Igor's Reviews > At Home in the Universe: The Search for the Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity

At Home in the Universe by Stuart A. Kauffman
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's review
Aug 20, 2009

really liked it
bookshelves: science
Read in October, 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?
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10/15/2009 page 150

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message 1: by Ken (new)

Ken Brilliant summary. Thank You. No need to read the book then...:-)

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