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Essays on Life Itself (Complexity in Ecological Systems) Paperback – 1 Feb 2000

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  • Paperback: 374 pages
  • Publisher: Columbia University Press (1 Feb. 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0231105118
  • ISBN-13: 978-0231105118
  • Product Dimensions: 15.2 x 2.1 x 22.9 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,983,883 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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These 22 essays are intended for serious thinkers, as they are provocative and often iconoclastic. There are many new ideas, daring perspectives, and challenging modes of interpretation of concepts that readers may have mistakenly thought they understood... I am equally sure that readers will enjoy and benefit from these essays. -- Bruce J. West The Quarterly Review of Biology

About the Author

Robert Rosen was professor emeritus of biophysics at Dalhousie University and the author of books including Life Itself (Columbia 1991), Principles of Mathematical Biology, and Principles of Measurement.

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First Sentence
THE CHAPTERS in part I are essentially the text of a brief talk presented at a workshop on "Limits to Scientific Knowability," held at the Santa Fe Institute (SFI) in 1994, May 24 to 26. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By John McCrone on 2 July 2003
Format: Paperback
Back in the 1940s, Erwin Schrodinger - the quantum physics guy - wrote a noted book, What Is Life?, which argued that the life sciences are somehow bigger than the physical sciences. Life and mind express more of nature's potential. Or to put it the other way round, reductionism must always miss much of what actually exists.
Robert Rosen's Essays aims to show just what Schrodinger was talking about. A professor of biophysics at Dalhousie, who died in 1998, Rosen tried to create a pure maths of living systems - to distil what it means to be alive and aware into the most general set of principles. This was an interesting enough project - and the subject of previous books such as Anticipatory Systems (1985) and Life Itself (1991). But in his final book he mounts a general and splendidly vitriolic attack on the many conceits of Western reductionist thinking.
Rosen is particularly good on the question of what is epistemology (he attempts a mathematically-general description of what it is to be a cognitive system) and thus what are the shortcomings of any formalised epistemological method (exactly why the mechanical causal models of standard Western science must encounter Godel-like limits).
Who should the book appeal to? It is really for the serious scholar who is looking for concrete reasons why Newton, Turing, Boltzmann and a host of modern champions of reductionism, such as Dawkins, Dennett, Monod, Crick, etc, face some fundamental epistemological limits. It is not an anti-science tract or a post-modern critique. It is utterly unmystical and has nothing to offer new-agers. Instead it is a proper challenge from within science to the mechanical view - to the atomism and computationalism that pervades most people's causal image of Reality.
Are there criticisms?
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 9 reviews
26 of 26 people found the following review helpful
Profound.....Utterly Profound 15 Nov. 2002
By T. Gwinn - Published on
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This collection of essays, along with Rosen's other book _Life Itself_, are mandatory reading for any scientist or any astute layperson interested in biology, physics or philosophy of science.
Rosen was a very insightful and technically capable theoretical biologist. His work - first as a student of physicist and theoretical biologist Nicholas Rashevsky, and later as professor emeritus at Dalhousie - is unquestionably of the level of importance of Einstein's Special/General Theory of Relativity, or Godel's Incompleteness Theorems. This is a grand claim to make, but once you read Rosen's work, you will see for yourself.
These are not the easiest books to read, despite Rosen's excellent writing skills. The difficulty is two-fold. First and foremost, the new concepts and paradigms presented are of such breadth and profundity that it can take several readings to begin to fully grasp them adequately. Secondly, Rosen is mathematically (and otherwise) quite astute. The reader will encounter to some degree: category theory, topology, catastrophe theory (Rosen dedicates a chapter on genericity in _Essays_ to Rene Thom), differential equations, dynamical systems, Godel, Church-Turing, as well as philosophical topics of epistemology, ontology, and foundations of biology, mathematics and physics.
This should not, however, deter even the non-professional. Particularly in _Life Itself_, Rosen progresses carefully and patiently, even including a short intro to Category Theory. One can gloss over some of the math and still garner most of the insights from the text alone. _Essays_ utilizes a wider range of math skills, since that book covers a broader range of topics, but it is still quite accessible to the careful and astute reader.
In _Life Itself_, Rosen was investigating the question posed by Erwin Shrodinger originally in his 1943 lecture "What is Life?". Rosen's search led him to peel back in careful detail the foundations of Newtonian mechanics and reveal the underlying tacit assumptions of a state/phase-based physics and the repercussions for science in general, and biology in particular.
By setting aside state/phase-based physics, Rosen then proceeded to layout the groundwork for an atemporal relational biology based on functional organization and to methodically investigate the theoretical limits of mechanistic systems, including along the way: simulation, Turing machines, and the epistemology and ontology of such systems. The distinction eventually becomes clear that any such algorithmic mechanisms cannot embody the kinds of impredicative complexity that are characteristic of an organism. Because the syntax of Newtonian physics can express no such closed loops of entailment, "life" cannot even be described in that model of physics, much less modeled in any complete way. Thus it is that biological organisms are not a mere subset of current physics, but are representative of complexities that require physics to be enlarged.
