INVESTIGATIONS Paperback – 19 Sep 2002
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As a rule, when a distinguished scientist says he's come up with a fourth law of thermodynamics, he's wrong. In Investigations, Stuart Kauffman may be the exception.
The three laws of thermodynamics have been summarised as: "you can't win", "you can't break even", and "you can't get out of the game". Kauffman's candidate for a fourth law is: "but the game keeps getting more complicated, and there are always different ways to play."
One of Kauffman's key concepts is that of the adjacent possible. Imagine a set of things that exists in a particular system (such as a group of reacting chemicals, or an ecological community, or the kinds of toys available in a capitalist economy). The adjacent possible is the set of things that are only one step away from actual existence. Like potential energy in physics, the adjacent possible is a metaphysical idea with real utility.
You can think of "normal science" (as described by Thomas Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions) as proceeding step by step into the adjacent possible. Most self-styled revolutionary scientific treatises are really crackpottery. They don't stop in the adjacent possible; they go wandering across the landscape and over the speculative horizon. Investigations may be the real thing. Kauffman is pushing into the adjacent possible at many points, from biology, chemistry, thermodynamics, and economics. As he says, "whatever Investigations is--useful, as I hope, or foolish--it is not normal science." --Mary Ellen Curtin --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
[REVIEW FOR AT HOME IN THE UNIVERSE:] "One of the pioneers of complexity theory is Stuart Kauffman, who lays out its rudiments in an accessible way with this challenging and audacious book."―The Economist
[REVIEW FOR AT HOME IN THE UNIVERSE:] "Kauffman's explanations of his scientific work are concise and convincing.... Whoever reads Invesigations (At Home in the Universe) for its account of Kauffman's insightful models of adaptation and self-organzation will find that the scientific results speak for themselves."―Seth Lloyd, Scientific American
"Investigations is fun in a way not many books of this intellectual magnitude are. Kauffman cuts the hard science with wit and pondering of the utmost human persuasion....With a mix of speculation, cutting-edge science and hypothesis steeped in years of grappling with hard questions,...[this book] is sure to inspire and intrigue."―Frontwheeldrive.com
"I have watched the long gestation of Investigations with some apprehension but more anticipation. Its reach is gigantic, from the most primitive origins of life to the macroeconomics of innovation. What comes up in its grasp is original and stimulating. This is a must read for anyone interested in the outer edges of understanding of the world around us."―Philip Anderson, Nobel Laureate, Princeton University
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Kauffman's start point is autocatalysis: that it is very likely that self-reproducing molecular systems will form in any large and sufficiently complex chemical reaction. He then goes on to investigate what qualities a physical system must have to be an autonomous agent. His aim is to define a new law of thermodynamics for those systems such as the biosphere that may be hovering in a state of self-organised criticality and are certainly far from thermodynamic equilibrium. This necessitates a rather more detailed coverage of Carnot work cycles and information compressibility than was covered in passing in his earlier books.Read more ›
This book stands midway between his previous books. It is more technical than At Home in the Universe, but not to the extent of Origins of Order. He continues similar themes: the emergence of complex, interactive systems can be seen as a neccesary function of the rules of the universe, rather than as a bizarre random occurrence. This time, however, he is applying the ideas to the notion of an autonomous agent, rather than thinking purely in biological terms.
Which made me wonder who this book is aimed at. Stuart assumes that you know a lot of general science knowledge (certainly a lot more biology and biochemisty than your average popular science reader - see the other reviews here). But on the other hand he doesn't analyse his theories in a rigorous way (in fact he keeps saying how they can't be analysed just yet, more research is required).
I think his insight is spot on, but the experience of reading the book left me slightly underwhelmed.
Oh and one final point: be careful of his tendency to occassionally remember he is writing 'literature'. The odd paragraph burst forth with a myriad of bright and natal metaphorical buds: which had a nasty habit of making me giggle!
