Santa Fe Institute

Complexity science giant John Holland passes away at 86

Aug. 10, 2015 2:50 p.m.

John Holland, a pioneer in the study of complex adaptive systems and the leading figure in what became known as genetic algorithms, passed away Sunday morning, August 9, 2015, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. 

He was a Santa Fe Institute professor and external professor for many years and, at the time of his passing, a member of the Institute's Board of Trustees and Science Board.

Holland, 86, a longtime professor of computer science and engineering and professor of psychology at the University of Michigan (where he founded and led the Center for the Study of Complex Systems), had been interested for six decades in what are now called complex adaptive systems, starting with his early work at IBM in the 1950s on computer simulations of Hebb’s theory of cell assemblies.

He formulated genetic algorithms, classifier systems, and the Echo models as tools for studying the dynamics of such systems. 

In 1975, Holland published the groundbreaking book Adaptation in Natural and Artificial Systems, which has been cited more than 50,000 times and has been published in several languages. Intended to be the foundation for a general theory of adaptation, this book introduced genetic algorithms as a mathematical idealization that Holland used to develop his theory of schemata in adaptive systems. Later, genetic algorithms became widely used as an optimization and search method in computer science. Most optimization textbooks now include a chapter on such evolutionary algorithms, and his insights led to the field of evolutionary computation.

Holland's statistical learning system, known as the Learning Classifier System (LCS), incorporated a reinforcement learning algorithm for non-Markovian environments (the bucket brigade), which anticipated by nearly a decade the development of non-Markovian learning algorithms. His 1989 book Induction, co-written with psychologists Keith Holyoak and Richard Nisbett, summarized this work and applied his ideas about classifier systems to induction in cognitive science.

His subsequent books 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), summarized his more recent work, which helped mature and formalize the field of complex adaptive systems.

He was an early champion of interdisciplinary approaches to science and engineering, and many of his lesser-known projects anticipated important trends and advances in modern computer science. Holland trained several generations of graduate students, many of whom have taken inspiration from his interdisciplinary approach to make seminal contributions of their own.

Holland was one of the intellectual founders of SFI and was the founder of SFI’s Adaptive Computation program, started in 1990. His broad view of complex adaptive systems, computation, evolution, and cognition have become foundational concepts in complexity research worldwide.

"John is 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," says SFI President David Krakauer. "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 continues to have a lasting impact on the culture and research of SFI."

In 1994, Holland gave the first SFI Stanislaw Ulam Community Lectures in Santa Fe, an annual series that continues to this day. (Read about Holland's Ulam lectures in the Winter 1994 issue of the SFI Bulletin.)

"For those of us who knew him personally, John's enthusiasm for ideas was contagious," says SFI External Professor Stephanie Forrest, one of his PhD students at Michigan in the 1980s. "He leaves us not only with a grand intellectual legacy, but with memories of the pure joy he brought to his research, cheerful disregard of academic dogma, and a great sense of fun and mischievousness."

Among his many achievements, Holland became a MacArthur fellow in 1992 and was a fellow of the World Economic Forum.

"I have more ideas than I can ever follow up on in a lifetime, so I never worry if someone steals an idea from me." -- John Holland, 1929-2015

Read Holland's obituary in The New York Times (August 20, 2015)

Read his obituary in The Washington Post (August 19, 2015, written by SFI External Professor Scott Page)

Read his obituary in The Scientist (August 21, 2015)

Read the University of Michigan obituary (August 14, 2015)

Read the obituary on the National Center for Science Education website (August 11, 2015)

The Santa Fe Institute invites friends and colleagues of John Holland to share memories of his life and career in the comments below (moderated).

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Comments - post a comment

Greg Fisher - Aug. 10, 2015, 3:49 p.m.

It made me incredibly sad to hear the news of John’s passing.

It takes an extraordinary brain to be a pioneer, which John clearly was. His work has influenced me a great deal but, having met him in Singapore a couple of years ago, he was clearly a wonderful and inspiring person on top of all of that.

My condolences to his family and colleagues – I am sure he has left an enormous hole.

Greg Fisher

Stephanie Forrest - Aug. 10, 2015, 4:11 p.m.

