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At Home in the Universe: The Search for the Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity [Paperback]

by Stuart Kauffman
4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (71 customer reviews)

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Book Description

November 21, 1996 0195111303 978-0195111309 Reprint
A major scientific revolution has begun, a new paradigm that rivals Darwin's theory in importance. At its heart is the discovery of the order that lies deep within the most complex of systems, from the origin of life, to the workings of giant corporations, to the rise and fall of great civilizations. And more than anyone else, this revolution is the work of one man, Stuart Kauffman, a MacArthur Fellow and visionary pioneer of the new science of complexity. Now, in At Home in the Universe, Kauffman brilliantly weaves together the excitement of intellectual discovery and a fertile mix of insights to give the general reader a fascinating look at this new science--and at the forces for order that lie at the edge of chaos.
We all know of instances of spontaneous order in nature--an oil droplet in water forms a sphere, snowflakes have a six-fold symmetry. What we are only now discovering, Kauffman says, is that the range of spontaneous order is enormously greater than we had supposed. Indeed, self-organization is a great undiscovered principle of nature. But how does this spontaneous order arise? Kauffman contends that complexity itself triggers self-organization, or what he calls "order for free," that if enough different molecules pass a certain threshold of complexity, they begin to self-organize into a new entity--a living cell. Kauffman uses the analogy of a thousand buttons on a rug--join two buttons randomly with thread, then another two, and so on. At first, you have isolated pairs; later, small clusters; but suddenly at around the 500th repetition, a remarkable transformation occurs--much like the phase transition when water abruptly turns to ice--and the buttons link up in one giant network. Likewise, life may have originated when the mix of different molecules in the primordial soup passed a certain level of complexity and self-organized into living entities (if so, then life is not a highly improbable chance event, but almost inevitable). Kauffman uses the basic insight of "order for free" to illuminate a staggering range of phenomena. We see how a single-celled embryo can grow to a highly complex organism with over two hundred different cell types. We learn how the science of complexity extends Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection: that self-organization, selection, and chance are the engines of the biosphere. And we gain insights into biotechnology, the stunning magic of the new frontier of genetic engineering--generating trillions of novel molecules to find new drugs, vaccines, enzymes, biosensors, and more. Indeed, Kauffman shows that ecosystems, economic systems, and even cultural systems may all evolve according to similar general laws, that tissues and terra cotta evolve in similar ways. And finally, there is a profoundly spiritual element to Kauffman's thought. If, as he argues, life were bound to arise, not as an incalculably improbable accident, but as an expected fulfillment of the natural order, then we truly are at home in the universe.
Kauffman's earlier volume, The Origins of Order, written for specialists, received lavish praise. Stephen Jay Gould called it "a landmark and a classic." And Nobel Laureate Philip Anderson wrote that "there are few people in this world who ever ask the right questions of science, and they are the ones who affect its future most profoundly. Stuart Kauffman is one of these." In At Home in the Universe, this visionary thinker takes you along as he explores new insights into the nature of life.

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At Home in the Universe: The Search for the Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity + Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason, and Religion + The Origins of Order: Self-Organization and Selection in Evolution
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Editorial Reviews Review

The best treatment I have yet encountered about how order emerges naturally -- and possibly even necessarily -- out of chaos. Profoundly important, and considerably more informed than better-known pop-science treatments of chaos theory. Very highly recommended.


"Courageous....I guarantee that any reader whose imagination has survived an academic education--or has never been exposed to one--will learn a lot, and be changed forever."--Ian Stewart, Nature

"A new and far-reaching theory of order in the universe, introduced by a pioneer in that theory's development."--The Washington Post Book World

"Kauffman has done more than anyone else to supply the key missing piece of the propensity for self-organization that can join the random and the deterministic forces of evolution into a satisfactory theory of life's order."--Stephen Jay Gould, author of The Panda's Thumb

