Obituary: John Henry Holland


John Henry Holland, University of Michigan professor of psychology, computer science and complex systems, died peacefully Aug. 9 at the age of 86.

Holland was the first U-M Ph.D. in computer science (1959). He soon became one of the first professors in the U-M Department of Computer and Communication Science.

Holland is best known for his role as a founding father of the complex systems approach. In particular, he developed genetic algorithms and learning classifier systems. These foundational building blocks of an evolutionary approach to optimization are now included in all texts on optimization and programming.

As described in Mitchell Waldrop’s book “Complexity,” in the mid-1980s John joined a number of Nobel laureates in physics and economics to found the Santa Fe Institute,  the premier institution devoted to the study of complex systems. Up to his death, Holland was an external professor and member of the executive committee of the board of trustees at SFI. 

Around 1990 Holland played a major role in the founding of the U-M Center for the Study of Complex Systems. His reputation was the drawing card for many of CSCS’s new faculty.

In 1993, Holland received U-M’s highest award for senior faculty, the Russell Lectureship. A year earlier, he was awarded a prestigious MacArthur “genius award.”

At U-M he was an energetic mentor of students — undergraduate and graduate — and of young faculty. Up to a year ago, he regularly taught an undergraduate introduction to complex systems, and in the last three years, in his mid-80s, published two books: “Signals and Boundaries” and “Complexity: A Very Short Introduction.” These join his earlier books in shaping the study of complex systems, including “Adaptation in Natural and Artificial Systems” (1975), “Hidden Order” (1995), and “Emergence: From Chaos to Order” (1998).

SFI President David Krakauer writes: “John (was) rather unique in that he took ideas from evolutionary biology in order to transform search and optimization in computer science, and then he took what he discovered in computer science and allowed us to rethink evolutionary dynamics. This kind of rigorous translation between two communities of thought is a characteristic of very deep minds. And John’s ideas at the interface of the disciplines continue to have a lasting impact on the culture and research of SFI.”

His colleagues around the world will miss the inspiration and creativity that was his hallmark and the energetic guidance and mentorship.

— Submitted by Carl Simon, professor of mathematics, economics, complex systems and public policy


  1. Frank Benford
    on August 17, 2015 at 12:53 am

    I was an undergraduate math student at Michigan from 1964 to 1967. I took several courses in “communication science,” including one taught by John Holland. It was really interesting material, and has had a lasting impact on my intellectual development. I own 3 of John’s books and have his autograph on one. It’s a cliché, but John was truly “a gentleman and a scholar.”

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