Customer Review

27 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A disorderly but brilliant book and among my favorites., 21 July 1997
By A Customer
This review is from: The Origins of Order: Self-Organization and Selection in Evolution (Paperback)
If you're looking for popular science, you will be happier with the author's more readable book on the same subject, At Home in the Universe. But if you're willing to do a little more work, this is the most compelling book you'll find about how life can emerge from the natural principles of self-organization.

This is a technical book. It isn't filled with equations, but it assumes at least some knowledge of basic math, chemistry, and biology. It was written by an impressive generalist whose talents seem to extend to almost everything except lucid writing, and for that reason alone, it will never receive the attention it deserves.

As with all good science, this book is equal parts experiment, observation, and intuition. Computer simulations of randomly generated boolean networks are used to explore: the dyamics of evolution on rugged fitness landscapes; the tendency to react to perturbations by returning to the stable cycle or "attractor" that was active when the perturbation occurred; and the relationship among the different attractor loops within such networks. This experimental work is tied in with knowledge of biology and chemistry to explain the emergence of life, autocatalytic systems of chemicals, cell development, and natural selection.

The experience was something like reading Godel, Escher, Bach but in many ways more satisfying. Whereas Hofstadter eloquently contrives a synthesis of three human inventions, mathematics, music and art, Kauffman scrawls out his intuitive synthesis based on the rather empirical fields of chemistry, biology and computer simulation. Hofstadter is looking for an understanding of how the mind networks symbols to create thought, and Kauffman, how the natural universe networks molecules to create life. But Kauffman's work is relevant to all complex systems and offers lasting insight into the mechanisms underlying cells, societies, and even thought. Whereas GEB is largely about appreciating the wonder of intelligent life, The Origins of Order is about understanding how it actually happens.

I mention Godel, Escher, Bach for good reason. These book aren't for everybody. If you worked through the examples of predicate logic in GEB and learned sufficient musical notation and theory to understand his points, and if you gained some appreciation for Godel's theorem, then you should plow through Kauffman's turgid prose, risk learning a little more about biochemistry, and delight in a reawakened wonder at the universe and newfound optimism for the future of natural science.
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