- Paperback: 624 pages
- Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 1 edition (April 22, 2013)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0393343901
- ISBN-13: 978-0393343908
- Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.7 x 9.3 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 55 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #146,205 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter 1st Edition
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“Contains many rewarding thoughts about life and mind and their place in nature.”
“Unprecedentedly comprehensive. . . . Imagine the consequences for science and society of having a physical explanation for functional, meaningful and conscious behavior no less scientific and accessible than our explanation for lightning. I believe Deacon provides just that.”
- Psychology Today
“In his approach to the question of how sentience emerged from ‘dumb’ and ‘numb’ matter, Mr. Deacon mobilizes some radically new ideas.”
- Wall Street Journal
“A profound shift in thinking that in magnitude can only be compared with those that followed upon the works of Darwin and Einstein.”
- Robert E. Ulanowicz, author of A Third Window: Natural Life beyond Newton and Darwin
“This is a work of science and philosophy at the cutting edge of both that seeks to develop a complete theory of the world that includes humans, our minds and culture, embodied and emerging in nature.”
- Bruce H. Weber, coauthor of Darwinism Evolving
“A stunningly original, stunningly synoptic book. With Autogenesis, Significance, Sentience, seventeen insightful and integrated chapters turn our world upside down and finally, as in the Chinese proverb, lead us home again to a place we see anew. Few ask the important questions. Deacon is one of these.”
- Stuart Kauffman, author of Investigations
“[Deacon] demonstrates how systems that are intrinsically incomplete happen to be alive and meaning-making. The crux of life―and meaning―is solved. It was worthwhile to wait for this book. The twenty-first century can now really start.”
- Kalevi Kull, professor, Department of Semiotics, Tartu University
About the Author
Terrence W. Deacon is a professor of biological anthropology and neuroscience and the chair of anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. The author of The Symbolic Species and Incomplete Nature, he lives near Berkeley, California.
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It was definitely one of the most difficult reads I've ever completed. His writing is so incredibly abstract, obtuse, and repetitive, I sometimes left he was making it purposefully difficult to understand. As a rule, sentences are long and convoluted, making the argument difficult to follow. His goal, to explain multiple of the most difficult questions in science, is so vast that he inevitably falls short. Terms like teleodynamical and morphodynamical are insufficiently explained, and then used in the rest of the book as stand-ins for mysterious mechanisms in seemingly every other sentence.
But I wouldn't have continued to the end if there weren't nuggets to be gleaned. There are some powerful comparisons and explanations of natural selection, thermodynamics, intentionality, and what he calls "ententional" concepts like value, function, and representation.
If this book relates strongly to your interests or work, and you are able to take away isolated fragments and apply them outside the context of this particular theory, I would recommend this book. If not, there are much more engaging books on each of the topics mentioned above. While not as comprehensive, they will undoubtedly provide a much more pleasurable experience.
In this long book Dr. Deacon uses every page to meticulously build argument upon argument and example upon example in an effort to show exactly how this might be possible both for life and consciousness. His key insight, carefully crafted and expanded all the way along the narrative, is that it isn't what is present in any particular material organization that matters, but rather what is absent; what the structure of any given complexifying phenomenon constrains away. It isn't what happens that matters so much as what the evolving structures (structure here should be understood as both stuff and process) prevent from happening. To take a simple and non-dynamical example, a house functions as a home not because it has a certain structure but because that structure precludes it being something else, a boat, a bridge, or a pile of rubble.
Deacon begins by setting a very high bar. He insists that any theory of life and its origins respect its extraordinary complexity and the near impossibility of the dynamic relations between its parts falling together accidentally. Similarly with consciousness he insists that any theory of mind takes into account its patently dualistic nature and causal efficacy. Mind cannot be illusory or epiphenomenal. Life and mind are both teleological (purposeful, end-directed) by nature and he insists that the appearance of teleology in life and mind be accommodated in any theory of its origins and functions. But he also insists that all of this be accounted for by the laws of physics and in particular, the second law of thermodynamics. He spends a chapter explicating and rejecting a generalized theory of homunculi, that is solutions requiring anything, structure, process, or information, imposed from the outside. Somehow, we have to get from physics to mind while recognizing that mind is not physics. Instead, in his view, the solution amounts to a foreground/background reversal. It isn't the physical stuff or process that results in life or mind, but rather what physical evolution (non-living, then living, then mental) constrains out of possibility.
Deacon carefully crafts his argument focusing on the physical concept of work and the logic of attractors. In physics, work is possible only when there is a thermodynamic gradient. In unbounded (having no formal boundary like a cell wall) physical dynamics, thermodynamic gradients, under the right conditions, can become morphodynamic; taking on a shape (the self-organizing process) that serves to increase the efficiency of thermodynamic dissipation. But in bounded systems (in the first instance boundaries formed by natural conditions having nothing to do with life) a new type of dynamic becomes possible, one that reduces dissipation internally in exchange for increased dissipation between the bounded system an the outside. This is the beginning of teleodynamic organization. He is careful to note that "telos" here is not something imposed from the outside, but rather the appearance of end-directedness stemming from the emergence of the constraints against dissipation on the inside. Once a teleodynamic emerges, other teleodynamic constraints can emerge from it compounding constraint upon constraint which, when viewed after the fact, amount to a compounding of information.
This then is the core of his theory which he then traces up from proto-life to life and from life, via Darwinian evolution (which never adds information, but rather selects out information emerging in compounded teleodynamics relevant to the [then] present environment) to mind. In each step it isn't what happens or what exists that matters so much as what is progressively constrained or prevented from happening. I want to emphasize that this statement is a highly simplified summary of Deacon's far more complex but clearly enunciated argument. In the end, mind has causal efficacy because it is itself a hole, an attractor, and by disturbing the metaphorical shape of its own attractor (constraint on constraint on constraint) affects the underlying (metaphorical) shape of the attractors (now neurological) that support it.
This is a book to which no short review can do justice. It is well argued and written for a general audience with a basic grasp of physical principles. Readers with a grasp of high school physics will do fine. But does he succeed? In his last chapter he notes that even the emergence of human social systems, government, economics, even values, amount to further constraints that operate to reduce entropic dissipation in the social system that bounds them. All of this makes perfect sense in the context of his fundamental insight, but he never explains why it all should come out as the experience of subjectivity that we have and not something else with equal capacity to dynamically constrain. This however is not a shortcoming in the basic argument. The emergence of all these constraints (and thus the attractors they manifest) can only be recognized after the fact. Before the fact there are always other possibilities. In short, Deacon goes farther than anyone else in crafting a pathway leading from physics to mind.