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Signs Of Life: How Complexity Pervades Biology

4.7 out of 5 stars 13 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0465019281
ISBN-10: 0465019285
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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Deep down, we all know that living things are profoundly weird. Santa Fe Institute scientists Ricard Solé and Brian Goodwin show us the truth in Signs of Life: How Complexity Pervades Biology. Chaos theory and the life sciences are a natural combination, but it's still a wonder how fresh and intuitive the material is in their able hands. Copiously illustrated with drawings, tables, and photographs enriching the text, the book will appeal to all sophisticated readers with an interest in the larger themes of biology--major players such as evolution, development, and inheritance. The authors have carefully segregated the toughest math in sidebars, but the main body of text is still not for the faint-hearted. Chaos and complexity is innately math-heavy, and hard-core mathphobes will have to make do with skimming; still, even the innumerate will find the prose charming and engaging:

The idea that a random event can change history has been a great source of inspiration for both scientists and writers alike. We live in a universe with strong laws and much contingency. In our search for the laws of complexity we often find islands of randomness in an ocean of regularity, like the island of trickery, home of games and gambling, found by the travelers in Gargantua and Pantagruel.

With writing like this interleaved between the tables and formulas, the reader finds it easier to stay on track, and the rewards of improved understanding are exquisite. Solé and Goodwin nimbly present a necessarily complex subject to a wide audience; Signs of Life ought to become a classic among the scientifically literate. --Rob Lightner --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


". . . an outstanding book.. . .Biologists, chemists, physicists, and a wide audience will read it with delight and intellectual profit." -- Stuart Kauffman, author of _Investigations_

"All life is here, its story told by two of the most brilliant researchers in rapidly emerging science of complexity." -- Stuart Pimm, --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books (January 4, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465019285
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465019281
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.8 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #593,283 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
This book is very good because it shows you a very broad spectrum of phenomena in which emergence takes place (genetics, the brain, the ants, rainforests, virus, economics, etc.). Emergence happens when a system of simple and numerous parts does something you couldn't have predicted from a description of the parts. It's full of very well chosen examples of emergence in complex systems. If you don't understand what the science of complexity *really* is about, buy it! You certainly will understand after you read it, I can assure you.
I've always hated books in which there's only text and more text. I need drawings, diagrams, things that SHOW you something and make well explained ideas even better! This book is perfect in that. Also, if you don't like mathematics, they are exclusively inside gray boxes, and you just look at them if you want, the explanation is good enough. And by the way, the boxes are just great!
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Format: Hardcover
Sole and Goodwin bring together a host of biological phenomena that can be explained only through nonlinear dynamics, self-organization and complexity theory. Starting with the work of Kaneko and Ko, which shows that genetically identical E. coli cells placed on identical nutrient media nevertheless grow at different rates, they demonstrate that biological systems are exquisitely sensitive to initial conditions and to unpredictable internal fluctuations. This results from the interactional nature of all biological processes. The activity of a whole organism or system of organisms cannot be predicted by summing the isolated activities of its component parts.
Complexity theory explains the discontinuities of form and behavior that characterize biological systems. The illustration of these ideas in "Signs of Life" ranges all the way from cell differentiation in slime molds and higher organisms to the interactional nature of metabolic processes, the self-organizing properties of the central nervous system, the organizations created by social insects, ecosystems in general, and the economic and cultural activities of human beings on the largest scale. Evolution is shown to be the product of interactional phenomena involving many species at least as much as the competition of individual organisms with members of their own species.
The fractal nature of complexity, resulting from the iteration of simple but universal rules, is illustrated in boxed mathematical descriptions of the phenomena being discussed. What emerges from all this is a picture of the biosphere creating a huge array of diverse organisms and organizations of organisms in a manner that remains orderly and intelligible from the viewpoint of complexity theory.
The writing is both clear and lively.
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Format: Paperback
If you've ever been in a traffic jam, chances are, you've also engaged in a coordinated, complicated activity with other drivers - without even knowing about it. They are called traffic density waves. How can that be? How can you engage in large-scale behavior and not know it? It happens because of emergent behavior that results from simple algorithms in our driving. It happens to you, just like it happens to ants, bees, and termites. These simple rules result in unexpected, large-scale order. It's what Sole and Goodwin would call "order for free."
Sole and Goodwin begin with one of the best introductory summaries that I've seen of simple chaotic behavior in nonlinear systems. The interesting thing about these systems is the way in which complicated behavior results from repetition and feedback using simple rules.
Later descriptions of biological systems carry this theme forward, and constitute some of the most interesting reading in this book. For example, in the chapter on "Ants, Brains, and Chaos," the authors describe a model that simulates the raiding patterns of army ants. Observing these insects from a distance, one might be inclined to wonder at the appearance of a higher purposeful component to the movement of colony. With simulations, however, the authors have argued convincingly that the basic patterns seen in the foraging of army ants result from relatively simple algorithms built into the individual insects. These simple algorithms, at the individual level, result in large-scale behavior that has no obvious causal connection to the algorithms that are their cause.
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Format: Hardcover
This is what overviews of scientific fields of research should be like. The book begins in a gentle manner with an introduction into non-linearity, chaos and complexity. Many somewhat detailed technical steps are shown in text boxes and there are many illustrations to try to convey the information to a casual reader.
In fact, this book bridges the gap between general overviews (something like Gleick's "Chaos") and much more scholarly presentations ("Complexity : Metaphors, Models, and Reality"). I suspect some non-technical readers won't make it very far but that is more likely due to the fact that they spend too much time on things they don't understand. Many important aspects of complex adaptive systems in biology are reviewed using many different examples. Both theoretical and real-life examples are typically used to help make the point.
It is evident that the authors not only really understand the subject, they are also passionate and have excellent writing skills. Kauffmann is cited frequently but I suspect that most who have read "Investigations" will likely get a much better idea of his thesis when they read this book.
The only minor point: why no commentary on where we appear to be rushing? Or better yet, why nothing about the philosophical implications of complexity? Perhaps the authors wanted to keep this book as non-controversial as possible and thereby potentially have it as an "official" reference but I cannot see why people should be upset by drawing some conclusions. Unless, of course, it is simply because some of the conclusions are so scary.
This book should be standard reading!
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