Linked: How Everything is Connected to Everything Else and What it Means for Business, Science, and Everyday Life.
Reductionism was the driving force behind much of the twentieth century’s scientific research. To comprehend nature, it tells us, we first must decipher its components. The assumption is that once we understand the parts, it will be easy to grasp the whole. Divide and conquer; the devil is in the details. Therefore, for decades we have been forced to see the world through its constituents. We have been trained to study atoms and superstrings to understand the universe; molecules to comprehend life; individual genes to understand complex human behavior; prophets to see the origins of fads and religions.
Now we are close to knowing just about everything there is to know about the pieces. But we are as far as we have ever been from understanding nature as a whole. Indeed, the reassembly turned out to be much harder than scientists anticipated. The reason is simple: Riding reductionism, we run into the hard wall of complexity. We have learned that nature is not a well-designed puzzle with only one way to put it back together. In complex systems the components can fit in so many different ways that it would take billions of years for us to try them all. Yet nature assembles the pieces with a grace and precision honed over millions of years. It does so by exploiting the allencompassing laws of self-organization, whose roots are still largely a mystery to us.