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At Home in the Universe: The Search for the Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity

4.01  ·  Rating details ·  1,332 ratings  ·  46 reviews
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 ...more
Paperback, 336 pages
Published November 1st 1996 by Oxford University Press, USA (first published 1995)
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Feb 16, 2013 rated it it was ok
Recommends it for: People searching for the deep secrets of the universe

I look around the topography of the Geneva Botanical Garden's alpine section, a miniature mountain complete with grass, flowers, rocks and even tiny rivers, and pause, awe-stricken, to consider the marvel it represents. The DNA of species developed over 3.45 billion years has somehow coalesced into a form that is both a small ecosystem in its own right and a model of something larger. It contains information on two levels, which are different and yet somehow the same. Can we explain all of this
Aug 04, 2011 rated it it was amazing
This is the type of book I like best; the author, Stuart Kauffman, describes his own research into a new field called "complexity theory". Kauffman builds simulations of lattice networks, and explores their characteristics. He shows how the simulations are analogous to chemicals combining, and may shed light on the origin of life. He claims that the simulations show that the origin of life may not have been an improbable accident, but instead may have been almost inevitable. Auto-catalytic react ...more
Barnaby Thieme
Jan 22, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: science
How is it possible in an entropic universe, in which natural systems progress inexorably toward disorder, that life should continually move in the opposite direction?

History may well remember the science of complexity and self-organization as a greater revolution than quantum mechanics and relativity theory, and Stuart Kauffman is one of its most important voices.

This book is a readable presentation of the ideas Kauffman explored in much greater detail in "The Origins of Order", a magnificent
Aug 20, 2009 rated it really liked it
Shelves: science
Rarely do I gain such insight from a book, but Kauffman was able to tie together all my interests in biology, economics, anthropology, into a single unified theory of spontaneous order/self-organization.

Although the concept were world-view changing, the context, outside of some beautiful prose, is dull and teeth clenching dry/complex at times... at many times. The book itself was recommended to me by an MIT graduate student in Complex Systems Science, straight from his reading list, I believe.
Aug 04, 2011 rated it did not like it
Even for a popular science book, it's pretty terrible because there is so much wrong with the "science", which is mostly buried beneath mountains of jargon. Also, rhetorical arguments and hyperbolic, bogus claims pervade the meandering prose drenched in soft language and philosophy. The thesis is not very unclear, and the majority of claims are totally bogus. See my full review for (way more) details:

Cool stuff: evolutionarily stable strategies, the red q
The book would have gained much clarity to be written in a classical scientific literature style. It should have been then an easy read as the concepts and maths involved in At Home with the Universe are not too complex.

The ideas are interesting but some shortcuts didn't convince me, especially when a whole theory is supposed to be proved just because a mathematical model derived from it seems to be in adequation with it on a peculiar point.
For instance, p 109:
"Thus our prediction: a human with
B.J. Richardson
Jun 30, 2017 rated it liked it
Spontaneous generation makes a comeback.

If you were to sum up this book in one sentence, that would be it. Stuart Kauffman, a specialist in the theory of complexity, asks a very legitimate question. In a world where nature's laws demand we move from order to disorder, why does all life evolve into ever more complex forms. He then attempts to demonstrate three things: 1) his work with autocatalytic reactions demonstrate that chemical combinations for the first generation of life was not some hig
Sep 28, 2008 added it
As I read this book, it appeared to be a series of anecdotes about how certain chemical systems appear to spontaneously "self-organize", and then some anecdotes about simplistic computer models the author created to simulate the "primordial soup" where life may have begun. None of it was convincing, certainly not enough for his amazing reveal, "Life started on earth just because really complex interconnected systems tend to manifest pseudo-organized behavior!" of which I was completely unconvinc ...more
Aug 24, 2009 rated it it was amazing
This book is really good, though needs to be taken with a grain of salt since its super theoretical. Basically Kauffman is trying to simulate with mathematical models what occurs in evolution. He tries to simulate adaptive mutations and such (in genetic terms) with a mathematical formula/model. Its a nice thought, but doesnt work so well when you simply cannot make a model complex enough to include a reasonable amount of the variables we encounter in everyday life... oh well, still a very provoc ...more
Cassandra Kay Silva
Aug 08, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: science
Read David's Review. I think he captures the main points about this book that are important. It was an interesting proposal the way the author sets up complexity to reflect mathematical ideas, his proposition of the way of biological creation. I was very interested in his proposals and he was very clear on the work in this area and the basis that it is built on. I can't say that I have any way of checking his hypothesis. Only to say that it does seem quite sound and well put together. That the d ...more
B. Rule
This book was all over the dang place, and not really in a good way. The problem is a lack of intellectual discipline on behalf of the author. Kauffman is trying to serve several masters with this book, and it ends up a mash. Not only is he giving an excited account of his academic work modeling certain types of systems which might or might not have a bearing on evolutionary ecologies, but he's also trying to extend those models to areas where he admittedly has no expertise (like technology, pol ...more
Michael Huang
Dec 17, 2017 rated it it was ok
The author may be on the cusp of finding something interesting or he may be stepping into a deep pile of manure, either way, the book is a bad piece of stream-of-consciousness non-fiction woven with pseudo poetic language.