John was my Ph.D. advisor, but he was so much more:

In 1979, when I walked into the Computer and Communications Dept. at the Univ. of Michigan looking to take a computer programming course, I was sent down the hall to talk with John, at that time the Assoc. Chair of the Department. 45 dizzying minutes later, I walked out with an application form for the PhD program, and the rest is
history. As I recall, our conversation ranged from Godel's Incompleteness and Undecidability results to flying gliders to some weird ideas I couldn't parse about combining genetics and computers.

Since that time, John never failed to be interested and encouraging of my ideas, and over the years he offered up great, if nonstandard, career advice. I credit most of my own limited success in the academic world to John's great example and inspiration (and, the many many letters of recommendation he wrote on my behalf).

John, we miss you!

Melanie Mitchell - Aug. 10, 2015, 4:55 p.m.

In 1984 I came to graduate school at Michigan to work with Doug Hofstadter. I didn't know anything about the CS department. It was my great luck that I ended up taking John Holland's class "Adaptation in Natural and Artificial Systems". The class completely changed my perspective on what computer science was (and should) be about. As fellow grad student Chris Langton put it, John's view was that "The proper role of computer science is the study of computation writ large across all of nature." This idea, and John's development of it during the class, was a great epiphany for me that shaped my future career and all of my thinking about science in general.

John became my co-advisor at Michigan, and did so much to support and encourage me in my work. He let me know when I had done enough for my Ph.D. (and told me it was time to get my "union card," as he called it). He recommended me for the Michigan Society of Fellows, and then invited me to join the famous BACH group during my fellowship. He also invited me to visit SFI, first for a summer, and then asked me to direct SFI's Adaptive Computation program. This led to my faculty appointment at (and hopefully life-long engagement with) the Institute.

I was fortunate to became one of John's close-knit group of former Ph.D. students, all of us, including John, meeting every now and then to talk about everyone's research projects and to speculate on big questions. Our last meeting was in Fall, 2014. John, in spite of his illness, was in great spirits, and regaled us with his new ideas and enthusiasms. In addition to his great intellect, John was perhaps the most enthusiastic, cheerful, and *lively* person I've ever known. I'll miss him greatly.

David C. Bloom - Aug. 10, 2015, 8:54 p.m.

It was a privilege to take John's brain-blistering seminar, "Analogy, Essence and Elegance," which he team-taught at the University of Michigan with his Hoosier-buddy Doug Hofstadter - and to work with Kenn Devane, applying Genetic algorithms to plumb big-data sets at MineTech. Demonstrating mind over machine, in true "John Henry" fashion, Holland came close to disproving the Second Law of Thermodynamics. He will be missed.

Le Hoang Son - Aug. 11, 2015, 2:46 a.m.

RIP Professor John Holland.

We still keep your contributions in mind forever!

Katya Vladislavleva - Aug. 11, 2015, 3:27 a.m.

I understand that it was inevitable as John was battling cancer, but the news of John’s passing still brings grave sadness to me.

I first met John in May 2008 at the Genetic Programming in Theory and Practice workshop in Ann Arbor. Then he was mourning his PhD supervisor and friend Arthur Burks who passed just a couple of days earlier. I had read John’s books, but it was the first time when I got to know his grand soul and grand personality. He cried as he was telling the story of him doing the first ever PhD in Computer Science with Arthur Burks, finding a life friend in his teacher, forming the BACH group, and trying to cope with his sensei passing.

I had a pleasure to share several dinners with John over several years and to this day they belong to the most memorable and highest intellectual and spiritual experiences of my life. Those discussions on evolution, psychology, computation, complexity, global optimization and Sponge Bob socks will stay with me forever.

My deepest condolences to the family, friends, colleagues and all whom he touched and inspired.

Thank you, John.

Fernando Diaz - Aug. 11, 2015, 8:17 a.m.

This is very sad news.

I was an political science major at Michigan who had taken a few computer science courses before asking Professor Holland if I could enroll in his small graduate seminar on complex adaptive systems. I was definitely in over my head but, eighteen years and a PhD later, I still reflect on many of the things discussed in class.

His curiosity and open-mindedness were very influential to me.

Thanks for everything, John.

Leonardo Vanneschi - Aug. 11, 2015, 8:34 a.m.

