Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Stuart Kauffman: Reinventing the Sacred

The Centre for Inquiry in Toronto is sponsoring a talk by Stuart Kauffman this Friday evening.
How the Paradigm of Emergence Offers New Scientific Views on the Origin of Life and Biodiversity, Economics, Ethics, and Spirituality

Stuart Kauffman, Institute for Biocomplexity and Informatics, University of Calgary

Thurs, Feb 8, 7:30pm, Centre for Inquiry Ontario, 216 Beverley St, downtown Toronto.

Part of our ongoing Voices of Reason lecture series - Centre for Inquiry.

The event is open to the public.
Cost: $7 general, $4 students, FREE for Friends of the Centre

A catered reception at 6pm at the Centre for Inquiry Ontario will be held with Dr. Kauffman exclusively for Friends of the Centre so join today by contacting us at ontario@centerforinquiry.net!
Check out Kauffman's bio on The Edge [Stuart Kauffman].

Kauffman's ideas are difficult to understand; although, in fairness, I haven't tried very hard. To me they seem fuzzy and ill-defined with more than a hint of spiritualism in spite of the fact that Kauffman is a non-believer.

Here's an example from an interview with the University of Calgary campus newspaper.
It turns out that the behaviour of genetic networks depends critically on the level at which the genes are connected. If they are heavily connected the system is chaotic, and if they are only lightly connected the system is ordered. An attractive hypothesis is that biological systems, like genetic networks, flourish in a “transition zone” between the ordered and chaotic regimes. I call this transitional phase the complex regime. So biocomplexity refers to biological systems that thrive in this balance between order and chaos. Other examples include the immune and neural systems.
The essence of Kauffman's idea, as I understand it, is that life has a built-in tendency for self-organization. He argues that if you replay the tape of life, very similar sorts of organisms will arise because the ones we see are highly constrained by the basic laws of chemistry and physics operating on our planet. In other words, evolving life doesn't have as many choices or options as we imagine.

Daniel Dennett explains it well in Darwin's Dangerous Idea (p. 225).
It is the non-optionality of these "choices" that Kauffman wants to stress, and so he and his colleague Brian Goodwin (e.g., 1986) are particularly eager to discredit the powerful image, first made popular by the great French biologists Jacques Monod and François Jacob, of Mother Nature as a "tinker," engaging in the sort of tinkering the French call bricolage. The term was first made salient by the anthropologist Claude Lévi Struss (1966). A tinker or bricoleur is an opportunistic maker of gadgets, a "satisficer" (Simon 1957) who is always ready to settle for mediocrity if it is cheap enough. A tinker is not a deep thinker. The two elements of classical Darwinism that Monod and Jacob concentrate on are chance on the one hand and, on the other, the utter directionlessness and myopia (or indeed blindness) of the watchmaker. But, says Kauffman, "Evolution is not just 'chance caught on the wing.' It is not just a tinkering of the ad hoc, of bricolage, of contraption. It is emergent order honored and honed by selection." (Kauffman 1993, p. 644).

[Photo Credit: University of Calgary: OnCampus Weekly]


  1. Interesting that you sense spirituality. Back when I read his stuff I thought that he was the opposite - far too enamored of his math to look at the actual biology, i.e.,. his ideas are sound (and VERY mechanistic) but he is trying to explain too much with it (the hammer and all those nails problem). Which is strange as his degree is in biology so he does not have the excuse of ignorance.

    I have to say I liked his ideas better 10 years ago than I do now. It is an interesting addition to the theory, but it is not an explanation of Everything, and I do not see great utility (for now) of it as a research programme.

  2. "Blindness" does not seem to me to describe anything that we don't know already about any spontaneous natural process. To say the process is blind does not mean that you HAVE to explain it via chance, tinkering and natural selection. ALL nature's mechanism are blind and unguided, not "natural selection only".

    I completely agree that biology is not all natural selection and contingent tinkering. I agree that there are, indeed, more general properties of all organisms: laws of biology. Self-organization and self-assemblage is one (noticed long before Kaufman).
    I also agree certain conditions are much more probable to lead to the origin of life than others.That is: the possibility of origin of life is constrained by pre-existing physicochemical conditions. Not just whatever. That just makes perfect sense to me.

    It is never "mere chance" even if we deal with historical irrepeatable facts. Have you heard he expression "history repeats itself"?. Indeed, trends can be found, and their explanation is non-random.
    I think Kaufman is being a better structuralist: STRUCTURE constrains evolution all the time in a non-random, non -adaptive manner.

    Indeed, biology and evolution is NOT this "mere roll of the dice" and "stamp collecting" of historical anecdote, an almanac where no true understanding is possible. Many have touted this caricature of biology to claim it is a soft science or not even worthy of being called a science.

  3. Kauffman spoke here a couple of months ago. Definitely disappointing - he's very smart but his evolutionary thinking is just reinventing the wheel.

  4. I think it is interesting to point out that despite it being clear that the evolutionary history of specific lineages are of great interest to biology. However, there always are general laws in play that affect biology, even if these are mere physical considerations.. D'Arcy Thompson argued for the role of the rules of physics in the developmental mechanics of several organic structures (hexagons, spirals, segments, etc). He was VERY antidarwinian, but that did not impede him from rightly acknowledging that previous history, and belonging to a specific lineage, was crucial to understand evolution, despite the "timeless" influence of the rules of physics. This places D'Arcy Thompson closer to the truth than those darwinians who would dismiss anything but the role of chance and selection.
    Rather than being an "either-or" situation, biology is both a science of history and chance but at the same time, it is an experimental science with general laws and mechanisms.

  5. This sounds like philosophy to me! If indeed as it seems, there are no solid correspondences yet with biology, nor any experiments.

    It seems there are others who say biological complexity is due to supercomplexes of biological systems, that self-organization occurs at the level analogous to circuits, where what biology focuses on now is components.

    P'raps so.

    P'raps no.

  6. Kauffman has been parading the same idea since at least the early 1970s. I think it is time he moved on to other topics.

  7. It's not about philosophy, it's an unavoidable topic unless you like simply giving up thinking and comforting yourself with the trivia you DO know.

    Usually when someone thinks structuralism is only philosophical, despite thinking he has no philosophy, he indeed has one. Usually he is just being conservative around a darwinist philosophy (and that means they'll probably be content to be a fan of natural selection and disregard development and paleontology)

    Like Gould, Kaufman panders to the darwinian culture, but at the same time is "antidarwinist" in that they both fully understand that biology and evolution is indeed a bigger topic than natural selection, that natural selection is insufficient

    Some forget the times these scientists have had to face: The more dogmatic years of the neodarwinian synthesis (specially around the 50's). To diversify the intellectual landscape form this monotony was a true achievement yet some still cease to see its value.

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