Every chapter starts with some warm fuzzy pseudo poem to promise some new age wisdom and takes forever to come to the chase. Once there, you are given some oversimplified puzzle, some solution that may or may not mean much in the original domain where the simplified puzzle is d
John Cumming
Mar 01, 2020 rated it it was amazing
"We are all at home in the universe, poised to sanctify by our best, brief, only stay"

This is a fabulous book, from the sometimes beautiful prose to the Lispy goodness towards the end. (Those that know me will know my love of Lisp!) I won't even begin to claim I understood more than about 10% of this, but what I did was hugely insightful in dealing with complexity. I feel that I have only scratched the surface of this book and come away with insights into catalysing organisational change, order
Apr 10, 2010 marked it as to-read
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Brett Williams
Mar 30, 2020 rated it really liked it
Stuart Kaufman’s 1995 book in the second in a series of 6 (most resent, 2019) that carry on where D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson (1860-1948) with his 1917 book On Growth and Form began, and shares ideas with Michael Polanyi’s (1891-1976) “spontaneous order.” Though like Adam Smith’s (1723-1790) “invisible hands,” none provided the cause. Kaufmann does that. His topic is “complexity theory.” The idea that by physics alone, crazy but quite natural reactions in sufficiently nutrient rich environs with d ...more
Aug 24, 2015 rated it it was amazing
This book takes a hard look at how life on earth came to be. Rather than buy into the idea that somehow life evolved via the "blind watchmaker" scenario (i.e., similar to the argument that an army of monkeys sitting at typewriters would eventually compose a great novel), Stuart Kauffman builds a terrific case that the ingredients essential to life are bound to the rules that govern complex adaptive systems. And the very presence of these rules send a strong signal that "we the living", are "we t ...more
Jun 17, 2008 rated it really liked it
A dense read, fascinating concept exploring the fundamental laws of the universe. Postulates a counter-weighted theory to the law of entropy or disorder, but gets pretty tough to read about halfway through as it delves deeply into the math and science backing the theory up. A must-read for biologists, but the average reader will have trouble finishing it... I sure did.
Edd Franz
Jul 21, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Kaufman is one of the leading scientists from the Santa Fe Institute. The man is brilliant, which can make it hard to keep up with his explanations of his investigations into the science of complexity. I had to work hard to understand much of his thinking, but it was worth it. His explanation of self-organizing complex systems is the best I've encountered. ...more
Ann Michael
Aug 02, 2009 rated it really liked it
Kaufmann's writing style is a bit cliched and repetitive, but he's very clear. Even I could understand his explanations of peptide molecules, biochemistry, etc. and how these concepts of life-origin theories relate to other systems mathematically and otherwise. And his idea here is definitely worth considering, even revolutionary. ...more
J. D.
Jan 31, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
An interesting speculative read. Discusses the order in the universe,
particularly that pertaining to evolution and self-organization, in the general as well as the biological sense. Examines the concepts of order and chaos by means of various models.
Scott Ford
Feb 13, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: sociology
This pressed the edges of my science schema, but what an interesting book! In response to the law of thermo dynamics (e.g. things fall apart), Kauffman explores the topic of self-organization (e.g. things come together). Really fascinating.
Jul 12, 2008 rated it really liked it
An amazing exploration of the science of emergence, this is a challenging read which I've been digesting in small pieces and return to from time to time. Math comprehension helps a lot! ...more
Dylan Bochman
Nov 22, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Great, Why I picked Bio as my major
Ami Iida
Feb 26, 2015 rated it really liked it
The author is a leading expert of complex systems.
This book brings you a great thinking.