In _Essays on Life Itself_, Rosen uses his considerable abilities across a broad spectrum of topics to continue the ideas from _Life Itself_. It is difficult to describe how topics as diverse as the assumptions of Pythagoras, the Turing test, universal unfoldings, morphogenesis, mind-brain problem, and more can be in the same book. Mostly, they all in one way or another accomplish one task: to look beyond the limits of how a problem is currently being viewed, and to see it from a larger perspective. Often, these perspectives take Rosen into terrain others would avoid, since they sometimes lead into the non-algorithmic / noncomputable, or the breakdown of the presumed subject-object division, or other kinds of "messy" scenarios.
Often they lead into "complex systems", where Rosen uses the word "complex" to define a certain class of systems - those systems have symptoms of being: impredicative, non-algorithmic, context-dependent, semantic, nonformalizable. This classification is not a desire for obfuscation or ineffability, but is as rigorous as the nonformalizability of Number Theory or the unsolvability in closed form of the n-body problem. It is a complexity akin to the size of a transfinite number: it is not simply a matter of merely being hugely complicated, it is rather an entirely different order of system structure.
However, guided by Rosen, one does not feel uneasy following his path. Rather one feels enriched both in knowledge and in paradigm. Distinguishing the broader generic case from the degenerate or special is a characteristic theme in Rosen. The unfamiliar terrain he argues to is thus not some void, but a grander scale that subsumes the orthodox view.
In that grander view, it may become more clear that some problems are based on incorrect assumptions, while some are more difficult or complex than in the more limited original view. However, it is apparent that Rosen is uninterested in making problems appear simpler by ignoring those difficulties - he is interested in where the science leads. It is an immensely richer, complex view of the physical world that one comes away with. As such, it presents some difficult challanges, but it also opens up vast opportunities - opportunities not visible in the neat and tidy fantasy model of science that generally prevails where it is assumed that with enough effort everything can be reduced or calculated.
Rosen writes deliberately and with precision, and is both a critical and a profound thinker. I hope that he one day receives the recognition and admiration he rightfully deserves.
14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
Reductionism Demolished 9 Aug. 2000
By Stanley R. Palombo - Published on
Format: Hardcover
This posthumous book of essays clarifies and extends the innovative ideas Rosen presented in "Life Itself." I found it easier to follow than the original book, now one of the classics of modern biology. Rosen's thesis is that the universe is generically complex. That is to say, the complexity we see in biological systems is the normal state of the universe, while the simplicities of particle physics represent a "degenerate" state of matter. Counterintuitive, but completely plausible in Rosen's outstanding presentation. Instead of asking how the complex systems that surround us today evolved from the meager combinatorial possibilites of the early universe, Rosen directs our attention to the constraints on the natural complexity of things imposed by the high temperatures at the time of the big bang. The best argument against reductionism you'll find anywhere.
16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
Groundbreaking Part II... 15 May 2002
By Zentao - Published on
Format: Paperback
This collection of papers and presentations, published posthumously, is a companion to Rosen's earlier books "Life Itself" and "Anticipatory Systems: Philosophical, Mathematical and Methodological Foundations". This is probably the most accessible of his work to those without a fairly solid mathematical background. Not that this should prevent people from reading the earlier work since there are many sections that will be quite clear; I just feel that unfortuntely the crucial points of "Life Itself" might be lost due to the seeming technical nature of the explanation.
This is truly paradigm-shifting, moreso than anything else you are likely to read about in science. The Sante Fe crowd such as Stuart Kauffman obviously did not even grasp what Rosen was talking about when they met back in 1994 and that is even more tragic. So much time has been wasted with such money-wasters like the genome mapping fiasco when it could have been going into exploring new axioms for science.
For you see, this is what Rosen so eloquently points out in his work: the present axioms of science are much too limiting to explain anything we really would like to know about the universe. It is very interesting to see that Rosen grasped the implications of what also caught Einstein and Schrodinger's attention: the problem of inertial and gravitational mass. Rosen also points out the myriad of other areas where science has been busy putting band-aid after band-aid on the present set of theories to try to make them predict real phenomena.
For this is the problem with the present-day paradigms: they are only useful for predicting the N+1 state for some dead (and therefore uninteresting) mechanistic universe. The evidence has been staring us in the face for quite a while and I am not sure why Rosen should have been the first to analyze where the problems lie; it is even more surprising why his work appears to be so little known.
I also like the fact that this book is much more polished than his previous work. The index is mostly complete and there is also a list of references. I didn't note very many editorial erros and the language is quite friendly. This is a very high-quality science book and I suspect the first editions will be going for large prices in about 20 years when the "establishment" finally figures out where they went wrong.
Buy this and read it. And read it again. Then wonder why we are rushing pell-mell to "engineer" the world when we don't understand it at all.
15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
Rosen will be missed 24 Feb. 2001
By Frank Bierbrauer - Published on
Format: Paperback
In a series of essays, Robert Rosen, the brilliant mathematical biologist whose name was made with earlier books such as "Anticipatory Systems" and "Life Itself" expounds his ideas both on the standard accepted dogma in biology today and some snippets of his own energetic investigations into new ideas about what biology is all about.