A guide and an inspiration for my work.

Rabbit - Aug. 11, 2015, 8:38 a.m.

RIP Processor John Holland. I had learned GA last course. Thanks your contribution!

Nina Fedoroff - Aug. 11, 2015, 8:45 a.m.

Sad news. He was an extraordinary individual.

Stewart Wilson - Aug. 11, 2015, 8:48 a.m.

I was inspired by John's constant thinking outside/beyond–the
mainstream. When in about 1980 I discovered John’s
first book in the basement of the MIT library, I was immediately
set on my path to classifier systems.

Here at last was somebody asking the right questions
about learning and adaptation, which I believed had
been ignored by AI, and he asked those questions precisely
and from a perspective that seemed olympian in scope.

When shortly afterwards I met John at an Ann Arbor
seminar he kindly invited me to, I was fascinated by his
unusual combination of intellectual openness and faith
in his own ideas. John's generous personality and creative
intensity indeed typified the miracle of genetics!

Peter Bentley - Aug. 11, 2015, 9:27 a.m.

John was, and I think always will be, an inspiration to us all.

If I may, I would like to share the hour-long conversation I had with John four years ago by telephone from the UK, when I interviewed him for one of my popular science books. He discusses his life, his research, and gives his views on future challenges. By listening I hope those who never had the pleasure of meeting John can learn the profound influence he had on Computer Science.

Tim Kohler - Aug. 11, 2015, 9:56 a.m.

I had met John several times over the years at the Institute, but it was not until a few years ago at a Science Board meeting that I had the opportunity to sit down with him for an extended length of time, over breakfast. We got to talking about the role of information in societies. I mentioned that in Pueblo societies, much of what people consider the most important information was closely held by small groups of initiates. "Ah," he leaned back, "that changes everything!" At that moment we were interrupted and I never got a chance to follow up (how, exactly?). Now I never will. An admirable mind, in a compassionate man.

Yann Semet - Aug. 11, 2015, 10:44 a.m.

RIP. I never was fortunate to meet Professor Holland in person but I did get an indirect glimpse of his ideas through the teachings of one his students, Professor Goldberg. Genetic Algorithms changed my life, my career and the way I see the world. I've never ceased to try to solve my problems in a natural, adaptive way ever since. Hats off to a great mind.
Yann Semet from Paris, France

David Davis - Aug. 11, 2015, 11:36 a.m.

I once thanked John for creating the world of genetic algorithms--a world I've worked in for more than 30 years. He will indeed be missed.

Manja Holland - Aug. 11, 2015, 2:03 p.m.

These wonderful sentiments, reminiscences, and stories about my father are of great comfort to me and my family. I miss my father terribly and it is indeed a tremendous loss. I am so proud of him and of all that he achieved, and it is wonderful to know that he lives on in many ways.

Pierre Collet - Aug. 11, 2015, 4 p.m.

I met John Holland once and had a discussion with him after his keynote. This was not so long ago, so he was an old man, but his mind was still full of great novel ideas. A great loss for Science.

Marianne Ringgenberg - Aug. 11, 2015, 5:10 p.m.

I echo my cousin's sentiments. Incredible to read the legacy he has left behind. Uncle John was the best of uncles and I may not understand much of what he actually taught and studied but he was always easy to speak with. I will always cherish a great discussion we had about ants! We will miss his laugh and his super goofy but wonderful sense of humor.

Erica Jen - Aug. 11, 2015, 5:16 p.m.

A huge body blow. Feels as if a vital organ of my "SFI-self" has been cut out.

John has been inspiration and motivation for so many of us. In my case, it was his work on classifier systems that got me hooked on SFI, and it is John who - more than anyone else through the years - has helped define, in style and content, what SFI can and should be. Can't think of any lasting research theme at SFI toward which he did not make a major contribution: He changed fundamentally the questions we ask about complex adaptive systems.

Really hard to let you go, John.

William Rand - Aug. 11, 2015, 5:42 p.m.

