Image by World Economic Forum/CC Licensed
Image by World Economic Forum/CC Licensed

Born on September 15, 1929, in New York, New York, Murray Gell-Mann had a passion for learning that was seemingly inborn and insatiable. Son of Austrian-Hungarian immigrants, Murray and his brother, Ben, frequently visited museums and zoos, and explored their urban environment in an endless quest for knowledge. The passion for education was a family tradition, as Murray’s father, Arthur Gell-Mann, established the Arthur Gell-Mann School of Languages, where he taught other immigrants to speak English. Arthur urged Murray to study all subjects, especially physical science and mathematics–two subjects that Murray would later revolutionize with his brilliant ideas. Today, Murray Gell-Mann is Professor and Co-Chairman of the Science Board of the Santa Fe Institute (SFI). He has also held distinguished positions at CalTech and the University of Southern California. His book, The Quark and the Jaguar: Adventures in the Simple and the Complex, deals with Complex Adaptive Systems (see below), which are the focus of study at SFI. Gell-Mann’s esteemed position at SFI is the result of his expertise in physics as well as cultural and linguistic studies. In 1969, Gell-Mann received the Nobel Prize in Physics for his research on elementary particles. He invented the “Eightfold Way” theory that attempted to harmonize over 100 chaotic subatomic particles within the nucleus of an atom. He discovered the most elementary particle known to science and named it the “quark”. Using his data about quarks, Gell-Mann formed theories about the properties within an atom that keep the nucleus bound together. Some of the theories and ideas he developed or helped develop include strangeness, current algebra, sum rules, the sigma model of pions, quantum chronodynamics, the sea-saw theory of neutrino masses and string theory.

Outside of the research realm, Murray Gell-Mann has a daughter, Elizabeth Sarah; a son, Nicholas Webster; and a stepson, Nicholas Southwick Levis. Gell-Mann was widowed in 1981, when his first wife, J. Margaret Dow, passed away. In 1992, he married his second wife, Marcia Southwick.

Complex Adaptive Systems

In his book, The Quark and the Jaguar: Adventures in the Simple and the Complex, Gell-Mann writes,

A complex adaptive system acquires information about its environment and its own interaction with that environment, identifying regularities in that information, condensing those regularities into a kind of “schema”, or model, and acting in the real world on the basis of that schema. (Gell-Mann 17)

The complex adaptive system (CAS), as Gell-Mann describes it, is one that co-evolves with its environment. Although humans are an example of a complex adaptive system, not all CAS’s are conscious beings. In fact, Gell-Mann examines different disciplines to find links between simple and complex systems, links which help to define how our world functions. He combines scientific principles of evolution, competition, and adaptation, with spiritual beliefs such as superstition, cultural identity, cognitive processes such as learning a language, and even economic markets. Regarding this analysis of ostensibly unrelated fields of study, Gell-Mann writes,

Research on the science of simplicity and complexity….naturally includes testing out the meaning of the simple and the complex, but also the similarities and the differences among complex adaptive systems, functioning in  such diverse processes as the origin of life on Earth, biological evolution, the behavior of organisms in ecological systems, the operation of the mammalian immune system, learning and thinking in animals (including human beings), the evolution of human societies, the behavior of investors in financial markets, and the use of computer software and/or hardware designed to evolve strategies or to make predictions based on  past observations (Gell-Mann 17).

Cultural and Linguistic Diversity

Gell-Mann relates the laws of natural selection and genetic diversity to cultural and linguistic phenomena. He combines these ideas and labels the amalgam “cultural DNA” (a term borrowed from Hazel Henderson) (292). Gell-Mann writes,

Using…languages, human societies exhibit group learning (or group adaptation or cultural evolution) to a much greater degree that troops of other primates, packs of wild dogs, or flocks of birds. Such collective behavior can be analyzed to some extent by reducing it to the level of individuals acting as complex adaptive systems … In particular, simple-minded reduction to psychology may not sufficiently stress the fact that, besides the general characteristics of individual human beings, additional information is present in the system, including the specific traditions, customs, laws, and myths of the group . . . all of these can be regarded as “cultural DNA”. They encapsulate the shared experience of many generations and comprise the schemata for the society, which itself functions as a complex adaptive system. (292)

Essentially, Gell-Mann’s role as a physicist demands that he break down substances and see similarities between their simple and complex forms. Just like quarks compose atoms, which compose molecules, which compose, elements, etc., so do individuals compose communities, which compose societies, etc.  Gell-Mann applies his scientific method to show how cultures act as complex adaptive systems that evolve depending on which customs, traditions, words, and superstitions its individuals bequeath to their children. The individual members of society are complex adaptive systems in their own right, because people choose which aspects of cultural DNA they will teach their children. Gell-Mann recognizes that cultural and linguistic diversity are precious systems which are in constant struggle for survival. As he states,

Just as it is crazy to squander in a few decades much of the rich biological diversity that has evolved over billions of years, so it is equally crazy to permit the disappearance of much of human cultural diversity, which has evolved in a somewhat analogous way over many tens of thousands of years. (338)

Related Themes in Literature: Salman Rushdie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh

The ideas which Murray Gell-Mann presents concerning cultural and linguistic diversity and evolution are a primary theme in Salman Rushdie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh. The protagonist, the Moor, could be considered a complex adaptive system who relates the traditions, beliefs, language, etc. of his ancestors. By telling the story, the Moor (and essentially, Rushdie) is working to preserve his native Indian heritage by sharing some of the history and values that are synonymous with his native country. Throughout the story, conflicts arise between different cultures (Indian/British), different families (Da Gama/Zogoiby), and different people, who all work to cultivate an individual identity that is compatible with their respective families, country, and heritage. The complex individuals all interact to create a complex adaptive society in which the cultural and ideological values are constantly evolving.  Also reminiscent of Gell-Mann’s ideas is Rushdie’s use of language. Rushdie often switches back and forth between his native language and English, sometimes creating new words such as “thinkofy”. The ideas presented by Rushdie can be illuminated by looking at them in a scientific context and recognizing culture, language, and thought as evolving systems which survive depending on the individuals who perpetuate them (see also Wilson Harris).

Works Cited

  • Gell-Mann, Murray. The Quark and the Jaguar: Adventures in the Simple and the Complex. Great Britain: Little, Brown, and Company. 1994.
  • Rushdie, Salman. The Moor’s Last Sigh. New York: Vintage Books. 1995.

Additional Works and Sites


Author: Jordan Wynn, Spring 1999
Last edited: October 2017

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