Unlike many of his contemporaries Rosen is not afraid to let other areas influence his own ideas, e.g. he draws on philosophy especially the work covering epistemology and the Mind-Brain problem to deeply investigate the accepted state of biology today especially the, unexpectedly metaphysical, basis of the reductionistic approach to most of science as it is today. He investigates in 5 parts: Biology and Physics, Biology and the Mind, Genericity, Similarity and Dissimilarity in Biology and Biology and Technology.

His initial concern is Schroedinger's question "What is Life". Of course this can't be answered today without in effect "loosing the organism" in the process. Rather than accept Schroedinger's work as a standard exposition of the accepted view he maintains it is far more radical, this agrees well with earlier statements of Heisenberg who also supports the view that reductionistic science more and more shrinks the domain of "true" scientific investigation, or rather what may be considered scientific and what may be thought of as hocus-pocus or vitalism.

Rosen does not shirk his responsibilities in exposing the weaknesses of the reductionistic and mechanistic views including in his critique the Church-Pythagoras Thesis, modeling, mimetics, simple and complex systems, Turing machines etc. Rosen emphasises that the ordinary mechanistic physics of today is the study of "simple systems" i.e. systems which are simulable or representable by a Turing machine, he categorically states that these systems are at most "complicated" but not "complex". In other words real organisms and living beings are in fact complex in the sense of not being mechanisms i.e. not being computable in the form of an algorithm as well as not formalisable. What is important are not just these radical ideas, which have been mentioned before in various forms by others, but rather Rosen's ability to clarify and put them on some sort of solid footing without having them declared outright conceptual mumbo-jumbo which is far more easy to do when the ideas are not well constructed and supported.