Prof. Holland was one of the major reasons I decided to go to graduate school. When I got to graduate school at Michigan he was one of the major reasons that I decided to stay. As one of Prof. Holland's students, I always admired his creativity, his insight, and his honesty. He did more than just instruct me, advise me, or mentor me, he inspired me to do more and to think broader and bigger than whatever problem I was currently working on. The quote that is at the end of this story is something that I tell my students to this day. Truly, Prof. Holland left us with way more ideas than any of us can ever fully explore in a lifetime.

Rachel Kaplan - Aug. 11, 2015, 7:09 p.m.

Memories from long ago:

Fall 1957: John Holland and Steve Kaplan, were both students the first time Jim Olds taught at UM. The overload and intensity of the physiological psychology class led the two of them to get together frequently to jointly try to make sense of the material.

June 1962 (Rachel Kaplan’s doctoral defense): John Holland, as the cognate member of the committee, commented how exciting the discussion was and it’s too bad we needed to stop. (Rachel, however, was quite eager for it to end!)

July 1962 (Steve Kaplan’s doctoral defense): John Holland, as a member of the Psychology department, was extremely helpful in countering the committee chair’s efforts to undermine the candidate’s theoretical insights.

For many years thereafter through joyous and difficult periods, John came over for dinner quite often, and the two-day apart February birthdays (John’s and Steve’s) were celebrated with many cakes. If I remember correctly, John gave Abram (our son) a kite for his 13th birthday, just a week after Manja was born on her older sister’s 16th birthday!

John touched many more lives than we’ll ever know!

Muhammad Iqbal - Aug. 11, 2015, 7:11 p.m.

I am new in evolutionary computation field. I did not meet John Holland personally. However, I admire and respect his ideas and contributions in this field.

Bill Worzel - Aug. 11, 2015, 7:24 p.m.

I was fortunate enough to be a member of the (then) PSCS reading group when John was proofing the draft of Emergence – I still have the preprint in my files. A motley collection of grad students, and non-academic hangers-on such as myself. read, discussed and commented on his work chapter-by-chapter. I remember how much life there was in his prose and how the ideas seemed to burst off the page giving rise to many children as we discussed and argued over the draft. The crowning moment was when John arrived to answer questions and faithfully took our notes with him. I have no idea whether our comments had any influence on the final product, but I remember the pride that he listened and took our ideas with him when he left.

When Carl Simon, Rick Riolo and I started the Genetic Programming Theory and Practice Workshop in 2002, John was the first keynote speaker and over the 13 years of GPTP, John often stopped in, sometimes to hear a keynote or a former grad student and he always contributed interesting ideas that opened vistas that we hadn't considered.

Sitting on my desk right now is a draft of my chapter for this year's GPTP book. In my draft, I quoted part of an Alice Fulton poem that John put into the beginning of his book Hidden Order that could be modified to describe John's vision of the world:

...[his] point of view? One
with the twister in vista glide,
and the cricket in the ditch,
with river rain, and turbines' trace:
within the latent marrow of the egg, the amber
waves – is where
[his] vantage lies.

Kenneth Zick - Aug. 12, 2015, 1:09 a.m.

John was part of my motivation to enter graduate school at Michigan, and when I started attending the complex systems reading group in 2004, I was honored that he would hang out with our tiny little group. My classmate and I couldn’t believe our good fortune…here we were having dinner with a legend, and the thousands of other grad students seemed none the wiser. Next semester, I took John’s Complexity and Emergence course, and he opened the door for me to attend the SFI Complex Systems Summer School. That in turn led to a fellowship, the freedom to pursue a PhD with John as co-advisor, and many other wonderful things. The little boosts he provided, at what may have been lever points in my life, ended up making a world of difference. I can only imagine the immense difference he made for family members, students, colleagues, and so many others he interacted with, through his encouragement, ideas, and uncommon kindliness. If you feel you have benefited from knowing John or his work, I hope you will tell someone your story, so that a fuller appreciation of his impact will emerge. Thank you John.

Tom Bersano - Aug. 12, 2015, 1:11 a.m.

John Holland was the best Ph.D. advisor I could ever have asked for.

I remember how John would smile and always had my back when I would take excessive amounts of classes per semester and would bump against some departmental restriction against that one day or on max number of simultaneous degrees another day and needed his signature or for him to vouch for my ability or overall sanity to the dean of the grad school program...