The process of biological evolution is a must-read.
Yvo Hunink
Jun 05, 2018 rated it really liked it
I started reading because I wanted to more about complexity and how one can move within complex environments.

It turned out to completely change my view on chemistry and biology and life. The mathematical approach was sometimes hard to follow, but in general I understood what was said and it made me see that life and autocatalytic sets of molecules or artifacts are not an accident but rather a logical result of how our universe works, which converges to an optimum on the edge of chaos and rigidne
Apr 26, 2020 rated it really liked it
Wow. This is an intriguing theory, a quarter century old, now, so I'm looking forward to reading Kauffman's more recent books to see how many of his speculations have yielded fruit. I lived in Santa Fe in the 1980s for around five years and had no idea the Santa Fe Institute was producing such interesting ideas.

To summarize Kauffman's ideas is way beyond my ability. My math is weak, and though he does his best to be demotic a number of the mathematical concepts were beyond this reader's ken. Sti
Karl Strobl
Mar 21, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
quite possibly the most important book I've read over the last 10 years. Kauffmann is onto a new kind of science. Having worked in theoretical physics, complex systems research, and applied maths (but not biology) myself, I find everything he's pointing out as future avenues of research very very promising and exciting. Thank God I found this book. ...more
May 23, 2019 rated it did not like it
Shelves: nonfiction
I believe there's some real, solid knowledge to be gained from this tome, but sifting through the seemingly endless rambling off-topic self-serving didactic prose was beyond my powers of self-discipline. ...more
Poorly written and confused; a scientist's attempt to write about meaning without the warmth or depth of a Gould. ...more
Sølvi Goard
Jun 16, 2019 rated it it was ok
Mixed feelings - very 90s in weak attempts at meaningful politicisation. complexity fascinating, mutual aid a vital component.

Didn't strike any passion...was waiting for it to resonate.
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Stuart Alan Kauffman (28 September 1939) is an American theoretical biologist and complex systems researcher concerning the origin of life on Earth. He is best known for arguing that the complexity of biological systems and organisms might result as much from self-organization and far-from-equilibrium dynamics as from Darwinian natural selection, as well as for applying models of Boolean networks ...more

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Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “We are not makers of history. We are made by history.” So, this January, as we celebrate Martin Luther King...
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“Pick up a pinecone and count the spiral rows of scales. You may find eight spirals winding up to the left and 13 spirals winding up to the right, or 13 left and 21 right spirals, or other pairs of numbers. The striking fact is that these pairs of numbers are adjacent numbers in the famous Fibonacci series: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21... Here, each term is the sum of the previous two terms. The phenomenon is well known and called phyllotaxis. Many are the efforts of biologists to understand why pinecones, sunflowers, and many other plants exhibit this remarkable pattern. Organisms do the strangest things, but all these odd things need not reflect selection or historical accident. Some of the best efforts to understand phyllotaxis appeal to a form of self-organization. Paul Green, at Stanford, has argued persuasively that the Fibonacci series is just what one would expects as the simplest self-repeating pattern that can be generated by the particular growth processes in the growing tips of the tissues that form sunflowers, pinecones, and so forth. Like a snowflake and its sixfold symmetry, the pinecone and its phyllotaxis may be part of order for free” 35 likes
“The past three centuries of science have been predominantly reductionist, attempting to break complex systems into simple parts, and those parts, in turn, into simpler parts. The reductionist program has been spectacularly successful, and will continue to be so. But it has often left a vacuum: How do we use the information gleaned about the parts to build up a theory of the whole? The deep difficulty here lies in the fact that the complex whole may exhibit properties that are not readily explained by understanding the parts. The complex whole, in a completely nonmystical sense, can often exhibit collective properties, “emergent” features that are lawful in their own right. This” 2 likes
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