Friday, January 29, 2010

At Home in the Universe

At Home in the Universe, by Stuart Kauffman, is a book I wish I had read a while ago--or perhaps at some point in the future. I got excited when I found it in the library and I just finished reading it, but as I was reading it, I got the feeling that it wasn't what I needed to be reading right now.

Not that this book doesn't contain useful stuff. Stuart Kauffman talks about self-organization and how things emerge as systems change and grow--very useful stuff if you're thinking about social change. (See my post on Complexity Theory, 7/16/08. Stuart Kauffman is a key Complexity theorist--I mention this book in that post and I have been thinking of reading it since.) It got me thinking a lot about how to create small systems (such as communities) that might enable the emergence of positive change--or even how to create the conditions that might emerge these systems.

But a lot of this book is about mathematical and computer models to show how self-organization works and, while I was tempted to try to follow a lot of it or even replicate some of the simple models, I'm clear that's not going to help me with things I am working on at this point. I ended up skipping or skimming through sections of the book and almost stopped reading it at one point.

Still, I am glad that I finished it and I might read it again in the future. There's a lot to think about in this book.

Kauffman's major premise is that while he is not doubting that Darwinian natural selection works, he thinks that the neo-Darwinians (such as Richard Dawkins) oversimplify the process. He feels that self-organization and other emerging dynamics of systems are as much involved in creating complex biological life as natural selection. He claims that Darwinian selection makes it seem like we are the random result of chance factors. (And sometimes, as he points out, these are extremely unlikely chances. He cites Fred Hoyle and NC Wickramasinghe as calculating the chances of a bacterial enzyme spontaneously emerging as an astronomically small number--1 in 10 to the power of 40,000--making the likelihood of this event "comparable to the chances that a tornado sweeping through a junkyard might assemble a Boeing 747 from the materials therein.") Our existence becomes an unbelieveable fluke. Whereas when you add the tendency for systems to self-organize into the process (and he goes into quite a bit of detail about how this might happen) life, and even human beings, becomes a likely phenomenon--an emergent property of the conditions the earth started with. He refers to this in several places in the books as "We, the expected," and goes on to say that "We may be at home in the universe in ways we have hardly begun to understand."

It's interesting to put this in relation to the Gaia theory (see my post of 1/3/10) which focuses on how the earth and life organized to create a system that maintains a livable situation for life. I'd love to hear a conversation between Stuart Kauffman and Lynn Margulis.

And I am fascinated by the 'edge of chaos' phenomenon that he alludes to several times in the book. The idea is that order stagnates and chaos disrupts--but the boundary line between chaos and order is an extremely productive area. I suspect we would all benefit from a balance between order and chaos in our lives.

Toward the end of the book, he moves from biological systems to social systems and technological systems. While I don't buy a lot of it (he is too much in favor of capitalism and technology for me), there is still a lot of useful, thought provoking stuff here. He talks about the needs for decentralization and breaking a problem up into smaller pieces. (But not too many pieces. One big problem creates a situation that is ordered and stuck. A ton of little problems become chaotic and unmanageable. He provides mathematical models that indicate breaking problems up into a small number of pieces makes it more manageable--again the edge of chaos phenomenon.) And he uses the term "patches" which I like--it makes me think of a quilt.

At one point, he describes the typical ordered and chaotic social systems as a 'Stalinist regime' and a 'fanciful Leftist Italian regime'. A bit much but I can see where he is coming from. His edge of chaos is democracy which I do think is correct--but I am not sure that we have seen what real democracy is. (I think democracy is a still emergent phenomenon--something evolving through us. I'm taken with the Lapp├ęs' phrase, "...creating the path as we walk." See my post of 9/8/08 for more on this.) He ends the book with a chapter on 'An Emerging Global Civilization'. I suspect that this emerging civilization will be a lot more decentralized than he thinks.

Still, this is a book worth reading and even re-reading, if only for all the insights in it and thoughts it provokes. But right now, my focus is elsewhere.

Quote of the Day: "Why try if our best efforts ultimately transform to the unforeseeable? Because that is the way the world is, and we are part of that world. Because that is the way that life is, and we are part of life. ... If profound participation in such a process is not worthy of awe and respect, if it is not sacred, then what might be? ...
"We are all part of this process, created by it, creating it." - Stuart Kauffman


Michaelann Bewsee said...

Hmmm...I probably won't read this book either, but your description reminded me of a concept in physics (have I ever mentioned I'm a secret fan?) that I don't understand as well as I want to-- emergence. At what point do neutrons and protons and atoms (which aren't really even "things") organize themselves and become "real" molecules? And in spite of entropy, whole systems really DO seem to get more rather than less complicated as they emerge. Wish I could find a really good book.

MoonRaven said...

Thanks for your comment, and it's a good question.

I have more knowledge about emergence as applied to biology and social systems than to physics, and I certainly don't know any books devoted to this, but I do know that some complexity theorists have looked at the idea that atoms and molecules have 'emerged' in a similar manner to life and social systems. These folks think that while entropy certainly exists and is powerful, that there is a counter-entropic force as well, that accounts for the fact that the universe exists at all. One piece of this force, in fact, is life, which is considered very counter-entropic.

I'm not sure this answers your question (and I guessed you might be a secret physics fan, after your post on Neils Bohr) but it's the best I can do.

Jerry said...

Sounds interesting though I doubt I could follow the math!

MoonRaven said...

Thanks for the comment.

If you get a chance to read this book, don't worry about the math. You can skim over it and not lose much by it. But I'd read the book *Complexity* by Mitchell Waldrop before reading this book. It covers Kauffman's points in a much more reader friendly way.