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on 29 October 2000
An eye-opener on how closely certain mathematical models can reproduce, or mimic, real life behaviour. Kauffman describes and discusses the complex behaviour exhibited by autocatalytic sets - webs of interacting chemicals and catalysts (real and simulated), individually with simple behaviour and rules of interaction, but en masse producing complex systems with non-trivial reactions to environment and other systems.
This leads naturally into a discussion of evolution where we are treated to a more refined, but perhaps less real-world, discussion of the mechanics of evolution than that provided by more popular authors (e.g. Dawkins). Kauffman describes evolution not only as a process of natural selection, but also as the interaction of complex systems with their environments, discussing how single systems or entire species may move around and interactively modify fitness landscapes to acquire the highest peaks. These necessarily general models are convincingly tied to specific, real-world examples, and the result is a clear impression of a fast developing field with relevance to real life, the extent of that relevance remaining to be seen.
Unsurprisingly, the book ends up somewhat speculative, but unfortunately chooses to direct this speculation at economics. The writing occasionally becomes somehwat "gee gosh darn". And while I'm on petty complaints, I found the occasional stabs at human interest to be distracting and unnecessary, but that's a common problem with popular science writing.
Finally, I don't think this is the kind of book to change lives. Interesting, certainly, occasionally surprising, and full of fairly new ideas, but I found that Kauffman repeatedly stopped short of saying anything really profound. Yes, "we the expected" is a fascinating concept so why _end_ the chapter with it? Likewise, the "invisible hand" is a leading analogy, then so what...? Fundamentally, I think the book sits firmly on the fence when it comes to religion, or lack thereof, other reviewers notwithstanding.
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on 4 June 2007
Other reviewers already sang praises to the concepts and the ideas contained in this book, and I have nothing to add other than my agreement. BUT! The book would have been improved no end by some ruthless editing. The opening chapters in particular are immensely repetitive. The style is very uneven, sometimes apparently aiming at readers with no technical knowledge (and a minuscule attention span), while in other places packing ideas to such density that even a fairly informed reader can start gasping for breath.

I made the mistake of reading it on holidays, with no access to a computer. Big mistake! I kept wanting to program, to check out what the author was saying, to try variants and elaborations. I.e. to have lots of hands-on fun -- it's that sort of a book and I can think of no higher recommendation. But please, oh please, somebody introduce Kaufman to a good editor!
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on 22 January 1998
What a brain! We often look (up) to physicists to explain those aspects of our world which were once the proper purview of religion. Here is a biologist whose ideas must be taken in that same breath. This is a book whose ideas are truly profound. Mr. Kauffman reframed the way I conceptualized everything from myself, to society, the business cycle and biological evolution. In another era, this would be a spiritual text, a moving book which would alter the way we look at the world and ourselves. A reader with a background in literary theory or economics will find intriguing connections between classical theories of market economics and also the work of Derrida. To be honest, the prose can be trying at moments, but I imagine the text reads like Kauffman thinks...swiftly. In a way, this is a good thing, because the book forces you to slow down and think. You will scribble in the margins for hours, doting on and questioning his ideas about self-reproducting and organzing phenomenon and the notion that all complex systems evolve on the edge between stasis and chaos. Put simply: Read this book.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 3 September 2011
This is an astonishing book which explores the nature of self organising processes and their role in the origins of life. At its heart is a profound question. `Is life and humankind the product of an incredibly luck and unlikely accident, or is humankind the natural product of order emerging from chaos.

Stuart Kaufman has an engaging style and an enviable talent for illuminating and explaining ideas which might otherwise be impenetrable.

He constructs a powerful case for the emergence of order from seeming chaos, and challenges some of our most basic scientific beliefs. He begins with the second law of thermodynamics which defines entropy as a measure of disorder that is claimed to always increase. Yet as he writes these words he looks from his window and all he can see is order, lovely order.

From this simple starting point he begins an exploration of the limitations in adequately explaining the world we experience, of a scientific mindset framed by Newtonian thinking. Kaufman constructs a compelling case that the belief in a controllable `clockwork universe' is inadequate.

He explores a wide range of examples of self-organisation and with his biological background homes in one of the most intriguing examples, `Ontology' the process by which a single cell repeatedly subdivides and creates the complex structure of a creature such as you or I.

I think I wrote more notes reading this book than any other I've read. It covers some complex ground but whenever the going began to become challenging he would revert to a simple illustration to bring a new concept into focus.

An absolutely stunning book.
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on 10 December 2000
An eye-opener on how closely certain mathematical models can reproduce, or mimic, real life behaviour. Kauffman describes and discusses the complex behaviour exhibited by autocatalytic sets - webs of interacting chemicals and catalysts (real and simulated), individually with simple behaviour and rules of interaction, but en masse producing complex systems with non-trivial reactions to environment and other systems.
This leads naturally into a discussion of evolution where we are treated to a more refined, but perhaps less real-world, discussion of the mechanics of evolution than that provided by more popular authors (e.g. Dawkins). Kauffman describes evolution not only as a process of natural selection, but also as the interaction of complex systems with their environments, discussing how single systems or entire species may move around and interactively modify fitness landscapes to acquire the highest peaks. These necessarily general models are convincingly tied to specific, real-world examples, and the result is a clear impression of a fast developing field with relevance to real life, the extent of that relevance remaining to be seen.
Unsurprisingly, the book ends up somewhat speculative, but unfortunately chooses to direct this speculation at economics. The writing occasionally becomes somehwat "gee gosh darn". And while I'm on petty complaints, I found the occasional stabs at human interest to be distracting and unnecessary, but that's a common problem with popular science writing.
Finally, I don't think this is the kind of book to change lives. Interesting, certainly, occasionally surprising, and full of fairly new ideas, but I found that Kauffman repeatedly stopped short of saying anything really profound. Yes, "we the expected" is a fascinating concept so why _end_ the chapter with it? Likewise, the "invisible hand" is a leading analogy, then so what...? Fundamentally, I think the book sits firmly on the fence when it comes to religion, or lack thereof, other reviewers notwithstanding.
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on 26 March 1998
"Evolution" is the ubiquitous metaphor of our days. Kauffman ideas go further: there is something else that leads the systems to achieve higher levels of complexity. "Higher levels of complexity", like the ones we can find, for instance, in living beings, like us.
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on 10 March 1997
I wrote more notes in the margins, turned over more page corners, and underlined more material in this book than any other in my library. Although his examples are rooted in (what he admits issomewhat heretical) biology, they can be applied to many other areas of complex systems as well. I think he is really on to something big.....
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on 29 March 1997
This book explores how life and its evolution may be the inevitable consequences of the way the universe works. The author uses recent explorations of computer models of complexity to uncover new ideas about the organization of systems. These ideas extend well beyond biology to application to social and market systems.
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on 30 August 2013
For all those interested in complexity studying, this is a summary of a "heavy weight" in the matter: Stuart Kauffmann. Mind boggling in some parts, but overall a great mind opening experience into nature's infinite capacity to create...and to amaze us.
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on 31 October 1998
No matter from what direction you may come from, this book builds a clear, heartening, view of our position in the universe. for the religious, be prepared for some heretical stuff. For the atheist, well you may have found something to hang your coat on! SK shows how you can build the stuff of life from seemingly simple components, without a divine intervention. [a program for the techies]. The ramifications are enormous, from biology to global economics. In it he tells you how to look to control chaotic sets and determine more of the outcome of the "invisible hand". A must read!
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