At Home in the Universe: The Search for the Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity
A major scientific revolution has begun, a new paradigm that rivals Darwin’s theory in importance. At its heart is the discovery of the order that lies deep within the most complex of systems, from the origin of life, to the workings of giant corporations, to the rise and fall of great civilizations. And more than anyone else, this revolution is the work of one man, Stuart Kauffman, a MacArthur Fellow and visionary pioneer of the new science of complexity. Now, in At Home in the Universe, Kauffman brilliantly weaves together the excitement of intellectual discovery and a fertile mix of insights to give the general reader a fascinating look at this new science–and at the forces for order that lie at the edge of chaos. We all know of instances of spontaneous order in nature–an oil droplet in water forms a sphere, snowflakes have a six-fold symmetry. What we are only now discovering, Kauffman says, is that the range of spontaneous order is enormously greater than we had supposed. Indeed, self-organization is a great undiscovered principle of nature. But how does this spontaneous order arise? Kauffman contends that complexity itself triggers self-organization, or what he calls "order for free," that if enough different molecules pass a certain threshold of complexity, they begin to self-organize into a new entity–a living cell. Kauffman uses the analogy of a thousand buttons on a rug–join two buttons randomly with thread, then another two, and so on. At first, you have isolated pairs; later, small clusters; but suddenly at around the 500th repetition, a remarkable transformation occurs–much like the phase transition when water abruptly turns to ice–and the buttons link up in one giant network. Likewise, life may have originated when the mix of different molecules in the primordial soup passed a certain level of complexity and self-organized into living entities (if so, then life is not a highly improbable chance event, but almost inevitable). Kauffman uses the basic insight of "order for free" to illuminate a staggering range of phenomena. We see how a single-celled embryo can grow to a highly complex organism with over two hundred different cell types. We learn how the science of complexity extends Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection: that self-organization, selection, and chance are the engines of the biosphere. And we gain insights into biotechnology, the stunning magic of the new frontier of genetic engineering–generating trillions of novel molecules to find new drugs, vaccines, enzymes, biosensors, and more. Indeed, Kauffman shows that ecosystems, economic systems, and even cultural systems may all evolve according to similar general laws, that tissues and terra cotta evolve in similar ways. And finally, there is a profoundly spiritual element to Kauffman’s thought. If, as he argues, life were bound to arise, not as an incalculably improbable accident, but as an expected fulfillment of the natural order, then we truly are at home in the universe. Kauffman’s earlier volume, The Origins of Order, written for specialists, received lavish praise. Stephen Jay Gould called it "a landmark and a classic." And Nobel Laureate Philip Anderson wrote that "there are few people in this world who ever ask the right questions of science, and they are the ones who affect its future most profoundly. Stuart Kauffman is one of these." In At Home in the Universe, this visionary thinker takes you along as he explores new insights into the nature of life.
About the Author
Stuart Kauffman is a member of the Santa Fe Institute. A MacArthur Fellowship recipient, he is the leading thinker on self-organization and the science of complexity as applied to biology.
a mathematical explanation of life, March 23, 2000
The basic idea of Kauffman’s book is that the complexity we see in nature (including life or technology) is contingent to math, i.e. can be explained and predicted by mathematical reasoning. The same is true of statistical thermodynamics and evolution. He states that Darwin’s evolutionary theory explains only how complex life emerged from simple life, but it does not explain how simple life emerged from matter. There is probably a larger jump in complexity from matter to the first simple cell, than from that simple cell to a modern human being. Darwin does not explain that first jump. Kauffman doesn’t either even though he is convincing in showing that life must have started through autocatalytic sets of molecules. He points out that these sets are self-organizing, stable and can vary as a reflex to external stimuli. What he mentions, but does not explain, is that autocatalytic sets can (or must) self-reproduce, a necessary step before evolution sets in. On page 66 of the paperback edition he states that "such breaking in two happens spontaneously as such [auto-catalytic] sets increase in volume", but, maddeningly, he does not explain how or why. One has to wonder: if life is such a necessary result of matter (therefore the title "at home in the universe") why then has it proven so difficult to synthesize anything approaching life in the laboratory? He doesn’t say.
The book is full of incredibly interesting ideas. He explains ontogeny (the transformation of a fertilized egg to a highly complex and differentiated organism) using a simple model of on/off enzymes which allows him to build a Boolean network in which different cell types correspond to different "attractors", which are intrinsic in such a network. He shows that the same relationship that holds between number of attractors and size of a network, also holds between number of cell types and size of DNA of a wide range of organisms. Very impressive. He goes on to discuss things like fitness landscapes and genetic algorithms, the edge between boring order and supracritical instability where the really interesting stuff happens, the co-evolution of coupled systems, the structure of efficient companies or countries, and more.
The only criticism I have is about his poetical language that does indeed resemble fluff; anyone who even partly understands his ideas would be excited enough without all that sauce. Also I missed a deeper development, the book does point into one interesting direction and then jumps into another matter, leaving one hungering for more. But maybe this is the author’s intent.
This is an excellent book even though it resembles more a symphony of ideas than a theorem. Very highly recommended: a mind opener.