He felt like both a mentor, a good friend, a partner in crime (on overcoming bureaucratic restrictions) and a role model of what the pursuit of knowledge could be and should be.

He was a great inspiration to me and I always admired how he turned scientific questions into fascinating conversations between experts from very different fields, each contributing something from their unique perspective, and I feel fortunate to have been involved in some of those discussions and to have known him in general.

I did not have a chance to talk to him in the past 4 years and I was not aware of his condition so I was shocked and very saddened by this. I will greatly miss but always remember him and I am sure that so will the many other people who knew him or were inspired by him or his work.

Jan W. Vasbinder - Aug. 12, 2015, 1:35 a.m.

John has been a dear friend for over 30 years. I do not think he will ever really die. He will be in my heart and head all the time and will keep inspiring me. I even think he will be instrumental in new ideas springing up. But I am sad that I will never hear his wonderful laugh again.

Anna A. Zaytseva - Aug. 12, 2015, 5:17 a.m.

Although I have never met John Holland personally, I knew he was special. To me, John Holland was a genius. You don’t need to get in touch personally with a man to recognize the power of his mind and spirit – true results and strong ideas reach others easily. I dropped him a message for some months ago expressing my gratitude for his groundbreaking discoveries, but he didn’t reply. In Singapore, at the Complexity Institute this February, I heard that John Holland was about to leave us, and now this day came… I am finalizing my PhD, which is about memories of Complex Adaptive Systems in socio-technical phenomena at large and in details – a computational systems approach on mutual relationships between technologies and law, which I could generate based on his ideas. My work will be in memory of my genius John Holland, and I am thankful to him for my love to Complexity Science. Because of him, I know what I want to do, will and should do.

The mind of John Holland run on high speed: seeing, understanding and explaining emergence, blocks of complexity, bootstrapping, echo, games, memos and memory, adaptation and innovation, specialization and transdisciplinarity. Many things. He found rules of organization in natural and artificial systems, and his ideas of genetic algorithms and immunity are used for protection in machines against viruses – just like a natural immune system. I can hardly find someone, who wouldn’t be able to find implications and build upon his ideas. We also use CAS as an inspiration for Information Infrastructures at our department. Sometimes even a few lines from his works are enough to cause new dissertations, not mentioning his books and articles causing new technologies. John Holland said truth – he had too many ideas to make them all grow during his lifetime. His works are written simply and communicably, and the beautiful world by John Holland has always been welcoming.

Yes, those, who knew him personally, say he was laughing all the time. In Singapore they told me that it was sometimes difficult to distinguish whether he made jokes or was serious. This was probably his means of protection. That is why his creation – Complex Adaptive Systems, my sweet CAS – is so strong, rich, useful and fun – it could not be otherwise. John Holland proved that intelligence, sense of humor and adaptability are connected. When John Holland left us, I thought – who could be equals to him? I could not give myself an answer, and this is actually what is so deeply sad. His works made me love Complexity Science with all my heart, and "Adaptation in Natural and Artificial Systems" is my favorite. Probably, he is looking at us from aside and laughing, from happiness, when we got a higher knowledge. I believe, this knowledge confirms all his ideas. He will be with us forever – in our hearts, in our Complexity Science. I am so thankful to him for everything. The best. This is about John Holland.

Jing Han - Aug. 12, 2015, 6:24 a.m.

I am very sad about that, although I knew this day would come when I knew he was sick.

He means a lot to my life, not just the coordinator of my postdoc in SFI in 2003. I always feel I am so so lucky to have my scientific hero being my close friend for more than 10 years. The CAS idea has had great impact on my career, and I also learned a lot about life from him. He is an amazing person and great scientist.

I wish him well now in a better place ... I will miss him a lot.

Erik Goodman - Aug. 12, 2015, 9:21 a.m.

John's passing is very sad for me, and I extend my deepest sympathies to his family, friends and colleagues who enjoyed his marvelous spirit.

