Stuart Kauffman has been probing the “deep structure” of life for decades. He is one of the founding members of the Santa Fe Institute, the leading center for the emerging sciences of complexity. His work therein started in complex Boolean networks in which he found “order for free” in a void seeming to consist of nothing but chaos. This lead him to highly dynamical yet self-structuring autocatalytic sets (now known as “Kauffman sets”) which eventually lead him to search for a general biology from which all of life could extrapolate. Kauffman never was much for neo-Darwinism or natural selection, and here he continues his holistic approach to self-organizing biospheres.
Investigations (Oxford University Press) attempts, in part, to outline four candidate laws governing biospheres (large dynamical systems full of self-organizing autonomous agents – such as the universe itself). A lofty pursuit to be sure, givien that biospheres are teeming with so much complexity, interdependence and obscured initial states (to name just a few of the obvious pitfalls). There are also the problems, as Kauffman points out, that biospheres are “nonergodic” and their “nonequilibrium” flowing into a “persistent adjacent other.”
Recondite minutia notwithstanding, Investigations is fun in a way not many books of this intellectual magnitude are. Kauffman cuts the hard science with wit and pondering of the utmost human persuasion. While he undermines the very foundations on which modern science stands (the work of Newton, Boltzman, Einstein and Bohr), Kauffman compares the geniuses of Shakespeare and Einstein (“I’m not sure whose genius is the more awesome, ” he says.) and emphasizes the importance of story in understanding our lives in the universe.
With a healthy mix of speculation, cutting-edge science and hypothesis steeped in years of grappling with the hard questions, Stuart Kauffman’s Investigations is sure to inspire and intrigue, as well as confound and confuse. As he says, “Oh, confusion. Perhaps a certain confusion is healthy. We have not tried to embrace all of this at once before.”
I marshal the middle between Mathers and McLuhan.