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Reflections on a Theory of Organisms [Paperback]

Walter Elsasser
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)

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Book Description

September 17, 1998 2910410145 978-0801859700 1
Are living organisms - as Descartes argued - just machines? Or is the nature of life such that it can never be fully explained by mechanistic models? In this thought-provoking and controversial book, eminent geophysicist Walter M. Elsasser argues that the behavior of living organisms cannot be reduced to physico-chemical causality. Suggesting that molecular biology today is at the same point as Newtonian physics on the eve of the quantum revolution, Elsasser lays the foundation for a theoretical biology that points the way toward a natural philosophy of organic life. Explicitly repudiating "vitalism" (the notion that the laws of nature need to be modified when applied to living organisms), Elsasser argues instead that the structural complexity of even a single living cell is "transcomputational" - that is, beyond the power of any imaginable system to compute. Beginning from this insight, Elsasser leads the reader through a step-by-step process that ultimately arrives at the conclusion that living and non-living matter are separated by "a no-man's land of irrationality." Trained in Germany as a physicist, Elsasser first pondered the implications of quantum mechanics for biology as early as 1951. The more closely he studied the inherent complexity of life, the more skeptical he became of the reductionist view of organisms as tiny machines. "An organism," he concluded, "is a source of causal chains which cannot be traced beyond a terminal point because they are lost in the unfathomable complexity of the organism." Like the physicist who works within the bounds of an unfathomable universe, Elsasser argues, the biologist must seek answers within a system that is no less unfathomable.

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About the Author

Walter M. Elsasser (1904-1991) was Homewood Professor at the Johns Hopkins University. His many books include The Physical Foundations of Biology, Atom and Organism, and Memoirs of a Physicist in the Atomic Age. He was awarded the National Medal of Science by President Reagan in 1987.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 192 pages
  • Publisher: The Johns Hopkins University Press; 1 edition (September 17, 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 2910410145
  • ISBN-13: 978-0801859700
  • ASIN: 0801859700
  • Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 5.9 x 0.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,141,715 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars It has much potential and can lead further. September 5, 2002
A fascinating book by Walter Elsasser a physicist but having to do with biology. The book is somewhat confusing at times though. Elsasser gives the appearance of constructing some sort of theory which might lead to a theoretical biology, based on holism rather than the currently used metaphysic: reductionism, but never quite makes it. You always get the sense its just not complete and not thought out fully. He does take certain solid viewpoints: (1) a theoretical biology must obey the physical laws of quantum mechanics and (2) it must eschew vitalism, which Elsasser says is a theory which requires new and non-redicible laws for macroscopic biological organisms which are unique to organisms. In other words a separate set of laws just for organisms. And yet as one reads through his book one gets the feeling that there is more to it than that. At first he says that normal physical laws must be obeyed and then he expands his views to indicate that maybe there is something very special about organisms and that the mechanical view, which of course led to such laws in the first place, is just akind of short-sighted projection of reality to a mechanistic universe. If mechanism is just that, a small biased view of what happens rather than reality itself then these laws must also be simply an aspect of the full understanding. One then suspects that organisms do have laws unto themselves although they still obey quantum mechanics except the fuller set of principles of which quantum mechanics is just a part.
He attacks reductionism quite successfully and shows how a great deal more is possible in biology. Luckily as you proceed through the book it gets more and more interesting although never at any time do you feel that his principles he sets up in the earlier part of the book mesh with the later material. Perhaps a second reading will clear this up. It has much potential and can lead further especially in the hands of someone like Robert Rosen in his "Life Itself".
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Still very relevant and fresh... July 9, 2002
By Zentao
Considering the age of this book it is still very relevant and interesting. That is, Elsasser did not have the benefit of more recent advances in several areas including Algorithmic Information Theory, artificial intelligence, and genetics. In particular, I suspect he would have had a lot to say about the genome-mapping fiasco and the spectacular failure of mechanistic genetic theories to come anywhere close to predicting reality.
Elsasser introduced the term 'holism' in this book in order that biology could return to something more useful than playing with simple chemical reactions. He realized the inherent limitations of the reductionist view, later expounded by Robert Rosen. Elsasser's background in physics and mathematics let him see the inherent limitations of the current fascination with the narrow reductionist view and gave him ample ammunition to expose the fallacies of this mode of exploration.
This book is very readable and contains almost no math - Elsasser references many papers and other works that do contain the theory. This book is required reading for anyone wishing to continue exploration in Robert Rosen's excellent books. It is highly recommended.
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