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Biology's First Law: The Tendency for Diversity and Complexity to Increase in Evolutionary Systems Paperback – July 15, 2010

ISBN-13: 978-0226562261 ISBN-10: 0226562263

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 184 pages
  • Publisher: University Of Chicago Press (July 15, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0226562263
  • ISBN-13: 978-0226562261
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.5 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #534,832 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews


"The ZFEL will be obvious to some, heretical to others, so the book will be controversial. But at the same time, the argument is rich enough to convince a skeptic, provided that skeptic is open-minded. A novel contribution of far-reaching importance in evolutionary biology." - Michael Foote, University of Chicago"

About the Author

Daniel W. McShea is Associate Professor of Biology, with a secondary appointment in Philosophy, and Robert N. Brandon is Professor of Philosophy, with a secondary appointment in Biology, both at Duke University.

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Customer Reviews

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31 of 34 people found the following review helpful By Yothgoboufnir on June 15, 2010
Format: Paperback
I. Brief Thoughts

This book posits the "Zero-Force Evolutionary Law", or ZFEL (which the authors suggest pronouncing like "zeffle"). The book is not long, but it is dense, and the authors are what an old professor of mine would call "good philosophers" -- they tell you what they are doing as they do it. The lines of reasoning are easy to follow, and examples, objections, and distinctions are offered in due course to make sure readers keep the discussion well sorted in their minds. The ZFEL, briefly put, is a hierachical and probabilistic explanation for the widespread observation that organisms tend to diversify and become more complex over time. The authors argue the ZFEL is the best null hypothesis in biological situations, and they point to a change in how we formulate biological explanation. They discuss both relevant empirical and philosophical points in a wide-ranging but deceptively simple book.

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II. Further Comment

The ZFEL law is argued to be the fundamental background condition in any biological situation. Considering, as Dobzhansky put it, that nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution, it will come as no surprise that "biology's first law" is an evolutionary law. It may come as a somewhat greater surprise that the ZFEL is distinct from natural selection. The ZFEL, though, is posited in a strongly neo-Darwinian context, and the authors argue strenuously that the ZFEL complements the principle of natural selection.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Karate1kid on June 8, 2012
Format: Paperback
First, let me say that this is a great idea - I loved it. It is elegant and I am sure that it is an important paradigm shift in the theory of evolution.

The main topic of the book can be summarized by the following quote: "We are proposing both a new law and a gestalt shift. The law is a universal tendency for diversity and complexity to increase. And the gestalt shift places this tendency in the background, moving the effect of natural selection and various constraints on diversity and complexity to the foreground."

One thing I didn't like about the book is that it was too long. Yes, maybe the presentation of a paradigm shift takes repetition and some examples, but I didn't feel this should be longer than an essay.

Another problematic issue was the terminology. Complexity has a widely understood meaning today, yet the authors insist on using it in another way. They define 'pure complexity':

"Pure complexity is not connectedness or integration. It is not the length of the shortest description of a system or of the algorithm for generating it. It has nothing to do with the amount of energy a system uses or how it uses it. In this book, the phrase "pure complexity," or just "complexity" alone and unmodified, always means number of part types or differentiation among parts. And nothing more."

Well, if it is not all the things on the list above maybe they should have used some other, less confusing name. After all, some people are looking for information on what the authors name 'colloquial complexity'. As I understand this book, the authors have two dimensions of diversity: (i) diversity between organisms; (ii) diversity (of parts) within an organism ('pure complexity').

So, I highly recommend this book - read the first chapter to get the general idea and keep reading if you need more information.
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4 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Steven Forth on November 8, 2010
Format: Paperback
Simple ideas are the most difficult. In this short book Daniel McShea and Robert Brandon propose a Zero Force Evolutionary Law (ZFEL). The key idea is that for any evolutionary system where there is variation and heredity, then in the absence of constraints diversity and complexity (narrowly defined) will increase. In other words, change is the steady state. This is one of those ideas that reverses figure and ground. Many of us think of stability as the steady state (stability of species, stability of organizations, stability of market structure) and look for the causes of change (or for ways to cause change). ZFEL tells us that it is the status quo that needs to be explained, and that whenever we see a stable system we need to search for the forces that are keeping it stable. For example, when looking at Gould's punctuated equilibrium (long periods of species stability interspersed with periods of rapid speciation) we usually try to explain the rapid speciation, when what needs explanation is the stability. This is a general principle, and is applicable across all types of evolutionary systems - from genes, through phenotypes to species and ecosystems. I would add that it applies equally to companies and other organizations, markets and economies. If a stock price (or commodity price) is stable there are constraints keeping it that way, and it becomes critical to understand the constraints.

There are many valuable contributions in this book, especially for someone like me who has a limited knowledge of theoretical biology and the philosophy of biology. The distinction between trends and trend mechanism seems widely applicable to any modular system undergoing change (applications to object oriented design and analysis and to modular systems design are obvious).
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