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How the Leopard Changed Its Spots: The evolution of complexity by Brian Goodwin, Phoenix (Orion Books), 1997, 254 ff

The New Biology of the emergence of complexity
By Howard Jones

This is a generously illustrated textbook of evolutionary biology that requires readers to get to grips with biological concepts and terminology. It is not for the faint-hearted general reader.
Brian Goodwin was a theoretical biologist who died in 2009 after an eminent research and teaching career. Because the book is over a decade old now there are developments in the mechanism of action of DNA that are not mentioned here, and the Human Genome Project, started in 1990 by James D. Watson and completed in 2003, was still underway when this was written. The emphasis of Goodwin's approach was always holistic in the sense that he saw evolution in terms of interconnection between the constituents of a biological system and between these and the environment. He thus expands on the Darwinian organismal approach and on the preoccupation with the role of the gene favoured by Richard Dawkins and many other biologists, but does not reject either treatment.

Although more than a decade old now, this book is by no means wholly outdated and irrelevant. It provides an excellent introduction to the application of mathematics, physics and computer modelling to biology. Goodwin begins by comparing the situation in biology with the 20th century revolution in physics, when Newtonian macro physics was supplemented by quantum physics of the micro world. Biology similarly in the 20th century shifted emphasis from Darwinian evolution based on organisms to focus on the cellular role of genes. The `leopard' of the title is a metaphor for the science of biology. Darwinian adaptation to environment alone cannot explain the origin and extinction of certain species or characteristics of organisms. Cells can undergo mutations that do not always start with changes in a gene: mutations can also arise from changes in cell structure and environment - ideas that have been established in this decade by researchers like Bruce Lipton.

Goodwin accepts that complex structures like the eye can arise by a succession of small random changes that accumulate by virtue of the incremental adaptive improvement that each bestows upon the structure (the Darwinian approach adopted by biologists like Dawkins), but proposes that complexity can also arise spontaneously by cooperation between components of a system. In fact, the emphasis in this presentation is on cooperation in biology rather than competition and `survival of the fittest'.

The key in molecular terms to how such cooperation between biological components comes about lies in the physics of dissipative systems studied by Ilya Prigogine and Gregoire Nicolis. Goodwin uses the chemical Belousov-Zhabotinsky reaction (where a mixture of chemicals undergoes continual oscillating colour changes) to illustrate comparable interaction between biological cellular entities. Such organisation from seeming chaos is found also in the patterns produced by computer-generated Mandelbrot sets. As another example of mathematical order in nature, Goodwin describes the occurrence of the patterns of the Fibonacci series that are widespread in nature amongst fauna and flora, a connection inspired by D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson's seminal book On Growth and Form.

This is a scientifically demanding but highly informative book for anyone interested in the spontaneous emergence of complexity in the natural world and is prepared to tackle the underlying biology, all explained in relatively simple terms. I've dropped a star in the rating only because there are now more modern books on the same subject. There are half a dozen pages of References and Further Reading, and an Index.

Dr Howard A. Jones is the author of The Thoughtful Guide to God (2006) and The Tao of Holism (2008), both published by O Books of Winchester, UK.

Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos (Penguin Science)
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on 28 August 2001
A splendid book, but to see it as an attack on Natural Selection is almost certainly a mistake - rather it sets out to show that NS is not the whole story when it comes to biological forms. The two are definately complementary
Thought provoking, valuable, and answers a number of questions that natural selection struggles with.
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on 29 April 2000
This book is certainly a very good contribution to the area of evolutionary biology. It introduces the reader into the view of morphogenesis and evolution from a fresh perspective and shows how important are the dynamical rules in shaping life. I really enjoyed it.
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on 31 January 2004
Execellent view on how forms are emerged from complexity. An orthodox sample of BZ reaction is described vividly and that give you basic idea about complexity, chaos and related implicit on forms of living organisms.
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