Chaos and Life: Complexity and order in evolution and thought, by Richard J. Bird, Columbia University Press, 2003, 334 ff.
The author is sometime lecturer at Northumbria University in Newcastle upon Tyne, UK. He was formerly president of the Society for Chaos Theory in Psychology and Life Sciences and it is this role that makes him well qualified to write on the subject of this book.
The opening chapter introduces us to the basic ideas of chaotic systems that are generated by iteration within non-linear systems. Such systems can be represented mathematically by fractals, geometric patterns in which each section develops added complexity, which goes on to create a more complex pattern, and so on - what are called Mandelbrot sets. There are some very clear illustrations using the Lorenz attractor, a Koch curve and a Hilbert curve as examples. The important point about the iterative process is that, although the procedure is essentially a repetition, at each stage the system develops a slightly increased complexity, the output of each step being used as input for the next step. The process is like that used in high school mathematics, also called `trial-and-improvement', to find the roots of equations. Bird sees iteration as `the most basic process that can be found in the world' resulting in `the universality of chaos'.
This process, the author believes, is the key to understanding the mechanism of biological evolution. Most biologists have long since rejected the idea of Intelligent Design being necessary for the creation of `irreducible complexity' in biological structures. Instead, they favour the progressive emergence of complexity, possibly by processes similar to those described here by Bird. The point that Bird makes is that chaos does not imply randomness - on the contrary, chaos can lead to its own kind of order. While accepting the importance of adaptation to environment in neo-Darwinism, he criticizes several aspects of the current theory of evolution, especially the role of `random selection'. Richard Dawkins has similarly criticized Jacques Monod's `Chance and Necessity' scenario for evolution. There is also some discussion of how these ideas of chaos reflect on social issues of truth.
Bird also criticizes the fact that biology has currently very largely been reduced to chemistry, and that the language, deterministic concepts and techniques of chemistry are not adequate to address biological or psychological problems. The fact that the public have now turned in large numbers to alternative therapies and psychic healers is because conventional biological and medical sciences, based on a materialistic and deterministic philosophy, are not able to address their needs. Bird often calls on quotations from the Greek philosopher Heraclitus to illustrate his points: when we step into the river, is it the same river as we stepped into yesterday - or not? A similar issue arises in the human body subjected to transplants - are we the same person?. There is no numerical maths in the book other than a few equations defining factorials. There are detailed Notes and an Index at the end.
This book is well illustrated and it's written at a high academic level. Whether or not all the biological references are accurate or not, I am not qualified to say. I think the readership will be mainly graduates in biology or philosophy who are not intimidated by the conceptual mathematics of chaos theory.
Howard Jones is the author of The Tao of Holism
Chance and Necessity: An Essay on the Natural Philosophy of Modern Biology