This was referenced in the footnotes of some other book that I read, but I can’t remember which one any more (maybe Six Degrees?). Kauffman is a MacArthur Fellow who works at the Santa Fe Institute, which is a center for studying complexity theory (and a place I’ve occasionally dreamed of working at), so his credentials were in place. And I’m fascinated by the idea of self-organizing networks and other aspects of complexity theory, so I tossed the book in my last Amazon order several months ago.
However, it was tough sledding to get started (this was the last remaining book from that Amazon order, so I had to finish it before I let myself make another order), and even tougher to keep going. I got about a third of the way through it on my Boston trip in May, and then it sat on my shelf for a month, before I finished it off over several BART rides the last few weeks.
I don’t particularly like Kauffman’s writing. It’s both dense and uninteresting; this last week, I was skimming large portions of text just so I could finish the book off. I also don’t like his prejudices. He clearly comes to his work with the preconceived notion that the universe can’t be completely random, and that it is not possible for humans to be merely an accident.
We are but accidents, we’re told. Purpose and value are ours alone to make. Without Satan and God, the universe now appears the neutral home of matter, dark and light, and is utterly indifferent. We bustle, but are no longer at home in the ancient sense. (p. 4)
So this book is Kauffman’s attempt to demonstrate that humans are an inevitable result of the universe. That we are “at home in the universe”, whatever that means.
It’s a pity, because he’s done a lot of interesting simulation work, setting up toy models on the computer to gain insight into how systems can evolve increasing amounts of complexity, by being poised on the border between chaos and order. However, I don’t feel that he successfully demonstrates a strong connection between his models and the world at large. Some suggestive correlations, at best.
Things that I found interesting:
There are definitely some thought-provoking ideas in this book. I think Kauffman asks a lot of the right questions. How do things self-organize? Can we learn from nature how to design things better? But I thought that the author’s prejudices were too apparent, and detracted from his presentation of his modeling work. The models that he did present tended to come across as too simplistic, in what appeared to be an attempt to justify the results he wanted to demonstrate. Admittedly, he’s trying to model some very very difficult things to model. And I think his toy models illustrated some fascinating leads into the study of self-organization, evolution and complexity. But he tries to stretch his suggestive models too far in the service of his over-reaching conclusions, and that detracts too heavily from the book overall for me to be able to recommend it. Give it a pass.