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

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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 , 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, , 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 , this visionary thinker takes you along as he explores new insights into the nature of life.

336 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1995

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About the author

Stuart A. Kauffman

13 books148 followers
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 to simplified genetic circuits.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 54 reviews
Profile Image for Manny.
Author 29 books13.5k followers
March 8, 2014

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 through the blind forces of Darwinian selection? Maybe, and maybe not. I ford a stream with a single step, crossing as I do so from one region to another of the living three-dimensional graph the garden represents, and ponder how I will review Stuart Kauffman's book.

By writing my review, I will combine short signs into longer ones in a dance eerily reminiscent of the bubbling, barely controlled interactions that enzymes are simultaneously following in my body's 256 different types of cell. When I have finished, I will release it through the medium of the Internet into the post-capitalistic abstract economy of Goodreads, where my labor will be exchanged for the notional currency of "likes". What is a "like"? In comparison, a soap-bubble is excessively concrete. Yet desire for "likes" determines all my actions.

Together with my gifted young colleagues Mei Dupp and Nosuč Persson, I have attempted to develop mathematical models that relate a review's structure to the number of likes it will receive. It is a complex optimization problem: the space of all possible reviews contains more elements than there are atoms in the universe. No chance of searching it exhaustively. Yet we have found ways to create reviews that are "good enough". By splitting each review randomly into independent sections of a few words, and optimizing each one individually, we can reach much higher maxima than if we brutally tried to improve the whole text at once. As so often, the key to the problem lies in the thin zone of controlled chaos between the two classical areas of sense and nonsense. The figure below illustrates.


Are our algorithms sound? Will our plan work? Whence cometh the likes? We cannot answer these questions. We can only hope that people will vote.
Profile Image for David Rubenstein.
801 reviews2,521 followers
August 5, 2011
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 reactions may have driven chemicals to combine and "reproduce". In other simulations, Kauffman shows how evolution through natural selection may not have depended on improbable, random mutations. Genes may be "self-organized" in such a way as to make genetic improvements a very likely occurrence. Coevolution is also discussed in some detail.

Kauffman also shows the parallels between biological and technological evolution. These parallels are quite impressive. The concepts are amazingly thought-provoking.

This is not an easy-to-read book; it is filled with simple mathematics, though there are very few equations. Sometimes I had to read a page twice to really understand it, but was well worth the effort. Interestingly, the writing style alternates between straightforward technical writing, and lyrical. This alternation gives the book a nice change of pace.
August 8, 2022
Biology has never been my forte, so most of the specifics of Kauffman's discussions of that made my eyes glaze over and my head spin. Despite that, I was able to follow his development of the various principles of complexity theory well enough to confirm my fascination with the field. The book also confirmed for me that I need to stick with applications of complexity theory to the social sciences like history, economics, political philosophy, and anthropology. I will say, that anyone interested in complexity should read Kauffman...but only after getting the basics from a couple of general books on the subject.
Profile Image for Barnaby Thieme.
504 reviews228 followers
January 23, 2009
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 extension of evolutionary theory that explains the emergence of order by appeal to statistical mechanics, the study of dynamic systems, and the study of self-organization propounded by great luminaries like Nobel laureate Ilya Prigogine.

True to its title, Kauffman offers a thrilling approach to empirical science that weaves humanity and human concerns back into the fabric of the cosmos. This is a vital book.
Profile Image for Igor.
51 reviews15 followers
October 27, 2009
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. The arguments were much too specific and complex for me to follow all the way through.

On the periphery of the density of the case for such a bold unified theory of origins, is a beautiful view of the universe as a mix of variables forming a complex system that has an innate and inevitable drive toward self-organization, increasing complexity, and life. The paradigm shift offered by this book is that life is not an unlikely, improbably chance occurrence; Jacques Monod's "chance caught on a wing"; but rather an expected outcome from the interactions of a complex system with multiple inputs. It starts from an auto-catalytic process of molecular interactions, molecules acting on themselves, creating a disequilibrium. A molecular storm system, if you will, feeding on inputs and spitting outputs. All you need from there is to be able to maintain this disequilibrium that drives itself to supra-critical behavior. Where life begins from that point is a matter of definition, mere semantics.