John completely altered my academic path when I took his adaptive systems class in 1969. Although GA's were not yet named, John had fully developed the ideas, proved a schema theorem, invented classifier systems, and thought a great deal about complex adaptive systems. His ideas were infectious, and I took his second adaptive systems course. He got me a fellowship in the Logic of Computers Group (in the Ouimet Building). Art Burks was the director and John the associate director, but John's spirit propelled us. He taught and advised this group, but also instilled by his example a sense of joy and playfulness in everything we did. Lunchtime meant playing Go, the strategy game at which John excelled and was well-ranked. He would spot us MANY stones and still beat us easily, but we learned! And Space War! Logic had two computers in the basement--an IBM 1800 and a DEC PDP-7 with a "337" display, custom-interfaced by a Logic student. The interface took 8 18-bit PDP-7 words and converted them to/from 9 16-bit IBM 1800 words, so the IBM's disk drive could serve the PDP-7. On that, Dan Frantz wrote an early video game--Space War--and many of us in Logic enhanced it. Dan was #1 at this solar orbiting, missile-based game, but #2 was John Holland. We spent many exciting hours playing Space War with John and each other. Sessions playing Consensus, the electoral college board game invented by John's student John Koza, were also popular. Holland DELIBERATELY made Logic a fun place to work.

Characteristically, John appointed his recently graduated Ph.D., Bernie Ziegler, as my Ph.D. advisor, helping Bernie launch his career. I used a GA (not named that yet, of course) to solve for 40 real parameters of a model of E. coli growth, and I'm afraid we broke some of John's early "rules" about GA's, since we didn't use a bit string and binary mutation, but rather Gaussian mutation on discretized reals. But John allowed me to run almost continuously on the IBM 1800, and after a year of checkpoint/ restart running (ONE run), I finished the Ph.D. (1972).

A goal of mine in directing two centers has been to emulate John and make them fun places for students to play and to learn from each other, as in Logic. A few years ago, John invited me to CSCS to give a seminar about our work in BEACON Center, and he was delighted when I told him how strongly I was trying to model BEACON's atmosphere on his example at Logic of Computers.

John was truly a national treasure--not only because of his ever-flowing fountain of ideas, but also because of his eagerness to share his inspiration with others. He was a giant, and we shall all be poorer for his loss.

Let's do our best to keep alive his ideas and his passion for seeing these ideas put to work in many different environments.

Philip Anderson - Aug. 12, 2015, 9:51 a.m.

The loss of John is deeply saddening. His presence, his ideas, and his "legacies"--Melanie, Steph and others--were absolutely crucial to our development as an institution in those first formative years. I had not known him prior to the early SFI workshops, but I came to look forward to reconnecting with the group and with John every time I returned for my all too brief visits--he was a vital part of the refreshing atmosphere we breathed in those exciting times. And I, too, succumbed to the siren song of the CAS. He also was an important link to the earlier days of complexity--the BACH group and other pioneers. And don't forget--he was a lovable human being.

Enrique Canessa - Aug. 12, 2015, 1:21 p.m.

Comments posted earlier really describe John Holland’s personal and intellectual characteristics, so it is difficult to add something new! Although I never took a course with him, during my PhD program at U of M, I had the opportunity to attend several of his enlightening talks and work with some of his closest collaborators. I was so thrilled by his work on CAS and GA, that until today, I use those concepts and tools in my own research. Although only that fact merits a thank you to John, above all I would like to thank John for his kindness and friendliness! John is a role-model to follow, and thus, he will live forever in our hearts and minds!

Rik Belew - Aug. 12, 2015, 2:48 p.m.

Warm recollections, in no particular order:

John exuberantly pointing to a GA population, as hex code on a Commodore64, along with his mods to the OS kernel!

His approach to teaching: Present the same important material, whatever the department happens to be calling the class

His exuberance after having just heard about Martingales

His seminars, then tiny ICGA meetings, then SFI workshops, where students, faculty, Nobel Laureates, whomever, followed ideas wherever they lead

His stories from poker parties with all the Univ. Michigan power people

His instinct for good questions, and impatience with camping ("knob-twiddling") on old answers

His compassion for people trying to be scientists

How much he loved his family

His impatience with the academic measurement game

His ENIAC experience with Art Burks totally broke his notions of software IP

His consistent, pioneering hair style, long before Ted Koppel popularized it

John satisfied the first rule of inheritance: He was fortunate to have been around great minds during an intellectual moment when biology and computation were very close, and he imparted both the message and the excitement to his students.

