Network morphospace

J R Soc Interface. 2015 Feb 6;12(103):20140881. doi: 10.1098/rsif.2014.0881.


The structure of complex networks has attracted much attention in recent years. It has been noted that many real-world examples of networked systems share a set of common architectural features. This raises important questions about their origin, for example whether such network attributes reflect common design principles or constraints imposed by selectional forces that have shaped the evolution of network topology. Is it possible to place the many patterns and forms of complex networks into a common space that reveals their relations, and what are the main rules and driving forces that determine which positions in such a space are occupied by systems that have actually evolved? We suggest that these questions can be addressed by combining concepts from two currently relatively unconnected fields. One is theoretical morphology, which has conceptualized the relations between morphological traits defined by mathematical models of biological form. The second is network science, which provides numerous quantitative tools to measure and classify different patterns of local and global network architecture across disparate types of systems. Here, we explore a new theoretical concept that lies at the intersection between both fields, the 'network morphospace'. Defined by axes that represent specific network traits, each point within such a space represents a location occupied by networks that share a set of common 'morphological' characteristics related to aspects of their connectivity. Mapping a network morphospace reveals the extent to which the space is filled by existing networks, thus allowing a distinction between actual and impossible designs and highlighting the generative potential of rules and constraints that pervade the evolution of complex systems.

Keywords: Pareto optimality; brain connectivity; complexity; evolution; graph theory.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Models, Theoretical*