The most beautiful idea is that whatever it is that we are, is merely the refined outcome of a molecular storm that was started billions of years ago, and is still surging against entropy and equilibrium.

Kauffman, himself, is a biologist, but he works in part of an interdisciplinary team of scientists -- and is seeking laws of self-organization applicable to any complex system, be it biological, economic, cultural, etc.

This new theory attempts to patch up all the holes of natural selection, such as those early situations where the blind choreographer cannot make effective selections in a system which is too simple, too chaotic, and undeveloped for selection to begin to work its magic. It also provides ammunition for organization of corporate structures in such a way as to attempt to avoid the pitfalls of centralized predictive planning (which is increasingly futile in a world getting exponentially more complex) and harness the power of decentralization and co-evolution.

Its an interesting idea presented in this book, which seems almost obvious, but has not been accepted in economics. The idea that diversity begets diversity, and in turn, diversity begets growth. This is a powerful idea in that the way growth is measured today does not take into account the diversity of products and ideas in the economy and marketplace of ideas. Such an economic "law" would most certainly favor a minimally regulated market system to any kind of centrally planned alternative.

Finally, what this book offers, perhaps above all else, is a story of emergent order that can offer an awe and inspiration, perhaps even a spiritual experience, to those atheists and agnostics that have had their special central place under God's warm and steady gaze ripped asunder by the growth of scientific thought -- instead of giving us a creation story that is a cold, improbable, and haphazard mistake that arose from the swamps of a primordial earth, it gives us one in which humanity is an inevitable and expected outcome of the laws of this curious universe. What a wonderful theory! And what wonders yet remain eager to find us behind the ever settling fog of our ignorance?
Profile Image for Gendou.
581 reviews255 followers
February 6, 2013
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: http://thephysicspolice.blogspot.com/...

Cool stuff: evolutionarily stable strategies, the red queen effect, genetic algorithms, self-modifying code, simulated annealing, the founder effect, game theory, the traveling salesman problem, the P vs. NP problem, auto-catalytic sets, strange attractors, fitness landscapes, and peptide chains.
Profile Image for Cassandra Kay Silva.
704 reviews280 followers
September 4, 2011
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 delivery was solid and the material well presented. An enjoyable read for sure.
Profile Image for Olivierco.
50 reviews21 followers
August 13, 2011
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 100,000 genes should have about 317 cell types. And in fact, the number of known human cell types is 256. If our theory is right, we should be able to predict the scaling relation between the number of genes and the number of cell types. The latter should increase as the square root function of the former."
Then he presents a not so convincing graph (with only ten living species) which should prove that the whole model is right.

I would draw a parallel with the representation of our solar system:
When Copernic published his De Revolutionibus , it was clearly an improvement on the geocentric model, but even if his model gave clearly good and verified results (such as the fact that Venus presents phases), these results don't prove that the whole model is exact.

So even if the graph were more convincing, it wouldn't in any way prove the validity of the whole theory.
Profile Image for B.J. Richardson.
Author 2 books70 followers
October 21, 2019
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 highly improbable event but rather a near certain inevitability (hence the first sentence), 2) there are parallels between natural biological and human technological evolution, 3) coevolution, thrives best at a specific balance between chaos and order.

