Dr. Fred Bortzbooks

Review of The Social Atom: Why the Rich Get Richer, Cheaters Get Caught, and Your Neighbor Usually Looks Like You

by Mark Buchanan

(Bloomsbury, $24.95, 256 pages, June, 2007)

Reviewed by Dr. Fred Bortz

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British author Mark Buchanan, like most physicists, has an unusual view of complexity. Rather than assuming that a complex result has a complex cause, he recognizes that simple objects interacting through a simple set of rules can produce a rich array of arrangements and events.

Physicists understand and describe phenomena from the subatomic to the cosmic on the basis of a few straightforward ("to them," you say) formulas and some rather brash simplifications. Neglect all the details you know about the Sun, the planets, and their moons. Simply consider them point masses, unleash Newton's laws of motion and gravity, tweaked with Einstein's general theory of relativity, and you can predict their future positions for millennia.

And if that approach works for everything from atoms to galactic clusters, it should also work for people. It's all a matter of understanding the patterns.

That is Mr. Buchanan's central assertion in The Social Atom. For the purpose of sociological analysis, treat people as atoms-units with certain simple, well-defined properties and modes of interaction-and you will soon discover, as the subtitle says, "Why the Rich Get Richer, Cheaters Get Caught, and Your Neighbor Usually Looks Like You."

"There's an old way of thinking that says the social world is complicated because people are complicated....," Mr. Buchanan writes. "People are sometimes complicated and hard to understand, but that's not the problem."

Physicists are used to analyzing "many-body" problems, such as determining the properties of an alloy by identifying critical parameters in the interaction between different kinds of atoms while ignoring complicating details.

The Social Atom provides readers with an entertaining ride while applying similar thinking to the behavior of human social interactions. The fun begins with an example of why economic theory fails when it treats human decision-making as rational. Yes, individuals can be rational, but humans evolved in an environment where survival depends on instinctive responses.

We are first and foremost adaptive learners, skilled imitators, and inherently cooperative. As Mr. Buchanan puts it, "We're part of a human race with a long evolutionary history, hunter-gatherers dressed in modern clothes, instinctual thinkers with weak calculating machines tacked on."

By the book's end, readers have discovered that models based on those simple traits can produce fascinating insights into complex social phenomena. As the author puts it: "Get a rough picture of the social atom, and of how people interact, then use anything you have, mathematics, the computer, whatever, to learn the kinds of patterns likely to emerge and what their consequences might be."

Complex human behaviors are in many ways simpler, yet more fascinating, than social scientists ever imagined.

Physicist Fred Bortz's most recent book is Physics: Decade by Decade in the Facts On File Twentieth-Century Science reference set.