Mitch Waldrop - Aug. 12, 2015, 3:05 p.m.

Words fail; this is the saddest of news. Some scientist are brilliant because they ask the right questions. John was one of a handful of human beings who are blessed with brilliance of a higher order: in his work on adaptation, evolutionary algorithms and so much more, where others saw nothing, he recognised that there were fruitful questions to be asked. You would hear one of John's insights, slap your forehead, and say 'of course!' -- but you would never think such thoughts by yourself.

John was also uncommonly generous with his ideas, his time, his praise and his friendship. He always made you feel that you were the one he'd been waiting to talk to. And a conversation with John always left you feeling smarter.

Beth Westerdale Kubitskey - Aug. 12, 2015, 7:01 p.m.

We all have mentors. They come from family, academic advisors, colleagues..and happenstance. John was my happenstance mentor. John was my uncle's PhD advisor in the 60s. When I started at UM in the early 80s as an undergrad, my grandmother said "go look up John," and I did. We would have lunch and coffee. I earned my BS in chemistry and these meetings ebbed and flowed as I started my family. Then I went back for my PhD in education. I treasured those lunches and coffees. One of the many gifts John had...he made me feel like he treasured those meetings, too. One story stands out. He asked me to share what I did in the summer. I talked about camping with my family, told stories of the children etc. He asked probing question, and was very interested. Then I asked "what did you do this summer, and he said he and a friend (who he named, but I forget) were working on a theory of the acquisition of language. The beauty -- he thought my vacation was just as interesting. I think his legacy with me is a commitment to curiosity. That is what he wanted to talk about at our next coffee that never happened. I will remain curious.

Nguyen Xuan Hoai - Aug. 13, 2015, 3:15 a.m.

I still remember the last time I saw John was at GECCO'2009, I heard some voice in the room "he must have been happy to see the growth of his (academic) children, grand children, grand grand children, ..." such a great and influential researcher, RIP Prof. Holland!

Susan Fitzpatrick - Aug. 13, 2015, 10:10 a.m.

All of us at JSMF are saddened by this news - John was such an important part of our program supporting complex systems science beginning with our special initiative during the Centennial Fellows program and then on through our Studying Complex Systems research grants. His sage advise and good humor made our advisory panel deliberations and grantee meetings an absolute delight for the many years he remained involved. His was a rare, creative, brilliant mind and he will be much missed.

Dorothy (Bowers) Sell - Aug. 13, 2015, 11:31 a.m.

I haven't seen John in too many years but have very fond memories of our family visiting the lake and the scary ride John to us on. Very fast driver!! My sincerest sympathy to his sweetheart of a sister and to all of his family. Memories never fade.

DaLee (Bowers) Taylor - Aug. 13, 2015, 7:11 p.m.

Great memories visiting you and your family at Clear Lake. The time my sisters and I tied your shoe laces tightly together and all laughed as you spent all that time uniting them, laughing with us. Know he is laughing as he reads this in heaven. Just wish we had spent more time together.

Tom Munnecke - Aug. 14, 2015, 10:23 a.m.

My condolences to the family...@Manja Holland, although I never met your father, his work deeply influenced my thinking. And although I have only visited SFI a few times, it too has been an influence on how I see the world (and, presumably, how I've influenced others to see their world). One can never fully appreciate how the threads of ones thoughts and actions propagate into the future, but be assured that your father's work has made a big difference in the world, beyond the obvious.

Chris Langton - Aug. 20, 2015, 7:39 a.m.

John the Father

John Holland's gone
And we have lost
Another one
Of those who crossed
This with that
And moved the world.

But do not dwell
too long in grief!
Let me tell you
My belief:
Though he himself has crossed the portal,
John Holland's schema are immortal!

Phillip Trotter - Aug. 20, 2015, 4:43 p.m.

25+ years ago I was a young researcher at a small robotics lab after dropping out of Uni. Relatively ignorant of time zone differences I phoned the Santa Fe institute from the UK and George Cowan was kind enough to answer, listen to my questions, arrange to send me some papers and told me to contact John Holland. I never expected a reply - however John not only listened but replied with recommendations and introductions. Over the years John was kind enough to answer phone calls and emails and offer insight and advise and support. His ideas were contagious and he certainly changed how many people see computer science and the universe around us. For me I will always cherish how he generously offered support and encouragement to someone he had not met and in doing so significantly changed the direction of my life.