Even though he acknowledges that the theories behind a lot of this book are the minority view, it does sound awfully convincing to me, I am reminded of Proverbs 18:17 "The first to speak in court sounds right - until the cross examination begins." This is not an area in which I know enough about to be able to debate him in my own mind. So my interest is peaked enough to read further that I might be able to eventually do so.
3 reviews2 followers
September 28, 2008
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 unconvinced. I stopped reading the book halfway. Turns out I am a system complex enough to self-organize and return this book to the library before finishing it.
8 reviews
August 24, 2009
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 provocative and thought stimulating book. Id love to chat with anyone about this book if you ever read it... James/Nicole.
Profile Image for ferrigno.
538 reviews84 followers
September 13, 2012
Interessante, ripetitivo, retorico, difficile

C'è troppa retorica (l'autore la ritiene, ehm, poesia) e troppa filosofia, per essere un saggio scientifico.

Ci sono molte metafore che spesso rendono il concetto più arduo, anziché svelarlo.

L'idea che fenomeni di auto-organizzazione compartecipino, assiame alla selezione, al modellamento della natura, è intrigante. Però questo saggio non è né pienamente divulgativo, né ha la concisione e l'efficacia analitica di un saggio rivolto agli esperti.

Decine di espressioni inusitate e/o neologismi per il puro gusto del funambolismo linguistico.
Profile Image for B. Rule.
796 reviews21 followers
September 17, 2018
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, politics, and law) and also stating grand ontological theories of our place in the world.

His fundamental biological point is that life could be an emergent population of auto-catalyzing systems of molecular substrates and enzymes of sufficient diversity. His view is thus that life is actually almost inevitable given the mathematical likelihood of order emerging in such situations. He believes this despite the admitted failure of any laboratory to reproduce such an occurrence, but okay. He also thinks those models might, MIGHT, apply to political orders and to technological innovations, although he says over and over that he doesn't have any real basis for those views other than a hunch.

His grand philosophical aim is creating a new secular sense of the sacred in which we marvel that we are meant to be here because life is so suited to the underlying math of the universe, and that somehow this emergent quality of math is better than blind chance and the atomism of DNA (I dunno man). I admire his attempt to find some meaning beyond the clockwork god, but frankly, I don't understand what he's on about. How is a firmer case for the anthropic principle evidence of a non-mystical sense of the sacred, whatever that is? On his view, we're still random, we're just more likely to arise. And how do we know that we're not in a vanishingly rare goldilocks universe in a multiverse of dead variants?

I am not heartened that life was inevitable or slightly more likely than not, because life is a given at this point. Pushing the timetable back or weighting the dice in our favor doesn't have anything fundamental to say about ultimate purpose, because we're still either products of chance in a meaningless universe, or there is an unseen hand. He wants the math describing the universe to be that hand, but it's still just physics, not metaphysics. There's a lot of beard-stroking in this book, ultimately signifying little.
Profile Image for Michael Huang.
818 reviews35 followers
December 18, 2017
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 drawn. Even language and facts are loose. Case in point: when discussing simulated annealing, the author incorrectly point to quenching as “natural annealing”. There are also a non-trivial amount of grammatical errors to annoy you.

This is not to say the author is a charlatan scientist. There are bits and pieces of info from other people’s works that are interesting pointers and his own work may have some scientific merit if you read all the related work and judge it from that context. But as a book, the writing is terrible and the content simply does not cohere.
107 reviews1 follower
March 1, 2020
"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 within complexity under competing constraints and how interdependency and conflicting constraints result in rugged fitness landscapes and the resulting use of 'patches' to avoid chaos and local optimisations. "Technological evolution is co-evolution"
Profile Image for Lisajean.
222 reviews41 followers
May 15, 2021
The author’s overblown, off-putting style made it hard to take this book seriously.
2,140 reviews
Want to read
July 20, 2011
from the library
related book: Emergence Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software

from the library computer reviews:
Book News
According to MacArthur fellow Kauffman (Santa Fe Institute), "[T:]he order of the biological world...is not merely tinkered, but arises naturally and spontaneously because of underlying principles of self-organization." These principles may be employed to analyze all manner of highly-involved patterns, from molecular biology, the rise and fall of corporations, to the intricate workings of government. Kauffman outlines the characteristics and potential uses of complexity, simply delineating its meaning for the future of scientific thought. For general readers. Annotation copyright Book News, Inc. Portland, Or.

