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John Henry Holland: rogue scientist

Complex adaptive systems and genetic algorithms “wizard” changed the way we think.| Medium Read

John Holland’s good friend, author and poet Alice Fulton, calls Holland a kind of wizard, no less magical than Tolkien’s Gandalf. His oldest daughter says, “He’s just my goofy dad.”

John Henry Holland was born in 1929 in Fort Wayne, Indiana, grew up in small midwestern towns and summered at a house his parents built on Clear Lake in northeastern Indiana. Young John studied hard during the school year, was a boy scout (indeed, an Eagle Scout), and graduated from Van Wert High School with a full scholarship to M.I.T.

John’s sister, Shirley Holland Ringgenberg, remembers her high school chemistry and physics teacher telling her, “Oh, you’re John Holland’s sister, we’ll be expecting big things from you.” Shirley says she couldn’t wait for her big brother–who was majoring in nuclear physics at M.I.T– to come home for Christmas so that he could “explain it all to me.”

EnlargePortrait of John Henry Holland
IMAGE:  Portrait of John Henry Holland.

Long before it became a trend, Holland was an interdisciplinary academic, which suited well his high-spirited and unconventional personality. Following his undergraduate degree in physics from M.I.T. in 1950, Holland intended to study philosophy at Michigan but instead received an M.A. in mathematics and became a student of Arthur Burks – one of the designers and builders of the iconic ENIAC, the first all-purpose electronic digital computer. In 1959 Holland would earn the first-ever Ph.D. in computer science from the University of Michigan, where he subsequently served for decades as a professor of psychology and of electrical engineering and computer science.

Discovery to Craze to Enduring Model
Holland was a pioneer – perhaps even a “wizard’– in the study of complex adaptive systems. He became the leading figure in what came to be known as genetic algorithms, which provided a framework within which scientists could derive analytic results that have deepened our understanding of how evolution works.

That framework led, in turn, to new fields in evolutionary computation and learning classifier systems. If-then rules evolve using a genetic algorithm in a classifier system, which were capable of learning complex tasks, such as playing checkers or operating a pipeline. Suddenly, whole communities of people around the world were interested in and excited about applying Holland’s algorithmic models to everything from product design to economies to the brain.

“Although there had been previous research on genetic algorithms and related evolutionary algorithms, John’s book (“Adaptation in Natural and Artificial Systems,” 1975) was a turning point in the field,” says John F. Laird, the John L. Tishman Professor of Engineering and professor of electrical engineering and computer science at Michigan Engineering who now works on issues relating to artificial intelligence. “It marked the beginning of a sustained body of research on genetic algorithms that has continued for over 40 years.”

Holland opened a new world of human knowledge by harnessing nature’s most potent force – evolution – and merging it with humankind’s most potent tool – mathematics – and then coding evolution into a machine. Santa Fe Institute president David Krakauer said that Holland was “unique in that he took ideas from evolutionary biology in order to transform search and optimization in computer science. Then he took what he discovered in computer science and allowed us to rethink evolutionary dynamics.”

EnlargeGroup picture of the founding researchers as the Bach Group
IMAGE:  The founding members of the now-legendary group of researchers known as the BACH Group. The group began meeting in the 1980s and included researchers from various disciplines who shared an interest in complex adaptive systems of every kind. The original members were Arthur Burks, Bob Axelrod, Michael Cohen and John Holland (BACH). Over the years, the group also included: William Hamilton (Biology), Douglas Hofstadter (Cognitive Science), Reiko Tanese (Cognitive Science), Michael Savageau (Microbiology), and Melanie Mitchell (Cognitive Science and Computer Science). “All pioneers in computing education,” says former University of Michigan president James Duderstadt.

“In the 1990s, Holland helped to define the field of complex systems, characterizing both its boundaries and frontiers,” wrote Scott Page, a University of Michigan professor of complex systems, political science and economics. Page also is an external faculty member at the Santa Fe Institute, where Holland, too, was an external professor and later a member of the Institute’s board of trustees and science board. “John continued to play with ideas in his uniquely joyful, mischievous, generous way.” In 1992, at age 63, Holland was named a MacArthur Fellow.

After his groundbreaking “Adaptation” book, Holland wrote four more: Hidden Order: How Adaptation Builds Complexity (1995), Emergence: From Chaos to Order (1998), Signals and Boundaries: Building Blocks for Complex Adaptive Systems (2012), and Complexity: A Very Short Introduction (2014).

Family Man and Friend
One book – perhaps most treasured by his family – written about John, is called “Aha… That is Interesting! John H. Holland, 85 Years Young.” It was published and given to him at his 85th birthday, and is filled with touching narratives and remembrances – some intimate, some funny – by his daughters, sister, colleagues and friends.

Edited by John’s good friend and colleague Jan Vasbinder, director of the complexity program at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, its contributors include other Michigan greats, including Paul Courant, Robert Axelrod, Carl Simon and others who worked with Holland in the BACH Group, and his dear friend, poet Alice Fulton.

Fulton wrote a poem for the book based on Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” Hers is called, “Thirteen Ways of Looking At John Holland.” She and John met at a Michigan Society of Fellows lunch.

EnlargeJohn Henry Holland's book cover
IMAGE:  

Holland, Fulton says, lived on 16 acres in a house on the Huron River, up a hill that was treacherous to drive in the winter. She and John would meet and talk for hours “about everything” in his second floor study over green tea.

“We talked about fiction, sometimes, how the narrative was created. I thought of him as a kind of wizard. A kind of oracle. On his hilltop. Just unfurling the future, telling us what could happen. Describing the mysteries we had not yet figured out. And he was getting there. It was kind of magical.”

Paul Courant, one of Holland’s long-time poker playing friends and a professor of economics and information, wrote in the “Aha” book about his friend’s “remarkable skill at the poker table that also extends to the seminar room and the Santa Fe Institute…. Whatever John is doing, he is up to something, only you don’t always know exactly what. In the seminar room, you get to wait and see, and there is likely an “aha” or two at the end of the discussion. At the poker table, the knowledge that John is up to something strikes fear into the hearts of men.”

Holland loved spending time with his family. His daughter, Manja, writes, “Very few people are fortunate enough to possess or maintain the level of wonder and curiosity my dad has maintained throughout his life. It is this endless curiosity that is part of what makes my dad a great scientist, but it is also a key part of what makes him such a beloved grandfather.”

“John Holland gave us a new way to solve problems and changed how many of us think,” wrote Page. All the while, he never lost his boyish curiosity, his sense of play, and passion for learning.

John Henry Holland passed away on August 9, 2015 in his Ann Arbor hilltop house.

Portrait of John Henry Holland
Group picture of the founding researchers as the Bach Group
John Henry Holland's book cover
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