Cedric Notredame - Aug. 22, 2015, 8:03 a.m.

John Holland, whom I never met personally, has been a very strong influence on my work on biological sequences multiple sequence alignment, especially the SAGA algorithm that borrows many – most – of his ideas on GA in order to apply them to the multiple alignment of evolutionarily related biological sequences, a very important problem in biology. This framework proved powerful enough to allow the exploration of novel objective functions for evolutionary based multiple sequence alignments. One of them turned out to be the consistency based objective function that we later implemented in a dedicated heuristic and that eventually lead to a new generation of multiple sequence aligners. This work is almost 20 years old and still receives a significant number of citations – a clear tribute to the strength and versatility of the ideas initiated by John. I owe him a lot - like so many of us.

Alison (Holland) Butler - Sept. 6, 2015, 10:55 a.m.

It will soon be a month since my dad passed away. It seems like months since it happened, as I feel like I'm walking through mud. It also feels like it never happened, as I can't believe that he was actually mortal. I do believe he was with us as long as he possibly could be and didn't so much give up, but made a decision.

It's wonderfully interesting to read so many stories. My father clearly had many, many children beyond my two sisters and myself. My memories and experiences were vastly different than his scientific children's. My background is fine art (took after my mother) and yet my dad's interests and expertise still applied to my passion. He was a renaissance dad--but let's be crystal clear about one thing--he was a TERRIBLE driving instructor. You, his scientific children, dodged that bullet.

There was a lovely comment made by Tom Westerdale"s niece about remaining curious. I had a sweet conversation with my dad, some months ago, about my 11 year old daughter. The gist of the conversation was how pleased he was with her "bright-eyed curiosity" of many things. He told me, "...that curiosity will serve her well and bring her success." His child-like curiosity served him very well.

I hope I can always conger up the sound of his laughter.

Raven and Michael Scheiwe - Sept. 8, 2015, 11:59 a.m.

We met John through his daughter, Manja, a teen at the time but demonstrating a quiet yet robust intellectual curiosity tempered with kindness and humor...much like her parents. John and Maurita registered Manja in Headwaters Environmental Stations' Field Ornithology Course at MTU's Summer Youth Programs in Houghton MI, in the Upper Peninsula of MI. in 1990. Initially, John and Maurita corresponded via letters then a couple years later, we'd pick Manja up at their house in Ann Arbor on route to Pt. Pelee Provincial Park, Ontario, CA (birding hot spot) to witness the spring migration of birds. John greeted us with respect...always curious and interested in our work as naturalists/environmental educators. In later years, we had the privilege of spending time with John and Maurita at their Lake House in Gulliver. There, we saw the generous father, the loving partner, and the scientific genius...relaxed in the sweet embrace of water and forest. He made ordinary people feel extraordinary! We'll miss his presence in the world! However, we are convinced his spirit lives on in all who knew him and knew of him.

Muaz Niazi - Sept. 25, 2015, 9:44 p.m.

John Holland's work has been an inspiration and paved the way for my research and doctoral thesis. He will be greatly missed indeed.

Gretchen Holland Sleamon - Sept. 28, 2015, 8:22 a.m.

We just held a celebration of our dad's life at the UM botanical Gardens this weekend. It one of his favorite place to take us as kids. This place was, to us, a tropical haven in the winter (inside the conservatory), a place to hike and see the fist signs of spring, a splash in the streams to cool us off in summer, and a celebration of colorful fall leaves. The weather was wonderful: warm, sunny, breezy........a perfect fall day. I think he would have enjoyed this celebration himself, had he been there in person. I know he was there in everyone's heart who attended, in the lovely stories shared among friends and family, and most of all in the laughter shared by those close to him.

His passing has left a void that can never be filled, but the memories I have of my life time with him will be with me forever. My dad gave me optimism, love for exploration and adventure, curiosity of the unknown, and his quirky sense of humor. His generous smile and big laugh will always be one of my greatest treasures.

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