Choice Reviews
This engaging and baffling tale about biological evolution by someone who has been dubbed a "visionary pioneer" is based on decades of computer simulations, boundless enthusiasm, lots of imagination, and zealotry for the impossibility of defining complexity theory. Kauffman attempts to illuminate an enormous number of phenomena using his view of self-organization ("order for free"), and claims that "complexity" somehow catapults one beyond a Darwinian understanding of evolution by natural selection. Kauffman asserts that from cultural systems to ecosystems, the evolutionary dynamic follows similar laws, and spontaneous order plays a great role in all of them. The subjects covered range from the origins of life to development of individuals, and comparisons of organisms and artifacts. The large number of figures vary from cartoon-like to mesmerizing networks and puzzling graphs. The last chapter treats the reader to a hodgepodge on "an emerging global civilization." It is not difficult to see how chaos theory is one of the fountains of the science of complexity. Recommended for the general reader who likes to take an eclectic stab at everything. Copyright 1999 American Library Association

from the library computer
At Home in the Universe

The Origins of Life

We the Expected

Order for Free

The Mystery of Ontogeny

Noah's Vessel

The Promised Land

High-Country Adventures

Organisms and Artifacts

An Hour Upon the Stage

In Search of Excellence

An Emerging Global Civilization


from Goodreads quote from the book:
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
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Brett Williams.
Author 2 books58 followers
June 10, 2020
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 disequilibrium energy gradients making reactions run up or downhill will create complex, self-sustaining systems. Be they elaborate molecules, catalysts, cells, life, economies, technology or democracy, each conforms to its fitness landscape, dictated by its own constraints and that of others its interacts with. Blind nature pushes itself toward the boundary between order and chaos, crossing into the oblivion of runaway reactions, retreating into less orderly arrangements, or tempting fate at the door to one or the other in long term survival. That “order for free” occurs, resulting in such extreme complexity by relatively simple but rigorous laws is the shocker. Order for free moves the goal posts, once 100 yards away, 60 yards closer. In the arena of biology, evolution’s random mutations and deterministic selection take it from there. (Sorry, Creationists.)

The first half of this book, part spirituality (See? We’re not an accident), part revelation (the “famous” Belosov-Zhabotinski reaction that I never heard of—kooky!) would be of interest to just about anybody. The second half is of such detailed nuance you could write your own code from it. And even though I was interested in doing just that, Kaufmann occasionally crossed my eyes with so much detail. Carl Sagan and Stephen J. Gould gave it high marks for good reason.
Profile Image for Michael.
47 reviews
August 29, 2015
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 the intended."

The author's conviction to both his argument and the science of complex systems is evident throughout the book. If you are coming to this book without much background in complex adaptive systems, you will not be short-changed here. In fact, Kauffman provides extremely rich examples with numerous simple diagrams to educate the reader as he builds his case. Considering the book was published some 19 years ago, I was surprised to see the concept of gene networks given so much attention in the text. Seeing how the latest trend in genomics research is looking at genes and proteins as a regulatory network and attempting to identify specific disease pathways, the science in this book is extremely relevant.
6 reviews5 followers
January 12, 2009
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.
Profile Image for Edd Franz.
14 reviews7 followers
July 22, 2008
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.
Profile Image for Ann Michael.
Author 10 books25 followers
August 2, 2009
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.
240 reviews
April 8, 2009
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.
Profile Image for Scott Ford.
254 reviews7 followers
February 14, 2010
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.
Profile Image for Mark.
12 reviews2 followers
October 6, 2008
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!
Profile Image for Jonathan Hockey.
Author 2 books15 followers
March 11, 2021
As usual, get better than the standard fair mainstream popular perspectives on Biology and evolution, that tend to overplay the cards of what current science knows about life at its most fundamental level.

