical result. Also, that situations are looked at qualitatively as well as quantitavely. These rather obvious points have been missed by much of our society which has a propensity for numbers, measures and targets. It is interesting to note that when proponents of Complexity Theory talk to people who do not have a western education such as indigenous people, they think the ideas of Complexity Theory are obvious. This is another marker of the deep rift between western science and human values.

The book has sections on how the theory of Complexity Theory can be applied to the Social World, Management, Strategy, International Development and Economics. The applications often cover real life situations and how Complexity Theory can help people understand and develop projects with more skill.

This is an important book making a very significant point about the fundamental assumptions and applications of western science. If we want a better world, we do well to heed the messages contained in this book.