Adaptive computation: The multidisciplinary legacy of John H. Holland

Stephanie Forrest, Melanie Mitchell

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

11 Scopus citations


IN AUGUST 2015, Professor John H. Holland passed away in Ann Arbor, MI, where he had served on the University of Michigan faculty for more than 50 years. John, as he was known universally to his colleagues and students, leaves behind a long legacy of intellectual achievements. As a descendant of the cybernetics era, he was influenced by the work of John von Neumann, Norbert Wiener, W. Ross Ashby, and Alan Turing, all of whom viewed computation as a broad, interdisciplinary enterprise. Holland thus became an early proponent of interdisciplinary approaches to computer science and an active evangelist of what is now called computational thinking, reaching out enthusiastically to psychologists, economists, physicists, linguists, philosophers, and pretty much anyone he came in contact with. As a result, even though he received what was arguably one of the world's first computer science Ph.D. degrees in 1959,23 his contributions are sometimes better known outside computer science than within. Holland is best known for his invention of genetic algorithms (GAs), a family of search and optimization methods inspired by biological evolution. Since their invention in the 1960s, GAs have inspired many related methods and led to the thriving field of evolutionary computation, with widespread scientific and commercial applications. Although the mechanisms and applications of GAs are well known, they were only one offshoot of Holland's broader motivation-to develop a general theory of adaptation in complex systems. Here, we consider this larger framework, sketching the recurring themes that were central to Holland's theory of adaptive systems: discovery and dynamics in adaptive search; internal models and prediction; exploratory modeling; and universal properties of complex adaptive systems.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)58-63
Number of pages6
JournalCommunications of the ACM
Issue number8
StatePublished - Aug 2016
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Computer Science


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