The very first word of the book - in the title of the first chapter - is "Prolegomenon", and it's not a teaser to be explained later, you're supposed to know what that means.
It's very frustrating because the content is very interesting and the arguments well thought through, but the author makes me work so hard to try to follow them that I cannot enjoy them or be certain that I fully understand them.
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Kauffman's start point is autocatalysis: that it is very likely that self-reproducing molecular systems will form in any large and sufficiently complex chemical reaction. He then goes on to investigate what qualities a physical system must have to be an autonomous agent. His aim is to define a new law of thermodynamics for those systems such as the biosphere that may be hovering in a state of self-organised criticality and are certainly far from thermodynamic equilibrium. This necessitates a rather more detailed coverage of Carnot work cycles and information compressibility than was covered in passing in his earlier books. It leads to the idea that a molecular autonomous agent is a self-reproducing molecular system capable of carrying out one or more work cycles.
But Kauffman now pushes on further into stranger and uncharted territory. The Universe, he posits, is not yet old enough to have synthesised more than a minute subset of the total number of possible proteins. This leads to the fundamental proposition that the biosphere of which we are part cannot have reached all its possible states. The ones not yet attained - the `adjacent possible' as Kauffman terms it - are unpredictable since they are the result of the interaction of the large collection of autonomous agents: us - or rather our genes - and all the other evolving things in the external world. His new fourth law of thermodynamics for self-constructing systems implies that they will try to expand into the `adjacent possible' by trying to maximise the number of types of events that can happen next.
Readers of the two earlier books will now - temporarily - be on familiar ground: Boolean networks and NKC models, fitness landscapes, order/chaos phase transitions, self-organization and self-organized criticality all make an appearance. Some of the diagrams will be old friends. Kauffman proposes that we live in a self-organised critical biosphere with a power-law distribution of small to large avalanches of speciation and extinction events. And this is not limited to the biosphere: economic trends may also follow such a power law. He looks briefly at evolutionary strategies and points out that a robust strategy must contain alternative ways to do things in case the primary way becomes blocked. Phase transitions in combinatorially difficult Ksat problems are introduced along with their Hausdorf dimensionality which gives an indication of how hard it will be to get to an even better solution at any point in an optimisation process. The more conflicting constraints there are, the harder the going gets; for NKC enthusiasts this is like wading in the treacle of a rugged high-K landscape!.
The familiar ground suddenly gives way. Kauffman introduces Lee Smolin's idea (vide his `The Life of the Cosmos') that our universe is a result of the interaction and Darwinian selection of many competing universes. Daughter universes, Smolin has proposed, are born out of black holes, and cosmic natural selection will thus preferentially select those universes which tend to maximise the number of black holes. Kauffman is chary of this because he wants a theory which gives a universe as complex as ours roughly poised between expansion and contraction. He returns to the `adjacent possible' to point out correctly that classical general relativity assumes that the configuration space of the universe can be pre-stated whereas we cannot do so even for the biosphere. Quantum mechanics and spin networks offer a way out, but there is uncertainty about how the values of the twenty finely-poised physical constants were chosen. Kauffman concludes with describing how we get back from eleven-dimensional strings to three unfurled spatial dimensions plus time by compactification of the remainder into tiny rolls in Calabi-Yau space.
Anyone who struggled with `At Home...' will be way out of their depth towards the end. Those with a physical sciences background will have their preconceptions challenged and horizons widened. Those interested in the genesis and evolution of a book should read Kauffman's Sante Fe preprint with the more elaborate title of `Investigations. Finally, by far the best technical review of self-organisation, phase transitions and percolation is "Avalanche dynamics in evolution, growth and depinning models" by Paczuski, M., Maslov, S. and Bak, P. (Phys Rev E January 1996) - highly recommended.
Investigations starts with a lot of promise, similar to Capra's "Web of Life" with Kauffman demonstrating both his knowledge of the complexity of genetics and some good writing skills. In fact, I learned quite a bit reading the first 4 chapters although I suspect that readers expecting something similar to Gleick's "Chaos" will have their eyes glaze over when they hit the more detailed sections of genetic complexity.
