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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
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.Read more ›
...in 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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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.Read more ›
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