In this theme we aim to use the emergent laws of natural science to grasp the complex laws of society — in particular, to deploy the growing collection of theories, models, and methods of complexity science to analyze the evolution, cognition, and future of regulatory and legal mechanisms. 

The written records of the law represent an incredibly rich tapestry of evolving rules governing the ordered structures in society.  The law is, therefore, an ideal data-rich subject for quantitative inquiry. By studying the rules of law, it is hoped that we shall gain deeper insights into the evolution of culture itself and its many manifestations in the forms of economic life, institutional organization, national sovereignty and defense, technological innovation and adoption, social life, and patterns and trends of historical change.

The elaborate laws governing society are often contrasted with the simple laws of natural science. Scientific laws seek to account for sources of order in nature.  The mathematician Simon Laplace observed: “the simplicity of nature is not to be measured by that of our conceptions. Infinitely varied in its effects, nature is simple only in its causes, and its economy consists in producing a great number of phenomena, often very complicated, by means of a small number of general laws.” Scientific laws are to be distinguished from their effects, and these laws, generally unlike the law codes governing society, are invariably simple and yet remain capable of generat-ing vast complexity.

Complex systems are networks of adaptive agents. These include neurons in the brain, individuals in social groups, traders or companies in the economy, species in food webs, and the populations of cities. In each of these examples, individual decision-makers engage in communication and exchange and are all limited by their access to resources. Laws occupy a special place in social systems as they regulate complex systems by imposing constraints and incentives on networks of interactions and the reward functions directing the behavior of adaptive agents. It is therefore of fundamental interest to ask questions about learning, network structure, and scaling when discussing the law.

The law, like any other complex system, arises through a process of evolution. This fact implies at least three properties: a mechanism of transmission, a mechanism of change, and a mechanism of selection or sorting. In the biological setting, these same properties are often described as inheritance, mutation, and selection.

By studying the processes that generate systems of law, and their patterns of behavior, we shall better understand how existing laws can be extended to exceptional new circumstances, and, ultimately, regulate for social coordination and fairness in an age of accelerating technological change. 


This four-year research theme is sponsored by SFI Trustee Andrew Feldstein.