However, as Kauffman continues I found the same old story as Capra fell victim to: no meat to the math. What do I mean? Well, if one looks at the equations for something like quantum theory there is much information they impart to give hints about "why". Complexity has produced equations but they don't seem to have any depth - they may describe some phenomenom but don't give any deeper knowledge about it.
In other words, I don't really get excited about another thermodynamic "law" since that is simply sweeping our ignorance under the proverbial carpet by taking an observation as an axiom. In fact the final chapters, in which Kaufmann tries to tie quantum theory (and string theory) to his thesis, really made me wonder if he just wanted to get this book out before Wolfram's opus.
I suspect Kauffman should have spent some time talking to Ilya Prigogine since any theory trying to explain why things go in one direction (entropy) yet also seem to get more complicated obviously needs to incorporate time. Given that time is an "illusion" (in the grand words of Hawking) if one looks at current physics theories then we still have some distance to go. Prigogine's work in attempting to incorporate time into quantum theory gives a first step forward and Kauffman's theory could build on that.
Not only is the subject matter towards the end of the book very sketchy but so is the language used. On one page alone there are 4 paragraphs in sequence with the same words! I understand repetetive structure can emphasize a point but come on, this is a bit too much to satisfy my grade 8 English teacher! Add in the very short "reference" section - Kauffman mentions names but no works appear in the section - and a rather thin index and I suspect he just wanted to get this book out quickly.
Borrow it from the library (I doubt there will be a softcover) if you must but I wouldn't bother spending the cash.
I find that Kauffman's world view is compelling, resonant and deeply fascinating. This book contains the ideas within 'At Home in the Universe' and then extends them into the 'adjacent possible'.
Be prepared when reading this book to be taxed on your knowledge of cell chemistry, mathematics, thermodynamics and evolution. The rapid jumps between disciplines are handy for explaining some rather obtuse ideas, but Kauffman may isolate many readers by diving in to unelaborated detail on the idiosyncracies of these subjects. Even a brief overview of some of the terms used in his metaphors would be a great help to those without PhDs.
Personally, I buy Kauffman's worldview hook, line and sinker which makes any of his writings a must-read for me, but I am convinced that the audience for this book was not carefully considered, and as a result it seems that it is written for himself primarily. It could do with a thorough edit removing the grandiose language.
Stu, I know you can do better.
The fourth law explains how the diversity of the biosphere continues to increase through an exploration of "the adjacent possible," the realm of alternative organizations reachable through single mutations. In this view, the proliferation of life forms is not so much the result of chance as it is of a working out of the natural tendency of existing entities to self-organize into structures of greater and greater complexity.
Kauffman's muscular writing in "Investigations" once again demonstrates an exceptional combination of rigorous scientific logic and a poetic vision that encompasses a fertile and abundant universe.
The science literate lay-person will struggle with this volume and will not understand at many points. However, the book is well worth the read. You will continue to "see through a glass darkly" but some of the shadows will be more recognizable and the terrain will become both more mysterious and more understandable.
With my background in Sociology, I cut my graduate teeth on arguments for and against emergence. I am delighted to see more concrete validation of this core concept. I also find pieces of Kauffman's argument captured in Amos Hawley's classic work, Human Ecology, in which he outlines the dynamics by which competition generates increased diversity in social systems. In the recent more popular work, Non Zero, by Wright which argues, with much less depth, the same basic premise of increasing complexity.
Kauffman makes me wish I were an under-graduate again, able to develop the mathematical, computer and theoretical science skills necessary to enter meaningfully into the dialog that he encourages. Lacking those skills, I still enjoy the opportunity, as an interested and intrigued bystander, to see a fine mind in operation. Kauffman pulls us into his thought processes as he contemplates the marvelous, generative universe of which we are a part.
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