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Biology's First Law: The Tendency for Diversity and Complexity to Increase in Evolutionary Systems

3.0 out of 5 stars 8 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0226562261
ISBN-10: 0226562263
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Editorial Reviews

Review

“"Biology''s First Law" is an original and unusual book. A hybrid of theoretical biology and philosophy of science, it addresses both conceptual and empirical problems…a thought-provoking study.”—Samir Okasha, "Nature"
--Samir Okasha "Nature "

""Biology''s First Law" is an original and unusual book. A hybrid of theoretical biology and philosophy of science, it addresses both conceptual and empirical problems . . . a thought-provoking study./i>
--Samir Okasha "Nature "

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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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: 11.8 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: #1,338,533 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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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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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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
I found this book to present an interesting argument, but I was continually bothered by one of their basic conclusions related to the implications of random variation among independent groups.

The authors assert that among two different groups whose components vary randomly and independently from each other, the two groups will be become more and more distinct from each other, on average, over time. I don't believe statistical theory supports this assertion.

For example, two piles of leaves (a favorite analogy of the authors) are 100 ft. apart from each other. Random wind patterns may distribute the leaves in each pile randomly and the variation in the leaf movements are independent between the two piles. Over time, the both piles will be obliterated but if the wind patterns are truly random than the leaves in the first pile will, on average, still be 100 ft. from the leaves in the second pile, on average.

If the authors do not consider average distinctness of one group of leaves or cells from another to be measured in this way, they do not explicitly describe how they would propose to measure it differently. I believe the issue would remain nonetheless.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
When animals have nothing to do they go to sleep. But humans have a drive to know and understand everything. Attentive humans noticed fossils and asked where they came from. Very intelligent humans invented the theory that life evolved over a period of 3.5 billion years. Marshaling the evidence, rational humans judge the theory to be true. Humans then ask: What caused evolution?

Creationists and advocates of intelligent design think that God did it. While there is evidence that God exists (free will, finite beings), there is little evidence supporting this theory. There is no evidence supporting the theory of natural selection. This theory only explains how giraffes got long necks, not how giraffes evolved from bacteria. The reason is that a giraffe is so much more complex than a bacterium and 3.5 billion years is only about a hundred thousand trillion seconds (17 zeros). Not enough is known about the innovations natural selection acts upon for humans to understand how evolution occurred in so short a time. Evolutionary biologists generally speak of "adaptive evolution" in connection with natural selection.

Atheists, creationists, and advocates of intelligent design are responsible for the misinformation that natural selection is intended as an explanation for the complexity of life. The author of the following quote has a Ph.D. in linguistics, not biology. Pinker is Steve Pinker (Ph.D. in linguistics), and Bloom is Paul Bloom (Ph.D. in psychology). Notice that Charles Darwin (Ph.D. in biology) doesn't think natural selection explains the complexity of the human eye:

"They [Pinker and Bloom] particularly emphasized that language is incredibly complex, as Chomsky had been saying for decades.
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