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In Context #6 (Fall, 2001, pp. 15-19); copyright 2001 by The Nature Institute

The Lure of Complexity
Stephen L. Talbott

In April, 1999, the prestigious journal, Science, informed its readers that "shortfalls in reductionism are increasingly apparent .... The much-used axiom that scientists 'know more and more about less and less' may have an element of truth .... Another problem is oversimplification. Witness the 'gene-for' syndrome (as in 'gene for intelligence' or 'gene for sexual preference'), in which genes that contribute to human traits are instead taken to specify that trait" (Gallagher and Appenzeller 1999, p. 79).

These remarks occur in a special issue of Science devoted to complex systems. A news article in that issue carries the point about genes further:

"The expression of individual genes is not being regulated by one, two, or five proteins but by dozens," says Shirley Tilghman, a molecular biologist at Princeton University. Some regulate specific genes; others work more broadly. Some sit on DNA all the time, while others bind temporarily. "The complexity is becoming mind numbing," says Tilghman.
"When we get to a certain network complexity," adds Adam Arkin, a physical chemist at Lawrence Berkeley Natio