Product Details

  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA; Reprint edition (November 21, 1996)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0195111303
  • ISBN-13: 978-0195111309
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.7 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (71 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #220,642 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
137 of 142 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars a mathematical explanation of life March 23, 2000
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
The basic idea of Kauffman's book is that the complexity we see in nature (including life or technology) is contingent to math, i.e. can be explained and predicted by mathematical reasoning. The same is true of statistical thermodynamics and evolution. He states that Darwin's evolutionary theory explains only how complex life emerged from simple life, but it does not explain how simple life emerged from matter. There is probably a larger jump in complexity from matter to the first simple cell, than from that simple cell to a modern human being. Darwin does not explain that first jump. Kauffman doesn't either even though he is convincing in showing that life must have started through autocatalytic sets of molecules. He points out that these sets are self-organizing, stable and can vary as a reflex to external stimuli. What he mentions, but does not explain, is that autocatalytic sets can (or must) self-reproduce, a necessary step before evolution sets in. On page 66 of the paperback edition he states that "such breaking in two happens spontaneously as such [auto-catalytic] sets increase in volume", but, maddeningly, he does not explain how or why. One has to wonder: if life is such a necessary result of matter (therefore the title "at home in the universe") why then has it proven so difficult to synthesize anything approaching life in the laboratory? He doesn't say.
The book is full of incredibly interesting ideas. He explains ontogeny (the transformation of a fertilized egg to a highly complex and differentiated organism) using a simple model of on/off enzymes which allows him to build a Boolean network in which different cell types correspond to different "attractors", which are intrinsic in such a network.
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66 of 70 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Let's not get carried away... January 19, 2000
Format:Paperback either direction, for or against this book. Extremely high variance reviews are a good sign that reviewers are posting their own preconceptions, rather than reactions to this book.
There is a lot of good stuff in here. The descriptions of the patch procedure and simulated annealing, for instance, are very nice. This book can be useful to the motivated general reader, and to a scientist who wants to see the very basics of some novel ideas. It can also be useful for those familiar with complexity as an account of how different pieces fit together.
It's important to remember that the book is not a text in, say, biochemistry. Rather, it's about a way to see the world. At this stage of the idea development life cycle and in a basic treatment like this, it would be counterproductive to insist that these modeling tools reproduce everything we know or start at the level of complication of a mature science. If the book deals in toy examples that relate to a different view for pieces of the world and how they relate, it has done most of its job.
On the other hand, the book definitely has the mildly unpleasant tenor of a popularization. So, for example, any new idea is dressed up as revolutionary. Kauffman is actually better about this than many authors, especially in this field, but it's still palpable.
It is also written with all the mid-'90s euphoria over complexity. It is not clear that it will take as far as the gurus envision, but it is fun to think about -- and this book is a good way to start.
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44 of 47 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars This book had to happen December 15, 1999
I read this book when it first came out. At the time I thought it made some profound insights that would surely change the face of evolutionary theory. Of course not having a professional involvement in these matters, I considered the possibility that I had just succumbed to a layman's tendency to too easily say, "Wow!" For a year or two, when I talked about this book and its ideas to friends professionally involved in the biological sciences, they often reinforced that initial concern of mine, but the idea just wouldn't leave my mind no matter how much I doubted myself. To me these ideas presented in this book stand to become new landmarks in thinking about evolution and biology.
In the years since, evolving reaction to Stuart Kauffman's ideas have finally provided some measure of confirmation to me of these initial impressions. Evolutionary biologists have started to deal with these ideas seriously though I think much of the community has yet to realize their significance. This book has not proved just the flash in the pan that many pop science and psuedo-science ideas and books do. It only becomes more important with time. His ideas earned some serious treatment from Daniel Dennett in his profound book "Darwin's Dangerous Idea." Though I think Dennett only vaguely grasped the importance of the ideas, he clearly did not place them in the same league with the nostalgic crackpot evolution "debunkers." Kauffman proposes no magical "skyhooks" here. If evolution through natural selection reveals the universal acid, then the emergent "order for free" of thermodynamically open systems reveals the universal base, and promises to change our understanding of the universe in every bit as profound ways.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Recommend highly!
I read "Complexity" by Waltrop first--he is the hero of that one and he certainly moves it to the edge in this. Recommend highly!
Published 1 day ago by Bill Lowrey
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent
This book has given me insight into how the world works, from office politics to religion to technology. It continues to have its place in the sun.
Published 4 months ago by Alan R. Pollack, M.D.
1.0 out of 5 stars Not only missed the mark, didn't even see the target.
I had great hopes for this book. I do believe that there are patterns and principles that have inevitably led to the complexity of life. Read more
Published 5 months ago by Scott Manning
4.0 out of 5 stars Lots of new ideas
It was a pleasure to read about exciting new ideas and how complexity gives us a new lens through which to think about evolution. Read more
Published 12 months ago by daljones
5.0 out of 5 stars Amazing
Exceptional work, great edition.
This book is a keystone in its field and might end up being a must.
Kauffman is big.
Published 13 months ago by LEOPOLDO SANCHEZ CANTU
4.0 out of 5 stars Good Read
If you believe as I do the complex organazatiety found in the univeres from living organisms to the universe beliuved happened radomly you may as well belive in God because both... Read more
Published 16 months ago by Self organization
5.0 out of 5 stars Breathtaking glimpse of new scientific thinking
This is an astonishing book which explores the nature of self organising processes and their role in the origins of life. At its heart is a profound question. Read more
Published on September 3, 2011 by Steven Unwin
2.0 out of 5 stars Verbose
I didn't get far into the book. I could not get past the verbosity. It remined me of writers from the 19 century. Get to the point. Read more
Published on June 14, 2010 by William T. Gray
4.0 out of 5 stars halfway through. Great book, exasperating writing
Just wanted to leave a quick review...This book ofcourse is a result of great amount of research and creative ideas. Read more
Published on January 3, 2010 by Chinnas Nallivenkatasamy
1.0 out of 5 stars Still searching
I bought this book because I thought it was about self assembly in nanotechnology.
Later, I found out it is another evolutionist view. Read more
Published on December 22, 2009 by Huy A. Le
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