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Life Itself: A Comprehensive Inquiry into the Nature, Origin, and Fabrication of Life (Complexity in Ecological Systems)

14 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0231075657
ISBN-10: 0231075650
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Editorial Reviews


"Drawing on the languages of organizational theory, cybernetics, and category theory, Rosen questions the classic machine metaphor of life.... Once formulated, Rosen uses his concept of life to revisit relational biology, molecular biology, evolution, and chemical sequences." -- "Choice"


Dr. Rosen presents a most fascinating book.... Followers of Rosen's work will find Life Itself to be new and exciting, as I did.

(David W. Roberts, Utah State University)|

Iconoclastic and occasionally brilliant...Life Itself is well written, fascinating...

(Steve Pacala, University of Connecticut, Storrs)

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Product Details

  • Series: Complexity in Ecological Systems
  • Paperback: 285 pages
  • Publisher: Columbia University Press (July 13, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0231075650
  • ISBN-13: 978-0231075657
  • Product Dimensions: 0.5 x 6 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.1 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #366,164 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

38 of 39 people found the following review helpful By David Keirsey on July 16, 1999
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Robert Rosen asks the question: what is life?, and answers the question precisely after 10 chapters. His method of answering the question is ground breaking. In trying to answer the question of, What is Life? he first must explore what life is not. In that process of trying to answer the question about life, he had discovered something *very* important about science and mathematics: there are some unnecessary limitations placed them, currently.
Robert Rosen *precisely* shows the reader the logical limitations of current scientific thinking in the form of modern physics and the machine metaphor. This is not your typical rant on reductionism. Everybody has hear the reframe against reductionism, "the whole is more than the sum of the parts," but Rosen shows in precise terms, much more: there is a limitation of modes of entailment (inference). The book is not easy reading, not because it is poorly written, for Rosen is a great writer, but because it examines the foundations of science, mathematics, and computer science (essentially anything having to to logical investigation). By trying to answer the question: what is life?, Robert Rosen shows us that the Newtonian paradigm (including all of modern physics, such as string theory, quantum loop gravity, and relativity) cannot and will not be sufficient to answer the important questions that not being ask in physics. Their modes of entailment are limited unnecessarily using the machine metaphor (e.g. differential equations and recursion, such as the Schrödinger's wave equation or Einstein's field equations). One of his results is to show precisely why physics (including molecular biology) has little to say about life (and non-life).
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33 of 34 people found the following review helpful By Alwyn Scott on July 3, 2006
Format: Paperback
Although many influential scientists (Steven Weinberg, Francis Crick, and Richard Dawkins, for example) claim - and most members of general public believe - that all of reality can "in principle" can be expressed as the dynamics of its constitutive elements (atoms, genes, neurons), some have intuitively felt that this reductive tenet is wrong, that life and the human mind are more complex phenomena. Critics of reductionism have pointed to Kurt Goedel's 1931 "incompleteness theorem" (which shows that in any axiomatic formulation of, say, number theory there will be true theorems that cannot be established) as a contrary example, but this paradigm-shattering result has been largely ignored the scientific community, which has blithely persisted in its reductive beliefs.

How is one to understand this curious situation? In Kuhnian terms, it seems that reductionism persists because this old paradigm has not yet fallen out of favor. Leaders in physics have not yet taken the public stance required by Goedel's theorem and assertions in their textbooks have not changed. Why not? Perhaps because Goedel's theorem relates to mathematics rather than reality, or perhaps because recognizing its import diminishes the status of physics as the primary science.

With the publication of Robert Rosen's LIFE ITSELF, the other shoe has dropped. In a carefully constructed exposition developed over eleven reader-friendly chapters, Rosen shows how something akin to Goedel's theorem applies to the natural world, and in particular to biology. Thus Rosen shows that all dynamical systems can be divided into two broad classes: "simple systems" for which the reductive paradigm holds and "complex systems" for which it does not hold.
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31 of 33 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on January 5, 1999
Format: Hardcover
In his short story, "The Wall Of Darkness", Arthur C. Clarke (cf. Tales From Planet Earth), described Trilorne, a world in which all exploration was forced to end by a wall that appeared to extend to the very heavens. In this brilliant and thought provoking book, a summing up of over 30 years of careful analysis, the late Dr. Rosen argues forcefully for the presence of just such a wall between what he called "simple systems" (roughly, systems that are algorithmic), and "complex systems" (everything else). His main thesis is that biological systems were complex and as such, beyond the ken of algorithmic approaches. The book also outlines rudiments of an alternative approach, the "closed causal loop" model of complex systems. The book explores the concept of a model and the act of modeling, state-based models (a particularly brilliant discussion), analytic and synthetic categories, the Turing machine and it's relation to simple systems, and the relevance of Aristotelian causality for biology. Causality is unfashionable at the moment (in particular Aristotle's view of it); Rosen's gift for finding gold in strange mines is nowhere more evident than his use of causality to build his alternative approach.
Dr. Rosen was one of those unfortunate scientists who worked on problems, that to the rest of his community were non-existent. This decade has been a little kinder to his work. The increasingly evident general intractability of problems in disparate areas such as artificial intelligence (consciousness,intelligence) linguistics (symbolic reference), artificial life (speciation), computer vision (pattern recognition), and algorithmics (e.g. protein folding problem) led credance to Rosen's claims.
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Life Itself: A Comprehensive Inquiry into the Nature, Origin, and Fabrication of Life (Complexity in Ecological Systems)
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