He is happy to explore the areas of difficulty for a view based solely on purely random natural selection, suggesting it be supplemented by an appreciation of self-organisation. This latter allows for natural selection to work in environments which have what he calls rugged fitness landscapes. It's in such landscapes where organisms can fumble their way towards the peaks of fitness through evolution by natural selection. With purely random or purely flat landscapes there is no opportunity for natural selection evolution to function. And so, he speculates in the book on natural ways in which these rugged fitness landscapes can emerge. And compares such metaphorically to this idea of life as working and thriving best on the boundary between chaos and order.

He compares life also to how economies and societies and technology develops, which does raise the question of if there is an intentionally driven factor in life and living beings. This, he does not pursue, preferring to stick, in this book at least, to the standard idea that evolution only happens in the dark so to speak, in line with Darwin, and opposed to Lamarckism. But for me it is always striking how even the most staunch Darwinians tend to revert to metaphors of intentionality at key moments in the statement of their positions. Dawkins, for instance, even talked of the selfishness of genes. And in this book, Kauffman similarly compares organisms to human beings in an economy, acting selfishly, but as Adam Smith originally described, guided by the invisible hand of the market. My personal view has always and continues to be that the logic/process of natural selection relies on implicit teleology through a version of the anthropic principle, and this may well cross over with notions of internal or self organisation of systems creating a rugged landscape for natural selection to act effectively within.

It would also be interesting to see if in his more recent work he addresses and incorporates the emergence of epigenetics and how he views these discoveries.

I would give 4 stars were it not for some dubious extensions of his doctrine in this book to politics and "democracy" which just don't feel either connected to the core message of the book, or even justified. It suffers like many things in that generation of the late 1990's from excess optimism of how science and reality were going to magically harmonise with political ideals in a Kantian, enlightenment style perpetual progress of society.

A democracy, does share some features with a form of order on edge of chaos, but we have seen it also tends towards a flattening and too much order, things which go against the natural thriving of evolving beings. Similarly to his optimism about a global civilisation and decentralisation. We have seen lately instead massive centralisation of wealth in a few with intricate centralised hierarchies controlling all resources and information and sending out that order or those "orders" to the rest of us. So instead of a thriving civilisation on edge of chaos, we have a stultified domestication with excess order. The attack on people's privacy and the use of technologies to control peoples very desires and behavior and responses, has been a big blow to those heady optimistic late 90's. And it can only be a mark on that era of those people as being excessively naive.
Profile Image for Yvo Hunink.
60 reviews
December 26, 2018
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 rigidness.

The boolean networks and the NK-models that are described are a nice way of showing how all of this works and is, as Adam Smith said about market dynamics, governed by an invisible hand.

Still, I have not found any tools that I can directly start using in my work, except for stressing organisation to decentralise in non overlapping patches of departments that are working autonomously on innovation, since this will optimise towards excellent solutions in bringing the organisation as a whole further. Also, I now have the arguments to stress that a little bit of chaos in organisations can help to get out of rigid situations where little improvement is done and go towards new paradigms of activities.
15 reviews1 follower
November 18, 2021
Kauffman summarizes his work on complexity theory at the Santa Fe Institute. Says the laws of complexity put us very much at home in the universe, we belong here because we are essentially born from these laws.

He explores closed auto-catalyzing sets of early molecules being the reason life emerged.

He explores stability and instability in binary state networks, where say a large grid of LED lights is wired up, and individual elements turns on and off based on inputs of some others. Certain rules allow for regularity, others for chaos. I think the binary-state-networks are supposed to be analogous to gene regulatory networks, like epigenetics. (I'm interested in binary-state-networks being a simplification for neuronal networks, because of the obvious on-or-off nature of axon signalling).

He explores some implications for complexity in the fields of society and law, but tbh I skipped those chapters. (I think a business type entity funded his book writing, so he applied his theories about complexity and the adjacent possible to the businesses world ?? not sure. If you're reading his book as a business student, then wow you're especially bright).
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