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27 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0195121056
ISBN-10: 0195121058
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Investigations + Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason, and Religion + At Home in the Universe: The Search for the Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity
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Editorial Reviews Review

How can you tell when a scientific theory is revolutionary?

As a rule, when a distinguished scientist says he's come up with a fourth law of thermodynamics, he's wrong. Stuart Kauffman may be the exception.

The three laws of thermodynamics have been summarized as: You can't win, You can't break even, and You can't get out of the game. Kauffman's candidate for fourth law is: But the game keeps getting more complicated, and there are always more different ways to play.

One of Kauffman's key concepts is that of the adjacent possible. Imagine a set of things that exist in a particular system (such as a group of reacting chemicals, or an ecological community, or the kinds of toys available in a capitalist economy). The adjacent possible is the set of things that are only one step away from actual existence. Like potential energy in physics, the adjacent possible is a metaphysical idea with real utility.

You can think of "normal science" (as described by Thomas Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions) as proceeding step by step into the adjacent possible. Most self-styled revolutionary scientific treatises are really crackpottery. They don't stop in the adjacent possible; they go wandering across the landscape and over the speculative horizon. Investigations may be the real thing. Kauffman is pushing into the adjacent possible at many points, from biology, chemistry, thermodynamics, and economics. As he says, "whatever Investigations is--useful, as I hope, or foolish--it is not normal science." --Mary Ellen Curtin --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Scientific American

Kauffman's investigations concern nothing less than the nature of life. "It may be," he says, "that I have stumbled upon the proper definition of life itself." His deep and challenging argument runs as follows. Much of the order in living organisms is self-organized and spontaneous. "Self-organization mingles with natural selection in barely understood ways to yield the magnificence of our teeming biosphere. We must, therefore, expand evolutionary theory." The living organism, be it bacterial cell or human being, is a " 'propagating organization,' that is, that it literally constructs more of itself." This activity "has no statement in current physics or biology but constitutes that which constructs a bio- sphere." Kauffman, a founding member of the Santa Fe Institute, calls his actors autonomous agents and says we are on the verge of the capacity to create novel molecular autonomous agents. "When we do, or if we discover life on other planets and solar systems, science will enter a vast new phase in which we will create a 'general biology,' freed from the limitations of terrestrial biology."

EDITORS OF SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 308 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press (September 19, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0195121058
  • ISBN-13: 978-0195121056
  • Product Dimensions: 9 x 0.8 x 5.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (27 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #666,306 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

88 of 91 people found the following review helpful By decomplexity on December 19, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Kauffman's previous book `At Home in the Universe' was aimed at the educated but non-specialist reader and extended those proposals for autocatalysis and self-organization in biological and chemical systems first described in Chapters 1 through 6 of his monumental `Origins of Order'. `Origins' was a measured, detailed and sober coverage of a relatively new and vast field - much of it pioneered by Kauffman himself. `At Home...' was a racier and more speculative account of the same field but with new material on the implications for innovation and business growth. It also had additional material on the optimal size of an object and a different method for disturbing co-evolving systems into avalanche behaviour (invasion followed by extinction as opposed to use of the external environment W parameter in `Origins'). In tone, Investigations lies somewhere between the two. The writing has some of the fractured style of At Home that is at once annoying and exhilarating. The scope is awesome and a bit intimidating. The implications - if correct - are seminal.
Kauffman's start point is autocatalysis: that it is very likely that self-reproducing molecular systems will form in any large and sufficiently complex chemical reaction. He then goes on to investigate what qualities a physical system must have to be an autonomous agent. His aim is to define a new law of thermodynamics for those systems such as the biosphere that may be hovering in a state of self-organised criticality and are certainly far from thermodynamic equilibrium. This necessitates a rather more detailed coverage of Carnot work cycles and information compressibility than was covered in passing in his earlier books.
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60 of 63 people found the following review helpful By Zentao on February 8, 2001
Format: Hardcover
Ah...complexity. Once the golden-haired child of science it has, these days, sort of wandered down a path similar to AI. That is, although the field has produced a number of interesting developments it has ultimately failed to deliver anything really deep.
Investigations starts with a lot of promise, similar to Capra's "Web of Life" with Kauffman demonstrating both his knowledge of the complexity of genetics and some good writing skills. In fact, I learned quite a bit reading the first 4 chapters although I suspect that readers expecting something similar to Gleick's "Chaos" will have their eyes glaze over when they hit the more detailed sections of genetic complexity.
However, as Kauffman continues I found the same old story as Capra fell victim to: no meat to the math. What do I mean? Well, if one looks at the equations for something like quantum theory there is much information they impart to give hints about "why". Complexity has produced equations but they don't seem to have any depth - they may describe some phenomenom but don't give any deeper knowledge about it.
In other words, I don't really get excited about another thermodynamic "law" since that is simply sweeping our ignorance under the proverbial carpet by taking an observation as an axiom. In fact the final chapters, in which Kaufmann tries to tie quantum theory (and string theory) to his thesis, really made me wonder if he just wanted to get this book out before Wolfram's opus.
I suspect Kauffman should have spent some time talking to Ilya Prigogine since any theory trying to explain why things go in one direction (entropy) yet also seem to get more complicated obviously needs to incorporate time.
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42 of 44 people found the following review helpful By David Weaver on December 15, 2000
Format: Hardcover
I have followed the writings of Stuart Kauffman very closely since his first book 'Origins of Order'. The Santa Fe Institute with which he is associated is a wonderful think-tank of multi-disciplinary, but converging studies. Kauffman's contribution to this group has been huge.
I find that Kauffman's world view is compelling, resonant and deeply fascinating. This book contains the ideas within 'At Home in the Universe' and then extends them into the 'adjacent possible'.
Be prepared when reading this book to be taxed on your knowledge of cell chemistry, mathematics, thermodynamics and evolution. The rapid jumps between disciplines are handy for explaining some rather obtuse ideas, but Kauffman may isolate many readers by diving in to unelaborated detail on the idiosyncracies of these subjects. Even a brief overview of some of the terms used in his metaphors would be a great help to those without PhDs.
Personally, I buy Kauffman's worldview hook, line and sinker which makes any of his writings a must-read for me, but I am convinced that the audience for this book was not carefully considered, and as a result it seems that it is written for himself primarily. It could do with a thorough edit removing the grandiose language.
Stu, I know you can do better.
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53 of 58 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on October 25, 2000
Format: Hardcover
"Investigations" marks a new phase in Stuart Kauffman's seminal work on self-organization and complexity. In this fascinating extension of his theoretical approach to the generation of order in the universe, he focusses on the idea of the autonomous agent, which forms the basis for a new and more precise definition of the living organism. The autonomous agent, according to Kauffman, is an organization of matter that extracts works from its environment in order to maintain its structural and functional integrity over time. An autonomous agent is one that does work on its own behalf. Kauffman goes into considerable physical detail to show how this is not only possible but inevitable. Because of the intimate relation between work and self-maintenance in this schema, Kauffman speaks of organisms as exemplifying a fourth law of thermodynamics that allows for increasing organizational complexity in the midst of a universe whose entropy is constantly increasing.
The fourth law explains how the diversity of the biosphere continues to increase through an exploration of "the adjacent possible," the realm of alternative organizations reachable through single mutations. In this view, the proliferation of life forms is not so much the result of chance as it is of a working out of the natural tendency of existing entities to self-organize into structures of greater and greater complexity.
Kauffman's muscular writing in "Investigations" once again demonstrates an exceptional combination of rigorous scientific logic and a poetic vision that encompasses a fertile and abundant universe.
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