All in all this is an excellent set of essays introducing Rosen's work for laymen although there are many technical terms which are assumed and I felt that at times his expositions was stunted just when it got going and you expected more, it's as if Rosen was just getting into it when he realised it's an essay he's writing and not a book. As such, I look forward to reading his original "Life Itself", "Anticipatory Systems" and other fascinating books which unfortunately are now out of print. Rosen is never short of deep mathematical understanding, in fact he had that rare ability to combine both great intuitive insight and the ability to convert it into mathematics. Although there is a lack of rigour in the mathematics it must be remembered that this is a set of essays and the underlying ground rules of the maths is assumed rather than swept under the carpet. Some essays require a good understanding of the maths used e.g. category theory, linear algebra, calculus. None of this should discourage the average reader because it can be followed without this knowledge base.

I certainly hope that more mathematicians follow in his footsteps not avoiding the difficult areas of philosophy, applied mathematics and physical insight. Rosen will be missed.
13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
Answers: Why is the whole is more than the sum of its parts 13 Mar. 2002
By Donald C. Mikulecky - Published on
Format: Paperback
Robert Rosen died in December of 1998 after a long bout with diabetes and its complications. He left a significant quantity of unpublished notes and had this book in the publication process. His last "writings" were hand done on paper with great effort due to extensive peripheral neuropathy. It was a mixed blessing to be among the first to read his last works both this manuscript and the next, unfinished one. I am saddened by our loss even as I feel his presence through his writings.
Bob was an eloquent speaker and reading this set of essays is almost as good as hearing him in person. The essays were written to be published in a number of places, usually as invited talks, yet they may as well have been set down to be a book from the start. There is a thread of continuity that makes this the case. In addition, even though I had read many of the essays as they appeared earlier, their juxtaposition in this volume proves that "the whole is more than the sum of its parts"!
His stated purpose of this collection is to, in a sense, "flesh out" arguments in Life Itself (LI) that had to be short or even omitted for what might be called "logistic" reasons. In my opinion the essays do that at least. In LI he began with a caveat with which I am totally sympathetic. He warned the reader that he was weaving a very intricate cloth with a single linear thread and therefore much was being laid upon the reader's shoulders. My own experience is that it took numerous readings to begin to see how the weave was manifest. Once there, things fell into place more and more quickly, yet still a lot more was required because the design is so highly interconnected and rich in levels of meaning. I hope this book of essays will spare others that struggle. It will never be my place to evaluate that possibility since I can never go back.
The first part deals with the relationship of biology and physics within science, which can sound like an innocent enough topic until one understands that it is a revolutionary view.
Underlying it all is the common notion that physics is the source of all scientific laws and that chemistry and biology somehow must utilize physics to be scientific. Rosen rejects this notion and thereby opens a Pandora's Box. He uses the now more than fifty year old essay by Schrödinger, What is Life? as a springboard to the revealing argument about biology's more generic character in comparison to physics. As he does this he develops his notion of complexity as a description of this more generic view promoted by biology in contrast to the kind of "simple systems" which are the subject matter of physics. None of this should sound new to anyone who has read his earlier work, especially Life Itself, except for the new connections and new depths to which the arguments are taken. The result is a more solid whole than ever before
His introduction to this part of the book is worth having here to get a flavor for where he is going: "I claim that Gödelian noncomputability results are a symptom, arising within mathematics itself, indicating that we are trying to solve problems in too limited a universe of discourse." This is a nice capsule version of Rosen's message. If nothing else comes from his writings, this alone should change everyone who understands the message.
The book develops this theme along with the idea that science has limited itself unnecessarily. It created a surrogate world and then insisted that any observations about the real world not compatible with this model were "unscientific". The consequences are many and he explores them systematically. Whether you agree or disagree, an honest reading will require you to re-examine your beliefs.
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