At Home in the Universe
The search for the Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity.
by Stuart Kauffman

This is an engrossing book.  It ambitiously summarizes the observations
and conclusions of Kauffman's three decades of research into complex
systems of all kinds.  The result is a synthesis which weaves a wealth
of specifics into a coherent collection of theories providing deep
insight into complex systems.  Unlike Kevin Kelly's "Out of Control"[1],
which is an excellent synthesis of this topic from a journalistic
perspective, this book has real substance and breaks new ground while
remaining lucid and accessible.

Kauffman's successful strategy for communicating his insights is to
judiciously design simple models and relate them to real systems.  By
extracting scaling behavior and other general properties from the
models, some cautious conclusions can be drawn about the real systems.
For example, using a model of chemical substrates, products and
catalysts, he explains many aspects of auto-catalytic sets and why they
may share interesting properties with cellular metabolism.  Modeling
gene regulation as a random boolean network shows how size and
interconnectedness influence their behavior.  This allows a quantitative
analysis of genetic regulatory networks in surprisingly good agreement
with what is known about real systems, such as the relationship between
the number of cell types an organism has and the size of its genome.
The basic result is that large, open, non-equilibrium systems, poised
between chaos and rigidity, exhibit startlingly complex patterns.  This
self-organization, or emergent order, is a crucial, inevitable aspect of
life at all levels.

With a toolkit of candidate laws of complexity, Kauffman examines the
spectrum of life's systems.  Starting with the origins of life, cell
metabolism, and the development and differentiation of maturing
organisms, he moves on to considering biological and technical
evolution, ecosystems, the biosphere and even human institutions such as
the economy and political systems.  For example, he is forced to the
heretical conclusion that the central dogma of post-Darwinian view of
evolution, that natural selection is the only source of order, is false.
It is clear that many complex systems are not amenable to evolution, for
example, computer programs.  What properties of real systems allow
evolution to work so well?  The answer must be that the
self-organization apparent in these simplified models also exists in
real systems.  Further there is good evidence to suggest that the
factors that influence evolvability itself are also favored by natural

Kauffman explains some tentative and preliminary thoughts on
post-biological systems like economics and politics.  Is it possible
that we may be able to understand the mechanism of Adam Smith's
"invisible hand" given an idea of which properties of a complex system
contribute to its ability to evolve and adapt?  He even suggests, with
proper humility, that a democratic system of government, composed of a
patchwork of distinct jurisdictions, may be the best mechanism available
to find good compromises between the conflicting requirements of a large
and diverse society.  The lessons learned from life's other systems
suggest the size of the jurisdictions, and the number and character of
their interconnections, will have an important impact on the ability of
the whole system to find good solutions its problems as well as to adapt
to changing conditions.

Reading this book is an exciting adventure in finding deep connections
between life's many complex systems; chock full of insights and
suggestive relationships.  But it is just a snapshot of our woefully
inadequate knowledge of how these complex systems really work.
Ultimately, Kauffman poses more questions than he answers about how
these ideas can be applied to complex systems, living and non-living,
that we are struggling to understand.

There are online lecture notes[2] for a course Kauffman gave in 1996.
They tersely cover much of the material in the book, then extend the
ideas to consider a possible fourth law of thermodynamics.  He also
finds considerable resonance with Lee Smolin's ideas[3] about evolvable
universes and why the one we live in is so infused with complexity at
all scales.

[1] http://staff.hotwired.com//kevin/oocontrolpress.html
[2] http://www.santafe.edu/sfi/People/kauffman/Investigations.html
[3] Lee Smolin, "The Life of the Cosmos", 1997,
    http://www.phys.psu.edu/SMOLIN/book .

Version: 2.6.2